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Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage – Season 2 (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage is a fascinating piece of work.

It is far more cohesive than the first season when taken as a whole, and harks back to the sturdy consistency of earlier seasons like the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It is a show with a very clear idea of what it is trying to do and say, and with a much stronger sense of structure than its stablemates like Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher. It also avoids the surplus of ambitions and lack of structure that undercut the second seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

It is fair to describe Luke Cage as the first Marvel Netflix series to tangibly improve in the transition from its first season to its second season, to learn from some of the mistakes that the production made in their initial thirteen episodes and to render a more satisfying and cohesive whole. Indeed, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the second season of Luke Cage does what a lot of really great sequels should do, in that it deepens the themes of the original while also refining what works and expelling what doesn’t.

This is not to say that the second season of Luke Cage is perfect. The season suffers from the now-familiar “Netflix bloat”, the sense that the writers are effectively padding the series to reach a preordained episode count that is tied to outdated notions of what television is or should be. There is no reason for the second season of Luke Cage to be a loose thirteen episodes, when it could easily work as a tighter eight. There are points in the season where the show enters a conscious holding pattern, like a song that keeps looping its bridge to stall before the crescendo.

However, even allowing for these problems, there is a sense that the production team are trying to find a way to make these thirteen episodes work. There are several points in the season in which the show allows its characters room to breath in sequences that could have been shortened or rendered more efficient, allowing the audience to spend extended amount of time with these individuals between the big dramatic beats to capture a sense of humanity that might be lost in a tighter or more efficient version of the series.

The second season of Luke Cage is a fascinating and engaging piece of work, even if it suffers a bit in terms of padding and pacing. Nevertheless, it represents a significant improvement on most of the recent collaborations between Netflix and Marvel Studios, having a strong sense of identity that was sorely lacking from most of the material produced since the end of its first season.

It is interesting and almost poetic to position the second season of Luke Cage as a return to form. There could be an argument made that the Marvel Netflix shows experienced a very sharp drop in quality right in the middle of the first season of Luke Cage. The first seven episodes of Luke Cage are among the best television to emerge from the collaboration between Marvel and Netflix, a light and spritely superhero show engaged with broader social issues. However, the series took a sharp turn at the end of Manifest, the last episode screened for critics.

The climax of Manifest was a very bold piece of television, particularly from a multimedia empire not especially known for taking risks. Having set up Cornell Stokes as the primary antagonist of the series, the character is brutally and suddenly dispatched by his much older cousin in a heated family argument. Seven episodes into the season, Luke Cage killed off its most engaging character. It also dispatched Mahershala Ali, an actor who was only a few months away from winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on Moonlight. It was a very brave move.

However, it was also a move that fundamentally broke the series. Luke Cage worked frantically to replace this charismatic antagonist with cheesy blaxploitation villain “Diamondback.” It was an interesting decision, one that theoretically embraced the pulpy roots of the series. However, it left the season with nowhere to go in the subsequent six episodes. The series had to write its protagonist out of the action for three episodes simply to stall for time, and built to a bizarre homage to climax of The Incredible Hulk in You Know My Steez.

It is tempting to overstate the sharp drop in quality that came with the death of Cornell Stokes in Manifest. After all, the first season of Luke Cage was not the first unsatisfying collaboration between Marvel and Netflix; the second season of Daredevil had been released almost half a year earlier. Nevertheless, there was a tangible shift in these collaborations between Marvel and Netflix. None of the seasons that followed came anywhere near the quality of those first seven episodes of the first season of Luke Cage.

Iron Fist was a spectacular disaster, perhaps more notable for the cultural conversations taking place around it rather than anything tied to the series itself. The Defenders was only marginally better, tied together by a stronger visual style in its early episodes than any of the lead-in series, the charm of bringing its cast together, and the star power of Sigourney Weaver for about six episodes. Even then, it was deeply disappointing. The Punisher harked back to the in-name-only adaptations of the nineties. The second season of Jessica Jones was deeply unfocused.

All of which is to say that there’s something appropriate in the idea of the second season of Luke Cage as a redemptive narrative, a reminder of the potential of these miniseries focusing on street-level characters with a more diverse perspective and more holistic approach than would be possible in the big budget blockbusters or on the major network television series. There’s a charm in a superhero television series that reintroduces its hero wearing a branded “African American College Alliance” hoody and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, as Soul Brother #1 does.

Second seasons can be quite challenging, as both Daredevil and Jessica Jones discovered to their peril. There are several reasons for this. Most obviously, television production is a machine that needs to be fed. Most good television writers and producers cannot afford to “hold back” clever concepts and ideas for a hypothetical second season, and so lay everything out in their first year. The first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones have much stronger and more engaging thematic throughlines than the seasons that followed.

More than that, there is also the difficulty that faces all superhero sequels. Origin stories are relatively easy, because they are stories that have a clear character arc. The protagonist begins as one thing, and ends as something else. In superhero origin stories, the protagonist begins as a regular person and ends as a hero. The story is journey between those two points. The issue with superhero sequels is that that they trap superheroes in stasis. The characters must begin and end the movie as heroes, but somehow manufacture a journey between those two points.

The best superhero sequels find a way to challenge that idea. Spider-Man II memorably has Peter Parker actually give up being Spider-Man, so he can than reclaim the mantle. Thor: Ragnarok has the lead character lose his hammer and get sent into exile again so that he might return home. The Dark Knight does something interesting in that it implies that the journey Bruce wants is one where he can stop being Batman, only for the film to reveal that this is just a fantasy.

The second season of Luke Cage understands this challenge in structuring a season. Very cannily, the season has its central character begin and end in a very different place. Luke is fundamentally a different character at the start of Soul Brother #1 as compared to at the end of They Reminisce Over You. That journey is very carefully seeded, whether through thematic storytelling or in simple plot dynamics. The second season of Luke Cage shifts the goal posts so that it is made clear that Luke hasn’t accomplished what he has to do, meaning that his journey can continue.

The second season of Luke Cage is decidedly ambitious. The oh-so-controversial and important episode Manifest suggested that Luke Cage might be read as a Harlem twist on The Godfather, and the sequel series doubles down on the comparison. The Creator, the second season’s big flashback episode, even overtly references the gold-standard of crime movie sequels. As in the main plot of The Godfather, Part II, the flashback sequences in The Creator focus on an organised crime sojourn to a Caribbean island with profound familial consequences.

Indeed, They Reminisce Over You makes a point to overtly frame Luke’s big character arc in terms of The Godfather. D.W Griffith asks, “You really are Luke Carleone, aren’t you?” He remarks upon Luke’s ambitious “Hyman Roth sh!t.” The climax of the episode (and the season) even borrows several visual and thematic cues from The Godfather, with Luke pointedly cutting himself off from the women in his life in pursuit of some measure of power. The episode even steals the most iconic shots from the closing scene of The Godfather.

Along the way, it is made clear that the production team have made a point to learn from the challenges that they faced in the first season. The first season of Luke Cage pivoted between villains approximately half-way through the season, jumping from Cornell Stokes to “Diamondback.” Theoretically, Mariah Dillard helped to bridge the two halves, but the series never trusted Alfre Woodard to work as a primary antagonist. This sudden transition from one villain to another is a risky gambit, and can fail spectacularly if the second villain is not as interesting as the first.

The first season of Daredevil is arguably the only Marvel Netflix series to maintain narrative momentum across thirteen episodes, and it did that with a single primary antagonist in the form of Winston Fisk. However, Daredevil worked hard to conceal that character’s influence and machinations across its first half by focusing on his own ascent. In contrast, the first season of Jessica Jones had a compelling antagonist in Kilgrave, but struggled to fill out its runtime, repeatedly resorting to catch-and-escape plotting to prolong the narrative.

The second season of Luke Cage retains the idea of two competing primary antagonists, which is perhaps a necessity for maintaining audience engagement in a series running thirteen episodes. In the second season of Luke Cage, the protagonist finds himself caught between Mariah Dillard’s attempts to control organised crime within Harlem and Bushmaster’s efforts to burn them all down. These are two characters with competing ideologies, methodologies and objectives. They push and pull within the narrative.

The second season of Luke Cage cannily avoids the front-half-to-back-half swap that the first season employed in getting from Cornell Stokes to Willis Stryker. Instead, it balances the two competing demands across the thirteen episodes simultaneously, allowing the stories of these two villainous characters to ebb and flow as the plot demands. It is a smart approach, which does a lot to prevent fatigue setting in. Indeed, it its tempting to wonder whether the first season of Luke Cage might have worked better had it been willing to crosscut between Stokes and Stryker.

After all, the villainous “Bushmaster” is very clearly a spiritual successor to “Diamondback”, a retro comic book character clearly reinvented in the trappings of blaxploitation cinema. As Willis Stryker, Erik LaRay Harvey was effectively a scenery-chewing gang boss with a flare for the dramatic and with no tether to reality. Mustafa Shakir offers an altogether more subtle performance as John McIver, but the character clearly fits within familiar blaxploitation templates as a voodoo-themed villain.

That sort of Caribbean mysticism is very much in keeping with the aesthetic of blaxploitation cinema, and Luke Cage takes great pleasure in presenting Bushmaster as something decidedly more surreal and uncanny than the basic premise of Luke Cage would suggest. If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right visually juxtaposes Bushmaster’s voodoo rituals to the sacrament of baptism, while Mariah is horrified in The Main Ingredient to discover that Bushmaster has been performing voodoo rituals in Harlem’s Paradise.

At the same time, there is an awkward push-and-pull within the second season of Luke Cage about precisely how far the series can take this voodoo premise within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, recalling the anxieties within Thor about whether the Asgardians could be considered “gods” or the more rational “sufficiently advanced aliens.” The second season of Luke Cage goes back and forth on how seriously it is willing to take Bushmaster’s mysticism, and it often feels like the series is hedging its proverbial bets.

In The Main Ingredient, Danny Rand shows up simply to illustrate how crazy this shared universe can be, that a dude who have a magic fist forged by punching the heart of a dragon can throw down with a bunch of street-level gangsters. If the mysticism of K’un-Lun can exist within the world of Luke Cage, why is anything involving Bushmaster’s mysticism so out of bounds? The Main Ingredient even mocks both Luke’s incredulity at Danny’s core concept and the low budget crappiness of Iron Fist by having Luke ask if the dragon was “metaphorical.”

Unfortunately, it seems like pseudo-rationality wins out. It is ultimately revealed that Bushmaster is not powered by mysticism, but by the obligatory weird science that seems to account for almost everything within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In The Creator, it is revealed that John McIver was simply the survivor of another one of those oh-so-common mad experiments that tend to tack place so frequently within the shared universe, and that his ceremonies are ultimately just a way of ritualising something with a pseudo-rational justification.

While Bushmaster is very clearly cast from the same blaxploitation mold as Diamondback, the character does work better. A lot of this is down to the writing, which instills in Bushmaster a stronger sense of tragedy and loss than was present with Diamondback. More than that, the characterisation of Bushmaster is noticeably restrained. Whereas Diamondback cackled and taunted, Bushmaster is often presented as a character struggling to maintain control of himself both physically and psychologically, in one of the more interesting themes of the season.

The first season of Luke Cage was very much focused on the idea of African American identity within Harlem. The second season does what all good sequels do, and deepens those themes. Bushmaster provides an informative foil to both Luke and Mariah in that regard, with emphasis on the Jamaican immigrant community adding a new wrinkle to the question of the black experience in America, and emphasising for the audience that black residents are not a single homogeneous entity.

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly brushes against the idea of these issues of identity within these groups, insisting that the African American experience cannot be a monolithic concept. There are dynamics at play within the Harlem community and between the Harlem community and other groups. In one of the season’s standout sequences, Mariah Dillard has an extended conversation with her daughter in For Pete’s Sake, explaining the colourism that she has experienced from her own community.

In some ways, the second season of Luke Cage seems to grapple with an acknowledge criticisms of the first season’s focus on what might be described as “respectability politics.” The first season rather awkward bungled a plot about police brutality and violence in a way that attracted considerable criticism. The second season makes a canny effort to avoid that sort of direct engagement. There are a few hints in episodes like Can’t Front On Me about how outsiders view the black community, but the primary focus of the second season is on tensions within the community.

This is not to say that Luke Cage is politically disengaged. Indeed, the series very consciously exists in the shadow of the Trump era. However, most of that unpleasantness lurks at the edge of the frame. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith cameo in Straighten It Out. Later that same episode, Mariah quips, “Now is not the time for alternative facts.” Following a massive upset to the status quo in They Reminisce Over You, D.W. Griffith concedes, “I haven’t felt this way since November ninth.”

However, most of the season’s engagement with the modern political climate is abstract rather than literal. If Luke Cage is directly engaged with the Trump era, it is very invested in twenty-first century definitions of power and esteem, and what anchors those notions. Is criminal behaviour acceptable if it favours a particular agenda? Can corruption be controlled and harnessed for a purpose? “I’m the only person who can make Harlem great again,” Luke insists unironically in They Reminisce Over You, before making a massive moral compromise in return for power.

The second season of Luke Cage is not especially interested in how outsiders approach ideas of blackness, instead investing in tensions within the various groups that might be classified as “black” within the United States. This represents a deepening of some of the more interesting concepts broached by the first season. “Kids used to make fun of me because I was dark, said I was an African,” Mariah explains as part of that powerful and compelling extended conversation in For Pete’s Sake. “‘Black Mariah.'”

The second season of Luke Cage deals with big questions of identity within its central community. Most obviously, it deals with ideas of masculinity, as reflected in a variety of ways. Male characters repeatedly grapple with expectations imposed upon them. The goon Cockroach beats his wife in Straighten It Out, expressing his inadequacy. Shades and Commanche spend the first half of the season avoiding talking about their homosexual affair in prison, before this unspoken and unarticulated tension all culminates disastrously The Basement and On and On.

Luke and Claire argue about Luke’s difficulty reconciling with his own masculinity in Wig Out, with both characters understanding that the issue is particularly important for a character with Luke’s strength and power. “Keeping you out of prison questions your masculinity?” Claire prods. Luke argues, “A black man only has two choice in this world, you can lean into the fear and be the n!$$€? that everybody already thinks you are, or you can be the big docile housecat with a smile.” He insists, “I’m a man. Full-fledged. My anger is real.”

Similarly, the series engages with the experiences of black women, their own experiences interlinked and connected to issues of black masculine identity. The second season cannily puts Mariah Stokes front and centre, a canny move since Alfre Woodard is one of the best actors working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the central dynamics in the season is the connection between Mariah and her daughter Tilda, with that relationship informed and shaped by the attitudes and decisions of the men around them.

“Black women have always had superpowers,” Mariah tells Tilda in All Souled Out, touring a new facility dedicated to the experiences and history of black women in the United States. “Turning pain into progress, nothing into nurture.” Indeed, the female characters in Luke Cage are often struggling with the consequences of violence and trauma, whether Claire seeing something of her father in Luke’s freak out in Wig Out or Mariah finally explaining the truth of Tilda’s parentage in For Pete’s Sake.

At the heart of all of this is the question of power and legitimacy. What does power look like for the characters within these narratives? How can characters like Luke or Mariah ever feel secure? The second season of Luke Cage throws out a variety of possible answers, offering its characters a number of different avenues towards power. Is it money? Is fame? Is it legitimacy? Is it property? Is it force? Is it integrity? The second season of Luke Cage broaches this idea repeatedly, and cannily understands that there simply might not be a right answer to these questions.

Over the course of the second season, the characters in Luke Cage all take different paths towards power. In Soul Brother #1, Mariah hopes to buy power through legitimacy. She hopes to take the family enterprise legitimate by laundering all her money and buying an above-board commercial enterprise that would provide financial security and stability. “If this investment with Piranha Jones works, then every sin ever committed by the Stokes family washes away,” Mariah promises Shades. “This deal represents the complete end of risk. Now, that’s priceless to me.”

This idea of power through legitimacy is so important to Mariah that she repeatedly refuses to sell her copy of Red Kings by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. As a work of art history, that portrait represents the sort of legitimacy towards which Mariah aspires. To sell it would be counterproductive, and would undermine the entire point of the enterprise. Mariah plans to auction off the criminal aspects of her enterprise in order to fund this literal bid for legitimacy.

In contrast, Shades repeatedly argues that power comes through force. He argues that Mariah should sell the Basquiat and keep the family’s weapons in order to protect them from outside forces that would do them harm. As things inevitably fall apart, Shades repeatedly chides Mariah for refusing to listen to him. “All you had to do was sell that goddamn painting, and none of this would have happened,” he warns her in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right. For Shades, guns are the key to securing and holding power.

Simultaneously, Luke himself flirts with the idea of fame as something that he can leverage into power over the community. Soul Brother #1 makes a great deal of the character’s social media celebrity, with D.W. selling merchandise and the community tracking him on the “Harlem’s Hero” app. Luke Cage is presented as bona fides celebrity, with ESPN covering both his strength trials in Straighten It Out and his humiliating defeat to Bushmaster in I Get Physical.

These various avenues are all suggested as paths towards power for these characters, but the second season repeatedly and consciously undercuts all three approaches. Mariah’s attempts to buy legitimacy are ultimately sabotaged and leave her an easy mark for Bushmaster in The Basement and On and On. Shades’ obsession with firepower is pretty useless when his two greatest opponents are both bulletproof, illustrated by Can’t Front On Me. Luke discovers how volatile (and how entrapping) celebrity can be in All Souled Out.

Indeed, They Reminisce Over You suggests that even Luke’s last desperate bid for power over Harlem will fail because it will inevitably corrupt him. There is a sense of grand tragedy in Luke’s final decision in They Reminisce Over You, when he makes the only decision that he thinks he can in order to exercise power over a community for which he cares greatly. The second season of Luke Cage has broken down and humiliated its central characters to such a degree that this horrific compromise appears like the only possible option.

There’s something very dark and fatalistic in all of this, in the way in which the minority cast of Luke Cage all struggle to find some measure of control over themselves and their surroundings only to watch as that power evaporates. There is a sense that Shades is entirely correct in Soul Brother #1 when he warns Mariah that she may never secure the stability to which she aspires. “You could have all the money in the world, you’ll still be nothing by a n!$$€? to some people,” he tells her.

That single line is perhaps the show’s thesis statement on the minority experience at this cultural moment, with acceptance and power are fickle mistresses and that cultural expectations make material progress almost impossible. Characters like Mariah and Luke struggle under the expectations imposed upon them, and the preconceptions formed about them. In For Pete’s Sake, Tilda even argues that Mariah’s insistence on being called “Dillard” rather than “Stokes” is an attempt to distance herself from the blackness associated with the “Stokes” family.

For his part, Luke Cage is literally bulletproof, but he can’t seem to catch a break. In All Souled Out, Foggy advocates against Luke testifying in front of a jury. Despite being a hero who saved Harlem, they’d just see him as “Willie Horton with bullet proof skin.” When Misty suggests Luke testify against Mariah, he explains that a jury would never accept the testimony of a “black, vigilante, ex-con.” He clarifies, “The black negates everything else.” In the world of Luke Cage, the character’s skin might be bulletproof, but it’s still black.

There’s a wealth of fascinating material here, and the second season of Luke Cage arguably does a better job sustaining itself across thirteen episodes than any season of a Marvel Netflix show since the first season of Jessica Jones. Of course, there are still issues. Certain plot threads take a while to get going, especially in the early stretch of the season. There is a blackmail plot involving Mariah that takes a full three episodes to get from concept in Soul Brother #1 to execution in Wig Out. Similarly, it takes three episodes for Bushmaster to collide with Luke Cage.

This sense of stretching out the material carries over to the rhythms of the season as a whole. There are certain repeated plot beats and elements over the course of the thirteen episodes that don’t feel like ironic echoes, but instead like awkward stalling. It is interesting to see Luke Cage forced to protect a person that he hates when he is forced to guard Piranha in The Basement, but it undercuts the effectiveness of forcing Luke to defend Mariah in For Pete’s Sake.

Similarly, it seems like the showdowns between Luke and Bushmaster are timed too carefully, the two characters coming into conflict once every three episodes like clockwork. The two first fight in Wig Out, three episodes into the season. They have a rematch at the end of The Basement, six episodes into the season. Luke scores his first victory when he defeats Bushmaster in For Pete’s Sake, the ninth episode of the year. The two have their final fight at the climax of Can’t Front On Me, the twelve episode of the season. At least one of these fights is unnecessary.

Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage even falls back on the catch-and-escape pattern that prolonged the cat-and-mouse game in the first season of Jessica Jones. Bushmaster is taken into custody at the end of For Pete’s Sake and escapes, only to be defeated in Can’t Front On Me and forced into exile in They Reminisce Over You. Along the way, in a number of the season’s rather pointed allusions to Daredevil, Bushmaster does get to offer his own twist on Wilson Fisk’s “I am the ill intent” speech from Daredevil.

At the same time, this relaxed pacing does have its luxuries. The season is able to spend a bit more time with actors and characters than it would it was compressed. The nine-minute scene between Mariah and Tilda in For Pete’s Sake is a great example of a sequence that wouldn’t be viable on traditional network television, but which benefits from taking its time to reach its destination. It helps that the focal point of the scene is an actor of Alfre Woodard’s ability, and the scene is structured in such a way as to be almost theatrical rather than cinematic or televisual.

There is a slightly more cinematic example in Can’t Front On Me, an extended take following Misty as she gets water for Shades. The camera follows Misty as she leaves the interrogation room, having listened to Shades account for his horrific crimes. as she moves, her demeanour breaks down. She allows herself to feel the grief and horror at what Shades has done. Then, picking up the water, she puts her poker face back on and heads into the interrogation room. The sequence is a powerful extended showcase for Simone Missick.

The second season of Luke Cage is imperfect. It has a number of issues that are fairly common in the Marvel Netflix shows. At the same time, it represents a significant improvement on the brand’s output over the past two years, a welcome return to form and a very worthy sequel.

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

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