Right Two Times

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At first I wasn’t convinced that it isn’t called “WATCHMEN” mostly so Warner/DC can have another project in play that keeps the copyright from reverting to Moore & Gibbons. But creative justice notwithstanding, the HBO version is the only official continuation so far that does honor to its source.

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In print there have been two stealth-sequels that stood with the original too: Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity issue that replayed the plot with the Charlton Comics heroes Moore had originally planned to use; and Kieron Gillen’s Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt miniseries, anchored by the one Charlton character he was legally allowed to. These were inspired meditations on loops caught in and escaped from, respectively (Morrison’s is a melancholy cycle, Gillen’s is a defiance of the conventions that Moore & Gibbons’ successors are still following); each were to some extent formal critiques which extended Watchmen‘s graphic experiments while seeking departure from its influence.

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DC’s Doomsday Clock fell into the trap those two books averted, perfectly re-creating the aesthetic of Gibbons’ layouts and atmospheres but with a precision that lent no room for life; it added without advancing (which was the fatal aesthetic problem of Zack Snyder’s movie, among its many other problems of taste, tone, structure and sensitivity). All of these adaptations in large measure were responses to Watchmen as a groundbreaking comic, more than reflections on it as a cultural touchpoint; more concerned with Watchmen‘s form than its content — or comment. The best way to grow Moore & Gibbons’ social viewpoint is to transplant it, and Damon Lindelof’s debut episode on HBO was the first treatment ever to covey to me the kind of tense dread of a Trump century that the original comic did of a Cold War apocalypse.

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The HBO Watchmen is about things we thought were over. Like the self-contained comic from 30+ years ago, or racism, or the world. One of the original comic’s most famous lines is that “Nothing ever ends,” so it’s possibly deceptive to assume that the discovery of Rorschach’s exposé about the hoax that brought on world peace would spark a decisive return to global suicide any more than the peace itself would eternally hold. In the world of TV-Watchmen, we’re the usual two-steps-forward, one-step-back into the future; race relations seem much repaired among those whites and people of color who deign to associate with each other, while in the heartland a low-intensity civil war with a white supremacist militia seems ongoing. As per the political turnover foreshadowed in the comic, after several terms of Richard Nixon in office, Robert Redford was elected president after the 1980s — and is still in office in the show’s 2019. Moore & Gibbons were making a subtle dig at the same-as-the-old-boss American way by imagining a liberal movie star being in office while a conservative movie star actually was. In real-life America, presidents like to undo whatever their predecessor accomplished but seldom dismantle any new powers the last guy gave himself; so, in the same way Obama rolled back none of Bush’s surveillance authority, it seems President Redford has carried on the Nixon policy of no term limits.

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Thus, utopia isn’t what it was going to be. But raptures are made to leave somebody out. The Watchmen comic was never Black enough, but the TV version writes African America back into the history underpinning the show, opening with the militarized race-massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, whose scale and ferocity would make it hard to believe even if it hadn’t been cleansed from official histories for decades. The scar runs through the town in the TV-show’s 2019 (in ours, they only just began a pre-anniversary search for rumored mass graves). Detective Angela Abar (an Olympian performance of contained pain and fury by Regina King) is the first line of defense against The Seventh Kavalry, a white-power terrorist group who quote Rorschach’s journal and wear his mask design; their identities are hidden and Abar officially doesn’t even exist, publicly retired from the Tulsa PD while striking the Kavalry as the goth-nun costumed “Sister Night.” Superheroes had already been outlawed as vigilantes by the time Watchmen the comic started; now, the besieged civil society in Oklahoma authorizes cops themselves to wear disguises, and the depressing turnover of national values in general is matched by the way Abar in particular lives her life: playing out the simple tropes of the superhero and repeating them as tragedy, complete with a decoy-identity as a baker and an arsenal behind secret panels in her shop that evokes Bickel as much as Batman. King’s integrity is compelling, as is the stoic stance of her counterparts in Episode 1, especially Don Johnson as the police chief; remnants of the rainbow and the last best hope on a line between principle and barbarism that they frequently step over.

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I said before that I wasn’t sure this had to be called “Watchmen”; even some of the most specific nods to the comic might at first have been considered fair-use pop-culture references — scraps of repurposed Rorschach dialogue are practically public domain post- AOC’s Twitter account; the smiley-face motif owes as much to the 2010s’ inescapable emojis as it does to the comic’s sardonic dead-1970s symbol; the few returning characters seen in the beginning could easily be renamed (as they were in Gillen’s Thunderbolt) — but from the start the series does make inspired use of the comic’s visual culture (the smiley-yellow half-masks that uniformed police wear; the monumental use of title-text; the counterpoint of vintage entertainment and other pop artifacts; the almost-sickening violence that insistently complicates our enjoyment and allegiances) — and the show gains strength from the references to the comic’s internal world, hanging on the periphery like suppressed traumatic memories (Nite-Owl’s remaindered hovercraft; the posthumous adoption of Rorschach’s look and rhetoric by lawless fanatics; the passing mention of Vietnam “before it became a state”; and of course the schoolroom posters of and rabid talk-radio rants about President Redford).

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The repressed roars back a bit more in the second episode, though still displaced into the public unconscious of pop-culture and role-play: A bloody period-piece TV drama with the comics’ Hooded Justice massacring some grocery-store robbers; a macabre lo-tech passion-play version of Dr. Manhattan’s origin put on by an as-yet unnamed Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons in a tour de force of crazed compulsory good intentions) night after night in his idyllic country estate by a cast of expendable clones. Both are perverse, fixated forms of nostalgia; historical scars that keep getting picked at like the racial schism that resentful whites nurture after reparations have partially evened the field in this reality’s America. Louis Gossett, Jr. is captivating as a survivor of the Tulsa massacre with strange secrets to be unearthed, and, to the extent that figures we know from the comic return, like the mad, manor-bound Veidt and a hardened, plainclothes-Fed incarnation of Laurie Jucspeczyk, they are not so much recurring characters as refugees from the former, finished narrative.

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As of Episode 3, Laurie’s the only one who doesn’t want to get back into it. The former “Silk Spectre” played by a kickass, 68-year-old Emmy-worthy Jean Smart, the character has completed her transition from pinup-fantasy to worst-nightmare; cynical, shoot-first, and supremely self-assured (or at least she wants you to think). Always the stand-in for normal-human readers in the comic, she’s now the observer within the show (if not necessarily a reliable one). Called into Tulsa from DC, through her eyes we see how narrow the world we’ve been immersed in since Episode 1 can be — in her town, the cops still don’t wear masks and those freelancers who do are taken down on sight (while barricaded protestors cheer the would-be superheroes); the storyline of the original comic surfaces fully in conversation only be dismissed automatically as ancient history, celebrity legend, irrelevant relics of a barbaric time best left buried. As we know from the finale of the comic, books have a way of reopening themselves, and Laurie (ominously known here by the surname “Blake,” after her murderous biological father) is literally coming face-to-face with her past in a contest of wills with “Sister Night,” the exact kind of warrior she once was and now hunts.

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In Part 4 history begins to rhyme even as the series shifts ever more fully into its own continuum. Lady Trieu, successor to the rule of Veidt’s company (and, as played by Hong Chau, his match in distant menace and eerie serenity), lives in a biodome of her native Vietnam’s ecosystem in the middle of Oklahoma, mirroring the comicbook Veidt’s Amazon-in-the-Arctic; familiar soil for an utterly new character with a 21st-century style of buy-and-conquer. Lindelof’s eye for the comic’s practice of associative visual motifs is sharp; appearances or suggestions of a given symbol (smileys, clocks) recurred throughout Gibbons’ imagery, either to hint at unrecognized patterns or to wink at our human tendency to seek clues in random coincidence. In this episode, the subtextual theme is eggs — broken at a farmstand where a local couple is faced with a surreal choice regarding a solution to their fertility attempts; left on the stove of Abar’s secret hideout by Gossett’s mystery man, who briefly made himself at home; symbolized in the incubator among Veidt’s bizarre set of Jules Verne-era tech, where he matures his clone servants — alluding there and in other places to the eggs you have to break for something to come to life (or just cook). And of course, convergent with the comic’s visual vocabulary, in the yellow of the yolks which form into the Watchmen logo at the episode’s start; a point also of departure from the original, and a possible satire of the entire conspiracy culture that informs the show and surrounds it in real life: no meaning is getting put back together again, and for all our stop-and-rewinds and blog analysis, we’re getting nothing for Easter.

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I revised this article four times for each episode; you don’t see where this series is turning because it’s going in directions that no one has been. Nothing ever ends, but with bravery and imagination, nothing ever begins the same way twice.

(Images: Second, third and fourth from top, excerpts from Watchmen, words by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons; Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, words by Kieron Gillen, art by Caspar Wijngaard; and The Multiversity: Pax Americana, words by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely; all other photos from HBO’s Watchmen.)

Many Haunted Mansions

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Horror springs from what you won’t look at to begin with. We fear what we don’t understand, and can’t understand what (and whom) we don’t know. The street you never walk down, the knock at the door from an invading presence, are the ingredients of the 2019 American horrorshow. The decent, damaged, diversely rooted squatters in Dynamite’s Death-Defying ’Devil #1 are at the center of an urban maze, about to be erased by a murderous developer whose distance from them disqualifies them as human. We’re in one of the rat and rodent-infested hells of privileged myth, and it might take a fantasy of equal power to resist it. The tenants’ man-with-no-name is, aptly enough, one who can’t use his own; the weird, violent harlequin, the good scary clown who emerges from nowhere to defend them and whom they then take in, is the “Daredevil” of 1940s comics, whose adventures were dramas of the downtrodden and whose trademark lapsed. In the psychoanalytic eye of writer Gail Simone and the photojournalistic hands of artist Walter Geovani, he’s blown back in off the scrapheap of history, his split but sutured costume a remnant of coexisting red and blue, his unhesitating heroism and extensive injury that of the paradoxical bleeding savior. His time has come again, and whether that’s a reassuring or terrifying signal is the suspense his adoptive family, and we, may live to see resolved.

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American Gothic Press’ Monster World: The Golden Age #1 falls back to the depths of the original Daredevil’s own dark era, mid-Depression in a cold December Manhattan. It was a time when the soaring towers of humanity’s achievement seemed due to be toppled by malevolent deities, and private detective Hank Barrymore is on a trail that leads him to demon informants and divine corruption. The primal jealousies that motivate so much crime-fiction foul play trace back to the pulp scripture of the Bible, and this tale of disfavored angels, pre-Flood superhumans still walking the earth, the seedy damned and the everyday fallen mortal caught in the others’ conflict for the favor (or stature) of a silent God conveys the fundamental fright of a world abandoned, a paradise withdrawn. These connections are conceived insightfully by story writer Philip Kim, and made flesh compellingly by script writer Holly Interlandi, whose ability to speak in the tongues of hardboiled period PIs and timelessly smartass hellspawns, and maintain the foreboding atmosphere of medieval morality play yet deadpan pace of modern noir, is near flawless. Artist Piotr Kowalski, doing his best work yet, imparts visions in a stunning range of stylistic tones and emotional textures, from vintage silver screen to archaic illuminated tome (the 1930s locations, black-and-white movie vocabulary, engraved Gothic rendering and a flashback framed as a book-within-a-comic of mystic lore in Dark Ages-scribe style, all cast us into another world). The simmering gloom and alien glows of Dennis Calero’s sinister but subtle color art is the finishing stain on this story’s dark glass.

Every antihero and ambiguous villain in Monster World so far is a compromised product of heaven, and the menaces on the other side of the door in Death-Defying ’Devil are other humans just like you, who don’t know it. The realest monsters are already right here, and God is scary enough on his own.

(Death-Defying ’Devil #1 goes on sale August 7, 2019; Monster World: The Golden Age #1 is on sale now.)

Preface to a Twenty Volume Liner Note

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The title page crumples and crackles in ashes with the sheet music for “Disco Eclipse” dripping down it in blood just ahead of the blast; this is the buzzing, screeching antique future hotwired dangerously back into life with some clipped earbud wires and a flint. I can swear I hear a bit of Rhapsody in Blue hiding in the basement of its main melody, but there’s a new message already overriding it in the morse-code rhythm of “Civilians,” hysteria hitting its marks as chunks of ceiling seem to crash to the piano keyboard at all the times fate had in mind. A discarded turntable arm gets catapulted into place, cutting a passionately shrieking Edith Piaf free from her prison of lacquer and dust, while fond echoes of accordion waft in from “Northern Boulevard” through the basement window that won’t stay slammed. Rattling up through the cracked concrete floor, ceremonial beats and sublime cries of “You My Love” rise from the secret tunnels the Incas built so Yma Sumac could make it to Queens. “Rolling on the Floor” while the piano stomps around her, head paranormal researcher and also a member Mary Knapp sings in the tongues of every madwoman genius and punk priestess and dancefloor divinity whose fire was ever drowned out, channeling so far back and ahead that she explodes in contact with herself and hears the sound of her own prophecy. Coffeehouse scriptures from one catacomb over crash through the “Fault Line”; “Bloody Murder” rides in down a subway cavern blaring brass whose way you can’t get out of. “Rainy Day” busks to the empty heavens upstairs while “Toot Suite” hums half-remembered silent-movie themes before giving up its own ghost. From “Playground Politics” and its dub doppelganger through “Sway” and “Bzzzness” to the aftershock of “Tread Softly Epilogue,” we’re in full-court invocation, the soul of rock ’n’ ritual called down and no demons driven out but welcomed in, each handed a trumpet or squeezebox or drum-program or highlife guitar to throw on the pyre. You can lower the roof or raise hell.

(photo: Manny Laqui)

 

 

 

Knock-Off

Somewhere there’s a CD of a never-aired show vaudeville survivor Eddie Cantor was giving to a radio audience who didn’t yet know they’d been bumped for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He kept doing the only thing he knew how to, and this was what they’d rather be hearing anyway. Cold War-era TV was in many ways one prolonged vamp to divert viewers’ attention from the country coming apart around them, and Titter Time shows the center cracking pretty thoroughly too.

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We’re at the end of 1968 and on the set of some desperate duplicate of the real world’s Laugh-In, opened by smarmy co-host Larry (Tucker Dally Johnston) and doggedly upbeat chanteuse Julie (Melissa McGuire); their respective slapstick and music-hall shtick is already far out of date, but reminds us of the way that major-network-approved counterculture could be largely composed of warmed-over cheese from a generation or two before. Larry and Julie are refugees from a world whose illusions are being cancelled, but Julie may make it into a new one if she can escape from Larry.

The Carruthers Brothers (Smothers Brothers stand-ins who’ve taken the reverse draft-dodge route from Canada) make political jokes and tempt the network censors’ wrath; Julie’s sister Jackie (Brianna Sauvage) insists on singing protest anthems to deliberately sabotage the show; a dance team of Sammy (Brendan Patrick McGlynn) and Marianne (Emily Edwards) keeps falling over the line of acceptable body-language and behavior; and the episode is disrupted every few minutes by content- (and cast-) revisions called down from the sponsors (an apparent nod to the real-life Laugh-In imitation Turn-On, which in many markets was canceled after its debut episode’s first commercial).

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The sketch segment “Sassy Secretaries” alternates with a backstage conflict over getting one of its female stars’ scripts to be read by the sexist head writer Leo (Craig Anderson); the sketch itself, wittily accompanied by the enforced cheer of a period-accurate laugh-track, lets Mim Granahan cut loose in the whole play’s most vivid performance as the sardonic senior secretary speaking wisecracks to male authority (her character-within-a-character even gets named “Maude”).

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Granahan, who also wrote this portion, has an unfailing ear for period speech and structures and would have been a good choice to script the whole evening; the framing off-air narrative sometimes feels more like a sitcom of the era than a view of how people talked and acted. But the dancers are phenomenal (and usual boy-next-door McGlynn’s persona as an evil sleazeball a refreshing revelation); Sauvage is an astounding singer and this is the closest I’ll ever get to hearing “Blue” in Joni’s old voice; Josh Hartung and Adam Files as the Carruthers Brothers at times hit the mark of their models’ subversive wit; and Johnston and McGuire are 100% committed to their crassness and innocence respectively. The show ends with an uprising of sorts whose principals know their careers may die for the cause, but to us it’s 50 years later and we know at least that the revolution will be rerun.

Continues through Dec. 15, 2018, details here.

Photos: Mike Cho

Boardwalk Emptor

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Hell is a nice place to visit. I spent a year there one night (1918 to be specific), in Coney Island’s legendary Sideshows by the Seashore theatre, minimally dressed up as an immorality play about the gangland genesis of America’s playgrounds, in the auspicious place where Al Capone was carved into being exactly a century ago.

Fringe-culture legend Dick Zigun’s The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante casts us into a dive called the Harvard Inn, where mobster Frankie Yale winds down from his ice-delivery, cigar and funeral-parlor rackets by tyrannizing a longsuffering bar staff that includes a pre-famous Durante on piano, a still-teenage Clara Bow as singing-and-dancing waitress, and a young thug named Alphonse at the door.

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It’s like a diabolical (and much more entertaining) version of those animatronic or role-play re-creations you can see at historical tourist traps; set up as a dinner-theatre in the majestically creaky antique space, I got the authentic feeling of being amongst the groundlings without the Shakespeare play (and as Capone was known to say, I mean that as a compliment).

Zigun sees the primal appeal of the earth-level entertainment that made people like Durante and Bow legends, and sticks to the prehistoric sexism and stereotypes that surrounded it, the better to encase it in a bubble we can keep our distance from and unhesitantly laugh at. The play makes its old auditorium feel like a cave on whose walls true forms of what once was flicker; we know the future will be whisking us back out soon enough, along with most of the characters.

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By the time I was a kid, Durante was long-since the most respectable of performers, even as he carried his leprechaun charm and hobo chic to the end; Bow was long-dead, but known to me in the eternal life of her ur-youth-culture silent movies. The primeval murk of violence and exploitation they grew out of is a strangely reassuring commentary on the compulsory wholesomeness I associated their era with as a kid.

Even figures like Yale and Capone have been transubstantiated into pure entertainment, so it’s fair enough that guys like them gave so many artists their start. In the play Durante starts as the omniscient MC/Greek chorus figure and gradually sinks into the ensemble; the narrative is drifting away from him and he’ll soon leave it behind for good. Between the gloriously corny old saloon numbers and gangster trash-talk, Bow launches into a brief outburst rapidly cataloging her rapist dad, violently psycho mom and other ordeals; reality flares out through the curtain of fiction and is stamped out quickly, since the real-life Bow will keep it quiet for decades to come.

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As Durante, Rob Romeo is antic and enchanting; Natalie Michael’s enforced charm and defiant cheer as Bow is luminescent; Will Thomae makes a convincing and unsettling Capone-in-training; Rita Posillico has walked straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie and looks back with knowingness and wit as toughgirl waitress Columbia; Robert Aloi is a man of a thousand well-wrought personalities as the dive’s bartender, a series of passing patrons, and the rival hood who gives Capone his “Scarface” nickname in a fight; and with stiff competition Nikos Brisco is perhaps the standout as the sociopathic Yale, buffoonish and menacing by hairpin turns.

In real life, Durante worked the College Inn, and Bow was a bun-slicer at Nathan’s hotdog palace; Zigun accounts for these discrepancies in an inventive way that acknowledges the unreliability of historical records and the authenticity of myth. An entire way of life was rubbed out and redrawn in early 20th century America time and time again, and The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante adds some master strokes to the portrait while making it as clear as it’s ever been.

The show’s first run continues through Nov. 25, 2018; the lowdown is here: https://www.coneyisland.com/theeducationofalcapone

Break the Story

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Mateo Moreno is an actor of superlative intuition…which may be why his scripts for the anthology-play Broken Pieces are both a constraint and a structure that doesn’t quite hold together. The tagline that “We are who we break” is an eloquent manifesto for these times of rampant disregard, but the work mostly remains in fragments.

It’s refreshing and revelatory to see Moreno himself play the quietest role I’ve seen him in, with just as much conviction and unpredictability, as a divorced dad reconnecting with his daughter in the first vignette. Frances Ramos bookends the evening as both the disaffected kid and an unheeded, prophetic child immigrant carried off in the closing scenario (a dystopian literally-bet-your-life gameshow), each with a contained power that’s shaded and magnetic.

After the sweet but inconclusive opening act, we see two ghost stories, each told with genuine emotion by the actors but with explanatory devices that are tacked on at the end, making it feel in each case like we’ve watched one detached half of a mystery; dramatically broken does not mean no assembly required. A confrontation between a hitman and the femme fatale who hired him, like a comic-relief interlude in a Shakespeare tragedy if directed by Guy Ritchie, is barely worth mentioning.

By far the most fully-realized segment is the sparest, in which the entire dramatic weight is placed on Kayla Wickes, soliloquizing to a surveillance camera on the eve of her forced marriage in a dystopian patriocracy. Moreno’s pessimistic imagination is well-applied in the rituals, slogans and structure of this prison existence (even beyond what features perhaps inevitably overlap with The Handmaid’s Tale and Bitch Planet), but even here, the protagonist’s determination to pursue her genuine love with the best of the four candidates selected for her by the state seems a strange goal for a feminist revolutionary.

Still, Wickes’ considered intensity and the cold hellish loop Moreno has constructed for her circumstance carry this segment despite the collection’s overall tendency to lose its own threads. The final piece, that allegorical gameshow, pokes holes through the thin wall between abstract satire and direct polemic at several points, not laying bare the brutality of chummy public entertainment so much as going off its own script (and straying from its own premise; Moreno plays the appalled point-of-view contestant in this Rollerball-esque spectacle but we wonder why he seems so shocked when it’s presumably required viewing, and he signed up to be on it).

Ian W. Hill’s lighting design provides economically eerie atmospheres and brisk visual punctuation, and the minimal, essential costuming and settings show a good sense of how little is more. But the drama itself could be further developed. In this era of waning light and widening isolation we’re all still sifting for causes and clues; I just wish, from the ongoing artistic reportage of it, a bit more care in how the pieces are picked up.

The Narrative Engine

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“Inside is inside,” one character says to another when going back over their prison romance and how it can’t exist, or even be spoken, between two gangster males in their unforgiving “real” life. It’s at the exact midpoint of season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix, and in its only sustained highpoint, an Emmy-worthy episode called “The Basement,” about many forms of buried self-truth. We can’t control the stories we live in no matter what we tell ourselves, and characters who are wholly fictional have it even worse.

The inside/exterior schism is key to the whole season; Luke of course has impervious skin but a repeatedly breakable heart; his estranged dad tells him more than once that his true power comes from inside; a conflicted loved-one of the main villain tells Luke he’s worse because of the anger he keeps within him.

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At the start, we’re not sure what movie we’re in; Luke is a local hero in Harlem, and the opening episode plays like an upbeat 1970s action-comedy. Clearly this is mostly in Luke’s mind, but it spills out in ways that make you wonder who is in on the joke. Not much later we’re all inside a soap-opera, and it’s here that the surface starts getting too solid and opaque. Claire Temple is worried about Luke not reconciling with his (justifiably rejected) dad, warning of the damage this can do to his psyche and its danger to those around him; Luke rejects this by laying out all the unfair assumptions projected on him, and impossible standards he needs to meet, as a Black man in contemporary America. It’s all wisely written, but directed like melodrama and delivered by the actors as if they’re reading from brochures.

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From this point on, it feels like Mike Colter, as Luke, is straining against the magnetic pull of a story he doesn’t belong in. We see him bullying minor neighborhood thugs; beating an adversary senseless and trashing his apartment in the process while the guy’s battered girlfriend and her son look on in more terror of Luke; and making devil’s bargains with master criminals to keep a cordon of safety around Harlem. After what has essentially been three seasons (Jessica Jones 1, Luke 1 and The Defenders) there’s no reason to expect any of this from the dude we’ve seen survive prison, work out his grief at widowhood, deliver stirring civic speeches, restrain himself to the point of shielding his landlady from an entire collapsed building, and speak truth to superpowered White privilege as embodied by Danny Rand. Why this season chooses to deny him his grace is mystifying.

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In the vacuum, attention is locked on Luke’s new adversary, Bushmaster, a vengeful scion of the Jamaican rivals to local mob-boss Mariah Stokes’ family. The woundedness and incurable fury of Bushmaster is conveyed with titanic, irresistible charisma by Mustafa Shakir, lifting more that a building’s worth himself, since the portrayal of the stateside West Indian community is another of the season’s most insurmountable surfaces. The show’s creative team had (and evidently chose) an opportunity to comment on colorism and the very real faultlines between nationalities within African-America, but other than some awkwardness from Luke and a steady barrage of slurs from Mariah, the character and status of the Jamaicans portrayed does not reach much beyond gangsta caricatures or early-20th-century melodramas of ethnic refugees in the New World.

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The result is a lot of talking-at. Time and again Luke is told, though we are not really shown, what a ticking time-bomb he is. This strange backslide into racial shaming from unexpected directions has shown up elsewhere lately, as in the Ta-Nehisi Coates/Yona Harvey Black Panther & The Crew comic, which started with several issues of the most natural portrayals of people of color and bravely-observed characterizations of institutional racism (removal by gentrification, execution by police) in all of pop culture , and ended with the heroes trying to stop the citizens of Harlem from hurting themselves in violence incited by (surprise!) Hydra — a bafflingly regressive scold that I had to hope was imposed by Editorial (though that’s not good news either).

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The sad thing is that this season shines whenever there is true talking-to, as in the dialogue between psychotic but layered gunman “Shades” and his comrade/former lover “Comanche” mentioned at the top of this article, or a phenomenally honest, eloquent and sublimely painful conversation/confession between Luke and his dad chatting on the back bumper of an ambulance late in the season. (Even the interplay between Luke and an outsider to his world, the aforesaid Danny Rand, stands out; their attitudes are unguarded and their cultural frictions confronted head-on, in a genuine communication that sparks completely unexpected chemistry.)

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As Luke’s dad, the late, incomparable Reg E. Cathey spills several lifetimes of contradictory regret and pride and wisdom and helplessness, while as “Shades” (get it?) Theo Rossi shows a world of sorrow and cruelty and hope and calculation by how stonily and unsuccessfully he tries to suppress it. Inside is inside, and inner life is what we spectators need, paradoxically, to see. It is entirely obscured by Mariah, in a multi-polar performance by Alfre Woodard that follows up her profound pathos last time; her tapestry of unhinged ticks is bravura in its own way, but, while this time she is a superlative villain, she is no longer a full person. From Simone Missick (as Misty Knight) and Colter, the interior seeps out through their eyes; they are masterful actors of reaction and contemplation, given this-time often murky roles to contemplate.

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The tidal pull of criminality distorts whatever is actually in Luke’s head. By the end, (SPOILER — or is it really?) he’s been convinced that you can beat ’em by ruling ’em, taking over as a kind of peacekeeper at the head of what had been Mariah’s club, imposing order on rival gangs while letting them do some contained business as usual. The close of this season would have been a perfect point, I think, to lead into a crossover The Crew miniseries, to take the place of the optimally-one-off Defenders show; we’ve already got Misty and Luke, and Marvel’s cinematic division could surely okay a Josiah X to lay the ground for Chris Evans’ departure and greenlight a spare Dora Milaje on-assignment to the hood (like when Lady Sif showed up on one of the best S.H.I.E.L.D.s). It would be more Luke’s style to pull together an ethical, unifying anti-gang (as he did in the superb Mighty Avengers comic with its storefront superteam) than become a gang-lord…but in the universe of Luke Cage season 2, there’s a blurry (sloppy?) line between power and crime. Even musical guest the unsurpassably conscious KRS-One is cool with playing the most transparently mobbed-up club in NYC (one of several strangely demeaning implications). But Luke doesn’t get to pick the narrative that’s driving him. In unsparing but aspirational fantasy, that’s something I wish both he and we could escape.