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Luke Cage – The Basement (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage inevitably battles with the infamous Netflix bloat.

This is a structural problem with a lot of Netflix series, but particularly with the Marvel Netflix fare. It is a result of a combination of factors, from the production team’s commitment to telling a single serialised story in a give season to the need to pad all of these seasons out to fill thirteen episodes. To be fair, certain seasons are more affected by this bloat than others; the first seasons of Iron Fist and The Punisher tell simple stories in extreme slow motion, while the second season of Jessica Jones spends almost half a season building towards the starting point of its own story.

The first season of Luke Cage had its own particular twist on this issue of pacing and padding. The first half of the season flowed relatively smoothly, as reflected in the extremely positive pre-release reviews that praised it as a series that “should rightfully elevate [Cheo Hodari] Coker into the league of television auteurs.” When the entire series was released, reaction was a bit more muted, with a second half of the season that effectively extended a ninety-minute blaxploitation homage into six hour-long episodes filled with stalling tactics and wheel-spinning.

At the end of Manifest, Luke Cage was shot by Willis Stryker, which effectively (and literally) took the lead out of his own show for a three-episode trip to Georgia that lasted through Blowin’ Up the Spot, DWYCK and Take It Personal. To prolong the plot, Cage and Stryker fell into a pattern of attack-and-repeat; Stryker shot Cage with a Judas bullet in both Manifest and Blowing Up the Spot, while Luke forces a confrontation with Stryker in Now You’re Mine, only for the season to stall with an episode about the police chasing Luke in Soliloquy of Chaos before allowing a final fight in You Know My Steez.

That second half of the first season was disastrous, with characters dancing around one another in order to hit a mandated running time, the desperation obvious in the variety of contrivances that prolonged the drama. In contrast, the second season has much great balance and control, never descending to that level of clumsy plotting in order to justify the thirteen-episode season order. At the same time, there are points where the series is obviously stretching itself out in order to make this story last thirteen hours instead of eight.

While still imperfect, the second season of Luke Cage represents a significant improvement.

The term “Netflix bloat” has entered the popular consciousness, referring to the tendency of stories on Netflix to take longer than strictly necessary to get to the proverbial point. Ani Bundel explains its origin and usage:

The term “Netflix bloat” was created to refer to the streaming service’s inability to edit its shows down. While it’s great that Netflix writers and directors feel free to create without the rules and regulations guiding terrestrial television, this freedom is coming with a cost. Bloating has now become an unwelcome feature marring some of the best Netflix programming. Even documentaries like the recently released “Seven Seconds” feel badly weighed down, practically wallowing in their ability to explore every tangent possible.

Netflix doesn’t need to fill a calendar year. It’s not beholden to advertisers; no syndication mark needs to be hit in order to qualify for lucrative reruns. So if the show only has enough plot to fill three episodes, they should make only three episodes. Stranger Things, for example, has seen the value in running only as long as it needs. (It also adjusts as needed, running eight episodes in the first season and nine in the second.)

As Bundel suggests, there is an irony in this. One of the luxuries of being a streaming service like Netflix is freedom from the limitations on form that define television producer; more relaxed scheduling to encourage creative innovation, no need to fill a schedule, no need to structure episodes around advertisements.

Indeed, one of the biggest selling points of Netflix is that it effectively allows those working with a great deal of creative freedom. Many people are worried about Netflix replacing or subverting conventional cinema or television, but that does not quite cover Netflix’s mandate. The streaming service exists largely to fill a niche, to provide a framework for series that simply could not exist in the modern broadcast television landscape. This is why Netflix is resurrecting shows that were cancelled on broadcast television, like Arrested Development or Lucifer, despite not having traditional audiences.

Netflix can provide content for audiences that are being crowded out of other more competitive entertainment spheres. The romantic comedy Set It Up is a great example, a film that could never have existed in the current blockbuster-driven multiplex market place. No major studio would finance the assembly of Orson Welles’ lost film The Other Side of the Wind, but Netflix did the calculations and found that it was something that could work in their business model. When Paramount couldn’t find room for a Martin Scorsese film with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, Netflix stepped in.

Indeed, there’s a plausible argument to be made that what is classified as television on Netflix isn’t “really” television, its form being so radically different from content developed originally for that medium. After all, if people can argue that Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t a television series with a straight face, surely a similar argument can be made for the content that Netflix produces? To be clear, the argument that Netflix is releasing “ten- or thirteen-hour movies” doesn’t quite hold water either, suggesting that these series might be considered something of a hybrid form.

After all, divorced from the idea of regularly scheduled viewing and the weekly release cycle, without the rigid formal constraints of act breaks to fit advertisements and pre-determined runtimes, can series like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage be properly compared to something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? These might sound like trite structural observations, but it should be conceded that “the medium is the message.” How the story is told naturally impacts upon what the story is, and recent technological innovations have made traditional boundaries more porous and abstract.

It is, for example, hard to imagine any television channel producing anything as surreal and experimental as the fourth season of Arrested Development. For all of its flaws, the structure of the season was bold and experimental, and arguably something that could never have worked in the context of conventionally scheduled and released television; effectively the same story told from fifteen different perspectives, the season was more of a modern art project than a television series. It could be watched in any order, in any sequence, only coming together when the audience completed it.

This is the idea in theory. The Netflix is so fundamentally different from existing channels of distribution that it can offer stories that break out of existing frameworks, whether because they aren’t deemed commercially viable or they don’t fit within the established notions of what is possible within those established structures. In reality, the results are quite mixed. Any system that produces Beasts of No Nation and Mudbound deserves to be lauded, even if Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox are decidedly less meritorious.

This gets at the issue with the way in which Netflix breaks down a lot of the boundaries – economical and structural – that define modern storytelling. Dismantling these structures can liberating in the hands of the right storyteller, but can also lead to self-indulgence in the hands of less restrained producers. Sometimes restrictions serve to focus storytelling; just because an accepted norm is rooted in the demands of satisfying a conventional television audience doesn’t mean that it is without value.

There is something to be said for efficiency in storytelling; to “start as close to the end as possible” and to avoid over-extending the ending. There is some truth in the cliché that rules are made to be broken, of course, but only by those who understand the principles underpinning those rules in the first place. The Marvel Netflix shows all suffer from some form of over-extension in some form or another, even the first season of Daredevil, which remains the company’s most efficient thirteen-episode season.

Part of this is simply down to the fixation on thirteen episodes as a default format, a holdover from the era of television when Netflix has already moved past limitations like ad breaks or rigidly-defined runtimes. In fact, it could be argued that television itself has moved past this hurdle quicker than the streaming service, with Sam Adams noting that modern broadcasters seem more flexible when it comes to placing season orders:

There’s been, if not a groundswell in eight-episode seasons in recent years, at least a pleasingly consistent number of them (Broadchurch, True Detective, the forthcoming Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), which indicates the TV industry is taking further steps toward smashing its prefab forms and asking how long is enough to tell a given story and how long is too long. As long as sales to foreign territories where shows that are streaming-only in the U.S. air on regular TV are an important factor, the medium won’t be able to shake off the episodic format for good. But someday we’ll have shows that consist of 40 six-minute episodes and others that run three episodes of three hours apiece, and TV will be much stronger for it.

After all, audiences accept that films are only as long as they need to be. The Dark Knight might run for two-hours-and-thirty-two-minutes, but Dunkirk is only one-hundred-and-six minutes long. Film can accommodate snappy seventy minutes romantic comedies and four-hour epics, and everything in-between. Why shouldn’t television have a similar freedom?

Of course, The Defenders only ran eight episodes, five episodes shorter than the usual Marvel Netflix season order. Although this was largely down to scheduling issues involving the cast, it was a welcome reprieve from the five thirteen-episode season that preceded it. It felt particularly welcome following the grim slog that was Iron Fist, a television series that spent more than twelve episodes teasing the idea of a dragon only to reveal two glowing lights against a black backdrop in Dragon Plays With Fire.

However, even allowing for the abridged order, The Defenders still dragged with only eight episodes in its first season. The episodes were all bloated. The pace was plodding. There was simply not enough plot to sustain these four central characters and their supporting casts across eight hours of screentime. Indeed, watching those eight episodes, it seemed to suggest that the issues with pacing that haunt most Marvel Netflix series are not specifically tied to episode count, but suggest more fundamental plotting issues.

While some critics did question the pacing of the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, this criticism of the company’s pacing only really became part of the conversation with the release of the first season of Luke Cage. Indeed, Cheo Hodari Coker even had to acknowledge the criticism in discussions of the first season with Pilot magazine:

“The standard conventional wisdom is that the show was great up until episode 7, and then went downhill because Diamondback wasn’t as good a villain as Cottonmouth,” he admits. “But as Jeph Loeb, the President of Marvel Television jokes, Mahershala couldn’t have followed Mahershala!”

“It was a great try,” he confesses when asked about that first run of episodes. “Some people enjoy the full season. Some really felt the second part was not as strong as the first. And I get both…but you’ve got to take a chance to make your series different, and I thought it was commendable. If people thought it was a miss, that’s fine. We have a different approach for the next season.”

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the second season is the way in which the production team have clearly learned from some of the reaction to the first season. This is most obvious in the manner in which the season approaches its antagonists. The first season pulled a villain swap in Manifest, swapping out Cornell for Stryker. In contrast, the second season makes a point to keep the stories of its two antagonists, Mariah and Bushmaster, unfolding in parallel.

At the same time, it is clear that the second season of Luke Cage does suffer from some pacing issues. Once again, there is a sense that there is simply not enough story here to fill up thirteen episodes. In fact, the problem might be more fundamental than that. There is not enough material to fill up thirteen episodes of this length. The average episode of the second season of Luke Cage runs about an hour, with They Reminisce Over You running for approximately an hour and ten minutes.

It should be noted that this example of bloat is becoming increasingly common, the expansion of a single episode of television beyond the confines of a predetermined runtime. A lot of this is down to the emergence of cable, where broadcasters are not as beholden to advertisers as their network counterparts. Game of Thrones has featured a number of feature-length episodes. All of the episodes of the show’s final season are rumoured to run over eighty minutes long, effectively turning them into mini-movies.

Critic Kathryn VanArendonk has argued that this trend towards extended episodes of television reflects a self-importance on the part of modern television that is rarely earned:

It started on cable, where a prestige drama on HBO meant a full hour-long runtime rather than the measly 43 minutes granted to an episode on commercial television. The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence — and the prestige and “quality” implications — of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

The problem is now endemic to a whole cohort of muscular, more-important-than-regular-TV TV series. FX’s Legion, ostensibly an hour-long commercial cable show, hits 61 minutes in its season two premiere, and many of its first season episodes topped 50. The same is true for FX’s other Noah Hawley drama, Fargo, and FX’s The Americans is another frequent offender, although I’d argue it’s also one of the few shows to really earn its extra time. On USA, Mr. Robot’s season three finale hit 57 minutes. It’s the same situation for TNT’s The Alienist and its crime-family drama Animal Kingdom. And the original premium cable timeslot busters have relaxed even further into the slide toward immensity. There’s Westworld and Game of Thrones, but even underwhelming entries like Here and Now tip over the 60 minute mark. The Vinyl pilot was a full two hours.

To be fair, this is an inherently subjective judgment. Whether or not an individual episode justifies its length will always come down to an individual’s taste, and there is something more than a little elitist in suggesting that certain types of series can or cannot justify taking additional time to tell their stories.

At the same time, where the average runtime of an episode of Luke Cage cut down to around forty-five minutes, the old broadcast network standard, that would shave the equivalent of between three and four episodes from the season as a whole. This would make a great deal of difference, as it is often on the level of individual scenes and story beats (rather than on individual episodes) that these series get caught in familiar rhythms and patterns. Perhaps the issue is not the thirteen portions that make up the season, but the padding necessary to fill out each of those portions to hit the hour mark.

Again, it is easy to be cynical and dismissive when discussing television series in this way. The production team take a great deal of care in deciding the final version of the episode that is released to the public. Even with the extended running time of these thirteen episodes, the production team have made edits and cuts along the way. The writers and producers still acknowledge the limitations of the audience’s attention span and the need to maintain a sense of narrative moment. For example, an entire conversation explaining the origin of Mariah’s copy of Red Kings was cut from the season.

Even allowing for this, there is no denying that the second season of Luke Cage is over-extended. As critic Alan Sepinwall explains:

Marvel’s Netflix shows are structurally flawed because they insist on pure serialization across a full season without having complex enough plots to warrant that. (Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in particular would easily lend themselves to the Justified format, where the first half of the season is mostly standalone hours about the heroes working a new case each time, with the big arc slowly developing in the background until the big conflict begins in the second half.) But even beyond the imbalanced plot/time ratio, there’s a flatness – and cheapness – to be found across the whole run. For every one dynamic scene, whether straight-up superhero action(*) or simply a moment involving many characters bouncing off each other at once, there are at least a half-dozen lifeless two-person conversations. The same handful of points are repeated over and over: Cage won’t forgive his father’s adultery, Mariah’s business and romantic partner Shades (Theo Rossi) resents being treated like a henchman, Bushmaster insists on calling Mariah by her maiden name because of the bad blood between the families, Mariah is torn between her legit image and her gangster roots, etc. Like Cage says, it’s just rinse and repeat, all exposition of things from decades past that sound more exciting than what we’re watching in the present.

Sepinwall is entirely correct that repetition is the big issue with the second season, the series hitting a lot of the same beats over and over.

The Basement is perhaps the best example of this repetition within the larger structure of the season. The basic premise of the episode is a familiar Marvel Netflix premise. It is the spiritual successor of the classic “bottle episode” template, a stock television plot that would strand the cast in a single fixed location in order to help ease some of the budget and production pressures. These episodes are frequently shot on standing sets and use relatively few special effects. As such, they can work very well from a character perspective, telling stories anchored in cast interactions.

These sorts of episodes are a staple of the Marvel Netflix series, and most work relatively well. The first season of Daredevil buried the protagonist under the city with a criminal in Condemned. The second season of Daredevil trapped the title character on a roof with Frank Castle in New York’s Finest. It could be argued that best episode of The Defenders was Royal Dragon, in which the cast took shelter in a Chinese restaurant in the midst of a heated pursuit. These episodes allowed the writers a chance to flesh out the characters, and allow them to interact with one another.

The Basement arguably does something similar. It is a relatively quiet episode that hinges primarily on interactions in relatively confined locations. Luke Cage takes “Piranha” Jones under his protection and spends most of the episode hiding in an abandoned Harlem Cinema. While there, they engage in discussions that illuminate their characters, move the plot forward, and tie back into the larger arcs of the season as a whole. Although Shades and Comanche move around a bit more, the episode also features an extended scene with the two waiting patiently in Pop’s.

This is a solid template, but there’s a sizable problem with this. Later in the season, For Pete’s Sake hits on a lot of the same beats, in a much more satisfying manner. In both episodes, Luke is “hired” to protect one of his enemies; it is “Piranha” Jones in The Basement, while For Pete’s Sake trades up to Mariah Stoker herself. In both episodes, Luke takes shelter in a single location; it is an abandoned cinema in The Basement, while it is a Rand Industries building in For Pete’s Sake. In both episodes, Luke works through his father issues; he talks about his father in The Basement, but talks to his father in For Pete’s Sake.

This is not the only way in which The Basement feels like a placeholder covering familiar ground. A lot of the narratives feel like they are in holding patterns. Misty Knight had a miniature arc in All Souled Out, in which she refused to compromise and plant evidence for fear of becoming like Scarfe. She quits the police force in The Basement and On and On, only to be drafted back in in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, discovering that Captain Ridenhour never processed her paperwork. It extends an arc that was largely completed in the previous episode.

Similarly, the climactic confrontation between Luke and Bushmaster feels narratively unnecessary. It is another one of those fights that seems mandated by the structure of the season. Every third episode of the season ends on a throwdown between Luke and Bushmaster, as if the production team are worried that the audience might forget what is at stake. Bushmaster ambushes Luke and overwhelms him at the end of Wig Out; Bushmaster uses a paralytic agent to incapacitate him in The Basement; Luke defeats Bushmaster in the open in For Pete’s Sake; Luke defeats Bushmaster at Harlem’s Paradise Can’t Front On Me.

To be fair, the fight between Luke and Bushmaster in The Basement serves a thematic purpose. It is another illustration of how Luke’s pride undercuts his heroism; it allows “Piranha” Jones to escape from the church and get himself caught, while Luke is off “beating [his] chest around town.” However, the season has already repeatedly established Luke’s shortsightedness. His challenges to the world in Soul Brother #1 and to Bushmaster specifically in Wig Out, his refusal to press charges against Bushmaster in I Get Physical, his refusal to reach out to Danny for help in All Souled Out.

There is a sense that most of the conversations in The Basement are reiterating arguments that have already taken place or standing in for debates that will finally play out. Luke discusses his father with Piranha; Luke has already articulated his issues with his father to Claire, lashing out to the point of smashing a wall in Wig Out. Luke has a tense conversation with his father; Luke has already has a tense conversation with him in Soul Brother #1 and in Straighten It Out, and will have more in On and On and For Pete’s Sake.

This sense of repetition doesn’t only apply to Luke. Anansi warns Bushmaster about the folly of his ways, and of disgracing the Jamaican community; the two have a similar conversation at the tailor’s in On and On. Comanche needles Shades about his devotion to Mariah; other characters did that in Soul Brother #1 and Straighten It Out, while Comanche made his own feelings on the matter clear in I Get Physical. There is nothing wrong with repetition as a way of reiterating core themes and characters. However, there is a point where it feels like the story is moving in circles.

To be fair to the second season of Luke Cage, this is not a unique problem. The other Marvel Netflix series frequently bump into this issue. Even the first season of Jessica Jones, which may be the most worthy and satisfying of seasons to be released, suffers from these sorts of problems. Jessica spends AKA Ladies Night, AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey uncovering Kilgrave’s secret weakness: anesthetic. Kilgrave is captured (or almost captured) and escapes multiple times across the season: AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

Coker has defended the length of the second season of Luke Cage, comparing it to a jazz record:

Honestly, it’s like jazz. In the bebop era, it used to be that you only had three minutes to make a song. But once you were able to not have three minutes and you could do 25 minutes, it changed the nature of jazz composition. It’s like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins — it changes jazz because you could stretch.

Now, if he’s saying every episode needs to be a pop single, he can have that Britney Spears s—. You know? Like, he wants Taylor Swift, Britney Spears. We’re trying to make Zeppelin records. He’s probably the kind of person who thinks that “Stairway to Heaven” is a waste of time, you know what I’m saying? Like, God forbid that song meanders, especially as it builds to its climax. He’s the kind of person who probably wanted to edit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you know? There will be some people who prefer that stretch and then some people who are like, “You know what, I like pop.” And I get it. It’s cool. There’s literally a million other things you could be doing, but if you like what we’re doing, then I want to give the fans who like what we’re doing as much as they can take.

To be entirely fair, Coker is cherrypicking his examples. Four of Rolling Stone‘s top five songs ever written clock in under four minutes.

At the same time, there is some truth to Coker’s argument. The second season of Luke Cage does occasionally feel like it is riffing on its central motif. Even if its over-extended scenes and its familiar repetitions serve to enrich the thematic tapestry of the season as a whole. Luke’s whole “enemy mine” situation with “Piranha” Jones in The Basement might feel like a dress rehearsal for the bigger “enemy mine” with Mariah in For Pete’s Sake, but it allows the series to develop its throughline about parents and children. Even a minor supporting character like Piranha gets to discuss his family history.

There is something to be said for how exactly Luke Cage chooses to use a lot of its extended runtime, even scenes and plots that do not necessarily go anywhere. Misty’s attempt to frame Cockroach in All Souled Out is the kind of plot thread that could easily feel like the show running down the plot, especially given the reveal that Bushmaster had already murdered Cockroach. After all, it is a plot thread where a character literally does not do a particular thing. It is, on paper, the antithesis of storytelling. Misty is tempted, and then resists the temptation. It is not really a story.

However, it works well when integrated with the rest of the season. It provides a sense of contrast between Misty and other law enforcement officers on the series, like Scarfe or Nandi. It represents Misty rejecting the school of vigilantism that Luke has chosen to embrace. It is Misty acknowledging that she feels the same frustrations with the system as Luke, but affirms her belief in working within the system rather than outside of it to affect meaningful change. It is a great character beat that fits very well with everything happening around it.

Similarly, Luke’s brief flirtations with capitalist superheroism in the season – hired by “Piranha” Jones at the end of All Souled Out and by Mariah Dillard at the end of On and On – are not merely continuity nods to the character’s original comic book series. They underscore how easily Luke can be corrupted and tainted, how easily he can be misled, even with the best intentions. Similar to the series’ exploration of celebrity in episodes like Straighten It Out or of masculinity in episodes like Wig It, it all plays into a broader theme about how easily heroism can metastasise into something horrific.

Even within episodes, there’s a sense that Luke Cage is able to take advantage of its length to flesh out little details that might otherwise get lost in a more literal-minded and results-focused series. This is perhaps most notable in a number of scenes that the series decides to extend beyond what would normally be practical on a television series, and especially within the genre confines of a superhero show. For an action series about a man with unbreakable skin caught in the middle of a war for Harlem, the second season of Luke Cage is willing to take its moments when it needs them.

The centrepiece of For Pete’s Sake comes to mind, a nine-minute conversation between Mariah and Tilda in a nondescript office, in which Mariah traces the entire history of the Stokes family to the present day, revealing Tilda’s father is also her grand-uncle. It’s a small and intimate scene; there are no cutaways or flashbacks to take the audience out of that fairly generic physical space. Instead, For Pete’s Sake luxuriates in Alfre Woodard’s performance, trusting the actor to carry the audience through the scene. There might be a shorter version of the scene that works, but it’s hard to imagine it working as well.

There is a similar moment in Can’t Front On Me, in what might be one of the most quietly technically impressive sequences in any of the Marvel Netflix series. Shades is confessing to his various misdeeds over the course of the two seasons, and being deliberately provocative in his account; an example of Shades asserting his masculinity in toxic and destructive ways, by reveling in his ability to cause pain in others. At one point in the interrogation, he asks for some water. Misty leaves to get it for him.

As she does, the camera follows Misty out of the interrogation room, through the corridors, into the common area, and back into the room. It’s an impressive single take that captures the internal geography of the police station, the camera skillfully gliding through tight and enclosed spaces. However, the real beauty of that sequence comes from Simone Missick’s performance. As Misty leaves the room, she breaks down under the weight of what she has heard. She falls to pieces. Then she pulls herself together and goes back in. It’s an astonishing beat, and one that could easily have been sacrificed to efficiency.

Other tricks to extend the season are more transparently stalling tactics, but demonstrate a wry self-awareness on the part of the production team. One of the major arcs in the middle of the season is Bushmaster’s attempts to gain control of Mariah’s fortune and to take hold of Harlem’s Paradise as his birthright. To this end, there is an extended run of episodes following Bushmaster as he chases down Piranha in The Basement, captures him and forces him to sign over Mariah’s assets in On and On, and takes control of the Harlem’s Paradise in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right and For Pete’s Sake.

Bushmaster loses control of Harlem’s Paradise and Mariah climbs back on top for the final three episodes of the season. It effectively turns this middle stretch of a season into a detour, albeit one with a host of interesting character beats. However, there’s something both cheeky and confident in the way that the opening scenes of The Main Ingredient explain that the transfer was “not legally binding” because Piranha was tortured and dismembered. (That’s “duress.”) It’s a nice ironic twist on a genre staple, and it’s nice to see the absurdity of the whole familiar “torture the lawyer” beat articulated within the plot itself.

In keeping with this motif of theme and character as more important than plot, Coker has explicitly likened the second season of Luke Cage to a “visual concept album” built around ideas:

The only thing you can do is to make the best record you possibly can make. I say “record” because I treat Luke Cage as if it’s a concept album. Luke Cage is a bulletproof version of [Beyonce’s] Lemonade. It’s a visual concept album with dialogue. That’s the way I make all musical decisions. [The show] is about how it feels in addition to the themes and the visuals. It’s all one package.

This is not an unreasonable way to approach superhero storytelling, given its archetypal nature. The basic and broad concept of a bulletproof black man will always resonate better than the specifics of the police brutality plot building on similar ideas in Take It Personal.

There is an impressive thematic cohesion to the second season of Luke Cage, even in smaller scenes. In The Basement, Captain Ridenhour is interrogating Mariah about her tendency to hire ex-cons to work at Harlem’s Paradise. “It’s better to give a con a chance,” she explains. “Turn him away, he got to rob you.” This is a lie, of course; Mariah is simply employing people who can (or have no choice but to) do the work that she wants done. But that line gets to the core of Mariah’s feud with Bushmaster. Bushmaster feels like his family have been disrespected and ejected from their heritage, so he tries to rob it back.

However, there is more to it than that. There is an endearing rhythm and tempo to the series, most obvious in some of the more playful transitions and cuts in the series that serve to reinforce key themes and ideas. To pick a subtle example, The Basement cuts from Luke rescuing “Piranha” Jones from a derelict Harlem cinema with a poster for the pulpy movie The Crimson Skull to Mariah in her office at Harlem’s Paradise in the shadow of Basquiat’s Red Kings, a more high-brow piece of art which depicts its own crimson skull. It’s a clever and canny juxtaposition.

A more potent example of this layering of thematic material occurs at the climax of On and On, which cross cuts between two different confrontations: Luke arguing with his father, and Bushmaster avenging himself on Mariah. The second season of Luke Cage somewhat overdoes the whole “two sides of the same coin” thing with Luke and Bushmaster; it feels a bit much when Bushmaster declares that “under different circumstances, we could have been friends” in The Basement. However, the juxtaposition of their conversations at the end of On and On makes the point much more convincingly.

It’s hardly subtle. Both Luke and Bushmaster are talking about the anger that they carry around inside of them, and how it drives them. More than that, both Luke and Bushmaster are specifically talking about the last times that they saw their mothers and how those incidents stoked the rage and resentment burning deep inside themselves. It is not especially nuanced storytelling, but that is fine. As with the first season, the second season of Luke Cage takes great pleasure in being a superhero series, and that includes wallowing in heightened melodrama. Bushmaster does confess this while planning to burn Mariah alive, after all.

There are other smaller ways in which the second season of Luke Cage makes better use of its extended runtime than the other Marvel Netflix series. Perhaps the most obvious is the manner in which the season avoids the obvious tactic of the “big bad swap”, a patented technique employed by these thirteen-episode series in order to extend the runtime. The premise is simple; an early antagonist is introduced and built up, only to be swiftly demolished around the midpoint so that a new (even bigger) antagonist can introduce. This allows the series to freshen things up; new character, new stakes, new dynamics.

Several of the Marvel Netflix series employ the technique. The first season of Daredevil has the title character focusing on the Russians, before it becomes clear that Wilson Fisk is the season’s primary antagonist. The second season of Daredevil has the protagonist taking on the Punisher before the Hand show up. Even The Defenders makes the highly questionable choice of killing off Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra Reid in Ashes, Ashes, replacing her with Elektra. Typical of Iron Fist, the series offered a particularly botched spin on the cliché, replacing the Chinese version of the Hand with the South American version of the Hand.

The evasion of this familiar narrative trope in the second season of Luke Cage is especially notable given how disastrously the first season had employed the technique. The first season introduced Mahersala Ali as Cornell Stokes, a compelling and engaging character who provided a fascinating counterpoint to the eponymous hero. Cornell was layered and engaging, and played by an actor whose star was on the rise. Ali would win an Oscar for his work in Moonlight, only a few months after the season was released. Cornell was a highlight of the first season, and a large part of what critics and audiences loved about the show.

As such, brutally killing off the character at the end of the seventh episode was a bold creative choice. More than that, Cornell didn’t die in a particularly “epic” way. Instead, his death was treated as a brutal subversion. Manifest initially appeared to be an origin story for the villain, flashing back to his troubled childhood so that the audience might better understand him. However, the climax revealed this be narrative sleight of hand. The episode was really about his cousin Mariah, who pushed him through a window and smashed his skull in. It was genuinely shocking.

However, the death of Cornall created a narrative vacuum that needed to be filled. The second half of the first season introduced a new antagonist, Willis Stryker. On paper, Willis Stryker was a half-interesting concept. He was a gigantic homage to blaxploitation cinema and heightened superhero melodrama, the protagonist’s secret brother who was also one of the biggest arms dealers working in the United States. However, while the concept was intriguing, the execution was underwhelming. Stryker was a one-dimensional cardboard cutout villain, his flaws particularly obvious when contrasted with Cornell.

Perhaps accepting this criticism, the second season of Luke Cage cannily avoids a similar midpoint switcheroo. The second season features two primary antagonists, with Luke squaring off against both Mariah Dillard and Jon McIver. However, rather than taking on the two characters one-at-a-time, Luke is forced to deal with them both simultaneously. It is a canny plotting choice. Having more characters in action at the same time allows for more possible combinations and points of intersection, keeping the drama fresher and allowing for shifting dynamics. It represents a significant improvement on the first season.

There is undoubtedly a looseness to the second season of Luke Cage, a sense that the series could easily have been tightened or trimmed in certain places. There is definitely redundant dialogue and repeated plot beats to extend the series to thirteen one-hour episodes. At the same time, the second season of Luke Cage does a better job than most Marvel Netflix series at trying to justify its length, perhaps coming closer than any season since the first season of Daredevil. The second season of Luke Cage is definitely self-indulgent, but it also feels confident and assured.

The second season of Luke Cage is certainly longer than it needs to be, but it makes better use of that time than most of its contemporaries.

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

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