Who represents Harlem’s soul? Is it native-born Cottonmouth, who sees Harlem as a Darwinian playground that creates the best of black culture through violence? Or is it newcomer Luke Cage with his unstoppable forward momentum, a man who sees Harlem as a community that must be protected so that all may flourish?
Cottonmouth harkens back to an old-school version of Harlem and respect that he grew up with. And while he revels in control, money and power, Cottonmouth truly believes that he is preserving the soul of Harlem. Even though he needs the money, he recoils at the thought of selling off his grandmother’s brownstone or Harlem’s Paradise. As he says late in the episode, “This place is my reputation. My blood. My legacy.”
Cottonmouth is out to destroy Luke Cage because he threatens that legacy. It’s not so much the money, but that Cage represents foreign forces interfering with what makes Harlem special. Early on, Cottonmouth kills a man in cold blood for suggesting that Harlem could be divided between Cage and Cottonmouth. The killing is a power play, sure, but it’s deeper than that. Cottonmouth believes his presence and his legacy to be the soul of Harlem — you can’t cut a soul in half anymore than Solomon could an infant.
To recoup his losses and teach Harlem a lesson about real power, Cottonmouth squeezes the neighborhood harder than ever. Shades warns Cottonmouth that this makes him look panicked and weak, which it does, but Shades doesn’t understand that nothing could be more dangerous than letting Harlem see Cage as an alternative.
All of this leads to Cage taking up the fight against Cottonmouth. As mentioned last episode, Cage doesn’t really do much besides react to others’ moves. One exception to that rule is when Cage comes through the doors of Harlem’s Paradise to confront Cottonmouth head on. Not much comes of the moment, but it’s all worth it just to see the rage that dances across Mahershala Ali's face when he sees Cage physically invade his club, his legacy, his Harlem.
Almost every scene in this episode is related in some way to the dual threads of Harlem and legacies. Aisha is upset that Cottonmouth’s henchman broke into her store, but she’s more upset that they took away her father’s pin that represented a better time. Later Aisha’s father has a long talk with Luke Cage about what Harlem used to be and how Luke’s name is popping up as a symbol of a new kind of Harlem. Cottonmouth wants the Judas bullet to kill Cage but is unwilling to let Diamondback have any part of Harlem.
All of this leads up to the climactic funeral for Pop who himself is a mixed legacy of Harlem. Cottonmouth remembers Henry Hunter as “Pop”, who got his name from his fists. He remembers how violence is intrinsic to Harlem and how violence is what solved Pop’s murder. Finally, he tells the crowd “I promise you, I stay true to what we have right here. Because that’s what Pop would’ve wanted.”
Cage, on the other side, stands for the little people of Harlem, the ones getting squeezed by Cottonmouth and, before him, Pop himself. He talks about how Pop changed, how he didn’t even like cursing. Once again, instead of Cottonmouth’s braggadocio and fast money, he says that Pop believed, “These kids need to see a man go to work every day and to be in the presence of men in uniform - putting in work.”
This was my favorite episode of Luke Cage by far. That being said, there were a few missteps, the main one being that we don’t really know Harlem very well with Pop gone. Instead of actually exploring the neighborhood in past episodes, we’ve mostly been treated to lots of broad conversations between Cottonmouth and Mariah or Luke and Pop about Harlem. This is largely what I was complaining about in past reviews. It’s not that the episodes were slow, but they were repetitive and didn’t actually let us explore and understand the world.
Therefore, “Just To Get A Rep” has the tough task of introducing a bunch of new characters and making us instantly care about them enough for Cage to step up and protect them. I would argue that the episode mostly fails this test. I found Aisha irritating in the extreme and utterly incompetent. Why wouldn’t she call the police? And, to use a (pretty bad) analogy, if my brother were to punch me in this face and tell me to take it up with my mother, I wouldn’t be angry at my mother, I’d be angry at him. Why is Aisha so angry at Cage? All he did was try to stop the guy who extorted her every day.
And it’s not just Aisha’s actions, it’s how the show introduces her. One of the most important rules in storytelling is “show don’t tell”. Here, Aisha just disgorges a bunch of backstory about her father every other line, trying to make us care, without showing us why we should. At one point in the episode, some random woman walks up and gives an entire six line speech about Aisha and how tough this is for her. Don’t tell us, Luke Cage, show us. The lack of world-building really weakens this episode and the overall message.
That major weakness aside, this was a good hour of television. The eulogies in particular were the best writing the show has done. I also want to mention how good Simone Missick was throughout the episode. Her reactions shots were perfect and her character was well used in the final confrontation with Luke. Because as much as I’ve discussed the competing powers of Cottonmouth and Cage, Misty Knight provides a third way. Not violence, which is what Cottonmouth and Luke, for all his pretty notions about who should be receiving it, are offering, but law and order.
A strong, focused hour with good lines, good music, and good themes. This is the Luke Cage I want to see. And while this felt like the penultimate episode of the season in many ways, I hope that the series can continue this kind of storytelling.
- That’s real life Dapper Dan who provides a suit for Luke! There was literally no reason for why Luke would wear a suit all episode, much less to several gun fights, but who cares: Colter looked good. Also, all those bullet-holes were neatly covered up by his sport-coat, so that was kind of sweet of the henchman.
- Speaking of sweet, maybe my favorite moment of this episode was when Shades and Cottonmouth watched the Judas bullet explode. The childlike glee on both of their faces was, frankly, adorable.
- Love how Shades is slowly becoming the only sane character in this show. His patient explanation for why Cottonmouth is being an idiot and his quiet sigh right before Cottonmouth shoots an underling are both fantastic.
- Worth noting that Aisha’s father undercuts Cottonmouth’s notions of brutal violence and control as being standard back in the day. Claims things are actually worse now. Also, if that man stops drinking after one throwaway line from Luke Cage, I am going to chuck something at the screen. Really, that’s your big moment of revelation?
- Forgot to mention that Rosario Dawson also showed up in this episode. She had a well-written conversation that was from another show entirely. I like her. She’s pretty.
- Luke finally explains why he doesn’t like the police! It’s a very standard vigilante answer (the law takes too long, criminals get away etc.) and I’m surprised they didn’t tie in his prison sentence to this explanation, but at least it’s something.
- Great final shot of the barber shop. Detective Misty Knight standing outside may have great ideas about law and order, but it’s Cage who is getting the lights turned back on.
Photo Credit: Netflix/Marvel