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Luke Cage shines a spotlight on its female characters

Season 1, Episode 9

Photo: Luke Cage/Netflix
Photo: Luke Cage/Netflix

Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Luke Cage binge-watch. From Friday, September 30 through Sunday, October 2, A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede will be watching and reviewing every episode of the Marvel series’ first season.You can follow along and comment on the whole season on the binge-watching hub page or chime in on the individual episode reviews. For those watching at a more moderate pace, reviews by Ali Barthwell will run every other day beginning Monday, October 3.

The internet has done a pretty solid job of pointing out the need for more female characters in live action superhero properties (not that studios seem to be listening). But what too often gets left out of the conversation is how much more dire the lack of representation is for women of color than it is for white women. After all, even if they aren’t starring as heroes themselves, white women are at least still present in superhero adaptations as love interests, comic relief, and supporting characters. Women of color aren’t even allowed that.

Just look at the Marvel movies. Zoe Saldana remains the only woman of color in a prominent role in any of the 13 current MCU films (the upcoming Black Panther, thankfully, is about to change that). Things are a little bit better on the TV side of the Marvel universe (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has two Asian-American female leads), but Jessica Jones and Agent Carter—the two shows most lauded for their feminism—feature virtually no women of color. And as I wrote in my Jessica Jones binge-reviews, that’s just embarrassing.

I give all that context because I want to emphasize what a huge deal it is that this episode of Luke Cage centers on not one, not two, but three complex, well-developed women of color. It would’ve been easy for Luke Cage to focus solely on the black male perspective and leave out the experiences of black women. But “DWYCK” proves that Luke Cage its far more thoughtful about its feminism than Jessica Jones ever was about its racial politics.

Mariah, Misty, and Claire take center stage in this episode. For Claire that means doing what she does best: Being the world’s most badass nurse. But for Mariah and Misty, it means stepping out of their comfort zones.

Get you a woman who can...

Shades informs Mariah that it’s now her responsibility to be the face of the Stokes crime syndicate. And though it’s not a role Mariah is at all comfortable with, she puts her honed political skills to work as she calls a meeting of Cottonmouth’s most loyal customers. Her initial plan is to sell off her cousin’s business and move back into legitimate politics via an anti-Luke Cage platform. But when Diamondback arrives to throw a particularly bloody wrench into the works, she improvises like a pro. She sells him on a new idea that could revolutionize his business model: Give up the illegal gun trade and start selling weapons to the police that are strong enough to take down superhuman vigilantes. “I like the way she thinks,” Diamondback purrs to Shades.

...do both.

While Mariah gets comfortable in the criminal world, Misty is facing a very different kind of challenge: Herself. After harassing Claire in the last episode, Misty is forced (well, technically she volunteers) to talk through her issues with a psychologist. While she’s used to kicking ass and taking names in the street, it turns out Misty is far less comfortable tackling her own demons.

The Misty arc is by far my favorite part of this episode and I’m really looking forward to reading Ali Barthwell unpack it in her longer reviews because there’s just so much to cover. For one thing, Misty directly grapples with how easily she let Diamondback kidnap her, which is something I’m very glad to see addressed. We also learn that the brutal murder of her cousin inspired Misty to go into law enforcement in the first place. Plus she calls out the sexist double standards she faces on the force, and slowly begins to realize that she really does have issues when it comes to control. The whole arc reminded me of the fantastic West Wing episode, “Noel.” And Simone Missick delivers a stunning performance as Misty first rages against and then learns to appreciate her therapy session.

“How’d you cut your hand?”

In a media landscape where black female characters are often depicted as two-dimensional supporting characters or stoic badasses, it’s refreshing to see that both Misty and Mariah are allowed to have real emotional vulnerability in addition to all their strength. Alfre Woodard is heartbreaking in the scene in which she speaks to Cottonmouth’s dead body. And admitting she isn’t infallible is the way Misty eventually finds her confidence again.

Claire’s plot is a little less revelatory, but she does get to show off both her medical knowledge and her general life competency as she gets Luke to Dr. Noah Burstein, the man who created him. And because this is a superhero show, there’s also a scene in which they deep fry Luke like a turkey in a vat of acid. Plus they stick a needle down his throat because apparently one horrific Luke Cage-related needle incident wasn’t enough. And through it all Claire remains both unflappable and empathetic.

“Yep, this is my totally normal nurse’s uniform.”

Perhaps the most important thing about representation is that it can’t all come in the form of one character. Had Misty, Mariah, or Claire been the sole woman of color in this series, they would’ve buckled under the pressure of representing the entire black/Latina experience. But since no one character bears the sole burden of representation on Luke Cage (when it comes to either race or gender), they’re each allowed to have an individual humanity that’s so often taken for granted with white characters.

Now let’s push on and see if Luke is really dead this time, shall we? (He’s not.)

Grade: B+

Standout moment: This episode features scenes shot from the perspective of a police dash cam in which a bulletproof black man takes a round of gunfire in the back to protect a white police office. Luke Cage is nothing if not radical in its imagery.

Black Lives Matter

Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: Officially reaching the point where I’m too sleep deprived to catch these. Let me know what I missed!

Burning question: This isn’t a question, but Luke Cage’s skin is made from seashells and this is quite literally the most perfect thing I’ve ever heard. Protect the giant precious seashell at all cost.

Here’s a fist bump until tomorrow, dear readers.