by Josie Kafka
In a recent interview with the LA Times, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker discussed his vision for Luke Cage: “Harlem has always been the nexus of music, politics, culture, criminal figures... Every place that you walk on the streets, there's this history... You feel that culture and that vibe. We were able to use Harlem for Harlem.”
The vibrancy of Harlem works as both a microcosm of America and a distinct setting for the black experience, with all of the complications that history—and the present-day reality—implies. This episode begins with Luke Cage shutting down use of the n-word while referencing Crispus Attucks, detours through questions of literature (including which hero is best), and ends with Luke’s refusal to stand idly by in the face of injustice. As origin stories go, it’s basically perfect.
It’s Pop who makes it perfect. His own origin story is simple: he was bad, and he chose to become good. He chose to create a safe space that can act as Switzerland, in a barbershop—an iconic place of community in black neighborhoods. So when Pop asks Luke if he’s going to turn his back on Chico (in itself, a line evocative of Luke’s refusal to turn his back on the guy with the gun in the opening scene and closing scene), there’s meaning there.
In her review of the premiere, Bille wondered about Pop’s role: “Pop himself is clearly inhabiting the Pa Kent/Uncle Ben/Obi-Wan Kenobi role as Luke's kindly older friend and mentor. (Does that mean he's going to die and inspire Luke to become all he can be?)”
Bluntly, yes: Luke decided he was “done running” earlier. “I am who I am,” he said, quoting Yahweh (intense, dude). But it’s Pop’s death that pushes Luke from reluctant do-gooder to all-in man of righteous violence.
About midway through the episode, there’s an interesting conversation between Cottonmouth and Mariah. “You’re wasting your gifts, my brother,” says Mariah. “This gangsta life? That’s not what our ancestors fought for. Not what our people died for.” Cottonmouth responds: “This is exactly what our people died for. Self-determination, control, power.”
Over the course of this episode, Cottonmouth loses some of that control when Tone goes rogue and kills Pop. It’s a pity, because Cottonmouth showed a glimmer of nobility in respecting the Switzerlandiness of the barbershop. But the situation also makes Cottonmouth an interesting foil to Luke Cage.
Luke also wants to live up to the promise of the past and own his self-determination, control, and power. He just defines the nature of that power differently, choosing not “black martyrdom” or “black money,” but what we might call—evoking the comic book tradition and social movement that inspired the original Luke Cage—black power.
• Pops: “What about turning the other cheek?”
Cottonmouth: “Here’s the thing. I don’t.”
• Detective Knight to Turk: “Your rap sheet’s got so many hits your record could put out a record.” I love Misty.
• Luke to Cottonmouth: “I quit before I walked in.” I love Luke, too.
• I loved Pop’s flashback, complete with backbeat.
• Did we know Pop is Reva’s dad? Did I understand that line correctly?
• As a white woman, I feel wildly underqualified to talk about this show’s engagement with black culture. I hope I didn’t screw it up too badly.
Three and a half out of four Pops.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)