Luke Cage Roundtable Review – S01E01 – 'Moment of Truth'

From its first episode, Luke Cage is a wonder. In Jessica Jones, Marvel took audiences beyond superhero spectacle and deep into an intense and multifaceted world, exploring themes of abuse and control. Luke Cage continues this evolution, exploring the complexities of his personal life, but also black culture; a critical thematic element that cannot be overstated. This not simply a show for experiencing comic-geek culture, this is Black American culture, complete and unapologetic.

Show runner Cheo Hodari Coker has produced and written for multiple critically-acclaimed series, but aside from his lifelong comics fandom, he was also a writer on Notorious, the Biggie Smalls biopic. Coker understands the 90s Rap and Hip-hop scene extensively and employs their societal influences in many subtle, effective, and fascinating ways. The music is important beyond mere mood-setting, and the cast is a phenomenal mix of actors, each of whom are nailing their performances. I’m very excited, so let’s go head and dive in.

Luke Cage – S01E01 – Moment of Truth
With tension building in the streets of Harlem thanks to ruthless club owner Cottonmouth, Luke finds it increasingly difficult to live a quiet life. (Netflix)

Adrian: The episode opens in a central point of most Black communities: the barber shop. Following the events of Jessica Jones, Luke is laying-low in Harlem, working odd jobs for Pop (Frankie Faizon), an old friend of his deceased wife, Reva. Pop has taken it upon himself to serve as a guiding light for the young boys of Harlem, and he takes no exception to an adult Luke. I loved this scene; Pop recognizes Luke’s pacing as an ex-con’s habit (they’ve both survived prison), but also intuits that Luke is mourning Reva. It’s a very earnest and believable interaction between Luke and his mentor, with some hints about Luke’s origin sprinkled in. How did you like this opening, and what do you think of Luke’s reluctance to be a hero?

Aranwe: What stood out for me were the little touches that made the barber shop feel so real, as well as adding a little fun to the proceedings. The basketball talk, the swear jar, and the celebrity exceptions list all put a smile on my face, and that smile stayed. I somehow felt at home there despite it being nothing like I’d ever experienced, culturally speaking. Luke, meanwhile, already has a bit more depth than his role as a supporting character on Jessica Jones. I loved him there, no doubt, but this is his show now, and while the whole reluctant hero schtick is a pretty familiar trope, Colter sells it.

Ivonne: I loved the opening. Pop’s barber shop was delightful, not only in the careful attention to detail in decor, but all the casual conversations happening. Like the law student/single mom admiring Luke and admiring that he was a hard worker after he says he’s going to a second job later. “Black man working. Nothing wrong with that!” I just love all the little details like that. I so wanted Luke to go have coffee with her, too.

Mike Colter really sold the reluctance. I felt like the first couple episodes of the show were slow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think they took the time to establish this character--and this new environment--quite well in the process.

Dominik: I really liked the opening - it felt very alive, with a “lived in” feel. Like Aranwe, this isn’t something I have ever experienced, but the writing helped make it homey, familiar.

Meanwhile, Luke may be lying low, but he shines even more than he did on Jessica Jones. Mike Colter continues to be a perfect fit for the character.

Etienne: The opening scene does more for the supporting cast than it does for the titular character. This is not at all a complaint on my part, but I understand the viewers who felt that the first two episodes are inchoate: they were probably hoping to see Cage at the center of the story from the start. Audiences often chafe at being made to sympathize with a protagonist who does not exhibit a readiness to carve his own path, but instead expresses a resignation to be battered and tossed around by irresistible forces. It’s only natural to resent the hero when he is not his own man.

It’s fitting to observe that this kind of frustration is part and parcel of minority experience.

Adrian: Luke also works as a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Cornell’s cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) is a local politician; her and Cornell banter in his club, comparing their approaches to success. They’re both the product of their guardian, Mama Mabel, the deceased matriarch of a powerful criminal legacy. While Cornell is comfortable maintaining and profiting from the status quo, Mariah prefers to make positive social change through politics, finance, and property ownership (albeit while laundering money for Cornell’s organization). Their family has an intriguing duality that ultimately impacts not just their community in Harlem, but Luke directly. What do you make of our new villains, “Cottonmouth” and Mariah?

Aranwe: I’ll admit, as a stickler for universe consistency, having Alfre Woodard in this show really bugged me for a while, after her completely unrelated role in Captain America: Civil War earlier this year. But five minutes of watching Mariah Dillard, and I’ve already forgotten all about Miriam Sharpe. Here’s a woman being pulled in all directions at once, between familial relations and political ambition and a desire to create real, actual change, and she pulls it all off with surprising grace.

Meanwhile, Cottonmouth seems a little too similar to a slightly smoother Wilson Fisk to me, at least in the first episode. His tantrum as he beats another man to death later in the episode does nothing to quash the comparison.

Dominik: It feels a little like Mariah and Cottonmouth are Fisk divided in two - Mariah is his public face, the benefactor and the savior of the city, while Stokes takes his gangster part. The thing is, for me they both feel more human than Fisk ever was. Compared to him, they seem more like people you could actually meet in real life, even though they’re character archetypes themselves - the shady politician with criminal ties and the gangster running the city from his club/bar/saloon. A lot of it is thanks to Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali’s acting, which is stellar. It already seems like it’ll be the best acted of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

Etienne: I agree with Dominik: taken together, Mariah and Cottonmouth make for a singularly life-like antagonist. I would have liked to meet the councilwoman in her own element, though: I think it’s unfortunate that we catch our first glimpse of black authority in a glamorously seedy setting. I understand it’s easier for Mariah Dillard to visit Harlem Paradise than it is for Cottonmouth to appear in the rather more sedate context of campaign offices, but I still think it’s too bad that criminal elements take precedence over legitimate power.

Ivonne: I agree that Cottonmouth reminded me of Fisk a great deal, but I still felt he was different enough. Cottonmouth works in the shadows, and his “kingdom” is of a decidedly different sort. Fisk works out in the open, walks the glamorous places like art galleries and snazzy restaurants. Cottonmouth is rarely seen out of his club. His whole life is centered there. He may be king, but it is of a much smaller kingdom indeed.

I hated Mariah this early in the show, but I kind of despise dirty politicians. The writing never sold me, even later on, that she actually gave a shit about her people (the instant need to wash her hands of them immediately after hugging all those kids was a sign of this, to me). I believe she was always more concerned about her family’s legacy, and in forging her own part of that legacy, than in improving the lives of others. That said, she certainly grows into an amazing character.

Adrian: Also at Harlem’s Paradise, our newest Marvel heroine, Misty Knight! Filling in for Dante as bartender, Luke strikes up a flirtatious conversation with Misty (Simone Missick). She’s interested in spying on Cottonmouth from afar, but Luke is a constant distraction. While Luke was reluctant to attempt a romance with Patricia (a lawyer and positively lovely mother at Pop’s Barber Shop), he seems quite ready now to follow Pop’s advice to move on from Reva. Misty and Luke’s meet-cute transitions outside to a romantic, soft-light bokeh scene, eventually leading to sexy-time in Luke’s studio. They’re both charming and extremely attractive people; the camera shares equal time and focus on both stars, making this a particularly fun and sexy scene. What did you think of Misty’s introduction and her chemistry with Luke?

Aranwe: Missick and Colter have such amazing chemistry that I could quite contentedly watch an entire episode of Luke and Misty flirting at the bar (though Luke and Jessica will always be my OTP).

Ivonne: Misty and Luke are sizzling hot together, and their “coffee” scene was on fire. I thought the camera gave equal time to both of their bodies, so I’m not quite understanding some of the comments I’m hearing that the scene was filmed under the male gaze. It wasn’t even as sizzling hot and in-your-face as the various Jessica Jones sex scenes, so I’m not sure what the problem is.

Anyway, despite the chemistry between them, I don’t ship these two. I felt it might be a one-night stand situation. I still continue to sail on the Jessica and Luke ship, because they are the original power couple.

I adored that Misty’s introduction, however, was as a smart and sexy woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. Too many times women in Hollywood are either innocent, or if they aren’t, they are cast in a darker light. This is just two adults getting it on. And then she got up in the morning and moved on with her life.

Etienne: I agree with Ivonne. This sex scene is certainly rather blunt, but I do think that is the point: what we’re seeing is not the consummation of a long courtship, but something considerably more casual. Does it idealize virility in a way that’s almost absurd? Absolutely, but the same critique could be levied against almost every depiction of sex in visual media. As much as I would have liked to see something more nuanced, I understand the politics of representation are complex, especially when it comes to intimacy.

Dominik: While not identical to the condensed awesomeness that is the comic book Misty Knight, Simone Missick’s take on the character is compelling in her own way. I like the chemistry she has with Colter’s Cagethough like everyone else here, I’m much more of a Luke/Jessica shipper. Power People for life, friends!

Adrian: Meanwhile, Cornell’s partnership with Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas) is off to a bad start. Mariah, quite ironically, invokes the cautionary tale of Wilson Fisk and the dangers of partnership and visibility. Something does goes wrong: Dante (one of Cornell’s low-level soldiers), Shameek, and Chico hold-up Cornell and Colon’s weapons trade at the junkyard, making away with a million dollars in cash. The shoot-out plays in sync with an ethereal and somber musical performance from Raphael Saadiq (from the 90s R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! and other acts). A bloody, violent, and artistically-executed scene. Shameek betrays Dante, but as Dante dies, he gets word of the disaster back to Cornell’s lieutenant, Tone (Warner Miller). Diamondback, the unseen weapons distributor who enabled this deal, is not happy and sends in his man, Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) to monitor Cornell’s operation first-hand. What do you make of the mysterious Diamondback or his enforcer, Shades?

Aranwe: I find it curious that Diamondback, like Cottonmouth, shares a nickname with a type of snake. Whether or not this has any significance remains to be seen. As for Shades, well, for me he seems to alternate between looking cool, trying to hard to look cool, and downright parodying looking cool (the name ‘Shades’ doesn’t help). It may take me a while to get used to him.

Ivonne: Comic book nerds may have picked up on the snake names, and thought these street-gangsters might have something to do with the Serpent Society, which is usually featured in Marvel cartoons as being extremely goofy and over-the-top low-level villains that get the crap beat out of them by the heroes. I had to do an Internet search about this, because it was bugging the crap out of me. It seems that Cottonmouth and Diamondback have appeared in Marvel history in various forms, and these gangsters apparently don’t have anything to do with the silly Serpent Society. But it is a little puzzling that they decided to use these code names, I think.

I didn’t know what to make of Shades, especially with, as Aranwe said, his goofy name suggesting parody. He does seem like a very cool customer, especially in contrast with Cornell’s fits of rage. But I like the actor, so I withheld judgement this early on the character.

Dominik: The funny thing is, I forgot Diamondback is supposed to be in the series. It was one of the things announced early in development, but the marketing was only ever focused on Cottonmouth and Mariah, so it slipped my mind until Shades mentioned his employer. Anyway, I don’t have my mind made about either Diamondback or his employee, other than echoing Aranwe and Ivonne in that he verges on a parody of a cool guy at times.

Etienne: I must be completely blind to irony, because I just thought Shades was cool. Too cool for school, even: it made me a little mad that the voice of reason should take the form of a pale-faced stranger, even moreso considering that comics Shades is much less ambiguously racialized.

Theo Rossi sells it, though.

Adrian: Shameek acts predictably foolish, high-postin' at the strip club, making his stolen wealth extremely visible, allowing Tone to easily scoop him up. During Shameek’s interrogation, Cornell references his Biggie Smalls painting, the camera placing Cornell perfectly in frame under Biggie’s crown. This provides a thread into Cornell’s mind: Biggie, who rose out of Brooklyn, was still unable to escape its violence. Cornell reveres Biggie, but rather than try to escape their shared world, he seems determined to accept his place in the hustle. Cornell beating Shameek to death, even partially off-camera, was hard to watch. Also, there have been subtle hints in Tone’s reactions that seem to imply his involvement in the heist: Dante’s call, his anxiety during Shameek’s murder, even his attitude toward Shades. Do you think Tone was involved? Is there something else going on here we might be missing?

Aranwe: As I mentioned earlier, this scene kind of hearkens back to Fisk’s infamous car door scene a bit too much. That having been said, it’s still really, really nicely done. Cornell’s suit slowly getting bloodier and bloodier without showing the actual damage he was doing was an excellent stylistic choice.

Dominik: Tone doesn’t seem like the kind to be plotting anything behind Cottonmouth’s back, to be honest. It honestly feels like a robbery that went sideways for its participants.

Etienne: I honestly can’t say. Tone didn’t make much of an impression on me. There is certainly more to this story than meets the eye.

Ivonne: I honestly didn’t think twice about Tone. I don’t think he had anything to do with the heist. He’s just a thug. But maybe I was too distracted by Cottonmouth pounding the crap out of Shameek. Holy crap, that scene. Hard to watch indeed, but like Aranwe said, it was nicely done. Amazing framing and amazing almost-off-screen violence.

Adrian: The next morning, Misty’s identity as a police detective is revealed to us when she arrives at the scene of the shoot-out. Misty remarks that she knows Dante’s momma, which provides another thread, this time into Misty’s life. It sets up another dichotomy, now between Misty and Mariah. Both women seek to make positive changes in Harlem, their lifelong home, but take very different paths to achieve that. What do you think about these intertwined relationships and goals between our heroes and villains?

Aranwe: This show does a phenomenal job of tying all the different corners of Harlem, from the underworld to the police to the streets to the politicians, and it all centers around Pop’s. It’s a brilliant dynamic which makes everything that happens that much more tense and personal.

Dominik: Is calling it a superheroic The Wire a bit much? Because it feels a little like it, being a crime story encompassing the entirety of its down-to-earth, urban-based setting. I’m definitely enjoying it, and can’t wait to how each side of the story develops.

Ivonne: I adore the many different ways we get to see Harlem, the very different perspectives of its people. Misty and Mariah are two very different sides of a coin, although as I mentioned earlier, i’m not convinced this early on that Mariah actually gives a shit about Harlem. She is forging a legacy and carving her name into the streets, I think. Whereas Misty is genuinely interested in making things better.

Adrian: Lastly, Luke is panicked. When Tone and Shades led Shameek into the club, Luke recognized Shades from his time incarcerated at Seagate. Luke relaxes, holding his copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, given to him by Reva, who we now know was his counselor in prison! Reva’s role is a significant reveal, opening up new avenues of consideration regarding their love, their marriage, and his subsequent mourning.

The book itself is a fascinating parallel to Luke’s story and origins: the narrator of Invisible Man suffers an experience in an mental institution, not unlike Luke’s experience in prison (which we see later in S01E04 “Step in the Arena”). Both Luke and the narrator are from the South, living later in Harlem. In Harlem, the narrator encounters a tumultuous gallery of antagonists with political machinations that parallel Mariah Dillard, Cottonmouth’s connection to Diamondback, and more. The narrator’s ultimate conclusions mirror Luke's closing affirmation to Reva, “I’m clear. I’m focused. I promise, baby. I’m ready,” leading finally into a public confrontation with a posse stumping for Mariah Dillard and extorting Luke’s landlords for Cornell. Luke saves the day, and like the narrator, Luke has chosen to resurface.

Simply put, the level of writing involved in Luke Cage, in this first episode alone, has me completely psyched, and clearly not speechless. What did you think of the first episode of Luke Cage?

Aranwe: Weirdly, what I felt this episode of Luke Cage lacked, was, well, Luke Cage. The titular hero gets a scene in the beginning, middle and end, and not much else. Even more weirdly, I didn’t mind at all. We get plenty of Luke as the series progresses, and setting up all the supporting characters and antagonists instead actually gives the show much more depth, making the payoffs in future episodes more rewarding. Overall, a few pacing issues aside, I loved it. The acting was top notch, the atmosphere (the music) was amazing, and the antagonists intrigue me.

Dominik: It does feel like Luke was incidental to the opening hour, doesn’t it? It might be incidental - he is trying to lay low, not draw any attention to himself. And the upside to it is that we got more of a sense of the other characters. In Daredevil, we didn’t meet Fisk until the end of the third episode (which was a little anticlimactic at the time) - here, we’ve already got a good foundation that’ll let them grow spectacularly (especially with the acting talent on display).

What’s more, it also gives us a much better introduction to Harlem, which already has much more of a feel than Hell’s Kitchen does after three seasons (two Daredevil, one Jessica Jones). The opening, heavy with history, and the music (this may turn out to be the best soundtrack for anything MCU-related)they all help us get a good sense of the place, and why Luke starts standing up for it. Can’t wait for more.

Etienne: I can’t think of anything that might have dissuaded me from watching this show; I’ve definitely bought into the hype and I am not at all an impartial critic. That being said, it’s the level of research that went into making this series not just about a racialized herobut actually about black experience, culture, and communitythat I find truly inspiring. Plenty of narratives pay homage to the idea of diversity by reproducing identity markers without bothering to give any airtime to the cultures themselves. Luke Cage is the exception: this is obvious from the first episode, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Ivonne: I adored Jessica Jones because even though it was about superheroes and a dude with magical powers over the mind, I felt like it was telling a story about my experiences as a woman. When I came into work on the Monday after Luke Cage premiered, my black coworker was glowing. He said the show had made him so happy by being a story about him and his experiences as a black man in America.

I think that is the power of this show. As Etienne said, many shows pay lip service to the idea of diversity, but there are not many shows out there that actually tell a story like this.

The first episode sold me on the show. I was in it until the end, even without Luke being featured. I really enjoyed the choice made by the creators to not make him the central figure, because what they did instead was make Harlem itself a powerful character of its own, by showing us so many of its inhabitants and power players. This show is not just about a man with superpowers. This show is about Harlem and its people, and I think overall, it is also about the black experience in America.