If Luke Cage Season 2 were an album I’d talk about how its band avoided the sophomore slump. I’d talk about how the band’s lead singer was more charismatic, its technical skill more impressive, and how the band’s concept was more thorough than their debut.
Luke Cage is a television show, but these same characteristics can still apply to its second season. I can talk about how the show’s lead actor is more settled in his role, it’s writing more cohesive overall, and how the direction of the series has improved since its first outing.
Luke Cage Season 2 isn’t an album, but like one a certain musicality pierces its soul even with its titular character’s unbreakable skin. Because of this, for me, it only makes sense to attempt talk about it in the way it attempts to talk to its audience – with music.
1. “King Kunta” — Kendrick Lamar
Throughout “King Kunta” Kendrick Lamar presents himself with the swagger of James Brown, and the confidence of a 70s blaxploitation protagonist. Like Lamar finds himself at the top of the rap game, Luke Cage finds himself at a high point in his heroic career at the start of this season.
Feelin’ himself at having defeated his villainous brother Diamondback last season, and finding out his skin is even stronger than before, Luke pushes himself to the limits to deal with the threats facing Harlem.
Breaking Down The Unbreakable
“Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’/ King Kunta, everybody wanna cut the legs off him/ Kunta, black man taking no losses, oh yeah”
Many refer to Luke Cage as “The Hero of Harlem,” and with this title comes many people wanting a piece of him. This can be physically through violence, as in the case of the villains this season, or a piece of him and his celebrity, such as with the average citizens of Harlem. Whether at the top as a hero or as a music artist there are always people wanting to take apart from you for their personal gain and/or satisfaction.
In the analysis of “King Kunta” on the lyric database Genius, it states, “’King Kunta’ is an oxymoron — Kendrick’s simultaneously oppressed like a slave and dominant like a king. In other words: “a wealthy black man in America.”
A More Compelling Protagonist
During his second season, Luke Cage feels like he faces a similar discrepancy which takes him on an intriguing path as a hero. In an episode titled “Wig Out” Luke talks about how a discrepancy he faces as a black man informs a discrepancy, he faces as a hero.
“Baby, a black man only has two choices in this world. You can either lean into the fear and be the nigga that people already think you are, or you can play the big, docile house cat with a smile.”
As a hero, and as a black man, Luke feels like he has two options. One. Be the type of hero that plays by the rules, which leaves your hands clean, but keeps a river of crime flowing. Two. Be the type of hero that uses fear, intimidation, and brutality, which dirties your hands, but potentially draws the water to a halt.
This conflict about the type of hero Luke Cage wants to be delivers a vastly more interesting character than he was in the first season of the show. In the previous season Luke was a bulletproof boy scout, and though going on a hero’s journey, he didn’t really have any quirks or perspectives that made him particularly complex.
Here, Luke faces a fascinating internal struggle that adds moral stakes to the protagonist; his quest for justice and peace in Harlem could not only change him as a hero but as a man.
This much-needed depth to Luke Cage is a welcome one, as it gives actor Mike Colter a lot more variety to play with for his performance. While Colter was great as the character in his debut in Jessica Jones, there were times in the first season of his own show where he could be one-note which, I think, was in part due to the writing.
Including last year’s The Defenders, Colter has comfortably settled into the role and impressively showcases a dramatic rage this season. Whether portraying Luke as a confident man of the people, in arguments and discussions with those close to him, or scenes of intense intimidation with criminals, Colter always has a sense of ease and naturalism.
For example, in the final moments of the episode, this season titled “Straighten It Out” the camera slowly zooms in on Luke Cage’s face. A few feet from him a man lays on the remains of a broken table he has been slammed through. His face is bloodied and bused from Luke’s blows. A few feet from this man, a woman clutches her son in fear – the son is crying.
Luke’s face is one of creeping self-doubt. While he did stop the man from physically abusing the woman and her son, did he go too far? Was the brutality executed on the man out of circumstance? Or due to pent-up anger from recent run-ins with his estranged father, James Lucas? Colter is able to get this across without words, in just a few moments, with just an intimate shot on his face.
“Stuck a flag in my city, everybody’s screamin’ ‘Compton!'”
Throughout Kendrick Lamar’s various albums he’s talked about his experience of growing up in Compton, California; Compton is very much a part of his identity as an artist. Luke Cage has a similar sense of identity with Harlem, New York as a hero.
This is one of the aspects that makes Luke Cage as a superhero show unique; you really get a sense of place with Harlem and the people that live in it. In the season, we see a scene of Luke Cage testing his powers in front of a Harlem crowd, and in the midst of a massive group of fans taking selfies.
His friend D.W. sells Luke Cage branded merchandise, and there’s a “Harlem’s Hero” app where people can tag Luke Cage sightings. “I am Harlem, and Harlem is me.” Luke Cage says in an episode, and because you get a sense of how Harlem interacts with Luke and vice versa, his statement rings true.
2. “Shook Ones, Pt. II” — Mobb Deep
In “Shook Ones, Pt. II” Mobb Deep takes the listener on a tour through a ruthless world. In this season of Luke Cage, there is not just one but two antagonists, each shown to be equally cold-blooded in their attempt to take Harlem over for themselves.
“To all the villains and a hundred dollar billers/ To real brothers who ain’t got no feelings”
To Old Rivals…
Making a return from the first season is Mariah Dillard played by actress Alfre Woodard; Mariah spends a part of the season trying to earn Harlem and its people’s trust in a way that she deems as legitimate, but in a series of escalating encounters with a new rival she shifts to a more mob boss-like mentality.
Woodard chews all of the scenery as a performer, and she’s particularly magnetic in scenes where her character has taken the mask of civility off, revealing a more menacing and calculating core.
In one instance during the season we see a seemly outmatched Mariah scheme to deal with a potential snitch; she handles this with the ease of an adult putting together a children’s puzzle; due to Woodard’s performance, Mariah always seems in command in whatever situation she finds herself in.
…& The New
In conflict with Mariah Dillard is John McIver, a mysterious figure from Jamaica who calls himself Bushmaster. Bushmaster is automatically fascinating to watch from the very first scene he appears in rocking a suit like a black 007 and having a quick and agile Capoeira-inspired fighting style. He gruesomely slashes a knife across a person’s face and clears a room of gun-toting goons with moves that resemble a b-boy or b-girl sliding around the dance floor.
Bushmaster isn’t just cool due to his actor Mustafa Shakir’s smooth and commanding presence, but due to the fact that he, like Mariah, has vulnerabilities that will make trying to take over Harlem a difficult journey. Bushmaster is invulnerable, similar to Luke Cage, but this invulnerability comes at a cost that can damage him physically and mentally in the long run.
Enemy Of My Enemy
“Your simple words just don’t move me: you’re minor, we’re major/ You’re all up in the game and don’t deserve to be a player”
What’s great about the two villains is how interconnected they are; in the previous season there were also two main villains but the way they were separately introduced made the show feel disjointed. Luke fought one then the other, and there were few links between the two.
In this season Bushmaster has a very personal reason for wanting Harlem, as well as wanting to take out Mariah Dillard. Luke Cage then has to deal with his two antagonist’s war against each other, which ends up putting Harlem’s citizens in the crossfire. Because of this, the writers have assembled a season that feels more cohesive as a whole and is thus much more satisfying.
Beats in the Beatdown
“Really, guys?” Luke Cage groans to a group of men guarding a drug den in Harlem and brandishing guns – they all know the bullets won’t hurt him. “Hey, he gotta know we tried, man,” the lead henchman sternly exclaims.
Luke quickly puts one finger up to say “one moment please,” turns on his headphones and then proceeds to clear out the room to “Shook Ones, Pt. II” with effortless force. This example from the show’s soundtrack, in one scene, is just one of the many integrations of quality music that it uses to a pitch-perfect degree.
Elsewhere, the original music from Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad feels Shaft-like and elevates the score in Luke Cage. With their contributions, some of the most mundane scenes seem above average.
As in season one, Mariah’s club, “Harlem’s Paradise,” also gives the show the opportunity to showcase various real-world musical guests — from blues singer Gary Clark Jr. to rapper Rakim.
The combination of an excellent soundtrack, score, and musical performances makes Luke Cage sonically standout in contemporary television today, and this season continues that quality for the show.
3. “Scenario” — A Tribe Called Quest ft. Leaders of the New School
“Scenario” feels like the hip-hop equivalent of a WWE tag-team match combined with a no holds barred super-powered throwdown. This isn’t just because the song brings together the members of two talented rap groups, but because its beat hits as hard as Luke Cage’s punches.
Similar to the explosive compatibility showcased with the various artists working together in the song, the character Luke Cage has a circle of people with whom he has close associations with.
“Yes, yes, y’all, (Yes, y’all!) Who got the vibe? It’s the Tribe, y’all (Tribe, y’all!) Real live, y’all (Live, y’all!)”
One of these people is Luke Cage’s father, James Lucas, played by actor Reg E. Cathey (who sadly passed away earlier this year). Cathey possesses a voice that’s booming and larger than life, which makes him not only believable as a reverend but as someone who could get at Luke with just this quality. When James says to Luke “Boy, I don’t care how bulletproof you are. I will break my foot off in your ass,” he truly feels like a parental figure laying down the law.
Cathey really fleshes out this character, successfully giving him multiple dimensions. He’s a reverend of fiery passion. Someone that can dish out spiritual wisdom with Titanic film references. A father who ultimately wants to reconnect with his son.
Pushing Luke Cage to reconnect with his father is Claire Temple, a nurse who specializes in working on people with super abilities. Claire only appears in a few episodes this season, but actress Rosario Dawson’s charm, dramatic chops, and chemistry with Colter makes the character have a crater-sized impact on the season despite limited screen time.
The writers this season have done a particularly fine job at giving what would be considered secondary or even tertiary characters moments that make them feel three-dimensional. Whether it’s Mariah’s right-hand man Shades or Shade’s partner in crime Comanche, everyone feels relevant to the story.
“Watch me wreck it from the jump street, meaning from the get-go”
A character that definitely doesn’t feel secondary or even tertiary is Misty Knight, a Harlem-based detective and close friend of Luke Cage, who’s played by actress Simone Missick. Just like the first season Missick oozes charisma in every scene she is in, and the writers have seemed to take advantage of this to where Misty now seems like a co-lead along with Luke.
Missick excels in everything from scenes of physical action to smaller character beats. In one impressive moment of acting, she shows her character’s ability to turn her emotions on and off like a switch during an emotionally taxing interrogation.
In this episode, titled “Can’t Front On Me,” director Everardo Gout has the camera stay on Missick in one long take as Misty goes from the interrogation room to the outside precinct office and back. Missick is incredibly nuanced in her performance here — breaking down as she leaves the room, stopping to recollect herself, then wiping away tears on the way back and becoming more straight-faced with each advancing step.
Luke Cage Season 2 Is A More Confident Sense Of Direction
“Heel up, wheel up, bring it back, come, rewind/ Powerful impact (Boom!) from the cannon!”
It’s this striking direction showcased in “Can’t Front On Me” by Gout that’s seen throughout the entire season. Whether it’s a scene filled with dialogue, a movement of the camera, or a well-executed action sequence, the direction always showcases the story in the best way possible.
In terms of the champion of action sequences from the season we’re again brought to a scene in “Can’t Front On Me,” as Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Shades work together to protect Mariah Dillard from Bushmaster in a small contained room.
The overall sequence works as a gratifying smackdown filled with individual clashes and mini-team ups complete with bone-crushing sound design, back-breaking choreography, and an increasingly destroyed environment.
4. “King’s Paradise” — Rakim
“He gon’ take on the whole hood in a hoodie/ No weapons and no cape on”
As with most albums, there are some elements that don’t necessarily work, and this season has a few hiccups in the form of pacing issues and minor character inconsistencies across the episodes.
However, like any rewarding follow-up of a band’s discography, Luke Cage Season 2 digs deeper; it pushes its titular hero in unexpected directions and crescendos in a finale that sets it apart from its peers making it a worthwhile experience.