I do not likeÂ Luke Cage.
I want to say that upfront, before I review the last two episodes, so that you know what you’re in for. If you’re looking for something positive, this is not the place to look. Aside from the respectability politics (a thread that is hammered hard early on, and then disappears for long stretches before being hammered again), I find that this show doesn’t work on a number of levels.
After the first trailer, I had high hopes. I had come around on Mike Colter as Luke Cage, after being skeptical of his performance inÂ Jessica Jones. I had celebrated essentially every casting decision, and the fact that it would have a nearly all black cast. I wantedÂ Luke CageÂ to be good; hell, I wantedÂ Luke CageÂ to be great. But it just isn’t.
The pacing of this series is weird. Too many episodes are too long; the first seven episodes are all at least 52 minutes, and of the last six, two of them run longer than 62. That is too much TV, and much of it is just padding and slow, slow, slow pacing.
Luke CageÂ is such a slow, slow, slowly paced show, but also oddly fast in some ways. The stories took so long to unfold, and yet the characters and their relationships were compressed into small timeframes. For example: the characterÂ of Shades is called such because he wears sunglasses. In the eleventh episode, those are stomped and broken by Claire. It’s supposed to be this triumphant moment; Claire has destroyed something vital to Shades’ persona.
But the sunglasses are never brought up! We see them wear them indoors; we see him take them off at crucial times; but there is no explanation to why he wears them. He doesn’t appear to be that protective of them; he just wears them indoors, like some caricature of a Hollywood douchebag. We get the barest impression of victory when Clare stomps them, but the full effect is lost because we know literally nothing about Shades and the glasses.
We also never know how Shades and Diamondback came to be a part of the same team. They just are, and that’s it. We also never see how Shades and Cottonmouth became part of the same team; they “used to run together”, and that was about it. We never see them share a personal moment, or enjoy a flashback; they just are old pals, and that’s it.
Even more egregious: Mariah and Shades, all of the sudden, have a personal connection. This besides the fact they appear to not know each other, or at least interact in a way that suggests that they do; then, he’s coming into her house, and telling her to step up, and she just… takes his advice? Who the f**kÂ is he to her? Why won’t anyone tell me what’s going on???
There is so much more, but I’ll save it for my actual review of the last two episodes, because buddy, let me tell you: they are a microcosm of the problems of this series as a whole.
* * *
The twelfth episode ofÂ Luke CageÂ starts poorly.
Misty tells CageÂ that he should break out of the thing, but does it in a coded way so that the literally twelve cops standing around them won’t know. I got the impression that she told him that he should break out at the precinct, but I must be mistaken, because he busts out on some random road. Then, the driver somehow finds him; buT GUESS WHAT: THE DRIVER IS A FRIEND FROM THE BARBERSHOP, WHO WE HAVE NEVER SEEN (and if we have, haven’t seen since) BUT HE’S ROOTING FOR CAGEÂ AND HE LETS CAGEÂ GO.
Why was this cop not introduced in the first episode (or if he is, why not bring him back to remind the audience)? Why are we just dropped into a relationship that has no emotional resonance? Some of these episodes were over sixty minutes long (this one included), and yet we couldn’t find enough time in the pool of molassic stuffÂ to forge a connection between this cop, and Cage?
It’s the same problem with the sunglasses, but turned up to 11; we’re told about a relationship, instead of being shown it. We’re supposed to know what’s going on, instead of being shown what’s going on.
Deeper into the episode, we come across Turk working for Willis. Turk, who we’ve seen like four times, and has functioned wholly as a plot device. That’s it. He was there to make sure Tone shot up the barbershop, and he was there so that Luke would know where to go to find the warehouse. Then, he disappears from the narrative.
Another pointless thing: Domingo (who never goes to war with Cottonmouth, even though his declaration of war is played as a this deep, booming shot across the bow), is carried out of the warehouse before it explodes by Cage. Not because CageÂ cares, or wants to show us that he cares, but because they need him to deliver more exposition. Exposition that they could’ve done in the warehouse, and then had Domingo die. Why waste that extra fifteen seconds? It makes no sense to me. The only thing is that they needed Domingo so that they could measure the fist marks on him, to tie him to Stryker and the rest of the deaths. That is also dumb.
The one interesting scene in this entire episode was when CageÂ comes across Method Man, and gives him his sweater. It was offbeat, off script, and super duper interesting. Method Man, so comfortable in his own skin and so comfortable in that world, immediately makes the show better. He’s on screen for like ten minutes total, and his natural charisma makes the show enjoyable, briefly. But then we’re treated to some weird stuff about the bullet holes in the jacket; what timeline are we in, exactly? Suddenly, Harlem is full of dudes wearing the jacket; this happened all in a few hours? Really?
One last complaint: Misty, who is on Cage’s side, comes into the barbershop while Cage is parlaying with Mariah and Shades. Immediately, she draws her gun, as if this is simple cops-and-robbers; what show is she on, exactly, because it isn’tÂ Luke Cage. Suddenly, she’s early episode Misty again; all gung-ho and focused on pure justice, instead of the person who has become much more gray and nuanced (not that gray and nuanced, though; don’t get it twisted).
Then, we’re treated to the fight between Cage and Stryker, which cuts to black. This episode ends at 62 minutes, and about five minutes of it was worth watching.
* * *
We’re almost home, people; just hang on.
In the thirteenth episode of— ah, the hell with it. Here are my thoughts:
Suddenly, we’re dropped into a flashback with Stryker and Cage; we see them as close friends growing up, and the actors playing the younger selves are fantastic. But, why is this flashback now? We were treated to mostly perfunctory stuff about their relationship, only getting into the meat and potatoes of their parentage later on. But that stuff doesn’t matter; the father stuff doesn’t really matter. What matters is why Stryker hates Cage, and while we’re told it’s because Preacher Lucas loved Cage more, that’s not an answer.
When we see them last, we’re treated to a loving scene between two brothers who fight but ultimately care about one another. There is no hint of a rift that would tear them apart like this. There is no hint of any impending danger. I mean, sure, Cage hurts Stryker’s feelings by saying he isn’t a Lucas, but damn: that’s not enough to drive a man to frame you for murder multiple times and try to destroy everything you loved. I wanted to see more of how Young Willis became Stryker, and instead we get vague generalities.
During the fight, at the very end, Claire tells Cage to “remember who you are”. It makes no sense in the context of the fight; it has no thematic reference. Cage hasn’t forgotten who he is; that’s not the journey he’s on. He’s not on any journey, because he’s a f**kingÂ invincible superhero. He has committed no crimes, or atrocities; he’s had trauma, but it doesn’t seem to have shaken the confidence deep down inside. He doesn’t run when Misty tells him to leave Harlem (and God, she tells him at least seventy times an episode); what is supposed to remember?
While I’m on the Claire thing: their romance lacks chemistry to the extreme. Mike Colter is a solid actor, who excels at being man trying to control his power, but Rosario Dawson is on a different level. She plays at least four different versions of that character, and is believable as all of them. They write her different so often, and she manages to thread all of those characters into a coherent whole. I don’t like their romance, one bit.
Also, nobody eats Chinese out of the box with chopsticks. Get out of my face.
* * *
Luke CageÂ feels like a show that has no thematic core, or at least not one that stays steady. A lot of the plot just meanders around, taking years and years off my life to unfold, and then moves on. Cottonmouth dies in, like, the seventh episode, and all of the stuff going on with him just drops. You can never really tell what the show is trying to tell you, aside from the black community being fatherless (statistically untrue), or that cursing is somehow a problem (a weird theme that disappears after a while). It’s never clear how we’re supposed to view the police, either. Cage gives this speech about how sometimes a badge and a gun is not enough, but also because Misty didn’t trust the system Candace got killed, but also that cops beat up kids. It was a lot of interesting material, crammed along other interesting material, and it had no space to breathe.
I think that’s enough from me onÂ Luke Cage. I think it was a misstep, though others don’t seem to feel that way. It played around in interesting sandboxes, and actually found a way to avoid theÂ Jessica JonesÂ problem of letting one storyline play out for too long. But it compensated by compressing the interesting stuff for the boring stuff, making it more full at the expense of more rich.
Luke does his thing, taking on Stryker and the rest of his enemies, in the last two episodes of the first season of Luke Cage.