Luke Cage: Season Two Review

"I am Harlem, and Harlem is me."

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this season. Or rather, I don’t know how I feel about where Luke Cage is going next. I’d been along for the ride for the first 12 episodes, but the finale left me dumbfounded. So, I will do something a little unorthodox. I’m going to review the first 12 episodes as one unit and look at the finale separately. Let’s see how this goes.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers.

This season of Luke Cage touches upon many of the standard themes of comic book lore – what makes a hero, the importance of loyalty, and family both real and found, the meaning of legacy, the difference between justice and revenge, and the power of a name. The problem is that while it explores these themes it doesn't come to many conclusions.

What’s in a name? Luke Cage’s refusal to answer to his given name is a mark of how angry he is at his father and his desire to have nothing to do with him. Mariah uses the name Dilliard as proof of how different she is from the rest of her family. She has no illusions which side of the law her money came from. Yet she longs for something better – cleaner. Both Luke and Mariah discover that they cannot run from their past. It is the mortar they’ve used to build their lives. For Luke, it means coming to terms with his father, acknowledging the parts of himself that are like his dad and forgiving them both. For Mariah, it is the realization that she is precisely who Mama Mabel raised her to be. A survivor. At that point legitimizing the name, Mariah Dillard is no longer her top priority. Protecting what she considers hers is. Owning the name Mariah Stokes is proof.

Who gets to define us? Is Luke Cage a vigilante, a hero, a convict, or just a man trying to make it through the day? Is Mariah a villain, a victim, or a savior? What about Misty, or Bushmaster, Tilda, or Shades? Who gets to decide? In the eyes of the law, Luke is a vigilante they can’t control while Mariah is a gang leader with enough of a veneer of respectability that they can’t touch. However, once Bushmaster goes on the offensive, Mariah becomes the lesser of evils and Luke becomes a much-needed ally.

The people of Harlem seem to judge each of them by the standard of “What have you done for me lately.” And by that measure both come up wanting. Luke’s star wanes when he goes up against Bushmaster and has the nerve to be defeated. The fact that his defeat is short-lived matters to no one. Mariah's ability to wrangle the powerful into giving back to the community is why her family's business never managed to stain her reputation. That came to a screeching halt the moment the cameras caught people's heads on pikes at her Grand Opening.

As we move through the season, each of these characters chooses the mantle they’ll wear. Luke realizes that his abilities have marked him and he cannot fade into the woodwork no matter how much he’d like to. Yet he eschews the label hero in lieu of being the Defender of Harlem. In contrast, Mariah lays down the burden of protecting Harlem and decides to take care of her own, which includes Shades but not her daughter Tilda.

Speaking of Tilda and Shades, each of their stories deserves a little focus. The themes of loyalty and legacy abound as does the theme of families born and found. While these themes swirl around Luke, Mariah, and Bushmaster as they each seek to define themselves, Shades and Tilda are defined by them.

Shades' world is ruled by loyalty. This is epitomized by his relationships to Comanche and Maria, both of whom he loved. Shades' trust in Comanche is earned by a shared history a lifetime of loyalty. That faith blinded Shades to Comanche’s betrayal. When he discovered the truth, he killed his friend and former lover without a moment’s hesitation. Yet, even after this he “did right” by Comanche’s memory and provided for his mother. Mariah earned his loyalty through her strength and the determination of her vision. That loyalty remained constant long after his faith in her is shaken. It’s only when she violates the code of the street he realizes she has to be stopped.

Tilda has always understood that something was missing from her relationship with her mother, just as she knew there were family secrets she was not privy to. For all of Mariah’s faults, keeping Tilda in the dark was one of the kindest things she could have done for her. It’s too bad Mariah couldn’t maintain the facade. Tilda is confronted with the knowledge that she is the product of rape and that her mother simply does not love her. That knowledge requires her to answer the same questions as everyone else. Who am I?

And Misty? Misty must come to terms with the loss of her arm and her desire for things to be as they were. But she can never go back, even after Danny’s outrageous and not entirely unexpected gift. Misty has been replaced by a former basketball teammate/rival. Rivalry renewed, Misty wonders if she still has a place on the force. She's forced to resolve her issues with law enforcement when she is asked to take over the precinct after Ridenhour’s death.

The themes of family and legacy touch every major character but none more than Bushmaster. He believes he is entitled to everything Mariah has because her grandfather cut his out of their joint business and Mama Mabel did her best to kill the rest of the family rather than make things right. Luke is just the man standing in his way. Bushmaster understands that they should be allies and not adversaries even as he attempts to crush him.

There is also the destructive power of anger and revenge as well as the nature of forgiveness and redemption. Bushmaster’s rage and desire for revenge lead to his eventual destruction. Not content with taking over the club and stealing Mariah’s money, Bushmaster needs to see her broken before he kills her. This causes Luke to step in and protect Mariah when he might have stayed on the sidelines. It also leads Mariah, who had tried to keep her hands clean, to kill his beloved uncle and many of his friends and followers.

This is something that Luke struggles with as well. It isn’t until his anger pushes Claire away that he even acknowledges there may be an issue. It takes the stubbornness of his father and the idealism of Danny Rand to set him on a better path, while Luke’s willingness to reconcile with his father and find peace within himself lead to his ultimate success.

Which brings us to the final episode. Luke appears to have found a third option between standing aside while the war between Bushmaster and Mariah tears Harlem apart and or choosing between them. Instead, Luke fills the power vacuum left by Mariah and forces a truce between the other gangs itching to pick up where Mariah left off. Mariah realizing that her time is coming to an end bequeaths Harlem’s Paradise to Luke. Partly because she knows he loves Harlem as much as she does, but mostly because she believes running the club will be his downfall.

I was so down with that. Harlem’s Paradise was always emblematic of the best and the worst that Harlem had to offer. And I looked forward to seeing Luke navigate his relationships with the various gangs vying for power in Harlem without falling into their muck in season three.

And then DW happened.

DW, who spent the whole season selfishly using Luke’s fame to line his pockets. Not that he’s a bad person but after watching everything, all the sacrifices Luke makes to keep Harlem safe, calling Luke a crime boss seemed na├»ve at best. But Luke agreed with him and accepted his banishment from Pops' shop.

I’m left with the impression that The Powers That Be believe Luke’s downfall is already complete and not that he took his first steps toward the slippery slope. If so, I have issues. First, it was the only viable option he had to keep Harlem out of a gang war. Second, it makes a mockery of his journey to address his rage and reconcile with his father. Why spend a season showing Luke overcoming obstacles and battling his personal demons only to declare him a failure?

I didn’t hate this season, in fact, I loved much of it. The acting was top-notch, the characters arresting, and the music blew me away. Plus, I’m a sucker for a narrative I can’t figure out in the first ten minutes – and I never saw where this was going until the bitter end. Unfortunately, that’s how I felt about the ending. Bitter.

3.5 out of 5 bottles of Bushmaster Rum

Shari loves sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, and anything with a cape.

4 comments:

yodudeyo100 said...

I loved this Season! The ending was heart wrenching to watch though. Misty was probably my favorite character this season. My favorite episode was Danny and Luke teaming up!

434444334 said...

This season was good the Bushmaster was so good and I felt bad for him :(

Billie Doux said...

Luke Cage was just cancelled. Right after Iron Fist. I wonder what's going on?

https://tvline.com/2018/10/19/luke-cage-cancelled-season-3-netflix-marvel/

Shari Houtman said...

That makes this season even more disappointing considering where they left the story. :(