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Luke Cage – For Pete’s Sake (Review)

Maybe we don’t all become our parents, but we do live in their shadows.

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of parents and children as a consistent thematic arc across the length and breadth of the season. In Soul Brother #1, Luke is thrown off his game by the arrival of his long-absent father in Harlem, seeking to reconnect. In Straighten It Out, Mariah is informed that one of better chances at going legitimate would be to cultivate a relationship with her own long-estranged daughter. From his introduction, even before his story is articulated in On and On, Jon McIver is clearly seeking justice for his parents.

This is not something that the second season conjures out of thin air. The first season had also hinted at generational tension. The battle between Luke Cage and Willis Stryker in the second half of the first season was largely fought in the shadow of the as-yet-unseen Reverend James Lucas, with Luke even taking Claire home to Georgia in Take It Personal to provide a sense of his history and back story. Similarly, both Cornell and Mariah wrestled with the obligations and the wounds that the Stokes family had inflicted upon them, seen in flashback in Manifest.

However, as all successful sequels and follow-ups tend to do, the second season of Luke Cage works from those small kernels and develops them into a strong central thematic arc for the various characters. Reverend James Lucas actually appears, force Luke to work through his anger and his rage towards his emotionally distant father. Similarly, Mariah is forced by political necessity to reach out to the daughter who has largely been absent from her life, which serves as a catalyst for confronting all of these deep-set issues.

This parental anxiety simmers through the season in interesting ways. The Jamaican restaurant that serves as Bushmaster’s base of operations is called “Gwen’s”, implicitly named for his long-deceased mother and a reminder of what motivates him. At the climax of On and On, the story of the loss of Bushmaster’s mother is cut against Luke remembering the last time that he saw his own mother. Similarly, Tilda’s store is named “Mother’s Touch.” In For Pete’s Sake, she assures Reverend Lucas that she meant “Mother Nature’s Touch”, but it seems a telling choice.

The second season of Luke Cage is all about family. Those that are there, and those that are not.

It should be noted that parents tend to be a huge part of the superhero genre; often absent. Superman’s entire world blew up, taking his birth parents with it, so that he had to be raised by the Kents. Batman was born when Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down in the street. Matt Murdock was orphaned when his father was murdered for refusing to take a dive. Even in Iron Fist, Danny Rand was taken into the care of K’un-Lun after his parents died in a plane crash.

Superhero stories tend to focus on the relationships between parents and the children, even outside of iconic characters and familiar origin stories. When Geoff Johns rewrote the origins of Green Lantern and The Flash, he placed increased emphasis on the trauma of losing parents at a young age. Not only did Peter Parker lose his birth parents as a child, his transformation into a superhero was driven by the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. However, the deaths of parents tend to shape superhero origin stories. They are rarely a fixture of on-going series.

This is arguably something carried over from fairy tales and young adult stories. As Greg Anderson-Elysee notes:

Yet the chances of a parent staying alive in a superhero/comic book are rare. Deceased parents, a trope all too common in superhero stories, is often an important component of that character’s origin. Bruce Wayne’s war on crime every night dressing up as the Batman is a reaction to the death of his parents. Peter Parker takes up the responsibility to be a hero at all costs after his father figure, Uncle Ben, is shot by a robber whom Peter previously let get away due to pride and arrogance.

Not every superhero has a parent involved in their mythos. There are a lot of heroes (and villains) whose parental upbringing we haven’t been introduced to, and some simply referenced or briefly showcased. A good number of superheroes tend to become parents in their own right, their characterization and development being presented as the next stage of their lives, in a sense “aging” and maturing them.

As such, while parents are important to superhero stories, they are rarely foregrounded for extended periods.

Delving into these themes in the second season feels appropriate from a simple structural perspective. Introductory installments are often about establishing characters and core dynamics, while later stories can then peel back the layers and add additional insight into those characters and their dynamics. In terms of films, many pulp properties will wait until the sequels to force the protagonists to make peace with their parents and to confront their troubled family history.

It has been argued that the entire Star Wars franchise can be boiled down to a story about family, but it should be noted that this theme was only really foregrounded with the reveal that Darth Vader was Luke’s father in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Similarly, as much as Steven Spielberg focuses on family dynamics in his work, Indiana Jones only got to reconcile with his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Kirk only got to meet his son in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

These are just the big ticket examples. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has Peter Quill confronting (and defeating) his long-absent father. Iron Man 2 includes a subplot in which Tony Stark tries to make peace with his own deceased father through film reels and old footage. Although Jor-El was undoubtedly a major part of the original Superman, the character literally reconciles himself with his son at the climax of the Richard Donner cut of Superman 2, merging with Kal-El to restore the latter’s Kryptonian powers.

Even in franchises where the parent played an important role in the original film, and where their influence on their child was keenly felt, there is a tendency to double down on that connection. The original Godfather is very much about Michael Carleone’s relationship to his father, and the pair do share several scenes. However, The Godfather, Part II arguably doubles down on this connection by consciously paralleling Vito Carleone’s ascent to power with Michael Carleone’s attempts to hold on to that power.

In fact, it should be noted that this parent and child dynamic has been a fixture of the two other second seasons of Marvel Netflix shows. The second season of Daredevil featured Matt Murdock and Elektra Nachios working through their complicated relationship with their surrogate father figure Stick. The second season of Jessica Jones forced Jessica to confront her mother, whom she had thought dead for decades. As such, the second season of Luke Cage is, in its own way, of a piece with the second seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

The second season of Luke Cage arguably integrates the theme more consistently and more successfully than Daredevil or Jessica Jones. After all, Stick is a fundamentally absurd mentor figure in Dardevil, so he doesn’t quite work as an exploration of a dysfunctional parental dynamic; it is hard to imagine any version of the relationship between Matt, Elektra and Stick that wouldn’t be toxic, even before the metaphorical incest element is added in top. The second season of Jessica Jones buries the lede, waiting until AKA Facetime to reveal the familial dynamic at play.

The parental themes within Luke Cage are undoubtedly informed by the show’s exploration of the African American experience. Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker even frames the central arc of the season in those terms:

Well, you know, I find that black men in particular have interesting relationships when it comes to their fathers. For many of us, myself included, fathers are distant figures that aren’t necessarily involved in our lives on a day-to-day basis, so there’s bitterness that comes from that and there’re questions that come from that on a very fundamental level of ‘What makes a man?’ and ‘Am I a man?’ and ‘In being a man, am I a good man, and what does that really mean?’ And then you have black men who have very compelling dynamics with their fathers in terms of how they’re defined by them. And so not all black male father-son stories are dysfunctional, but when you have one that can move from dysfunctional into where it was supposed to be in the first place, which is how Luke and his father’s relationship evolves this season, it gives you something special. And ultimately, by the end of the arc Luke and his father have reconciled and it helps Luke be in a stable place to move on for the rest of the season.

The father is an important figure in all communities, as demonstrated by the success of stories like the Star Wars saga. However, there is a slightly different context for the father within African American communities.

Reverend James Lucas is an absolutely fascinating character, and the second season of Luke Cage uses him very well. He is introduced immediately after the opening credits in Soul Brother #1 without any real context. He is rehearsing his sermon in front of a mirror, and decrying the negative impact that Luke Cage has had upon Harlem. This is before the audience even knows of his familial connection to Luke. Later on, in the same episode, James confronts his son in the street. The sequence is incredibly tense, director Lucy Liu shooting it like a stand-off in a western.

The dynamic between James and Luke is immediately established and tense and adversarial, in keeping with how Luke explained it to Claire in episodes like Take It Personal. Luke asks if his father needs money, and James responds, “Always, but not from you.” There is pride in his voice, as if accepting charity from Luke would lower him. James refuses to acknowledge Luke by the name that he has taken, insisting on referring to him as “Carl.” James bluntly states, “Your name is the name I gave you, boy.”

It is a tense sequence, and one that invites the audience to see James the way that Luke has always seen him; indeed, the sequence cleverly includes several shots of James from Luke’s perspective, to reinforce this idea. It is a canny move, with Luke Cage consciously siding with Luke in this tense familial reunion. After all, the audience arguably has even more reason to be suspicious of James than Luke does in this introductory sequence. The audience has seen James rehearsing a sermon insisting that “Harlem’s worship of Luke Cage has reached golden calf proportions.”

However, even in that introductory sequence, the audience sees something more. Luke cannot see it because he is too close, but it is definitely there. Luke is very definitely his father’s son, arguably even more after escaping from Seagate than he ever had been before. Luke arguably even looks more like James than he did before the experiment, both men rocking the shaved-head-and-goatee look. In fact, the second season does out of its way to emphasis how relatively recent Luke’s new look is, with flashbacks in On and On and family photos in For Pete’s Sake.

However, even that conversation in Soul Brother #1 reinforces how James and Luke are more alike than either would concede. Even James’ staunch insistence upon the value of his own name mirrors that of Luke within the same episode. “I was rockin’ full congregations before you were born, negro, on my name alone,” James insists, reflecting Luke’s early conversation with Claire about his “brand.” Luke responds, “Wow. You are still the same egotistical bastard that you have always been.” This is ironic in an episode where Luke declares that he is Harlem.

There is a sense that Luke has been created in his father’s own image, as much as he refuses to acknowledge this fact. There is no small irony in James’ career as a preacher, a man who argues that mankind was created in the Lord’s image; there is no small amount of ego in a father making that claim. As Claire points out in Wig Out, Luke is being destroyed and torn apart by his unwillingness to acknowledge how much he shares with a man that he clearly loathes. All of that comes out in that opening conversation.

According to Coker, that first scene between the two characters was informed by his own troubled relationship with his father and provided an opportunity for catharsis:

I had a very difficult relationship with my own father, who I loved dearly. He passed away in 1997. That scene between Luke and his father [in season 2] when he runs into his dad in the park, I wrote that scene in about five minutes. It wasn’t until I wrote the scene that I realized, “Damn, as much as I think I was over my issues with my dad. I’m not.”

The scene just wrote itself. Both Reg E. Cathey and Mike Colter found the nuance in it, and Lucy Liu’s direction of that scene was spectacular. They were able to be human. They were able to basically express both sides of the argument in it. It was a complex look at black male masculinity that you rarely get the opportunity to see in television.

Coker is entirely correct here. The sequence is elevated by a variety factors, including the direction and performances. However, the writing is also top notch.

The similarities between Luke and James run even deeper than those articulated in that opening scene. In one of the season’s slier recurring gags, both Luke and James share an abiding affection for the work of James Cameron; just different works. James makes affectionate reference to the end of Titanic in both Straighten It Out and For Pete’s Sake. Luke urges, “Let it go, man.” James responds, “I can’t let it go.” In I Get Physical, Luke notes of Misty arming herself, “That is some Ripley in Aliens sh!t.” Misty deadpans, “I was going for Sarah Connor.”

More seriously, the arc involving Luke and James wraps up in For Pete’s Sake when James comes to accept the parts of Luke that don’t come from himself and when Luke comes to accept the parts of himself that come from James. “You know, the best part of you, you got from your mother,” James confesses. “You follow that compass inside of you, and you will never go wrong.” Luke replies, “You know, some of the better parts are from you, too.” He waits a beat, before elaborating, “The swagger.” James replies, “You’re goddamn right.”

Over the course of the season, the character of Reverend James Lucas evolves. The audience witnesses him transform from a broadly drawn archetype into a more nuanced and complex individual with his own journey and his own ideas. Reverend James Lucas is a deeply flawed human being, and the second season never glosses over these flaws and the damage that they have caused to the people around him. He is imperfect, just as Luke himself is imperfect. If Luke Cage is ambivalent about superheroes as role models, then perhaps parents are a child’s first superheroes.

Reverend Lucas works in large part due to the casting. Reg E. Cathey joins Luke Cage as a “guest star”, despite his name (deservedly) appearing in the opening credits of the seven episodes in which he appears. Cathey brings an incredibly humanity to the role, portraying a man who looms larger-than-life over his son, while remaining recognisably human. Cathey is innately charming, whether delivering sermons in Soul Brother #1, Straighten It Out or If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, or even talking with other characters one-on-one in Straighten It Out or For Pete’s Sake.

Coker singles out Cathey’s contributions to the season as something that really made the character work:

Reg E. was actually the last actor that we cast in season one, in terms of regular recurring characters. Once we cast Reg E. — because I was such a huge fan of Oz and The Wire — all of a sudden I heard the character’s voice. Literally, I wrote that opening sermon in his voice and it must have taken like ten minutes.

I always thought, even when Reg was sick, it was always my hope that he would go into remission or that we would have the opportunity to watch the show together. That’s actually one of my regrets, that he never got to see the season. He would’ve loved it so much. I’ll never forget the first table read we did for episode one. From the second he read his sermon for the first episode, all of a sudden, everyone in the room was like, “Oh man, this is a whole new element to the show.”

It elevates the series, and it makes sense that the second season capitalises on Cathey’s voice as much as possible.

The second season of Luke Cage was one of the last projects on which Reg E. Cathey worked. The actor passed away in February 2018 following a battle with lung cancer, at the age of fifty-nine. The second season of Luke Cage had wrapped production three months earlier. According to Cheo Hodari Coker, Cathey did film his appearance on Elementary after his recurring role on Luke Cage, even though that episode was broadcast earlier. The second season of Luke Cage is dedicated to Reg E. Cathey, with a title card appearing at the end of They Reminisce Over You.

Cathey passed away in the gap between the end of filming and the release of the second season. The production team were aware of his illness, and so likely suspected that he would not be returning for a third season. As such, the actor’s passing hangs over the second season of Luke Cage, casting a long shadow and perhaps colouring the role slightly. It certainly adds an extra layer to the heartfelt reconciliation between Luke and James at the end of For Pete’s Sake, when James makes it clear that he will be returning to Georgia to tend his flock.

This sense of loss is reinforced by the use of Cathey’s voice at the end of They Reminisce Over You, sampling his speech about heroism in For Pete’s Sake. Coker insists that this was planned before Cathey passed:

The ending was given extra weight with a poignant voiceover from the late Reg E. Cathey as Luke’s father. But if you assumed that was put there as a tribute to the actor, you’d be wrong. “The thing that’s interesting about that is I had done that before he passed,” Coker reveals.

“So it wasn’t like ‘oh, he passed, let’s pay tribute’, it was more like, when you see Luke sitting down with the weight of the world on his shoulders, what’s he thinking about? And so it became a natural path to put that conversation there. It’s one of those things, when we did it, it brings the entire season together because Reg E’s voice is the first thing you hear at the beginning of the season, ‘people talk about Luke Cage like he’s Jesus’, and then at the end when he talks about the definition of a hero, was just really one of those things that make you think ‘oh man, this show’s the sh!t’,” he laughs.

Despite the fact that it wasn’t planned before Cathey passed away, it is still coloured by that knowledge. There is something very poignant in that shot of Luke looking out over Harlem’s Paradise, James’ voice in the background.

There’s something very traditional and very old-fashioned in the second season storytelling beat of Luke making peace with James. Luke Cage is perhaps the most traditionally superheroic series among the four Marvel Netflix series, the one closest in spirit to old-fashioned superhero storytelling. This is reflected in a number of different ways; from its willingness to run with superheroism as a metaphor for for celebrity, through to its more distinctive and heightened visual and aural aesthetic, through to its willingness to play with comic book tropes.

However, this very traditional approach to superheroics is perhaps best reflected in the way that the series approaches storytelling. There is something very broad and archetypal in the way that Luke Cage constructs its narratives, more structured and meticulous than the plotting on Daredevil or Jessica Jones. There’s an elegance and a craft to the rhythms of Luke Cage that is missing from the other series. Perhaps appropriately, it is the Marvel Netflix series that most explicitly and overtly references the archetypal hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell.

Luke’s journey in the second season of Luke Cage is towards what Campbell described as “atonement with the father.” In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell outlined the importance of this step of the journey:

For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim’s own ego – derived from the sensational nursery scene that has been left behind, but projected before; and the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical nonthing is itself the fault that keeps one steeped in a sense of sin, sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith of the world. Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster – the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult. One must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy. Therewith, the centre of belief is transferred outside of the bedevilling god’s tight scaly ring, and the dreadful ogres dissolve.

Campbell’s writing appears to have been a significant influence on the plotting of this arc, whether directly or filtered through the lens of a popular culture that has turned Campbell’s work into a secular bible.

The parallels are striking, down to the choice of language. “He’s not the ogre that you think he is,” Claire tells Luke of James in Wig Out, evoking the metaphorical language employed by Campbell. More than that, it is immediately clear to the audience how James could represent both “the dragon thought to be God and the dragon thought to be Sin” to Luke; James was both a minister and an adulterer. In fact, as outlined in episodes like Soul Brother #1 and I Get Physical, Luke’s big personal journey across the season is towards “an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself.”

This reconciliation with the father is a cultural touchstone, a message reinforced by countless films and television shows. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi might be the best example of this, in which Luke Skywalker jeopardises a top-secret mission to save the galaxy from the Empire, all so that he can have a heart-to-heart with his father and attempt a reconciliation. Inevitably, that reconciliation happens; the day is won, the Empire is defeated, the galaxy is saved.  There are many other films following this template, from Paper Moon to Paris, Texas.

This message can be deeply problematic, hinging on the idea that biological family members are inherently owed forgiveness and reconciliation by those they have harmed, without having to make any changes or compromises. There is something potentially damaging in the suggestion that children are obligated to love their biological parents, no matter what those parents have done or how those parents have failed to protect them or provide from them. There is something to be said for the emergence of “found” family narratives like The Fast and the Furious.

The Return of the Jedi is the perfect example of a toxic reconciliation narrative. Vader is by all accounts a monster, complicit in countless crimes committed by the Empire. Even by reference to Star Wars itself, Vader is responsible for the destruction of Alderaan and everybody on it. However, he is forgiven at the end of The Return of the Jedi. He doesn’t have to help defeat the Empire, he doesn’t have to stand trial for what he has done, he doesn’t even has to apologise. All Vader has to do to earn redemption and love is to throw the Emperor into a pit to save Luke.

The second season of Luke Cage is cognisant of the potential challenges in constructing an “atonement with the father” narrative. The season makes it clear that Reverend James Lucas has changed. He has put the work in. He has recognised that he made mistakes in the past, and is willing to learn from those mistakes. He seems ready to make the first steps towards reconciliation in Soul Brother #1, even if he still bristles at Luke’s insults. “I was raw, and I wasn’t ready,” he confesses of his difficulties in making things right. “I am now.”

Indeed, the characters complete their journey towards atonement in For Pete’s Sake, in which it is James who lets go of his own ego and makes a confession about his relationship with his son. “Don’t you make your calling a curse,” James insists at the end of the episode. “You be better than me.” This is a startling expression of personal culpability, particularly given the ego that Luke has described and which the audience has seen in action. James takes a great deal of pride in his own moral authority, so acknowledging his son is a better person is a big step.

There is something heartwarming in how the second season of Luke Cage approaches the idea of parenting as something superheroic in its own right, a theme that unites films as seemingly disparate as Deadpool 2 and Incredibles 2. There is something endearing and affecting in this allegory. “Children matter,” Mariah tells Luke in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right. “They hold our hopes, our dreams. They blot out your mistakes.” In Deadpool 2, Vanessa more succinctly argues, “Kids give us a chance of being better than we used to be.” James clearly believe that.

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that parenting can fundamentally change a person. When Luke notices “something different” about Sugar in Soul Brother #1, it is that the goon has become a father; it is implied that this change in perspective is what leads him towards helping Luke later on in the year after refusing to be complicit in the massacre in The Main Ingredient. In I Get Physical, Bobby Fish gets to be a “hero” to his daughter through the simple act of being there and donating a kidney.

“Done properly parenting is a heroic act,” Edna tells Bob in Incredibles 2. However, she hastens to add, “Done properly.” One of the more subtly interesting aspects of the second season of Luke Cage is how the series makes the case that parenthood itself is not enough to fundamentally change a person. That person has to be willing to change themselves, and that heroism can flow from those changes. It is a surprisingly nuanced take on a fairly common thematic trope.

Pointedly, the second season of Luke Cage consciously and clearly parallels the parent-child relationship between James and Luke with an equivalent dynamic between Mariah and Tilda. If the arc between James and Luke suggests that parental reconciliation can be helpful if both parties open themselves up to the opportunities it presents, the dynamic between Mariah and Tilda serves as a cautionary tale about how dangerous such attempts at reconciliation can be if either side is unwilling to compromise.

James’ return allows Luke to make peace with some of the torment in his soul, demonstrating the best case scenario for this sort of familial reconciliation. In contrast, Mariah’s reunion with Tilda only leads to the complete psychological deterioration of both characters. Mariah and Tilda serve as an obvious contrast to James and Luke. From the moment that Mariah inserts herself back into Tilda’s life, the two find themselves passing one another on a downward spiral.

Tilda brings back painful memories of family trauma for Mariah, who is not able to handle them. Mariah is also incapable of looking beyond her own emotional and political needs to be the mother that Tilda clearly needs. Far from this reunion allowing Mariah or Tilda to heal one another, their attempts at reconciliation only accelerate their downward trajectories. This is most obvious in For Pete’s Sake, when Tilda forces Mariah to articulate her sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and to confess that Tilda was the product of incest.

Mariah is either emotional unprepared or unwilling to confront what this confession means to Tilda, so caught up is Mariah in expressing her own anguish and her own suffering. Mariah has not done the emotional work that James has done, has not positioned herself in such a way that this confession might strengthen her bond with her daughter. “I never wanted it,” Mariah cries of the abuse. “And I never wanted you. I tried to love you. I tried. But I don’t. That’s the truth.” Mariah is incapable of seeing as her own person, as anything more than a marker of past trauma.

It should be noted that James had similar issues relating to Luke during the low point of their relationship. “I was wrong in blaming you for your mama’s dying,” James confesses to Luke at the climax of On and On. “I’m so, so sorry, son.” However, the difference is that James was willing to eventually work past that anger and that trauma for the good of his son. Mariah is unable to think of anybody beyond herself. Even in For Pete’s Sake, she is willing to throw Shades to the wolves to secure her plea deal. (“Hernan can take care of himself.”)

There is an interesting nuance in this parallel. While the father-son relationship between James and Luke parallels the mother-daughter dynamic between Mariah and Tilda, the comparison is not exact. Most obviously, Luke is contrasted with Mariah rather than Tilda. This is reflected in a number of small ways, even just within For Pete’s Sake. When James and Tilda bond, he admits, “I have faith in my son.” Tilda replies, “Wish I could say the same for my mother.”

More than that, Luke Cage’s ego is overtly likened to that of Mariah Dillard. In I Get Physical, Misty pointed out that she could arrest Bushmaster if Luke were willing to go on the record and testify against him. Luke refuses because that would been seen as weakness. In For Pete’s Sake, Misty makes pretty much the exact same offer to Mariah. “If you go on record that Bushmaster burned down your home, we can have him locked up in an hour.” Much like Luke refused in I Get Physical, Mariah refuses on pride and principle.

However, Luke and Mariah differ in the family values that they hold dear. At the climax of For Pete’s Sake, Bushmaster shows up and demands that Luke surrender Mariah to him. “Tell me, Mariah,” Luke wonders, “what would you do if the roles were reversed?” Mariah replies, simply, “I’d have thrown your ass to the dogs the minute they started barking.” Luke nods. “Yeah. There’s only one thing keeping you alive right now. Unfortunately, I was raised better than that.” Luke proceeds to risk his life to protect a woman who would happily murder him at the first opportunity.

While the presence of Reverend James Lucas as a major recurring character places a strong emphasis on the role of fathers within the second season of Luke Cage, the season seems particularly invested in the idea of absent mothers. After all, Bushmaster’s revenge seems more focused on the death of his mother than the loss of his father, while it is the death of Luke’s mother that drove a wedge within the Lucas family. Mariah has largely been absent from her daughter’s life and tries to reconnect with her.

This recurring emphasis on absent mothers might be a sly commentary on a number of pop cultural clichés. It might represent a knowing inversion of racially-charged stereotypes about the absence of African American fathers in their children’s lives. (This stereotype still haunts the community, even into the twenty-first century.) It might also allude to the prominence that superhero narratives tend to give to fathers over mothers, with most Batman origins preferencing Thomas Wayne over Martha Wayne. (The exceptions are particularly notable.)

It is fascinating to see Luke Cage give up so much space to the idea of black female identity. In All Souled Out, Mariah offers Tilda a tour of her new “families first” centre that will be designed to “help young single mothers starting fresh or starting over.” Mariah explains, “Black women have always had superpowers. Turning pain into progress, nothing into nurture.” It could reasonably be argued that Luke Cage is much more intersectional in its politics and characterisation than Jessica Jones.

However, this focus on fathers and mothers all ties together into a larger motif of family. Arguably the entire emotional arc of the second season of Luke Cage is tied up in a generational feud between the Stokes and the McIvers, with violence begetting violence and passed from parents to children as a grim inheritance. Evan Narcisse argues that this is really a logical extension of the first season’s emphasis on the theme of community:

As all of these family-centric threads spool out, they give Luke Cage the chance to do what the show does best: invoke the rhythms of black speech, culture, and spiritual practice in warm dramatic ways and bind them to simmering genre-inflected drama. Though season two still feels like it could’ve been tighter in terms of runtime, I’m glad so much attention was given to the themes of family and legacy. The Luke Cage TV show has always been more about the community than the hero who lives in it, and this season highlights the fact that it’s families who build community. It’s also families who get broken when chaos erupts, and season two shows how that latter truth pushes Luke to be better as a hero.

This is a convincing argument. If the first season of Luke Cage was about trying to capture some of Harlem on screen, then the second season has been about trying to layer the series’ own fictional geography atop the literal space. The Stokes and the McIvers are fictional constructs, but they speak to broader and more powerful ideas of identity and community. The Cages are now part of that as well.

Family is a foundation in the world of Luke Cage, just not in the way that Mariah thinks. It is a building block for the community, but also for the individual. In the world of Luke Cage, heroism starts at home.

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

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