Family First! — Marvel’s Luke Cage Season 2, Episodes 5-8

There’s a lot going on in the middle episodes of this season of Luke Cage, with the title character moving closer to the hero-for-hire that he has historically been in the comics since his very first appearance (in a title called Hero for Hire), and also finally starting to have the conversation with his father he needs to have. They haven’t finished the conversation yet, and in fact they keep having the same one over and over again, which is a common refrain (literally and figuratively) as way too many dialogues are repeated in these four episodes.

Having said that, as much as Cage gets, it’s as nothing compared to what we get with Mariah Dillard, Misty Knight, and Shades & Comanche…

(Here’s where you can read my take on episodes 1-3.)

SPOILERS for the various Marvel Netflix shows in general and episodes 1-8 of Luke Cage season 2 in particular

It’s really hilarious watching the interactions between Theo Rossi’s Shades and Thomas Q. Jones’s Comanche when you know the original comics characters. Introduced in Hero for Hire #1, the TV series keeps their friendship and their being fellow inmates of Seagate with Cage, but very little else. The pair are, basically, idiots in the comics, low-level thugs who work for whoever will hire them.

By contrast, here they’re complex characters. Comanche is a confidential informant for Captain Ridenour—off-book, as he informs Misty Knight. He’s betraying his best friend—who is in fact, more than that. In a brilliantly played conversation sitting in Pop’s Barber Shop waiting for either the Jamaicans or for Cage to show (neither does), we find out that while they were in Seagate, Shades and Comanche fucked. But while for Shades it was a way to get through the time, Comanche legitimately fell for Shades. From Shades’ perspective, he still loves Comanche like a brother (we find out at one point that they grew up together, Comanche looking out for the smaller, skinnier Shades). These are two men who genuinely love each other, and while the love takes a different shape for each of them, it’s still quite real—making it tragic as hell when Shades learns that his bestie is a snitch. Comanche tries to salvage it by shooting Ridenour, but Shades sees through Comanche’s deception and shoots him with Ridenour’s gun.

For his part, Ridenour is playing a dangerous game (as evidenced by it ending with his death). He’s been riding Misty pretty hard, but we soon see it’s to get her to be the good cop he knows she can be. Misty, though, keeps moving away from the bureaucracy, envious of the freedom Cage has. Now equipped with a Rand Enterprises bionic arm, she’s capable of being a superhero in her own right. (At one point, Cage and Misty take out a bunch of Bushmaster’s goons quite effectively, following a hilarious conversation on the subject of which one of them is the sidekick.) Eventually, she turns in her badge and weapon, but Ridenour never files the paperwork, so when he’s killed, Misty as senior detective winds up being temporary shift commander of the precinct. (This would never actually happen, as any precinct would have people of higher rank than a first-grade detective who would take over a command under these circumstances.) This prompts some of the best moments of the series, as the bickering between Misty and Detective Nandi Tyler—who went to school together—has bordered on the tiresome, but the moment the captain is killed, they put it all aside without hesitation, with Tyler gleefully informing Misty about the pool they had going as to when Misty would ask for her badge back.

Overall, this season has been very grounded in history characters have with each other, from little things like Cage calling upon Foggy Nelson to represent him in Cockroach’s lawsuit against him—that’s who served him papers at the end of episode 4—to Shades sharing childhood memories with Comanche’s mother to Mariah opening up to Tilda about why she was sent away. Having Foggy show up is a joy, the kind of nice touch that the Netflix series need to do more of, not less. That’s the whole point of a shared universe, after all. It doesn’t hurt that Elden Henson is one of those actors who automatically has chemistry with everyone he stands next to. Him and Cage negotiating with Ben Donovan and with Piranha is superb, as is their banter together, and it’s really too bad that Henson’s only in the one episode. (“Is that Ghostface Killah?” “Yeah. And Method Man wrote a song about me. We kick it from time to time.” “I gotta get super-powers.”)

Cage also finally confronts his father, who only visited Seagate once after Cage was incarcerated there, with his mother, and dear old Dad blamed their son being in jail for the illness that killed her. Cage never saw his mother again before she died, and now he knows that the real piece of shit was the Reverend James Lucas, who betrayed his wife and had an illegitimate kid who later tried to kill his legitimate one.

The father-son issues haven’t been completely settled yet, in part because the plot keeps getting in the way. Neither have the mother-daughter issues between Mariah and Tilda, as the former tells the latter some things about her childhood—that Mama Mabel made Mariah send Tilda to be raised by family cousins, the Johnsons—but not everything, like who her father really is. The latter is confirmed by Ridenour who, it turns out, has a past with Mariah: they dated in high school. Mariah and Misty both think this gives Mariah an advantage over the captain—Ridenour tells Misty about having someone on the inside to allay Misty’s fears, while he uses Mariah’s mistaken belief against her.

Meanwhile, of course, everything that happens this season is because of the history between the McIver family and the Stokes family. We get some more from Bushmaster on the subject, as he dismantles Mariah’s life bit by bit. First he leaves the severed heads of three of Mariah’s associates in the vestibule of her new Shirley Chisolm Family First! Center during its opening, thus torpedoing the opening and the center (especially since two of the heads belong to criminals). Then he kidnaps Piranha and gets him to transfer all of Mariah’s money to Bushmaster, thus giving him control over all her assets.

He’s able to do that because he managed to defeat Cage in a one-on-one on the High Bridge, which is a great scene. Cage does the manly hero thing and challenges Bushmaster to a mano-a-mano spar. It’s cheesy as hell, it’s stupid—you just know that Bushmaster won’t stick to the “no weapons, no helpers” proviso—and it’s a total cliché, but Mike Colter and Mustafa Shakir completely sell it, from the “we should join forces” attempt by Bushmaster at the beginning to Bushmaster using a paralytic to cheat and win the fight. (We’ll forgive the fact that (a) there’s no way High Bridge would be that empty at noon and (b) the position of the sun indicates that they were filming around sunset, not noon.) The fight is very well played, a good sequel to Bushmaster’s ambush of Cage at the top of episode 4, as Cage makes a much better effort. But Bushmaster is a better fighter than Cage, who can usually count on his strength and invulnerability to make up for his lack of raw fighting skill. Bushmaster, though, has the same strength and a similar invulnerability (he absorbs blows rather than deflecting them), but he’s also a well-trained fighter. (Finn Jones will be appearing in later episodes as Iron Fist—episode 8 concludes with Cage urging Misty to call Danny Rand—and it’s completely possible that the living weapon might have some tips on how Cage can win the next melee.)

By the end of episode 8, Mariah’s left with only her daughter and some loyal employees—though one wonders how long that will last without money. As it is, she loses her fancy-pants lawyer, Ben Donovan (played to sleazy perfection by Danny Johnson), who is immediately hired by Bushmaster. But she still has Shades. Since she’s lost all chance of going legit, Shades pushes her to go full gangster, recalling how readily she threw her cousin through a window, and with her blessing, he’s last seen tracking Bushmaster’s uncle.

Misty goes through a major journey of her own, too, but where Mariah and Shades have things taken away from them, and where Cage has been left to flounder without Claire and Fish, Misty gains strength and support as the season goes on. It starts with the literal, as she’s granted a bionic arm by Rand Enterprises. (I admit to some disappointment that it wasn’t Tony Stark that gave her the arm like in the comics. The unwillingness of the Netflix series to acknowledge their cinematic counterparts beyond the events of The Avengers is tiresome. I didn’t expect to see Robert Downey Jr. or anything, but a care package from Stark in gratitude for a job well done would’ve been cool.) She goes over some previous cases with her deceased partner Rafael Scarfe, and realizes that he was sounding her out on joining him in his corrupt endeavors, then backing off and doing the “just kidding, you should’ve seen the look on your face!” backpedal when he realized she wouldn’t go for it.

Just as with last season, we get a superlative scene with her and the police shrink, only this time it’s an informal lunch at a Harlem eatery. But John Scurti’s Dr. Krasner is magnificently direct, and helps her work through her issues nicely.

The pacing in these middle episodes is good, if not great. As I mentioned earlier, there are way too many repeated conversations: Mariah imploring Tilda to be by her side, Mariah talking about her Family First! initiative, Cage and his father bickering, Bushmaster’s uncle giving him shit about what he’s doing (I particularly like him pointing out that the authorities will take it out on every Jamaican in New York, a line that’s even more relevant now than when it was written), Bushmaster talking smack about the Stokes family. It’s especially frustrating in a show that is designed to be binge-watched. I mean, if it was a week between episodes, I could see the logic in reminding the viewer, but sheesh…

But the plot isn’t dragging, really. It’s not brisk, either, but it’s working. It helps that there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. The screen sparkles every time Reg E. Cathey is onscreen, and the irritation of him and Cage having the same conversation over and over is leavened by the sheer magnificence of Cathey and Colter on screen together. Simone Missick remains the rock star of the series, absolutely nailing Misty’s halting journey from cop to vigilante and back again. Rossi and Jones are superlative in giving Shades and Comanche’s relationship depth and power. Shakir remains an imposing presence, his anger casting a pall over the proceedings. Alfre Woodard has always been one of our best, and her every interaction is gold, but of particular note is the revelation that she’s old friends with Ridenour. Peter Jay Fernandez is another unsung hero of this series, as his Ridenour starts out the season as the stereotypical hardass boss that interferes with Misty’s ability to be badass, but we quickly learn that he’s more complex—and a better cop—than that. His death is a major loss, and one that galvanizes the remaining heroes. Woodard deserves huge credit for her chameleonic performance, too, particularly the bullshit façade modulating to genuine horror when Misty reveals that Ridenour, her old friend, is dead.

I have to admit, though, that my absolute favorite performance is from Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Piranha. We discover that, besides being Mariah’s business advisor, Piranha is also a massive Luke Cage fangoober. In order to scrape together the money to settle out of court with Cockroach, Foggy arranges for Cage to be hired to attend one of Piranha’s parties. He takes pictures with people, lifts a few things, and gets an interesting lesson in celebrity, the good (a woman who shyly approaches him and asks for a picture because he saved members of her family), the bad (Piranha’s creepy wall of fame filled with stuff connected to Cage that he apparently got off eBay), and the ugly (one guy breaking off a bottle on Cage’s head, Piranha offering chances to shoot Cage, unmindful of the dangers of ricochets). Piranha is a fast-talking hustler, but in the end you respect how he built himself up—and on top of that, he has some of the funniest lines and reactions, particularly after Cage saves his life.

I should also add that the music is even better this season than it was last season, which is an impressive accomplishment. Between the acts at Harlem Paradise and Piranha’s party, we get a spectacular collection of fine musicians from Ghostface Killah to JOI to Gary Clark Jr.

The title character sometimes feels like he’s getting lost in all this, but it’s interesting to watch him progress. Ever since he punched the wall and drove Claire away, he’s been focused on being a hero—and a good hero, not one who gloats about being unbreakable or who is overconfident in his abilities. He’s just trying his best, and has actually learned the lesson of Claire’s frightened departure, not to mention two beat-downs at Bushmaster’s hands. But he’s still doing the right things, still trying to save lives—even Mariah’s. And he’s proving more willing to ask for help, first Misty, and later the other cops after Ridenour is killed and everyone puts aside their differences to avenge his murder, and finally at the end of episode 8, when he tells Misty to call Iron Fist.

Next week, we’ll see how it goes with the most annoying member of the Defenders as we’ll look at the final five episodes.

SPOILER ALERT! Please try to keep the comments as spoiler-free of episodes 9-13 as possible.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be a guest at Shore Leave 40 in Cockeysville, Maryland this coming weekend, as both an author (promoting his work, including the new anthology They Keep Killing Glenn) and as a musician (his band, Boogie Knights, is doing two concerts during the weekend). Other guests include actors (William Shatner, Ming-Na Wen), other authors (David Mack, Peter David), scientists (Ray Villard, Stephanie J. Slater), and more. Keith’s full schedule can be found here.

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