I actually got trolled, like legitski online-harassed, for saying that other than Jessica Jones—and specifically Krysten Ritter’s performance therein—the Marvel Netflix Industrial Entertainment Complex ranged from “meh” (Luke Cage, other than Mike Colter also acquitting himself pretty brilliantly in the title role) to “Dear God, another dreary, plodding death march through Stan Lee’s limbic system? When will it be over?” (Sorry, The Defenders.)
But I stand by it. Luke Cage Season One had cool moments, and several very good performances (by actors and guest musicians alike). It also had a whole lot of loose writing, draggy direction, and, yes, a level of symbolic unsubtlety you cannot excuse with the “because comics” thing. It wasn’t The Incredible Hulk. It was for grownups. And grownups are (or should be) capable of extracting bigger-picture stuff from a screen conceit without being whacked in the head with Black Masculinity Tropes 101, “Check it: we’re timely!” police brutality subplots and a brother (both meanings) who spouts scripture in a way that I bet had Samuel Jackson hanging his head. There were flashes of something wonderful. But they were buried in a big pile of “duh,” at least for this viewer.
Halfway through the first episode of Season Two, I started to wonder if I just hadn’t been paying attention the first time, but as I watched it became clear that it was the show that had changed, not the viewer. I don’t have too many ways to put this that wouldn’t land all my loose change in the Swear Jar, but… let’s just say someone clearly changed the snacks in the writers’ room over there, because to say Luke Cage has upped its game for its second season is putting it really mildly. I don’t remember the last time I saw a TV show take this huge of an artistic leap from one season to the next.
The writing is so. Flipping. Good. Ham-handed conceits have been replaced with winking, sophisticated self-referentiality. Repetition has been replaced with extrapolation. Ponderous flashbacks are now hashed out in real time; there’s no “for those of you just joining us, here’s how Luke Cage became Luke Cage,” and yet you could watch this season without having seen the first one and you wouldn’t be lost at all. The dialogue crackles with energy and the writers are clearly taking some cues from Game of Thrones (and indeed acknowledge this with frequent dialogue references to it), because they have finally mastered the fine and difficult art and science of manipulating viewer loyalties by morphing both heroes and villains. Jessica Jones wasn’t quite herself anymore after they finally bumped off Kilgrave (and that’s a writer issue, not a Ritter issue). Without Diamondback, I wondered if Luke Cage would enter the same existential whorl. Guess what? If you don’t even know who Diamondback was, you’re good, keep watching. People are welcome to disagree on this, but I think it’s a weakness in a TV show when it doesn’t make sense without the context of a bunch of other shows with separate titles, and that was one of the (several) fronts on which The Defenders did a total face-plant. (I acid-tested it by deliberately watching it before I watched the origin story solo shows, and that is where the troll brigade took up their pitchforks because how moronic can I be, but I digress.) With Luke Cage, especially this ridiculously good sophomore season, it’s not an issue. Not even when Iron Fist walks into Pop’s (yes, spoiler alert: This thing’s so strong not even that character can break it). Because the script creates a closed system that also manages to have tons of interlock with its sibling properties (and the world outside the Marvel world). If you are a longtime fan of the comics or their live-action counterparts, you’ll find a high insider squee factor, but if you’re a newbie, you won’t be confused.
Here’s the relatively un-spoliered upshot of what you can expect from Luke Cage Season Two: A razor-sharp wit. Amazeballs performances by every single recurring actor. Fabulous pacing. A really scary villain (Bushmaster, played by Mustafa Shakir). Actually, three scary villains. No: Four. Because it shifts. Beautifully, like a stunning jazz modulation—speaking of which, the roster of performers at Harlem’s Paradise is again thoroughly boss. A charismatic preacher with considerable swagger and baggage that doesn’t fit in the overhead bin. And massive seismic shifts in the arcs of several primary characters, but perhaps none that hold a candle to the rise and fall of one Mariah Stokes Dillard (Alfre Woodard has always been amazing, but this is a powerhouse performance you don’t want to miss a minute of), the self-crowned Queen of Harlem. A lot of Jamaican patois. Fire. The nature of dignity, especially when it comes into conflict with persona. Tough decisions about moral codes, lesser evils, Flipping the Basquiat, birthright, and branding. Getting paid. Getting payback. A riotous celebration of Harlem as a creative crucible and a lot of pensive meditation on urban violence and self-destructiveness. A strikingly nuanced and serious dissertation on power and specifically black female power. (I’ve never heard the term soror wielded with such epic snark, and that’s before we deal with Mariah’s estranged daughter Tilda, played by Gabrielle Dennis). A bit of an atlas of power structures and hierarchies across the black diaspora. Redemption. Damnation. Power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. An annoying app. The identity crisis that can ensue when you begin to ask yourself questions about who deserves what and the emotional cost of being a hero (or villain). Mike Colter, Mike Colter, Mike Colter. And utterly excellent writing.
Marvel-Netflix-Industrial-Entertainment-Complex: I concede. Luke Cage Season One seemed laden with untapped potential. It has in fact been tapped. Season Two is a 13-hour mic drop. Fandom-trolls, you may stand down.
Season Two of Luke Cage premieres Friday, June 22 on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.