Review: Luke Cage – Episode 2 – Code of the Streets
Somebody has to die. When you have a reluctant hero, you also know that some untimely death will be what springs them into action. Superhero tropes are becoming well-trodden only 20 years or so into the genre, and the stories themselves are struggling under the weight of them. However, a good performance can sell anything. Luke Cage did right by getting Frankie Faison.
Obviously, obvious spoiler: Pop dies. How could he even be named Pop and not die? We all knew this was coming. It’s that trope coupled with the wise old man giving the younger man advice trope, and it all seems pretty old hat if it weren’t for Faison making rough dialogue sound like poetry. It’s even more obvious once we get to know Pop’s origin story earlier in the episode, which is always a dead giveaway of a supporting character’s impending doom. We learn he was once a rough young hood who ran with villain Cottonmouth and plot-instigator/young barber/gun thief Chico’s dad. When he was younger he wasn’t called Pop for the fatherly visage, but rather the “snap, crackle, pop” sound his knuckles made on a man’s face.
Luke Cage is also stuck with the problem of basically narratively spinning its wheels: We know Cage is going to be a superhero. We’ve even been introduced to him in a previous show, and so far this show has done little to build his character, and more to build the world and supporting characters. Now, we’re two episodes gone and hardly any movement from Cage in the character department. It isn’t helped by some pretty lame story choices in the second episode. Pops calls in Cage to find Chico because Cage used to “find people.” Cage sets out looking for Chico as do the cops and Cottonmouth’s gang.
Our “auditor” who turns out to be a cop gets a name, Misty Knight, and she has the detective TV trope of being able to reenact crime scenes in her mind as she stands in the middle of the action. While stumping for leads they hit the b-ball court, where it turns out Misty was a playground legend. She plays horse with a young man, in giant heels no less, and turns out to be pretty good. She wins. The whole thing has no life and borders on silly. Frank Whaley is introduced as her partner, and said she went 10-12 in real life, but still…
Cage shows Chico’s picture in a montage of picture showing to strangers, and finds him first, somehow. He kicks in the door (subtle) and begs him to come back. Chico refuses, apparently unaware that half a million dollars can buy a plane ticket, and stays in hiding. Of course, Chico shows up at Pops, tears flow, and everyone stops. The cops, where Misty and Luke have an awkward re-introduction that is overplayed. The awkwardness is there, and there is just a few too many affectations and facial expressions… WE GET IT. Cottonmouth also stops by for a shave from Pops, as an indiscreet way to make his interest in Chico’s whereabouts known. Unfortunately, the only person to see Chico at the barbershop is one of the guys who plays chess out front. He immediately goes to rat out Chico’s whereabouts for the money, which ruins Pops’ plans to parlay for Chico’s life with oldtime friend Cottonmouth.
One of Cottonmouth’s henchmen defies his orders and heads over to take care of Chico. I’m pretty sure this henchman was the one who orchestrated the robbery as an inside man, and wants to keep Chico silent, but I may be misreading that. Anyway, he shoots up the barbershop, critically wounding Chico, killing Pops, and forcing Luke to use his bulletproof skin to shield a young boy. When the henchman returns with the money and the news, Cottonmouth promptly throws him off the roof, breaking his own code of high-class criminality. It’s interesting to see how Cottonmouth (who basically throws him off the building for the killing and referring to him as Cottonmouth) sees himself as a higher order criminal. This is sort of beat into the ground with the on-the-nose exchanges between him and Dillard about being corrupt, a criminal versus a city official, etc… Nuance is not this show’s strong point.
Ay, and that’s the rub. Cage wears its blaxploitation influence on its sleeve and is taking the good and bad along with it. Too many scenes are so obvious in the political point being made they forget to ground that in the world and characters. From the book club where Cage and Pops discuss prominent black heroes from film, TV, and books as well as their favorite authors, and basically cite two or three stories that Luke Cage is mirroring for inspiration. The AV Club sums it up here:
Crime Partners, when described at its very loosest, is about two petty criminals killing the wrong people during a robbery gone awry. Kenyatta convinces them to fight the power while the police and the drug dealer they robbed hunt the two petty criminals down. Ring any bells? Luke favors Easy Rawlins, played by Denzel Washington in Devil In A Blue Dress, to Kenyatta. Easy Rawlins was a former WWII solider who became a day laborer in his civilian life. When he loses his factory job, he becomes an unlicensed private eye.
Now, there’s putting a Dostoevsky book on a table when you’re riffing on “The Idiot” and then there’s this. This failure to trust the audience to pick up on the implicit points being made is best represented in the bookended scenes of the show: Luke Cage being held at gunpoint from behind by a young man. There’s some back-and-forth on the use of the word “nigga” which, fair enough. Then as Luke Cage points out they are across the street from the Crispus Attucks building he then tells the story of who Attucks was (one of our greatest heroes! he says unlike actual humans talk). Which is fine, by the end of that story we know he stood up, and didn’t blend in, and did something. We can infer what saying this out loud must mean for Luke Cage who has been trying to blend in and not use his powers. Got it.
Instead Cage turns around and tells this man with a gun about how that’s what Pops did (does he even know who Pops is?), and that’s what he’ll do, because that’s what Attucks did and… you see the problem? We should’ve been trusted to get that, the parallel was obvious. And when you couple that with not-as-clever-as-the-writer-thinks quips like “checkmate” after talking to a guy playing chess, “Your rap sheet has so many hits, your record could put out a record,” and other duds that are groan-inducing.
Cage has yet to trust the intelligence of its audience to pick up the nuance of relationships, or the politics of its message by taking them on overtly instead as subtext, or at least in ways that serve the story. This is the last episode written by creator Cheo Coker, and that is good news. It’s great news for a show about black characters to be created and written by black artists. However, sharing that counts for nothing if you have a tin-ear for dialogue. The performances range from strong to having good potential, and my desperate hope is that as the creative reigns are handed off, and as Cage stars being a hero, we get some inspired storytelling going forward. Because it’s not bad, it’s so far just resting on the laurels of familiar stories, and hamstrung by dramatic tone-deafness. These can be easily remedied by a stellar episode that capitalizes on what has been simmering these first two hours.