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Luke Cage – If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right (Review)

The past stays with us.

Part of what is interesting about the second season of Luke Cage is the manner in which it engages with, and builds from, what came before. Continuity is a long-standing fixture of superhero narratives, most obviously in the four-colour source material. Fictional characters accrue a history, as individual issues and appearances add up to create a complex set of interlocking details that define and shape the character. It is in some ways comparable to how individual histories help to forge identities and determine who we are.

Of course, it should be noted that superhero movies and television shows have carried over some of this continuity from the comic books. Although cinema’s first “shared universe” was arguably constructed between the Universal monster movies of the thirties, the modern popularity of the term is driven by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an elaborate physical construct that ties together everything from Avengers: Infinity War to Daredevil to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The idea is that, in theory, events from one end of this universe might ripple over to another. After all, Misty can drop a casual reference to “the Incident” into an interrogation in Straighten It Out, a nod to the events of The Avengers which can be used to justify the proliferation of advanced technology within this shared universe. Overlap can happen in the strangest places, such as a character mentioned by Misty in For Pete’s Sake turning up a week or so later in an episode of Cloak & Dagger.

At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled to build a truly interconnected universe, in part due to the commercial of realities of film and television production. As a result, Robert Downey Junior is highly unlikely to pop by Hell’s Kitchen for an homage to Born Again, while the Hulk can only be explicitly referenced as “the big green dude” in AKA It’s Called Whiskey or “the green monster” in All Souled Out. The characters from The Defenders are highly unlikely to ever have to worry about Thanos’ finger snap, after all.

This strange dissonance and discontinuity that exists between the various facets of the live action Marvel Cinematic Universe is part of what makes the strong continuity connections between the first and second seasons of Luke Cage so compelling, the sense of a tightly woven narrative that is expanding in a logical way from earlier events, where characters’ current behaviours are largely shaped and defined by what the audience has already seen. It’s a very effective use of continuity, particularly for a comic book television series.

It should be noted that continuity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is rarely as tight as its fans and creators would suggest. Part of this is simply down to the practicalities of film and television distribution, and the need to attract a large audience. Comics books can be relatively insular and tightly interwoven, because the audience is small enough that there is no real need to make it accessible. In contrast, Marvel Studios produces tentpoles that attract massive audiences, and so need to be tailored in order to welcome as many viewers as possible.

As such, continuity between installments can be relatively lax, with the primary focus on a giving film being to attract audiences to this film rather than remaining true to the events of last film. As a result, Thor can have a big dramatic arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron about going off to look for Infinity Stones before brushing that mission aside in the opening scenes of Thor: Raganarok by admitting that he… just didn’t find any. That seems like a rather sharp left-turn in terms of plotting, but is justified by the fact that letting Taika Waititi make his own movie is the better choice.

The Avengers itself is arguably ground zero for this sort of loose plotting, particularly in the way that it brushes aside key aspects of each of the earlier films in order to make its own plot work. The end of Thor has the title character separated from Earth, only for the crossover to send him back to Earth with a handwave. The end of Iron Man 2 has Nick Fury rule Tony Stark out of his crossover initiative, but that’s never really dealt with in the big crossover. When Bruce Banner shows up, he looks and acts nothing like the version of the character from The Incredible Hulk.

It constantly feels like the franchise continuity is rewriting itself from installment, a practical decision given that no story is as important to Marvel Studios as the story that it is producing at any given moment, and making that story work on its own terms is more important than integrating it with what came before. As such, Captain America: Civil War gets to gloss over Tony Stark’s behaviour in and responsibility for Age of Ultron rather than confronting it directly, because doing that would shift the narrative weight in a manner that would impact Civil War.

This is rather different to how comic books approach continuity. As Paul Gravett explains in Graphic Novels, Marvel’s success as a comic book publisher is in no small part down to how it cultivated internal consistency and continuity:

By situating all their heroes in continuing soap opera melodramas set in the same interconnected “universe,” they were building stories into histories, with the possibility of consequences and change. They turned every issue into part of a larger whole, of the expanding back-story or “continuity.” Shrewdly, they were also attracting an older, hipper student audience and enticing readers into picking up every issue of every title. Marvel’s continuity meant that their stories mattered, but also resulted in stories never reaching an end, only a pause, in their ceaseless, momentum-driven spinning of yarns.

Of course, the idea that the Marvel Universe can be treated as a single cohesive story is a fantasy, but one that matters a great deal to the publisher and its fans.

To be fair, this sort of storytelling is arguably more suited to television than it is to film. Cinema is still a broad and populist medium, built around the idea that any given film (even a sequel or prequel) can draw in an audience of complete strangers attracted by the right marketing or reviews. In contrast, television is increasingly shifting towards the idea of long-form storytelling and serialisation, narratives and characters that are allowed to evolve over the course of weeks or years. Shows like The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men all come with dense internal continuity.

More than that, many of the shows that helped popularise serialised televisual storytelling over episodic narratives were clearly of a piece with these pulpy comic book narratives. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has been described as “the harbinger of the current Golden Age of Television”, but can also still be described as “the best superhero show.” It is no surprise that Joss Whedon has engaged repeatedly with superhero storytelling, whether as the writer of Astonishing X-Men or as the director of The Avengers.

(This is to say nothing of the fact that other influential nineties television series that flirted with serialisation and long-form storytelling tended to be science-fiction series like Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or The X-Files. It could be argued that the superhero genre, particularly as defined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the sixties, is an extension of the same pulp science-fiction vibe. Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these strange individuals and phenomena are often categorised by reference to pseudo-science.)

While the Marvel Netflix shows are largely serialised. Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and The Defenders tend to tell a single story over the course of a full season; of course, it’s possible to quibble over semantics or to argue as to whether each is a single story or multiple interlocking stories, but that description holds true. However, despite the fact that they adopt a highly serialised storytelling technique, the continuity between (and even within) these series is often relatively loose.

This is most obvious in terms of the Hand, the primary villains of the massive crossover in The Defenders. The ominous cult is reinvented and reimagined over the lead-up to The Defenders. Initially, Daredevil presents them as a group of ancient ninja assassins very much in keeping with their comic book counterparts. However, Iron Fist muddies the water by suggesting that they are simultaneously both arch-capitalist drug tycoons and also subversive radical communists. The Defenders splits the difference by making them a generic ancient secret society.

This lack of continuity is reinforced by a number of behind the scenes factors on Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the first two of the Marvel Netflix series to get second seasons. The showrunners changed between the first and second season of Daredevil, leading to both a sharp change in direction and a massive drop in quality. The first and second seasons of Daredevil did not feel of a piece, differing wildly in terms of genre and tone despite an overlap in terms of core cast and certain basic plot threads.

Admittedly, the plot of the second season of Daredevil built off the first season’s mid-year breather episode Stick. Still, Stick was abstract enough that it never felt of a piece with the more routine and pedestrian plotting of second season episodes like .380, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel and A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. Similarly, the second season largely sidelined the villain Wilson Fisk, finding a small role for Vincent D’Onofrio in Guilty as Sin, Seven Minutes in Heaven and The Man in the Box. As a result, the second season felt like a completely different animal.

The second season of Jessica Jones had a much stronger connection to what came before, carrying over most of the primary cast and the same showrunner, maintaining a consistent creative throughline. The second season of Jessica Jones explores some more iterations of ideas like toxic masculinity or misogyny in ways that feel like an extension of the first season. However, the plot of the second season is far removed from that of the first. More than that, the loss of Kilgrave following his death in AKA Smile haunts the season, even with his role in AKA Three Lives and Counting.

This makes the second season of Luke Cage relatively distinct from the second seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The first and second seasons of Luke Cage are more tightly interwoven with one another, intersecting in more intriguing and compelling ways. This is not merely a matter of carrying over the same themes of black identity and social responsibility, but it is also reflected in how the story is constructed. It might be possible to watch the second seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones after reading a summary of the first seasons, but Luke Cage is different.

The second season of Luke Cage obviously builds off and references the big and headline events of the first season. Characters openly reference what happened with Willis Stryker, and the awkward relationship that he had with Luke Cage. The murder of Cornell Stokes still casts a long shadow over the series. Characters like Bobby Fish and D.W. Griffith still hang around the barbershop. Mariah even references Luke’s brief re-incarceration in Soul Brother #1. All of these beats are expected. They are the bare minimum of continuity carried over from one season to the next.

However, what is particularly striking about the second season of Luke Cage is the manner in which it repeatedly and consciously calls back to the first season in a variety of seemingly minor ways, allowing what were relatively small moments amid the larger cacophony to be expanded and explored. Ironically for a series critiqued for its slow pacing and narrative padding, the second season makes a point to put some of the quieter beats under the microscope and explore how they inform these characters at this moment.

To be fair, a large part of this is down to the fact that the second season of Luke Cage has the luxury of carrying over two primary antagonists from the first year, in terms of Mariah Dillard and “Shades” Alvarez. Mariah and Shades were arguably background villains during the first season, secondary to Cornell and Stryker in the two halves of the year. However, these two villains carry over across the twenty-six episodes of these two seasons, providing a nice thread that runs parallel to that of Luke himself, and providing a consistency lacking from Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

Through Mariah and Shades, Luke Cage is able to constantly and consistently engage with its own past. This is most obvious in the way in which the second season brings back minor players from the first season and inflates their roles, the past literally expanding into the present. LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Curtiss Cook reprise their roles of “Mama Mabel” Stokes and “Pistol Pete” Stokes from Manifest, appearing in another round of flashbacks in The Creator. However, within The Creator, they also appear as hallucinations, conversing actively with Mariah.

Thomas Q. Jones portrayed Comanche as a background character in two episodes of the first season, appearing as a flashback character in Luke’s memories of prison in both Moment of Truth and Step in the Arena. In the second season, Comanche is allowed to step out of the past and into the present. He is introduced literally stepping out of a car from prison to greet Shades in Soul Brother #1. This background character from the first season flashbacks becomes an unlikely driving force in the second season, even beyond the six episodes in which he appears.

To be fair, part of this is simply doing what a second season should do, deepening the themes suggested in the first season and exploring the long-term consequences for the characters involved. Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage arguably goes out of its way to deepen and develop characters who were minor players at best during the first season. Sugar gets a much expanded role and becomes a rather unlikely source of conscience. Even Bobby Fish gets a bit more back story and development in his conversations with Luke.

The past haunts the second season of Luke Cage in a number of interesting ways, suggesting an intriguing weighting of events within that first season. The death of Rafael Scarfe in Suckas Need Bodyguards was an example of the first season ratcheting up the tension and the stakes, with Luke forced to protect a dirty cop as part of his campaign to bring down Cornell. However, by the start of the second season, there has been enough time that the controversy has been allowed to breath and that its consequences can be keenly felt.

The consequences of Scarfe’s betrayal are arguably more keenly felt in the second season than they were in the first, with Misty getting really process the trauma in All Souled Out. In many ways, this is a strange choice for a character-focused narrative in the second season, an entire episode dedicated to flashbacks exploring Misty’s relationship with a partner who was killed off in the middle of the first season. However, Luke Cage is so committed to exploring the consequences of Scarfe’s corruption that it even brings back Frank Whaley for a guest appearance as Scarfe.

Scarfe was a minor character in the first season of Luke Cage, but he haunts the second season. The exposure of Scarfe had severe consequences. Cockroach is only walking around because of Scarfe’s corruption, as he reminds Misty in Soul Brother #1. When the body of Captain Ridenhour is found, shot dead with a covert informant that he was operating off-books, the New York City Police Department keeps its distance from the case. “They don’t like the optics,” Luke reflects in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right. Misty agrees, “They’re worried about a Scarfe sequel.”

Some of the continuity involved is surprisingly subtle and intricate. When the dead body found with Captain Ridenhour is identified as Comanche in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, Misty wonders to Luke, “Where do I know that name from? Wait. You said it. That night in your sleep. When we had… coffee.” She is entirely correct; Luke did mention the name “Comanche” way back during their one-night stand in Moment of Truth. That’s an impressive memory, for both the show and for Misty herself.

During her interrogation of Shades in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, Misty even makes a point to reference Shades’ murder of Zip during Soliloquy of Chaos. That was a good moment in the context of the episode, but it seems like a relatively small in the context of the cacophony raging around it; the manhunt for Luke Cage, the tensions between the police and community, the takeover of Harlem by Willis Stryker. Misty bringing the audience’s attention to that particular moment suggests that nothing is ever truly forgotten in the context of Luke Cage.

Even Bushmaster is revealed to have a completely plausible (if tangential) connection back to the first season. When introducing potential buyers for Mariah’s gun franchise in Soul Brother #1, Shades offers a very brief history of the three major candidates. The Jamaican candidate from Brooklyn, Nigel, is a brother to Neville. Neville was a very minor character in the first season who was casually executed by Willis Stryker in DWYCK. All of this serves to create an interesting and interconnected web of continuity.

It should be noted that none of these connections are major enough to feel forced, or to make the world of Luke Cage seem like a closed loop. The connections are random enough to feel organic, to reflect the workings of the real world where characters who work in similar industries in close geographical proximity to one another are likely to see some point of intersection. Instead, these small references and callbacks suggest that nothing truly happens within a vacuum and that every action generates reactions and consequences.

Indeed, given this emphasis on history and consequences within Luke Cage, it feels entirely earned when Mariah and Shades are brought down in Can’t Front On Me and Reminisce Over You by the combined weight of their shared sin, as represented by the continuity of Cornell’s handgun. The handgun is itself a piece of history, carrying within the weight of the sins committed. Cornell used it to kill Pete as shown in Manifest; Shades used it to kill Candace in You Know My Steez; Mariah uses it to kill Anansi in The Main Ingredient. The gun is history, and history catches up.

The idea that Mariah and Shades can escape their pasts is treated as folly. When Mariah boasted in Soul Brother #1 that a little money will wash “every sin” away, she was tempting fate and setting up some dramatic irony within the narrative. Mariah cannot hide from what was done to her and what she has done herself. Similarly, Shades cannot bury what has happened to him and what he has experienced, no matter how hard he might try to do so. There’s an epic and poetic quality to Mariah and Shades’ arc over the course of the season, trying to escape their histories.

Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker has argued that legacy and history are particularly important to African American identity, and that holding on to what exists of that is vital:

Well, the thing is, so much of the African American experience is about the redefinition of roots because of slavery. We were uprooted and there’s so much about our whole legacy that was stolen and that we lost in the Transatlantic slave trade that we’ll never find out. And so, so much of our history is about, okay, since we landed, depending where you ended up, what have you made of yourself in that place and what does that mean?

We end up creating new tribes, because we can’t necessarily… many of us can’t get specific in terms of, okay, were you this or were you that tribe? But you can know you’re from South Carolina, or South Central Los Angeles. Or you know, you say, “I’m from Detroit” or, “My people are from Roanoke, Virginia.” So, it’s like, where you come from and what that means once you got there and how fared all of a sudden take on a different meaning than their original meaning.

In many ways, Luke Cage wrestles with that challenge of history and identity. After all, the man called “Luke Cage” essentially reinvented himself in Harlem, by trying to shed his own history and even his own name.

At the same time, there is a tension within Luke Cage. While Mariah and Shades are clearly wrong to think that they can escape their past, that they can wash themselves clean of their sins and be born again, there is also a sense that fixating upon the past and living within the past can be inherently destructive. Mariah’s efforts to move past the sins committed by the Stokes are contrasted with the arcs of both Luke Cage and Jon McIver. In their own way, neither character is able to truly escape their own past traumas.

Luke is consumed by his hatred of his father, a toxic relationship that was suggested over the course of the first season and further articulated at the climax of On and On. Reverend James Lucas understands his past mistakes and seeks to atone for them, even explicitly acknowledging his failures and seeking forgiveness for them during his first meeting with his son in Soul Brother #1. However, Luke is unable to relinquish his anger towards his father, which arguably plays a major role in his beating of Cockroach in Straighten It Out, and his lashing out in Wig Out.

However, Bushmaster is even more explicitly trapped by his own history and by his own past. Bushmaster travels across an ocean in order to avenge himself upon the Stokes family, no matter what the cost to himself or to his people. Bushmaster murders countless individuals in his pursuit of justice, turning Harlem into a warzone and catching innocent lives in the crossfire. He places the Jamaican community under incredible scrutiny and provokes a brutal massacre of Jamaicans living in Brooklyn. Bushmasters destroys dozens of lives in pursuit of vengeance.

Much like Claire urges Luke to let go of his anger towards James in Wig Out, Anansi and other characters ask Bushmaster to move past his petty vendetta against the Stokes. The pettiness can be measured in how precisely and firmly Bushmaster corrects every utterance of “Mariah Dillard” to “Mariah Stokes”, as if his anger towards her is enough to change her name by deed poll. In If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, Bushmaster risks his own life and stability to avenge himself upon Mariah when she survives the demolition of her brownstone in On and On.

“Why?” Anansi challenges his nephew. “You won. You got everything. Mariah’s house burned and you have her club.” It should be noted that this very close to achieving karmic balance, especially given that Mariah was too young to be complicit in the murder of Bushmaster’s parents. If Bushmaster is correct that his cause is “righteous”, then balance is restored; his home was burnt and his club was stolen by Mariah’s relatives, and now he has visited that fate upon her. Somehow, that isn’t enough for Bushmaster.

The second season of Luke Cage suggests that retribution and revenge just perpetuate cycles of violence that can entire devastate communities. Held captive by Mariah in The Main Ingredient, Anansi warns her in the same way that he would warn his nephew, “I’ll tell you like I tell him. When one seek vengeance, he must dig two graves.” It’s a cliché, but an effective one that underscores the folly of what both Bushmaster and Mariah are attempting. Mariah doesn’t care, replying without a hint of irony, “That’s not enough holes for me.”

Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that this campaign is toxic to Bushmaster, that this hatred is poisoning him in much the same way that Luke’s bitterness over his father is warping his own perspective. Luke Cage is arguably more of a superhero series than any of the other Marvel Netflix series, and that’s a surprisingly simple moral core to this arc involving Bushmaster and Mariah, an argument that revenge is self-destructive. The series returns to two central metaphors for revenge: poison and fire.

Poison is an obvious metaphor in a number of ways; Tilda avenges herself upon Mariah using poison in They Reminisce Over You, literalising the toxicity of their relationship. More to the point, Jon McIver is literally using “nightshade” to transform his body chemistry in order to further his campaign of revenge. In If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, Anansi confronts Bushmaster about his use of the herb. “It will also poison your mind, soul and spirit. As it already has.” Anansi could just as easily be talking about Bushmaster’s single-minded fixation on revenge.

This metaphor is arguably foreshadowed in the conversation between Misty and Gabe Krasner in The Basement, over dinner. Krasner reflects on the peculiarities of how doctors treat snakebites. “If you get bit by a snake, paramedic poisons you again to cure you,” he observes. “And God help you if you have a bad reaction, because, at that point, you’ll wish you were dead. Believe me.” He is also talking about Misty’s own desire to avenge herself on Cockroach. In Straighten It Out, Reverend James Lucas even argues that hate is the enemy. “It poisons you.”

If the second season of Luke Cage uses poison as a metaphor for hatred, then fire becomes a metaphor for the consequences of all-consuming wrath. This is hardly a particularly innovative metaphor; fire lends itself to this sort of allegory. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri used fire as a metaphor for the chaos and destruction wrought by an angry mother, with fire consuming almost everything in its path. Killmonger expresses his rage in Black Panther by boasting, “I’m going to burn it all.” The second season of Luke Cage uses fire in a similar manner.

This makes sense. Anger is linked to fire, even just in terms of primitive linguistics. In Measuring the Experience, Expression and Control of Anger, Charles D. Spielberger, Eric C. Reheiser and Sumner J. Sydeman discuss the work of George Lakoff:

According to Lakoff, the predominant metaphor for anger in American English is: “Anger is the heat of a liquid in a container.” In his analysis of this metaphor, Lakoff observed that anger as an emotional state heats the blood, for which the body is the container. Examples of anger metaphors noted by Lakoff include: You make my blood boil, Letting off steam, Doing a slow burn, Getting hot under the collar, Simmer down, Reached the boiling point, Seething with rage, All steamed up, Blowing off steam, Fuming, Anger bottled up inside, Blew a fuse, Blew my top, Breathing fire, Burned up.

This is true. Anger does cause an individual’s body temperature to rise, which probably explains why the metaphor is so pervasive. One of the ironies of the second season of Luke Cage is that anger doesn’t just cause the body temperature of the person feeling it to rise. Fire is recurring motif in the second season of Luke Cage.

One of the most striking images in Soul Brother #1 is Luke emerging from the flames of an exploding truck. When Misty confronts Cockroach in Wig Out, he comments up the “fire in [her] eyes.” In I Get Physical, Gideon Shaw warns Misty, “Water destroyed the world last time. This time fire.” In Straighten It Out, Bushmaster outlines his plan to Anansi, “I must bring Mariah Stokes to her knees. Burn everything down, yeah?” True to his word, Bushmaster burns down Mariah’s brownstone at the climax of On and On.

For their part, the Stokes have also harnessed fire in their generational struggle against the McIver family. Mama Mable burned Gwen McIver and her house down, as shown in The Creator. In response to Bushmaster’s campaign of terror, Mariah burns Anansi alive in his own restaurant in The Main Ingredient. There is something very tragic in all of this, in the way that fire consumes and destroys everything, even across generations. The second season of Luke Cage does a good job lending a sense of scale and scope to this struggle.

This all creates an interesting tension within the second season of Luke Cage. If it impossible to forget the past as Shades and Mariah clearly long to do, and it is destructive to hold on to the past as Luke Cage and Jon McIver do, then what is the right way to engage with history? How can one acknowledge the past without being beholden to it? Reverend James Lucas might have the answer to that question, telling an assembled congregation in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right that there’s always time for forgiveness, to accept the past and to make it right.

“It is never too late to walk the walk of salvation,” Reverend Lucas assures his congregation, with Luke sitting in the back row. “It is never too late to ask forgiveness in the Lord’s eyes. It is never too late to press that reset button and start over.” There’s something very humanist and very optimistic in this, and central to the second season is the idea that James Lucas has actually changed and that Luke can reconcile with him if he is willing. Luke might have bulletproof skin, but he has still has some healing to do, and the second season of Luke Cage suggests such healing is necessary.

This is how one deals with the past in the moral framework of Luke Cage. Not by running away from it like Mariah or Shades, and not from feeling anger towards it like Bushmaster or Luke. Instead, one makes peace with the past and tries to build a better future with what they have learned. It’s a very heartfelt moral, but one that feels very in keeping with the superhero trappings of Luke Cage.

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

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