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Josh Reviews Luke Cage Season Two

November 26th, 2018
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For quite a while, I’d wished that the Marvel Netflix shows would come out at a faster pace.  We had to wait almost three years, for example, between the first two seasons of Jessica Jones.  (Though the character did appear in The Defenders in between.)  But weirdly, since the summer there’s been a bit of a glut: Luke Cage season two came out in June, Iron Fist season two came out in September, and Daredevil season three came out in October.  I wasn’t certain how I wanted to proceed.  I wasn’t in a huge rush to watch Luke Cage or Iron Fist, since I’d found both of their first seasons to be extremely mediocre.  (Click here for my review of Luke Cage season one, and here for my review of Iron Fist season one.)  But I was curious to see if they’d managed to course-correct for their second seasons.  (I avoid reviews of shows or movies I haven’t yet seen, but I’d seen headlines and it seemed that people felt that Iron Fist, at least, had improved significantly, so that was encouraging.)  The show I was most interested in seeing was the third season of Daredevil, and I debated whether I wanted to watch the shows out of order and jump ahead to that.  When news broke that both Luke Cage and Iron Fist had been cancelled before I’d started watching, I debated skipping both Luke Cage and Iron Fist altogether.  In the end, I decided to go in order and take a look at Luke Cage, and see how things went from there.  (Actually, the news that both Luke Cage and Iron Fist had been cancelled made it an easier decision to watch their respective second seasons, because I knew that I was making a finite commitment…!)

I don’t regret watching Luke Cage season two, but the show remains far more mediocre that it should be.  I can’t really recommend it.  It’s ludicrously slow.  The first five or six hours are particularly painful.  While I have found that most of the Netflix Marvel shows start off strong and then sag, Luke Cage season two was a rare one that did get better as the 13 episodes unfolded.  But there is still barely 5-6 hours of plot stretched out over 13 episodes.  The show suffers from an unfortunate tendency to give us the same type of scene, over and over and over again.  This results in a painful sense of wheel-spinning.  In those rather dreadful first five or six episodes, how many times did we get a version of these scenes:

* Luke Cage walks into the barber shop feeling discouraged, and someone gives him a pep talk.

* Claire warns Luke Cage to take his role as a hero seriously and not to use his powers for the wrong goals and/or let anger get the best of him.

* Mariah sits in her office talking about how she wants to get out of the criminal world, while someone (usually Shades) tells her that’s a bad idea.

* Mariah stares out of the circular window in Harlem’s Paradise while a musician performs, usually to an empty room.

* Misty’s walks into her precinct and has her actions questioned by another police officer or superior.

* New villain Bushmaster swears vengeance on the Stokes family while someone, usually his brother (or was it his uncle?  I watched the whole season but I am still confused) warns him not to pursue this violent path.

I could go on.  You get the idea.  The show leaned far to heavily on these types of scenes, which they’d give us again and again ad nauseam.  I recently watched the 1982 BBC miniseries adaptation of Smiley’s People (click here for my review).  That was a six-hour show, and while it’s far far far more slowly paced than any modern TV show, I still found it far more compelling than Luke Cage.  When I thought about the difference between the two shows, I realized quickly that while Luke Cage would spin its wheels in an effort to pad out the 13 episodes, Smiley’s People always moved forward.  In Smiley’s People, we almost never returned to the same locations from episode to episode, and each episode introduced new characters and settings, many/most of whom we’d never see again as Smiley’s investigation moved forward.  “Moved forward” is the key phrase here.  Even though Smiley’s People was very slowly paced, the show always had a forward momentum because each scene would lead to the next in the chain of Smiley’s investigation.  But Luke Cage often felt stuck in place, as we found ourselves returning again and again to the same characters having the same conversations.  This is a near-total failure of storytelling, in my opinion.

Although this season of Luke Cage does occasionally reference events from The Defenders which it is following, chronologically, the show picks up surprisingly directly from the end of season one, and dips back into a number of plot points from season one that I’d thought would be left behind.  (I enjoyed the continuity, though I was occasionally forgetful about certain details, since it had been several years since I’d watched Luke Cage season one, and it’s generally middling quality meant I hadn’t gone back and rewatched any of it, nor do I have any intention of doing so.)

I did find aspects to enjoy.  The cast is strong, and it was a delight to see so many men and women of color anchoring this major production (as well as being involved behind the camera at all levels).  The new villain (Bushmaster) was solid, and in the final stretch of the season we (finally) got some much-needed backstory and fleshing-out for major characters like Shades and Mariah, and that made the drama far more compelling.  The music continued to be great, and I liked the general atmosphere of the show, which is quite different from your average super-hero type of tale.  None of this was enough to make Luke Cage season two actually much good, but it did prevent my feeling like it was a total waste of my time.  (Wow, what a rave review from me, huh?)

Let’s stay with the positives for a minute.  As I noted above, the main cast are all terrific: Mike Colter as Luke Cage, Simone Missick as Misty Knight, and Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard/Stokes are all fantastic in these roles.

Mr. Colter was perfect as Luke from moment one in Jessica Jones season one.  The problem in his own show is that the writers have struggled to give him much of a character arc.  Luke tends to be stuck in a very reactive place, responding to what other characters do rather than driving the action himself or having a compelling personal story.  This season, the writers tried to explore a journey into Luke’s dark side.  They wrote out his main friends/allies (Claire and Bobby) fairly early on in the season, which feels like a move designed to push Luke’s back up against a wall (a good idea), but Luke still wound up coming across as genially affable in the second half of the season as he was at first.  The twist in the final episode also feels like it was designed to show Luke tempted by the dark side, but I never felt the show really was able to sell that.

I have always loved the character of Misty from the comics, and Simone Missick is glorious in this role.  Misty was given a big role here in season two, which made me happy.  I enjoyed seeing her struggle with the loss of her arm (in The Defenders) as well as finding her place in the department, and her pro/con feelings about Luke’s vigilante actions.  I was pleased that, for the most part, season two allowed Luke and Misty to operate as allies, rather than finding contrived reasons for them to be at odds.  On the other hand, I found it sort of ridiculous that she spent so much time grumbling and complaining about her MIRACULOUS ROBOTIC ARM (and, boy, I wish they’d been able to make her robotic arm more cool-looking), and because Bushmaster and Mariah both have to be kept as threats for the entire season, poor Misty wound up looking a little ineffectual.

Alfre Woodard is a magnificent actress and she’s a joy to see on screen, though I was never quite taken by her character in season one and felt most of the same problems here for much of season two.  The character straddles the line between an outright villain and someone trying to do right for her community.  That should be compelling, but for much of the time Mariah came across as weak and ineffective (and so hardly a credible threat for Luke) and the source of so much of the show’s wishy-washy wheel-spinning (as scene after scene after scene in her office in Harlem’s Paradise just felt like the same moment over and over again).  She finally got some much-needed focus in the final run of episodes.  I loved the exploration of her family’s twisted, incestual back-story, and I was fascinated by her monologue grappling with the ways that her shade of skin caused her pain and differentiated her from the rest of her family.  (The way that scene recontextualized her character’s silly-from-the-seventies-comics nickname of “Black Mariah” was genius.)  This character needed to have been given this depth back at the start of season one!!  They waited until it was almost too little, too late.

Same goes, by the way, for Shades, who I thought was stiff and boring in season one and felt was exactly the same here in season two.  Until, that is, the great scene where he’s sitting back-to-back on a stakeout with his partner Comanche and we discover that they were lovers in prison, and that now that they’re out Comanche wanted a real relationship, but Shades wanted to lock his prison homosexuality away in a box and forget about it.  Wow!  Suddenly the character came to life, and that powerful scene made everything else with Shades for the rest of the season far more interesting.  Here again, though, this was almost too little too late.  Why didn’t we get this depth of characterization at the start of season one??

Rosario Dawson appeared in all of the four Marvel Netflix shows’ first seasons, and she returned as Claire Temple for the beginning of this season of Luke Cage.  The first season had established that Luke and Claire were in a romantic relationship, so I’m glad that wasn’t ignored, and Ms. Dawson is always a welcome presence.  However, I didn’t like the way she was written out of the show mid-season.  I suspect this was a contract thing (with Mrs. Dawson only contracted to appear in a small number of episodes), but it felt out of character for Claire to vanish like that.  I truly hope this isn’t the last we see of Claire in these Netflix shows.  This would be a disappointing way for her character to go out for good.

I quite enjoyed the new villain, Bushmaster (John McIver).  First off, man, I loved the accent.  Can’t get enough of it.  I liked that Bushmaster was a physical threat to Luke, and I loved the intensity Mr. McIver brought to the character.

I also enjoyed the introduction of Luke’s dad, the preacher James Lucas, played brilliantly by the late, great Reg E. Cathey (The Wire) in one of his final roles.  Mr. Cathey was a magnificent actor — ye gods, what a voice he had — and he instantly elevated the material here on Luke Cage.  I loved every minute he was on screen.  (I’m bummed that the character didn’t appear in the season finale — I suspect due to Mr. Carthey’s illness.  Still, they found a nice way to tie off the character.  You can read more about this here.)

These Marvel Netflix shows haven’t turned out to be as well-integrated as I’d hoped (either with one another, or with the Marvel movies, which have been pretty much ignored except for the occasional reference to “the incident” in New York — meaning the alien attack from The Avengers).  Still, one of the great joys of Luke Cage season two was seeing familiar faces from the other show pop up.  I was delighted to see Foggy appear as Luke’s lawyer in an episode, and then to see Colleen Wing in another, helping Misty to regain her fighting skills and her confidence after the loss her arm.  And I loved the episode-long team-up between Luke and Danny Rand late in the season.  These are all great actors playing great characters, and they each helped give Luke Cage a zap of life.  Not to mention that I loved the sense of continuity that these characters’ appearances brought, and the sense that Luke Cage was just one part of a larger, interconnected universe.

(On the other hand, the show hasn’t solved it’s post-Defenders problem of explaining why Luke doesn’t call in his super-powered fellow heroes when he’s in a jam.  Danny is so helpful to Luke in the episode he appears in, it’s crazy that Luke doesn’t insist he hang around to help him fight the super-powered Bushmaster.  The Marvel movies struggled with a similar problem after the first Avengers crossover film.  Those first few post-Avengers films, like Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man Three, did have me asking those questions.  But gradually, they were able to satisfactorily address this by giving the characters reasons to not be able (because they were separated by continents or on different planets) or willing (post-Civil War) to be there for one another… and also these movies DID actually HAVE lots of interconnectivity, with, for example, Tony Stark playing a major role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.)

The season ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (one that reminds me a lot of the plot twist in Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Daredevil in which Matt Murdoick defeated Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, and then decided to assume the role of Kingpin himself in an effort to control the city’s crime).  I’m sad there won’t be a season three to explore this further.  It’s a shame that this show has been cancelled… but, on the other hand, I can’t really fault Netflix because it’s clear that, after two seasons, this show was never able to be as good as it should have been.

I don’t know what’s next for these Marvel Netflix shows.  I know a third season of Jessica Jones is in the works (as well as a second season of The Punisher, but I never watched the first season and have no interest in the second) — beyond that, who knows?  I do hope this isn’t the end of the line for this cast and these actors.  I’d love to see future Netflix shows bring together the best of these shows’ cast and characters.  (A Misty/Colleen Daughters of the Dragon show, anybody??)  I guess we’ll see…

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