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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Luke Cage invokes deep pain but doesn’t fully explore it

Illustration for article titled Luke Cage invokes deep pain but doesn’t fully explore it
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Luke Cage wants to position itself as a series about oppressed people and resistance. The first season utilized the imagery of a Black man in a hoodie riddled with bullet holes to illustrate that. The imagery of a Black man in a hoodie is so potent because of the pain and violence associated with that image, particularly in recent years. Where Luke Cage fumbled the ball in its first season was with its primary antagonists, Mariah and Diamondback, who weren’t related to the powerful political message of the images created by the series.


To put it simply, Mariah and Diamondback aren’t cops or white vigilantes. Mariah and Diamondback aren’t tools of a system that disenfranchises Black people and they aren’t escaping prosecution for enacting violence against Black people because of their societal privilege. The show wants desperately to be political and reactionary, but it misses the mark by not actually going after the systems of power in question. “For Pete’s Sake” is an episode that finally (late in season 2) delves into those tough conversations. Mariah and Tilda get into a discussion about colorism and more importantly, sexual abuse. Bushmaster tells the story of the Maroon people of Jamaica and Nanny, a Maroon woman who engaged in guerrilla warfare against Europeans. In this context Bushmaster is framed as a guerrilla fighter rebelling against the system.

But he’s fighting against Mariah. He’s not fighting against white oppressors or the police system or even gentrification. He’s fighting Mariah. Luke Cage wants to invoke the imagery of escaped slaves fighting in the mountains in Jamaica but the show continues to act as if Mariah or black-on-black crime is a stand-in for Black people’s oppressors. There is a deep rift between African-Americans and other Black people around the world. Luke Cage isn’t interested in using Bushmaster to further those conversations and it seems like a waste, especially in a post-Black Panther world. It also isn’t willing to paint Bushmaster as foolish for seeing himself as the Maroon people. Sure, there’s the whole “his anger is poisoning him” thing but invoking a story like Nanny the Maroon without a satisfying pay-off feels cheap. The show can honor these moments with emotional scenes between the characters, but it doesn’t honor the larger implications of these topics.

The episode goes through the trouble of allowing the scene between Mariah and Tilda regarding Tilda’s birth to develop slowly and the result is pretty breathtaking. Alfre Woodard continues to throw her weight around this season. Mariah explains that her husband was a closeted gay man and Tilda is the product of assault. The scene explains Mariah’s continued rejection of the name “Stokes.” It’s one associated with violence and abuse. It makes Bushmaster calling Mariah “Stokes” an even crueler act. This fraught scene is rendered even more heartbreaking by Tilda rejecting her mother after Mariah’s big monologue.

Tilda condemns Mariah for killing Cornell. This woman rubs herself raw talking about being assaulted by a family member, being denied an abortion by a family member, having her child ripped away, and killing a family member who blamed her for her abuse and Tilda can only respond scathingly with, “You monster.” Again, it feels like the show keeps punishing Mariah when I find myself understanding her more.

Mariah telling her daughter the story of her birth is the last lie that she’s been holding back. After that moment, there’s a wildness in Woodard’s performance. There’s nothing to pretend anymore. All that’s left is Mariah and she’s going to survive because that’s all she knows how to do. Visually, seeing Mariah pick up a gun and run through the facility tells that story well.


Luke and his father also finally heal their relationship after the showdown at Rand’s facility and it’s…fine. James Lucas continues to speak in platitudes and metaphors. Their conversations are just meditations on being a hero. Cathey and Colter are both charismatic actors but they aren’t being served by the material with flowy language about power and energy. There is some real potential to demonstrate emotional vulnerability from Luke and James or have an honest discussion about Black men and their fathers but the show continues to defer to grand pronouncements about responsibility. It also continues to set up the importance of boring-ass Tilda’s herbs and I’m just not interested.

Luke Cage is a show that is capable of emotional and powerful scenes and creating some captivating action. It struggles to marry the political and cultural weight of its subject matter and the acting and directing; a stronger choice could be just to live in this Black world with a Black superhero and let those difficult topics arrive more organically.


Stray Observations:

  • Whoever wrote that “find someone who makes room on the door” metaphor must have been really feeling themselves.
  • This show is positively obsessed with the word “swagger.”
  • Are they hinting at a Mariah-James romance? If so, I. AM. INTO. IT.
  • “It’s been thirty years since I thumped anything other than a Bible.” When they let James get quippy, I love it.
  • Again, no special musical guest.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Ali Barthwell is a wearer of fine lipstick and fine hosiery.