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Luke Cage: Step in the Arena

"Slavery was always a good offer... to a master."

While Luke Cage struggles to rescue his friend from underneath the dark cave of a collapsed tenement, we begin to untangle his mysterious past.

I was pretty sure Luke was going to live through the previous episode's rocket finale. I wasn't so sure about Connie, so the minute I saw her move and breathe, I felt an immense sense of relief. Didn't you? This series isn't shy about killing off the friends and neighbors.

Most of the episode was a huge flashback while those in the present tried to get out from under the mess in which Luke and Connie find themselves after Cottonmouth's revenge. Flashbacks typically annoy me but this one works because what's happening in the present – the weight of the collapsed building, the helpless person Luke is trying to save from inside – works so well as a metaphor for what we're visiting in the past. Cottonmouth and Rackham are both personifications of greed and self-aggrandizement. Squabbles is clearly a precursor to Pop, and Reva is coming across more and more as a precursor of Misty. There's a lot of philosophy embedded in this script, and the writers seem to be trying to say something about life.

In his previous life Luke Cage was Carl Lucas, a cop who was sentenced, unfairly, to prison. I have to admit many of the prison scenes were very well-done but also somewhat clichéd: the corrupt prison guard Rackham, the fight club within prison, the sneering sycophants sucking up to the corrupted ones, the prison support group. Where things stood out were the slow building of the relationship between Squabbles and Carl, Reva and Carl; the dialogue between Squabbles and Carl; and, interestingly, the menacing presence of Shades in the background. I was also impressed by the evolution of Carl into a killer; the way he seemed to have, or believed he seemed to have, kept part of himself in the background and safe while the front part of him went on the attack.

The clichéd prison experiments turn out to be Carl's salvation; the devices they attach to him make him look eerily like his comic book origin costume, but the process winds up being interrupted by Rackham, resulting in an explosion which kills Rackham and injures Dr. Burstein while curing and empowering our hero. The end is a montage of the past and present as he punches his way out of prison and digs himself and Connie out from under, and emerges as Luke Cage.

I still have so many questions about what happened with Reva. She seemed to have lied to Luke and betrayed him – is that a precursor of Misty betraying Luke in the future? Is Squabbles really dead? What happened to Luke in the time after getting together with Reva and before meeting Jessica Jones?

I also think a lot about what message this show is trying to send about the life of today's Black Everyman. Ralph Ellison and various other writers have been referenced nearly constantly. The show has directly mentioned Black Lives Matter, but so far the bad guys in the show have been Black. This episode portrayed white cops as corrupt and had a clearer racial divide, but still the show keeps the waters muddy. Whatever message the show is trying to send, I think it's complex as Luke Cage himself.

Bits and Pieces

Lots of moments I loved in this episode. The beard, I thought, was awesome.

Luke bleeding seems weird at this point in episode four. His powers are more subtle than hammer-slinging Thor, but also seem more believable.

Luke confronting Reva throughout. Honestly, I often thought he had a point.

Connie saying Holy shit! when Luke reveals himself; I expected him to do the swear-jar move.

The training montage between Luke and Squabbles, and their fight over Bruce Lee and Jet Li.

Scarfe continuing to betray Misty. Maybe this is the betrayal being foreshadowed?

The moment when Rackham grins at Carl and says he now knows Carl values two individuals at the prison, meaning Squabbles and Reva.

Luke hitting the wall, realizing his power, and saying "Sweet Christmas!"

Luke's costume seemed to have a lot in common with Wonder Woman's – the tiara and bracelets, for example.


Squabbles: Where you start is how you end in places like this. No one does it alone.

Squabbles: Cop a squat before you do something stupid, like catch a body. You know the best way to stay out of the hole is to stay out of your head, especially when it's full of hate.


We've seen how Luke lives and the process by which he's being forced to become a hero. Now we learn what happened in his past – and begin to get an understanding of why he doesn't want that mantle. It feels like this is the cap on a Luke Cage origin story mini-series – so does that mean we're going to get into serious conflict next? I can't wait. 4 out of 5 fear-the-beards.


  1. Hmm, I remember Reva lying to Luke — she told him there are no experiments, and she certainly new about them — but betrayal? I don't remember that part. It was Squabbles who revealed his plan (being severely beaten), right?

  2. Hmmm, the way I saw it there was a second coverup-because Reva was the one who pressured the doc to try the experiments on Luke, right? But did not see her mention that either. Knowing about them was one thing; Luke discovered them on his own, or at least that injured fighters were disappeared. Making Luke subject to the experiments seems different though. She did say she'll explain everything later so I could be wrong but I get the sense we'll be learning more about Reva and I don't entirely like her so far. What say you all - am I off and was Reva clear she got Burstein to put him in the tank?

  3. Sorry, JRS, I don't really understand what you're saying.

    The way I see it — Reva new about the experiments and yes, she lied to Luke, giving him her word that there is no such thing. She didn't know about fights, and I don't think those things were connected in any way; I remember it was mentioned in the group meeting that one guy was offered reduced sentence if he agrees to participate. So, it seems that experiments were at least semi-official, sanctioned by some higher-ups. But fights were not.

    Also, I don't remember any indication that Luke knew about those experiments (more than rumors, I mean). He did see the creepy doctor looming in the background, but nothing more.

    So, when Luke/Carl is injured and dying, Reva presses that creepy doctor (who is actually a more or less good guy) to try save Luke's life with that machine. I don't see any betrayal here.

    Am I completely missing something here?

  4. No, I might be overanalyzing and seeing betrayal where there is none - I'm going to watch the rest of the series, and get back to you!

  5. I fell asleep trying to watch this episode 3 times. I'm still not 100% that I've seen the whole thing.

  6. I thought this episode was terrific, even though I kept obsessing about how horrible Luke's hair and beard looked. I mean, seriously -- he looked like a Chia, didn't he? That was a whole lotta hair.

    So it wasn't the librarian -- it was Reva, and she was the prison shrink. I was slightly disappointed, but that's okay. I liked the little bit about the thumb drive from Jessica Jones, too.

    Thanks for an excellent review, Joseph.

  7. So, so, so good.

    We got to meet Reva and see why Luke Cage is so attached to her. Their emotional connection was palpable. No wonder Luke lost it when he learned that he had slept with the woman that killed Reva.

    Now, did we learn on "Jessica Jones" *why* Killgrave wanted her dead? I can't remember and this episode left me curious.

    Great review. Good catch on Squabbles and Reva being precursors to Pop and Misty. I didn't notice that.


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