Spoiler Warning: This article contains potential spoilers for the first six episodes of Luke Cage
If you haven’t seen it already, my reviews of the first three episodes of Netflix’s Luke Cage can be found here.
“Step In the Arena”
Luke Cage’s fourth episode is the first one that didn’t really work for me. It was the right time in the structure of the season to see the parts of Luke’s backstory that we didn’t get in Jessica Jones, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out to be very interesting to watch. It was nice to see Luke meet and begin his relationship with Reva (I’m also convinced at this point that there’s not a woman on Earth that Mike Colter won’t have chemistry with), but the majority of the flashback sequences were kind of a drag.
There’s certainly thematic resonance to the way Luke and other black inmates are abused by the prison system, but the way that played out—corrupt guards, an underground fight club—was pretty clichéd stuff. It was important to see the path that led Luke into the Marvel version of a bacta tank, but given the unoriginal nature of what we were watching I think the flashback scenes could have been tightened up quite a bit.
Of course, shortening the flashbacks would require the episode to spend more time in the present, which would have been difficult considering Luke was stuck under a building with Connie the whole time. An understandable structural decision given the choice to make this a flashback episode, but it puts a lot of pressure on the flashbacks be engaging, and I don’t think it quite worked.
All that said, it did tickle me that the writers were able to use this opportunity to work in the original iconography of Luke Cage: the yellow shirt, the weird tiara, “Sweet Christmas!” It was goofy, but it worked, and it was absolutely the right call to do it in a flashback rather than try to work those elements into the present day main story.
The episode ends with Luke having his Tony Stark “I am Iron Man” moment, announcing himself to the people of Harlem. This is a fascinating choice for the writers to make, and as we see in the next two episodes, Luke’s decision has some very significant consequences, ones Luke probably wasn’t thinking about in the heat of the moment here.
“Just to Get a Rep”
Luke Cage is far from the only superhero in the MCU to have his identity known to the public, but his situation turns out to be very different from the likes of Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. Even with their identities well known, the movie characters still seem to live and operate on a different wavelength than the rest of the world. Luke is still in the streets, still hanging out in Pop’s Barbershop, and everyone in Harlem knows where to find him.
And find him they do, once Cottonmouth gets his guys to shake down every person in Harlem to recoup his losses from Crispus Attucks, calling it the “Luke Cage tax.” Luke really starts to grapple with the great power/great responsibility dilemma that’s central to the Marvel superheroic ethos. Luke’s choice to take on Cottonmouth has upended the power structures of Harlem. Luke has to decide if he’s going to take responsibility for that and step up as a leader of the Harlem community.
Luke takes on that responsibility in two way. First, he goes on an ass kicking spree, getting people their money and/or possessions back. This was a nice glimpse of what Luke Cage, Hero for Hire would look like, and I’m very interested to see if the show actually takes him to that place where he starts the business.
The other way Luke steps up is at Pop’s funeral. Luke’s speech, stirringly given by Mike Colter, was a promise to the people of Harlem that he will be the champion they need in the fight against Cottonmouth.
Other big developments in this episode are the entrance of Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple and news of the Judas, a super-bullet made from Chitauri metal recovered from the “Incident” that took place in The Avengers. True to the Chekov’s gun rule, it is now a certainty that we’ll see one of these bullets fired Luke’s way at some point, and I’m very interested to see if they have what it takes to pierce Luke’s supposedly bulletproof skin.
“Suckas Need Bodyguards”
Trish! What a nice surprise to start this episode off with, and a good way to show us what the word on the street is about Luke. Luke’s still got a ways to go to prove himself as a hero, but he’s still not entirely sure being a hero’s what he wants. He’s committed to taking down Cottonmouth, but after that he still feels like it might be time to leave Harlem. Bobby and Claire both try to convince him that there’s a higher calling for Luke to answer, but he’s still not entirely convinced.
Impulsive decisions never seem to pay off in crime, a lesson that Cottonmouth has consistently failed to learn all season, and it really bites him in the ass here. After shooting Scarfe and then spending the rest of the episode trying to find him before he can talk to police, Cottonmouth finds himself arrested thanks to the detailed notes Scarfe took about his operation.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Cottonmouth is going to remain in police custody for long. Scarfe’s death leaves Misty without any concrete evidence against Cottonmouth, and the higher-ups in the chain of command don’t seem interested in the public revelation of a corruption scandal in Harlem so soon after Kingpin. My guess is Cottonmouth will be back on the streets next episode.
Meanwhile, Mariah faces difficulty of her own. What was supposed to be a carefully choreographed news profile goes south on Mariah when the reporter blindsides her with questions about Cottonmouth and the money police seized in Crispus Attucks. Mariah might be the most interesting character on Luke Cage to me, and not just because of Alfre Woodard’s fantastic performance.
Mariah has extremely worthy goals in mind, and as everything begins to go wrong around her she realizes more and more that getting involved with Cottonmouth’s criminal activity was a huge mistake. She knows she didn’t have to help Cornell renovate the Paradise, and that if she hadn’t she would be totally clean. But Cornell is her family, and the Paradise is their legacy, so she couldn’t bring herself to say no. The battle between Mariah’s dueling loyalties to Cottonmouth and the greater community of Harlem has been fascinating to watch.