‘Luke Cage’ 1×08/09/10 Recap: Diamond in the Rough

As a new villain sets up shop, the dreaded Netflix Bloat Syndrome sets in

Erik LaRay as Willis Stryker in Luke Cage

Erik LaRay Harvey as Willis Stryker in Luke Cage Netflix

Erik LaRay Harvey is one of my favorite television actors of all time. As Dunn Purnsley, the silver-tongued, snake-eyed underling of Michael K. Williams’ crime-boss character Chalky White on , he took what could have been an exceedingly minor character and made him an absolutely mesmerizing presence every time he appeared on screen. Watching him slide from one side to another in the various gang wars that rocked Atlantic City was riveting, as was simply to him, since like many performers on that show he developed a voice that was a period-appropriate pleasure to listen to. Purnsley radiated the sense that he was more than the sum of his parts; when his bosses noticed this, so did you.Netflix Luke Cage (Mike Holter) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) in Luke Cage.[/caption]

Erik LaRay Harvey is one of my favorite television actors of all time. As Dunn Purnsley, the silver-tongued, snake-eyed underling of Michael K. Williams’ crime-boss character Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, he took what could have been an exceedingly minor character and made him an absolutely mesmerizing presence every time he appeared on screen. Watching him slide from one side to another in the various gang wars that rocked Atlantic City was riveting, as was simply listening to him, since like many performers on that show he developed a voice that was a period-appropriate pleasure to listen to. Purnsley radiated the sense that he was more than the sum of his parts; when his bosses noticed this, so did you.

Now he’s playing Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the prime mover of all of Luke Cage’s misfortunes and the show’s Big Bad, and yet he isn’t being given anything half as interesting to do.

See, in these three episodes (“Blowin’ Up the Spot,” “DWYCK,” and “Take It Personal”), Luke Cage has reached the point where overlong Marvel/Netflix series have a worrisome tendency to falter. Daredevil weathered the storm, but Jessica Jones quite simply ran out of story when it put its villain in a cage during this segment of the season, and never regained its footing. With Cottonmouth killed, it makes perfect sense for the power behind the throne to step out from the shadows and claim it for himself. But when that character is a comparatively one-dimensional mustache-twirler — quoting menacing passages from both the Bible and The Warriors, murdering crime bosses in the middle of a sit-down, telling his wary new associate Mariah Dillard that she’s “in the presence of Death” when she comes to his office, yadda yadda yadda — the results can’t help but suffer when compared to the complex character he’s replacing. Harvey’s still fun to watch (seriously, that guy’s eyes are reptilian) and he cuts an imposing figure. But with only a flimsy and, frankly, comic-booky origin story about being Luke’s secret brother bearing a lifelong grudge to complicate him, he’s frankly not worthy of the actor’s talent, or the viewer’s time.

And boy oh boy, does the time drag by. After getting shot by one of Diamondback’s alien-derived Judas bullets in the cliffhanger ending of episode seven, Luke spends the next three episodes staggering around trying to heal the damage. The operation orchestrated by nurse Claire Temple and Dr. Burstein, the prison doc whose experimental procedure gave Luke his powers, is needlessly split in half between episodes nine and ten. The storylines that run parallel to Luke’s injury and recovery — Mariah, Diamondback, Shades, and the rest of the bad guys sorting out their new working arrangements; Misty and her fellow cops running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to find Luke now that he’s been framed for multiple murders and caught on tape assaulting cops to stay out of prison — are just as unnecessarily drawn out.

Even the action sequences, tense though they are, feel forced. It’s clear now that the writers developed this “magic bullet” thing just so Luke could convincingly have a fistfight with Diamondback without caving the guy’s ribs in with the first punch. For his part, despite having devoted his life to destroying Luke, Diamondback sure does seem reluctant to fire multiple rounds, or aim for the head, or shoot again when Luke’s down, or do anything that would actually kill the person he wants to kill so badly. The show must go on, I guess!

Which is not to say that the material has gone entirely inert. This is too interesting a cast, too culturally compelling a milieu, and too effective a mash-up of the superhero and private-detective templates to be completely boring. Social commentary creeps in convincingly when Diamondback and Mariah collude to fan the public’s fears of superpowered people — especially black ones — running amok, then use that climate of fear to sell military-grade superweapons to police departments. Misty’s anxiety after losing a partner, getting in deep with a murder suspect, then being disarmed and nearly killed with her own weapon by Diamondback is handled thoughtfully during a long series of sympathetic scenes between her and an investigator for the force, sent in to ascertain her mental state after she roughs up Claire during an interrogation. Luke discovers that his beloved wife Reva (killed by a mind-controlled Jessica Jones at the psychopathic Killgrave’s behest in what now feels like one hell of a coincidence) was lying to him the whole time they were together about her involvement in the mostly fatal experiments the prison was conducting, and indeed was monitoring him during their therapy sessions for signs of weakness that could be exploited to push him into the program. This in turn creates a parallel with Misty, who like Luke was close to someone — Detective Scarfe, in her case — who was the opposite of what he seemed and had no idea whatsoever of the truth. And a cleverly constructed scene set in the abandoned church where Luke’s father worked as a pastor, in which present-day and flashback characters share the space and even interact like they might in a stage play, makes an infodump about Diamondback and Luke’s parents feel engaging rather than rote. With three more episodes to go, we’ll see if the overall show can regain that feeling.