Review: Luke Cage – S1:E3 and 4
No hero can outrun his origin story… not for long. Luke Cage was an anomaly in the superhero world for essentially picking up with Luke Cage as he was, but this couldn’t last for long. In fact, not much longer than the reluctant hero who just wants to be a normal person storyline. It should come then as no surprise that the 3rd and 4th episodes of Luke Cage fall right into place within these two tropes… and that’s not really a bad thing.
In Episode 3 – “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” the show opens with a teaser of Luke walking out of a building full of chaos carrying a duffel bag. What could be inside? How’d he get it? With the death of Pops weighing heavy on everyone’s mind the inevitable conflict between Cottonmouth and Luke begins to take shape. The two verbally spar over paying or Pops’ funeral (Cage can’t afford it, but doesn’t want Cottonmouth’s blood money) and size each other up after Cage blames him for Pops’ death, before Cottonmouth remembers that Cage is just a dishwasher. Mahershala Ali probably hasn’t gotten the praise he deserves from me thus far, but he has earned the accolades he’s getting. His presence is transcending what his character is ultimately given.
Meanwhile, the cops are questioning a hospitalized Chico about Cottonmouth’s operation, and as he refuses to cooperate he is essentially left to fend for himself as Cottonmouth will look to finish the job. Cage comes to find out that to keep the barbershop open as a refuge for the youth of Harlem, it will cost $80k. His plan: hit a couple of Cottonmouth’s smaller operations to force him to pool all his money in one place, and then tear that place down. The plan works in what is the first real signature moment for Luke Cage. Cage walks into the fortress and beats down large swaths of henchmen in a sequence set to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring the Ruckus.” It’s an inspired choice and really brings the scene (and the NY setting) to life. Which is great because the actual direction is nothing spectacular. This moment called for a long oner like in Daredevils second episode, but instead the fight doesn’t hit hard. Either way, Cage walks out with one duffel bag of cash as cops arrive at the chaos to seize the rest of the millions.
This hits Cottonmouth where it hurts. He has a painful dialogue scene with his cousin, city rep Dillard, who lays out her plan for rebuilding Harlem. Cottonmouth shuts it down as something that will just turn into more projects. The scene is, again, too overt with character motivations, but it lays out the altruistic intentions of Dillard, who only made a deal with the devil to do something she cares about. The wrinkles in the characters are nice, and overall the dialogue and storytelling have taken a leap forward. The big twist is that Whalley’s Detective Scarfe reveals himself to be in the service of Cottonmouth when he kills Chico for cooperating with the police and tells Cottonmouth it was Luke who hit him. The episode ends with a rocket launcher from Cottonmouth blowing up the Chinese restaurant that Luke lives above, as he eats inside.
The fourth episode picks up right there amongst the rubble. With Cage shaken, we get our flashback episode. How did Luke get so strong? Why is he on the run from the law? Why did he go to prison? Didn’t he used to be a cop or detective or something? Here there be answers. Our flashback is bookended by Luke digging out of the rubble with an injured Connie realizing who and what he is. The flashback essentially grinds the narrative to a hault, but is also the best episode of Luke Cage, yet.
We see Cage in prison with unkempt hair and a bushy beard. He looks hurt, angry, and distrustful. Mike Colter finally comes alive as Cage in these flashbacks. His performance is more raw, alive, and pulsing with energy. Cage is stuck at a private prison that has all kinds of crazy rumors flying around it. He attends a therapy group where he meets all too charming and caring Reva (who will later be his wife, and die tragically as evidenced in Jessica Jones). She tries to get Cage to open up, but he deflects and presses on her, showing Luke to be a pretty savvy people-reader.
It really is all about Luke here as the camera pulls in close letting his bearded face fill the frame (the wigs aren’t great, but I’m a fan of the look). As Luke makes a friend (much to his chagrin) in the old-wise-mentor type in Squabbles (how many mentors can die in a series?!) who shows him the ropes. Cage proves capable of carrying himself in a fight, which captures the interest of a prison guard in charge of a fight ring. The documentation of fight rings in prison is pretty vast, as is the horrible history of black men being experimented on in prisons and by the government. In true blaxploitation fashion, this is all wrapped up in exploring a prison full of corrupt officials in the south.
Cage is pulled into the fighting ring via blackmail from the guard who threatens his friend Squabbles and the budding relationship with Reva, that eventually has Cage letting his guard down after being set up and framed for being a good cop and trusting the system. We also meet Shades, who seems to be privy to whichever millionaire is fronting the money for the experiments on the prisoners. After Cage threatens to bring the whole thing down, Shades and another guy almost beat him to death.
A good-hearted scientist tries to save him at Reva’s behest, and as he’s in a healing chamber (junk science) the prison guard Rackham (practically a cartoon) who headed up the ring, tries to kill Cage by messing with the controls. Of course, this gives Cage superpowers. He breaks out and in the worst part of the episode, by grabbing clothes off the powerlines, and the remaining metal from the chamber, forms a cosplayed version of Cage’s (in)famous power armor. Cage remarks that he looks stupid, and the rote thing of superheroes making fun of their costumes is so overdone.
Cage punches his way to freedom, decides on his new name in a silly way, and finally kisses Reva who never knew about any of the bad stuff. We jump forward as Cage emerges from the rubble (metaphors!) and declares who he is to the press. The end of the flashback is almost enough to undo the good will built up, but I give it a pass because Colter finally has some life in his eyes. I hope this newly reclaimed Cage keeps some of that fire we saw in the flashback scenes. It took four episodes, but it looks like the plot is finally moving into action after a bunch of table setting.
Episode 3: B-
Episode 4: B+