Luke Cage‘s Most Powerful Adversaries Are Those That Trade in Fear

(Episodes 1.09 and 1.10)

TV Features Luke Cage
Luke Cage‘s Most Powerful Adversaries Are Those That Trade in Fear

Another day, another hoodie. And then another, and probably one more after that.

It’s remarkable how much Luke Cage’s flavor changes with the introduction of a new villain, swapping out Stokes’ deliberate cool for Stryker’s grinning aggression. There’s no finesse to Stryker’s plotting and scheming: The most nuanced pivot in his campaign against Luke requires him to run around in a hoodie of his own, screaming “I’m Luke Cage!” at the top of his lungs to a gathering crowd of bewildered onlookers. It helps the effect of his outburst that he unleashes his ranting and raving after murdering a cop in cold blood. Dock the man points for his distaste for subtlety, but credit him for his efficacy. Indelicate though Stryker may be, he’s at least getting the job done and making Luke’s life hellish.

Stokes was a failure, but he was a planner. Stryker doesn’t plan. He doesn’t have to, because he’s happy to just kill you where you stand, fie upon consequences or backlash. Gunning down all of the leaders of Harlem’s rival gang outfits (save Domingo) is probably the most impolitic method of problem-solving a person could dream up in the world of Luke Cage, but Stryker can make that work because he’s the scariest son of a bitch on the block. Erik LaRay Harvey is doing something very different with Stryker than Mahershala Ali did with Stokes, layering Stryker’s every word and gesture with sheer crazy. He’s a pot full of violence threatening to boil over with the slightest provocation. Ali, by contrast, treated Stokes as a smoother operator, though he had his wrathful moments, too.

Enter Mariah. Alfre Woodard has come into her own playing the erstwhile councilwoman, who since losing her coveted position in government has slowly begun ascending toward inheritance of her grandmother’s legacy; she’s more devious than Stokes and Stryker by far, conniving to pin mayhem and murder on Cage as a roundabout way of securing power for herself. This is the type of conflict Stokes really should have been fomenting before his untimely death, and which the show itself should have gone for much earlier in the season: The type in which Luke’s powers are of no use to him, because the enemy he’s fighting isn’t armed with guns but with perception. What does bulletproof skin matter when public opinion is still capable of cutting right through you?

There’s something insidious in Mariah’s social, cultural, and political war on Cage, something that allows Luke Cage itself to speak to its most topical themes with greater power and clarity than its preceding chapter. What we see in the police force’s assault on the people of Harlem is a reflection of the fear many black Americans contend with in their own lives: The fear that a simple stroll down the street could be interrupted by law enforcement, serving and protecting no one save themselves. Patricia Wilson, returning after her flirtations with Luke in “Moment of Truth; is a victim of that fear, while her son, Lonnie, is a victim of what tends to accompany that fear, physical injury, brutalization, the stripping of his humanity in the name of someone else’s justice. Stryker wants to trade in that fear, too, but oh, Mariah is so much more adept at its proliferation. If she had it her way, Luke would be in even bigger trouble than he is at the end of “Take it Personal.” Good thing Stryker’s a hotheaded loony tune.

For an unbreakable man, Luke sure is starting to look more and more broken. Granted, he’s an easygoing sort, the kind of guy who hops out the back of a garbage truck while nursing two ugly bullet wounds and immediately throws out his catchphrase. But he’s also a fundamentally good person. Beating up two cops? Not his bag. (Then again, neither is being dunked in acid, though it’s fair to say that that’s nobody’s bag.) The increasing potency of Stryker’s and Mariah’s efforts to take him out is straining him, which is refreshing to see after spending so much time watching him brush off death and all manner of calamity; learning that your best friend from childhood is out to kill you, and also that he’s your brother, would do a number on anybody, and it seems to have more impact on Luke than it might on less gifted individuals. (That’s not even touching on the truth about Reva, which isn’t as bad as it could be, but still isn’t great.)

Misery loves company, so it’s good that Misty’s around to share in the suffering. Like Luke, Misty is broken. Unlike Luke, there may not be a way to fix her. There’s certainly no shady doctor to patch her up and then condemn for his lack of scruples; there’s only Misty, and yes, Stryker and Stokes and Mariah, who each in their own way have contributed to Misty’s slow and steady fracturing. Misty’s nostalgia might be her greatest weakness, though funny enough, it isn’t the vulnerability that Luke Cage’s antagonists exploit. Stryker violates her control and Mariah violates her personal sense of place within Harlem, but it’s an open question whether either is more detrimental to Misty’s equilibrium than her need to opine for what once was and no longer is. Even her brief reminiscence about M&G’s speaks volumes about how hard it is for her to cope with the landscape of her life, shifting before her very eyes.

Like “Just to Get a Rep; and “Suckas Need Bodyguards; both “DWYCK” and “Take it Personal” feel minor in terms of consequence: They’re more about setup than advancement of story. But these two episodes actually make use of the lull in narrative to make compelling statements about Luke Cage’s primary characters while pointing the series in a positive direction. (What does a police force armed with alien bullets sound like to you? Do you want the cops to be packing hotter heat than they already do?) We’re in the show’s home stretch: Time to find out if all of its building and anticipation will pay off as well as it should.

Bonus Observations & Quotes From “DWYCK” and “Take it Personal”:

Nobody tells a man “kiss my ass” quite like Simone Missick. She turns “ass” into a two-syllable word. It’s incredible. What’s especially great about her performance is her talent for exposing Misty’s fragility while reminding us at all times that after Luke, she’s the toughest person in the whole damn show.

“I wouldn’t be a good scientist if I let you do it alone.” Dr. Burstein might not be a paragon of ethics, but you can’t accuse the guy of not caring about his profession.

Talking about “black fear” in any kind of media, movie or TV show or otherwise, feels ballsy even in 2016. When that talk is couched in a Marvel series, it comes off as daring. You’ll wish that Luke Cage would spend more time drawing real world anecdotes into its fabric, but it’s impressive that they come up in even minor capacities and that they have as much impact as they do.

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.

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