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Luke Cage – DWYCK (Review)

DWYCK opens with a long take, staring at Misty Knight.

As brought to life by Simone Missick, Misty Knight is another example of just how carefully and how effectively Luke Cage draws its characters. Missick has earned a lot of praise for her work in the role, with many fans and commentators even calling for a solo vehicle built around the detective. Knight is a fascinating and well-drawn character. She has been so since her first appearance in the show, flirting with Luke Cage over the bar in Moment of Truth. However, the show has given the character more to play with as it progresses.

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In fact, the second half of the show represents something of a pivot towards the female members of the ensemble. Following the death of Cornell in Manifest and the arrival of Stryker in Blowin’ Up the Spot, the series has taken a renewed interest in its female characters. Indeed, the last six episodes of the season take a create deal of pleasure in throwing actors like Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard and Karen Pittman into scenes together. Indeed, with the conflict between Luke and Stryker feeling rather generic, these scenes are where the spark lies.

DWYCK does an excellent job setting the tone for the second half of the season.

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In some ways, this feels very much like padding, Luke Cage slowing down because the production team recognises that there is only so much story left to be told and still five whole episodes ahead. After all, Blowin’ Up the Spot had hardly made a convincing case for Willis Stryker as a deep and nuanced antagonist who could singlehandedly hold the audience’s attention for the remainder of the season. Indeed, DWYCK makes a point to shunt the show’s title character out of Harlem and off to Georgia, cutting him off from the main story.

This is justified by the fact that there is really very little that Luke Cage can do with Luke Cage and Willis Stryker that doesn’t involve them trying to kill one another. Both have said everything that needs to be said by the end of Blowin’ Up the Spot. The audience knows everything that it needs to know about Stryker, and the rules of engagement have been established. Luke and Stryker cannot dance around one another like Luke and Cornell, and so any time they come in contact they have to fight. So the series needs to spin its wheels to keep things moving.

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In practical terms, this explains the decision to have Luke and Claire take a road trip to meet Burstein. After all, Step in the Arena was the perfect one-episode origin story for the title character, and there is precious little that the show needs to add to that back story. As fun as it is to discover that Luke’s skin is made of seashell, it is not so interesting that it merits removing Luke from the plot for an extended period of time. Harlem has always been a major part of Luke Cage, and so taking the title character out of that environment for an extended period feels like stalling.

To be fair, Luke has never been a particularly proactive hero. Part of this is down to the fact that Luke Cage pitches itself as a very traditional superhero story and that superheroes are by their nature reactive rather than proactive. Part of that is down to the fact that the title character’s invulnerability means that there’s very little drama to be mined from the question of whether he can beat the bad guys, meaning that the scripting has to delay that confrontation for as long as possible.

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However, even allowing for all that, Luke Cage is a hero who generally takes his time and often feels like a passenger in his own narrative. Indeed, Luke’s biggest contribution to the plot that unfolds across the first half of the season consist of raiding “Fort Knox” in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? and sheltering Scarfe in Suckas Need Bodyguards. While the former was obviously a big deal, Luke Cage was only ever one of myriad threats facing Cornell, from the looming threat of Domingo’s gang war to the looming spectre of Stryker.

Luke’s status as a reluctant and largely passive hero fit well with his power set, seen as unbreakable skin is an inherently defensive power that renders him an implacable man or an immovable object. However, it can also be frustrating in the sense that Luke Cage has trouble structuring its plot to play across thirteen episodes. This was in some ways quite clear in the first half of the season, with Luke essentially completing his character arc in Just to Get a Rep only for Suckas Need Bodyguards and Manifest to feel like extended epilogues. However, it is particularly clear here.

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However, this willingness to push Luke to the fringe of his own narrative does allow room to flesh out the supporting cast. And a huge part of that is fleshing out the female cast members. In the first half of the season, it appeared that Luke Cage might be limiting its exploration of African American culture to masculine black identity. After all, father hood is very much a recurring theme of the season while motherhood is much less so. Claire Temple does not arrive in Harlem until Just to Get a Rep. Inspector Priscilla Ridley does not show up until Manifest.

Beginning with Manifest, the show takes a much more active interest in its female character. In fact, it is easy to mark the point of transition. It is the climax of Cornell’s extended flashback. For most of the flashback, the audience had been invited to view Uncle Pete through the eyes of Cornell Stokes, as the one person in the household who encouraged the young man’s gift. Whereas Mama Mable is happy to have Cornell grow up as a gangster, Uncle Pete suggests studying at Juliard and even takes him to an audition. Uncle Pete seems a pretty decent guy, at least from Cornell’s perspective.

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In the final sequences of the flashback, another side of Uncle Pete emerges. When Mama Mable discovers that Uncle Pete has been dealing drugs against her wishes, she decides that she has to kill him. She forces Cornell to carry out the execution, but not before Uncle Pete’s true colours come out. He rants angrily at Mama Mable about how he was passed over, insisting that he had some claim of ownership over her. More than that, the next scene reveals that Uncle Pete had been quietly abusing Mariah for quite some time behind closed doors. It is a startling twist.

It is a twist that works for multiple reasons, the most obvious being that it completely recontextualises the story that Manifest is trying to tell, demonstrating that Mariah’s perception of (and interactions with) Uncle Pete were markedly different from Cornell’s. More than that, Cornell’s version of events discounts Mariah’s experience, as does his dismissal of the abuse she suffered. His insistence that she “wanted” it very much conveys the sense in which the trauma suffered female victims can be belittled or downplayed.

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The sequence ends with Mariah pushing Cornell through his office window and beating him to death with a microphone stand. It is the moment that suggests Mariah is the season’s true antagonist, the thread that will tie together both halves of the season. As such, it is somewhat disappointing that Mariah is upstaged by Stryker in the second half of the season. Nevertheless, it is Mariah who ends up standing at the top of the heap as the dust settles, with the closing montage finding Mariah finally laying claim to Cornell’s office.

With Cornell dead, Luke out of action, and Stryker effectively a living cartoon, the second half of the season makes a lot of room for its female character. DWYCK is probably the best example of this, devoting entire subplots to Misty Knight working through her response to the events of the season or to Mariah desperately resisting the pull exerted by her cousin’s business. Even within the plot thread focusing on Luke, the character is largely incapacitated so that Claire is forced to speak for him and protect him.

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It is refreshing that Luke Cage places such emphasis on its female characters. While Jessica Jones was Marvel’s most staunchly feminist works, Daredevil was generally quite ambivalent about its female characters. Given the initial episodes of Luke Cage, it might have been reasonable to assume the same of this series. However, while planning the show, Cheo Coker felt it important that the female characters be afforded their own agency and dynamism:

I don’t see female characters as different or inferior to male characters. When you have actresses of this caliber you want to build a world that feels real. In reality, black women, women of color are powerful, bold, dynamic, and self-assured, so there’s no reason their TV counterparts shouldn’t be as such.

Black women have historically been underrepresented in popular entertainment like film and television. Shonda Rhimes has earned a lot of (deserved) credit for placing black women front and centre of her television shows, Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, Olivia Pope on Scandal and Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder. However, the fact that Rhimes can be singled out demonstrates how sparse the field was beforehand.

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Historically, black women have been reduced to a cultural stereotype in mainstream popular media. As Jubba Seyyid, senior director of programming of TV One, argues:

“What America is primarily getting are the ‘ratchet’ images of black women, where black women are depicted as being angry and b!tchy and fighting,” Seyyid says. “We make a concerted effort to make sure that we give a full scale of the black woman human experience. What that means is, yes, sometimes black women can be bitchy. Black women can be angry. Black women can be dismissive. But, you know, what? So can white women.”

“And,” he adds, “white women are depicted that way on television, too. The difference is that they’re also given balance. … She’s also a mom and she’s sweet. She’s also sexy, she’s also sophisticated. So, what America gets to see is a balanced woman, and that is the real human experience.”

Ironically, black audiences consumer more media than their counterparts. After all, it is rumoured that Luke Cage caused a two-hour server crash for Netflix on the weekend of the release. And yet this audience is under-served.

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Luke Cage benefits hugely from its expansive ensemble. It is impossible to distill cultural experiences down to monolithic stories. It is impossible to reduce the African American experience to a single narrative, which might explain some of the criticisms around the politics of Luke Cage. Similarly, it would be impossible to explore black womanhood through a single perspective. It is to the credit of Luke Cage that it has a diverse enough cast that it can explore multiple perspectives without any single character being forced to take the role of standard bearer.

This is important, because it allows the show to depict nuanced and flawed individuals without feeling like it is making blanket generalisations or crass oversimplifications. Misty can be strong and flawed at the same time, without having those flaws feel dismissive or reductive. Mariah can touch on some stereotypes while subverting others, without feeling like she has to represent an entire gender or race. Claire can be her own character, without carrying the burden of being the most significant woman of colour in the cast, like she was in Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

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In many ways, this is the real appeal of diversity, the freedom to treat characters as unique characters without having to treat them as thesis statements on a particular perspective or way of life. While Luke Cage makes it very clear that there are universal aspects of the black experience that can be be applied to a stock superhero story to create something fresh and exciting in its own right, the fact that the show has a cast so large and so diverse means that they are all afforded room to breath without being forced to stand as a monolith representing an entire group.

Misty Knight is a great example. She is an insightful and hyper-competent police officer. As the the counselor advises her, she could easily have landed a job uptown or even gone federal. However, Misty made a point to remain in Harlem. “I know this place,” she reflects. “I know the players. I can make a difference here.” In many ways, Luke Cage presents Misty as an idealised form of law enforcement, a police presence very much integrated into the community rather than detached from it.

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As her interactions with Scarfe demonstrate early in the season, Misty has an understanding of the neighbourhood that most of her fellow officers lack. Misty is able to recognise Danta Chapman immediately in Moment of Truth, and she knows his mother. Misty is able to negotiate with local kids for information on the basket ball court in Code of the Streets. More than that, Misty respects the community. Scarfe is completely oblivious to the importance of the barbership, while Misty understands exactly what it means.

At the same time, Luke Cage makes it clear Misty is far from perfect. Indeed, her empathy seems at once to be her most important strength and her most dangerous weakness. The same empathy that Misty feels for the victims of violent crime, and which she extends to the community, has a tendency to blind her to the reality of the situation. She spends the first half of the season doggedly pursuing Luke Cage because she is unable to step back and look at the facts. She is completely oblivious to the threat that Scarfe poses because she is too close.

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These flaws are not used to diminish her. Instead, they enrich her. They make Misty feel like a real human being. Most notably, Luke Cage refuses to shame Misty for her one night stand with Luke in Moment of Truth, refusing to allow it to define her. It is presented as something that happened, an event that complicates the dynamic between Misty and Luke. However, it is never anything of which Misty should be ashamed. Nor is it used to suggest that Misty and Luke are in love with one another. Luke ends up with Claire, and Misty never seems too bothered.

This is important, because pop culture tends to employ a double standard when it comes to judging male and female characters. (Part of what was so interesting about Jessica Jones was the way that it focused on a female character with many of the attributes normally associated with a male antihero.) Luke Cage is consciously aware of the fact that Misty exists within a world where she is subject to more intense scrutiny than many of her fellow officers, acknowledging that any missteps or errors of judgment on her part are liable to be blown out of proportion.

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Misty tackles this idea head-on when the officer sitting across from her suggests that she lost emotional control. “You wouldn’t say that if I was a man,” she insists. “Male cops can screw cop groups in the back of their unmarked or their RMP, and you guys cheer. They can get drunk and fight in the parking lot, and it’s called ‘blowing off steam’. There is always a double-standard.” Misty is entirely correct, but she doesn’t deny the accusation. Misty did lose emotional control, just like her male colleagues do on a regular basis. The only difference is that she is punished for it.

Indeed, one of the luxuries of the extra space and relaxed pacing afforded to Luke Cage is the freedom to allow characters to unpack experiences and to process what has happened without immediately bounding on to the next plot point. In Blowin’ Up the Spot, Misty was disarmed by Stryker and held at gunpoint. He had her dead to rights, only sparing her because of some weird super villain logic that her death should have the maximum impact upon Luke; some sort of creepy hyper-optimised fridging process.

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Within Blowin’ Up the Spot, that felt like a highly questionable storytelling decision. After all, Misty is a trained and competent professional. While it is suggested that Stryker might have some military or combat experience, the entire sequence reduces Misty to nothing more than a pawn in the psychological (and physical) warfare between Luke and Stryker. It was a moment that diminished and undercut her agency as a character in a way that felt clumsy and ill-judged. However, the late season lull in plotting affords space to let Misty acknowledge that.

In fact, DWYCK deals with that sequence quite directing, allowing Misty the opportunity to acknowledge what happened and to admit that she was robbed of her sense of authority by Stryker. The sequence in Blowin’ Up the Spot still feels contrived and forced, but the time spent with Misty in DWYCK is clever enough to harness that into a character beat. It still seems a little strange that Misty should be rendered so helpless, but at least the show acknowledges the event from her perspective. It is a great example of the show’s approach to characterisation.

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Simone Missick is fantastic as Misty. She brings an interesting combination of strength and vulnerability to the character, to somebody who clearly feels a great deal of empathy for her fellow man but who has also been frayed by the events of the past few days. There are some charming moments with Missick during the pseudo-interrogation, from the little moment where Misty begins to empathise with him over the closure of Copeland’s before hardening through to her candid acknowledgement of her own helplessness.

Missick is ably matched by Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard. Mariah has a very fractured arc over the course of the thirteen episodes, to the point that it feels like the character is being positioned so that her arc can properly begin at the end of You Know My Steez. No character suffers quite as poorly from Stryker’s arrival as Mariah, who seemed primed to become the season’s “big bad” following her murder of Cornell in Manifest. Instead, Stryker steals focus and Mariah’s arc is secondary to that. She is ascending rather than ascendant.

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Nevertheless, Woodard helps to ensure that Mariah is always the most fascinating character in the frame. Although very much crowded out by other antagonists, Woodard appreciates the opportunity to play an upper-class senator who is effectively breaking bad. As with Misty, Mariah is a complex and multi-faceted character. She is strong and resourceful, clever and determined. She seems to genuinely believe that she is doing something worthwhile in trying to protect Harlem, to “fortify it against the real invaders” as she puts it in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?

Woodard does an excellent job communicating the character’s resiliance and strength, while also making it credible that the characters around her could be oblivious to it. In Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, Cornell dismissed her as “the laundromat for the money.” In Manifest, Cornell saw fit to openly mock the abuse she suffered at the hands of Uncle Pete. Even Stryker seems to underestimate Mariah, as much as he senses opportunity in DWYCK. Stryker seems to see Mariah as a pawn or a tool that he might exploit.

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The only character who seems to appreciate Mariah’s steel resolve is Shades. Even then, the show openly suggests that Shades’ trust in Mariah is rooted in a combination of opportunism and desperation. When Mariah killed Cornell in Manifest, she spared Shades the trouble. When Shades conspires with Mariah against Stryker in Soliloquy of Chaos, he is driven primary by self-preservation. There are suggestions that Shades can see what Mariah is capable of, but the show leaves it reasonably ambiguous as to precisely when he fully gets to grips with it.

It helps that Mariah remains a relatively complex character. Even after murdering Cornell, she still deeply cares for him. The sequence between the two in the morgue is surprisingly candid and touching. Mariah stops short of apologising for what she has done, but she clearly loves her cousin. “I wasn’t ready to be nobody’s mama, but I did try to protect you,” Mariah acknowledges. Obviously, she did not do the best job. “I tried to protect you from yourself.” The audience is left to determine how true that might be, but she obviously wants it to be true.

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Her murder of Cornell obviously represents a crossing of the Rubicon, but DWYCK suggests that Mariah is not openly embracing the siren call of supervillainy. There is a sense that mariah still believes in her own righteousness, but also that she can keep her hands clean. After all, that is how Moment of Truth chose to introduce her, washing her hands with hand sanitiser. However, while Luke Cage understands that Mariah’s hands cannot possibly stay clean, the character is still in denial.

The character has always been in denial. Mariah took pride in representing a legitimate side of Harlem, while sitting in an officer right next to seven million dollars of drug and gun money. Even after Cornell’s death, Mariah clings to the illusion of respectability and integrity. Indeed, Mariah’s plot thread in DWYCK follows her efforts to clean her hands of Cornell’s operation by trying to pass it off to other criminal elements. Mariah still believes that she can walk away from this clean, if she applies enough sanitiser.

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Mariah is not willing to abandon everything that Cornell’s operation affords her. “The thing my cousin built needs to continue,” she tells Domingo. Domingo follows up with the logical question. “And you’re going to run it?” It would be very easy to rush Mariah’s transition by having her embrace that possibility. Instead, she is quite clear. “No,” she responds. “I need everybody to come to the table so I can discuss a transition. Maybe a buy out.” She clarifies, as much to convince herself as to convince Domingo, “Cornell was what he was. I am something different.”

There is something quite nice in this arc. Cornell Stokes died because he refused to walk away. Characters spent significant portions of Just to Get a Rep, Suckas Need Bodyguards and Manifest trying to convince him that he could not continue down this path. As one of the people to advise Cornell to throw it in, Mariah seems to have taken that idea to heart. When Mariah proposes the buy out to the assembled criminals, Jacques has seen enough gangster movies to realise how improbable this set-up is. “And you walk away?” he asks. She responds, “And I walk away.”

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If Cornell’s tragedy lay in his refusal to walk away, then Mariah’s tragedy becomes her inability to walk away. Mariah does not want to be a part of this world, but the choices that she has made and various external factors conspire to ensure that she is unable to escape by the time that You Know My Steez draws the shutters down on the television season. Indeed, Mariah may even be better suited to this life than Cornell was. Her attempt to turn the public agains Luke in Take it Personal is more effective than Cornell’s efforts to do the same in Just to Get a Rep.

As such, Luke Cage has some phenomenal female characters. In fact, Luke Cage makes much better use of Claire Temple than either Daredevil or Jessica Jones. The show delves into Claire’s history, introducing her mother and her Harlem roots in Just to Get a Rep. In fact, Luke Cage even seems to push the character a lot further on her inevitable journey towards becoming Night Nurse, another example of Luke Cage proving its superhero bona fides. This is to say nothing of her protection of Luke in DWYCK and Take it Personal.

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However, there are complications. Luke Cage is quite simply not as effectively feminist as Jessica Jones, making a number of questionable choices. It could be argued that there are points where the show’s feminism and its exploration of black culture come into conflict, what some commentators might term “misogynoir”:

“Misogynoir provides a racialised nuance that mainstream feminism wasn’t catching,” says black feminist commentator, Feminista Jones. “We are talking about misogyny, yes, but there is a specific misogyny that is aimed at black women and is uniquely detrimental to black women.”

She says it is both about racial and gender hatred and can be perpetuated by non-black people and by black men – it is the latter, Jones says, she experienced the most often. “In my campaigning on street harassment, I have been targeted because I am a black woman who is vocal. They don’t go to anybody from Hollaback or Stop Street Harassment [campaigns run by white women] … they will say I’m a traitor and call me a tool for white supremacy … just because I’m calling out their very targeted misogynoir.”

This is perhaps most obvious in the way that Luke Cage treats Mike Tyson as an unequivocal hero to the community. “Mike Tyson is a real nice guy, man,” Dapper Dan explains in Just to Get a Rep after Luke asks about after the boxer. Similarly, in Take it Personal, Misty assures Domingo, “Mike is great.” It feels somewhat tonedeaf.

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This is particularly true in Misty’s case. Misty has a big speech in DWYCK about how she never forgets anything, how she always remembers every detail and every victim. She mentions in the context of going on a date with a man who turned out to be a wanted fugitive. Misty recognised him as such, and arrested him. As such, it feels strange that Misty would be so affectionate towards a high-profile rapist and accused wife-beater. It would be one thing were it a single reference, but Luke Cage is very much fascinated with the champion boxer.

There are other awkward moments as well. Luke is generally quite “corny”, and the way that he behaves towards women is generally quite cute. “The first time he spoke to me, even in a low cut dress, he looked in my eyes and not at my breasts,” Misty admits in DWYCK. However, Luke repeatedly uses coffee as a metaphor for sex. It is quite cheesy of itself, and maybe a little bit sleazy. However, there is something rather crass in the way that the (mostly wholesome) hero hits on Claire with extremely sleazy lines like, “I hear that Cuban coffee is particularly robust.”

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There is also the simple fact that Luke Cage does not devote the same level of energy and attention to its female characters that Jessica Jones did, which is grand. There is only so much storytelling space, and the writers understandably have to prioritise certain themes and ideas. At the same time, while the handling of Mariah’s childhood trauma hits on a number of big ideas, it also skirts up against some of the unfortunate (and stock) tropes about how survivors of sexual trauma are damaged or broken.

The show never explicitly connects Mariah’s childhood abuse to her villainy, but it does make a number of nods. Most obviously, her brutal murder of Cornell is triggered by the show’s first direct reference to that trauma. More than that, the character’s detachment and distance could easily be construed as a defense mechanism generated in response to that abuse. This is not a particularly nuanced exploration of trauma, occasionally feeling like a glib use of rape as a back story element.

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Still, Luke Cage is very clearly invested in its female characters and in using them to tell its story. Taking the emphasis off Luke and Stryker affords the show the opportunity to do that, and the result is perhaps the most successful of the show’s “diversionary” hours.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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