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Luke Cage – Wig Out (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of masculinity in a number of interesting ways.

This is an interesting choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, the idea of exploring masculinity within the framework of a Marvel Netflix show should (in theory) belong to Jessica Jones. With the character of Kilgrave, it was the streaming service’s first female-led superhero series that marked out the idea of masculinity as a concept worth exploring within the framework of a superhero narrative. However, the second season of Jessica Jones is very engaged with the idea of female relationships, whether friendly or familial.

In doing so, Jessica Jones may have passed the theme on to the second season of Luke Cage. This makes sense on a number of levels. Most superficially, Luke Cage was actually introduced as a recurring guest star on the first season of Jessica Jones, and so ideas about masculinity are clearly woven into the character’s core identity. Beyond that, there is some value in Luke Cage in exploring the idea from a different perspective. After all, Luke Cage is a series with a male heroic lead. Its approach to the theme of masculine identity would be radically different.

As such, the second season of Luke Cage is perfectly positioned to explore notions of masculine identity.

Of course, before the series embraces the theme of toxic masculinity, it is worth acknowledge a number of surrounding issues. The second season of Luke Cage broadens and deepens its focus in a number of ways. While the series is invested in questions of masculine identity as they relate to characters like Luke and Shades, the series also grapples with questions of femininity involving the dynamic between Mariah and her daughter Tilda. These dynamics often play out in parallel, as two sides of the same proverbial coin.

Similarly, it almost goes without saying that questions and discussions of masculinity within Luke Cage also intersect with its explorations of African American identity. A lot of what the series has to say about masculinity applies beyond the black experience, to the point that the series’ most prominent non-black character serves as the series’ secondary vehicle for exploring the theme. However, it is often impossible to complete divorce the manner in which Luke Cage engages with masculinity from its context as a show about black identity.

In the broadest sense, Luke Cage frames its discussions of masculinity in the larger context of the superhero genre. After all, there is a credible argument to be made that Luke Cage is the most overtly and traditionally superheroic show among the Marvel Netflix series. Daredevil and Iron Fist both pitch themselves as gritty and grounded thrillers with vague hints of conspiracy and mysticism. Jessica Jones is something much more experimental, exploring themes of addiction and dependency, abuse and violence.

In contrast, Luke Cage feels more in keeping with the traditional heroics of superhero cinema. Step In the Arena features perhaps the most conventional superhero origin of any of the Marvel Netflix shows. DWYCK has the character undergo a medical procedure that evokes Wolverine’s transformation as depicted in X-Men II and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. You Know Me Steez has the show bravely attempting to re-stage the climax of The Incredible Hulk on a Netflix budget. Soul Brother #1 has the character literally walk through an explosion.

In setting up Luke Cage as the most traditionally superheroic of the Marvel Netflix series, the production team put the show in a very interesting position, allowing it to explore and play with the heightened masculinity associated with the genre. As Jonathan McIntosh points out, superhero moves are all about performative masculinity:

A staple of the superhero genre is the tendency to concoct these elaborate scenarios in which the iconic “good guys” end up having to fight each other for some reason or another. This is often framed as a way to resolve their interpersonal issues before they can go beat up the “bad guys” and save the world. Look no further than Hulk’s rampaging brawl with Iron Man in the second Avengers film, or Batman’s upcoming cinematic showdown with Superman. They’re the blockbuster versions of kids arguing in the schoolyard about which superhero would win in a fight. The ultimate macho pissing contest. Who’s the toughest tough guy of them all? This is evidenced by the showcasing of fights between Thor and Iron Man, Bucky Barnes and Captain America, and so on and so forth. Heck, now we even have Kirk and Spock throwing punches at each other on the bridge of the Enterprise in the rebooted Star Trek movie, Starfleet protocols be damned.

How do superheroes make friends? By punching each other in the face! How do superheroes resolve conflicts big and small? By punching each other in the face! Who gets the girl? Whose plan will be followed? Who is in charge? How is trust built among teammates? Face-punching can accomplish all this and more!

It is essentially male bonding or friendship-building by way of violence and it usually elicits wild cheers from audiences. It’s a plot point that I think should at least raise questions regarding the kinds of behavior being modeled for men about male relationships and communication.

What exactly is so appealing about this particularly aggressive form of hypermasculinity that it’s now become a worldwide movie obsession?

A lot of this goes under-explored and under-developed. There is something to be said for the heightened intensity of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Batman seems to acknowledge the Freudian subtext of his anxiety about Superman by stabbing the Kryptonian with a lance while declaring he was “never even a man.”

To be fair, there are some indications that the genre is grappling with the intersection of superheroism and masculinity. The second half of the second season of Legion takes a sharp detour into deconstructing the protagonist’s toxic gender politics, his desire to see himself as the hero of his own narrative and to express that heroism through entitlement and violence. “I am a good person, and I deserve love,” David repeatedly tells himself. The season builds to his mindwiping of his love interest in Chapter 19, followed by what can only possibly be non-consensual sex.

“You drugged me and you had sex with me,” she bluntly explains the analogy. Legion argues that David’s attempts to empower himself by playing into superheroic archetypes only harms himself and the people around him. “Men,” Melanie states at one point, “the greatest threat to our gender since time began.” To be fair, it’s debatable whether Legion manages to pull off such a sharp late-season pivot. However, it does score points for tying this toxic masculinity into broader anxieties about the current political moment – an expression or a cause of the modern mass cultural insanity. Luke Cage does something similar.

Similarly, there are moments when the Marvel Netflix shows have brushed against the idea of exploring the heightened masculinity of superheroic storytelling. Daredevil seems to walk a fine line of self-awareness, with episodes like Nelson v. Murdock suggesting that Matt is sublimating his own guilt and insecurities into violence as a way of finding release while Kinbaku finds Elektra and Matt explicitly combining their sexual and violent impulses during their intense courtship. However, there is also a sense that Daredevil plays its masculinity entirely too straight.

In its second season, Luke Cage engages more directly with ideas of masculine identity forged through violence. Domestic violence is a recurring motif through the season, most obviously in Cockroach’s attack on his girlfriend and child in Straighten It Out, but also in Claire’s personal and Misty’s professional familiarity with the way in which such violence unfolds in Wig Out. Indeed, Luke himself commits on act of literal domestic violence at the climax of Wig Out, smashing a wall in Claire’s apartment during a heated argument.

The second season of Luke Cage keeps returning to the idea of violence as an expression of masculine identity. As in the first season, a lot of the first half of the season is driven by a gun deal that went wrong. Shades repeatedly lashes out at characters who threaten his masculine identity, assaulting the waiter in Soul Brother #1 and killing a business partner in Straighten It Out. Indeed, as a voice of masculine anxiety, Shades is very concerned about the risks of selling his organisation’s weapons, suggesting that it is a form of emasculation.

This is also reflected in Luke himself. In the second season, Luke is repeatedly characterised as angry and violent, but also intoxicated with his power. Voicing his anxieties about Luke’s capacity to singlehandedly support the hopes and dreams of an entire community at the start of Soul Brother #1, Reverend James Lucas recognises the source of Luke’s vulnerabilities. “Believe me, Luke Cage is nothing but a man.” James might be talking in a biblical sense, but he is also correct. Luke Cage repeatedly emphasises its character’s warped sense of masculinity.

This is most obvious in the argument between Claire and Luke at the climax of Wig Out, in which Luke’s violence finds its most horrifying expression. “I love you so much,” Luke tells her. “But you can’t castrate me.” Luke is talking about his brutal beating of Cockroach, and suggesting that his masculinity is anchored to such violence. “Preventing you from going back to jail lessens your manhood?” Claire responds. “If beating your chest around town is what it takes for you to be a hero, then I question your understanding of the world.”

Of course, superheroes are inevitably tied to that very reductive and traditional view of masculinity, to notions of violent expression. After all, superheroes are characters who solve problems through force; they serve to physically beat the world’s issues into submission. The superhero narrative demands big burly fight scenes and violent catharsis, often set to a pulsing score and rendering at an epic scales; think of the cities levelled in films like Man of Steel or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Luke Cage is arguably subject to the same expectations and demands. Its character has a power set that is arguably inherently nonviolent and pacifist in nature; Luke is physically resistant to bullets, which suggests that he can take any punishment thrown at him without needing to fight back. More than any other major superhero, Luke could plausible adopt a non-violent approach to crime-stopping. However, the expectations of superhero storytelling demand that Luke be more proactive, that he be violent, that he give the audience what they expect from the genre.

Indeed, as Claire surveys the damage that Luke has inflicted at the start of Wig Out, she acknowledged how completely unnecessary it was. “You could have just tapped Cockroach on the head. It would have conked him out. I’ve seen you do it.” She’s correct; the series has made a point to show Luke employing the technique when he doesn’t want an extended fight sequence. So why not here? The climax of Wig Out suggests that there is an element of Luke playing to the gallery, giving the audience what they expect; to “lean into” the expectations.

In exploring Luke’s use of violence, Luke Cage is making some interesting comments on masculinity within superhero narratives. Brandon Wilson argues that there is a moral weight to this approach, particularly in light to the series’ exploration of black identity:

In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us.

Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.

The second season reinforces this. The entire season is obviously built around a series of fights between Luke Cage and Bushmaster. They happen every three episodes like clockwork; Wig Out, The Basement, For Pete’s Sake, Can’t Front On Me. However, the season finale (They Reminisce Over You) consciously avoids a hypermasculine throwdown.

In the second season, the title character struggles with conventional ideas of masculinity. He refuses to cooperate with the system, or to accept his role as anything other than the hero of the narrative. In I Get Physical, he balks at the idea of following Misty, and insists that she follow him. Misty points out it is possible to Luke to use the system to protect Harlem from Bushmaster. “You wanna press charges?” she asks. “You want him locked up?” Luke declines, “Nah. I’ll handle it myself.” Explaining his split with Claire, he insists, “Sometimes you gotta take the gloves off.”

Repeatedly over the course of the season, it is stressed that help exists, if Luke is willing to ask for it. Captain Ridenhour suggests that Luke with the Harlem Police Department in Soul Brother #1, but Luke shrugs it off. Even outside of law enforcement, Luke is coming off the events of The Defenders, which is arguably a support group for people with powers. When Luke is sued by Cockroach in All Souled Out, Misty points out that Danny would probably be willing to ask if Luke were to ask. Luke refuses. Danny comes over to check in on Luke anyway in The Main Ingredient.

It should be noted that Luke’s need to assert his strength and power repeatedly leads to bad decisions on his part. At the climax of The Basement, Luke abandons Piranha in order to settle a score with Bushmaster, implicitly to avenger himself from the beatdown in Wig Out. Luke demands “a good old-fashioned showdown. You and me. Today. No weapons. No sneak attacks. A fair fight.” This fight is a distraction. Piranha sneaks away while Luke is fighting on high bridge at “High Noon”, promptly gets caught by Bushmaster’s goons, and everything goes to hell. All because of Luke’s macho self-image.

This hyper-masculine ideal of superheroism is contrasted with a more low-key and vulnerable expression of masculine identity. Towards the end of I Get Physical, Bobby Fish suggests a more compassionate and less showy version of heroism. When his estranged daughter is hospitalised with kidney failure, Bobby flies across the country to be with her and volunteers his own kidney as a transplant. “She called me her hero,” Bobby reflects. “Me.” The scene contrasts Bobby’s joy at being to help with Luke’s frustrated masculinity. It is clear which one is really heroic.

It is worth noting that this interlocked idea of masculinity and heroism extends beyond the superhero genre. It is telling that the second season of Luke Cage repeatedly likens Luke to an athlete. Luke’s trials in Straighten It Out and his beatdown in I Get Physical are both covered by ESPN. Luke desperately seeks a sponsorship deal from Nike in All Souled Out. In Wig Out, When Claire tells Reverend James Lucas that she works with people with “abilities”, he responds, “Athletes?” She answers, “Sort of.”

Given the scenes that bookend Wig Out, this comparison evokes the stories of athletes guilty of domestic violence; the boxer Floyd Mayweather; the basket ball player Willie Reed; the footballer Ray Rice. To pick a particularly horrific example, Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend. Professional sporting organisations rarely punish this violence. The effect extends beyond the athletes themselves; domestic violence reportedly increases when England plays a match. These connections between hypermasculine athleticism and domestic violence seem intentionally evoked.

However, what’s particularly interesting about the second season is how it acknowledges the damage that is caused by Luke’s heightened obsession with his masculine identity. When Luke freaks out at the climax of Wig Out, putting a hole in the wall during a disagreement with Claire, the series doesn’t minimise what Luke has done. The series does not excuse his violence. The series does not argue that Claire should be more understanding or compassionate, or that she should give him a second chance.

Instead, the series suggests that Luke’s violent outburst has fundamentally damaged the relationship between them and that the only healthy option for Claire is to get the hell out of that situation as quickly and cleanly as possible. “I need the ocean,” she states simply. “I need to go.” She plans to leave for Cuba. Luke makes excuses, and begs for absolution. “You know I would never hurt you, right?” he asks, a question undoubtedly repeated by countless domestic abusers. Claire offers the only reasonable response, “You need to go, right now.”

There is something particularly tragic in all of this, in the implication that Claire’s departure might actually hold. Rosario Dawson has admitted that she is quite happy to move on from doing these series:

Yeah, its pretty wild actually. I don’t know if I’ll be back after this, to be honest, but it’s been an amazing few years. I’ve been on a lot of different shows. I mean, I don’t know if maybe they do a third season of Luke Cage potentially, or maybe if they figure out some kind of way for me to be on The Punisher – just so I can feel like I’ve done every show. But it’s been like, my daughter is high school, so I kinda wanna’ not be 3000 miles away for work.

This gives the confrontation a little extra weight due to the outside factors at play. It would be very appropriate if this was the end of Claire’s involvement with Luke, barring the reference to her at the end of They Reminisce Over You.

However, Luke doesn’t learn his lesson. Luke does not accept that he needs to control his pride and his wrath. Instead, over the course of the season, he doubles down and commits. Luke repeatedly frames himself in masculine archetypes. Initially, he wants to be the “sheriff” of Harlem. Eventually, he ascends to the throne as the “king” of Harlem. Luke believes that more power and more authority will bring more stability. There is something very toxic in the way Luke equates love with control.

“I am taking responsibility,” Luke assures Claire in Wig Out. “By taking things over.” This is how Luke sees things; he needs to assert his masculine strength and his dominance. “I am Harlem,” he boasts in Soul Brother #1. He repeats the sentiment in Wig Out, in his warning to Bushmaster. “Harlem is under my protection now. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Stay out of my yard.” The masculine coding there: “protection”, “possession.” That said, the use of the world “yard” seems intended to set up Bushmaster’s retort, “You wanna talk about about a yard with a Yardie?”

Over the course of the second season, Luke Cage slowly transitions its protagonist from one sort of masculine icon to another. If Luke starts the season as a superhero, and is subsequently likened to an athlete, then he ends the season as a gangster. As Molly Haskell notes in discussing The Godfather, a film that is obviously a heavy influence on Luke Cage, gangster movies have their own relationship with toxic notions of masculinity:

If that family, a male hierarchy, is created on the backs of acquiescent women, wasn’t there almost a sigh of relief, in a moment of flux and ambivalence, at having all women subordinate rather than some rising, some falling? Our upward strivings checked at the door, we could sink for one brief, guilty moment into a voluptuous patriarchy, like a men’s club we have entered as an honored guest, while it still has its all-male atmosphere, just before the admission of women.

Strangely and paradoxically, The Godfather is less typically a for-men-only gangster film than others of the genre. Traditionally, mob movies, with their rat-a-tat rhythms, blood-spattered furniture and hyperkinetic little-boy acting, were almost designed to turn women off. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s, they were directed as pointedly to male audiences as women’s films — the weepies — were addressed to females. Bashing or ignoring women was a not-so-covert part of their appeal: Jimmy Cagney smashing the grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy. In Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson is jealous that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has a girlfriend.

While there is relatively little ambiguity about the image of Luke brutally attacking Cockroach at the end of Straighten It Out, there can be even less ambiguity in his decision to play the role of Michael Carleone at the end of They Reminisce Over You. Luke has very pointedly lost his way, been poisoned and corrupted. A large portion of that is rooted in Luke’s obsession with his ideas of masculine identity.

This theme of masculinity also intersects with the other genres in which Luke Cage operates. Luke Cage is not merely a superhero show nor a crime show. It is a more delicate genre hybrid than Daredevil or Iron Fist. The series also plays with the genre of blaxploitation, drawing upon the rich history of those cheesy sixties and seventies hits. Luke Cage repeatedly tips its hat to this inspiration, perhaps most notably in The Basement, when Luke and Piranha hide out inside an old abandoned theatre, its walls decorated with posters for blaxploitation hits.

This influence plays out in a number of different ways across the two seasons. It is perhaps most obvious in the wonderfully rich soundtrack from Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, which sets the series apart from the blander aural aesthetic of the other Marvel Netflix series. It is also reflected in the choice of villains. While the characters undoubtedly have their roots in the source comic books, Willis Stryker and Jon McIver are both villains clearly drawn from the trappings and stylings of blaxploitation cinema.

As Joe Wlodarz notes in Men and Masculinities, masculinity was a recurring fascination for blaxploitation cinema:

Haunted by the accommodations of “ebony saint” Sidney Poitier to white America in 1960s cinema, blaxploitation films – borrowing from the Black Power movement – turned their back on a nonviolent approach to racial progress and instead elevated the confrontational, hypersexualised, figure of the black macho male to unforeseen heights. But the widespread controversy that contributed to the genre’s dubious name was in part a result of the fascinating, yet ambiguous, ways that blaxploitation cinema also threatened black male empowerment and troubled notions of black male authenticity.

Blaxploitation cinema frequently involves a reversal of gendered and racialised hierarchies that have typically marked the history of American cinema and culture. White male impotence, vulnerability, and femininity become hyperbolised in these films alongside a striking hyperphallicisation of black men (eg Shaft).

As such, it makes sense to carry that theme over to Luke Cage.

Of course, Luke Cage doesn’t only deal with masculinity in terms of violence and anger. The series also approaches masculinity through the prism of sex and sexuality. Luke has always been overtly sexualised; he is introduced as a one-night-stand-that-develops-into-something-more for Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night, he launches his own series by sleeping with Misty Knight in Moment of Truth, and he is in a stable, loving and sexual relationship with the most important female character in the Marvel Netflix universe by the start of the second season in Soul Brother #1.

That said, Luke’s attitude towards sex hasn’t always been portrayed as healthy; perhaps most obviously in the way that he and Pops talk about Jessica in Moment of Truth. Luke repeatedly uses “coffee” as a euphemism for sex, to the point that when he singles out “free coffee” as one of the benefits of being a hero in Soul Brother #1, Bobby Fish calls him out. Claire even teases him about the manner in which he might be sublimating his sexual appetites in violence in Soul Brother #1, pointing out the awkwardness of instructing an opponent to “say [his] name.”

Indeed, following Luke’s split with Claire at the end of Wig Out, it is telling that Luke seeks to reassert his masculinity in sexual terms; just has he seeks to reverse the humiliation of his public defeat by Bushmaster through asserting his physical strength. Encountering Misty in I Get Physical, Luke none-too-subtly invites himself to spend the night at her place. She politely, but firmly, declines. When they part ways, Misty cannily notes that he “accidentally” left his overnight bag in her car. “Don’t forget your bag,” she remarks. “You ain’t coming to my place for it.”

Similarly, there’s undoubtedly a flirtatious element to Luke’s conversation with Tilda in I Get Physical. He makes a point to stop just as he is walking out the door. “Tilda,” he repeats her name. “I’ll definitely remember that.” He then closes the conversation on the classic provide-a-pretense-for-extending-contact suggestion, “If you see that guy again, be sure to give me a call.” Luke is undoubtedly traumatised by Claire’s departure, but there’s a clear sense that he treats it as something of an attack on his masculinity that he subsequently tries to reassert.

Black male sexuality has always been something portrayed as dangerous or inflammatory. James Baldwin acknowledged as much in The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy Norman Mailer:

I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been. It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.

Luke Cage ties in its examination of masculinity to sexuality. Indeed, it’s revealing that Wig Out compares Bushmaster’s sexual exploits to those of Luke, right down to joking about the pleasures of good “coffee.”

However, Luke Cage himself is not the series’ primarily lens through which it interrogates the sexual component of hypermasculine identity. Interestingly, Shades becomes the focal character for this navigation of masculinity. Repeatedly throughout the second season of Luke Cage, Shades finds himself grappling against various insinuations and implications about his sexual identity. Shades responds to these attacks upon his masculinity with outbursts of violence and aggression.

Early in the season, Shades is emasculated by male characters who openly mock his relationship with Mariah, a much older woman. The waiter in Soul Brother #1 refers to Mariah as Shades’ aunt, and Mariah responds by engaging in a very public display of affection that quite transparently makes Shades uncomfortable. Shades responds to this discomfort by ambushing the waiter in the corridor and beating him viciously. Shades’ default response to such mockery is emotionally charged, such as his impromptu execution of Arturo Rey in Straighten It Out.

Shades’ already complicated and ambiguous sexual identity is further developed later in the season. In Soul Brother #1, Shades welcomes Comanche into the organisation. In Straighten It Out, Comanche is clearly uncomfortable with the relationship between Mariah and Shades. This initially seems like a close male friendship rooted in established gender norms. “How’s it feel, man?” Comanche taunts in I Get Physical. “To have your nuts inside Mariah’s purse?” Again, gender roles and steroetypes inform the way that the other characters perceive Shades and how Shades perceives himself.

His support of Mariah is presented as fundamentally emasculating. In The Basement, Comanche advises Shades, “Cottonmouth, Diamondback. They knew what I know. You’re a born leader. Brilliant. But you finally got a chance to be in control and take charge, and you riding for someone who doesn’t deserve the crown. You should take that sh!t from her. What’s your plan?” The subtext is clear. In the eyes of characters like Comanche, if Shades were a real man, he would take charge of the situation. However, as the season progresses, it becomes clearer that there is a more complicated dynamic at play between Shades and Comanche.

In The Basement, it is revealed that Shades and Comanche had an affair in prison. However, their relationship is complicated by the codes of conventional masculinity, particularly in the hypermasculine framework of organised crime. “You’re just out of prison, but you still have that mentality,” Shades advises Comanche. “You gotta forget all that shit. We don’t have to be just gangsters. We could be so much more than that.” Comanche responds, “We are more than that. Or did you forget that sh!t, too?” Shades dismisses it, “Inside was inside.”

Much like his affair with Mariah, Shades’ affair with Comanche opens him up to attacks on his masculinity. In Soul Brother #1, Mariah teases Luke with an example of this sort of homophobic attitude towards prison affairs. “Prison did your body good,” she remarks. “Fightin’ ’em off in the shower, huh?” Luke, ever-sensitive to attacks on his masculinity, tries to shrug it off. “Ha ha. You got jokes.” In The Creator, when she discovers Shades’ affair, Mariah taunts him for being “gay for the stay.”

One of the paradoxes of Shades as an avatar of Luke Cage‘s ambivalent attitudes towards masculinity is the way in which the series repeatedly frames Shades as the most emotionally vulnerable and volatile member of the ensemble. Indeed, his sunglasses serve as a metaphor for his efforts to conceal his feelings from the other characters, to present himself as stereotypically masculine, as unemotional and rational. After all, Shades has cultivated a reputation built upon his capacity for plotting and manipulation, his ability to out-think and out-wit his opponents.

However, Shades is as subject to his heightened emotional state as any other character on the series. Shades longs for Mariah to recognise him as an emotional equal. In Wig Out, he feels consciously excluded from her attempts to reconnect with Tilda. “I’m your partner, among other things,” he suggests. Mariah is almost disgusted by that display of vulnerability. “Please don’t talk to me about your feelings right now.” At the start of I Get Physical, he feels excluded from the joy felt by Mariah and Piranha.

In On and On, he confesses that his emotions cloud his vision. Despite the fact that here was only one way that Ridenhour could have known about Cornell Stokes throwing Tone from the roof in Code of the Streets, it takes Shades too long to realise that Comanche must be the informant. “Because I love you I was blinded by that sh!t,” he admits to Comanche. “I didn’t see the snitch in you.” Indeed, his emotions lead him to sabotage the scene that he is staging. Shades plans to make it look like Comanche and Ridenhour killed each other, but he can’t resist the impulse to shoot Comanche at close range.

The character’s sunglasses become a metaphor for his desire (and his failure) to conceal his emotional volatility from the people around him. When he goes undercover to expose Mariah in Can’t Front on Me, she exploits his vulnerability. “Take your glasses off.” She observes, “You been crying?” Shades tries to brush it off, responding, “Allergies.” However, it is clear that Shades is highly emotionally volatile despite his attempt to cultivate a cool and collected street persona. He is not as conventionally “macho” as he presents himself.

Much like Luke himself, Shades overcompensates for the perceived attacks upon his masculine identity. Shades is obsessed with guns, which have always been pop cultural shorthand for masculine identity. Repeatedly over the course of the series, Shades asserts his control over a situation by producing or threatening to produce his gun; his hand at the small of his back in the meeting with Bushmaster in Wig Out, his brandishing of the gun to intimidate Alex in The Creator, his betrayal of Mariah to Misty by surrendering a gun in Can’t Front on Me.

In The Basement, it is revealed that Shades held back an entire basement full of gigantic over-compensating assault rifles from the sale of the gun franchise to Bushmaster. “First rule of business?” Shades asks Comanche. “Never sell the good shit,” Comanche responds. Given that The Basement is quite explicit in the Jungian subtext of what a basement actually represents to these characters in this comic book show setting – “the basement of your psyche” – it is clear that this masculine over-compensation is fundamental to who Shades is.

Similarly, Shades frequently asserts his power by attacking women. The primary crime that drives the police department’s pursuit of Shades in the second season of Luke Cage is his murder of Candace Miller in You Know My Steez, an unarmed woman that he lured to her death with subterfuge. Similarly, Shades takes great pleasure in trying to make the women interrogating him break down in Can’t Front on Me, laughing as his lawyer leaves the room when he recounts the murder of her son and repeatedly needling Misty.

Luke Cage repeatedly points out the futility of Shades’ attempts to assert his masculinity. He is obsessed with guns and firepower, despite the fact that Mariah’s two biggest enemies are both impervious to bullets. Despite having a gun in hand at the climax of Can’t Front On Me, Shades proves less than worthless. Shades is largely impotent over the course of Luke Cage. He stands by and does nothing while Tone shoots up Pop’s in Code of the Streets. As pointed out, his most significant accomplishment is arguably ambushing and murdering an unarmed woman in You Know My Steez.

Theo Rossi concurs with this assessment, conceding that Shades’ greatest enemy is not Luke Cage or Bushmaster:

Himself, who he is. Comanche brings something up in him, that he did not expect, nor do I believe he wanted. If there’s no Comanche, Shades is on that like … move forward let’s do this, this, and this, and let’s keep the gun business, let’s take over, and let’s raise hell. Maybe if it wasn’t Comanche, Tilda might have affected his plans in a way. Comanche really threw a wrench into his entire system, because it humanized him. It made him become what maybe he tried not to be any more. His emotions got the best of him and that ultimately, that caused a chain reaction of him doing something that he definitely did not want to do, which was take out someone who probably meant more to him than anyone in his life, in Comanche.

There is something fundamentally tragic in this, in the way both Luke and Shades are undone by their performative hypermasculinity.

It’s intriguing to see a show engaging so explicitly and so thoroughly with the idea of masculine identity. It is one of the most engaging recurring motifs of the second season, an example of an area in which Luke Cage has grown in the gap between its two seasons.

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

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