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The Past Catches Up With Luke Cage
Luke vanquishes his foes, except for the institutional memory of the United States penal system, in the season finale.
Luke Cage and Diamondback engage in enhanced fisticuffs, wrecking even more of poor Pop's beleaguered barbershop (when Bobby Fish rebuilds it again, I say it's understandable if the No Profanity rule is relaxed), intercut with scenes of the brothers in happier times: Carl Lucas a skinny kid throwing punches in a gym to protect himself, Willis Stryker warning him not to be foolish. And as usual for flashbacks, they're not just a stylistic choice; they show Willis himself giving Carl the advice he'll use to eventually defeat him: Let your opponent tire himself out before finishing him off.
For a storyline that had pitched itself as a battle for the heart and soul of Harlem (which it was for the first half, when Luke's foe was Cottonmouth), it ends on a very personal note: Diamondback angry over the divergence in the brothers' paths.
That's fine; not all Marvel villains have to be Doctor Doom, and thank god they're not. But it robs the denouement of some of its emotional heft, including Luke expounding on the importance of Harlem and the "always forwards, never backward" philosophy of the dear departed Pops, while the stupid cops look on.
It's the kind of speech that works better when it's literally a cartoon character delivering it in a word bubble on a printed page (and you're reading it as a 10-year-old). With an actual human saying it in a show aimed at an older audience, it's a little cornier. This kind of scene always makes me say, with quiet approval, "And cut," just like Roger Meyers Jr. says after Homer Simpson goes off-script to deliver a heartfelt monologue about how he's sorry that nobody likes Poochie.
But Cage vs. Diamondback was not about Harlem, and Diamondback was only a threat to it because that's where Luke was.
The fight itself takes about one-quarter of the episode, leaving plenty of time for that denouement and setup for Season 2 of Luke Cage. Mariah is arrested for the murder of her brother but the police don't have enough to actually charge her with anything, especially after Shades lures Candace out of hiding with Misty's lost cellphone. Candace gets a bullet in the head, and Misty gets the guilt and a dressing-down from her boss for not trusting the system (the system that was roughing up every black male in Harlem?) and when we last see her, she's lurking at Harlem's Paradise, where Mariah and Shades are...conducting things.
Luke's battle with Diamondback kiboshed his deal with Mariah and Shades, and the evidence of his innocence is found later at Pop's by Bobby Fish, while Luke is being taken away -- willingly, as he doesn't want to run anymore -- by the authorities. He's not being charged with anything as Luke Cage, but he still has Carl Lucas time to serve.
In a turn I, as a former comic-book devouring youth, should have seen coming, Willis's battered body is left in the care of Dr. Burstein. Just how that has come to pass isn't explained, but I'm not sure it matters, and I'd rather they wait a while before paying that off anyway; I'd rather Season 2 not be "Cage-Stryker 2: This Time It's Personal, As It Was The First Time."
But good lord, did I like Luke Cage. It's paced better than the also-good Jessica Jones, even if it's not immune to the customary Netflix Mid-Season Sag. I feel like Netflix needs to greenlight thirteen episodes, ask for them to be all planned out, and when that's done, say, "J/K, you now have ten episodes." Breaking the season in half with Cottonmouth's demise halfway through helped, but the second half seemed a little weaker in the immediate aftermath of the first seven episodes.
Maybe what I liked most about the series is just how well it stays true to Luke Cage's '70s origins without being a pastiche, when it would have been extremely easy to slide into cliché (contrast that with The Get Down, which did grow on me by the end of its six episodes but was much more of a '70s comic book than a series actually based on one).
And despite the way the plot shifted from the social to the personal midway, Luke Cage was much more effectively about Harlem than Daredevil was about Hell's Kitchen. I don't know if it's a function of the way Marvel's heroes, at least early on, traditionally tended to be real people blessed with a few gifts instead of the invulnerable god-people of DC, but the shows seem grounded in place in a way the CW's DC series don't. Luke Cage's Black Lives Matter subtext was handled more gracefully than the average episode of Law & Order: SVU (although I suppose that's not saying a whole lot).
Man, I hope Iron Fist doesn't stink, because thanks in part to Luke Cage, my excitement for The Defenders keeps growing in a way that's almost unseemly for a man my age.