Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: Luke Cage "Code On The Streets"

“Code On The Streets” continues to build the world we saw in the pilot. The show is still slow, but it seems much more focused here, hanging its themes around a simple plot and really fleshing out Cottonmouth, Pops and, of course, Luke Cage. 

I thought last week was the origin story, with Shameek’s death being the inciting incident, but this week rehashes the idea and makes it much more personal. Even though Luke Cage admits that dealing with Cottonmouth’s extortionists at the diner was satisfying (“I heard it was four guys”) he is still unwilling to take the next step and become a force in his community. He’s decided not to run, but he’s not yet willing to step out of the faceless crowd. 

Once again, the episode directly ties this to the black experience and black masculinity in particular. As Pop later tells Cage, “Boys run, men stand. You’re a man.” What makes this ring true is the fact that they both have run, many times before. These are two black convicted felons talking about making amends - they know the consequences of running away. Pop's backstory and his lament about not recognizing his own child was also a great bit of acting (as well as casting: young Pop looked very much like Frankie Faison) that really sold the emotions here.
Of course, for those familiar with superhero conventions, that backstory might as well have been a flashing neon sign announcing that Pop was a goner. What is amazing is how affecting his death was regardless. Despite only appearing in two episodes, Frankie Faison did such a good job selling his character, and I really believed Luke’s grief at his pointless death. The killing of Pop is what gets Cage on track to be the superhero we all know he is, and hopefully the next few episodes will be a little more action packed now that the setup is finished. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at the plot for a quick minute. 

The first half of this episode revolves around the hunt for Chico, the young man who stole all the money last week along with Shameek and Danté. The last surviving robber, Chico is being pursued by the cops, Cottonmouth and Luke Cage (at Pop’s behest). 

Let’s start with the cops. We get a little bit more of Misty Knight here and she is fantastic. Whether she is Will Graham-ing her way through a crime scene (I haven’t forgotten you, Hannibal) or schooling kids on the basketball court, Misty is fantastic. The same cannot be said of her partner who seems imported from a completely different show (a procedural with awful, awful banter). If Rafael isn’t either killed or revealed as crooked by the end of the season (or both, I’m not picky), I will give up this whole TV reviewing career. 

While Misty is kicking butt and taking names both on and off the court, Cottonmouth is hunting a little more quietly. The scene with Pop shaving Cottonmouth was surprisingly chilling and, thanks to last week, we know that Cottonmouth’s threats are not toothless. He certainly terrifies Pops, which makes it all the more moving when Pop demands that Cage find Chico and help him.

That brings us to Luke Cage, who hunts Chico for Pop and only for Pop. As mentioned above, this episode has a lot to do with stepping out of the crowd and being hero. This is explicitly said at the end of the episode in the Crispus Attucks speech, but it’s also peppered throughout the episode. Cage himself alludes to it when he mentions Walter Mosley novels being his favorite. Mosley’s most famous creation isEasy” Rawlins, a factory worker who is forced into a life of unlicensed PI work after he loses his job and, in the tradition of noir, can never just mutely stand by as things unravel. He may not exactly be a hero, but he’s willing to stand out from the crowd. Sound familiar? 

The second half of the episode brings the actual character progression, after Cottonmouth’s goon murders both Pop and Chico. Obviously Pop's death gives Cage the will to move forward, but it also deeply touches Cottonmouth. We get a sense of his character when he hears about Pop’s death and sadness and disbelief dance across his face. This is a ruthless man, but one one who believes his word is good and doesn’t condone killing innocents. As he says: “Believe it or not there’s supposed to be rules to this shit.” 

Overall, this episode was by no means perfect, but I’d consider it a clear improvement over last week. Everyone, excluding Councilwoman Mariah and Shade, had clear intentions and motivations. The plot made both logical and emotional sense and cleared away a lot of the loose ends, allowing Cage to really fill the center of the show now that the robbery plot is over and Pop is gone. 

On the negative side, the dialogue was still very clunky in places and the editing room is really not helping with that. For an example of this, see the scene where Rafael tells Misty that he needs her for the “one, two punch”. After he says it, there must be a good four seconds where nothing happens. C’mon now editors, I know the dialogue isn’t great, but you can definitely work around it. 

Several characters including Shade, Mariah and the aforementioned Rafael also continue to clutter up a relatively simple story. It's not that I believe they won't be valuable in the long run. It's just that they should not have been introduced so early in the series. I haven’t talked too much about Councilwoman Mariah, but that’s because we don’t really understand her. We know she wants respect, but her motivations aren’t at all clear at this moment. Hopefully, all these issues get resolved in later episodes. 

Essentially a second pilot, “Code On The Streets” achieves what the first episode only aspired to. In superhero stories, the murder of a loved one is often the set-up to a revenge plot, but Colter’s reaction makes it clear that he’s not out for blood. He’s just finally fulfilling the role that Pop saw for him. It’s not about revenge. It’s about no longer running away.  

Forward, always. 

Grade: B

  • In addition to Mosley, Cage shows some love for George Pelecanos. Very appropriate this week as Cottonmouth essentially played Avon Barksdale to Tone’s “no rules” Marlo Stanfield. 
  • Cottonmouth: “Jesus saves, I don’t.”
  • “I thought you was innocent Shawshank” 
  • If Cage had a rehash of his plot from last week, that’s nothing compared to Cottonmouth and Mariah who have, not one, but two conversations that are identical to the one last week. Cottonmouth believes money is the way to power, Mariah counters that political power and respect are more important. Cottonmouth asserts that money is political power. Repeat.
  • The music is still great. It’s not something you notice at first, but when you watch this episode several times, you come to really appreciate all the little jazzy transitions as well as the big musical numbers at the Paradise club.
  • After Cottonmouth tells Luke he’s fired from the club, Luke responds: “No, I’m not. I quit before I walked in.” A great bit of dialogue.  
  • Shade almost justified his existence with the line delivery on “I suggested — we wait.” Almost. 

Photo Credit: Netflix/Marvel

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