Marvel’s Luke Cage
Although Luke winds up in a vat of boiling acid somewhere in Georgia under the care of Claire and a disheveled Dr. Burstein, he’s a rather unmemorable presence in this episode. Mike Colter tries admirably to give his performance complexity, which usually occurs in lighter moments, like when Claire teases Luke about how corny he is or when he actually seems to enjoy his abilities. In this take on the character, Luke isn’t a man but a symbol — and symbols can calcify under the weight of what they represent.
This often happens with major superheroes. (Take a look through Wonder Woman’s 75-year history if you don’t believe me.) Writers are so focused on what these heroes represent they don’t really consider who they are. Luke embodies the heavy implications of what it means to have a bulletproof black man in a hoodie as a superhero in a time when real black people are gunned down with alarming regularity for nothing more than being black. This makes Luke an important, timely figure — especially as the ideas of masculinity, heroes, and black identity in America are being upended. But I wish we got to see more of who he is as a man rather than what he represents. Given these restrictions on its protagonist, “DWYCK” underscores how women like Misty Knight give Luke Cage its energy.
“DWYCK” opens on Misty’s face staring right at us. It’s a risk to open on a fourth-wall breaking shot like that; it definitely stands out from the usual directorial choices made on the show. But it also prepares us for an intimate look at the character. For the first time, Misty is on the other side of an interrogation (even if her superiors aren’t calling it that). Dr. Gabe Krasner (John Scurti) is a former cop turned psychologist who sees through Misty as easily as she can see through a criminal. Their scenes together combine two of the trickiest situations to pull off elegantly on television: an interrogation and a therapy session. Here, it works marvelously.
“I’m not here to break you. You’ve already done that yourself. The question is how broken are you and can you be fixed?” Dr. Krasner says. Over the course of several scenes, their relationship shifts from comfortable rapport to antagonism to catharsis. Scurti wisely plays Dr. Krasner as a bit removed. He comes across simultaneously like he actually cares about Misty’s career and like he’s studying her every move. Which he is. He notices her shaking hands and the tension around her eyes. Their scenes provide the framework for the episode, revealing its central theme.
“DWYCK” interrogates the divide between our most vulnerable self and the public self that shines with false confidence. We all struggle with this juxtaposition — some of us are just more self-aware than others. In Luke Cage, this exists on multiple levels. Harlem itself is divided between the vision of its artistic, thriving and the crime-riddled streets Luke wants to clean up today.
For the characters, things are more complicated. Shades has evolved into a more interesting figure since becoming the devil on Mariah’s shoulder, but he has yet to reckon with the devil that sits on his. He thinks he’s inherited the kingdom Cottonmouth left behind, but his throne is borrowed. To Diamondback, Shades is just a lackey pretending to be a king. Unfortunately, Diamondback proves to be a far more one-dimensional antagonist. Sure, his sleight of hand trick in which he shoots a henchman at Harlem’s Paradise while distracting everyone with his outstretched hand held in the shape of a gun is cleverly constructed. But that’s all Diamondback is: a far too clever construct, shouting out Bible verses with a permanent Cheshire grin.
Shades: “You ain’t Houdini.”
Diamondback: “And you ain’t Rick from Casablanca neither.”
Is it surprising that Diamondback crashes Mariah’s meeting with other crime bosses? Hardly. But the show wants us to believe it is. Did I feel suspense when Diamondback stalked around the table, killing them off one by one, leaving only Shades, Mariah, and Domingo alive? Not a bit. Pivoting from Cottonmouth to Diamondback as the season’s main villain is proving to be a huge misstep. Especially since Mahershala Ali’s performance was quite riveting.
The focus on Diamondback also ignores the true antagonist of the narrative: Mariah. Like Misty, she operates within several different identities. But where Misty’s various selves are a means of survival in a workforce that discriminates against her and a world that misunderstands black women, Mariah’s identities represent something strikingly different. She pretends to be an upstanding political figure and actually believes that’s her true self, but in reality, she’s a cutthroat, downright diabolical mastermind using the hopes of people against them. When Mariah convinced Diamondback to sell the Judas bullets to people afraid of the vigilante superheroes parading through New York, I was riveted. She doesn’t flinch as he kills four people right in front of her. And when he sit by her side, you can see the calculations going through her head. “How can I spin this?” she must be thinking. Her warring selves are cast in stark relief during an exchange with her assistant Alex (John Clarence Stewart), after she watches the dash-cam footage of Luke defending himself against two cops.
Mariah: “You would use my personal tragedy for strategic political advantage?”
Alex: “Madame Councilwoman…”
Mariah: “I taught you well.”
What makes Alfre Woodard’s performance one of the most powerful in a Marvel show to date is that she’s able to make us believe every side of Mariah is the real Mariah. Nevertheless, this episode’s MVP is undoubtedly Simone Missick, whose extraordinary work basically acts as a pitch for Misty to get her own show.
“I see everything and forget nothing,” Misty tells Dr. Krasner. The same insight that makes her an amazing detective is also why she can’t stop reliving her nearly fatal encounter with Diamondback. Episode writer Christian Taylor never uses the term PTSD, but that’s likely what this is. Misty’s journey is all the more heartbreaking because she has neither the time nor the support system to pick up the pieces of herself. She has a job to do.
At times, Misty’s strict dedication to her job and the labyrinthine system of policing that so often hurts the black community has been a sore point. How can she believe in the good a police officer can do when there are so many reckless cops around her?
An important monologue about Misty’s youth illuminates the character layers that are just now coming into focus. She talks about a hot summer day spent with her cousin Cassandra. Her mother told them not to walk the neighborhood alone, but they still went out. Misty left Cassandra behind talking to some cute boy while she went to the bodega to get some lemonade. When she tried to find Cassandra, she was gone. “It took the cops two weeks to find her body,” she says, the line hitting like a punch in the gut. Cassandra’s gang rape, disfigurement, and death is what sparked Misty’s desire to be a cop. It’s why, despite her great record and opportunity to move up the NYPD ranks, she stays in Harlem. She wants to protect the her community; she wants to protect girls like Cassandra.
The monologue scene is shot simply, without any obtrusive angles or flashbacks, putting Missick’s stellar performance in the spotlight. She nails this. Her turn in this episode is the cinematic embodiment of touching a raw nerve. Luke Cage continues to have great scenes like this one, which delve into modern blackness and the gray morality of its more fascinating characters. But until the hero at its center lives up to those same standards, the show itself will never reach the greatness it tries to so hard to achieve.