You're Gonna Need Some Coffee: Luke Cage Season 2 Review
Have you had your coffee yet? No? Get some. Because season 2 of Luke Cage has its thrills, but ultimately fails to tell an engaging story about its titular character. Rather, it pulls you into the decrepit mind of Merriah Stokes: their family history, importance of a hierarchy, and the poison that is power. And although the storytelling was engaging for its antagonist and side characters, it leaves you feeling like you didn’t get enough of Cage, making his somewhat odd, and sudden, paradigm shift a little hard to swallow.
The second season of Luke Cage was highly anticipated after its incredible first season on Netflix, and was even more hyped up by giving us a nice dose of Harlem’s Hero in the first season of The Defenders (also available on Netflix). However, even though the show bears his name, and Luke even says in an episode to Misty Knight, “It’s my show,” we got more screen time with every other character besides Cage himself. One redeeming factor for the lack of time with Cage is the fact that the time spent with the other characters provides a very in-depth look into the lives, trials, and tribulations of the supporting characters and leaves little to no filler throughout the season despite its ill-timed storytelling in some instances. If you are looking for a show with a great story of flowing arcs, constantly changing characters, a lot of death, grim humor, and “ok” action sequences (except for two of them), then “sweet Christmas,” this season is for you. Overall, this season deals with the effect hate can have on a person, even someone as righteous as Luke Cage. “Which wolf will Luke feed?” This is the question that lingers throughout Luke’s arc, but the same one can easily be applied to each character during the season, and it certainly makes for one compelling story.
Let’s get the plot out of the way. After the Defenders had their run, Luke is up to the challenge of being Harlem’s Hero. The season starts with him taking down a drug operation littered with gunmen with ease and listening to music all the while (Editor’s Note: Was he listening to Taylor Swift? - MC). However, the weight of the job is taking its toll on Luke. He takes care of the underbelly of Harlem every night, yet the ‘weeds’ keep growing back. Anyone who tries to tell Luke or help him with his internal struggles is then pushed away as Luke isolates himself from his moral uplifters. All the while, Mariah Stokes makes a return as the main antagonist of the series and is trying to be brought down by not only Luke Cage, but a new threat to Harlem, John ‘Bushmaster’ McIver, who also proves to be a threat to Cage. Along with Mariah, we see that Shades has continued his relationship with Mariah and is now running Harlem hand in hand with her. Intertwined with the lot, we have the return of Detective Misty Knight, who is dealing with the loss of her arm after losing it during the finale of the Defenders, her partner Scarf, and the ramifications of his dirty police work.
Character development is the name of the game with his season. With its multitude of characters and their roles in the story, it certainly is a tragic web of hope, loss, and hate. Where the stories are certainly tragic and have their woes, some of them suffer from improper timing and leaves the audience confused at times. One such example is Bushmaster, one of the main antagonists of the season. From the beginning, he poses as a threat to Luke Cage, and even more so to Mariah Stokes, yet his actions fall short of its intended impact at times due to not finding out his backstory until about three quarters of the way through the season. Something that could have been easily fixed, but ultimately was left feeling like a puzzle piece jammed into the wrong spot of the season.
With other characters such as Shades and Misty, we have two stories that have great development and smooth storytelling throughout. Misty, having lost her arm in the Defenders, struggles with life and her job. However she is given a bionic arm from Danny Rand, and a new sense of stability from it. Given the opportunity to go the rogue vigilante route such as Luke, she instead stays true to her values and adapts to the new responsibility of having a bionic arm which gives her increased strength that could easily be misused. On the other side of the law, we have Shades, who is starting to question whether Mariah is fit to run Harlem anymore and if he even wants to be a part of the ‘life’ anymore. Having hired his lifelong best friend, Camanche, to help run his and Mariah’s outfit, he later finds out that his friend has been snitching to the police chief about the dealings of Shades and Mariah and is forced to kill him, leading to a shocking revelation that Shades is bisexual and was in a relationship with Camanche at one point in prison. The loss takes its toll on Shades, and nothing is ever the same for him.
As far as the main antagonist goes, Mariah Stokes takes up most of the screen time and a lot of the season seems as if it is her show as opposed to the titular character; a major flaw of this season. With the majority of the screen time given to the character, many revelations come into light not only about Mariah, but about the family that has “protected” Harlem all these years. No stone is left unturned about the Stokes family, including the fact that Mariah’s daughter is the product of incestual rape, and that Cornell killed the uncle that impregnated her. Having the story be over the top is one thing, but the performance of Alfre Woodard proves to be a little much too many times and almost takes away from the gravity of the revealed plot, as heartbreaking and shocking as it can be.
Moral depravity and revenge are the major themes throughout this season, and the opposing force for it all comes in the form of Luke’s dad, James Lucas, who tries to bring balance to his son at a time when he desperately needs it. Although James is there to help his son, another character from the Netflix Marvel Universe makes an appearance in the form of Danny Rand to help Harlem’s Hero with finding his inner peace. Having not seen Rand since the Defenders, it seems he has undergone a major character change from the uptight and (annoyingly) defensive Danny to a laid back and zen Iron Fist; a VERY welcome change that almost helps complete his redemption from the awfulness that was the first season of Iron Fist (Editor’s Note: oh do you mean the Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of K’un L’un? MC). On top of Rand trying to bring peace to Cage, he also lent himself to one of the best action sequences of the season.
As with every superhero show, there is an expectation of some very good action/fight sequences. With the second season of Luke Cage, we get a lot of gang brutality (the biggest instance from Mariah), but not a lot of Luke Cage fights; and when we did, the sequences were so-so. There were a few exceptions to this, though. One comes from a fight involving Bushmaster and Luke Cage, but they weren’t fighting each other. I’m talking about a warehouse scene where Cage and McIver (Bushmaster) plow through dozens of men that shows Cage in his prime and a Bushmaster that flutters around in a tornado of fury making for a very Captain America and Winter Soldier-esque fight due to Cage having to comedically stop Bushmaster from killing people out of habit. The OTHER great fight sequence comes from another Warehouse scene (this one had more plants than the last one, it was quite nice) where Luke and The Iron Fist kick some major ass and showcase some major superhero combo moves. Side Note: Iron Fist redeems himself in a big way with his cameos, showing that there may be some hope for the Immortal Iron Fi.. Aside from those, there were no especially noteworthy sequences, which is disappointing because an awesome fight between Bushmaster and Cage would have been the tops… alas, even the final of the three battles between the two proved to be less than climactic, and if not for the side characters, such a phrase may describe the season entirely.
With all these balls rolling throughout the season, it often times felt like we weren’t getting enough time with Luke Cage himself although it is known that he is very much struggling. This almost feels like an intentional move in order to draw out an internal struggle over an entire season as opposed to letting his internal struggles defeat him half way through. And although the payoff of Cage’s paradigm shift leaves you in almost disbelief, it is overshadowed by relief that you’re actually getting to see Luke Cage as opposed to the other characters. Oh, and by paradigm shift, I mean: Luke Cage accepts Mariah’s offer in her will to inherit Harlem’s Paradise after she dies. He also decides to take it upon himself to become the new crime boss of Harlem, making deals with the other crime bosses in order to keep Harlem clean… come on, Luke.
Last, but not least, but not first because.. well... it didn't really stand out that much, is the music. The first season set a precedent for the series of being suave and cool. This can largely be attributed to the music that was chosen to be played by "Cornell Stokes" at Harlem's Paradise. Unfortunately, this time around we do not get the same feel from the soundtrack, which is fine. Having the same feel can make something stagnant, and the music from last season surely would not have fit with this season. It isn't the feel change that makes the music of this season forgettable, rather, it's the music itself. There were some notable selections from the bunch such as Gary Clark Jr.'s "Bright Lights," which was played without its usual swagger and came off as choppy, but nonetheless was still a great addition to the series. Another notable act was Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, whose furious guitar solos and playing of the "wrong notes" at the right time came off as very Hendrix-esque (even though it's a cover of a BB King song) and certainly portrayed Mariah's off-kilt mental state. Here's what I am NOT saying: The performances were forgettable. What I AM saying is, the music itself was much more forgettable than season 1, but it's still worth a listen aside from the show.
Would I recommend watching season two of Luke Cage? Yes. However be ready to never take a breath. With so many characters going through very complete and sometimes ill-timed arcs, it can feel a little overwhelming, especially because you don’t get enough time with Luke or Bushmaster. That’s not to say this season didn’t set up the next one nicely; it did. Loose ends from season one were tied up, the Stokes reign over Harlem is “over,” and we have a completely different Luke Cage that will emerge morally gray in season three. One question still remains though: Where the hell is Diamondback? At the end of season one, it is assumed he is being experimented on by the same doctor that gave Luke his powers in prison. Sure it would’ve been obvious to bring him back for round two in this season, but I’m almost glad they didn’t. Now, we have both Diamondback and Bushmaster in the wind, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be anxiously waiting to see if they turn up together in season three to make good on their promises to Luke to bring him down. All we can do is wait and see.