Welcome back to Harlem! Luke Cage is back to defend Uptown Manhattan from evil in season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Embracing the spirit of the superhero drama’s second season, EW’s Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub have teamed up for this handy binge guide to all 13 episodes. Follow along as you watch!
EPISODE 1: ‘Soul Brother’
Luke Cage season 2 begins like almost every Marvel-Netflix show so far — very slowly. “Soul Brother,” which was written by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and directed by Elementary’s Lucy Liu, takes its time establishing Harlem’s new status quo after the events of season 1 and lacks any sense of urgency. At one point, Bushmaster, season 2’s big bad (played by Mustafa Shakir), says, “Harlem can wait,” and part of me is concerned that’s a sign of things to come in the next 12 episodes.
The premiere is mainly focused on revealing how Luke’s life has changed since we last saw him. In the intervening months, he’s become a local hero in Harlem. There’s even an app that tracks his whereabouts, because kids and their technology are just crazy! However, this attention isn’t all good. There’s a new drug on the streets called Luke Cage, and you can bet the real Power Man is not too pleased with that. In fact, “Soul Brother” opens with him busting a drug den producing the product and frightening a corner boy off the corner, which is probably the most entertaining part about the entire episode. But Luke isn’t only busy with the streets this season.
Taking a page out of Jessica Jones’ book, the show also introduces us to Luke’s preacher father, James Lucas (the late Reg E. Cathey). When we first meet James, who speaks like he’s a Shonda Rhimes character, he’s practicing his sermon about how the people of Harlem shouldn’t put their faith in Luke to save the community because he’s just a man. The Lucas men eventually comes face to face on the street one night, and their terse exchange reveals just how fraught this relationship is. Luke is still upset that his father never replied to any of his letters or told him when his mother died. I’m not too optimistic about this storyline because I’m frankly tired of superhero shows becoming about the heroes’ relationship with their parents, but Jessica Jones surprised with its interesting take on a worn-out theme. Maybe Luke Cage will do the same.
Meanwhile, Mariah and Shades, whose romantic relationship has grown weirder since we last saw them, are trying to go straight. Mariah convenes a meeting with several gangs uptown because she wants to sell all her guns to the highest bidder. The potential buyers include Arturo Rey, a furniture king who also sells drugs; Nigel, a representative from the Jamaican gang the Yardies; and a guy with the unfortunate name of Cockroach. It’s not clear who she gives the contract to, but we know Cockroach and the Yardies will probably figure into the rest of the season — the former because he has crossed paths with Misty in the past (she and Scarfe put him away, but he was freed when everyone found out Scarfe was dirty), and the latter because the hilariously named Bushsmaster also hails from Jamaica.
Alas, Arturo will not be walking away with those guns because he made the mistake of trying to kill Luke by blowing him up in a furniture truck. Obviously, Luke survives. So, Arturo moves onto plan B: shooting him with a Judas bullet, which doesn’t do anything either. Luke knocks Arturo out and deposits him at the police station.
Luke’s feeling pretty confident after this latest takedown and decides to send a message to the rest of Harlem’s underground. “Yo, I’m Luke Cage. You can’t burn me, you can’t blast me, and you definitely can’t break me! I am Harlem, and Harlem is me,” says Luke, speaking into D.W.’s camera, before dabbing. Raise your hand if you think Luke’s arrogance will get the better of him this season.
While all this is going on, Misty is busy adjusting after losing her arm on The Defenders. When she’s not doing physical therapy with Claire, she’s busy sulking at home. However, when she discovers that the aforementioned Cockroach was freed from jail, she heads to the precinct and requests her job back because she can’t stand Cockroach and 30 other people Scarfe put away being out and about. Alas, there’s no sign of her prosthetic arm in this episode. Hopefully Luke Cage doesn’t waste much time getting to it.
Before the episode ends, we get our first real introduction to Bushmaster. As I mentioned earlier, Bushmaster arrives in New York but decides to postpone visiting Harlem. Instead, he heads to Brooklyn to let his fellow Yardies know what’s up. And by that, I mean he kills the head of Yardies, revealing in the process that he’s bulletproof, and a very skilled, ruthless fighter. Like, instead of just breaking Nigel’s neck, he also cuts his eyes with a knife for some reason. Watching that brutal display of violence convinces the other Yardies to fall in line behind him. Luke definitely isn’t ready for the Bushmater. (Luke Cage drinking game: Drink every time you fail to say “Bushmaster” with a straight face.)
- Although I found the Luke Cage premiere rather slow, I was pleasantly reminded how delightfully cheesy and goofy the show can be. For example, Luke and Claire have sex to Gregory Isaac’s “Night Nurse.” Get it? Also, at one point, Mariah sucks on Shades’ thumb after a waiter mistakes her for his aunt and not his girlfriend. It’s weird and silly at the same time.
- “Just because you’re a woke superhero doesn’t mean you need to be a broke superhero.” —Bobby Fish to Luke, who refuses to skim money from his drug busts.
- “I’m just surprised a bulletproof white man hasn’t shown up yet.”
(Click ahead for episode 2)
Luke, as we know, doesn’t really care about how well he’s paid. He just wants to feel good and strong. Performing astounding feats for adoring onlookers does that for him, but meetings with his father do not. James tries to connect with Luke again, and this time tries a slightly less shady tactic than confronting him on the midnight streets. This time, James shows up to the barbershop and asks for a cut. Unfortunately, he never got the memo that Pop’s isn’t really a barbershop anymore. Luke brushes him off and gets back to the superhero activity he enjoys so much. With Arturo Rey behind bars, he decides to seek out Cockroach.
The quest for Cockroach soon becomes even more imperative after Shades kills Arturo for insulting Mariah in Spanish (you absolutely do not want to say a single thing about Mariah in this guy’s presence). When Misty alerts Luke to the crime scene, he tells her he found a lead in the form of Cockroach’s baby mama, Drea Powell. Misty pulls up an address for Drea, and Luke goes to check it out. He finds himself face to face with Cockroach’s son, who has taken some bruises trying to stop his dad from beating up his mom. Drea soon shows up and stonewalls Luke, but luckily there’s an old woman next door who can’t stand Cockroach beating that woman; she tells him Cockroach runs a dice game in the warehouse, and Luke gives her his number to call in case the villain shows up at home again.
After surviving that Judas bullet, Luke is really feeling his oats. He just storms into Cockroach’s dice game and relishes the speed with which most people clear out. When Cockroach pulls out a gigantic gun, Luke scoffs at him with a smile: You really think that’s gonna work? Actually, yeah — just because bullets don’t pierce your skin doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt. Cockroach fires, and the force of the blast knocks Luke backward out the window, where he crashes into a car below and dislocates his shoulder while the criminal makes his escape.
As Claire fixes Luke’s shoulder, she reminds him that he’s not invulnerable. He doesn’t want a “lecture,” but it sure seems like he could use some common sense talk after arrogantly screwing up his Cockroach assault that badly. But what Claire really wants to talk to him about is reconciling with his father. As should be clear to anyone with eyes and ears, this is the absolute last thing you want to talk about with Luke Cage. He tries to deflect by talking about the other Defenders for some reason, but when Claire refuses to let go, he reminds her that his dad literally ruined his life. It was James Lucas whose lies created Diamondback, who framed Luke and got him in prison, where he met Reva and started on the path that claimed her life and Pop’s. We all have our share of family trauma, but those are some pretty raw scars! Maybe Claire should lay off for a bit and let him heal with his dad in his own time? Especially since he’s clearly got a lot on his mind trying to outmaneuver Mariah and her buyers, maybe it’s not a great idea to keep poking his deepest wound with a red-hot iron. Just my two cents.
Instead, Claire does the exact opposite of that! She literally shows up to James’ church, where she hears him lecture about how vengeance belongs only to God, and that everyone must strike a balance between fighting for goodness and fighting out of hateful spite. I mean, that sounds good (particularly thanks to Reg Cathey’s magnificent performance), but then you remember that of course James Lucas would say that, since he’s precisely the kind of person a lot of people would like to exact some vengeance on. Claire means well, but I fear she’s missing a lot of important Lucas family context here.
That said, Luke does appear to have a problem keeping his vengeance strictly within “righteous” bounds. Believing that Drea ratted him out to Cage, Cockroach returns home to beat her and threaten his son. This inspires the old lady next door to give Cage a call, and he arrives with a vengeance. Whether it’s the lingering humiliation from being shot out of a window or straight fury at watching another young boy’s innocence be destroyed by a wretched father, Luke lays into Cockroach like there’s no tomorrow. Instead of simply conking him on the head like usual, Luke beats the living daylights out of Cockroach, destroying much of the apartment. He even comes within a breath of killing the man, until he sees how terrified Drea and her son are, and finally backs off.
- I’m intrigued by Mustafa Shakir’s aura as Bushmaster, but so far he’s still mostly in the background. It does seem like he’ll throw quite a wrench in Mariah’s plans, however; having already killed Nigel, he now might be striking up a friendship with her estranged daughter, Tilda, whose holistic medical shop has exactly the kind of supplies he needs for his obeah magic.
- I’m not a fan of Misty Knight’s rival cop, Nandi (Antonique Smith), so far. She doesn’t have any personality other than being resentful of Misty, and besides, a lot of the criticism she and other cops direct at Misty seems quite well-founded to me! Misty palled around with a crooked cop for years and helped him do evil! She should really take a few breaths and take a look in the mirror before she goes around acting like The Best Cop.
- Also, when the hell is she getting that bionic arm already?
(Click ahead for episode 3)
This theme presents itself from the beginning of the episode, which picks up immediately after the preceding one. Claire arrives at the apartment and finds Cockroach’s family cowering in a corner, a bruised and beaten Cockroach barely clinging to life on the floor, and Luke in the opposite corner. The main takeaway from the concern on Claire’s face is that Luke has finally let his anger get the best of him. There isn’t much Claire can do there, so she calls Misty and some paramedics. Obviously, there’s concern that Luke could face jail time, but luckily, Misty lets him leave the scene of his crime.
With Arturo dead and Cockroach in the hospital, Luke turns his attention to the Yardies because he knows they’re Mariah’s last remaining buyer. I’m going to be honest, the most unrealistic thing about this episode so far is that Luke doesn’t complain once about having to trek all the way from Harlem to Crown Heights. New York subways are terrible right now! But I digress.
When Luke arrives in Brooklyn, he makes his way to the restaurant Bushmaster and his partner have been frequenting in one of my favorite scenes of the season so far. He starts inquiring about the Yardies, and the woman behind the counter directs him to some men who are playing dominoes. But these guys have no time for Luke Cage and don’t care who he is because he’s interrupting their game. They spend the entire interaction just dunking on him. As someone from Guyana, I loved this entire scene because the men’s cleverer-than-thou attitude reminded me of how my old family members interact with each other. Related, I also appreciate the show’s use of Jamaican patois, which brings a level of specificity to the story that most of these Marvel-Netflix shows lack and reminds the viewer that the black community isn’t a monolith.
Luckily, Luke stumbles on a lead and follows one of the Yardies all the way back to Bushmaster’s hideout. Had he been a few minutes faster, he would’ve arrived in time to see Shades collecting money from the Yardies. Alas! When Luke shows up at the Yardies’ warehouse, he finds Bushmaster and his men waiting for him. We know Bushmaster is capable of fighting Luke, but instead he hangs back and studies Luke as his men try everything in their power to take him down. For Luke, this is a great outlet for his frustration.
Speaking of frustration: Back uptown, Misty is in the ring with Colleen Wing working through her anger at some recent developments. Her colleagues keep blocking her from working on the Arturo/Mariah/Cockroach case; Captain Ridenhour referred to her as “the department’s Private Ryan”; and she’s been called a bitch way too many times in the past day. All in all, she’s frustrated because losing an arm has changed so much and she still hasn’t adjusted. Colleen tries to help by walking her through harnessing her chi, but that doesn’t get Misty her mojo back because she doesn’t buy any of that.
You know what does help her regain her swagger? Getting into a bar fight with some drunk idiots who call her a bitch. The adrenaline of the moment helps Misty figure out how to fight with just one arm. Eventually, Colleen joins the fray too. As always, watching these two women kick ass is great, but them doing it together was even better and has convinced me that we need a Daughters of the Dragon spin-off, or at least a standalone episode about them. Furthermore, this crossover works better than most crossovers on Marvel-Netlfix shows because it feels natural. It totally makes sense that Colleen and Misty would hang out now since they went through a traumatic experience together in The Defenders.
Meanwhile, Claire is still very concerned about Luke’s anger and decides to go have a chat with God — or rather, Rev. James. Their ensuing conversation reveals a softer, less blustery side of Luke’s father and helps Claire work through some things. By the time Luke returns from Brooklyn, she’s ready for a chat; however, their conversation doesn’t end well at all. Claire tells him he’s scaring people in a very unheroic way, but Luke points out that he scares everyone as a black man. In his mind, his recent confidence and violence are his way of both using his own anger for something productive and using people’s natural fear of him against them. The entire conversation, which touches on respectability politics and racism, verges on being didactic, but the script never loses sight of the real issues and emotions here — especially once the argument goes critical and Luke punches a hole through Claire’s wall. Claire is beyond unsettled by that outburst and tells Luke she needs some space because she grew up in an angry, violent household and refuses to live in one now.
Luke leaves, but he’s not done feeling the pain. Out of nowhere, Bushmaster — who was busy getting pumped up by sniffing nightshade and watching footage of his men’s fight with Luke — wallops him to the ground in the middle of Harlem. “But Harlem’s not your yard, boy. It’s mine,” Bushmaster defiantly declares as the episode ends.
- While all this is going on, Mariah’s relationship with her daughter continues to improve; however, Tilda catches wind of Mariah’s shady activities when she sees her mom and Shades celebrating the cash they got from the Yardies.
- I love how every Jamaican character is hung up on the news suggesting Luke Cage might be faster than Usain Bolt. “You not faster than Usain Bolt, you know?” Bushmaster says the first time he meets him.
- UPDATE: I changed the grade on this recap from a B+ to an A- because episode 3 was truly great.
(Click ahead for episode 4)
The video spreads like wildfire, especially after D.W. starts selling it to anyone who will buy — a great callback to one of my favorite moments from the beginning of season 1, when Luke passed a guy on the street hawking exclusive footage of the Chitauri invasion from The Avengers. Everyone who’s ever been annoyed or angry at Luke Cage seizes on it: The non-Misty cops are laughing, Mariah and her henchmen are gloating, and even ESPN anchor Stephen A. Smith has some TV commentary. Naturally, Smith compares the footage of Luke going down to the shocking upset defeats of star fighters like Muhammad Ali and Ronda Rousey. Like I said in the section for episode 2, Luke’s superhero career is playing out just like a star athlete’s — which means all the success and adoration is quickly followed by gloating and humiliation. People love the king… almost as much as they love seeing the king get knocked down.
But while Mariah is more than happy to accept Bushmaster’s money and his beatdown of Luke, Shades is suspicious. He starts to wonder if the whole reason Bushmaster wants to buy their guns is so they’ll be weaker when he comes for them. Mariah recognizes the name Bushmaster from “some old business with my grandfather,” but she so desperately wants to be done with that “old business” that she doesn’t give it much thought. She thinks she can be done with the past — doesn’t she know she’s inside a Marvel story, where past continuity is all-important? For all her killer lines, Mariah Dillard isn’t very genre-savvy!
Luke, meanwhile, goes to check out the scene of his real defeat: Claire’s apartment. She’s gone now, and the apartment is in the care of a realtor who tells Luke he’s not allowed on the premises anymore. All Claire left him was a letter, the contents of which are not yet revealed.
Back to work, then. Luke runs into Misty, and the two of them trek down to Brooklyn to check out the Yardies’ hideout. (I for one love that the Marvel-Netflix shows are finally expanding beyond Manhattan, but my co-recapper is right that the Harlem-Brooklyn trek is quite long; we should know, we used to live on opposite ends of it!) Like Claire’s apartment, the hideout is empty now — except for Nigel’s headless body, that is. That necessitates an official call to the cops — one of whom, Tomas, goes way back with Misty. He tells her the warehouse is owned by one Gideon Shaw, who recently got picked up by ICE. She goes to talk to him, but Luke isn’t allowed since he’s still got that conviction on his record. Before they split, Misty tells Luke she believes in him and Claire, and he just needs to give her some space. But when he asks if he can crash with her for a few nights, she scoffs at him — God I love Simone Missick’s performance. Luke eventually finds a friend in the form of Tilda Dillard, who heals his wound and promises to let him know if Bushmaster ever shows up at her shop again.
Misty talks to Gideon, who has history with Bushmaster. He tells her about their childhood, when an old storyteller named Anansi (gotta love a good mythology shout-out) told young Bushmaster a story he never forgot, about a man on top of a hill and a man at the bottom. The man at the top of the hill has everything and thinks himself invulnerable, but the man at the bottom knows he can kill his enemy at any time — he just has to wait for them to let their guard down.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The point is driven home when Bushmaster visits Mariah at Paradise. He brings up their old family history (apparently his parents worked for Mariah’s ancestors to build Paradise and the Stokes fortune). Mariah once again tries to poo-poo the past, and talks about how only kings and queens get remembered anyway. Bushmaster disagrees, and points to the Kingfish performance happening in the club. Royalty may make the history books, but the people they’ve wronged live on in song and story. She gets mad when he refers to her as a Stokes, but I’m sure that’s only the beginning of explosive interactions between them.
Back at the barbershop, Luke learns that he’s losing another ally. Having found out his daughter needs a kidney transplant, Bobby is flying out to provide one for her (I don’t know about you guys, but I keep picturing her as Ron Cephas Jones’ real-life daughter, Hamilton actress Jasmine Cephas Jones). Shortly after he leaves, Luke gets served papers! Man, sometimes it just isn’t your day.
- I love that no one on this show can tell a story without immediately referencing a whole other story as well. Just as Rev. James added a Cherokee legend into his scripture lecture, so Gideon Shaw tops his Anansi story with a Biblical reference — specifically, the one about how water was used to destroy the world during the great flood, and it’ll be fire next time (incidentally, that phrase is also the name of a great James Baldwin essay, which I’m sure Luke has read).
- I love this show’s use of diegetic music, and Bushmaster using the Kingfish performance to make a point to Mariah was particularly cool.
- ”I will cut your balls off and roll them like dice” is one hell of a line, even by Mariah’s standards. I also love how Comanche kept referencing and twisting it for the rest of the episode. As comedian John Mulaney might say, once you write a line like that, it stays in the show forever!
(Click ahead for episode 5)
“All Souled Out” begins with Luke and Foggy meeting with Cockroach, who sues Luke for assault. Luke has two options: Pay $100,000, or go fight it in court. Foggy suggests the former because he’s worried that Luke will lose his temper in the courtroom, which is a fair fear since Luke accidentally breaks the table during the meeting. However, there’s an obvious problem: Luke doesn’t have that kind of money. You would think that with all of the press he’s been getting lately that Luke could easily scrounge up some cash from Nike or a football team, or something. But alas, everyone’s seen the beating Bushmaster gave him, so he isn’t shining quite as brightly as he was in episode 2. Thankfully, help comes from an unlikely source that tests Luke’s convictions.
In the wake of Mariah’s big Atreus Plastics move, Piranha is swimming in cash and wants to celebrate this latest win by throwing a party that will feature a special guest: Luke Cage. As it turns out, this sleazy uptown finance guy is a big Luke Cage fan — like he owns guns Luke has crumpled, one of Luke’s bullet-ridden hoodies, and several bullets that came in contact with his indestructible body (My co-recapper compared Piranha’s Luke Cage shrine to that white guy who’s obsessed with Africa in the “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta, and I think that’s very accurate). Because he loves Luke so much, he’s willing to pay him whatever. So, Luke demands $150,000. However, this arrangement puts Luke in a very uncomfortable position, especially once Piranha demands that he wear the aforementioned hoodie.
Luke hates the idea of selling out and becoming Piranha’s “pet for pay,” which is very in line with the character we’ve come to know. He’s someone who values his honor and dignity because of everything he’s been through up until this point. Remember, he was forced to fight for the prison guards’ amusement while he was behind bars, and the only reason he has his powers is because people viewed his body as something to be used and experimented on. So, the last thing Luke wants is to feel as though he’s lost ownership of body once again. Furthermore, taking this “job” would basically violate his idea of heroism and compromise what he believes in.
Unfortunately for Luke, the party turns out to be far worse than he could’ve imagined. He suffers many indignities from the moment he arrives because both Piranha and his guests believe they can do whatever they want to him since he’s being paid to be there. At one point, some douchy bros just break a bottle over his head. However, the situation only escalates from there. The party climaxes with Piranha summoning Luke to the stage and inviting the guests to shoot him for sport, which is absolutely disgusting. However, the festivities are interrupted by the Yardies, who try to kidnap Piranha. Luckily, Luke saves his butt and tells him he needs to hire himself a hero.
What I found most interesting about the party scene, and Piranha in general, is what the show is saying about how wealth can change people. Piranha is clearly someone who values being black and believes he’s achieved some form of black excellence because of his money, which has was amassed illegally. I mean, he’s very proud of the fact that his investment firm is based in Harlem. But there’s an obvious disconnect here between what he practices and what he preaches. Look at the way he commodifies and fetishizes Luke and his symbols like the bullet-ridden hoodie.
Meanwhile, our favorite detective finds herself on the precipice of moral compromise, too. She spends most of the episode mulling over what to do about Cockroach and looking back on her time with Scarfe, who once suggested that planting evidence wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you knew the person was guilty. At one point, Misty manages to convince herself that planting a Judas bullet in Cockroach’s apartment is the right thing to do, and that she would still be a good person if she did it. Even though this is clearly the wrong thing to do, it works because the show has not only built up Misty’s growing frustrations with the limits of her job, but Simone Missick also gives a very convincing performance.
Misty steals the bullet from the evidence locker and breaks into Cockroach’s apartment. But, at the last second, she stops herself from going through with it; however, while she’s there, she stumbles onto something disturbing: Cockroach’s headless body. However, it doesn’t take too long to find out where the head went.
When Mariah unveils the Shirley Chisholm Complex to a group of patrons and journalists, she finds a horrifying display waiting for her behind the doors: Cockroach, Ray-Ray, and Mark Higgins’ heads mounted on spikes. Clearly, Bushmaster wanted to send his foe a message, and he didn’t even need to appear in the episode to remind us how dangerous he is.
- “You want to hire this hero? The price just doubled!” – I’m glad this episode pushed both Luke and Misty further down the road toward their comic book destinies: Luke becoming a hero for hire, and Misty kickin’ butt with her new robotic arm.
- “Goddamn cosplay,” Luke, when he puts on the hoodie Piranha is forcing him to wear.
- Honestly, I didn’t hate Foggy’s appearance in this episode.
(Click ahead for episode 6)
It begins, again, right where our last episode left off: Luke and Piranha are fleeing, on foot, from those very angry and very armed Jamaicans. Bushmaster is certainly putting Mariah’s guns to good use! Luke has an unorthodox way of saving Piranha: Throwing him from roof to roof to stay one step ahead of the Jamaicans. It works, just barely, and they manage to stay out of sight for now. I will say that I love how their dynamic finally brings Luke Cage’s comic book origins as a “hero for hire” into the show.
While Mariah is still at the police station for questioning in the aforementioned heads-on-pikes incident, it falls to Shades to defend Harlem’s Paradise. Comanche shows up and has no idea what’s going on; he picked a hilariously bad time to meet up with Ridenhour! But he quickly assuages Shades’ questions; the two of them are old buddies, and that’s exactly who you need by your side in a crisis like this. Mariah may have sold Bushmaster most of their guns, but not all; they’ve still got some good stuff left, so Shades and Comanche arm up and hit the streets to find Piranha.
They make for Luke’s classic base at Pop’s barbershop, assuming he’ll bring the lawyer there. We know, of course, that Luke is far from there, so of course he never shows up. But the scene is very worthwhile anyway. Their conversation, ranging from their shared histories to their experiences in prison to their now-differing conceptions of the American Dream, reminds me of the iconic Avon Barksdale/Stringer Bell balcony conversation from season 3 of The Wire (one of my very favorite scenes in an all-time great show). Like Avon and Stringer, Che and Shades came up together and swear they’ll die for each other, but they’re being pulled in different directions — Shades by Mariah, who Che doesn’t trust, and Che by the cops who have him in a bind. So when Shades reveals that it was Mariah who killed Cottonmouth, he thinks he’s doing it as a sign of trust to an old friend; but we know it’s exactly the information Che needs to get Ridenhour off his back. This relationship is going to explode eventually, and I have a feeling it’ll be something to watch.
Misty, meanwhile, is evaluating her choices. We know her heart’s in the right place, but now it’s clear even to her that Scarfe rubbed off on her in all the wrong ways. The whole reason she discovered Cockroach’s corpse, after all, was because she was going to his apartment to plant evidence in classic Scarfe style. After a few hours of deep self-reflection (the “basement” of this episode’s title refers to the basement of her psyche, as well as the literal basements Luke and Piranha are hiding in), she decides she can’t take it anymore. She gives Ridenhour her badge and gun, refusing either to be restrained by his rules or be doomed by Scarfe’s rule-breaking corruption. It’s an interesting choice — but perhaps a poorly timed one, considering it happens just at the moment Luke leaves Piranha with his dad while telling him to call Misty at Harlem PD for help.
These Defenders shows clearly yearn to be more literary than your average MCU movie, but I love that this season actually delivers on that with this recurring question of what to do about the past. Every character is facing these questions this season, and everyone has different, evolving answers. Bushmaster’s uncle tells him to forget the Stokes and focus on building a legacy for future Jamaicans, while the younger man insists on avenging those past crimes. Mariah has been so eager to forget the past that she’s lost track of the future — she didn’t realize how much danger she was putting herself in by arming Bushmaster, much less how much she would further alienate Tilda by bringing her into all this. And Luke was eager to leave Reverend James behind in the past, until he realized he needed his help (and his sanctuary) in the present.
At the end of the day, though, Luke still thinks he can do it all himself. So after dropping off Piranha at church, he calls Bushmaster and challenges him to a duel, for the fate of both Piranha and Harlem itself. The two combatants meet at high noon on High Bridge for their duel — and, strangely enough, they’re all alone. Looks like their previous encounter has dimmed everyone’s interest in following Luke’s every move. But onlookers or no, it’s a good fight, Luke trading powerful blows with Bushmaster’s capoeira kicks. For a second there, it even looks like Luke will win the fight. So then, of course, Bushmaster has to use some obeah tricks. He blows dust into Luke’s eyes that paralyzes him. While remarking that they could have been brothers rather than enemies (the second time this episode has made me think of Avon and Stringer), Bushmaster kicks him off the bridge, and Luke’s paralyzed body sinks into the Harlem River. It doesn’t look good, folks!
- What’s the nature of Mariah’s history with Ridenhour? He calls her “May-May” and she calls him “Tommy,” which is enough to make Misty scoff. I’d be interested to know how these two rather humorless people ended up with cutesy nicknames for each other.
- Given all the news from the border these days, it’s fascinating to hear this show’s reference to ICE as a dark force. When Ridenhour tells Misty that they only have a few days to put a lid on this incipient gang war before the governor sends in ICE, she knows that means “they’ll round up every Jamaican in sight.” Interested to see how this develops.
(Click ahead for episode 7)
“On and On” wastes no time in picking up where the last episode left off. We begin with Luke sinking into the river, basically doing his best impression of Captain America at the end of The First Avenger. Thankfully, this river isn’t in the arctic, and Luke regains consciousness in time to swim up to the surface.
As you would expect, this close call with death really shakes Luke up. But, he doesn’t have time to process it once he finds out that Piranha ran off after he left. Taking note of how beaten his son looks, James pleads with him to stay and rest, but Luke refuses because he needs Piranha if he wants to take Mariah down.
Luke heads off in search for Piranha, and decides to team-up with Misty, which is a welcomed development because Colter and Missick are a firecracker duo. Harlem’s defenders follow the Stylers’ cabs back to a garage, where they get into a brawl with some of the gang members. This is the first time we get to see Misty make full use of her new arm, and even Luke stops mid-fight to watch her do her thing. Once the fight’s over, they find Piranha — or rather, what’s left of him. Bushmaster beheaded him and left his head floating in a tank, because the dude has no chill whatsoever.
Bushmaster isn’t an idiot, though. He made sure Piranha transferred all of Mariah’s funds to him before he sent the sleazy banker swimming with the fishes. And now that he has Mariah’s money, Bushmaster heads to Harlem to take his foe down. His uncle begs him to not let his need for vengeance consume him, but Bushmaster ignores his pleas because he’s dead set on claiming Mariah’s soul in exchange for his mother’s. As we find out later in the episode, Buggy Stokes betrayed Papa McIver and killed him, but John and his mother managed to flea to Kingston. Years later, some men found them and burned down their home while his mother was still inside. Part of me finds Bushmaster’s whole revenge plot rather boring, but Mustafa Shakir’s electrifying performance makes it hard to dismiss it.
In the wake of Piranha’s death, Ridenhour decides to offer Mariah a deal because he knows he’ll find evidence against her once he starts riffling through Piranha’s files. It’s been clear for a while that there’s something going on between these two, and this episode gives us even more hints about their past when Ridenhour brings up the fact that Tilda still doesn’t know her real age or who he real father is. Despite their closeness, Mariah rejects Ridenhour’s offer.
Once Ridenhour leaves, Mariah discovers that all of her money is gone, which means Bushmaster is coming for her. So she springs into action and runs home with Tilda so they can pack their things and get the hell out of there. Alas, the Stylers show up at her brownstone before she and Tilda can flee. And here’s where the episode really digs into this season’s concern about the weight of the past as the action switches between Bushmaster monologuing to Mariah before he sets the house on fire, and Luke sitting down for a true heart to heart with his father. The message is clear: Bushmaster is still allowing the past to dominate his actions, whereas Luke, who just had a near brush with death, has realized that he needs to move on and make peace with his father, no matter how hard that may be.
D.W. interrupts Luke and James’ heart-to-heart to tell him about the fire at Mariah’s place. So, Luke springs into action and rushes to save his nemesis. When Mariah finally regains consciousness on the street, she’s surprised he saved her and asks to hire him. Whether or not he’ll say yes, remains up in the air.
You’d think that this was enough action for one episode, but there’s more. After Mariah rejects his deal, Ridenhour meets up with Comanche. Shades crashes the meeting because he suspected something was up with Comanche. Even though the jig is clearly up, Comanche still tries to convince Shades he didn’t do anything and even kills Ridenhour. But, Shades doesn’t believe Comanche and murders him because, at the end of the day, Shades is stone cold. (I guess that brings Shades’ personality traits up to: He’s cool and stone cold.)
While “On and On” wasn’t lacking in incident, it still left me feeling a bit cold. There weren’t any knockout moments in this one as there have been in the previous episodes. That being said, it did leave excited about what’s to come. Season 2 has been more consistent than season 1, and it doesn’t seem like the transition to the second half of the story will be as bumpy as it was in the first season.
- “I don’t trust him. He’s one of those big, sensitive, emo [guys]. He probably cries watching This Is Us.” “I cry watching This Is Us.”
- I think it’s fair to say that Nandi is the worst.
- “Who says you’re not my sidekick?” “Me. It’s my show.” Let’s be real, though, it doesn’t matter whose show it is. Either way, Luke is Misty’s sidekick.
(Click ahead for episode 8)
It’s safe to say that most of our players aren’t going to easily shake off what they just went through. We see Shades burning his clothes from the crime scene, while his last bits of dialogue with Comanche play over in his head. During my last recap, I compared their relationship to Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, and therefore predicted it would have an explosive end. Boy, did it! Shades clearly has complicated feelings about it, as his first stop after burning evidence is breaking the news to Comanche’s mom. She refuses to believe her son was a snitch, and obviously Shades withholds the information that he killed him. But he promises to look after her, like his best friend would have wanted.
Then, finally, Shades gets the call that the rest of his life has gone up in smoke too. It’s funny, Comanche used to be the one who rolled in confused after disaster had struck, and now Shades is carrying it on. He shows up to the police station, where a burned and shaken Mariah is being interrogated. Misty breaks the news of Ridenhour’s death to her, but isn’t able to get anything out of Mariah; her lawyer Ben Donovan is just too slick. But, since there is evidence of Shades’ car being parked near the site of the showdown, they’re able to detain him as a person of interest. Misty simulates the crime scene, Sherlock style, in order to prove that Ridenhour couldn’t possibly have shot Comanche from where he was laying. Ben Donovan is all ready to poo-poo it like usual, until he suddenly gets the call that Mariah’s out of money. He leaves Shades to fend for himself. That allows Misty to extract some details about Shades’ past with Comanche (apparently, the late friend knew Shades before he even had shades) but they ultimately have to let him go. Burning those clothes at the top of the episode was a smart move; the police have no evidence to pin on him.
But after Misty continued Comanche’s trend of telling Shades he shouldn’t let Mariah ignore him, he decides to have words with his lover in the ruins of the brownstone. He reminds her that he warned her about selling those guns to Bushmaster, and that if she had just sold the Basquiat painting none of this would have ever happened. But he’s not a total downer; Shades tells Mariah that the moment she killed Cottonmouth she became a gangster, so now it’s time to adapt like gangsters do. To use Bushmaster’s favorite story, the positions have now reversed, and he’s the one at the top of the hill while they’re at the bottom. So all they have to do is wait for his guard to drop like theirs did.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen anytime soon. Bushmaster has put Mariah’s guns to good use, and now Harlem is roving with bands of hitmen and mercenaries trying to cash in on the $1 million dollar bounties Bushmaster just put on Luke, Mariah, Tilda, and anyone associated with them. They attack Rev. James’ church while Luke is attending service, and luckily he’s able to fight them off. He manages to make it to Tilda’s shop just as she and Mariah get attacked. Though they’re able to fight off these assassins too, it’s clear Harlem’s heroes are running out of places to hide. Mariah’s brownstone is gone, Bushmaster owns Paradise, the barbershop is compromised, and not even the police precinct is safe. So Luke pulls out his last option, the one he’s been avoiding all season: He tells Misty to call Danny Rand for a favor. Power Man and Iron Fist are back in business!
- I hope Tilda’s role continues to grow over the rest of the season. She has the unique ability to bring some humanity out of Mariah, but she might also be the only one capable of deciphering and countering Bushmaster’s herb magic.
- Since I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly so far, I’m really digging Alfre Woodard’s performance as Mariah this season. Now that we’re seeing her at her lowest point, Woodard is mixing in some great desperation and anxiety into her typical badass arrogance. We’re really seeing different sides of this character.
(Click ahead for episode 9)
When the never-ending hour begins, Luke, Misty, James, Mariah, and Tilda are hiding out at a Rand facility in Queens, courtesy of our least favorite Defender. Throwing these characters together in one place does lead to some humor, specifically from Mariah and Misty, who can’t stand to be in the same space as each other. But the initial humor isn’t enough to stop this from feeling like the show is in a holding pattern and the characters are just waiting for something to happen to them.
During this downtime, Misty, Mariah, and Luke powwow about the most important issue at hand: taking down Bushmaster. Luke suggests that Misty offer Mariah a deal: If she agrees to testify against Bushmaster, the police won’t come after her for the illegal gun sale. Of course, that’s the last thing Misty wants to do, but Luke makes the argument of choosing between the lesser of two evils, which sways Misty.
While Misty returns the police precinct, the characters hunker down in the Rand facility for several filler conversations that don’t add much — save for one. Tilda confronts her mother after Luke tells her everything she needs to know, which leads to Mariah to finally spill all of the Stokes family’s secrets. She tells Tilda about Uncle Pete raping her and confirms what we’ve suspected all season long: Tilda is actually Pete’s daughter. She also reveals that Mabel forced Mariah to give Tilda to another family when she was born, and Mariah wasn’t able to get her back until Mabel was out of the way three years later. However, the biggest blow in this very fraught conversation comes when Mariah admits that she never loved Tilda because she only sees Pete when she looks at her, which absolutely breaks Tilda’s heart.
Alfre Woodard does some her best work on the season so far in the aforementioned scene, and she’s the reason it lands so powerfully. What makes Woodard such a great actress is that she knows when to chew the hell out of the scenery and when to tone it down. She does the latter here, delivering a controlled yet devastating performance. Gabrielle Dennis is also fantastic here too, as she allows the emotion in her to swell with each new revelation until she’s full-on crying and calling her mother a monster.
The episode spotlights other parent-child relationships as well. While they wait for Mariah to return, Luke and James continue down their path of reconciliation. Back in Harlem, Bushmaster continues to ignore his uncle Anansi’s pleas to stop trying to use knockoff nightshade because it’ll ruin his mind, body, and soul. But John is an addict at this point and refuses to heed his uncle’s counsel.
Misty and Deputy Chief Ridley convince the D.A. to authorize Mariah’s immunity deal, and the NYPD mobilizes to arrest John and the Stylers after Mariah signs it. Unfortunately, Nandi decided to collect the bounty on the Stokes women’s heads. By the time the police show at Harlem’s Paradise, the Stylers have already launched an assault on the Rand facility.
Thus we arrive at the season’s third Luke vs. Bushmaster showdown! One of the things I’ve liked about this season is that Luke learns something new from each encounter with Bushmaster. For example, he was better prepared for John’s ground and leg moves when they fought on the bridge, and here he makes sure he takes John’s paralyzing dust out of the equation right at the beginning of the fight. Because the nightshade is wearing off, Luke is eventually able to take Bushmaster down and turn him over to police custody.
In the aftermath of the battle, Luke shares a sweet moment with his father, which is the second standout moment of the episode. James invites Luke to return to Georgia with him, but Luke declines because there’s still work to be done in Harlem. James tells Luke to not let his responsibility and guilt consume him to the point where his calling feels like a curse (in other words, don’t become Bushmaster). Then the best thing happens: James tells Luke he’s proud of him, and the Lucas men say “I love you” to one another. Surviving this entire ordeal has helped them grow closer, and I was genuinely moved by their conversation, which surprised me since I wasn’t particularly excited when they introduced Luke’s father.
Luke and Misty think everything is handled and they’ll simply have to pick up Mariah, who escaped during the action, later. Unfortunately, that’s not true at all. Because we have four more episodes left, Bushmaster uses a concealed bomb to escape police custody. Alas, his big play leaves him severely wounded, so Sheldon takes him to Tilda, who agrees to help him.
- Honestly, I love that James is obsessed with the ending of Titanic. What a funny character detail!
- Christian and I forgot to point out an Easter egg from episode 8: Nandi tells Misty someone named O’Reilly moved to New Orleans. If you’ve been watching Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger, then you know she’s talking about Emma Lahana’s character, Detective Brigid O’Reilly. I think that’s the first time a Marvel-Netflix show has established a connection with another show.
- I love how Mariah doesn’t believe that Luke knows Danny.
- Grading this episode was particularly hard because I didn’t care for much except for the scenes between Mariah and Tilda, and Luke and his father. But those were enough to raise the grade a bit.
(Click ahead for episode 10)
No better time, then, for Danny Rand to return! After Luke used a Rand Enterprises building to hide out from Bushmaster last episode, the man himself shows up to see if the Iron Fist can’t help rectify this messy situation. I’m gonna be honest: Danny is typically my least favorite member of the Defenders, and there are times I think his own show might be better served by just focusing on Colleen. But he’s put to good use here. He’s a great foil for Luke (as you’d want from any live-action version of Power Man and Iron Fist), and this show actually makes him come off pretty badass.
Before we get to that, let’s check in on new cop Nandi Tyler. Earlier in this season I complained that Nandi didn’t really have enough to do. Well, she finally got something to do! Using new software that detects when detectives enter and leave the interrogation room, Misty and Betty suspect Nandi is the snitch who gave Bushmaster the location of aforementioned Rand building (allowing him to escape the Paradise raid and mount his assault), since records indicate she was in the interrogation room at the same time they were discussing their plan. Bailey’s reluctant to believe them, but when he unearths footage of Nandi leaving Harlem’s Paradise that night, it’s hard to deny the facts. The cops catch up with Nandi just as she’s about to skip town, and Misty gives her a small beatdown. Once they get to the interrogation room, Misty starts bringing up memories of their basketball days, but Nandi’s more interested in talking about something else: the police department’s continuing leniency toward Mariah. After she heard Misty’s plan to give Mariah immunity from the weapons deal, she decided to help Bushmaster because she believes Mariah deserves true justice. Like Bushmaster, Nandi doesn’t want to see Mariah continue to get away scot-free with all her horrendous crimes.
And yet, get away she does. Bushmaster was able to hurt Mariah (steal all her money, take her club, burn her house down), and it took her all of two days to bounce back. In fact, given the way she now has superstar lawyer Ben Donovan’s balls in her hand, she might arguably be more powerful than she was before. She’s certainly more evil. While Luke and Danny search for any sign of Bushmaster, Mariah decides to send him a more direct message. She brings Bushmaster’s uncle to the Jamaican restaurant, where she confirms that her old hostess/seductress Billie (a.k.a Stephanie) was Bushmaster’s spy inside her organization. Mariah finally, gleefully claims the name Stokes for herself, and then lives up to that name by executing everyone in the restaurant. Bushmaster’s uncle cries and screams and curses her, but she douses him in rum and burns him to death. This is a legitimately horrifying sequence, one that brings home the fact that when powerful people fight, it’s somehow always the less powerful who die for it.
That downer is tempered, somewhat, by the fun of the Luke/Danny team-up. After learning that the Jamaicans have taken over the biggest weed greenhouse in Brooklyn in order to grow more nightshade, the two Defenders storm the warehouse to the tune of Wu-Tang Clan’s “7th Chamber.” It’s a great callback to one of my favorite scenes from season 1 (when Luke stormed a different gangster base to the sound of “Bring Da Ruckus”). My comic-nerd lizard brain also couldn’t get enough of the two creatively combining their powers. I was all ready to describe their “patty-cake” (when Danny punches his glowing fist into Luke’s invulnerable hands to create a massive shockwave, only intentionally this time) as Danny and Luke’s version of the “fastball special,” but then they literally did their own fastball special: Luke hurled a powered-up Danny straight into a contingent of henchmen, just as the X-Men’s Colossus would do with a claw-baring Wolverine to cause maximum damage. That kind of stuff makes Danny’s rich-white-boy shtick worth it.
- I’ve enjoyed the convergence of themes this season. This episode found both Misty and Mariah getting rid of snitches in their organization and thereby acquiring more power than ever before. And building up on what Rev. James said last episode about how science, magic, and religion are all different ways of channeling that same power, Luke and Danny learned here that money is also a real power in the world, albeit a superficial one.
- Comanche and Misty used to give Shades crap about following Mariah’s every order when he always had better ideas of how to run things. Maybe he’ll be thinking about that more after watching her massacre a restaurant full of innocent people. I mean, it made him take his shades off at the end there, which seems like the greatest sign of existential crisis Shades could ever display.
- Glad to see the Biggie painting back!
(Click ahead for episode 11)
After 10 episodes, Luke Cage finally reveals Bushmaster’s past via some flashbacks to his childhood. If these had arrived earlier in the season, they would’ve been more effective, especially the one that reveals John’s first experience with nightshade. (Two years after the Stokes killed his mother, Pete returned to Jamaica and shot John, and Anansi carried him to a doctor who used nightshade to save his life.) Placing these flashbacks in episode 11 makes them feel like filler more than anything else because John already told us what happened to his parents in the first half of the season.
Back in the present, Luke and Misty are focused on finding Ingrid, who managed to survive the massacre at Gwen’s. While Luke hits the streets, Misty remains uptown and pursues an interesting lead: The same gun that killed Nigel was also used to kill Candace in season 1. Misty does some more digging and discovers that the ballistics match the unsolved murder of Pete Stokes from back in the day. She believes this proves Mariah was responsible for all three murders (which isn’t exactly the case).
The slaughter at Gwen’s also left Shades shaken, and when we first see him in the episode, he’s busy “Out, damned spot”-ing” in the bathroom. Mariah can tell Shades isn’t doing well but doesn’t care, and dispatches him to Brooklyn to handle Ingrid. Shades manages to snatch Ingrid from Luke’s custody, but he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger because he’s lost faith in his girlfriend/master. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve ever cared about Shades.
Hernan’s lack of faith in Mariah is understandable because this war with Bushmaster has clearly broken her, in the same way Cottonmouth’s war with Luke broke him in season 1. The Stokes family has long had a no-drugs rule, but Mariah decides she’s ready to throw that out the window and get into the drug trade with Chinese. Furthermore, she even starts having hallucinations about Pete and Mabel, which is peak Shakespearean. She’s losing it and acting more rashly because of it.
When Shades returns from Brooklyn, he declares that he’s done with her because she’s broken all the rules: killing innocents, selling drugs, etc. I love that the one thing that’s remained consistent about Shades since the beginning is that this gangster does have some moral code. It might be slightly off-center, but he has one. In fact, he’s so disgusted with his now-ex-girlfriend that he even turns himself over Misty at the end of the episode because he wants to take Mariah down.
While all this is going on, Tilda is hard at work on trying to save John’s life with the knockoff nightshade the Stylers were growing in the U.S. Eventually, John wakes up, and his first order of business is to visit his uncle’s body in the morgue. There he finds Luke, who kept Ingrid safe during the day. While Ingrid says goodbye to her husband, John and Luke step outside for a respectful chat. John soberly states that he doesn’t intend to call off his war with Mariah, and Luke assures him he’ll stop both of them. But for now, these two men will allow this sitzkrieg to unfold so John and Ingrid may grieve their loved ones.
- Power-crazy Mariah also puts the moves on Alex, but Shades interrupts before she goes any further.
- “It’s time for us to let the ghosts of the past die,” says Mariah, right before she starts hallucinating, because irony!
- Tilda defiantly walks away from her mother after she finds out that Mariah is responsible for the Rum Punch Massacre.
- Daredevil’s Karen Page is referenced but not seen in the episode.
(Click ahead for episode 12)
The episode begins with the revelation that Mariah has taken Bushmaster’s name and applied it to the crazy new heroin strain she’s selling with the Chinese, just like that “Luke Cage” drug from the beginning of the season. And it’s not just the Chinese; Mariah has opened Harlem’s doors to every criminal gang with designs on it, from the Italians to the Japanese. I know she’s been through a lot in her life, but at this point it’s hard to deny that Mariah has become even worse than her despicable Stokes predecessors. Mariah used to justify her actions by saying her city council politics and Family First initiatives would redeem Harlem from the legacy of the whorehouses that made Mama Mabel rich. But now that she’s flooding the streets with dangerous drugs with little care for who gets caught up in the resulting violence, Mariah can’t even pretend like she’s doing a single good thing for Harlem.
Bushmaster, for one, isn’t going to take it lying down. Desperate to stop this drug’s slanderous use of his name, Bushmaster shows up alone to the Chinese loading docks to disrupt their supply. Luckily for him, Luke is there too and has his back. What ensues is my favorite kind of scene, where the protagonist and antagonist set aside their differences in order to battle a bigger threat. Like Rey and Kylo Ren teaming up against the Praetorian Guards, Luke and Bushmaster fight back-to-back against a warehouse full of evil henchmen — except they do it to the sound of Wu-Tang. Here’s hoping this show lasts long enough to find a use for every single track off 36 Chambers.
The team-up ends up short-lived, as Bushmaster uses more of his sleight-of-hand to plant an explosive on Luke so he could make his escape. So Luke heads to Harlem’s Paradise to check in with our other main combatant in this ongoing blood feud, Mariah. Luke promises he’s not going to protect her if Bushmaster comes for her again, but she doesn’t believe him, and neither should we, honestly.
But though Luke’s heroism can keep Mariah safe from Bushmaster’s vengeance, nothing can protect her from the truth of Shades’ words. Over the course of his long statement to police, Shades admits to everything from beating up Luke in prison to killing Candace. After he gleefully describes how he used Misty’s phone to set the girl up after he found it laying in the barbershop, Misty needs a breather. A disturbing parody of Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talk ensues, as Misty struggles with all her might to stop from weeping as she fetches Shades some water. Simone Missick’s performance has been one of the most compelling elements of this season, and she really shows off her strengths here.
However, Shades’ words aren’t worth much in court unless they literally have the gun — the pearl-handled antique he killed Candace with, that Cottonmouth killed Pete with once upon a time, and that Mariah more recently used to kill Anansi. So Misty straps him to a wire and sends him back into Paradise to try to lift the gun off Mariah. Things go south almost immediately when Mariah takes him to an underground chamber that the cops didn’t know about, but bigger problems just keep coming. Enraged and horrified by her mother’s actions, Tilda grants Bushmaster a secret weapon (a super-intense injection of nightshade) and helps him sneak into the club through Prohibition-era underground tunnels.
Soon, they all converge on Mariah’s underground lair: Shades, Mariah, Bushmaster, Luke, and Misty. Bushmaster’s super-dose of nightshade allows him to literally hold his own in this four-on-one battle, until Luke finally gets him into a deadly headlock. It’s kind of wild to think that, of ALL the people in this room, Bushmaster is somehow the one who most deserves to die, but I think those early beatdowns really pissed off Luke. He comes this close to killing Bushmaster, Superman-and-Zod style, until Misty finally convinces him to back down. The Jamaican escapes, but there is some good news. Shades hands Misty the fabled Stokes gun, allowing the cops to finally put Mariah under arrest. As Mariah takes her perp walk out of Paradise, Misty sees it as a win. Luke doesn’t — and unfortunately, as we’ll see in the finale, he’s right.
- “Why don’t you two just kill each other and get it over with so I can get some goddamn sleep.”
- Yet another parallel to The Wire: Bushmaster’s fervor to destroy the drug that took his name is a parallel to Marlo Stanfield’s infamous declaration that “my name is my name!” (hyperlink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itCPGm2W1fE). No surprise that this is one of the few things he and Luke agree on.
(Click ahead for episode 13)
In Luke Cage’s season 2 finale, our titular hero was crowned the new crime king of Harlem after he brokered peace with the Italians, who turned the neighborhood into a war zone in order to take it over. However, his rule wasn’t solidified until Tilda murdered her mother, Mariah Dillard Stokes, who left Harlem’s Paradise to Luke in her will because she knew he loved the neighborhood just as much as she did. In the final scene of the season, Luke embraces his inner Cottonmouth, dons a three-piece suit, and takes a seat on the club’s elevated throne, where he hopes to keep an eye on Harlem’s criminal element.
To conclude EW’s binge of Luke Cage season 2, fellow recapper Christian Holub and I are going to break down the finale together and discuss our thoughts about the season as a whole.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: At the beginning of the season, I had a feeling Mariah would die by the end of it because she and Shades had this Macbeth/Lady Macbeth thing going on (in this scenario she was Macbeth, hallucinations and all). However, I definitely couldn’t have predicted that Luke would basically become the new Cottonmouth of Harlem. It’s rather similar to how Daredevil became the Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen after he took down Kingpin during Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s run on Daredevil. In destroying their enemies, they basically became them, which is a very interesting road to send a character down (die a hero or etc.) I think it works really well here too, because looking back at the season, it’s clear things been building toward this move, especially when you remember Mariah first told Luke that Harlem needed a king/queen, not a hero, in episode 9.
Christian, did you find this finale as surprising as I did? What did and didn’t you like the final hour of the season?
CHRISTIAN HOLUB: This season really did not end how I expected it to! Luke taking over Harlem’s Paradise and becoming Harlem’s new crime lord was quite a shocker for me, but you’re right that the groundwork had been laid quietly, while we were all focused on other things. His breakup with Claire Temple early in the season indicated that there was some raging darkness inside him that hadn’t been dealt with, and the fact that he came within a breath of killing both Cockroach and Bushmaster shows that his scruples have been steadily eroding in the face of bloodlust and vengeance — exactly what Claire was warning him about. In some ways, this twist further illuminates what happened this season. I had been wondering why Luke repeatedly took Mariah’s side against Bushmaster, and it seems clear now that Luke related to her more easily and thought he had more in common with her (despite repeated pleas from Bushmaster and his allies that Luke actually had more in common with them). Mariah thought so too, and now that she’s made him her heir, it’s come true.
Speaking of Bushmaster, what do you think about this season’s new villain now that we’ve reached the endpoint? Given all the pain the Stokes family put him through, it’s a bummer he got denied the cathartic satisfaction of killing her himself, but inspiring Tilda to do it made it that much more poetic, I suppose. I quite enjoyed Mustafa Shakir’s performance, especially the way his lanky physicality contrasted with Mike Colter’s immovable solidity (although the ways that Luke is portrayed as a Black Jesus figure and Bushmaster as an exotic wielder of voodoo could be construed as problematic, and probably another reason Luke sympathized with Mariah over him).
Later in the season, I realized that I was sympathizing with Bushmaster in the same way I sympathized with Killmonger in Black Panther. Both characters have been dispossessed of their inheritance in a way that makes one question the validity of imperialism and the profit motive. Plus, isn’t there something about Bushmaster kicking Luke out the infamous Harlem’s Paradise window last episode that reminds you of Killmonger throwing T’Challa over the waterfall? Sure, Bushmaster got off to a bad start by putting those heads on spikes, but given what Mariah did to Anansi, it seems clear to me that he was fighting the greater evil. So I’m glad he got away with his life, at least.
Also, this finale had one of my favorite little cameos yet: New Yorker writer and Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb as a talking head on TV discussing the ups and downs of Luke’s actions amid the gang war in Harlem. This continued the trend earlier in the season of ESPN anchors like Stephen A. Smith and Jemele Hill popping up to comment on Luke’s activities, but Cobb is one of the few unconnected to sports. I’m sure you appreciated the Columbia shout-out, eh?
CHANCELLOR: The only thing I loved more than the Columbia shout-out was Danny taking Luke to the top of Morningside Park in episode 10, because I’ve climbed those steps so many times! But I digress.
I definitely agree with you about Bushmaster. Going into the season, I was not looking forward to yet another Marvel villain who was just a dark mirror of the titular hero, which is Marvel’s go-to move. But Shakir quickly won me over with his electrifying performance. Like you, I found myself sympathizing with him as the season went on, even before they showed us flashbacks in episode 11. Looking back on the season, I kind of feel as though those flashbacks ended up being unnecessary because Shakir hooked me with his performance alone. By the end of the season, I didn’t actually need to see the Stokes kill his family and attempt to murder him.
The other thing I liked about Bushmaster as a villain is that all the Jamaicans spoke in patois. I’m of Caribbean descent, so I really appreciated that touch, especially all the jokes. (The Stylers getting bent out of shape about someone suggesting Luke might be faster than Usain Bolt will never not make me laugh.) Sure, it must have been hard for some viewers to understand what they were saying at times, but that’s why subtitles exist. Furthermore, that kind of specificity is the kind of thing that makes Luke Cage stand out from most superhero TV shows, because I can’t imagine any of them doing that. It also helps show that the black community isn’t monolithic. One of my favorite moments from the entire season was when Anansi and Bushmaster talked about what’s it like to immigrate to this country and build everything from scratch. That conversation really reminded me of stuff I heard growing up around my family. (Admittedly, it would’ve been great if they could have hired actual Jamaican actors for some the roles.)
Obviously, Bushmaster and the Yardies weren’t the only villains this season. We also had Mariah and Shades. What did you think of their arcs this season? Were you as surprised as I was that Shades became more than just “cool” as the season progressed?
CHRISTIAN: Yes!! We got really great stuff from both Alfre Woodard and Theo Rossi this season as their characters reached new depths. At first it was strange watching the insane lengths Shades would go to protect Mariah (back in the first episode, he had a restaurant waiter brutally beaten merely for thinking she was his aunt rather than his lover), but it really paid off by the end of the season as we watched their relationship crumble under intense pressure, with devastating consequences for both of them. I think Rossi’s best performance came in the penultimate episode, when he sadistically relishes recounting all his cruel crimes and murders to Misty, only to absolutely crumble when Comanche’s mother (one of the many people he’s victimized) spits in his face for murdering his best friend and then lying about it.
Since we just talked about how Shafir sold Bushmaster’s motivation even better than the explicit Jamaican flashbacks (which I might have valued more than you, if only for temporarily giving us a different visual setting than the streets and clubs of Harlem), Woodard deserves a lot of credit for really getting me to understand Mariah’s complexity. The awful legacy she inherited from her family (not to mention the actual ways they physically hurt her) would drive anyone crazy. This is why I thought her conversation with Tilda during the Rand siege was one of the most compelling scenes this season. What she was telling Tilda, and more importantly the way she was telling it, was very hurtful, but Woodard really sold the depths of her feeling. Who could blame her for resenting that she was incestually impregnated and denied an abortion? And with her empire crumbling around her, might as well be honest to someone, right? She did pay for it, and Tilda being the one to kill her seems to prove that a member of the Stokes family can only ever be killed by another member of the Stokes family (Cottonmouth killed Pete, Mariah killed Cottonmouth, and now Tilda killed Mariah). Honestly, I think this family has reached levels of incest, murder, and resentment that would make even William Faulkner blush.
Now I think it’s time to delve into the person I’ve come to consider the real star of this show: Simone Missick. Misty Knight had a lot to chew on this season, thanks to the loss of her arm (which now seems like the single most meaningful after-effect of The Defenders).
Like Rossi and Woodard, Missick was able to follow her character down some traumatic paths (look at her wordless freakout in episode 12 after listening to Shades happily describe murdering Candace), but I also loved her immediate reactions to the stupid things other characters said. In a show full of narcissistic idiots, Missick’s eye-rolls and eyebrow raises provided some much-needed levity.
What did you think of our newly bionic Misty this season? And perhaps more importantly, what did you think of the goofy Luke Cage rap song that closed the finale? It sounds like the Will Smith songs that played in the credits of his classic movies and basically just explained the premise of each movie. For a second there I suspected it might be one of comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s parodies of the genre, but no, it was real.
CHANCELLOR: I was surprised Luke Cage didn’t wait until the very end of the season to give Misty her bionic arm. If there’s one these shows love doing, it’s holding back some of the comic book goodies for as long as possible.
Misty Knight was the best part of this season for me. Her frustration with Harlem and the system was compelling, as was watching her decide if she was willing to compromise her morals for some good. Like you, I also thought Missick handled the comedic material very well, especially in episode 9 when Misty was at her wits’ end with Mariah. Her line about looking out for a lightning bolt because she just prayed with the devil (i.e., Mariah) was one of the funniest quips of the season.
It’s fair to assume Luke Cage has some big plans for Misty in season 3. Not only does the finale set up Luke’s new status quo, but it also sets up a new dynamic between Luke and Misty, who light up the screen whenever they’re given a chance to just play together (see: their bantering about sidekicks and fighting together in episode 7). I’m eager to see how Misty handles Harlem’s hero becoming its new crime boss, and I don’t doubt her when she warns Luke that she won’t hesitate to take him down if he starts “acting foolish.”
To wrap up, what are your hopes for season 3, Christian?
CHRISTIAN: I was really impressed by this season as a whole because I think it largely avoided the pacing issues that typically plague the Marvel-Netflix shows, which we have expounded on at length in our past recaps (so I can understand, for once, why showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker recently told our colleague Shirley Li that he actively prefers the 13-episode format). Sure, some episodes may have had a bit of filler or repetition, but there was always something new and entertaining to watch. For the first few episodes, our focus was on Luke and Claire’s dissolving relationship, then it switched to the rise of Bushmaster, and his success midway through the season changed the game enough to give Mariah, Shades, and everyone else plenty of stuff to do through the end.
In other words, this season constantly had me clamoring for more, and I’m glad that continued through the finale. I can’t wait to see what becomes of Luke and Misty in season 3, now that they’re on opposite sides of the chessboard. Because, lest we forget, Luke’s dark-side promotion to kingpin is equaled by Misty’s advancement to leader of the Harlem PD. After two seasons we’ve gotten to know these characters pretty well, but now they’re in completely different configurations, so I can’t wait to see what happens when some new trouble pops up (as it always does and always will in Marvel’s New York). I’m glad Bushmaster survived, because I’d like to see Shakir again. I’m guessing he won’t be too happy to see Luke in charge of his old birthright, Harlem’s Paradise, but who knows, maybe he’s now learned some lessons about the cost of violence and vengeance.
But if I’m being honest, what I’m really looking forward to is seeing which classic hip-hop group’s oeuvre provides the episode titles for next season (this one’s were derived from Pete Rock & CL Smooth songs, just as the first season was all Gang Starr). As long as this show is spinning entertaining pulp stories and setting punch-tastic superhero fights to classic hip-hop, I’ll be watching.
Chancellor, thanks again for recapping alongside me, and thanks to all of you for reading! Until next time.
CHANCELLOR: Forward always.
Finale Grade: B+
Season Grade: B