Luke Cage’s Queer Characters Are a Good Starting Point — But We Deserve More

For a connected universe that confidently approaches its violence and criminality bluntly and with little embellishment, the Netflix fraction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is surprisingly big on symbolism and poetics. Luke Cage, a show that wavered in its first season between being so much better and suddenly so much worse than its Netflix peers, has actually become a much more interesting show in its second season.

[Spoilers for Season 2 of Luke Cage follow.]

Its narrative themes seem much clearer, even its most awkward plot points are at least entertaining, and its secondary characters’ development is impeccable—Cheo Hodari Coker and his writers have even made Danny Rand look good, and his own show couldn’t do that. Its big bad, John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), is legitimately well-written and compelling in ways that the show’s characterization of Diamondback never even attempted. Almost every major Jamaican character makes the best of every moment (notwithstanding the fact that none of them are played by Jamaican actors, the patois is far less than perfect, and the captions of said patois are damn near immersion-breaking), and the tight-knit community flavour of the Jamaican diaspora in Harlem has genuinely heartwarming potential.

One of this season’s biggest strengths has been its refusal to do many of the things that its Netflix predecessors do in spades, including the mistake that most critics hated about season one—the deadly habit of wasting good villains just to squeeze a milquetoast twist out of the later episodes. Giving Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis) time to act from the shadows makes her a much more interesting second-stage villain, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in future.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new season is the realization that many of the most compelling interactions between characters tend to centre around love, an emotion that characters struggle to protect and keep separate from the conflicts of gang warfare. The love between family members, comrades, and romantic partners all follows the same learning curve, here—imparting the lesson that the streets will always get in the way, even when you try your hardest to leave the streets behind.

The best example of this arc—as with most of the best elements of Luke Cage as a whole—can be traced through the character of Shades (Theo Rossi).

From the beginning, Shades has always possessed a lot of layers in this series. He’s the only gangster who properly teaches his boss-turned-lover Mariah (Alfre Woodard) the “rules” of the game, and the one most shaken by her brazen refusals to follow them. He’s also her prime fixer, and even at his most brutal he moves through scenes with a kind of dancerly grace. Coker has likened Shades’ actions to those of a Lady Macbeth, and those parallels show through strongly, here—he’s a man torn between his desire to see his lover succeed and the guilt of how dirty he’s had to play to get there.

But there’s another conflict at the heart of his character that is arguably more significant: the revelation that Shades is queer.

The very first moment we see Shades onscreen this season is him greeting his comrade Darius “Comanche” Jones (Thomas Q. Jones) in episode one. Their immediate interactions are initially coded as the kind of street-soldier closeness we’re accustomed to in crime dramas like this. They salute each other like brothers, they share dirty jokes, they sometimes butt heads and speak to each other out of turn, they fight often about how best to secure the spoils of the street—but at the end of the day, they’re closer than brothers, and no more. The limits of the relationship seem clearly defined and familiar.

However, Comanche spends a lot of time in these episodes pushing boundaries. For a recent addition to Mariah’s circle of henchmen, and one starting out on such a low rung regardless of his closeness to Shades, he presses his comrade for details he doesn’t need to do his work, and even challenges Shades’ relationship with Mariah to his friend’s face, insisting Shades should be behind the wheel, running the empire. Shades consistently makes it clear that this kind of rudeness is the kind of behavior to which he normally responds with violence, and yet he always gives Comanche a pass for these trangressions with little more than a tired glare. Even when Comanche is at his rudest and most aggressive, Shades seems to try his best to win and keep his brother’s faith, and is mostly successful.

Early on, this dynamic just felt incoherent. I know he’s your friend, Shades, but why you keep letting your boy slide for making the exact same kind of jokes that cause you to murder people who literally owe you money? What have you and Comanche been through that could possibly give him that freedom?

And then, in episode six, as the two men are sitting back to back in Pop’s Barbershop waiting to ambush some Jamaican hustlers, Shades attempts to lay down the law: he trusts Mariah foremost because she has a plan to get out of the life and live “a bigger life, one where you don’t have to look over your shoulder every second”, and he wants a part of that. “You’re just out of prison,” he tells Comanche, “but you still have that mentality. You have to forget all that shit. We don’t have to be just gangsters…we could be so much more than that.”

Comanche suddenly corrects him. “We are more than that. Or did you forget that shit, too?”

Shades immediately attempts to downplay their prison encounters as a result of isolation and lack of human interaction, insisting “inside was inside”—but Comanche has no problem admitting that he had, and has, feelings for Shades, and needs to at least say it before Harlem’s latest gang war threatens either of them. At the mere insistence that their desires are different now that they’re free, Comanche reels: “I ain’t different. Inside, outside. I am who I am, B.” Shades balks, but eventually, in the face of Comanche’s raw sincerity, he drops his guard, willing to admit that he still makes his decisions based on a kind of love.

Many people tend to react with unease when the trope of the prison-time gay relationship, and the tacit implications of trauma and victimisation that come with them, appear in a narrative—it’s a story that’s not always handled with sensitivity and intelligence in television and film, to say the least—but this moment stands out because… both of these men admit that they did it, liked it, and still stand together as brothers. There is a lot of unstated validation there. Two male lovers are given narrative space to continue working the streets together at the end of their love. A gangster who just wants to retire peacefully from his days of hiding the bodies gets to also exist somewhere on the bi/pan spectrum without being seen as any less ruthless than he was when we met him (while, it’s important to note, not linking his brutality to his sexuality). There is even the somewhat narrow room for such a love to exist and not be a source of shame or negative judgment in the story. I can understand the impulse to complain about the fact that this small step forward for representation comes in the form of a relationship between two career criminals, but this is the world of Luke Cage, a black noir drama. If we can’t imagine queer folk mixed up with the criminal underworld that pervades so much of the show, that doesn’t leave a lot of space for them to inhabit.

And then by the next episode, Comanche is lying on the floor, looking up at his ride-or-die with guilt and pain in his eyes. When Shades learns that he’s been snitching to the police the entire time, he is conflicted, but addresses the conflict on his own terms. “Because I love you, I was blinded,” he tells his comrade, before tearfully shooting him the second time, just so Che doesn’t bleed out in misery.

Queerness comes up again in an even more complicated way in episode nine, when Tilda confronts her mother Mariah about their tumultuous family tree. Mariah seems relieved to share this truth: her first husband, Jackson Dillard, a good-natured doctor and activist whose surname Mariah kept to wash away the sins of her family, was actually gay, marrying a woman in order to appease his family. (Unfortunately, this revelation comes out in the middle of several more painful truths, including Tilda being conceived through an incestuous sexual assault by Mariah’s Uncle Pete, and Mariah’s family giving Tilda away to another family to rid themselves of the shame.)

This introduction of another queer character into the narrative is actually a little harder to connect with, but not for anything inherent to how Dillard himself is presented. By all accounts, Jackson Dillard was a great man, one Mariah doesn’t hesitate to admit she loved and was inspired by, and it says a lot that all we ever hear about him is that he lost his life doing great things out of the goodness of his heart. But it’s still kind of unsatisfying and frustrating that, on a narrative level, he is simply a long-past, invisible ray of light in a terrible family history, with little to no impact on the story. Moreover, Mariah herself doesn’t actually seem to gain any empathy for queer people as a result, because she’s perfectly capable of taunting Shades out of spite.

Neither of these storylines are perfect, to be sure. Absolutely far from it. The show’s recognition that queer folks exist in this world, though, and are given room to be defined by something other than their sexuality has both value and potential. It says something that, even if the streets don’t love or embrace queer people, they exist and have their own stories, and are still part of their environment, whether they become products of it or defectors from it. That means even more in a TV show that’s focused on exploring how the environment of Harlem shapes and is shaped by the lives of its marginalized communities. It’s obviously terribly disappointing that we’re introduced to so few—only two of the three queer characters that feature in this season appear onscreen, and only one of these is a recurring supporting character—but the fact that Shades is depicted as so driven and layered and makes big, plot-moving actions is significant. That queer people exist and have agency in this world is important, and at the very least opens up a window of possibility for more and better representation.

I hope Coker and his writers commit to featuring more queer characters in future seasons of Luke Cage—preferably characters who aren’t defined by their tragedies and erasure, who are given room to grow beyond the usual tropes and show us something new. In spite of this season’s flaws, the show seems to be sending a much-needed message of recognition and hope to those of us who desperately need to see more queerness in colour.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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