Luke Cage, it seems, has been taking the long way around the barn. On one hand, hey: Everyone likes taking leisurely strolls around agricultural structures. On the other hand, we’re watching a show set in New York City, where everyone’s in a big damn hurry to get everywhere, and more than that, we’re watching a show that’s had all the instruments for building conflict locked up in its toolbox this whole time. The good news is, that conflict’s foundation is rock solid. The bad news is, we’ve taken eight episodes to get there, and there’s no good reason for the delay. (This, perhaps, is the double-edged sword of telling stories on television: A wide open creative sandbox sounds like a sweet deal, but even a playground needs boundaries.)
No matter. Sort of. There’s a pair of plot points sprinkled throughout “Manifest” and “Blowin’ Up the Spot” that Luke Cage could have deployed in the first half of the season for the betterment of its late-stage narrative, one involving Stokes, the other involving the show’s secondary villain, Willis Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey)—an imposing, vicious man with a penchant for spouting Bible quotes as easily as he squeezes off Judas bullets aimed in Luke’s direction. Like Stokes, Willis has a nickname of reptilian origins. Unlike Stokes, Willis carries that moniker—Diamondback—with pride. (It’s a safe bet based on geography that he self-identifies with the species’ Eastern variety, reputed as the most dangerous in the country.)
Diamondback’s method of attack is appropriate to his nom de guerre; the Judas bullet is to Luke as poison is to the rest of us, splintering into shrapnel fragments that begin the grim work of shredding his innards upon entry. (Okay, fair: The bullet would be to the rest of us as it is to Luke, too, only your average man would probably die where Luke grins, bears it, and kicks Diamondback’s ass.) Watching Luke run into an adversary he can’t simply walk through with his mitts is fun, refreshing even, especially after seeing him do just that in around two episodes too many. Diamondback cannot presently go toe-to-toe in a fist fight, true, but his shrewd use of the Judas bullet weakens Luke enough to make their encounters slightly less one-sided: Luke could still wreck his opponent with his bare hands, except that his opponent keeps hitting him right in his gut wound.
As good a time as Diamondback is, Stokes is even better, though we must bid our farewells both to him and to Mahershala Ali. (Maybe don’t accuse a sexual abuse victim of wanting it, especially if she’s kin to an infamous gangster, and even more especially if she’s on edge.) Stokes’ departure in “Manifest” leaves the character in a weird place of resolution: By the time Mariah goes totally sickhouse on him, we’ve learned that the man he is differs wildly from the boy he was, and our sympathies pile on him the more time we spend with him in flashbacks to his youth. Up until now, it’s been a pleasure watching Luke out-muscle and outwit him at every turn, and yet there’s no pleasure to be had in how the man meets his sad, defeated, utterly lonesome end. You want to feel sorry for him. You do feel sorry for him. Stokes is a sorry, sorry man. He deserved better.
Not just in life, mind you, but in drama, too. Watching Stokes shuffle off this mortal coil less than an hour after revealing that he knows Cage’s secret is a head-scratcher: Pray tell, how did that fail to come up at literally any other time leading up to “Manifest,” and why, as soon as it does, must Stokes be deleted from Luke Cage’s growing coterie of heavies? Stokes’ knowledge of Luke’s past is exactly what the story has needed since the very beginning: leverage against an indestructible hero. That’s the only way guys like Stokes can reasonably tangle with guys like Luke, not with brawn but with bargaining chips and blackmail. (And brains, though if Stokes’ ill-advised taunt of Mariah tells us anything, it’s that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.)
Look, don’t fret: This puzzling development is abandoned no sooner than it’s introduced, but it’s not like it’s a big enough misstep to irrevocably knock Luke Cage off course. “Manifest” and “Blowin’ Up the Spot” both maintain the show’s status as good television, especially as Misty and Mariah (and even Claire) come to enjoy positions of greater and greater prominence in the show’s overarching scheme. (Misty, for what it’s worth, is as bad a person to screw with when she’s backed against a wall as Mariah. Claire finds this out the hard way, having been caught yet again in the comings and goings of New York City’s lower profile superpeople. She has a real knack for that, doesn’t she?) And Harlem, well, Harlem continues to be one of the show’s best assets, whether in the frame or in the dialogue, through which the characters continue wrestling with definitions of heroism as couched within their locale.
“Too much in Harlem happens in the shadows,” Claire says. “People fear what they can’t see, but that’s what makes you different. They see you. It makes them trust you.” This line, spoken at the end of “Manifest,” feels like an indictment of Marvel’s big screen roster of saviors, post-Ultron and post-Civil War, where the general populace is wary of the destruction gods and monsters can rain upon their lives. Maybe that’s the best definition of the “street-level hero” appellation. Either way, trust and transparency are the qualities that make Luke Cage, well, Luke Cage, not a mask or a costume. But his series isn’t lacking in the character department: Just in the storytelling department. It’s a shame to see Stokes go, but maybe his death will streamline Luke Cage and keep its sense of cohesion fully intact until the end.
Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Manifest” & “Blowin’ Up the Spot”:
Who wants to put odds on Candace’s ability to survive the rest of the season? Anyone? Anyone? Too soon?
Shout-out to supporting bad guy Shades, who graduates several grades from “coolly threatening” to “outright scary” across both episodes. He doesn’t do much other than intimidate Mariah (and get away with calling her a bitch for the first and last time in his life) and dress down Stokes’ old goons (before paying them to dress up), but Theo Rossi plays Shades with a restrained menace, similar to what Aiden Gillen brings to Littlefinger in Game of Thrones.
Don’t you wish we got to see more of young Mariah and Cornell? That’s too much subplot and too much character stuffed into too tight a space, and besides: LaTanya Richardson is so badass as Mama Mabel that her sole appearance to date will leave you wanting more screen time for her.
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.