This recap is full of spoilers. Proceed at your own peril!
Episodes 9 through 13 of Marvel’s Luke Cage have three themes:
- Claire and Luke’s burgeoning relationship
- Diamondback’s arc
- The solidifying of Shades and Mariah’s relationship, aka #ShadyMariah
One of these themes is not like the other. The introduction of Diamondback didn’t intrigue me nearly as much as the intros for Cottonmouth, Mariah, and Shades. Even Domingo’s introduction was a lot more interesting than Diamondback’s, and Domingo stayed a tertiary character throughout the season!
With all of the script’s build-up for Diamondback’s appearance, plus Shades’ seemingly apparently admiration for him (remember when he said in gushing tones how Diamondback taught him that there was a bullet for everybody?), I was expecting a villain along the lines of Cottonmouth and Shades, but even grander. I thought we were going to get a cold, highly intelligent, and sartorially on-point villain, one who reveled in his work and had completely earned the name “Diamondback.” Now, as Shades did note, Diamondback wasn’t the same Diamondback that Cottonmouth and Shades knew back in the day (exactly how, I’d like to know), but if Diamondback has lost some of his previous competence and authority as a leader, I wonder why Shades chose to stay with him when, as we discussed in last week’s recap, serving a smart leader is what gets Shades out of bed.
I guess the answer to why Shades continued to follow such a comedic villain is reflected in his remark to Zip: “Don’t question my loyalty.” Shades’ loyalty to those he supports is admirable—but it’s possible that Shades also might not know when the ship is sinking if he thought staying with a Luke-obsessed Diamondback was a good idea. Maybe Shades’ stubbornness is his Achilles’ heel, because that stubborn loyalty nearly gets him killed by Diamondback, someone he hadn’t ratted out even when he was arrested during the second melee in Harlem’s Paradise.
On the other hand, perhaps Diamondback had tasked Zip with killing Shades because Diamondback already knew Shades was partnering with Mariah on the low. Remember when he told Mariah Shades was dead? Diamondback was trying to isolate Mariah on an island so he’d always be able to control her, even when he wouldn’t be in Harlem. In that respect, he might have been playing it smart. But to paraphrase Diamondback, his plan was both smart and dumb at the same time, because if Shades has been his right hand for a long time (seemingly years, from the way Shades talks about him), shouldn’t Diamondback know how slippery and resourceful Shades is? He should’ve known (1) not to trust Zip to be the one to do the hit, and (2) not to trust Zip with responsibility, period. All Zip was doing was trying to be a poor man’s Shades anyway, even down to wearing shades. Zip, you silly goose.
Let me get back to why I called Diamondback a comedic villain. In the realm of Luke Cage, Diamondback is the most Marvel Comics-like of all of the villain characters, and ironically, that’s a bad thing. Somehow, the show’s writing, which has been rather authentic and earthy up until now, got broad and, dare I say, Ultron-y, when it came to Diamondback. Ultron was one of Marvel’s weakest villains because he was so self-obsessed, and Diamondback suffers from the exact same thing. Diamondback seems to be more focused on what makes himself sound cool as a villain rather than just being a cool villain. Quoting Bible verses because his deadbeat dad was a preacher? Literally playing “Son of a Preacher Man” while relating his and his mother’s story? Saying he was going to unleash one of the Seven Deadly Sins on Luke? In the words of Captain Priscilla Ridley:
I haven’t even talked about his “pimp Stormtrooper” outfit. Marvel played themselves with that costume, plain and simple. We go from bespoke suits to that? Consider me disappointed.
Even when Diamondback tells his backstory, which is a sad one, I wasn’t as moved as I was when we saw Cottonmouth’s story unfold. Is that because Diamondback’s arc itself seemed a bit rushed? Maybe. It certainly wasn’t handled with the same grace as other characters’ stories were earlier in the season. Is it harder to adapt a character like Diamondback? Being someone who isn’t familiar with the Luke Cage comics, I can’t say. But I can definitely say that since they basically rewrote everyone’s backstory and gave the actors actual characters to play instead of painting them in broad Blaxploitation strokes, the same could have been done for Diamondback. In short, I’mma have to pull a Randy Jackson and say to Diamondback, “It’s a no for me, dog.”
It’s also a no on that final battle between Luke and Diamondback. It was pretty shoddily handled, in my opinion. Why was it so comical? I know the point was to frame it as a “WorldStarHipHop” kind of thing, what with the crowd acting like they’re watching a Pay-Per-View boxing match, but this brawl didn’t stack up against the other central battle this season, which was Luke going through the Crispus Attucks complex to get to “Fort Knox.” I’d even say that Luke and Cottomouth’s war of words at Pop’s funeral was more engrossing than this scene, which was just Diamondback’s blind anger put on display in a really basic way. Diamondback is already on an (unwilling) trajectory of being experimented on by Dr. Bernstein, so who knows what his storyline will be like in the second season? It could turn out that he’ll be more of a sympathetic character—certainly, I was already feeling sorry for him, both for being beaten up and for being caught in the mad scientist’s clutches by the end of this season.
(I should note that all of this criticism isn’t to say that Erik LaRay Harvey didn’t do his level best with what he was given; the fault here lies with the writing, since someone decided it was a good idea to have Diamondback quoting Bible verses as lazy shorthand for his unhinged qualities.)
Onto the two relationships that informed the back half of this season. I’ve already talked enough about #ShadyMariah, so let’s focus on Claire and Luke for now.
From what I’ve read online, it seems like there’s been a bit of a mixed opinion as to whether Claire and Luke’s relationship was fleshed out enough. I’m in the camp that doesn’t find it offensive. At worst, Claire is a more realistic take on the “manic pixie dream girl” in that she’s mainly there to help Luke along his path, offering him encouragement and free medical help. But at her best, she’s portrayed as a normal woman who happens to have found her calling helping those with special gifts. I guess what some folks have an issue with is how easily they fall in love—there’s no hurdles for them to jump through, really, which makes it seem like their relationship is somewhat less developed than it should be. However, both Rosario Dawson and Mike Colter play the relationship in a way that’s believable and comforting, like a well-worn sweater. Who doesn’t want a relationship they can compare to their favorite sweater?
Now, as far as #ShadyMariah’s concerned, their final scene has left many fans stranded at a fork in the road. Does Shades really love Mariah? Or is Shades simply out for himself? If we go by the lyrics to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ “100 Days, 100 Nights,” then it would appear that Mariah’s found a man that “made [her] feel like a queen.” But as the song goes on, that man is later “nowhere to be found.” Does Mariah currently think she’s “found the one [she] can hold”? If so, she might be in for a rude awakening—even though Shades seems to be into Mariah (as evidenced by his smirk after she kisses him), he also gives an undecipherable look back out over the club. Does he think that he’s finally gotten Mariah where he wants her? Is he simply surveying his new domain and savoring his newfound power as Mariah’s Royal Consort in the Stokes Crime Family? What he’s thinking, we won’t know for sure until next season—but it would seem that Shades and Mariah are in this thing together; Mariah wouldn’t have hung that Basquiat painting of two crowned individuals if she thought otherwise.
We end the series on an interesting note; Luke has to go back to jail for the time Carl Lucas still owes to the state of Georgia. Bobby Fish finds the files Mariah and Shades dropped, files which could help clear Carl’s name. Mariah and Shades are newly-minted crime lords and Misty is hot on their tail, presumably in a vigilante capacity.
The interesting part is that our hero has lost, even though he’s just succeeded in so much. His journey’s not done, and he needs to take care of unfinished business before he can fully become the hero Harlem needs. I’m definitely intrigued to see what he learns back in Seagate. I’m extremely intrigued to see what the crime bosses are going to be up to without Luke, and how things will change once Luke comes back on the scene.
Final things to note:
- We finally get to see Misty Knight in full Misty Knight regalia! I’m glad we saw her looking more like her comic book counterpart under the guise of club wear. Because let’s be honest: much of what Misty wears in the comic could be considered club wear.
- RIP Candace: The beautiful Candace is no longer of this earth, and it was quite heartbreaking to see her demise. Even more heartbreaking was how it affected Misty. However, if Misty ever needed a reason to stop trusting the system and quit, it’s poor Candace.
- Will we finally meet Luke’s dad? He’s the cause of all of Luke and Diamondback’s problems. As Claire said, he doesn’t deserve to get off scot-free. (Also, did it jibe with you that Luke realized everything about Diamondback and his father after pulling a Misty and visualizing everything that happened in the church? Something about it just seemed like rushed writing to me.)
- What will Pop’s barbershop become? Comic book fans might already have a heads-up from clues in the comics, but I hope it becomes a base of operations for Luke and Misty. Bobby Fish is already like the Alfred (if I can mix up my DC-Marvel knowledge); all they need know is some S.H.I.E.L.D. tech or what have you to help keep an eye on Harlem.
- The phrase “the idea of” was only repeated three times in Ep. 10, “Take it Personal.” It’s not egregious on its own, but the phrasing seemed stranger the more it was repeated. Just an observation.
What did you think of the final Luke Cage episodes? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and is the founder of the upcoming MoniqueJonesConsulting.com, an online consulting business geared towards entertainment creators who are developing characters of color.