Comic book nerds rejoice! The Luke Cage backstory episode has arrived and it is full of Easter eggs that I do not understand!
Episode 4, Step in the Arena, opens on Luke and his landlady Connie trapped beneath the rubble of her restaurant after being blown to smithereens by Cottonmouth and his rocket launcher. Connie’s leg is pinned beneath the concrete and Luke reveals himself so they can dig their way back to the surface.
The audience then gets to see a flashback of Luke being incarcerated at Seagate Prison. We learn that Luke is an ex-cop who was sent to Seagate, a privately owned prison in Georgia,
for reasons that have yet to be fully disclosed. Rackham, one of the prison’s many corrupt guards, immediately takes notice of Luke and sends Shades and another inmate to attack him in order to test his abilities. After successfully fending them off Rackham “invites” Luke to join his underground prison fight club. It’s much like the Mandingo fights you see in Django Unchained. But Luke just wants to keep his head down and do his time. Nevertheless, people do begin to seep in to Luke’s life including another inmate called Squabbles and his future wife, Reva – a prison counselor who heads group sessions.
Unfortunately, Rackham notices the connections Luke is making and uses them against him. He threatens to hurt Squabbles unless he fights. As time goes on, Luke begins to loose himself in the savagery of the fights, becoming a shadow of his former self. It is only his connection to Reva and Squabbles that keeps him from going over the edge. With some encouragement from Reva, Luke begins building evidence to take Rackham out. But, Rackham catches wind of his plans and takes action of his own. He has Squabbles killed and has Shades and Comanche beat Luke within an inch of his life. Reva comes rushing to Luke’s hospital room and begs the prison’s doctor to use some experimental treatment to heal him. Rackham finds out what the doctor is doing and decides he’d rather just kill Luke but his meddling with the healing bath causes it to malfunction, which gives Luke his powers.
Meanwhile, back in the present Luke digs his way out of the rubble while above, Misty and Scarf investigate the explosion above them. She quickly realizes that Cottonmouth is behind the explosion using street cameras but Scarf, newly revealed to be crooked, gets his hands on it first. As the scene flashes back in forth in time between the present and Luke’s past at Seagate, the story juxtaposes images of Luke punching his way out of the prison with present-day Luke Cage punching his way through the rubble with Connie.As soon as he breaks free, Luke swims to shore and makes contact with Reva.
The episode ends with Luke emerging spectacularly from the rubble in front of a slew of news cameras. When asked who he is he definitively answers for the first time, “My name is Luke Cage,” announcing himself to Harlem, to Cottonmouth, to the world, and to us.
Although I’m sure many comic book fans were excited to finally get the Luke Cage backstory and squealed in delight for the “Sweet Christmas” catch phrases and nods to the original Luke Cage costume, I personally felt less invested in this episode than I did in others. This is probably because, from a storytelling perspective, it felt very formulaic. The good man who goes to prison, tries to keep his head down but gets forced by the savagery of prison is saved when a beautiful woman (either a nurse of therapist) becomes drawn to the dangerous yet noble character and sees him for the human being he is, healing his wounded heart.
Also, the episode left me wondering more than it should have. See, I have been enjoying Luke Cage thus far and, honestly, I didn’t feel the backstory episode was really necessary. Instead of answering questions, I felt that the episode only posed new ones. For example, when Luke first sees Shades, he panics and we see flashes of him being beaten. In this episode we finally get to see exactly how he knows Shades and yet, nothing that happens in the episode seems worthy of such terror. He was simply a low level thug, which actually ruins a bit of the mystery surrounding Shades and makes him feel more like bit player. Was there a reason he was hyped up so much? Is there a reason he was called Shades even by the prison guards? Th episode also doesn’t tell us much about who Luke (or Carl Lucas as we learn by the end of the episode, is his real name) is or why he ended up in prison other than the fact that he’s innocent yet feels no need to fight against his wrongful imprisonment. This also feels like a bit of an overused trope. He is the physically strong, emotionally fragile, stoic, heroic, misunderstood black man that suffers with silent dignity as the establishment exploits him. This isn’t to say Luke is a bad character, I just find him less interesting than his seedier counterparts, like Cottonmouth and Mariah.
The episode also felt repetitive as far as character development and grinds story progression to a complete halt. Even as the episode ends and we have that great inter-cut between Luke punching his way out of Seagate and him punching out of the rubble, the episode ends with Luke demonstrating this strength for people to see and telling the reporters his name and it’s meant to feel like a big moment, yet we’ve seen this moment at least twice before at the end of the first and second episodes. This is the third time Luke has had a big, coming out as a superhero moment and it feels a bit repetitive.What this episode showed me was that Luke, like in the first two episodes, is a reluctant hero, content to keep his head down and “keep sweeping” along until he is forced into action, whether by Pops or by Reva. Luke is not explored to any deeper level and thus I find him wholly less interesting. As a result, I found the episode less interesting.
But hey, he wore the outfit! That should keep the comic nerds happy!