Season One, Episodes Twelve & Thirteen — “Soliloquy of Chaos”, “You Know My Steez”
By Jarrod Jones. Diamondback should have never been in this show.
Of the many problems blighting Marvel Studios’ otherwise below-par Netflix series, Luke Cage, Diamondback sits at the very top of the heap. Played with a considerable side of ham by Erik LaRay Harvey, Willis Stryker steps into the void left behind by the untimely (and ill-advised) passing of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes for the second half of this overlong series without a shred of Cottonmouth’s charisma or disarming charm. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harvey plays Diamondback as a Joker-level threat to Harlem, but with his manic Bible quotations and pathetic, comics-inspired threads, he more closely resembles Bozo the Clown.
“I’m the angel of death,” he says. Sure you are.
Diamondback’s delusions of grandeur underline just how absurd Luke Cage can be. And I use the word “absurd” completely aware that Cage exists in a universe where insane robots rip entire cities out of the ground and a magic glove could undo everything that ever existed on a whim. There are moments where it works, in spite of itself. We’ll find Stryker talking, simmering with just enough menace that he could actually be confused for an intimidating foe. (“You speak to me as if you are not in the presence of death,” being one of his few A+ bon mots.) But then he continues to speak, peppering his monologues with downright awful one-liners: “You know when a rattlesnake is at its most dangerous?” God, I hope that’s a rhetorical question.
Luke Cage is the least subtle show Marvel has ever produced. (No small task considering how all over the place Daredevil‘s second season was.) So it’s fitting that the only character gifted with balanced nuance would get his head caved in to make way for all the posturing and clowning that would follow. If there was a chance for Luke Cage to succeed, it lied on the shoulders of Mahershala Ali’s beautiful performance. The show is a lesser thing without him.
So we’re left with Mike Colter, whose brick shithouse physique paradoxically lacks dramatic presence. (A monologue he gives about the purposes of civic duty towards the end of this season falls utterly flat.) We’re left with Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, who is only ever at the mercy of the men in her life. (Even when she ultimately succeeds, you can still see the puppet strings attached to Shades, the show’s top-notch henchman.) And Willis Stryker? Detective Misty Knight? Claire Temple, the Netflix Night Nurse? They’re meant to be the pillars that hold Luke Cage and Black Mariah’s war aloft. No wonder the show teeters when it should totter.
If the performances and character-building amount to about nothing at all, all that’s left is to focus on the show’s themes, arguably the strongest thing Luke Cage has going for it. It spends some time depicting Harlem in a positive light, a community struggling to maintain its identity in an age of gentrification and a frightening lack of hope. In the show’s better moments, Harlem absolutely crackles with energy and verve (even if it more closely resembles Harlem of thirty years ago), evocative of better stories that also sought to capture the struggle found within the African American community. (Crooklyn comes to mind, another story that features the essential Alfre Woodard.) In its better moments, when the show begins to settle into itself, we start to hear its beating heart.
And that’s when Luke Cage comes screeching in to make sure that everyone knows precisely what it’s up to. An indestructible black man wearing a hoodie is a crucially important symbol today, so the show makes sure to have Method Man point that out to us (in a cameo that only becomes bewildering once the show comes to a complete stop so he can squeeze in a folk song about our hero). An indestructible black hero should make white authority figures feel small and insignificant, so the show screeches to a halt for a quick sequence where a white cop says precisely this. The final, poorly-lit, poorly choreographed fistfight between Luke and Willis stands in for their more symbolic battle for Harlem’s soul, so here comes Alfre Woodard to say that exact thing out loud into a microphone.
All of this obvious chest-thumping seems to have replaced sequences that would have served the plot far more ably — and far more subtly. Stuffed into the finale, we finally get some time to see Luke and Willis be people around each other in a well-executed flashback: the pair train at boxing as youths, which might have been something we could have better appreciated had it been seen earlier in the series. What happens instead is the sequence gets clumsily juxtaposed against present-day Luke versus the utterly ridiculous Diamondback. We’re supposed to feel something here, but like so much found in Luke Cage, the show never bothers to commit to the moment.
Captain: “Must be pretty damn connected to get a lawyer and not even know who she is.” Shades: *shrugs* “Membership has its privileges.”
“You can’t leave me in here! There’s baby diapers in here, man!” – Turk.
“What type of Jean Paul Gaultier shit is this? What are you, a pimp stormtrooper?” – Fish.
BEST MOMENT: Mariah surveys all that she commands, turns to her right hand, Shades, and leans in for a quick nibble. She struts out of the room, the master of her domain. Then there’s Shades, smirking as he looks down on Harlem’s Paradise with a curious look on his face. After Cottonmouth took a train to the Big Adios, I was really hoping Shades would take the helm of this show and ride it into the sunset. He didn’t, but with one smirk, the man suddenly gave me hope for another season of Luke Cage.
SEASON’S MVP: I’m tempted to give it to Fish, or Shades, or even Turk Barrett. Instead of taking the easy way out, I’ll tip my hat once more to Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t long for you, you magnificent man. I’ll just have to hope to see you pop up in another equally worthy role sometime in the future.
TIARAS AND BRACELETS:
– When I think about the beginning of the series when things were calmer, when Luke was sweeping hair for Pop, it feels like two lifetimes ago.
– Luke’s line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” followed by his own retort, “No, I’m not” reminded me of Mel Gibson’s equally bad line in The Patriot: “Am I angry about taxation without representation? Why, yes, I am.”
– I know SWAT is the muscle for the NYPD, but aren’t they supposed to be tactically brilliant? Nobody caught on to the bullshit Detective Knight was feeding Luke? Okay, Show. Okay.
– There’s all this talk about legacy within this crime family; only thing is, Cottonmouth’s crew never had much depth to it. If there was an empire to protect, we never saw it. In its place are warehouses, crates, Harlem’s Paradise, Zip… Diamondback doesn’t have much to brag about either, now that I’m thinking about it…
– Here comes Turk Barrett again. Y’know? I’m glad he’s here. This show could have used more of Turk’s brand of “I’m me, baby” swagger.
– Method Man cameo was great, but we did not need two of them.
– I like how Shades asks Zip who made the order to kill him, like he DOESN’T ALREADY KNOW.
– RIP, Zip. Have fun being your own man in Criminal Heaven.
– Mariah has bounced from rum to scotch to tequila to vodka this season. I don’t know how she does it, really.
– Luke gave Misty the ol’ Batman slip.
– Please, oh please don’t let this Sharon Jones sequence end.
– Claire knows one helluva attorney, that’s for sure. And now we know how Matt Murdock and Luke Cage will meet each other in The Defenders.
4.5 out of 10
Season One Score: 5 out of 10
Before: “Moment of Truth”, “Code of the Streets”, here.