Marvel’s Luke Cage
What makes a great villain? Within the realm of superheroes, the greatest villains hold up a mirror to protagonists. If Wonder Woman represents peace, Ares is the utter embodiment of war. If the Joker represents chaos, Batman is order. You get the idea. Great villains have elasticity. They can shift, evolve, and grow more complicated depending on the situation. Cheo Hodari Coker and his team of Luke Cage writers have done great work revamping Cottonmouth and Mariah from their comic beginnings. In their own particular ways, both characters operate as a fascinating reflection of Luke. They’re warped mirror images of power, black identity, and respectability. In “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” the loss of Mahershala Ali’s towering performance as Cottonmouth leaves a big void on the show. It’s meant to filled by Diamondback, Cottonmouth’s oft-mentioned rival, but he proves to be a pale comparison.
I can’t entirely fault actor Erik LaRay Harvey, whose performance is a certain brand of preening, ostentatious scene chewing that can either be electrifying or empty. In this case, it doesn’t work because the writing is too thin. It’s a gambit to introduce a new villain this late in the series. Yes, we’ve heard about Diamondback quite a bit before his introduction, but given the deep history he has with Luke, we needed to learn a lot more about him. It’s a miscalculation that Luke Cage didn’t even hint at his true identity and his role in Luke’s imprisonment at Seagate. Ultimately, Diamondback fails to prove himself as an enthralling villain because he has to play catch-up for most of the episode.
For quite some time now, the weakest aspects of Luke Cage have been its structure and editing. Given the similar problems in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it’s worth wondering: Can these Netflix/Marvel shows handle 13 episodes? Why not shorten the seasons? Without any stand-alone episodes, Luke Cage must circle around this main plot involving Luke’s battle for the soul of Harlem — which is a pretty murky central narrative, no? Despite what Luke wants to believe, a fight like this will never end. There will always be another crime boss, or another politician who harms the community they are supposed to represent. In “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” we also see the faults of this season’s singular focus. The episode juggles a handful of plotlines — a wounded Luke reckoning with Diamondback, Mariah in the wake of murdering Cottonmouth, and Misty’s investigation — and it is simply too much for the show to contend with. Writer Aïda Mashaka Croal and director Magnus Martens create some great scenes, but as a whole, “Blowin’ Up the Spot” feels like an unfinished run-on sentence.
After the shooting in the previous episode, Diamondback doesn’t stop hunting Luke. He crashes the ambulance Claire hauls Luke into. He stays hot on their trail after Claire takes Luke to an empty women’s clinic in a futile attempt to treat his wounds. When Misty arrives, he’s even more emboldened: He leads her outside by gunpoint, threatening to kill her. This is the first time Misty looks genuinely afraid and it’s an incident that will obviously haunt her — but this scene doesn’t quite work. Harvey’s performance and the writing aim to make Diamondback into a mythical figure of sorts. He’s an automaton powered by single-minded vengeance. A sick grin cuts his face as he extols Bible verses and heavy-handed dialogue. He’s just a bit too garish for the street poetry Luke Cage aims for. A showdown between him and Luke at an empty theater sets the stage for a grand event. Since we know so little about him, though, the confrontation feels weightless.
We do learn that Diamondback is the one who framed Luke, wrecking his life in the process. But the details of their relationship remain murky. While I love to have some mystery — especially within comic-book and fantasy worlds that so often overexplain things — hiding Diamond’s backstory only zaps the tension in his scenes. Why are we supposed to care about him? Because we’re told to? The episode ends with a stinger that’s supposed to grab us by the throat, since the revelation is meant to be so important:
Luke: “I loved you like a brother.”
Diamondback: “Nigga, I am your brother.”
Moments later, Diamondback shoots another Judas bullet into Luke. Our titular hero doubles over into a garbage truck, which immediately zooms off toward some unseen fate. It’s an intriguing revelation, but it’s a bit odd that their connection wasn’t hinted at earlier. Luke didn’t even mention Diamondback when we got that origin story in episode four.
Watching Diamondback didn’t only make me miss Cottonmouth. It also highlighted how valuable Mariah is to the series. She’s the real powerhouse villain. I have to commend Coker and Alfre Woodard for what they’ve done with her character. I haven’t talked much about Woodard, but her performance in the previous episode is a keenly constructed portrait of madness and violent anger. She’s more put together now, using Cottonmouth’s death to frame Luke and rehabilitate her political image. Still, we see moments that reveal the darkness at her core — like her crazed reaction to seeing her own reflection in the glass frame that holds a picture of Mama Mabel.
Even if the episode as a whole doesn’t come together, there are several more great moments in “Blowin’ Up the Spot.” One of my favorites is the interrogation scene between Misty and Claire. Misty is being swallowed by the forces of people far more powerful than she is. Her twist out is frizzing up, so we know she’s a mess. (For contrast, remember how perfect her hair looked after she had sex with Luke in the premiere?) Of course, Mariah’s false narrative isn’t the only thing altering the course of her investigation and career. Inspector Priscilla Ridley (a striking Karen Pittman) also seems more in control of Misty’s fate than herself. With so many forces rallying against her, Claire becomes an easy target for Misty. It’s the only one she can find.
And so Misty comes at Claire hard. She’s rattled by her run-in with Diamondback. Though Claire only has some of the answers that Misty wants, she is cool-eyed conviction to Misty’s frustration. “I’m not scared of you,” she says, which only makes Misty angrier. “You’re either too weak to stand up to the pressure or too stupid to see that Luke is innocent.” This pushes Misty over the line. She strangles Claire, screaming, “Who’s weak now?!” You, Misty.
Having such a violent reaction is proof that Misty isn’t on solid ground. She’s been consumed by her investigation, now it might destroy her. Perhaps Luke Cage wants to raise a question by tearing Misty down: What happens when forces more powerful than us gain control of our stories?