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TV Review: Luke Cage (Season 2)

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“Yo, I’m Luke Cage. You can’t burn me, you can’t blast me, and you definitely can’t break me. You wanna test me? Step up. I’m right here. I ain’t going nowhere. You know where to find me. I am Harlem. And Harlem is me.”

The second season of Netflix’s Marvel series, Luke Cage, follows the bulletproof hero as he navigates his home turf of Harlem following the events of The Defenders. In his sophomore solo outing, he deals with newfound fame while trying to bring down Mariah Dillard Stokes.

Meanwhile, Mariah is trying to go straight and leave the criminal world by selling her family’s gun business, but the arrival of John “Bushmaster” McIver, who takes over the Jamaican criminal gang in Brooklyn and wants revenge against the Stokes for his parents’ deaths, complicates this, whilst also providing Cage with a formidable new opponent

This season goes on to explore themes of family, how we represent ourselves, power and how Cage navigates his identity as both a man and a hero. Families born into and made are explored. Luke’s father, Reverend James Lucas, attempts to reconcile with Cage - who he’d rejected upon his arrest. Luke’s relationship with Claire collapses partly due to her request that he meets his father. The blossoming relationship of Iron Fist and Luke also continues to develop this season. 

In the case of the villains, Mariah first pushes against the Stoke family legacy by trying to go straight, until it all inevitably falls apart. Her relationship with Shades - which could have been normal if they’d succeeded in escaping the criminal life - instead ends with Shades cleaning his hands obsessively, ala Lady Macbeth, while “Black Mariah” Stokes does away with her milk of human kindness. Her daughter Tilda has her whole identity pulled out from under her, discovering that her father wasn’t the doctor hero she though, but instead her mother’s uncle. She turns her back on her mother when she becomes irredeemable, but makes choices that fulfil the Stoke family's grimy legacy. As Bushmaster’s aunt says, "peace in Harlem will only occur when the last Stokes dies…" And technically, there is one left - even if she goes by Johnson. 

Power is considered this season too. Luke finds he is both powerful and powerless while trying to battle those like Mariah. As a black man, he has dealt with a lack of social and political power in the US. Mariah meanwhile has “black power” through her wealth and influence as long as it lasts. The relationship of Danny Rand (Iron Fist) and Luke further explores race and class privilege. Pre-friendship in The Defenders, Luke told Rand his privilege meant he’d had “power the day he was born" while in this season he tells Danny that his fist is his really his smallest asset: “money is power…It’s what flows”. Rand eventually acknowledges that Luke is right and that he can use money in his fight unlike others. Its Luke’s feeling of powerlessness to stop acts like the Jamaican restaurant massacre with innocent deaths that make him “so tired” that makes him accept Mariah’s offer of the Harlem Paradise. He hopes to protect people with the new social and monetary power as strong as his bulletproof skin. 

Finally, Luke’s journey to define himself as hero and man predominate. He has battled misconceptions about himself all his life. He might be someone who runs towards sirens, but his journey to accept himself as hero and man follow a life where he has been defined by others. He comments that he is a black man who white people “have always been afraid of” and though he is now visible for his power. he still feels how they see him coming in stores and streets. He can’t hide himself behind a mask like Foggy suggests as he is “6’3”, black and bulletproof”. He has always been seen, stereotyped and judged and his powers cannot change these experiences. Luke tells Claire that he can harness these prejudiced assumptions about himself “for intimidation and fear”. His “Yo, I’m Luke Cage” video is an example of that and by speaking “the language of those” doing harm, Cage says he can beat them. His approach to heroism makes it clear why he accepts the nightclub. After so much bloodshed, he’ll become fluent in the harm-maker’s language. We are left to ask how the pressure defines him as hero and man as we close.  

Like last season, Season 2 comes with a perfect soundtrack, great locations and a sleek look. Shot on location in New York, the show inhabits real life Harlem and beyond bring them into Marvel’s universe. The creator of the show, Cheo Hodari Coker has mentioned that the musical landscape of the show is at the centre “of every decision” for the show. Last season, he had Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad score and soundtrack the series with every genre - from hip-hop and soul to classical music - and used the Harlem Paradise stage to feature black musical legends and upcoming stars. This process brought Harlem alive and in Season 2, the same aural treatment is done with Jamaican Brooklyn. Coker wanted to show “the entire diaspora of black music” alongside different cultures and uses this as a chance to.

The soundtrack is so central to the storytelling and production - such as when Stephen Marley’s Chase Dem plays when Bushmaster takes over the nightclub in Episode 7. This amazing reggae song cements their control and that Bushmaster’s enemies, whether hero or fellow criminals, are on the run. In Episode 12, the legendary rapped KRS-ONE plays his song, Love's Gonna Get'cha (Material Love) - which is deeply political, deeply brilliant and perfect for the scene. The end scene has a song written especially for the series which musically chronicles Luke’s journey and cements him in his new role. “The paying with your life” in the “King’s Paradise” signifies both Luke’s potential turn to a darker path for Season 3 and losing who he is as a man and hero in order to save Harlem. 

Mike Colter continues to provide a nuanced portrayal as Luke Cage. He is devoted to protecting his neighborhood, kind and will give mercy to his enemies when its warranted, but will speak his enemies’ language if it will help him stop them. He is angry at the injustices he sees and fights in different ways this season to stop them. He, as Coker notes, goes on a journey this season, finding that he needs to enter Paradise as its boss. Mustafa Shakir(John McIver/Bushmaster) is a far superior foil to him than Cottonmouth or Diamondback were last season. Both men have similar abilities, have lost a lot and wish to bring down Mariah, but they walk on different sides of the line regarding how.

The last performance of Reg E. Cathey as James Lucas is beautiful and a worthy send off for the actor whose words regarding what makes a man and hero end the season. The best performance though is Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard Stokes. Taking Mariah from a character attempting to be good bto a full on villain as she succumbs to the darkness and chooses to destroy Bushmaster’s family with glee. With two villains this season who surpass season one’s, we can only hope this continues to be the case for the future as Luke rules as King of Paradise.

Can Cage make Harlem a paradise? Can he be a King, Hero and Man or will he lose himself? How will he be defined? We will find out in Season 3 - but until then, we are left to ponder, following an outstanding second run.

Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix.

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