Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: Luke Cage "Who's Gonna Take The Weight"

OK, Luke Cage. I tried to be nice last week. I believed that you had a plan after killing Pop and wrapping up the weaker storylines. But we are on the third episode now, and it’s time you decide what you want to be. “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” isn’t a terrible episode perse, but it is an alarmingly schizophrenic one. 

When you break down this episode, you really come away with two different ideas of what Luke Cage can be. This isn’t so much a comment on the plot, which is disappointingly banal, but more on the tone. On the one hand, we have a poor man’s The Wire. This version of Luke Cage is filled with bad procedural banter and halfhearted gestures towards themes of crime, systematic violence, and vigilante justice. There’s a lot of exposition and discussion about shady political dealings.

In the other version of Luke Cage, we have a crime boss threatening another crime boss with Milky Way wrappers (the second crime boss later climbs on a rooftop to shoot a rocket launcher through a restaurant window, presumably to re-establish his bonafides). In this version of Luke Cage, Luke makes elaborate threats through chess metaphors and listens to a clean version of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckas” as he beats up thugs. One can almost imagine Luke chasing after RZA and Ghostface Killah with Pop’s curse jar. Also, crooked detective Scarfe strangles a man with his tie (after explicitly telling his partner that he is going to meet said man) and then takes a bite of his delicious burger.

Now, I mock because I love and I don’t really care about plot holes. But by straddling the line between serious think-piece and campy superhero show, Luke Cage does disservice to both ideas. It’s possible to imagine a show that could marry both together (Black-ish isn’t a bad reference point), but Luke Cage is not that show. Not yet, at least. 

The writing just isn’t there for Luke Cage to be social commentary. Two important ingredients for delving into serious issues are focus and specificity. Luke Cage not only doesn’t seem to be able to focus on a theme, but it seems delighted to throw up roadblocks. As a stellar example of this time wasting, the first three scenes of this episode merely repeated things that we already knew. We learn that Pop was killed, Cottonmouth and Luke are sad, and Cottonmouth and Luke are enemies. Not only is this not necessary (especially on a Netflix show, which is to say a show meant to be binge-watched), but this doesn’t really serve the theme of this episode.

The theme, and I’m reaching here, is probably vigilante justice. Scarfe and Misty discuss vigilante justice and working outside a broken system, Cage pursues Cottonmouth without help, and Chico says “the streets will settle it”. These themes wouldn’t be out of place on Daredevil or even The Wire, but without setup or follow-up it doesn’t mean much. Until Scarfe’s heel turn, the system hadn’t even been shown to be broken yet! One could argue that for a show about a black protagonist (one with bulletproof skin, natch), corrupt police are a given, but we have Misty representing the police force. Misty Knight, arguably the best acted and most competent character on the show. 

I, for one, prefer the more campy, blaxploitation side of Luke Cage that intermittently came out tonight. It’s not going to be winning many Emmys, but it’s a whole lot more fun. The Wire-lite version comes with a lot of dark detective rooms, preachy lines, and terrible banter. Give me the rocket launchers and Wu Tang Clan any day.  

Now let’s talk plot for a second. This was a pretty standard heist plot and the minute that Bobby Fish floated that the barbershop would need money to stay afloat, we knew what was going to happen. It’s a little disappointing how straightforward everything proceeded, with Cottonmouth being manipulated into doing exactly what Cage expected. It’s also disappointing that Cage’s solution to money trouble is to steal Cottonmouth’s money. This is exactly the plot that we saw in the first two episodes, and the consequences are almost exactly the same. And this is after Cage’s whole chess speech about how he’s not going to hit Cottonmouth directly. I suppose he meant physically? I’m still unsure what to make of his plan.

The tension was also missing as we knew that Cottonmouth didn’t have anything that could stop Luke Cage. Without the possibility of defeat, I’m not sure why there was so much setup and attention paid to the layout of Crispus Attucks. I’m not even sure it qualifies as a heist plot considering that brute force was used to get the money. All that said, the fight was pretty thrilling. Luke Cage methodically pushing down the hallways with a car door or a pipe he just ripped out of the wall was a whole lot of fun (a pipe that luckily carried “tastefully lit mist” instead of say, sewage). His fighting style is the perfect personification of Pop’s “Always forward.”

As a whole, this episode was alternately a little dreary and a whole lot of fun. We are only three episodes in, so there is plenty of time for Luke Cage to tinker with it’s formula and distill the perfect mix of issue-oriented TV and superhero shenanigans. The dialogue is slowly improving — I’m hoping the rest of the show will catch up. 



  • Can we talk about how spot on I was last week? Not only is Scarfe crooked, but Shade didn’t even show up! Batting a thousand, baby. Ten bucks Scarfe dies before the finale.  
  • Apologies for saying that Chico was dead. I should have known better, especially in a superhero show. 
  • Chico’s speech was a perfect personification of the tonal problems in this episode. For a moment, Chico sees himself as the hero that he always could have been. There is some weight to that. But the subpar acting followed by completely ludicrous murder make the entire scene laughable.
  • The conversation between Domingo and Cottonmouth was ridiculous, but I really enjoyed it. Unlike other Marvel villains, Cottonmouth is a very small fish in a very big pond. It’s interesting to see his ambition and caution fight it out. 
  • The whole Misty and Scarfe basketball back-and-forth was spot on. Especially the “Pistons?!?” from Frank Whaley. I think it’s their only dialogue that I’ve really enjoyed so far — and you can take that for the backhanded compliment that it is.
  • On the topic of conversations, we get more Cottonmouth and Mariah repetition. The next time they discuss power and money in broad stroke platitudes, I am taking that episode down a whole letter grade. You were warned, Luke Cage
  • Did like Alfre Woodard’s reaction to “Black Mariah”, though. As well as “That’s my shit to break!”
  • As briefly mentioned above, the hallway fight was great. Loved the human car-door burrito. The way he did the little kung-fu “come at me” with his fingers was very in line with both Wu Tang and blaxploitation as a whole. Great choices.
  • “Virginia Slim” is so good that I might have to refer to Scarfe as such in all future episodes. 

Photo Credit: Netflix/Marvel

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