Review – Luke Cage: Season Two by Jerry Whitworth
Last week, Netflix released the second season for Luke Cage, the third entry in the streaming service’s Defenders series that includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and The Punisher. Following the events of last season where Cage (Mike Colter) was drawn into conflict with Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin “Black” Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) only to be hunted by his crazed half-brother Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), the eponymous series’ hero must combat John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) who seeks revenge against Mariah for the crimes of her kin. The first season of the show was critically acclaimed for its exploration of challenging topics of race in America, an integrated soundtrack making the piece something of a visual album, and the remarkable performances of its cast (in particular, its actresses). Lets see if the second season matches up. Fair warning: there will be SPOILERS.
Before going into the specifics of what did and didn’t work with this season, the origins of two of its new characters must be explored. In Luke Cage, John McIver is a Jamaican-born assassin working for the Yardies/Stylers whose family was destroyed by “Mama” Mabel Stokes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). McIver’s mother tried to sue Mabel due to Mabel’s deceased husband Buggy’s theft of the Bushmaster rum recipe, a McIver family recipe shared with Buggy by McIver’s father. When McIver’s mother produced evidence of a written agreement to share the rum’s profits as well as their nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, Mabel murdered her and nearly killed John. Some years later, Mabel’s brother-in-law Pistol Pete (Curtiss Cook) tried to assassinate McIver only for John’s life to be saved by a rare form of nightshade that not only healed his body, but provided him superhuman attributes. Armed with this nightshade and its remarkable properties, McIver spent years working as an assassin until such time the Stokes family (of which Mariah and her daughter were the last) were in a position that the now dubbed Bushmaster could exact his vengeance upon them. In the comics, Bushmaster was a crime boss for the Maggia who fought the Heroes for Hire and was treated to the same experiment that created Luke Cage’s impressive array of powers. Noted earlier, Mariah Dillard’s estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) joined the series.
The product of Mariah’s rape at the hands of her uncle Pistol Pete, Tilda Dillard was raised believing herself to be the daughter of Dr. Jackson Dillard. In truth, Dr. Dillard was secretly a homosexual using Mariah as a shield to protect the secrecy of his sexuality. Raised by a friendly family known to Mama Mabel, Tilda aspired to be a doctor to follow in her father’s footsteps but who was sought by Mariah to be used as a pawn in her bid to gain political power. In truth, while Mariah knew she was suppose to love Tilda, every time the mother looked into her daughter’s face, she instead saw the face of the man who raped her. Eventually, Tilda joined Bushmaster in his quest to get revenge on Mariah. In the comics, Tilda Johnson (a name the character adopted in the season finale) was better known as Nightshade, a scientific genius that fought many heroes and became a nemesis to the Heroes for Hire. Originally, the character was suppose to be introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the accomplice of Erik Killmonger, antagonist for the film Black Panther (2018), but given her limited role in the movie, Luke Cage instead adapted Nightshade for its own purposes. The characters of Bushmaster and Nightshade largely formed the core of the season’s narrative.
While the first season of Luke Cage had its faults story wise, such as Cage supposedly being Marine special forces but needing boxing lessons to fight in prison (although, in the second season, Cage seemingly started to adopt a more covert style of military tactics and more boxing in his fighting style which likely shows the writers paid attention to its criticism) or the relativity of Savannah, GA to New York City as fantastic as Smallville, KS to Metropolis, DE in the television series Smallville, about the furthest logical reach its second season had was Tilda being the only source for McIver’s special nightshade in the city which is quite forgivable for its convenience. The flow of the second season was certainly better as the first season was hurt by the loss of Cottonmouth and sudden introduction of the crazed Diamondback where here Bushmaster was the threat from start to finish (though, Bushmaster’s character arc undoubtedly made him a sympathetic antagonist as when he said he and Cage could’ve been friends in another life, it doesn’t actually come off as cheesy as such a sentiment generally does… albeit the ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ speech desperately needs to be retired if not at least revised). That said, this second season falls prey to the same scourge of each of these Defenders seasons: the dreaded thirteen episode order.
Unquestionably, this season would have benefited from cutting three to four episodes out, as would have virtually all of the Defenders series. An episode that could likely be considered pure filler was number ten, “The Main Ingredient.” Therein, Bushmaster is knocked out of commission for two episodes and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) steps in for a single episode to help Cage without ever actually getting to lay hands on Bushmaster. The comic book fan in me wanted to be happy we received in essence a Heroes for Hire episode, but the reviewer in me (that specifically witnessed the tragedy that was Iron Fist season one and how the character’s portrayal and storyline dragged down The Defenders) couldn’t help but feel this was an intended redemption for his brand for the upcoming second season that is likely to emerge in just a few months. Admittedly, Finn Jones has improved as a martial arts performer and the fight sequences in this season were incredible (more on that later) with episode ten being one of the better action-based episodes. Even the character’s attitude has improved where he comes off as less naive and juvenile but still has a tinge of sanctimony. While on the subject of the Heroes for Hire, we got to see a little bit of the Hoodlums for Hire in action as Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) re-joined the cast as Shades’ (Theo Rossi) right-hand man.
The Hoodlums for Hire’s dynamic was one of the better aspects of the season as Comanche was planted as a spy within Mariah’s organization by the police but is revealed to be gay and in love with Shades. Having been lovers in prison, Comanche consistently demonstrated jealousy in the face of Mariah who was Shades’ current business partner and lover. In episode six, “The Basement,” Comanche and Shades lie in wait of Luke Cage at his base Pop’s Barber Shop where their complicated relationship is given some depth as Comanche tries to convince Shades to runaway with him from the madness they found themselves in (which the audience knows includes Comanche being forced to betray the man he loves most). This storyline is brought to a head the following episode “On and On” where Shades uncovers Comanche’s betrayal and murders him, signaling the beginning of Shades’ unraveling as Mariah’s ally. In much the same way at times Misty Knight (Simone Missick) demonstrated to be something of a series within a series during Luke Cage‘s first season, Bushmaster and the Hoodlums for Hire in many ways stole the show from the series’ protagonist as arguably being more interesting and compelling. Before going further on that point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how enjoyable it was to see the Daughters of the Dragon/Knightwing Restorations sequence in episode three, “Wig Out” demonstrating yet again that Jessica Henwick was the best part of Iron Fist.
In the first half of season two of Luke Cage, there was an interesting dynamic taking shape as Cage begins to be overcome with pride which starts to intermingle with frustration, boiling over into anger, as his father Reverend James Lucas (the late Reg E. Cathey) re-enters his life and his girlfriend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) begins to question his decisions. When Cage violently punches a wall in Temple’s apartment in anger, the nurse makes the decision to reassess their relationship as Cage is forced to confront his father about Stryker and the father telling his falsely imprisoned son that he was responsible for his mother’s cancer that took her life. Sadly, very little was done with these storylines as Temple did not return for the remaining episodes and Cage is forced to reconcile with his father when he becomes a target of Cage’s enemies. Surely, the internal struggle plaguing Cage permeates the remaining episodes, but save the finale where Cage decides to become ‘Harlem’s sheriff’ foreshadowing his likely descent into becoming a crime boss, we were robbed of this journey, seemingly putting it off until next season (provided there is one). This being said, the finale included an intriguing sequence where Cage’s friend and ally D.W. Griffith (Jeremiah Richard Craft) stands up to Cage and essentially kicks him out of Pop’s Barber Shop. Something of the last gasp of reaching the hero before making undoubtedly what will be a mistake moving forward, what was a character largely defined by survival (leaning toward greed) turned into a character moment where someone drew a line when Cage had lost so many necessary voices in his life: his father was gone (perhaps due to the actor’s health), Temple was gone, friend Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) had to leave to save his daughter, Knight had her own issues to deal with as it appeared she was going to be promoted, Danny Rand came and went with no explanation. So, there was Griffith stepping up to tell Cage he was wrong and Cage’s pride refused to heed his advice. While the season two story of Luke Cage was superior to the first season, it was perhaps lacking elements that made the first season so special.
Much of Luke Cage season one was a response to the death of Trayvon Martin. An unarmed black child gunned down on his way home from a convenience store, Martin’s killer George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder on the grounds of self defense following a physical altercation between the two. Martin’s trademark hoodie became a symbol of the struggle of African-Americans in the United States who want to live as equals to those around them but are met often times with irrational fear and institutionalized racism. Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal lead to protests and riots across the country with seemingly countless cases of police brutality. The bulletproof black man in a hoodie hunted by police was a recurring theme in season one of Luke Cage which, to a significantly lesser degree, transferred over into its second season (as did the first season’s approach to gentrification). In the time since the show’s initial season aired, a number of race-based issues have come to the forefront and play out in real time today between those in power, the silent majority (?), and the people whose lives are threatened from fear and apathy. The closest this latest season came to this idea was mentioning Bushmaster’s actions bringing pressure upon the Jamaican community but very little was shown of this. In abandoning this platform of thought provoking commentary and reflection, Luke Cage became more commonly formulaic. Contrarily, Black Panther (2018) tackled modern day troubling issues involving race to become critically acclaimed, award winning, and the ninth highest grossing film of all time. Mentioning Black Panther, Luke Cage poses a question of just how connected the MCU is now and will be moving forward.
When Daredevil premiered, it was stuck squarely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its antagonist came to power due in large part to the recovery of the Chitauri invasion. One of the focal points of Luke Cage was the armament developed from the Chitauri technology, notably the Judas bullet which made a brief appearance in the second season. However, very little of what is going on in the MCU seemed to come into play in the season. No mention of the Sokovia Accords, no mention of Spider-Man, no mention of Adrian Toomes’ arms coming into New York, no mention of the Wakanda community outreach (as Harlem would have to be as iconic an example of this movement as Oakland), and no mention of the far-reaching events of Infinity War (2018). While more recent examples are forgivable given how long it takes to produce a single season of television, Civil War is two years old and for Spider-Man to be Tony Stark’s choice for Avengers membership over Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, the arachnid hero must have been a rather prominent fixture of the city that has been wholly ignored (outside an Italian dub of Iron Fist). Since that time, Spider-Man has only become bigger especially given his battles with the Vulture on the Staten Island Ferry and in the skies of Manhattan. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made mention to Infinity War and they did it in real time (although, it’s likely its writers were unaware of the plot given the lack of consequences to play out in the show). At this point, it comes across that Defenders may very well be in its own little bubble which begs the question why they even bothered to try and integrate with the films in the first place. Mentioned earlier, there is one aspect of this second season which there could be little complaint about.
If the first season of Luke Cage had one noticeable problem, it was that one had to wait until its finale for someone to emerge that could fight Cage toe-to-toe. The second season had no such issue as Bushmaster very quickly arrived to throw down with the series’ hero. Using some combination of capoeira and parkour sprinkled with taekwondo, Bushmaster beautifully fought against many foes including Cage. In fact, at times, it almost felt as though the pair fought each other too much as they seemed to come to blows every few episodes. By their second encounter, however, Cage seemed to have Bushmaster’s number as the villain was forced to resort to underhanded tactics to compete (though, even in their first encounter, Bushmaster relied on a sneak attack to overwhelm his opponent). Misty and Colleen also had the opportunity to show their stuff but kudos are necessary for Iron Fist’s sequences. Joining Cage to take out a drug manufacturing warehouse, the duo masterfully combined their efforts even employing a combination technique. In the series’ twelfth episode “Can’t Front On Me,” even Cage and Bushmaster briefly teamed up to take down a heroin operation which was a remarkably entertaining scene (including Bushmaster “accidentally” almost hitting Cage and Cage preventing Bushmaster from killing anyone). It should also be noted, Luke Cage has been good about preserving its villains. While Cottonmouth died in the first season and Comanche and Black Mariah in the second season, Diamondback survived the first season putting him in the hands of the man who transformed Cage as Shades, Nightshade, and Bushmaster survived the latest season (though the show consistently teased Bushmaster would die from his abuse of nightshade). Of the various Defenders series, it’s Luke Cage that has the best bedrock for a villains team-up down the line (even beyond this, it makes one wonder if an alliance between Kingpin and Shades could be in the future). Even in terms of gangs, this season left intact Rosalie Carbone (Annabella Sciorra) and Anibal Izqueda (Louie Gasparro) to lead their ethnic criminal enterprises moving forward (which, again, poses the question what a returning Kingpin could mean especially for Carbone who seemingly took over the Italian mafia in his absence). Although, the way the finale shaped up, it could very well set the stage for Cage being the antagonist in a possible second season of The Defenders.