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Quick pace and a mysterious villain make for a thrilling Luke Cage

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and a feat of strength
Photo: David Lee/Netflix (Netflix)
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When it comes to comic book villains, there are two tactics to take when it comes to their backstory. One: to carefully and deliberately lay out every single part of the character’s backstory so the audience can understand each nuance of the villain’s motivations. Then there is the strategy of The Joker in The Dark Knight: present the audience with a character so villainous and outside our norms that no backstory or motivation could justify the senselessness. That acknowledging a backstory would almost hurt the villainy. Luke Cage struggles because it attempts to shroud Bushmaster’s backstory in mystery but it knows it will eventually reveal the entire thing at some point. It feels like a repeat of the clunky introduction of Diamondback in season one. The introduction of Bushmaster last episode is so visceral and shocking that we don’t need anything more. Here is someone with the cruelty to slash and hack people’s eyes out and the ability to withstand gunfire. I’m on board.


Bushmaster is played by the quiet and charismatic Mustafa Shakir and in “Straighten It Out,” we see him stalk around the city and drop hints about his past. He’s more powerful and terrifying the more enigmatic he is. We follow him as he makes moves around the city and end up with him in his bathroom as he performs an Obeah ritual that heals his wounds. Marvel, I have all I need.

Bushmaster visits a Jamaican restaurant named for his mother, claims that Harlem is his birthright, and announces that he doesn’t need bullets to kill Luke Cage. The lack of answers about Bushmaster’s mother or how Harlem is his birthright isn’t alluring. It’s infuriating. The rest of the action on the show seems to be moving incredibly fast and the deliberate sluggishness about Bushmaster’s backstory isn’t satisfying. We don’t earn anything from withholding information.

Meanwhile, the action around Mariah is progressing incredibly fast. A strategist for her re-election campaign suggests that reuniting with her daughter will present the warm, maternal image that will drive up her numbers. She visits her daughter, Tilda, at her holistic medicine store once and Tilda arrives at Paradise ready to give her mother another chance. Maybe Tilda was scared by Bushmaster’s shopping list and that drove her to reunite with her mother. Or the writers are churning through material. Likewise, Luke, Bobby, and Claire are piecing the parts of the puzzle together about Mariah’s co-conspirators and buyers so quickly that Luke is barely able to ask a question before Claire shouts an answer and Luke is off into the night.

Gabrielle Dennis and Mustafa Shakir
Photo: David Lee/Netflix (Netflix)

Arturo Rey III, the linchpin in a deal that will help set Mariah up for life, is arrested by police and released in a span of minutes and shot by Shades not long after. The way the show is cranking through the intrigue around Shades and Mariah, Bushmaster will just need to take a quick nap and his path to the top will have been cleared for him.

Luke is refusing to deal with his trauma relating to his father and to his half-brother and Claire is the only person demanding that dealing with that painful history. When he discovers that his abilities were heightened after the bath at Seagate, she’s the only one reminding him that he’s still human and isn’t seeing him as a paycheck.


This motivation for Claire comes dangerously close to her being defined by her relationship to Luke but when she sits down with James, she reminds us that she’s a nurse and she helps others with special abilities. Claire is a wonderful reminder that you do not have to be a warrior to be a hero in this universe. I said in the previous episode’s Stray Observations that I will gladly accept a powerful monologue from Reg E. Cathey and this episode did not disappoint. His monologues are being used to frame Luke’s journey, whether Luke accepts his presence in his life or not.

Luke doesn’t heed Claire’s warning and when he tracks down Cockroach, he cannot stop himself from brutalizing Cockroach in front of his child and girlfriend. Luke’s journey to this point has been swift but watching Luke believe his own hype at the beginning of the episode with the strength tests leads directly to this moment. Luke believes that he’s a force for good no matter what he does and he’s finding it easier and easier to justify the type of violence he used to shy away from.


We’re being introduced to all the pieces. Every piece is interesting and clever but we still don’t know how it all fits together. At the pace the writers are setting for us, we need to understand soon or it will all feel unwieldy.

Stray Observations:

  • One of my favorite running bits is the outrage of the Jamaican characters when Luke Cage is compared to Usain Bolt.
  • Always great to see Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. It felt like a glorious “Fuck you” to the haters who can stay mad.
  • Todd Bowles also appears at Luke’s Feats of Strength. Bowles is the coach for the NY Jets. This conclude’s Ali’s Sports Corner.
  • I asked my boyfriend who is a musical encyclopedia to confirm if the musical guest this episode was Gary Clark, Jr and he said “I don’t even need to see his face. That’s his hat.”
  • After a little research, it seems the “Which wolf is stronger” story is one of those pieces of self-help wisdom that is just vaguely attributed to “Native Americans.”
  • The show has this annoying habit of using “woman” to refer to someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother of their children. It sounds old-fashioned and has a strange air of ownership. It definitely bugs the ear when it’s used. The show has done a lot to modernize its language but this remains.

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About the author

Ali Barthwell

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