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Luke Cage – Now You’re Mine (Review)

Now You’re Mine represents the action climax of Luke Cage.

It is very much a stock action episode. Stryker has taken a bunch of hostages at Harlem’s Paradise, and is holding them at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the police are massing outside, contemplating whether to breach and believing that Luke Cage is responsible. At the same time, Luke is trapped inside the club with Misty, who was wounded in the shootout. The characters are all locked in a confined space together with lots of automatic weapons, and the inevitable results.

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It is quite thrilling in execution. Luke and Misty are forced to hide in the basement as Stryker stalls the cops. Shades worries that his boss has gone off the deep end, while Claire tries to improvise her way out of the crisis. Meanwhile, Ridley is managing the crisis from the outside in with the assistance of Assistant District Attorney Blake Tower, watching the sort of political manoeuvring that unfolds as the crisis builds towards a massive firefight and a confrontation between all of the major players involved in the show.

The only problem is that there are two more episodes left in the season.

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One of the stock arguments to be made against Marvel’s Netflix series is that they are quite simply too long. The distributor seems to insist upon thirteen episodes in a season, which is very clearly an artifact of the broadcast era. In the old days, thirteen episodes represent half of a production season, the first hurdle that a young show would have to pass before receiving an extension for the remaining episodes of the series. That restriction obviously does not apply to a show distributed on Netflix, because the entire season is produced before a single episode is released.

In fact, Netflix has a number of shows that run on seasons shorter than thirteen episodes. Sense8 only had twelve episodes. Stranger Things was one of the surprise breakout hits of the year, and it only consisted of eight episodes. The second and third seasons of Bloodline run to only ten episodes each. Master of None is a half-hour comedy with only ten episodes in its season. As such, it seems quite reasonable that a blockbuster superhero show on a streaming service could run to under thirteen episodes.

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One of the most common criticisms of Luke Cage is that the show is over-extended, that it does not necessarily have enough story to fill out its runtime. David Sims summarises this argument:

Rather than cramming a hero’s origin story, a villain’s origin story, a romance, and a climactic battle into the formula of a two-hour movie, the longer-form capabilities of television seemed to suit the grand arcs of superhero comics well, building their case issue by issue—or episode by episode. But the ultimate result has been frustrating. After two seasons of Daredevil, one of Jessica Jones, and now one of Luke Cage, the Netflix model feels fundamentally flawed, encouraging the kind of molasses-slow plotting comic books are designed to eschew. The problem isn’t that these shows are bad, necessarily—Luke Cage is certainly one of the most interesting drama offerings of the year. But they all take far too long to get going, by which point many viewers will have already tuned out.

This is relatively fair assessment of the situation. Luke Cage is a series that occasionally feels a little hedged in by its format. It is a television series built to a streaming model, an example of function following form.

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To be entirely fair, there are points at which this approach works well. Most obviously, Luke Cage is not subject to the fickle demands of a television network sending notes on a weekly basis. Television series produced on a week-to-week basis are always prone to network meddling or retooling that would force writers and showrunners to adjust their plans or compromise their vision based on immediate feedback. All thirteen episodes of Luke Cage were in the can before the pilot was released. All were released to the public at the same time.

As a result, Luke Cage does not feel like the result of compromise and give-and-take that defines most network television shows. One of the most striking aspects of Moment of Truth is how light it is on action and drama for what is nominally a superhero show, instead devoting most of its runtime to establishing a sense of mood or place. Luke Cage feels like a series that could never have survived on television, if only because forcing the series to adhere to commercial breaks and weekly structure would cut away a lot of what makes it so fascinating.

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As Sims notes, this is very much a luxury of the streaming model that has rewritten the rules for scripted television drama:

The television industry is currently in the middle of a radical paradigm shift, as streaming networks like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu look to create as much original content as possible. One of the most notable changes evident in the flood of new content is the total abandonment of the long-accepted idea that a show needs to hook a viewer in its first act, or at least its first episode. But streaming shows like The Path, Bloodline, Hand of God, Love, Sense8, and many others are taking this to extremes, seeming barely concerned with letting stories pay off until viewers have sat through a whole season.

That is perhaps an exaggeration, but the basic point is true. Luke Cage saves its biggest opening action setpiece for the third episode, Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? It saves its hero’s origin for the fourth episode, Step in the Arena.

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There are undoubtedly benefits to this storytelling approach. Cutting the episode order for Luke Cage would inevitably mean trimming some of the season’s more interesting episodes. Manifest was largely dedicated to flashbacks focusing on a character who would be dead before the end of the hour. DWYCK put the spotlight on the show’s female characters while Luke took an extended and unscheduled trip to Georgia that served to isolate him from the primary plot.

Still, this extended runtime causes structural issues, and those issues become clear with Now You’re Mine. In theory, Now You’re Mine represents the big action climax of the season. It involves many of the show’s key players and themes, unfolding within Harlem’s Paradise. In many ways, this episode feels like it should be the climax of the season; Luke finds himself trapped between an army of law enforcement officers just looking for an excuse to gun him down and the crazy half-brother who has returned to make his life hell.

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After all, this is the conflict as it has been drawn. The stakes are the future of Harlem, as represented by Cornell’s fancy nightclub. The combatants are two half-brothers who represent hope and nihilism, Luke Cage and Willis Stryker. The larger issue of law enforcement and the black community come into play, as the police engage in a deadly stand-off with the gunmen inside the club. This feels like an organic conclusion to the story as it has been told, a reasonable place to tie all of those elements together to produce something satisfying.

Unfortunately, there are still two more episodes left in the season. As such, Now You’re Mine cannot represent any sort of conclusion. There are still one hundred and twenty minutes of story still be told. That means that Stryker must survive, Luke must survive, and that a number of the spinning plates need to be kept spinning. This causes serious problems for the episode, given how dramatic the stakes are. Everything seems to have been leading to this confrontation, which makes it deeply unsatisfying when none of those elements collide with the expected force.

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More than that, Now You’re Mine doesn’t materially change anything. Stryker escapes into the ether at the end of the episode, but he is not made the subject of the police manhunt in Soliloquy of Chaos. When Stryker does find himself under pressure and double-crossed towards the end of the season, it is at the hands of Domingo, a character with whom he interacted in DWYCK. Luke surrenders himself to the authorities at the end of Now You’re Mine to escape at the start of Soliloquy of Chaos and then to surrender himself again at the end of You Know My Steez.

Sure, the cops are hunting for Luke in Soliloquy of Chaos, but they were looking for him following the death of Officer Albini in Take It Personal anyway. When Domingo makes a move against Stryker in Soliloquy of Chaos, it seems more likely to be a response to the insult of DWYCK. Even though Shades ends up in police custody towards the close of Now You’re Mine, he lawyers up and gets out quite early in Soliloquy of Chaos. The result is an episode that should be the climax of the season, but winds up feeling like a diversion.

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This is frustrating, given how much Now You’re Mine raises the stakes. Repeatedly over the course of the episode, Shades makes it clear that this has to be the end of the line for Stryker. “You’re the one who’s joking if you think that we’re escaping here without a plan,” Shades reflects at one point. Stryker counters, “Do I look worried?” Shades responds, “No. That’s the problem.” At one point, Shades acknowledges how crazy the whole plot is. “Would you really want me to confirm that you had no plan? Think about how stupid that would make both of us look.”

Stryker does look stupid for the way that things go down in Now You’re Mine. However, that is not a fatal flaw of itself, if the show is willing to push that to its logical conclusion. If Stryker is so blinded by his hatred of Luke that he would throw everything away on the roll of a dice, that feels organic and consistent. The problem is that Stryker has to lose that roll of the dice. Were Now You’re Mine the end of the season, Stryker could pay the price of his error in judgement. Instead, because the season has to continue, he gambles everything, loses, and carries on.

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It feels very much like contrivance, the writers stretching the plot to meet the season order. Stryker escapes with Zip at the end of Now You’re Mine. He is already rebuilding in Soliloquy of Chaos before another bad decision comes back to haunt him. This does not feel like smart plotting on the part of the writers, who allow Stryker to be lucky until the plot needs him to be unluckily. It is a decision that undercuts Stryker as a character, because it feels like his survival is in no way dependent on his skill or intelligence, but on the whims of the studio ordering thirteen episodes.

To be fair, this is not a problem unique to this particular series. The first season of Jessica Jones ran into similar structuring problems, placing its own climax in the middle of the season. AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts were some of the best television of the year, but the series never quite figured out how to escalate from those episodes towards the finale. The result was still a satisfying and impressive season of television, but one that felt like it hit a few stumbling blocks in its final episodes.

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The first season of Daredevil fared considerably better, although that was largely a result of aping the structure of Batman Begins. More than any of the other Netflix Marvel television series, Daredevil had a clear idea of what the beginning, middle and end of its season would look like and set about building to that model. As a result, the season was structured so that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk only came fleetingly into contact (and combat) before the big finale. Although Daredevil had a lot of issues as an episode of television, it understood the season structure very well.

In fact, there is something to be said for the second season of Daredevil structuring its thirteen episode season into three distinct stories: the Punisher’s war on crime, the return of Elektra, the war with the Hand. The actual quality of those stories was quite disappointing, but the idea was structural sound. While the second season of Daredevil was the most unsatisfying season of Marvel Netflix television in terms of characterisation and plotting, it deserves some recognition for being the only season (to date) to mess with the structure in that particular way.

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As such, while it is easy to point to the length of the season as an issue with Luke Cage, the problems with Now You’re Mine are largely structural in nature. This episode should be the climax of the season with its big action setpiece and its in-built tension. This tense hostage drama should be the last episode, or the penultimate episode riding directly and immediately into the final episode. Indeed, several plot threads would flow more organically. The hostage situation would really feel like a miscalculation for Stryker, Luke would really get to redeem himself.

As it stands, the rhythm of these last four episodes seems wrong, with the transition from Take It Personal to Now You’re Mine to Soliloquy of Chaos to You Know My Steez bouncing from Luke-as-fugitive to Luke-versus-Stryker back to Luke-as-fugitive back to Luke-versus-Stryker. There is a plotting and tonal whiplash, a sense that the stitching those episodes into one another makes the season feel clumsy and artificial. It is disappointing, because very few of these ideas are bad in their own right, they just don’t fit in this rhythm and sequence.

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The hostage thriller of Now You’re Mine is fundamentally a good idea. It packs most of the cast in a tight space with gradually mounting pressure. It also sets the stage for Luke to act as a hero, while throwing him into conflict with the authorities. More than that, it all unfolds in Harlem’s Paradise, which is almost the centre of the world as far as Luke Cage is concerned. In fact, were this the penultimate episode, the hostage siege on Harlem’s Paradise would add some symmetry to Tone’s attack on the barbershop back in Code of the Streets.

There are any number of nice moments to be found in the episode, particularly in the way that it focuses on Clarie Temple. In many ways, Claire Temple is the heart and soul of the Netflix Marvel shows, the character who serves to connect all of the characters together. She is the Phil Coulsen of this little pocket of the shared universe. She is also played by Rosario Dawson, who is awesome. However, Claire has not always been well-served by the shows in question.

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Daredevil cast her in the thankless role of Matt Murdock’s half-functioning common sense, after making her complicit in the torture of a goon in Cut Man. She only appeared briefly in AKA Smile, the final episode of Jessica Jones, which is somewhat disappointing for a series that sought to establish itself as the feminist heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Luke Cage gives Claire a lot more material with which to work. This is a good call, given that Rosario Dawson is generally awesome.

Claire even has something approaching an arc across the season, which is strange for a character who is essentially a tourist jumping between the various spin-offs. The show consciously nudges her towards the inevitable “Night Nurse” persona, with her mother pointing out how she has become nexus for these characters in Just to Get a Rep and Sugar even sarcastically dropping her nickname in Now You’re Mine. More than that, Claire is allowed extended interactions with Luke that humanise both of them, not to mention her palpable rage at Burstein in Take It Personal.

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Claire gets to act as something of an action hero in Now You’re Mine. She improvises a plan to get to Luke, even overpowering a guard. The sequence is a nice reminder of how much attention Luke Cage pays to character. Claire uses her wits and her profession to get alone with a single inept guard, before cleverly tripping him up and throwing him down some stairs. However, there are nice character beats; Claire throws away the goon’s gun with the distaste of somebody who doesn’t want to be in an action movie, but takes the time to check his pulse to ensure he’s alive.

The problem with Luke Cage is not necessarily that there are too many episodes, although the season could do with some slight tightening. After all, some of the show’s best moments are tucked away in the episodes that would be cut from a smaller order. The problem is in how the production team chose to break the season, structuring their beats across the run while making room for the smaller character moments. Now You’re Mine is a great example of an interesting episode that is ultimately undercut by the structure of the season.

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

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