“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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.