‘Luke Cage’ season 1 in review: Powerful characters, weaker plotting

Last week, I published a review of Netflix’s Luke Cage based on the first seven hours of season 1. Having watched the remaining six episodes, I have more specific thoughts – with lots of spoilers for the whole season – coming up just as soon as I’m a greeter at the Harlem Hair Expo…

On the whole, my feelings about the series didn’t change much over the back half of the season, though the seams started to show a lot more as we transitioned from Cottonmouth to Diamondback as our chief snake-nicknamed villain. Cheo Hodari Coke and company had a great take on the title character that simultaneously paid homage to his blaxploitation roots while making him feel modern and incredibly relevant to our contemporary racial climate, but – as is generally the case with Netflix’s Marvel shows (and most intensely-serialized streaming dramas in general) there wasn’t nearly enough story to justify the number of hours devoted to telling it, and the series would have benefited from either going shorter or doing some smaller arcs and/or mix in some standalone cases. There were vague attempts at each, like how the season was split between Cottonmouth and Diamondback, or how a couple of episodes were devoted to the respective origin stories of Cage and Cottonmouth (and Black Mariah), but it all felt like part of the one big story, and a story that dragged more – and opened more plot holes – than it should have given the vibrant nature of the main character and the world in which he operates.

Let’s start with the most important point, which is that Luke Cage himself was wonderful. Though he said “Sweet Christmas!” a few times, and briefly wore the tiara and canary yellow shirt, this wasn’t the ’70s “Where’s my money, honey?” blaxploitation Cage. But nor was he entirely the reinvented Brian Michael Bendis-written version of Cage who’s become such a huge part of comics again over the last 15 years. Coker, Mike Colter, and everyone else made this a quieter and more reluctant Cage, but also a more thoughtful and eloquent Cage, one who has to be pushed and prodded by Pop, Claire, and others to use his gifts to be the hero that Harlem needs. And the show found the way to articulate the meaning of Cage just as well through oratory (his anti-Cottonmouth speech at Pop’s funeral) as through action (his one-man assault on the Crispus Attucks building while listening to “Bring Da Ruckus”).

For that matter, Coker assembled a terrific collection of supporting characters, and actors to play them. Some of the work was unsurprising – Alfre Woodard and Frankie Faison could both roll out of bed and give the kind of charismatic, world-weary performances that lend an enormous amount of gravity to a superhero show – while others were unexpected. This was my first real exposure to Simone Missick, for instance, and she was outstanding as Misty Knight. That’s the kind of character who, because her arc is running parallel to the hero’s with only occasional intersection after a while, could begin to feel like a distraction, but Misty became fascinating in her own right, and Missick was able to carry long chunks of story away from Cage, like the episode where Misty was being psychoanalyzed after attacking Claire, and the second half of the finale was arguably more about Misty than Luke, and it worked.

But whether in roles oversized (Mahershala Ali and Erik LaRay Harvey both chewing scenery as Cottonmouth and Diamondback) or down-to-earth (the suddenly ubiquitous Ron Cephas jones as the chess-loving Bobby Fish), every actor called on did the job and made the show’s Harlem come alive.

The problems were much more on the plot end than with the characters. The Cottonmouth half of the season more or less made sense, but began to feel repetitive within a few hours, and it was more a relief than a shock when Mariah shoved him out that window and beat him to death. And while Harvey was fun to watch – at least until they put him into that goofy super-suit in the finale – the show tried to have Diamondback be too many things at once for him to entirely work as a villain. It’s a lot to ask one character to be a stone-cold killer who does all the dirty work himself, and a crime boss who ranks above Cottonmouth and all the other Harlem gangsters, and Cage’s vengeful half-brother who not only framed him for the crime that put him in prison but happens to be in exactly the right place for Luke’s emergence as the hero of Harlem. One or even two of those things might have worked together – you can accept the coincidence of Stryker and Cage’s shared past if, say, he’s just an assassin brought in to deal with the problems Luke is causing for Cornell and Domingo and the others – but as he kept slaughtering people, all I could do was start asking questions about his business model as the boss of bosses.

And while the hostage situation at Harlem’s Paradise was one of the season’s more exciting stretches, almost everything that came around it was gibberish in terms of where police priority would be (there would have been a citywide manhunt for Stryker as both the man inside the club and someone who had just recently stolen a cop’s gun and threatened to kill her with it), who would be charged with what (Shades makes bail?), etc. As with some of the sketchier pieces of plotting in Jessica Jones season 1 (the support group vigilante squad, most notably), it felt like the series straining under the weight of having to extend the story longer than it should have run.

Still, those post-hostage episodes had some excellent moments, like Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love” rap, accompanied by images of Harlem men proudly sporting hoodies with bullet holes in them like Cage’s, or Cage’s speech about the meaning of Harlem, or even something small like Mariah dropping all of her political polish to tell Misty, “I double damn dare you, trick!”

The show apparently proved so popular that Netflix’s servers crashed for a couple of hours on Saturday, so I doubt there will be impetus for either Netflix or Marvel to try to shift the storytelling model they’ve been using for these shows (or for most of Netflix’s dramas), but it’s frustrating how obvious and consistent the problem is, and how easy it would be to fix it, simply by not trying to stretch one plot across 13 hours. Maybe when we get to The Defenders, there will be so many heroes and villains wandering around that every minute will be needed to tell a single story, but it’s not like Luke Cage was lacking for colorful characters.

Still, Coker got the title character, and the worldview, just right, and that’s the most important part, and the reason I kept going even as the story threads began to fray and unravel over the course of this season.

Some other thoughts:

* Though Claire Temple starts playing a big role starting in the fifth episode – and is now quite blatantly going to be made into a new version of The Night Nurse – and Turk popped up a couple of times to move the plot along, the series never actually brought in Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones for a cameo, even though both were referenced a few times in the dialogue. Also, since our final glimpse of Claire is her studying a flier for martial arts lessons from Colleen Wing, I suspect we’ll be seeing her pop up on Iron Fist a time or three.

* The swear jar was such a big part of the early episodes as a symbol of what Pop wanted the barbershop to be that I wish it could have turned up more prominently near the end. At least the flashbacks to teen Carl and Willis pointed out that Carl/Luke was also raised not to swear (hence “Sweet Christmas!”), and Misty’s line near the end about how Claire had, in a way, met Pop (because she knew Luke) was a nice touch to where the story began.

* Misty’s gift for picturing a crime scene by studying the evidence evokes Will Graham and other famous TV crimefighters, and at one point inspires a colleague to call her “the visualist,” which seems less a superhero name than the title of a Misty Knight spin-off for CBS. (Also a spin-off I would watch: Mariah Dillard in Criminal Spinsters on VH1.)

* While the totality of Diamondback never entirely made sense, boy was he fun in individual moments, whether muttering “Bye Felicia” as he pushed Candace off the balcony, or when he started quoting The Warriors at a wounded Luke. (Though, like almost everyone, he gets the phrasing wrong: it’s “Come out to plaaaaaay” not “come out and plaaaaaay!”) And now that Dr. Burstein is attempting to use the formula on him (which could work, since he has DNA in common with Luke), I imagine we’ll be seeing more of him, either in season 2 or The Defenders.

* The Crispus Attucks assault scene wasn’t presented as a continuous take like some of the Daredevil brawls, but had the same visceral thrill of watching one man take on an army. Where Daredevil has to move quickly to disable the many threats against him, Cage can be slow and steady in situations like that because he’s almost impossible to hurt.

* For the most part, the show successfully weaved in real-world concerns about how black people are treated by police, but Mariah turning an rally on the subject (inspired by the detective beating up one of the kids from the barbershop) into a piece of anti-Cage, pro-cop rhetoric that her audience lapped up didn’t work at all.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com