It's Luke Cage vs. Diamondback in the Netflix drama's intense finale
Credit: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Luke Cage ends its uneven, but thoughtful and powerful first season with a super-powered street fight, which takes up about a quarter of the episode. It’s an impressively staged fight sequence that makes you feel each blow, and I’ll admit I loved seeing Harlem rally around Luke as he fought his brother, but I just wish it had felt more meaningful and had tied back to some of the themes explored earlier in the season.

“I mean, look at these super freaks. This is nothing less than the battle for the soul of Harlem,” says Mariah to a camera crew about Luke Cage and Willis Stryker’s street brawl. In the context of the show, she’s trying to spin the fight for own gains (and throw Luke under the bus, but more on that later), so we know it’s a load of BS. But, it made me wish that this fight actually were about Harlem rather than Stryker’s immature vendetta.

I mentioned this in my recap of “Soliloquy of Chaos,” but Diamondback distracted the show from it’s concern with Harlem. For Luke, this fight is about breaking away from his past, but it’s not entirely clear what it has to do with the neighborhood. The only reason Stryker is hanging around is because of him and that’s it. In theory, Stryker has no other ties to Harlem: his main business partner Cottonmouth is dead, he killed the heads of every other crime group in the area who could buy his weapons, and he basically told Mariah he was going to “evaporate” once he was done with Luke. In my ideal version of this show, this fight would have had bigger stakes if Diamondback had just supplied the suit to Cottonmouth.

In this episode, the show pulled the same trick it did in “Manifest.” It used flashbacks to Luke and Willis’ youth to flesh out their relationship; and with them shown here in the last episode, they’re a little too late to be as effective as they could have been. They just didn’t mean as much as what we saw when flashed back to Cornell’s youth.

But, as I said, the fight was still fun and having Harlem’s residents all out to watch made it worth it and never let us forget what was truly important. Having Aisha and Lonnie there was a reminder of the people Luke had touched over the course of the season, and having those two kids videotaping the fight on the 4K was a nice follow-through on a throwaway moment earlier in the season.

In the end, Luke prevails over Diamondback by letting him tire himself out before giving him the game-ending uppercut. With Diamondback arrested, Luke’s name is basically cleared, but Misty still needs to bring him in for a statement. On the upside, she says, he’ll be at the precinct to see Mariah go down for murdering her cousin.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. While Misty and Ridley are interrogating Mariah, Shades lures Candace, their key witness, out in the open and kills her. Misty and Ridley find out midway through their questioning and are forced to let her go. There goes their case. Ridley makes sure Misty knows it’s her fault. Candace should’ve been in police custody, but Misty didn’t trust the system enough and that’s why this happened. It’s another moment where the show makes sure to stand up for the system and show the importance it serves.

NEXT: What happens to Luke and thoughts on the entire season

Since the battle, Luke and Claire have been inseparable and have started making plans to get “coffee.” Unfortunately, they’ll have to put those plans on hold because U.S. Marshals show up to arrest him since Mariah outted him as Carl Lucas on TV. He owes the state of Georgia time. As he’s carted away, Claire says she knows a good lawyer. (I hope she isn’t talking about Matt Murdock.)

While Luke and Claire may be separated, Mariah and Shades head back to Harlem’s Paradise together, where it is implied they’ll rule the neighborhood together. Misty shows up soon after to enjoy the show’s final musical performance, Sharon Jones performing “100 Days, 100 Nights,” and to let Harlem’s new crime king and queen know that she’s watching them.

While I had problems with Luke Cage, I thought the first season was kind of amazing and was a nice follow-up to Jessica Jones. Like Jessica Jones, it felt socially relevant and significant, unlike many superhero shows. Luke Cage‘s consideration of black lives, was thoughtful and striking, even in the moments where I may have disagreed with some of its politics.

As I’ve written throughout, it was very moving to see a bulletproof black man in a television show. However, I liked that the show took it a step further and framed his superpowers as another thing that engendered fear and bias, as opposed to optimism. He was saving people and trying to make a difference, yet that didn’t make difference. In the finale, the police showed up armed with Judas bullets and were ready to shoot him even though the context suggested he was the good guy. That scene combined with the frequent shots of bullet-ridden hoodies — reminiscent of the many tragic headlines we’ve seen over the past few years — drove home the show’s examination of the fraught experience of being black.

But, the show wasn’t a dour affair. Luke didn’t let the system’s attempts to keep him down stop him from trying to do what was right, which was incredibly inspiring. Furthermore, the show’s focus on black culture and history, like that Dapper Dan cameo, added some much-needed lightness and also helped create a Harlem that felt more real than Daredevil‘s Hell’s Kitchen.

And there were many other things to love apart from the show’s political message. Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard and Simone Missick delivered knockout performances that made some of the series’ clunkiest dialogue palatable. And while I may not have agreed with the show’s conservative characterization of Luke Cage — which I thought ran counter to its “Forward. Always” mantra — I thought Mike Colter’s made sure his stoic character wasn’t one-note.

While the show’s political message and performances were rather strong, it did stumble when it came to its storytelling. There were plot holes and as is the case with most Netflix shows, especially the Marvel ones, it didn’t need 13 episodes to tell its story — the season sagged in places, especially in the back half with the introduction of Diamondback. And it definitely suffered and lost its center when it killed off Cottonmouth, even though that scene was bloody amazing.

But, let’s not dwell on this too much because Luke Cage’s future is bright. Remember: Forward. Always.

Additional Thoughts:

  • In the episode ending montage, Claire decides to join a self-defense class taught by Colleen Wing.
  • Dr. Noah Burstein pays Diamondback a visit in the hospital at the end, which suggests this isn’t the last time we’ll see him. We know he has Claire’s research and that Luke’s DNA was the key to making it work. He’s probably hoping to create another Power Man with his half brother.
  • Did anyone else think Luke was going to break Styker’s power source on his back to win the fight? That seemed like the logical move.
  • Bobby Fish says Pop’s Barber Shop, which was destroyed in the fight, doesn’t want to be a barbershop anymore. Who wants to bet that’s where Luke will set up his hero for hire business when he gets out of prison?
  • The banter between Claire and Luke, while unnecessary, was cute and I can’t wait for more of it.
  • “Sometimes backwards to move forward. Always,” Luke, as he’s driven out of the city.
  • Make sure you read my colleague Shirley Li’s postmortem with Erik LaRay Harvey.

Episode Recaps

Marvel's Luke Cage
The third colloboration from Marvel and Netflix, Luke Cage is based on the comic of the same name. Mike Colter plays the titular character, who is a former convict with superhero strength. Cheo Hodari Coker developed the series.
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