Luke Cage Roundtable Review – S01E02 – 'Code of the Streets'

Luke starts the second episode standing outside the Crispus Attucks Complex, a housing development which only exists in Marvel’s fictionalized Harlem. Crispus Attucks is a real figure in history however, and a Crispus Attucks playground exists in Brooklyn. Marvel makes an effort to keep their world close to our own, in consistently subtle and meaningful ways. The story of Crispus Attucks is one very relevant to Luke’s story, but we’ll come back to this.

The first episode was jam-packed with interesting references and well-researched character notes, and this continues in E02 “Code of the Streets,” starting with an extensive reading list, moving on to musical performance by Faith Evans (singer, songwriter, producer, author, and widow to Biggie Smalls, Cornell’s idol), and ultimately ending with Crispus Attucks. But first—

Luke Cage – S01E02 – Code of the Streets
Luke is pulled deeper into the fight for his neighborhood when, as a favor to an old friend, he tries to help a kid who's in trouble with Cottonmouth. (Netflix)

Adrian: Let’s start with Luke and Pop’s book club. We’ve got Donald Goines, who wrote the Kenyatta series; a series Pop identifies as the sort of path Luke could be taking, a man of action. Next is Walter Mosley (Little Green), George Pelecanos (The Wire reference pays off for Dominik!), Richard Price (Clockers), Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), and Chester Himes (If He Hollers Let Him Go and a series of Harlem detective novels). Collectively, it’s a massive body of relevant work. Who’s read what and what thoughts do you have as to how these influences could be playing out into the series as a whole?

Etienne: I must confess, to my unending shame, that I have not read any of those books. My literary proclivities run along different lines: I favour fantasy, religious texts, and seminal works of the social sciences.

Some critics feel that peppering popular narratives with literary references is pretentious. Personally, it’s the opposite approach that I find the more offensive. At its most rewarding, characterization gives audiences the sense of bearing witness to complex lives. It’s not enough for characters to behave like shapeless objects tumbling down a pipeline named “plot”: they should feel like people, and interesting people read books.

I have no idea what sort of books any of the Berlantiverse characters read; indeed, I am very much afraid that they don’t read at all.

Ivonne: Shamefully, I haven’t read any of them either, because I tended to go with either the classics (Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, etc) and feminist literature in college, to science fiction and fantasy. These days I read to burn off stress from work, so it’s usually either high fantasy or bodice-ripper romance (don’t judge me). But I’m with Etienne here: I really enjoyed seeing what Luke was reading. I think what a character reads tells you a great deal about that character, and it’s a quick and clever way for the creators to show what just sort of man he is.

Dominik: While like everyone above I haven’t read any of those books, I have heard of Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins books, and they’re actually a pretty good parallel to Luke. The series tells the story of an African American man, who’s scraping by until he ends up forced to becoming a detective - and by the end of the first book, embraces this path. Switch “detective” for “superhero”, and you have this very series.

Adrian: Luke is distracted by the flyer for Mariah’s “New Harlem Renaissance” but Pop turns the conversation to Chico: “You know how the wind feels fluffy, like you could stuff it into a pillowcase, right before a big thunderstorm? Harlem’s the same. Trouble smells a certain way, you can… touch it.” Speak of the devil, Cornell shows up with Shades and Tone, looking for Chico. It’s worth mentioning that the Blaxploitation style of theme music hits hard here. After a few tense minutes, it’s evident that Cornell killed Shameek and Chico is next. Luke still declines to get involved, forcing Pop’s to call in his favor for granting Luke shelter: Luke must find and retrieve Chico so Pop can parley for Chico’s life. What did you think of the interplay between Luke, Pop, and Cornell? How do you like the usage of Blaxploitation music themes thus far?

Aranwe: The mirroring is pretty evident here: Pop and Cornell are and two opposite sides of Harlem, with completely different hopes for it. Luke is caught in between, reluctant to aid or abet either of them, until Pop asks him on a more personal level. As for the music, I kind of adore it. It gives each scene such a unique feel, and it works brilliantly.

Etienne: I’m not a Blaxploitation cognoscenti, but I am digging the soundtrack.

Ivonne: The soundtrack throughout this show was nothing short of brilliant. The showrunners’ use of certain music in certain spots were all perfection, and this part was no different. I felt like the music was intricately woven into the narrative. Like it was almost a character by itself. The mood invoked here by the Blaxploitation music was brilliant, because Cornell certainly brings to mind that era of film.

Dominik: The music definitely helps build the tension in the entire scene. It really does sound like the calm before the storm.

Adrian: Luke finds Chico who refuses to come in (but eventually does on his own). Until then, Luke tells Pop what transpired and now… it’s flashback time! Pop got his nickname from the sound his fists made when he knocked people out. It seems Pop was dirty back in the day, running with Cornell and Wilfredo (Chico’s absent father) as his sidekicks. It was brief, but I loved this flashback! Cornell’s nickname originated when Wilfredo laughed at him for having cotton in his mouth when he lost some teeth. How did he lose the teeth? Also, the spoken/unspoken rule that Pop’s Barber Shop is “Switzerland” neutral territory makes more sense now, given his past with Cornell. Did you love this flashback as much as me?

Aranwe: I think everyone assumed that the nickname ‘Pop’ came around because he was like a father figure to everyone in the community, but this reveal was unexpected and kind of fun. It also adds more depth to the relationship between Pop and Cornell, and while one grew out of his gangster ways and the other didn’t, they’re still brothers at heart.

Etienne: Flashbacks are dangerous in film: you had best make sure the payoff is worth compromising flow. I am decidedly ambivalent about this one.

Ivonne: As Etienne said, the payoff better be worth compromising the flow. Arrow is a great example of a show that initially used flashbacks effectively in the first two seasons, but started wearing very thin and rather on the pointless side as time worn on. However I actually felt like Luke Cage effectively used flashbacks throughout, including this one. It was important to understand why Pop’s shop was Switzerland, why Cornell gets upset later, and why what’s to come completely changes Harlem.

Adrian: While Luke was canvassing Harlem, he saw Cornell entering the Crispus Attucks complex. Inside, Cornell visits Mariah’s offices and delivers half of the stolen cash for laundering, but Mariah needs the full amount before she can begin that process. We learn that Mariah gave Cornell funds to refurbish Harlem’s Paradise from her own donations; she’s not merely privy to his dealings, but is a full-on partner-in-crime. Perhaps this isn’t a major revelation, but certainly it complicates their story even more. Does anyone else wonder why Mariah remains involved in criminal enterprise when her career in politics is doing well on its own?

Aranwe: Mariah and Cornell, as leaders of the overworld and underworld of Harlem respectively, have a dangerous symbiotic relationship (strengthened by familial ties). It allows both of them to keep their power while at the same time pushing Harlem in the direction they want. It’s also a very delicate balance of power, one that can easily be upset by someone like Luke Cage.

Etienne: I think the writers did a good job of progressively unravelling Mariah Dillard’s morality. I’m not sure I was ever convinced that her career was going as well as she let on.

Ivonne: Why does any politician get involved in such things? Initially, I dismissed Mariah as being another dirty politician with selfish reasons, looking for money or to bolster her power. I admit to being surprised a little later at her real motivation, and what is revealed about her character. At this point though, I also just assumed that blood is thicker than water and that she was close to Cornell as a child, so she felt some familial duty to him.

Adrian: Meanwhile, Misty Knight is on the case. While reviewing the heist evidence, Misty’s thought process is shown through the same visualization effect used in the BBC series, Sherlock. “They are talking and moving… you just have to be still enough to hear what they’re saying,” she says to her partner, Raphael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who finds it unnerving. Concluding that this heist’s aftermath is not yet over, she hits the St. Nick playground and pressures a kid, Chauncey, to shoot a game of Horse with her. She wins, because she’s a baller and this was her stomping ground (history!), and Chauncey’s intel leads her back to Pop’s. On the way in, Misty tells Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan, from Jessica Jones), who plays chess there with Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) to get lost. More connections! Finally, while questioning Pop, Misty and Luke pretend to be strangers; Misty’s identity as detective is busted! Luke does not appreciate the secret, despite keeping his own. How do you like Misty’s characterization thus far? What do you make Scarfe’s cold and aloof attitude in Pop’s?

Aranwe: Man, I love the way Misty’s skills are visualized, it’s a neat effect that’s used across the series, to my delight (I mean, Daredevil only showed how the titular hero’s senses worked once over the course of two seasons). The basketball scene was brilliant and, if her Tweet here is to be believed, that was Simone Missick herself making the shots, not a stunt double.

Etienne: Like Aranwe, I love the visual representation of Misty’s process: it’s a clever, compelling way to bring the audience up to speed.

Ivonne: It was cool when Sherlock did it, but man… there is something crazy impressive about the way they did it here with Misty. I adore the way they visualized her thought processes. As for Misty herself, we saw her as a sexual woman in the first episode, to a badass and analytical cop in this episode. I loved her one night stand with Luke, because too often in media women are presented as either madonna or whore; Misty is neither. She is simply a woman, like most of us are, and one who expressed herself sexually. And then she moved on with her life. I really love how down to earth she is. As we find out later, she is deeply flawed, but still good.

Dominik: While Misty is a little different from her comics version, she’s definitely a fun character, a good cop with her own distinct skillset. She’s definitely a three-dimensional character, and I’m yearning for a spin-off, especially once Colleen Wing gets introduced in Iron Fist and we can have a Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon series.

And that’s probably the most creative use of the “Sherlock Scan” I’ve ever seen.

Adrian: With Chico hiding out at Pop’s now, Luke goes to Cornell to request parley. On the way in, Luke’s kitchen supervisor Nate, is rude to him. Again. Shameek, Luke, Tone… why do people keep stepping up to Luke? Even though they don’t know he has superpowers, why do people think they can front on him? Idiots. Moving on, Cornell agrees to the parley, remembering and respecting his past with Pop. Things get complicated, but before I move on to that, Cornell and Mariah debate their philosophies again. “You know what people remember besides black martyrdom? Black money.” says Cornell. Mariah asks him “Don’t you get sick of people calling you a criminal?” and instead values respect. “Money outlasts respect.” he argues, Mariah questions the cost and Cornell says “When you find out, you’ll tell me.” Mariah seems to want legitimization for both of them, but Cornell isn’t interested. Is Mariah delusional about their chances, is Cornell stubborn, or does the answer lay in-between?

Aranwe: Mariah remains one of the most fascinating characters on the show. While Cornell is fun to watch, he’s a straight up gang boss with not as much subtlety. Mariah is a bit more complex; she wants Harlem to evolve and move beyond what it is, but is also more than willing to compromise that vision by constantly dipping into the shadier side of it.

Ivonne: I think it’s obvious why those people are rude to him. They think he’s just a poor black man in a shitty job. The gangsters don’t have any respect for him because all he seems to do is wash dishes and sweep. He’s not a black man that has taken control of his destiny like clearly they have by joining up with someone powerful. He’s just a black man still trying to work within the shitty system white people have set up for them.

At this point in the series, the cynic in me says Mariah is delusional, that Cornell is right and money is power.

Dominik: The writers are definitely planting some seeds here that will bloom later in the series, and their debates are a sign of that. They both have different points of view on what to do with the power they have. Cornell just wants more power and money, while Mariah wants to shape Harlem into what she thinks it should be.

Adrian: Back to Chico, Turk saw Chico at Pop’s and informs Tone. When Tone brings this to Cornell, he finds Cornell’s instruction to be non-committal, and makes an “executive decision” to move in. As he’s getting strapped, Shades asks Tone if he’s going to at least wait for Chico to come outside… he doesn’t. He shoots up Pop’s Barber Shop, hitting Chico and fatally wounding Pop. I can’t reason why Tone would act so recklessly. Even if he doesn’t know Pop’s history with Cornell, he has to be aware of the delicate politics of Pop’s Barber Shop, right? So what’s with the irrational and hasty action? What’s motivating Tone? Whatever the case may have been, Cornell does not take the news lightly, and when Turk hilariously interrupts their meeting to demand payment for the tip, Cornell tosses Tone off the roof and instructs Turk to retrieve his reward from Tone “downstairs.”

Aranwe: Now, a rule of storytelling is that there needs to be a source of conflict to propel the hero into action. Now, because of the characterization of Cornell and his relationship with Pop, the conflict wasn’t going to come directly from him. While Tone deciding to strike out on his own to curry some favor with the boss seems convenient, it kind of makes sense. As Cornell put it, “Believe it or not, there’s supposed to be rules.” He’s the ‘honor among thieves’ type of gangster, but it’s easy to say that when you’re at the top. It’s easy to have a Professor X and Magneto type of frenemy relationship with your rival, as long as it’s only the pawns getting caught in the crossfire. For people like Tone, it’s different. You see an opportunity to claw your way up, you take it. Heck, had he done things a little differently, he would’ve been climbing up instead of getting tossed down.

Regardless, Cornell’s reactions in this scene were amazing (his priority was making sure Pop’s recovered was a nice touch), and the presence of Turk added some much needed levity to the scene.

Ivonne: I think Aranwe is right… Tone’s decision, while idiotic, would be the only way he could go from being a low-level thug to the gang leader’s right-hand man. Tone saw an opportunity to do what he thought Cornell wanted. Basically, in corporate-speak, he showed “initiative.” And I’m sure that had he shown this initiative with just about any other situation, he might have been applauded and earned a place at the leader’s side. Too bad for him that he misread Cornell, and didn’t know about Cornell and Pop’s history.

Dominik: Man, old black men are being killed in every Netflix Marvel series, even on Luke Cage.

Tone seems to be someone Stokes brought in from the outside, unaware about how everything in Harlem works. He’s been openly disrespectful to Pop since the first episode, and after the scene between Luke, Pop and Cornell, he paid for Cornell shave by dropping money on the floor with a shit-eating grin - after Stokes left, so he doesn’t have a chance to educate Tone about the respect he needs to show Pop. Everyone in Harlem knows Pop’s barbershop is Switzerland. Tone thinks it’s just a place people get a shave. And Stokes would tolerate the outburst of eagerness, if he didn’t rush in guns blazing like the Punisher, not caring who he hits.. And he pays the price - especially once he stupidly uses the nickname Cornell despises.

Adrian: In the shoot-up, Luke shielded Lonnie (Patricia’s trying so hard to pin down Luke, she’s brings her poor son to Pop’s two times in two days), saving his life. After Tone and Shades leave with the money, Pop dies in Luke’s arms with his final words, “Always forward.” While Cornell looks at the old photo of him with Pop, Luke mourns for Pop while holding the swear jar: a physical representation of Pop’s philosophy: when you break the rules, payment must be extracted to maintain order. Luke goes for a walk and finds himself outside the Crispus Attucks Complex, just as Mariah is depositing Chico’s stolen funds. Mariah wasn’t cool with the murder, but “The money’s still green.” Luke is threatened by a lookout and objects to being called “n---a,” and questions how the lookout can use that word as the two of them stand outside a building named for Crispus Attucks, “The first man to die for what became America … He paid with his life. But he started something. That’s what Pop did. Not me. I laid in the cut until he stepped up. And it cost him his life, too. I ain’t laying back no more!” Luke finally understands what he must do and regrets it coming to this. And shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t we? Do superheroes always need a tragic end to start a righteous beginning? Does Crispus Attucks always need to die?

Aranwe: Pop surviving to the end of the show would’ve been a miracle. That having been said, I didn’t expect him to be killed off that quick, nor did I expect to miss him so much. Pop was more than your average Uncle Ben, in just two episodes he had already infused the show with so much heart.

As for whether heroes always need a tragic start to their story, it’s worth noting Luke already had one with the loss of his wife, and that did put him in action until the man responsible was taken down, after which he went back to laying low and staying out of trouble. Now, the question is whether Pops’ death will have the same effect on him. He’s out to take down Cottonmouth now, but the bigger question is what happens after he does.

Ivonne: Motivating the reluctant hero by killing someone they care about is a tale as old as time. As Aranwe noted, he already had that with Reva’s death, but yes, after her killer was dealt with, Luke had no more motivation to continue along that path. That’s fairly unique in superhero narratives, because the events in Jessica Jones would normally have been enough to motivate a superhero to continue along the vigilante path. Instead, Luke chose to go into hiding again.

It’s an interesting twist. And maybe the problem was that Luke didn’t have someone to humanize him, someone to fight for, to get him into superhero mode. Superheroes almost always have someone to fight for, don’t they? Usually the girl who keeps getting kidnapped by the villain. Or at least they have someone whispering in their ear to use their powers for good. And while Pop was trying to do that, interestingly it wasn’t enough. Aranwe is right; the real question is what will Luke do once Cottonmouth and Mariah and whoever else are dealt with?