Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 2 of Luke Cage. Click here to catch up with our reviews of Season 1.
“Everybody talking about Luke Cage like he’s Jesus,” intones a voice in Season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage. A rasping, ominous, experienced voice, which falls somewhere between cynical and inspirational, it is, of course, the instantly recognisable vocals of the late Reg E. Cathey. After his roles in The Wire and House of Cards, he’s an inspired choice to join Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen Universe, and an even more inspired choice to play James Lucas, Luke Cage’s estranged father. For this sophomore season of the comic book series elevates it once again beyond its genre to become a nuanced study of family, generational sins, and toxic masculinity.
Cage, whose invincible set of skills were on full display in Season 1 for everyone to see, is now an icon of Harlem, a hero with a huge reputation and a fandom to match. And Cheo Hodari Coker’s take on the character finds hulking depth and tender melancholy in the unique position that places this Power Man. On the one hand, he’s a borderline Messianic figure who can do no wrong – expected to turn his unbroken cheek and take bottles on his back without complaining and in clear public view. On the other hand, he remains a black man in a hoodie, another emblem engrained in society, which carries expectations of an entirely different kind. In an age where fame brings with it selfies, GPS tracking and intrusive cameras recording him at all times, the pressure makes it harder and harder for him to let off steam without falling into the latter stereotype. That dichotomy is summed up by his father’s insistence upon calling him by his biological name, Carl Lucas – a reminder that Luke Cage still has layers and identities competing beneath his seemingly impermeable skin.
At the same time, he finds fresh danger in the form of Bushmaster (the superb Mustafa Shakir), who also has his own rage burning beneath the surface – literally, thanks to his use of the plant Nightshade, which stops him feeling pain. He gets that from Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), the daughter of Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) – or, as Bushmaster insists on calling her, Mariah Stokes. That’s because she’s the daughter of crime lord Mama Mabel Stokes, who killed Bushmaster’s parents decades ago, and Bushmaster? He wants revenge.
It’s exactly the kind of complex family drama that made the first half of Luke Cage’s first season so compelling; this is a series that laces everything with power, grudges, grief and conflict that’s inherited and passed down from one person to the next. And so, just Cage reconnects with his own dad, Mariah tries to reunite with her daughter – who, in a nice touch, who plays the piano, like Cottonmouth – even as her own parental backstory pulls apart the relationships around her; Bushmaster manages to take out Mariah’s brownstone home and take her money to boot, and even sticks the heads of her henchmen on pikes in the doorway to her new community centre (a literal symbol of her past haunting her new, public-facing image), and she retaliates by burning his uncle alive.
“The past is gone. You can’t change it. All you can is build something for the next generation,” Bushmaster’s uncle tells him. And that message of moving forwards rather than looking back – “Always forwards, forwards always” – runs through the whole programme with that same, profound weight. Season 2 succeeds by expanding on Season 1’s determination not to be defined by one’s past and applying that dignity and moral compass to the whole ensemble cast.
And Luke Cage really does have an ensemble cast. Shakir is a superb demonstration of the show’s ability to paint everyone in shades of grey, his friends speaking in patois ringing with vibrant depth, his unique physicality strikingly different to Colter’s brand of stoic strength, and his ire at being dispossessed of his birthright unexpectedly sympathetic. There’s a similar amount of sympathy for Shades, played by Theo Rossi with an increasingly earnest streak. Like Luke, we begin to know Shades by his birth name, Hernan, and watch as he moves from being fiercely loyal to lover Mariah to doubting her despicable actions; he’s a gangster, but one with a sense of honour and lines that can’t be crossed, and so he ends up turning himself into to Misty Knight (Simone Missick) so he can stop her. The flashbacks and recollections of crimes committed is not only entertaining and disturbing, but surprisingly poignant, as we learn how he regrets murdering his close friend, Comanche. And, best of all, there’s oodles of screen-time for Missick’s Misty, as she tries to navigate her way back into the police force, after losing her arm in The Defenders – and, eventually, gaining a bionic arm, courtesy of Danny Rand (Finn Jones).
Misty’s arc becomes the most important, in a way, as she tries to work out how much she’s willing to compromise her ethics to save Harlem, facing off against coworkers and getting stuck in when necessary. (A fight featuring her and Colleen Wing in a bar against unwanted male attention is one of the best moments in the whole season.)
At the same time, we see Luke’s gradually become corroded: within only a few episodes, he’s come perilously close to killing Cockroach and broken up with Claire (and punched through a wall while doing so). In the middle, he’s taking money to be a celebrity hero for hire, both of his own accord and to his own disgust. By the end, he’s torn between Bushmaster and Mariah, teaming up with the former to stop drugs, but protecting the latter from his hard-hitting opponent. It’s a nuanced portrait of a man who could easily have become a two-dimensional force to be reckoned with – not unlike the way that the writers work to redeem Danny Rand, aka. Iron Fist, when he turns up in Episode 10 to provide some much-needed counselling to his friend. Their sparring, both verbally and physically, is a smartly choreographed treat, as they build on their ability to work together, first established in The Defenders. The show is at its best when it’s finding these delicate subtleties in each character – when Misty takes Luke, Luke’s dad, Mariah and Tilda to an unfinished Rand building to hide out as Bushmaster lays siege to the property, the back-and-forth confessions, compromises and manipulations are dizzyingly well thought-out.
Mariah, fascinatingly, manages to remain consistently nasty, but still remains difficult to read. “You want to talk about what we come from,” she declares to Tilda. “I want to talk about what we’re made of. Focus on a bright future, not a painful past.” But she’s also far from getting away from the family business started by Mama Mabel (blackmailing the financiers of her supposedly legitimate ventures, as well as burning people alive), which makes Tilda see her for the liar she is. And yet, even then, it’s hard to tell whether Mariah’s yearning patch things up with her daughter is a personal or political move.
But she saves her most shocking move for last, when she is killed (by Tilda, in a fitting and moving twist) and leaves Harlem’s Paradise in her will to none other than Luke Cage. Harlem needs a king or queen, not a hero, she tells Luke, and she takes the necessary steps to make that happen. It’s an inspired choice by the show’s writers, as it brings us back to not only sins being passed down the line, but also the constant challenge facing Cage, as he tries to define and refine his identity.
Throughout this season, Cage has grappled with the right way, the best way, to solve Harlem’s problems, and that quandary is intrinsically linked to his own role and how he sees himself, versus how society sees him.
“You’re still the same angry little boy but with muscles,” his father warns him early on. “You still have the nerve to talk to me about truth and integrity,” hits back Luke. That running theme of older generations providing role models feeds into Luke’s own behaviour: a hero whose powers are increasingly displayed through aggression, Cage has to struggle with communicating and venting his rage healthily as a man, in a universe where failing to do so can prove poisonous. Through the season, we see Luke run to the women in his life for support, help and potentially some kind of romantic involvement; after he breaks up with Claire, he unfairly relies on Misty, and then, to some degree, on Tilda. But it’s only through his conversations with his father, James – and, let’s not forget, Danny – that this masculine icon seems to find the kind of help and role models that helps.
“Your strength is from God, Carl. I have no doubt in my mind about that,” his dad concludes. “That power flows from within. From inside,” he adds. “What comes out when that pressure is heaviest? That’s the real magic. That’s what defines being a man.”
And so it’s all the more painful, and all the more intriguing, to see Luke reach the conclusion that taking up Mariah’s role of ‘Harlem’s King’ is the best way to battle crime in the community: by acting as its sheriff, he reasons, he can bring order and peace to the streets (much to the doubting concern of Tilda and Misty). As the old comic book missive goes, you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Which will Luke end up as? After an uneven first season, Luke Cage’s consistently paced, confidently performed and carefully plotted second run leaves that provocative question hanging – an impressively unpredictable final turn that dares its hero to avoid the predictable route of becoming as corrupted as his new social status (and newfound heritage) might suggest. More than ever, this richly drawn drama of family sagas, crime empires and the pressure of power needs a third season.
All episodes of Luke Cage are available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.