The Buzz: ‘Luke Cage’ Season 2 Regains Its Groove
While Luke Cage’s first season began strong, it ended up falling off toward the end. The season 2 premiere of Luke Cage however, takes things back to the basics and it’s for the better. Soul Brother #1 is a slow-burning episode whose purpose is to set back up the characters in the world of Luke Cage. Both Luke and Claire are still in a relationship as are Shades and Mariah. Luke still struggles to keep the streets of Harlem safe as he combats a new and deadly strain of heroin named after himself, all while trying to keep Pops’ barbershop afloat. Meanwhile, Misty tries to adapt to life with only one arm as several new players arrive in Harlem including Luke Cage’s father and a crime lord who goes by Bushmaster. Anyone who skipped The Defenders will be left wondering how Luke is free from prison and what happened to Misty’s arm. While it’s not impossible to watch Luke Cage season two without seeing The Defenders, you’ll definitely be left speculating how some of these characters got where there are now from the season one finale of Luke Cage.
Luke Cage season one was a show that started out very compelling but started to unravel midway through. Much of this had to do with show losing Cottonmouth as the main antagonist and replacing him with Diamondback. Mahershala Ali is a phenomenal actor who brought conviction and nuance to an already interesting character. Diamondback, while an interesting enough character, was played far too hammily by Erik LaRay Harvey for me to ever take seriously. On top of that, his unlikely connection to Luke Cage seemed far too unrealistic and came off as a bit silly. Luke Cage season two seems to rectify this issue by hurling a much more compelling antagonist into the spotlight in the form of Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard. Mariah is a despicable person yet audiences can’t help but be drawn to her. Unable to get out from under the shadow of her long gone grandmother, Mariah seems to want nothing more than to get out of the game, but chances are that’ll never happen. Her relationship with Shades is still going strong but left me questioning Shades’ motives. I think it’s safe to say he’s not in for it love, so what’s his big plan? Perhaps he’s just using Mariah to further his own goals, but since he no longer answers to Diamondback, it’s hard to say what his new goals may be. Either way, I’m interested to see where they take the character. The only villain I wasn’t completely sold on was Bushmaster. He started off fine, but by the end, he was giving off some serious Diamondback vibes. It’s hard to say whether or not he will work out this season, but the more grounded villains are what have proved more compelling in Luke Cage.
With this episode, the Judas Bullet no longer hurts Luke. This is great. I just hope they don’t come up with an even sillier way of physically harming Luke. Even though it may seem like a good idea to add more tension by making Luke seem less invulnerable, the more contrived things that hurt him, the less special he feels. Luke Cage also runs the problem of potentially having a kryptonite problem or one small thing that turns him useless. From the first episode’s quick dismissal of the Judas Bullet, I’m hopeful the writers foresaw this and are retconning a bad idea from season one. The way to hurt Luke Cage is by hurting the people around him and to see the man struggle with that kind of weight makes him a much more intriguing character. Sure, it may make it harder to have fun battles against him, but there are already plenty of shows where the tension comes from the death of the main character. If we’re being honest, we know the main character’s not going to die already, so why even pretend he is.
After all, the show is at its most compelling when it explores the internal struggles of Luke rather than trying to think up new ways of physically hurting the indestructible man. Anyone Luke forms a relationship is a new liability and his lack of a secret identity makes it harder and harder for him to get around the city. By season two he’s become so famous that the people of Harlem have created an app specifically for tracking the hero. Bystanders tag his current location whenever they see him, making it nearly impossible for Luke to make a move without his presence being already known. On top of this, Luke’s indestructibleness has made him cocky. Luke will always be a good man, but it’s nice to see some added flaws and layers that don’t stray too far from his good nature. This point is beautifully set up by his pastor father as he practices his sermon and it serves as some great foreshadowing of what Luke will struggle with down the road.
The addition of Luke’s dad to cast this season was a genius idea. Reverend James Lucas played by the late, great Reg E. Cathey was by far one of the best parts of Soul Brother #1. Seeing Luke have to confront the man responsible for so much of the pain in his life is a gripping moment. Had his father not had an affair, Diamondback would’ve never existed and without him, Luke never would have been sent to Seagate Prison. Directly or not, Reverend Lucas is very much responsible for some of Luke’s most painful memories. Worst of all, Reverend Lucas ignored his son when he needed him most and didn’t even have the decency to tell Luke when his mother died. Seeing Luke tell off his father is both satisfying and devastating. You want to see get the satisfaction of telling off his dad, but then you also feel bad seeing Luke lose another important connection in his life.
Lastly, the importance of music is once again emphasized in Soul Brother #1 as the soundtrack is littered with everything from soul music to reggae. The soundtrack perfectly captures the moods and tones throughout the episode. Cottonmouth’s former club Harlem's Paradise makes another appearance and so do more performers. It’s nice to see that even though Cottonmouth is gone, his legacy still lives on through his club and love of music. The importance of family is echoed by Mariah as she refuses to flip one her paintings for some quick cash due it to being passed down from her family. The importance of family is one of the strongest themes in Luke Cage and not only applies to the heroes, but to the villains and even Harlem itself. It’s a binding factor that connects and drives just about everyone in the show, whether they like it or not.
Luke Cage has been called corny by Claire several times before, but Luke takes it up to eleven in Soul Brother #1. It’s not as bad since the character has already been established as being a bit out of touch and liking bad jokes, but dabbing seemed a bit much. Whenever TV shows throw in meme-like things such as planking, duck lips or dabbing, I can’t help but cringe a little bit. Memes have very short life cycles and whenever a show tries to include them it feels desperate and out of touch. It’s not the most egregious thing ever, but it did take me out of the show for a second.
Overall, Luke Cage season two is off to a solid start. Enough pieces are on the board that the show could explore a variety of different plotlines this season. Some pieces are stronger than others such as Mariah and Reverend Lucas’ storylines, but it’s not impossible that Bushmaster could be a compelling villain as well. It appears the creators have learned from their mistakes last season, and I look forward to watching the rest of this season. All thirteen episodes of Luke Cage season two are out and can be found on Netflix.