In the second installment of Luke Cage, Luke comes to the aid of Pop when he asks Luke to find Chico before Cottonmouth does. However when the code of the streets is violated, the tragic outcome forces Luke into more aggressive action.
The episode opens on Luke standing outside the Crispus Attucks housing project where he is held at gunpoint. As the episode flashes back, we see that Luke is wavering in his conviction after taking on some of Cottonmouth’s henchmen at Genghis Connie’s restaurant. Harlem is his adopted home, and he doesn’t know much about the factions that run it. Pops fills him in on Cottonmouth and councilwoman Mariah Dillard. They are cousins whose grandmother, Mama Mabel, owned the club Cottonmouth now runs and is described by Pops as “the devil’s ex-wife”. Together they run Harlem both in the political realm and it’s seedy underbelly.
After Cottonmouth comes to Pop’s Barber Shop for a shave, Pops asks Luke to find Chico before Cottonmouth’s men have a chance. Luke is able to quickly track down Chico, but is rebuffed when he tries to get Chico to come back to Pop’s shop with him. However, Chico eventually does return to Pop’s shop for safe haven. When he does, Pop asks Luke to send a message to Cottonmouth. He wants to set up a parlay for Chico. Luke does so and is given Cottonmouth’s word that he will not act until he meets with Pop face to face at the barber shop. Unfortunately, one of Cottonmouth’s men, Tote, has hired a spy to stake out Pop’s Barber Shop and gets word the Chico is there. Tote asks Cottonmouth for permission to act, and when he is met with little resistance, Tote goes into action. He guns down Pop’s Barber Shop, injuring Chico and killing Pop. Only Luke and the boy he shields are left unharmed, leaving Luke in a rage. When Tote tells Cottonmouth what he did, expecting praise for his executive decision making, Cottonmouth is furious over the death of Pop and instead rewards Tote by throwing him off the roof.
The episode ends where it began, with Luke outside the Cripsus Attucks building with a gun pointed to his head. With his mindset now in context, the audience gets to see as Luke schools the young man holding him at gunpoint on the use of the “N” word, the disrespect of doing something such a thing across from a building named for Crispus Attucs, and what it means to be a hero. He grabs the boys gun and shoots himself in the stomach. Seeing him completely unharmed, the boy runs off and Luke looks on, seemingly more resolved to step up and be a hero himself.
I felt that this was a very good step p to the pilot episode in that it cemented Luke’s resolve to become the hero or Harlem. I was initially confused that after the events of the first episode, that Luke Cage would be so hesitant to act. However, the episode gave the audience some great background on Pop and his connection to the Harlem community, to Cottonmouth, to Mariah Dillard, to Chico, and to Detective Misty Knight.
Although in my summary of the episodes events, I used the Luke Cage through line, as a viewer I found the secondary stories of Misty night and Cottonmouth and Councilwoman Mariah far more interesting. This is probably because the ‘reluctant hero’ story arc that Luke goes through is something that I as a viewer have seen before; including Marvel’s own property Jessica Jones last year. Subsequently, I found the characters Misty Knight, Cottonmouth, and Mariah far more refreshing.
To begin with, Detective Misty Knight was first introduced to the viewers as a woman that Luke meets while bartending in the first episode. They have a one night stand and is then revealed to be a detective investigating the case of the gun heist. In the second episode her true character seems to emerge. Misty is very much a part of the community, unlike Luke, and feels both a kinship and a responsibility to it. Her abilities of detection are presented to the viewer in an intriguing way, where she almost literally sees the events unfolding around her as she examines the crime scene folders. The result is that the ‘average detective’ Misty Knight is given an almost superhero quality. Enough, at least, to contend with Luke Cage.
Cottonmouth, on the other hand, is villainous yes, but also completely out of his league. I found myself feeling bad for him. Even though I knew that this was meant to be our ‘big bad’ for the season, the fact that everything seemed to be going wrong – from the botched gun trade, to Mariah spurning his help, to Tote killing Pop. Especially in that moment. When Tote justifies his actions and we see the look on Cottonmouth’s face when he realizes that Pop is dead, my heart actually went out to him. He is a villain, yes, but a villain with a code and a sense of history. His anger and confliction over the death of Pop by one of his own men cements him as a complex and almost tragic character in my mind. I clapped when he yoked Tote up and threw him off the roof. The same goes for his cousin Mariah Dillard. Although she is complicit in is criminal behavior and extortion practices, I believed her when she speaks about the importance of Harlem and it’s history.
They are both complex and deeply flawed characters, which make them intriguing tools for storytelling. By comparison, Luke’s story arc felt stale to me personally. To be honest, I saw Pop’s death coming a mile a way. From the moment he called the barber shop, Switzerland, and the show took the time to give us a flashback of Pop’s youth as a delinquent with Chico’s father, I heard his death knell tolling. I actually found Luke and Pop’s lack of action a bit aggravating. Yet, their decision to focus more on backstory and world building allowed the other characters like Mist, Cottonmouth, and Dillard to shine.
I look forward to seeing more of what this show has to offer. Perhaps with Pop’s death, Luke will be prompted to take more aggressive action. I hope so, because a the moment, the antagonistic forces of this show are stealing the spotlight.