Be forewarned, this review contains spoilers.
With its second season, Luke Cage does what has proven impossible for most Netflix-Marvel shows: it surpasses its predecessor. The first season of Luke Cage was good, solid, but once Diamondback was brought in, things went off the rails and not in a good way. The story just wasn’t as tight, as cleanly wrought as the first seasons of Daredevil or Jessica Jones. With this latest offering, however, Cheo Hodari Coker and his team brought in elements from the first season and the Defenders without overcrowding the story.
It’s excellently directed, well-written with amazing and needed character beats. The cast of Luke Cage has never been a problem. Each are a revelation in their own right bringing a lived-in feel to the characters from the get-go. Now, with the material provided, they really get to shine. From the old guard of the show to the newer members of the cast, Luke Cage has one of the most talented casts on television.
The team of the series also combines elements of the other shows to make the world feel lived in. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) gets drinks with Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and helps her come to terms with the loss of her arm. There are mentions of Midland Circle and Matt Murdock’s “death”. Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is still Luke’s lawyer. Karen Page is the intrepid reporter. The second season connects disparate threads from other series in a way that every Marvel fan wants.
Hell, it proved that with a good script and good direction that Finn Jones can be a really great Danny Rand. We got the Danny Rand we’ve been wanting for freaking years. The show works miracles. The second season is just perfection, even in the beats that could have been cut. Why? Because they are still working toward character arcs and development.
To put it mildly, it doesn’t feel like they’re combining two seasons into thirteen episodes. What they have is something organic, natural. A story that focuses on the quiet moments with just as much intensity as the louder ones. It’s focused with one central problem that spills out to everything else in the show: Mariah Stokes Dillard (Alfre Woodard).
Woodard is a glorious revelation in this season. For real? If she doesn’t score an Emmy nod for this, then please call the bullshit. She turns Mariah in a villain so gloriously over the top, Shakespeare would have to take notes. Even as Mariah attempts to crawl toward legitimacy and respectability, her history, her family, her very name keeps pulling her down to the depths. Mariah desires adoration and adulation from those of Harlem, she wants a legacy to outlast even her own name.
In the end, she gets it just never the one she wanted. It’s hard to know what Mariah wants even as she lays dying. She’s a chameleon: a scorned woman, a victim, a victimizer, a politician. She wears all these masks and hats that it’s hard to know who she even is to herself. Woodard’s performance stands center stage of the season, a third co-lead split between her, Colter, and Missick. It makes sense, considering that everything that will destroy Harlem comes from her past, her actions, her family’s legacy in the form of John McIver/Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir).
Even in her death, her final action giving Luke Cage Harlem’s Paradise is… a temptation. It’s honestly a Machiavellian scheme from beyond to show Luke that they aren’t so different. That, in the end, in the inside, he is just as weak and as susceptible as any person. It’s hard to say where the show will go in season three, but, oh, those final moments as Luke surveys the club from the same spot that Mariah and Cornell Stokes once did… The harkening of The Godfather as Misty watches the door close while Luke conducts business.
It’s chilling because it looks like Mariah’s predictions for Luke are right.
To point to a singular theme, a singular unifying point for the season, is hard to do. The season explores themes such as family, anger, intentions, fame. None of them takes center stage as the main theme, the main question for what’s going in the show. It’s good that the show can have so many complex layers and nuances. It’s grown to match the actors who make one of the best casts on television right now.
Though, if you do press, the answer that I can give for a central theme is poison. While physical poison does play a part with Mariah’s death, Bushmaster’s source of powers, Tilda’s (Gabrielle Dennis) work, it goes deeper than that. Mariah acts as a poison for the community, for those around her, trying to pull them deeper into her web until they end up dead or worse. She even attempts to do it after her death with Luke. She definitely harms Tilda with the revelation that she is a product of rape and incest, poisoning her self-image and pushing her down that darker path. Bushmaster’s use of Nightshade grants him amazing abilities, but also takes its toll on his body and mind. Even power that, however, his own anger at the Stokes family, his desire for revenge, poisons himself.
Then there is Luke, whose frustrations and anger with the system takes him down those darker paths. While he and Misty both hit low points in the series, Misty realizes it and tries to claw her way back to a better path. She almost becomes Scarfe, her former corrupted partner, but finding a headless corpse of the man that you were going to plant evidence against puts things in perspective. The rest of the season, Misty tries to be better even if she is frustrated by the limitations that she has.
Luke, however, is going down a dark path. One that Claire (Rosario Dawson) sees even before the audience really cottons on. It’s hard not to want a man who is a child and wife beater to be given a taste of his own medicine. Claire, however, sees that Luke’s own anger can hurt him just as badly as anything else. There is a sense that in pressure cooker of Harlem, where people expect Luke to protect them, that he will eventually turn down that darker path Mariah predicts for him, that Claire fears for him.
With that in mind season three promises to really ask the question of who Luke Cage truly is. Because when the pressure comes down, you have to ask if a diamond will form or the glass will break.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what that answer will be.