If there’s a primary artistic drawback to the binge-and-purge model of television that Netflix has adopted, in which it dumps an entire season on you on a Friday and essentially dares you to spend the bulk of your free time over the next few days tunneling through the rubble till you hit fresh air again, it’s how easy it is for simple, subtle, finely observed moments to get lost in the sweep of a larger storyline. Actually, no, that’s not quite it. In watching episodes 5-7 of Luke Cage, which take us from his emergence as a local celebrity to the unexpected death of his erstwhile nemesis Cottonmouth, strong bits of writing, acting, and filmmaking do indeed stand out. The problem is that in doing so, they reveal much of the workaday business of the series for the time-filling make-work it is.
So yeah, in the future, it might be nice if Luke’s writers could figure out something for him to do between big moments besides walk from one place to another place. Half the time nothing happens when he arrives — do we ever need another scene in which he shows up at Pop’s Barber Shop and has a vague conversation about the future with whoever’s in there with him? The pacing problems don’t stop with Luke’s beautiful bald head, either. As played by Rosario Dawson, nurse Claire Temple, a veteran of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, makes a welcome addition to Cage’s cast; Dawson brings a comfort and confidence to each of her scenes that make even her wonkiest speeches about the brave new world of superheroes sound spontaneous. But she spends an entire episode sitting around in her mom’s diner, during which time Luke manages to get in, like, seven separate fistfights with Cottonmouth’s goons, then deliver Pop’s eulogy. There’s a herky-jerky rhythm to how Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah deal with setbacks in this segment of the season as well; the gangster spends a ton of time in his office, staring at nothing in particular as the baleful visage of Biggie Smalls gazes down upon him, barking orders or playing the keyboard or having flashbacks seemingly at random. You can’t help but feel that you’d simply have seen way, way less of this kind of styrofoam-packing-peanut padding had the season been shorter — or felt like it was less of a chore to plow through if it had been doled out one episode at a time instead of all at once.
But that doesn’t stop this section of Luke’s first season from continuing to make the case for the series as one of the better live-action Marvel projects to date. As was the case with Daredevil — first with Wilson Fisk and his confidants Wesley and Vanessa, then with rival vigilantes the Punisher and Elektra — and in stark contrast to Jessica Jones, Cage takes the time and effort to complicate its villains. This starts with Detective Scarfe, played with sleazeball desperation by Frank Whaley. Yes, he’s snide and insufferable every time we see him with his criminal associates. But as his partner Misty Knight explains at length during the manhunt for him when he goes missing after a gun deal gone bad with Cottonmouth, Scarfe really did look out for her, mentor her, and support her when no one else on the force would. What’s more, he lost his son to a gun accident caused by his own carelessness. In the end, he confesses his crimes and dies trying to flee to safety at One Police Plaza, where he plans to turn himself in and testify against Cottonmouth and his army of crooked cops. Dies in the arms of a sobbing Misty, whose repeated cries of “No!” echo those of Luke himself when Pop died in his arms just a couple episodes back. In this way, the show deliberately makes a connection between the man it’s held up as secular saint and a crooked murderer, implicitly arguing that life has some inherent value no matter what you’ve done with it.
Cottonmouth and Mariah are even more richly developed, as you’d expect. In a series of flashbacks, we get a glimpse of their upbringing in the home-slash-whorehouse of legendary Harlem crime boss Mama Mabel, their grandmother, and her partner Pistol Pete, their great-uncle. If you put aside the need to look at this as Secret Origin for a second, you’ll see a short story about an enmeshed family that’s complex and deeply sad. In an effort to keep their family upwardly mobile, Mabel pushes young Mariah forward in her studies, sending her to fancy schools out of town in hopes of her becoming a lawyer. She pointedly ignores, even ridicules, Mariah’s cousin Cornell’s musical gifts, leaving Uncle Pete to be his advocate in the family — taking him to piano lessons, thinking aloud about sending him to Juilliard, and so on.
Yet at the same time, both adults routinely expose the kids to violence, or abuse them directly. Mabel forces Cornell to participate in the family business, ordering him to beat people who displease her when she’s not hitting him for the same reason. There’s a stunning shot of her clasping his bloody hands in her own when he returns from an assault to start playing the piano that carries with it a short, unhappy lifetime of tainted love. But Mabel’s ultimate act of conditioning is when she makes Cornell kill Pete himself, ostensibly for going against her wishes and getting their mob involved in drug trafficking, but just as likely for his sexual abuse of Mariah. The boarding schools, Mariah argues later, were Mabel’s attempt to keep her out of her uncle’s reach. Thus the one person who truly had Cornell’s hopes and dreams in mind was busy shattering Mariah’s at the same time. The classical elegance of Pete’s murder scene — he’s shot in the backyard in the gray-blue glow of a New York night, resplendent in a fancy suit, standing dead center in the frame — is belied by the horrific tangle of love and hate left in his wake.
It’s this, and not Luke Cage at all, that prove to be Cottonmouth’s undoing. During one of their many back-and-forths (like I said, you get a lot of the same kind of scenes over and over), Cottonmouth and Mariah really have it out about who’s in charge, who stands to lose the most, what aspect of their joint venture really matters, and so on. With both of their tempers strained to the breaking point (Cottonmouth dodged all the charges that Scarfe’s ledger enabled Knight to bring against him, but he’s still obsessed with getting payback against Luke; Mariah’s connections to her criminal cousin have led her party chairwoman to demand she step down from the city council), they go back to where it all began — their fucked-up childhoods. After an episode spent humanizing him, Cottonmouth does something truly ugly: He tells Mariah she flirted with Uncle Pete, that she “wanted it.” At that, Mariah snaps. She hits her cousin in the head with a bottle, knocks him through that big round porthole window to the club floor below, then caves his chest in with a mic stand, screaming “I didn’t want it!” the entire time. Watching actor Mahershala Ali’s half-faked, half-real bravado as Cottonmouth crumble as he realizes he’s dying, watching Alfre Woodard’s ambition and composure as Mariah evaporate in the face of her greatest trauma…this is challenging stuff for any show, let alone a superhero series. To paraphrase Jidenna, who begins this stretch of episodes with a performance on the stage of Cottonmouth’s nightclub, the chief is dead — long live the chief.