PREVIOUSLY: Luke Cage episode 3 recap
In Jessica Jones, we met Luke Cage, a man who was grieving the death of his wife Reva. Now it’s time to meet Carl Lucas, the man Luke Cage was before he got his powers. “Step in the Arena” uses the fact that Luke Cage and Connie are unconscious and trapped under a building to dive into Luke Cage’s origin story.
Carl Lucas is an ex-cop who was sent to Seagate prison in Georgia for pissing off the wrong people. Rackham, one of the prison’s many corrupt guards, immediately takes notice of Carl’s size and sends Shades and another inmate to attack him and test his abilities. Rackham is rather pleased with Carl’s ability to fight off two assailants and invites him to fight in his underground fight club.
Initially, Carl turns down the offer, choosing instead to just befriend another inmate named Squabbles. Outside of Squabbles, Carl doesn’t really connect with anyone else — well, that is until he meets his prison counselor and future wife, Dr. Reva Connors. Their love blossoms over stacking chairs after each group session meeting. While I wasn’t entirely sold on their burgeoning connection as depicted on the show, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the episode.
Unfortunately, Rackham notices the connections Carl’s making and uses them against him. He threatens to hurt Squabbles unless Carl fights, so Carl agrees. The prison fight club trope feels kind of cliché at this point, but I didn’t mind it here because it continues the show’s trend of using Blaxploitation movie tropes and African American history to tells its story. Yes, Mandingo fights — as seen in the movies like Mandingo or Django Unchained — are historically inaccurate, but during slavery, boxing and wrestling was used to keep their slaves in line. Furthermore, as Slate’s Aisha Harris pointed out in 2012, the “fetishization of black men fighting,” which is definitely what you get here in the show’s depiction of Seagate, goes back many years.
Fighting for Rackham is just a means to an end for Carl, because he’s building evidence to take Rackham out. But, Rackham catches wind of his plans and has Squabbles killed and has Shades and Comanche beat within an inch of his life. Reva comes rushing to Carl’s hospital room, which is poorly lit because this is a Netflix Marvel show after all, and begs the prison’s doctor to use some experimental treatment to heal him.
Rackham finds out what the good doctor is doing and decides he’d rather just kill Carl since he can no longer make money off of his body (Do I actually have to say anything?). But, Rackham’s meddling with the healing bath causes it to malfunction. Spiritual humming fade in as Carl emerges from his baptism of sorts, unscathed and with new powers. Now, it’s time for him to make his escape. I found the juxtaposition of Carl punching his way out of the prison with present-day Luke Cage punching his way through the rubble with Connie particularly powerful.
As soon as he breaks free, Carl swims to shore and makes contact with Reva. They choose his new name, Luke Cage, and finally share their first kiss in the middle of a motel room. (Did I roll my eyes at the “Thank you for changing my life” bit? Maybe).
Meanwhile in the present, Luke decides it’s time to step out of the shadows. “My name is Luke Cage,” he tells the world as the media bombards him with cameras and questions after witnessing his amazing feat.