How about that Mariah, huh? She’s one devious lady. If Luke Cage was League of Legends, she’d be Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, juking her way around the better instincts of everyone else on the field, taking down titans with one big flashy play when her back is against the wall and she gives the appearance of being helpless and outgunned. Granted, Mariah doesn’t do ninety percent of her own dirty work: She’s perfectly content letting Luke take out Stryker, getting the cops to arrest Luke, and allowing Shades to fulfill an earlier gamble proposed in Paste’s Luke Cage recaps by lodging a bullet in Candace’s skull. (“Poor [character]” is a common lament in these pages, but we’ll say it anyways: Poor Candace.)
But nobody knows how to put on a weak front and manipulate the rest of the world quite like Mariah. What she lacks in powers, whether granted by suits or by mad science, she makes up for in cunning, and so here we are, the first season of Luke Cage in the can, with Luke on his way to face his past, Stryker in the tender care of Dr. Burstein, Misty on a quest for justice and redemption, Bobby Fish in possession of the key to Luke’s freedom, Harlem united in support of its very own superhero, and Mariah, the queen above all, savoring her victory over Luke and the law, sipping on a martini after nibbling Shades’ lips while Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings play “100 Days, 100 Nights” on the stage of the restored Harlem’s Paradise. (Elsewhere, Claire, Luke’s favorite blend of coffee, takes a step forward in her life among Marvel’s minor gods by tearing a tab off a flyer for a self-defense class.)
Mariah’s ascent and ultimate triumph is a no-brainer. Stryker isn’t the type of guy to think about the future: He’s so intent on tearing Luke apart that he hasn’t spent a minute wondering how much of Harlem will be left for him to menace if he succeeds, and his hiring process is best described as “nonchalant.” Shades isn’t gifted like Luke, and he isn’t trained like Stryker, so we can credit his survival of Zip’s half-assed assassination attempt more to Zip’s incompetence than to Shade’s capacity as a killer; that slip-up isn’t the first sign that the wheels are falling off Stryker’s psycho bus, but it’s probably the most important before his final showdown with Luke, in which he forgets to bring a backup battery for his fashion-backward exoskeleton. (Ron Cephas Jones is a treasure in general, but his Jean-Paul Gaultier/stormtrooper burn on Stryker’s truly dorky looking suit is staggering.)
Loyalty is everything on Luke Cage. It’s the one thing Stryker demands of his partners in crime, and the one thing he rarely, if ever, gives them in return; he thus sketches the architecture of his eventual downfall, killing and backstabbing on a whim so long as the people he kills and backstabs don’t have any value for him. On the other end of that axis we have Luke, a man who declares “Never backwards, always forward” as his number one motto, but who could easily claim “I’ve got you” as his number two. Luke gives a damn about his friends, his family, the citizens of Harlem, and of course his own conscience. It’s easy to shield the innocent against an incoming hailstorm of bullets with your body when you’re bulletproof, but Luke would do that even if he wasn’t. The guy puts himself in harm’s way even when he knows that the police are armed with Judas bullets of their own. That’s a hero. That’s devotion. That’s loyalty to a cause and to a place. (That’s also how you expose vulnerability in an otherwise invulnerable character. Putting flesh and blood people in harm’s way is the best test of Luke’s heroism.)
Standing somewhere between them are Mariah and Shades, who are loyal to themselves and to the persons they think can help them best serve their self-dedication. Theirs isn’t an honorable position, of course, but they’re a damn sight better off than Stryker, though how long they’ll be able to stomach each other is anyone’s guess. (New betting pool: Who will turn on the other first, and when?) It’s nice to have a common interest with another person, even if that interest is inherently treacherous, and even if it earns you the enmity of the most dogged detective in Harlem. Misty is loyal just like Luke, and that loyalty extends beyond death. You can’t buy that kind of honor. You have to fight for it, just as Luke fights for Harlem and wins it.
Luke Cage has always been about Harlem, even during its production stage. Cheo Hodari Coker understood the importance of Harlem as a backdrop for the series as well as a focal point of thematic value, and he’s invested the story and his viewers in Harlem as an integral part of his take on the modern superhero formula. Harlem is a character in the cast as much as Shades, or Mariah, or Bobby, or even Turk, a necessary component of the series’ narrative, so maybe it isn’t a stretch to say that a three-word line spoken in “Soliloquy of Chaos” succinctly sums up that spirit: “Harlem, baby. Harlem.” The rest of the world isn’t ready for Luke, but Luke does right by Harlem, and so Harlem does right by him. Only in Harlem could a black man in a hoodie stop a corner-store robbery with just a couple flicks of his wrist; only in Harlem could he be hailed as a hero. (Also: Only in Harlem could Method Man, playing Method Man, be present at the scene of the foiled crime. His cameo in “Soliloquy of Chaos” is everything.)
Coker has used that image to his advantage throughout the series’ first season and turned it into galvanizing iconography. In “You Know My Steez,” he puts a capstone on that image with more meaningful dialogue: “Who would have thought a black man in a hoodie would be a hero?” Luke and his clothing item of choice make for a refreshing change of pace from traditional spandexed heroes, and even normalize the meaning of the phrase: Method Man breathes fiery rhymes over the radio to a montage of Harlem residents bedecked in hoodies of their own, an act of defiance aimed at a system that has long identified dark-skinned people in hooded sweatshirts as threats. As in its premiere, Luke Cage feels positively revolutionary in its climax. Damned if that doesn’t look like progress.
Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Now You’re Mine,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” & “You Know My Steez”:
It’s impossible to overemphasize how great Method Man’s brief appearance in “Soliloquy of Chaos” is, and it is very, very brief. It’s also very, very obvious, as in not especially subtle, but Luke Cage is a show about a black man with bulletproof skin; subtlety is not the order of the day—never has been. So having Method Man show up, go on the air with Sway and Heather B., and recap the series’ events and ideas to date fits naturally with the show’s broader inclinations, and besides that, it’s a Method Man verse. Nothing wrong with that.
In case we needed a good reason for Luke not to swear: He has a good reason not to swear. If you grow up with a religious leader for a father, you tend to find workarounds for cursing. It’s not like Luke is the only black comic book character to forego bad language—Hitman’s Natt the Hat promises his dying mother not to cuss ever again, and he sticks to that promise—and, let’s face it, “sweet Christmas,” along with his usual coterie of corny Lukeisms, just fit him better.
“Pimp stormtrooper designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier” should be this year’s hot Halloween costume.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.