“Step In The Arena” is an origin story. In the flashbacks that make up this episode, Carl Lucas is locked up for a crime that he didn’t commit. He is assaulted by those in authority, forced to fight other prisoners in a ring, and experimented on against his will. But one thing that Cage doesn’t really do, even after he takes a new name, is change.
It’s a shame we didn’t see Lucas as a cop, because Lucas enters the prison effectively broken. He asserts that he is innocent but doesn’t seem interested in proving it or fighting his charges. When fellow inmate Squabbles presses him, Lucas says he pretty much deserved prison anyways. He is a man resigned to his fate, alone in the world. When the warden instructs his lackeys to test his mettle, Lucas fights them off, yelling, “I’m just trying to survive”. Lucas doesn’t chase after them. He doesn’t even get particularly angry. He endures.
All of this to say something the series has been saying since the beginning: Luke Cage is not a hero, he is a survivor.
In my review of the pilot, I wrote the following: “We know that Cage is going to embrace his powers at some point so the tension isn’t there.” This episode made me reevaluate the earlier entries. Perhaps Luke Cage wants to examine a man who truly doesn’t want to be a hero, who just wants to be left alone. He was provoked into attacking Cottonmouth after Cottonmouth shot Pops, but that’s just the thing: he was provoked. The same goes for Lucas in this episode. He fights and fights and fights, uncaring about the morality of it, until Warden Rackham provokes him by threatening Reva.
This is a really interesting character choice. It’s also nearly impossible to pull off for a TV series. Reactionary characters aren’t all that endearing. We like our characters to have principles of some kind, even if those principles are wrong or misguided. We like them to be proactive, even if we disagree with their methods or goals. Characters who are dependent on the actions of those around them are deadweight.
It’s also just plain difficult to film one man’s internal struggle over and over again, week after week, and make it watchable. And yet that’s what Luke Cage has been so far. Cage trying week after week to rouse himself to fight. It could work in a book, a comic book, or even a short film — but for TV, you need action and variety. On many levels, Luke Cage just wants to take his ball and go home. I actually kind of love that idea, but how the hell do you film it?
“Step In The Arena” doesn’t provide many answers, but I still found it a very interesting episode. The plot made sense on paper, but the execution was uneven. The tone varied wildly from scene to scene, to the extent that I thought perhaps the episode was edited slightly out of order. The pacing was also completely out of whack, with the plot randomly stopping for jokes or flashing to Scarfe doing something villainous.
For example, Questlove Carl Lucas and inmate Squabbles joke about Jet Li and Bruce Lee, but this is in-between brutal fights between inmates, set up for the enjoyment of the white Warden. The prison is literally making money off his body and later they experiment on him, both situations which have disturbingly real precedents in history. These switches between blaxploitation film and gloomy self-reflection caused a lot of tonal whiplash.
Speaking of which, social commentary was practically nonexistent this episode. The minute that the über Aryan Warden Rackham practically goose-stepped into the room, it was hard to place anything that came later in a recognizable reality. The Warden was so cartoonishly villainous that any chance of nuance and discussion was thrown right out the window. However, that isn’t exactly a bad thing. It certainly allowed a lot of scenery chewing — much needed in the absence of Mahershala Ali. It also allowed the show to focus on telling a complete, focused story.
I actually enjoyed the Warden's ridiculousness more than the other big character introduced in this episode. Reva did not come off very well to me in “Step In The Arena”. We are introduced to her as the prison psychologist, and she immediately declares (to a room full of criminals) that Carl Lucas is an ex-cop. Later, she professes no knowledge of the underground fighting ring or experimentation by the doctors. I don’t want to slam Reva too hard, but I don’t know how we can reconcile either of these instances with the smart, insightful psychologist that the show wants her to be. I also just didn’t quite feel the chemistry between Colter and Parisa Fitz-Henley.
But as I mentioned above, I thought the general story ideas worked out alright. The show did a good job setting up the thematic parallels between the present day and the flashbacks, with Cage escaping the cages that others had made for him. Unlike the previous episodes, the themes of freedom and escape come from the actual plot of the episode and the character of Luke Cage. Instead of name-dropping a black figure or leveraging a historically black location (like Crispus Attucks) to start dialogue, “Step In The Arena” allows it to arise organically from the situation.
The last scene with Carl Lucas changing his name to Luke Cage also did a good job wrapping up these larger issues in a relatable human package. Names have a special power on this show. Whether it is Cottonmouth demanding to be called Mr. Stokes, Mariah losing it on being called Black Mariah, or even Squabbles refusing to be called his real name, identity is something to be carved out through struggle in Luke Cage. “Step In The Arena” had Luke really earn his new identity in a way that felt truthful.
There was a lot to get through in this episode. I haven’t even mentioned the experiment that gave Lucas his powers (which I enjoyed both symbolically and in simpler mad-scientist/comic book craziness ways) or the events outside of the flashbacks. But this episode is about Luke’s fundamental character — how he chooses to define himself. Early in the episode, Squabbles tells Lucas “strength has its limits” and “Step In The Arena” makes that clear. You need to be strong, but you also need to care enough to fight.
- Original costume gags always get me. This one definitely didn’t disappoint.
- I mentioned in an earlier episode that the kung fu blaxploitation elements appeal to me. Here we learn that Luke literally learned to fight from kung fu flicks.
- You know, I made fun of you a lot, but I missed your sweet face Shades. Glad to see you back. And actually doing things!
- Lots of Easter Eggs referencing the larger Marvel Universe. Most notably, Reva’s thumb drive plays a pivotal role in Jessica Jones.
Photo Credit: Netflix/Marvel