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Luke Cage – They Reminisce Over You (Review)

The queen is dead. Long live the king.

They Reminisce Over You is a fascinating piece of television. Running seventy minutes, it is easily the longest episode of Luke Cage. It is also, despite complaints about the “Netflix bloat”, one of the most tightly plotted. More than that, it exists primarily as a coda to a story that wrapped up in Can’t Front on Me. It exists largely to wrap a little bow around the various plot threads left dangling by that ending, and to set up a springboard from which the next season might build. It is remarkably well constructed, in a way that episodes of these Marvel Netflix series rarely are.

It also marks a clear point of transition. They Reminisce Over You marks the end of Mariah Dillard’s journey. Mariah is one of the most essential aspects of Luke Cage, one of relatively few characters to have made her first appearance in Moment of Truth and remained a constant fixture through the first two seasons. Cornell Stokes is dead. Pops is dead. Bobby Fish has traveled to the other part of the country. Rafael Scarfe is dead. Mariah is one of four major characters with that through line; herself, Luke, Shades and Misty. She is a big part of the show.

As such, the end of her journey is a big deal.

Alfre Woodard is a phenomenal performer. She earned an Oscar nomination for her work on Cross Creek and four Emmys for her work in television. Woodard is an instantly recognisable actor, who elevates whatever work she does. She has balanced leading roles in films like Passion Fish with supporting turns in movies as diverse as Star Trek: First Contact, Primal Fear and 12 Years a Slave. She is a fixture of television, have worked as a recurring player on shows like Desperate Housewives and St. Elsewhere and guesting on shows like L.A. Law and The Practice.

In fact, Woodard is one of the rare performers to have played two different significant roles within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, serving very much as a living example of the insulation that exists between the Netflix productions and the rest of Marvel Studios. The same year that Woodard played Mariah Dillard, she also appeared as the character of Miriam Sharpe in Captain America: Civil War. Her casting was news, to the point that many speculated she would play the first character to truly transition across the invisible barrier.

Of course, the reason that Alfre Woodard appeared in both Civil War and Luke Cage in the same year is very simple. If Alfre Woodard is available for a role and willing to be cast, it is generally a good idea to cast her in that role. Luke Cage has been very lucky with its casting, arguably having the strongest ensemble of any of the Marvel Netflix series; Mahershala Ali, Frankie R. Faison, Reg E. Cathey, Alfre Woodard, Frank Whaley, Rosario Dawson. This is to say nothing of work by less established actors like Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi.

Woodard might just be the best actor in the ensemble, with Mahershala Ali being the only real contender. Woodard has had the luxury of twenty-six episodes in which to develop Mariah Dillard into a complex and fully formed character, with a relatively straightforward dramatic arc with a clear linear progression. Even when the particulars of the arc get a little muddled, such as during the second half of the first season, it is always clear in which direction Mariah is moving and to what impulses she is responding.

Even if the cost of this was treating Mariah as a secondary villain for the bulk of the first season, none of the Marvel Netflix series can really compete with this. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones had spectacular villains in their first seasons, among the best antagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; these characters were so good that Daredevil and Jessica Jones even distorted the narratives of their second seasons in order to accommodate these characters in guest starring roles.

However, no single antagonist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had the concentrated space afford to Mariah Dillard so that she might be developed and explored. In fact one of the smarter things that Luke Cage did was marginalising Mariah in the first season, leaving her in the background compared to Cornell Stokes or Willis Stryker, because it meant that there was room for the character to evolve without having to shoulder the narrative until she was ready.

Mariah was the stealth antagonist of the first season of Luke Cage, as she was the stealth protagonist of Manifest, the season’s best episode. The first season of Luke Cage was structured in such a way that Mariah could always be around, and always remain in the frame, without stealing focus until she was properly primed and developed. Again, this approach its share of problems. One of the issues with the second half of the first season is that Mariah takes a backseat to a new villain who is decidedly camper and more simplistic. However, it largely works.

This approach ultimately pays off in the second season, which foregrounds Mariah almost immediately as the primary antagonist. She is the anchor within Harlem, the target of both Luke Cage and Jon McIver. More than that, she is introduced immediately in the midst of her own proactive plan to serve her own ends. Mariah’s plans and schemes are constantly derailed over the course of the second season, but she always feels consistent with what the audience knows of her, the show and the performer carefully peeling back layers to reveal more about her.

This is important, because the comic book character who shares the name and role with Mariah Dillard is nowhere near as compelling. In fact, as Jelani Cobb outlines, the “Black Mariah” Dillard from the comic books was an unfortunate racial stereotype:

“Black Mariah, in her earlier incarnation, was an overweight, loudmouthed, Black-English-speaking woman who would be closely associated with the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype,” he says. All these years later, his feelings about Mariah have changed, thanks to the show and the vision of its creator, Cheo Hodari Coker. “That was one of the things I liked about Netflix and what Cheo did with the series. He stripped that character to the studs and said, ‘What is a kind of villain that’s interesting but also doesn’t conform to these very flat ideas about black women, about Harlem, about community?’”

Indeed, a significant amount of time in Mariah Dillard’s early appearances, particularly during her first scene with her cousin Cornell in Moment of Truth, is spent rejecting these clichés. Mariah categorically rejects the label “Black Mariah” and presents herself as an elevated and aspirational figure.

It could reasonably be argued that the Mariah Dillard introduced and developed in Luke Cage has very little to do with the comic book character who shares her name. A lot of the facets of the character on the show were invented almost from scratch; her relationship to Cornell Stokes, her status as councilwoman of Harlem, her initial insulation from the crime and violence perpetuated by her cousin’s organisation. She has very little in common with the comic book character outside of her name and her status as the arch enemy of Luke Cage.

This sort of dramatic reinvention can often be frowned upon, particularly in the context of a shared multimedia reimagining of the Marvel Universe that prides itself on fidelity and continuity. Kevin Fiege has argued that the “secret” of a good adaptation is to “respect the source material, understand the source material and then, any adaptation you make from the source material should be done only to enhance whatever the original pure spirit of the source material was.” This is a very rigid understanding of the process of adaptation.

Some of the best adaptations, even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, involve a process of reinvention and reconceptualisation. This is particularly true when it comes to characters who are outdated and deeply problematic. Iron Man III remains perhaps the most intriguing film in the shared universe, in large part because of radically it reinvented the character of the Mandarin. In the comics, the Mandarin is a character who was little more than a collection of Cold War Oriental stereotypes. The film radically reconceptualised the character to make him work.

Of course, Iron Man III is still controversial among certain sections of fandom who desperately want an incredibly faithful portrayal of a racist caricature. However, the film was widely praised by critics and posted spectacular box office returns. It is worth contrasting this approach to that taken by Iron Fist, another Marvel Studios production that wrestled with Oriental stereotypes. Unlike Iron Man III, Iron Fist refused to acknowledge these, and the results were spectacularly terrible. Iron Fist has (justifiably) been described as Marvel’s “first complete misfire.”

There is arguably more freedom in reinventing minor characters than there is in reworking iconic figures. Luke Cage is very much a secondary figure within the Marvel Universe, and his original seventies villains are tertiary at best. As such, the production team working on Luke Cage have greater freedom to reinvent these characters than they would on a more popular brand. These reinventions have largely been successful, give or take Willis Stryker. Cornell Stokes, Jon McIver and Mariah Dillard are among the best villains in the entire shared universe.

In particular, the second season does a number of interesting things with Mariah, building off her ascent during the show’s first year. Mariah is already a gangster by the opening scenes of Soul Brother #1, but she longs to go legitimate, to drag the criminal organisation that she inherited out into the sun light. This goes spectacularly wrong in the middle of the season, during the stretch from All Souled Out through The Basement and into On and On, during which the character loses everything. Her business, her security, her home, her trust. All destroyed.

These events push Mariah over the edge, coupled with the emotional stress of attempting to reconnect with a daughter that she never wanted and could never bring herself to love. Mariah has a minor breakdown when forced to articulate her past trauma in For Pete’s Sake, and essentially embraces her worst side in The Main Ingredient. Traumatised both by recent events and by having to acknowledge what came before, Mariah loses control in The Creator and Can’t Front on Me, leading to her arrest. She is then is murdered in custody in They Reminisce Over You.

This gives Woodard both a clear arc to travel and a wide range of material to play. She gets to play a woman very much in control in Soul Brother #1, on top of the world before she falls. With the luxury and insulation of power and money, Mariah presents herself as somebody who genuinely cares about Harlem in episodes like All Souled Out. However, Woodard also gets to play the version of Mariah who gets that stripped away from her in For Pete’s Sake, and whose resolve hardens in The Main Ingredient.

Mariah Dillard is a character who has a tremendous emotional range over the course of her time on Luke Cage, who moves from the peaks to the valleys, pulled wildly in one direction or another. To be fair, the writing staff provide a reasonably solid explanation for those dramatic shifts, in terms of plot and in terms of character development. However, it is Alfre Woodard who has to make those shifts work. She clearly relishes the opportunity. Luke Cage offers Woodard a role into which she can sink her teeth, and she delivers on every front.

For all that Luke Cage might be criticised for its relaxed pacing or its occasionally repetitive plotting, one of the best sequences in the second season is a nine-minute dialogue-driven scene in an abandoned office building in which Mariah Dillard lays out her tragic back story. It is a showcase for Alfre Woodard, the script and the director trusting the performer to hold the audience’s attention for almost ten minutes in the middle of an intense siege episode. It is testament to the writers that they trust Woodard that much, and a testament to Woodard that she delivers on it.

Woodard had a great of fun on Luke Cage, in particular playing a character who pushed her beyond her usual frame of reference. In particular, Woodard has repeatedly acknowledged that it was interesting to play a character who was so explicitly sexual, which is rare for women (especially black women) in their sixties:

Something was hinted at in the first season. One of our writers wrote that my character kissed Shade (Theo Rossi) on the lips, and then they took it out at the table read. And the whole cast booed them! [Laughs.] They said, “We want them to kiss!” So he waited until the very last episode and when Mariah and Shade are standing in front of the Biggie picture, the writer said, “That’s when you should kiss him lightly on the lips.”

So I decided — I bit his lip and then I tapped him on the butt when I left. But that’s what he wanted to have expressed.

I understand. You ended up carrying the original vision through.

You know, women of mature age, they’ve been doing wild longer than the young girls. So we have this idea that once you turn 40, walk into a room and don’t turn heads, you don’t have a sensuality or a sexuality. But I must say, the things I chose to do came from me, because I’m a mature woman. And, like I said, you know stuff.

To be fair, there is something loaded in Mariah’s sexuality on Luke Cage, particularly the way in which her expression of that sexual identity is tied to her other appetites; her public displays of affection with Shades in Soul Brother #1, her flirtation with Alex while on the verge of a nervous breakdown in The Creator.

At the same time, it should be noted that Luke Cage has generally sex-positive. As corny as it might be, and as awkward as it may sound from Luke, the show has a recurring gag in which sex is likened to “coffee” as something that adults enjoy on its own terms. Characters on Luke Cage generally approach sex like adults. Luke and Misty hooked up in Moment of Truth; despite some initial tension, they became reliable allies and even colleagues. Mariah even joked about her own sexual appetites to Luke in Suckas Need Bodyguards, before embracing her worst self.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the use of Mariah on Luke Cage is the fact that second season gives the character a definitive end to her story. In keeping with the heightened and operatic aesthetic of the series, she dies in the arms of her enemy, having been betrayed and poisoned by her own daughter. It is properly Shakespearean, but it also feels entirely appropriate. Mariah has completed her journey. She has a full arc. She has grown and evolved, and Alfre Woodard has been allowed to run the full gamut of human emotions with her.

Woodard and Coker both understood that there was only one way that her story could end:

“Alfre and I are really tight,” showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told CBR, “and the more than Mariah did, she’s like, ‘Come on, Cheo, I’m gone this season, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ So she’s like, ‘Look, OK, you gonna take me out? I’ve been doing this for a long time, I just don’t wanna go out like no punk.’ I’m not paraphrasing; that’s Alfre.”

They Reminisce Over You is written so Mariah does not “go out like no punk.” Even dying, she stabs at her enemies.

This is perhaps another facet of adaptation. Comic book stories live forever, published monthly featured characters who have existed for decades. Comic book stories exist in a perpetual “now”, living in an eternal second act. There are minor endings; books might get cancelled, writers may conclude their runs, editorial eras may wrap up. However, characters seldom die. Change rarely holds. Everything eventually rolls back. Captain America will always end up fighting the Red Skull. Batman always triumphs over the Joker. Superman always wrestles Lex Luthor.

In the world of comics, death is little more than a minor inconvenience. It has been described as a revolving door. It is a sales bumping tactic, with the publisher famously promised to deliver one death every quarter, like clockwork. Very few characters ever remain dead in the long-term. Gwen Stacy can return as her own version of Spider-Man. Bucky Barnes can be resurrected and serve as Captain America. Everything rolls back and every character eventually defaults to factory settings for the next writer to work with.

Film and television are different, by virtue of different production realities. Tony Stark has been Iron Man for the better part of six decades, but Robert Downey Junior can only play the role for so long. Human beings are not sketches or illustrations, and live action film and television is curtailed by that detail. More than that, film and television tend to have endings in ways that comic books do not; film series and television shows run their course eventually. They reach a logical and organic conclusion.

This is why supervillains tend to die more often on screen than on the page, with many superhero films dispatching the antagonists instead of holding them back for later appearances; think of Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman, Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns, Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins. The storytelling rules are different in film and television than they are in comics, and so it makes sense that those rules impact how these stories approach characters like Mariah Dillard.

It makes sense to kill Mariah now, as Woodard herself concedes:

“Cheo told me at the top of the season — or even at the end of last season — but the thing is, I couldn’t do any more,” Woodard says. “There is nothing else I can do with Mariah without it starting to be redundant. Do I even want to do another season? I’d just be like … [laughs] chewing scenery! No, I was done. I did all my work.”

There comes a point where keeping a character around would simply be redundant, leading to diminishing returns.

Indeed, They Reminisce Over You seems to tease this possibility. It is an episode that marks the end of Mariah’s journey. “She is done,” Misty tells Luke early in the episode. “We finally got her.” One of the smarter things about the structuring of the second season of Luke Cage is that by wrapping up most of the plot in Can’t Front on Me, there is then room for They Reminisce Over You to explore the fallout. One of the central tensions within the episode is Mariah’s struggle against the reality of her situation, her efforts to resist the lowering of the curtain.

In the teaser, she essentially threatens the judge directly, trying to force her release on bail. “If you release me I will fortify that wall around Harlem before it’s too late,” she offers, in what seems like an attempt at extortion. Through Ben Donovan, Mariah begins constructing an elaborate narrative that would allow her to claw her way out from under this. She murders anybody who might contradict her story. She begins to prepare the version of events that she will offer to the jury, to convince them of her innocence.

Within all of this, it seems like Luke Cage is wrestling with the challenge of bidding farewell to a character like Mariah Dillard, drawing the audience’s (and its own) attention to all of the slippery writing that it could use to justify letting Mariah out of prison and using her as the primary antagonist of the third season. That impulse is understandable, given how essential Mariah Dillard and Alfre Woodard have been to the success of Luke Cage. It would be more worrying if Luke Cage wasn’t hesitating at the prospect of pulling the trigger.

Ultimately, They Reminisce Over You plays almost like a living wake for Mariah, a series of conversations between Mariah and other members of the primary cast. It is an opportunity for the series to say farewell to Mariah by offering most of its key players their “one last conversation” with the character. Almost everybody gets a chance to say goodbye, with wonderful and emotionally charged conversations between Mariah and other major cast members; Shades, Tilda, Luke.

The hesitation within They Reminisce Over You is well-earned, and perhaps a reaction to some of the early creative decisions. Mariah is not the first major antagonist that Luke Cage killed off, with the production team having killed off Cottonmouth in a surprise twist at the end of Manifest. This represented a sharp left-turn for the series, and also led to a much-maligned second half which swapped out the more grounded and nuanced Cornell Stokes for a heightened blaxploitation supervillain who was also Luke’s secret half-brother.

Of course, the death of Cornell Stokes was driven by a number of factors. Most obviously, given its context within Manifest, it was clearly meant to catch the audience off-guard with the revelation that Mariah was supposed to be the show’s primary antagonist. The big twist in Manifest is that the flashbacks tell the story of Mariah more than they tell the story of Cornell, leading to Mariah beating Cornell to death with a microphone stand. More than that, Mahershala Ali only took the role because he knew that he would be killed seven episodes into the season.

The abiding narrative of the first season of Luke Cage is that it undercut itself by killing off Cornell so swiftly and so brutally. Even Cheo Hodari Coker has acknowledged that the sudden death of Cornell “shifted” the dynamics within the show:

“I mean, he won the Oscar later on for Moonlight — this was his time to transition into feature films on a more on a more permanent basis,” Coker tells ABC Radio, explaining Ali’s departure from the show. “And so, what appealed to him about doing the role of Cottonmouth was the fact that it was always planned for that character to die.”

Coker continues, “What we didn’t anticipate was that he was going to be so popular. I mean, Mahershala always brings his A-game. Like, he brought his A-game to such a point where it’s just like, killing him off shifted the series.”

Coker has demonstrated a remarkably willingness to engage with criticism of the show, famously printing out reviews for the writing staff to read. (Of course, Coker was also willing to engage with criticism with which he did not agree, such as Alan Sepinwall’s criticism of the show’s pacing.)

The handling of Mariah’s demise in They Reminisce Over You feels very much like a response to the handling of Cornell’s demise in Manifest, an attempt to acclimitise the audience to the character’s demise rather than having it arrive entirely out of left field. It is to the credit of the writing staff that the death of Mariah at the climax of They Reminisce Over You feels both entirely inevitable and still devastating. It is handled very well, in terms of how the episode and the season are structured to build towards it.

To be fair, the biggest problem with the death of Cornell Stokes in Manifest was not the death itself. indeed, the death itself was very well executed and very effective; it is revealing that it occurred at the end of the first block of episodes that were provided to critics for review, and which led to the overwhelmingly positive pre-air reviews of the series. The problem was that the death of Cornell Stokes created a vacuum that the series was unable to fill. It was not the death that was the problem, but the aftermath.

This is not a problem unique to Luke Cage. Jessica Jones ran into this problem between its first and second seasons. The first season of Jessica Jones introduced audiences to Kilgrave, a horrifying and harrowing antagonist played by David Tennant. Kilgrave provided a very effective foil, and potent metaphor to explore the show’s core themes of sexual violence and trauma. The first season did wonderful things with the character, but it had to kill him off. Jessica snapped his neck like a twig in AKA Smile, the first season finale.

The problem is that the show had no idea what to do without Kilgrave. The second season of Jessica Jones was unable to construct an antagonist who was similarly compelling, leading to a number of structural and pacing issues with the season as a whole. Jessica Jones seemed to acknowledge that fact, drafting David Tennant back in for a guest appearance as an hallucination in AKA Three Lives and Counting. The series lost one of its two poles, and was not able to properly realign itself.

The first season of Luke Cage suffered from a similar issue. Cornell Stokes was one of the most compelling antagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When he died, the production team attempted to replace him with Willis Stryker, who was a broadly drawn blaxploitation caricature. Stryker might have made a solid antagonist for an episode or two, but Luke Cage asked actor Erik LaRay Harvey to carry six whole episodes. The season took a dive in quality, as the production team struggled with how to maintain momentum and interest.

They Reminisce Over You is cognisant of this challenge, perhaps as a result of having endured these difficulties all ready. As much as They Reminisce Over You understands that Mariah’s passing represents a major loss for the series, it makes a point to set up any number of interesting foils to support the show in her absence. Tilda Johnson is now a genuine supervillain. Jon McIver limps back to Jamaica to heal on his own soil, with the unspoken assumption that he can heal and come back if the production team need him.

More than that, They Reminisce Over You sets up a pretty major twist within the framework of the series by having Mariah name Luke as her successor. This is a huge twist, essentially thrusting the superhero into the role of the supervillain, setting up the idea that Luke Cage could possibly be the villain of Luke Cage. As D.W. summarises, “If you’re gonna be the boss of crime, then you’re a crime boss.” It is a bold reversal, and a big enough transition that it takes a lot of the potential edge off the passing of Mariah Dillard.

This is very canny writing. The audience is undoubtedly sad to see Mariah go, but also interested to see where Luke goes. It is also very well set up, with They Reminisce Over You making a point to remind audiences of where Luke is coming from any how even the season’s earlier episodes seeded this idea. “Look I’m bulletproof, okay?” Luke tells D.W. “You can’t burn me. You can’t blast me. And you can’t break me. And most importantly you can’t buy me.” This recalls his boast to the camera in Soul Brother #1 and his quest for sponsorship in All Souled Out.

Luke assuming the mantle of “king” of Harlem is suggested at multiple points of the season. “I am Harlem,” he boasted in Soul Brother #1. He warned Bushmaster in Wig Out, “Harlem is under my protection now. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Stay out of my yard.” Luke lamented the ineffectiveness of “punching water” as a “young sheriff” in Soul Brother #1, setting up Sugar’s observation at the end of The Creator that “Harlem doesn’t need a sheriff.” Luke agrees, “It needs a king.”

There is even an ironic example of wordplay bookending the second season. In Soul Brother #1, Claire advised Luke, “Not every siren is for you.” Danny reminded him of this in The Main Ingredient. This adds a nice layer to Mariah’s postmortem revenge scheme in They Reminisce Over You. She tells Ben Donovan, “This club will be his siren. He’ll be lulled by its song, lulled by so-called greatness.” The choice of the word “siren” is very clever, but it also plays into the theme of Luke’s pride as suggested in early episodes like Soul Brother #1, Straighten It Out and Wig Out.

They Reminisce Over You very cannily and very cleverly uses Luke’s ascent to underscore the similarities between himself and Mariah. The characters in They Reminisce Over You repeatedly argue that Mariah genuinely wanted to protect Harlem. “I love my people,” she states to the court in the teaser. Later, Sugar tells Luke, “Believe it or not Mariah really does love Harlem.” Luke responds, without a hint of irony, “So do I.” There’s an obvious implication there that Luke’s pride and Luke’s vanity might ultimately corrupt him as they did Mariah.

(Even the small scene with Bushmaster in They Reminisce Over You feels like a cautionary tale to Luke. Referencing the fable that Gideon Shaw told Misty in I Get Physical, Sheldon explains to Tilda, “Johnny finally got to top of the hill. Now, he can’t even enjoy the view. It always seems like it’s worth it, but it’s not.” Following on from his discussion with Danny in The Main Ingredient, Luke sees taking the club as “the top of the hill.” He tells Misty, “I can watch from above. Like a hawk.” There is no small dramatic irony here.)

Coker sees this as an extension of the series’ repeated references to The Godfather. He explains:

“Luke is lying to himself in the same way that Michael Corleone lied to himself, because you always think you’ll be the person to change the system, but the system changes you. Mariah’s revenge, giving Luke the club — knock on wood we get a Season 3 — he’ll be challenged in a similar way.”

It is a hell of a hook for a season finale, and one which makes the third season seem very intriguing.

Perhaps most interesting in all of this is the manner in which Luke Cage has figured out how to write for an invincible and unstoppable character. One of the great recurring criticisms of superheroes like Superman is that they are simply too powerful to anchor interesting stories, that there are no credible stakes in their narratives. This arguably as true when it comes to Luke Cage, who is a street-level superhero who is impervious to bullets. How do you construct a story around Luke Cage that has real and tangible stakes?

The first season of Luke Cage struggled with this fact, to the point that it inevitably introduced magic bullets that could wound the character in the same way that regular bullets could harm regular people. Luke got shot twice by those bullets over the course of the season; once at the end of Manifest and again at the end of Blowin’ Up the Spot. There was an understandably storytelling urge driving the introduction of the so-called “Judas Bullet”, but it also spoke to the challenges of trying to write for a character who is almost impervious to physical harm.

The second season of Luke Cage acknowledges that this was something of a cop-out. Arturo Rey III shoots Luke Cage with a Judas bullet in Soul Brother #1, only for both characters to react with surprise when the bullet bounces off Luke like any other. “I think that second bath in the barn may have strengthened the abalone shell on your skin,” Claire theorises in Straighten It Out. “The velcro effect is even tighter now.” Luke takes the headline, “So you’re saying I’m even more indestructible than I was before?”

In its opening two episodes, the second season of Luke Cage conceded that the most boring an unsatisfying way to hurt a bulletproof superhero was to use technobabble to invent a special kind of bullet that could conveniently hurt him. Instead, the second season of Luke Cage suggests a much tougher and a much more abstract threat to its protagonist. The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that its character is pretty much unstoppable from a physical standpoint, but understands that the real threats to Luke are emotional or moral.

In short, the second season of Luke Cage argues convincingly that the only character who can truly hurt Luke Cage is Luke Cage himself. Over the course of the season, Luke is a victim of his own pride, his own anger, his own rage. There is nobody who can stop him. However, Luke constantly gets in his own way. “When you are stressed, you push people away,” Reverend James Lucas tells his son in For Pete’s Sake. “I do the same thing.” He scares Claire away in Wig Out. He fails Piranha due to his own pride in The Basment. He locks Misty out in They Reminisce Over You.

“I used to daydream about how to kill you,” Mariah confesses to Luke in Can’t Front on Me. “Drown you. Poison you. Burn you. Break your heart.” It seems like she might have figured it out in They Reminisce Over You. Perhaps all that Mariah needs to do to win is to get out of Luke’s way and to let him become his own worst enemy, isolating himself and corrupting himself. Certainly, the closing scenes of They Reminisce Over You suggest that Luke is not well-suited to power and to control.

Indeed, the most unsettling aspect of those final scenes was largely down an improvised decision by actor Mike Colter. As Coker explains:

When we filmed the episode, the script called for Luke to be more reluctant, to reluctantly look out at all that he surveyed. Mike didn’t play it like that. To his credit, he refused all notes to play it differently, and he absolutely made the right choice, because it’s chilling. If you immediately go from watching episode 13 of season 2 and go back to episode 1 of season 1, it’s chilling how much Mike in that three-piece suit looks like Cottonmouth [played by Mahershala Ali].

The tonal shift can be shocking, but once given power, people kind of show off who they really are. That was what Mariah was trying to say, that you often go in thinking that things are going to be different when it’s your administration, but [once you’re there] you start making the kinds of decisions that the previous administration made. It’s the same lesson that Michael Corleone got [in The Godfather]… So, is my view for Luke Cage, or Luke Corleone, more pessimistic? I would say no, but it’s interesting to play with.

The scene is much more unsettling, and much more nuanced, in the way that Colter plays it. The character’s arc is much more interesting if he is seduced by the power and the possibility.

The second season of Luke Cage is a remarkable accomplishment. It is the first second season of a Marvel Netflix series to improve upon what came before. More than that, it is the best single season of a Marvel Netflix series since the first season of Jessica Jones. It is intriguing and compelling, a clever and thoughtful exploration of superhero storytelling with a fantastic cast and a host of fascinating ideas. It is thematically rich and suitably stylish. While it still feels slightly over-extended, it makes better use of that space than many Netflix series.

The second season of Luke Cage is a triumph.

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

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