“Is it ever okay to do the wrong thing for the right reason?” That line, spoken by Misty Knight (Simone Missick) in episode six, is the key to the excellent second season of Luke Cage. Every one of its major characters is playing a game without rules, a game to save the district of Harlem, and there’s no way to win by playing clean. The constant interest comes from watching how dirty they’re prepared to get.
After a strong start, largely focused on the very dodgy politics of a Harlem under the control of various high-class gangsters, the second half of Luke Cage’s first season lost its nerve and reverted to the comic book standard. It brought in a boring villain, Diamondback, with a super-suit, and became a mundane test of who can punch harder. The earlier moral chess was largely forgotten. Season 2 has realised its strengths lie in its complicated characters, not in superheroics, and is all the more successful for it.
Since we last saw him, Cage (Mike Colter) has become a huge celebrity. The public track him via an app. Everyone wants selfies. He is as famous as it gets, but he’s flat broke (helping the helpless doesn’t pay) and he can’t save everyone. Luke’s a plaster over Harlem’s problems, not a cure. He can’t really help Harlem unless he can bring down Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), whose fingerprints stain almost every crime in the neighbourhood. Cage is not the only one looking to bring Dillard to justice. John McIver, aka Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), has arrived in town with an old grudge to settle and some dark magic that could help him defeat Cage.
Most of Marvel’s superhero series suffer a mid-season sag. This season never succumbs to that.
The introduction of Bushmaster, who can match Cage punch for punch with the help of some herbal witchcraft, may sound like the show is heading back to Diamondback territory, but that’s not the case. Bushmaster isn’t really here to serve as an adversary to Cage, but to Dillard, who is as much a series lead as Cage. And thank God. You can never have too much Alfre Woodard. Mariah is the best kind of villain because she thinks she’s doing the right thing and doing what she has to do to achieve it. She’s building hospitals and safe homes for single mothers, but she’s selling guns, blackmailing officials and having people murdered to achieve it. If she’s only hurting bad people to help good people, is she really so wrong? Her family’s history of betraying others is what brings Bushmaster after her. He’s the only man she can’t negotiate with.
Most of Marvel’s superhero series suffer a mid-season sag, without enough plot to fill their episode quota. This season never succumbs to that because it’s not rooted in plot but character. There are episodes where little happens in terms of event, but characters deepen and crack, becoming less who they want to be and more who they have to be, even Luke. Luke Cage could now remove any superhero elements almost entirely and still function as a series. It’s become Game Of Thrones-esque in its battle for Harlem, and like that show, whoever claims the prize will do so with bloodied hands.