Luke Cage Roundtable Review - S01E03-06

This time, we follow last week's Luke Cage roundtable with our thoughts on the following four episodes. We'll discuss the escalating conflict between Luke and Cottonmouth, the surprising character reveal and the secret origin of Luke Cage.

Luke Cage - S01E03 - Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?
Following the attack on Pop’s barbershop, Luke starts hitting Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard where it hits them - their money. (Netflix)

Luke Cage - S01E04 - Step in the Arena
The secret origin of Luke Cage. (Netflix)

Luke Cage - S01E05 - Just to Get a Rep
The conflict between Cage and Stokes intensifies, with the former attempting to ruin the latter’s name. Meanwhile, following the events of Daredevil season 2, Claire Temple returns home to Harlem. (Netflix)

Luke Cage - S01E06 - Suckas Need Bodyguards
After Stokes shoots a police officer working for him, Harlem becomes a war zone as Luke tries to protect the cop for the information he has on Cottonmouth’s empire - and Cornell tries to silence him permanently. (Netflix)

Dominik: After two episodes, the conflict between Luke and Cornell Stokes is fully set up. Luke, feeling ready to step up after Pop’s death, starts taking down Cottonmouth’s every operation one by one with his final aim being the Fort Knox itself - the impenetrable vault in the Crispus Attucks Complex. Though bringing down the Harlem criminal empire is only one of his reasons; the other is getting the funds necessary to keep Pop’s barbershop operating. It all culminates in a spectacular, Terminator-inspired assault on the complex, to the sound of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus.”

Meanwhile Misty and Scarfe are trying to get Chico to tell them everything he got about Cottonmouth’s operations from the deceased Dante and trying to make sense of Luke moving in on Stokes. Chico ends up deciding to tell everything to Scarfe (with Luke providing some moral incentive), only for the man to kill him in cold blood after getting Luke’s name. Scarfe has been on Cottonmouth’s payroll the whole time, and he gladly reveals to his employer the name of the man who made him bankrupt. Stokes takes revenge in his own hands… firing from a rocket launcher at Genghis Connie, where Luke is having dinner.

What did you think of the progression of Luke’s assault on Cottonmouth, Misty and Scarfe’s parallel investigation – and the reveal of Scarfe’s true loyalties?

Aranwe: 3 episodes in, and we finally get Luke Cage’s obligatory ‘Hallway fight’ scene that have become a signature of Netflix’s Marvel shows. The differences between this one and Daredevil’s are staggering; over there Matt was struggling to keep enemies down and himself in one piece, while over here Luke was basically an unstoppable tank, and it was glorious. Overall, the whole thing is a huge victory for the good guys so early in the season, so naturally it comes at a cost. I liked Scarfe, and assumed he would be the one white man who’s an ally in all this, and his friendly rapport with Misty seemed to confirm that. As such, I ignored all the warning signs, and his sudden murder of Chico caught me completely off guard. And while we’ve done the whole dirty cop thing already with Fisk, having one so close to a main character adds a new layer of interest.

On a side note, the end of the episode with Cornell firing a rocket launcher at Genghis Connie’s was so many levels of ridiculous, but I kind of loved it.

Adrian: I appreciated Charles Bradley performing 'Ain't It a Sin' as the musical montage backdrop, while Luke hits Cornell's stash houses. Pieces of song could be be attributed to either Luke or Cornell's train of thought, but there's a third consideration in this: Mariah. The discussion Cornell has with Mariah in the midst of Luke's initial hits was a fascinating one. While Cornell is interested in the money, Mariah insists she's interested in making positive changes in Harlem, "Nothing I do is a hustle." Luke's two-headed opponent is more layered than perhaps Luke believes. It doesn't matter much to Luke when he assaults the Crispus Attucks complex, but just as he decimates Cornell's treasury, he damages Mariah's carefully-laid plans. It’s a well-considered set up for what’s to come.

Ivonne: Not gonna lie, I was surprised AND disappointed that Scarfe was dirty. I liked him and his dry humor so much early on, I was sure he was going to die for the cause because he was so likeable. I mean, it hit me that he was dirty the minute he wanted Chico alone, but still… until that moment, I had no idea.

Luke hitting the stash houses was awesome in every way. The music, the action, him just walking through people trying to hurt him and him having this look of being entirely put upon, like “man, why are you wasting my time?” I loved it.

Ending the episode with Cornell firing a rocket launcher at Genghis Connie’s was all kinds of awesome. We were sitting in a room full of people watching, and there were audible gasps followed by “Holy shit!” and nervous laughter. Ridiculous, sure, but unexpectedly amazing.

Dominik: The next episode deals with the aftermath of the explosive climax of the previous one, but its primary interest is in showing us how Luke Cage became who he is. It turns out Luke’s real name is Carl Lucas, and he was a falsely accused Georgia police officer, incarcerated in the private detention facility, Seagate Prison, run by Albert Rackham (played by Chance Kelly), a sadistic correctional officer. In prison, he ended up befriending fellow inmate Reggie “Squabbles” (played by Craig Mums Grant) and developing an attraction towards prison psychologist Reva Connors. Rackham forced Luke to participate in the underground fight club by threatening Squabbles’ life, and after Luke tried to expose his operation, he had him beaten to death by two inmates, one of them the man currently known as Shades. Reva tried to save him by bringing him to Dr Noah Burstein (played by Michael Kostroff), a scientist running secret experiments on inmates. Rackham found out, and tried to kill Luke mid-operation by cranking the equipment to maximum, only for it to overload and explode, granting Luke his invulnerability and super-strength. Reunited with Reva, Luke left Georgia with a new identity and Reva.

Back in the present, Luke frees himself and Connie from the restaurant’s rubble, revealing his powers to the media surrounding it – and to Misty.

What did you think of the full-episode flashback? How did you think it worked with the rest of the episode?

Aranwe: A lot to unpack in this episode. The parts in the present felt rather unnecessary, you could’ve just given us the entire episode as a flashback, with a short beginning and end in the present, and I would’ve had no problem with that.

Aside from that, it was certainly interesting. We all know what Reva’s eventual fate will be thanks to Jessica Jones, but seeing how Luke and her first met was nice. It’s also pretty clear she knew more than she was letting on. She said she had no idea about the illegal fighting ring, but also somehow knew enough about the experiments to convince Dr. Burstein to save Luke.

After the procedure, the scene with Luke decked out in his full classic getup, with bracelets, tiara, afro and yellow shirt is cheesy as hell (as was the way he picked the name ‘Luke Cage’), but it does work, in a fun way.

Adrian: I didn't have a problem the flashback integration. Luke being trapped and trying to protect another trapped person seems like a simple but clear parallel to prison. The other parallels and parables in this episode are salient: Luke being subjected to unethical experiments and tests reminds of the Tuskegee experiment. Luke's forced gladiatorial combat reminds of the mass incarceration of black men being an extension of slavery ("Slavery was always a good offer... to a master."), an idea most recently confronted in Ava DuVernay's new Netflix hit film, 13th. In addition to this meaty foundation, they showed us Luke's vulnerability. In The Shawshank Redemption, inmates take bets to see who's going to crack on the first night. Here, it’s Luke who breaks down, weeping, and reminding himself "Just remember who you are... and you'll get through this." It's an important moment, showing us that even the toughest, strongest men contain vulnerability, because of course he does: Luke might be super-powered, but he is human.

Ivonne: The flashback worked well (it doesn’t always… witness the less-than-useful and super contrived flashbacks of Arrow season four, for example). Flashbacks are a useful narrative tool, and I thought the way it was handled in Luke Cage was well done. Once again, I was not suspicious of Reva most of the time throughout this narrative, but that has as much to do with the impression I had from Jessica Jones that she was an innocent. An impression, of course, that primarily came from Luke himself. Learning that she lied about stuff to him was as heart-breaking to me as it was to him.

Bonus points for dressing up Luke, however briefly, in his classic comic book look of yellow shirt and tiara. A+++ would watch again!

Dominik: Unable to kill Luke, Cornell Stokes goes against his name by having his men start extorting Harlem residents as a “Luke Cage stupidity tax” (to turn them against his enemy). This keeps Luke busy being a hero for hire, while he searches for more permanent solutions. Shades provides one, courtesy of Diamondback: a Judas bullet, made from Chitauri armor by, of all companies, Hammer Industries (looks like they finally managed to get something to work), but Stokes is turned off by the astronomical price. In the meantime, he has to deal with Domingo Colon by getting him the weapons he tried to supply him with back in episode 1. He orders Scarfe to get them from NYPD evidence, but the corrupt cop decides to withhold them to get more money from Cottonmouth. But his troubles are only starting: Misty is told by her superiors, Lieutenant Perez (played by Manny Pérez) and Captain Audrey (played by a The Wire alum, Sonja Sohn) that they suspect Scarfe of being on Cottonmouth’s payroll. Meanwhile, following The Hand attack on her hospital in Daredevil season 2, Claire Temple arrives home in Harlem to figure things out, and finds out the man she treated in the Jessica Jones finale, Luke Cage, is here as well.

The Cage-Stokes conflict reaches its boiling point during Pop’s funeral, when both men make their speeches about the deceased.

What did you think of how the episode presented the continued war between Luke and Cottonmouth?

Aranwe: This was one of my favorite episodes, with clear action-reaction happenings across the board, nicely setting up the events of the next few episodes while still being relatively self-contained. We get a glimpse into the hassle of being a successful crime lord, as Stokes has to deal with a dozen different things at once. Seeing Luke Cage as a straight up hero helping people who ask for it is the kind of thing you want from a superhero show, and it is pretty damn good.

The funeral scene once again tied the two sides of Harlem together again, and the difference between Luke’s and Stokes’ speeches reflected the different perspectives of both sides nicely.

Adrian: I agree, Aranwe. I liked seeing Luke fulfill the role of superhero. The episode culminating with Luke and Cornell essentially giving election speeches to the constituents of Harlem was satisfying; the episode opened with a performance by Jidenna 'Long Live the Chief,' a cool track which set a great tone for this. Side notes: the scene where Cornell kills Koko after he struggles to put together a coherent strategy for dealing with Luke Cage was funny, sad, and slightly intriguing (the book Koko got his idea from is Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, which he apparently was enjoying so much, he brought it to Cornell's meeting and couldn't shut up about it). I wonder how much that book's stories and accounts play into this season.

Ivonne: Luke helping out the “little people” gave me all kinds of the warm fuzzies. You know, a lot of the Marvel properties are preoccupied with large global problems, although every now and again they manage to sneak in something of the concerns of the “common folk” (like in Civil War when Miriam reminds Tony Stark of the cost of his superheroics, when she tells him about her son that died in Sokovia). But honestly, it’s really nice that the Netflix shows, and this one in particular, focus on the more immediate problems of the less-well-to-do. I think Luke Cage did that better than anyone. Especially after his reluctance early on, it seemed like he was really starting to feel just how good it felt to use his abilities to help people. It was a great look on him.

I adored the “Battle of the Speeches” that Cornell and Luke engaged in at Pop’s funeral.

And I was ridiculously happy to finally see Claire enter the arena. Claire Temple is everything.

Dominik: Scarfe finally contacts Stokes about his weapon shipment to extort more money out of him. The short-tempered gangster just empties the cop’s own gun at him and leaves him to die. Badly wounded Scarfe manages to arrive at the barbershop and convinces Luke (now joined by the newly met Claire) to help against Cottonmouth in exchange for information on the gangster’s empire that the dirty cop has hidden in his flat. Perez, revealed to be another police officer on Stokes’s payroll, tries to find Scarfe and end his life permanently. He takes Misty with him, to his own undoing, because by the end of the episode she arrests him after tricking him into confessing to working for Stokes. Luke and Claire try to get Scarfe to 1 Police Plaza, hounded by Cottonmouth’s mercenaries, but he ends up dying from blood loss in Misty’s arms. Based on his ledger, Stokes is arrested, but Captain Audrey is worried about the fallout from another case of police corruption after the Wilson Fisk case.

In the midst of all this chaos, Mariah Dillard is making a live TV interview. What she thinks will be a fluff piece for her election campaign turns out to be the public reveal of her connection to Cottonmouth, casting shade on her public persona.

What did you think of the conclusion to this portion of the episodes? What are your reflections on the now deceased Detective Scarfe?

Aranwe: Overall, a strong ending of sorts to the first half of the season. Claire fits as effortlessly into the world of Luke Cage as she did in Daredevil or Jessica Jones, and it almost feels like she was always there all along. We get some great action and suspense as Luke and Claire try to get Scarfe to 1 Police Plaza while avoiding both Stokes’ thugs and police officers alike.

Scarfe was an interesting character. It’s hard to feel sorry for a corrupt police officer, but I kind of do. He was likeable, and it was clear him and Misty had a strong friendship. With Stokes in custody, and Mariah’s political career seemingly falling apart, it seems everything is wrapped up– but with another seven episodes to go, things aren’t quite as neat as they seem.

Adrian: I was glad to see that Scarfe was given a decent backstory, that his corruption was rooted in disillusionment following his son's death, rather than being motivated by simple greed or a lack of principles. It was hardly a shame to see him go; he was relevant and effective throughout. Other satisfying moments: seeing Misty clue in and handle Perez solo was pleasing. The positive glee with which Mariah's interviewer confronted Mariah with was hilarious! I like to think she’d been trying to expose Mariah for years and finally felt like she had something juicy and couldn’t resist. Lastly, seeing Claire chase down her mugger was excellent. She's a very courageous and admirable character, an easy favorite. Rosario Dawson might have best role in Marvel TV: she gets to be on all the shows! Her and Luke have perfect, lovable chemistry. I ship them.

Ivonne: I’m still mad that Scarfe, likeable jerk that he was, turned out to be dirty. But like Adrian, I did enjoy the backstory and understanding why he turned out to be dirty. I think I personally took as much pleasure in Mariah’s fall as the reporter did. I was really starting to dislike her. Of course, I was perfectly aware that this episode was wrapping up the first half of the show quite nicely. Too nicely, perhaps. I think one of the things I love about Luke Cage is that it wasn’t terribly predictable. The narrative managed to surprise me all the time, and not in a negative way.

Anyway, I knew things would go south after this episode, but I don’t think I was prepared for the level of intensity this show turned on in the second half.