If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
For a full episode synopsis, grab a read of our Luke Cage #1.1: “Moment of Truth” episode guide.
Open on a barbershop in Harlem…
It’s the perfect setting and perfect introduction to the world and environment of Luke Cage. Long seen as a bastion of African-American life and culture, Pop’s hair cuttery represents an ideal of Harlem: a place to commune and share, a place to bond but also to put in a day’s honest work, a place to pay a little for one’s sins (swear jar) while gaining some growth and understanding of yourself, your world, and those around you. It’s not for nothing that the show takes the time to ingratiate us to this space.
Time is the most interesting thing about this opening episode of Marvel’s latest series in the Defenders line-up that finds a home on Netflix. What strikes one most about the series is its slow pace. That is far from a derogatory comment. To borrow some blaxploitation parlance — fitting given the origins of the comic and character that the series is based on — it’s slow like molasses, but it’s all the richer for it.
Though Daredevil certainly touched on the connection of Matt Murdock to his hometown neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, in contrast to Wilson Fisk’s own past in the Kitchen and the ways in which it informed both men, the Harlem of Luke Cage is truly as much a character and a mindset as an environment in the series. The first episode wants us to know and understand that importance because the struggles to come will very much be about Harlem’s soul.
It’s that soul that’s at stake when we’re introduced to Shameek and Chico, two youngsters who get caught up in all the mishegas of what it means to be part of young urban culture today. Bravado and violence are far too common, and the salacious pull of guns or money drives far too many actions. It’s a commentary on black and Latino youth, but it also serves as an inciting incident that calls to action (and responsibility) those adults around these kids and the roles they play as enabler and encourager for both good and bad.
That brings us the way of Cornell Stokes, a man raised in a life of crime who recognizes what trading in guns and money brings on the streets: power and pull. He’s not ashamed of it, though he certainly fashions himself more in the mold of the Italian crime dons we’ve come to know in popular culture. Influencers in their community, respected and revered as model citizens, hiding in plain view behind charitable giving. There is some disgust at his street thug past; he hates anyone to refer to him by his youthful nom de guerre Cottonmouth, both because it was a pejorative nickname given by family and other kids when he was younger but also because he wants to be more than the street gangster he once was.
Now, Stokes is owner of Harlem’s Paradise, a swinging club that gives the show an opportunity to feature real life R&B and hip hop artists, such as Raphael Saadiq, who guests in this first episode. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Choker spoke about just how important music was going to play a role in the series and that was understatement. The episode oozes with modern soul, and it’s a feel that harkens back to he ’70s and ’80s that inspired Luke Cage’s creation.
As club owner, Stokes is able to provide a plausible front to peddle weapons to other self-made family leaders like Domingo Colon. It also helps to mask the nefarious dealings propping up the community action initiatives of Stokes’ cousin, Mariah Dillard, who is an elected councilwoman for Harlem. Her plan is turn a community center named after African-American revolutionary Crispus Attucks into a thriving living, working, and arts space. To make that a reality, she’s fronted money to Stokes for the gun deal that Shameek and Chico break up with one of Stokes’ employees, Dante. This is all rich soilbed in which to plant story that draws everyone together in plausible fashion.
That includes Misty Knight, who spends the majority of the episode flirting with Luke Cage, who is filling in as a bartender at Stokes’ club instead of his usual gig as a dishwasher back in the kitchen. The two end up together in the most explicit sexual scene in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. It’s revealed late in the episode, though, that Misty is not one of Stokes’ women hanging around the club. She’s an organized crime detective trying to investigate Stokes’ arms dealing, and she gets roped into the murders of Dante and Shameek following the failed gun deal.
That gun deal also makes Stokes seem vulnerable to his supplier, a man known by everyone as Diamondback. Diamondback sends his lieutenant, Shades Alvarez, to work with Stokes to figure out what happened and to get both the money and the guns back. Stokes and Shades have history growing up on the streets together, but Shades and Luke also have history, having served together at the same prison. Seeing Shades spooks Luke into thinking his hiding in Harlem is blown and he has to run.
For as slow paced as the hour is, it manages to cover a lot of ground setting up the series, and Coker’s writing and Paul McGuigan’s assured direction give the whole series a confidence and a swagger that perfectly matches the material and matches the setting. The hour is as much to show how Harlem is alive as it is to introduce us to characters and to kick off plot. To show how its soul breathes and its heart beats.
They demonstrate this vibrant heartbeat to get the audience as invested in the community as Luke will become. What’s interesting is, unlike the comics, Luke isn’t from Harlem. He’s hiding out here, from his own past and five months removed from the recent events in Hell’s Kitchen seen on Jessica Jones. Pop, the barber whose shop Luke works at for one of his two jobs, knew Luke’s deceased wife Reva. So Luke is family by proxy, but he doesn’t have the same initial connection to Harlem. All of this adds together to make him an even more reluctant hero than he appeared to Jessica. The chance to breathe in Harlem helps to build that connection, and as much an audience surrogate, Luke becomes invested. Particularly after Pop guilts him into poking his nose into Dante’s death and to find Shameek and Chico, who ran with the money.
The turning point is his flashback to Reva, who appears to be a counselor of some sort in the prison Luke served. She underlines the importance of connection just as Luke wants desperately to run and disappear. Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man becomes a poignant visual touchstone to speak to Luke’s own story. Whereas Ellison’s narrator feels socially invisible, Luke is actively trying to make himself such, even though people in his life, like Jessica, like Pop, like Reva want him to use his gifts, his abilities for good. By episode’s end, Luke decides he can’t sit idly by, great power, great responsibility and such. It’s a wonderful popping of the cork on the episode that had been slowly building and percolating to that moment. It doesn’t disappoint, even more so in the way that the relationship between Luke and his landlord, Connie Lin, changes in that moment. She’s presented as a hard-nosed obstacle throughout the episode, demanding Luke’s late rent money or she’ll toss him out. Harassed by Stokes’ goons alongside her husband, she’s rendered emotionally bare and far more human. Even though the whole exchange over money seems [rightfully] awkward, it’s touching to see connection forged by fire in that moment.
It’s a touch that’s deftly held by such a wonderful cast. If anything, the episode presents what might be Marvel’s best realized cast of characters on the whole. And that says a lot given how strong both Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been with their casting. Each person feels note perfect and lived in, down to someone seen as briefly as Candace, the club server. The major parts are cast wonderfully, and the histories of all the characters live in the fantastic relationships already developed between the actors.
In particular, Mahershala Ali is a standout as Stokes. An actor I’ve personally enjoyed from back in his days as a regular on The 4400, as well as his time spent on House of Cards, Ali oozes charisma, which you can see in how easy it is that he charms all those around him. Yet, never once does he not feel dangerous. He also always feels in control, even when being chastised by his cousin, Mariah. His one unhinged moment, when he brutally beats the life from Shameek, gives just the kind of dark flavor needed to show what he is capable of but keeping in check, much like the moment in Daredevil where Fisk destroys one of the Russians and violently uses a car door to sever the man’s head. It’s fun to see Ali play so evil after really coming to know him on-screen as a straightforward, genuinely good presence. His work with Alfre Woodard, who brings her trademark gravitas and depth to a role that already seems shaded even in relatively uncomplicated scenes, is engaging and electric, speaking volumes about their family history without revealing much of their past to this point at all.
Theo Rossi and Frankie Faison also add tremendous color and atmosphere to their respective corners of Harlem. Shades’ presence already sets up an antagonistic relationship between Stokes and Diamondback that all but has to come to a head during the season. His past with Stokes feels informed in a way they never really have to delve into it. You feel from moment one that these two know each other, and you have to look forward to how their dance is going to play out. Meanwhile, Faison’s Pop is exactly the sort of community figure we need to root for. His own past is as checked as Luke’s, and even that of Stokes or Shades. He’s managed to turn his life around and he knows the importance of providing a haven for youth and what it can do to help them down the right paths. Played with that great twinkle in his eye that’s just natural for Faison, Pop embodies the community of love Harlem wants to be.
Beyond stunning, Simone Missick as Misty is brilliant casting. Every bit of her indignation and passion seems to come from a real life lived. The way she and Luke interact is engaging beyond their words, which get a little cheeky in their interaction. Her backstop to his natural ability to charm as he’s pouring drinks, while maintaining just that flicker of approval and humor to keep him involved, is intoxicating. All the while she’s playing the scene with her true focus on Stokes in the balcony. She’s got the mileage of a cop who has been around for a while, she’s got the wit and playfulness to be a stellar romantic foil to Luke, and she’s got a trove of backstory that we may never be let in on but that informs the way she approaches her work and her men. She’s phenomenal.
But the whole endeavor hinges on Mike Colter as the title character. We got to see how good he was in the role on Jessica Jones, but he really does shine as the star here. It’s not just that the camera likes to look at him, or that his presence on screen is solid and foundational in a way that can’t be taught, it’s that the guy is likable. People like a hero you can root for without needing to get all schmaltzy about it, and Colter fits the bill. He’s got the charm, he’s got swagger falling off of him when he needs to — though he works to try to keep Luke’s at bay in this first hour — and of course he’s got the look and mass of a live-action superhero. Yet, much in the way kindness and care oozed from Christopher Reeve, Colter embodies a good guy in the role. It’s genuine and authentic without diminishing that Luke can put foot to ass when needed. Without the strong center of Colter, the show would not work. They got the right man for the job.
This first episode revels in atmosphere and environment and character. It covers a lot of ground in setting up the various plot threads, yet it never feels expositional. It’s got a firm grasp on social commentary while remembering to entertain. And it’s a gorgeous ride filled with terrific music. This bodes well for the rest of the series.