Review: ‘LUKE CAGE’ Season 2

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Welcome to our review of Luke Cage, Season 2. Typically Netflix releases a portion of the season to be screened and reviewed, however, this year they sent out the full 13-episode season to be screened by the media. Below you will find our spoiler-free review of the entire series, a series that got off to a fast start on the back of a thrilling new antagonist, showed growth from its first season and will most certainly leave you trying to come to grips with just how you feel when episode 13 ends.

It’s not an uncommon criticism of Marvel Netflix shows that in trying to fill out a 13-episode season, the showrunners stretch some things a little thin, leading to some moments that can give viewers the blahs…that feeling you get when you realize you’ve been watching for 10 minutes, but aren’t really able to describe what happened on screen. For a good chunk of the first 6 episodes of the sophomore season of Luke Cage, those blah moments come few and far between and much of that is due to the arrival of one of Marvel TV’s most intriguing new antagonists to date: John McIver, the Bushmaster. Bushmaster can stand toe-to-toe physically with Luke and while Luke may have the moral high ground (something reinforced through a moving performance by Reg E. Cathey as Luke’s father), Bushmaster may have more skin in this game than Luke. While the back half of the series, find itself flirting with the blahs on occasion, it seems to avoid ever falling prey to them entirely thanks to some intense and surprising twists as the show comes to its conclusion

Bushmaster, played coolly and angrily by Mustafa Shakir, arrives in Harlem, a city run by Mariah Dillard and under the protection of Luke Cage, with a clearly stated mission: to reclaim his birthright. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker smartly slow plays McIver’s backstory and also delays his first encounter with Harlem’s Hero (an encounter that can be seen in the trailers for the upcoming season) and, in these instances, the decisions pay off. As Cage deals with the issues that come along with being Harlem’s self-proclaimed hero, McIver is able to get his feet under him in America as the path is laid for the eventual showdown between the two bulletproof men. Interestingly enough, McIver hasn’t come to America for Cage; instead, it’s Mariah (who he hatefully refers to as Mariah Stokes) that the Bushmaster has in his sights and for good reason. Bushmaster is powerful, but not out of control; his plan is wise, but not foolproof; he is bulletproof, but not unbreakable.  Shakir’s charismatic performance as Bushmaster is elevated and intense and everything you could ask for. By the end of the first 6 episodes, the cadence in his voice (“dem call me Bushmaster”) and the purpose of his mission (“Harlem is me birthright!”) will almost have you on his side despite the inevitability of his showdown(s) with Luke. And, of course, there’s a mystery behind how the Bushmaster can survive a storm of bullets and take out the Power Man, a mystery that ties into the other major newcomer to Season 2, Tilda Johnson, a wild card played by Gabrielle Dennis. As the season moves on, his backstory is fleshed out and his chess game with Mariah begins to wind down, it becomes nearly impossible not to want him to come out on top. Unfortunately, in a move I can’t really describe without treading too deeply into spoilery waters, Bushmaster’s arc ends a bit unsatisfied, and we can blame that on Mariah Dillard (“Stokes! Mariah Stokes.).

Alfre Woodard is back as Mariah, accompanied by Theo Rossi‘s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez. While Bushmaster plots his revenge and a gang war takes over Harlem, Mariah and Shades are making moves to legitimize their business and get out of the gangster game. The two have moved on since we’ve seen them last and have grown closer…a lot closer. Their relationship in Season 2 is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward ones in the Marvel Netflix series to date. When they are left to their own stories, Rossi and Woodard kill it and bring back everything we loved about their characters in Season 1; when they are together, however, there’s something about their relationship that just doesn’t click on screen. While Mariah and Shades work to walk away from the life, their pasts (both individual and shared) come back to haunt them, leaving them both in the lurch. While Shades reunites with one of his former Rivals gangmates, Comanche (played by former NFL running back Thomas Q. Jones), Mariah’s past provides the series’ most shocking and unsettling revelation to date and one that forever changes the way you see her. As Season 2 progresses, she and Shade’s paths diverge and then converge once again, but given the weight of the events that unfold over the course of the season, their happily ever after is no sure thing.

While the arcs of Mariah and Shades intersect with those of Bushmaster and Luke Cage, they do so at the expense of those characters. Despite Mariah being the focal point of Bushmaster’s plot, the two hardly share the screen, with Cage acting as an interloper, maybe too often. While Rossi brings more of what we loved about Shades in the first season (despite some really uncomfortable revelations the character), Woodard gives what can only be described as an uneven performance. While she sometimes takes the character to wonderful places (both heights and depths we didn’t see in Season 1), she also falls flat some of the time. It’s sad (and really my only criticism of the show) to say that despite having a whole lot to do in this season, it was probably too much and the show may have benefited from a little less Mariah.

Weaving her way through the arcs of Luke Cage, Bushmaster and Mariah is Dr. Tilda Johnson. Johnson has returned to Harlem to set up shop, working to serve homeopathic, Earth-grown remedies to those who can’t afford the high cost of health care. Dennis elegantly portrays Tilda’s mission with humility and grace and serves up a strong character that doesn’t fall prey to the tropes that often objectify and demean women in supporting roles. While Tilda finds herself helped out by Harlem’s Hero, she ultimately proves to be her own woman, despite not being able to fully escape the specter of her past. It won’t be long before you see where she fits into the big picture, but Dennis’ subtlety will subdue you and you’ll probably find yourself shocked more than once as you come to know Tilda.

Simone Missick’s return as Misty Knight takes her on a bit of a personal journey and, eventually, side-by-side with Cage in the midst of a gang war that threatens to destroy Harlem. Rosario Dawson’s Claire finds herself in a familiar predicament that makes you wonder if she’ll ever learn. Cameos by  Bobby Fish, Danny Rand, Colleen Wing and, of course, Turk, serve to remind us that these Netflix shows are an experiment in really, really, really longform story-telling and help nudge the story in the right direction. But ultimately, this is Luke’s show (as he reminds us in a bit of a 4th wall break), and it’s fate rests on his broad shoulders.

While we are reminded that Luke is bulletproof and nothing, not even a Judas bullet, can take him down, we’re also reminded  that he’s just a man. In that sense, Luke’s journey in Season 2 is about what happens when a man, with great powers he never wanted, takes on a great responsibility (perhaps too great) that he never sought out. In Season 2, that sense of responsibility comes up and sucker punches Luke right in the face and, like any hero, Luke gets up and fights back. However, it may be that the journey Luke ends up on in response to getting punched in the face costs him more than the audience may be comfortable with. Through the hail of bullets, hatchets, missiles and some well-done fight scenes with Bushmaster, Cage’s physical body is never in danger; however, his moral compass, the thing that separates him from the Mariahs and Bushmasters of the world, takes a beating that he may never recover from. While the beginning of the season really seems to be hellbent on setting up a Heroes for Hire Season 1, that goes by the wayside in the latter half and Luke becomes a lone, brooding hero out to save Harlem. Despite being reminded throughout the series that he doesn’t have to do it himself, Luke does just that and while we can’t say how it ends for him, we can say you may find yourself feeling very uncomfortable with where Luke is when the credits roll.

As in Season 1, the show’s strength lies in the development and interactions of its great cast of characters, but Season 2 also has a much stronger story wire to wire. From beginning to end, Season 2 finds itself much more even keel and balanced (along the lines of the first season of Jessica Jones). When it hits the high points, they are high, but when it hits the low points, they aren’t so low that they take the show off course and into drudgery (along the lines of the first season of Iron Fist). Coker found a way to cleverly bring in some of Luke’s classic supporting characters from the comics (Piranha Jones and Cockroach Hamilton among them), freshen them up a bit and find important ways to weave them into the story, including some nice work put in by Jeremiah Craft’s D.W. Griffith. For me, the best part of the interactions between the characters is the depth of the wisdom they try to impart on one another. Wisdom is doled out in bunches in this series, whether it’s coming from Bobby Fish, Claire, Luke’s dad or even Mariah, and it’s one of the most consistent things about it. If you sit back and listen while you watch, there’s a lot to take in.

And so with any show, how much I enjoy it depends partially on your expectations (and in retrospect, this season exceeded mine, despite leaving me a little unsettled with its conclusion), partially on performances (some of these are great while others are uneven) and partially on the story (there’s a beginning, middle and an end here for everyone and while I may not like the ending some got, they got one). For me, those the positives in those three things outweighed the negatives. While any 13-hour long narrative is going to have it’s lulls, they weren’t enough to distract you from the big picture; while any 13-hour long narrative is going to have some odd moments, they weren’t so odd that they put me off entirely (though some of the Shades/Che dynamic and the Shades/Mariah dynamic were odd enough). In the end, this is a series in which showrunner Coker showed growth, the protagonist underwent change and the supporting cast did its job. It’s a better full run than Season 1, more stable than the sophomore season of Jessica Jones and damn sight better than Iron Fist. Speaking of the Immortal Weapon, props to Coker and crew for finding a way to make Danny much more likable than he’s been so far and we sure hope that he and Luke get to have the future together we all want to see. I don’t know if you need to binge this show-I’d take it in 3 or so episodes at a time-but I think you’ll want to watch it and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Verdict:

7/10 Power Men

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