The Dead Don't Die
A leisurely film about the end of the world, with flesh-eating and lots of jokes and a few moments of eerie beauty.
The second season of “Luke Cage” walks a familiar path. That path isn’t just the streets of Harlem, though they’re as much a part of the show as ever—that tired old chestnut about the city as a character definitely applies. Instead, in his second at-bat, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker revisits many of the same wells that “Luke Cage” frequented in season one. For another series, that might seem like a complaint. For this show, and this season, however, it’s acknowledging a bit of a breakthrough. Coker and company identified what worked in that first season and ran with those things, making “Luke Cage” the only Netflix Marvel series to easily top its first season with its second. The first was uneven, but promising. This one is stronger, faster, and infinitely more compelling—all things it has in common with its hero.
That would be Luke Cage himself, of course (Mike Colter), the once-reviled, now-adored Hero of Harlem whose (mostly) bulletproof skin and super strength have helped him save lives and brought him almost nothing but trouble. As the season begins, though, things are looking up for the former Carl Lucas. He’s asked to take selfies with kids everywhere, spending time strategizing drug busts in the newly restored Pop’s with Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), and spending long, leisurely meals chatting about life, love, and superpowers with paramour Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). But soon Luke’s quest to clear the streets of a strain of heroin bearing his name brings him back to the doorstep of Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who aims, with the help of Shades (Theo Rossi), to sell off the last of her cousin’s dirty business, do some insider trading, and go legit. Very little, of course, goes to plan.
Some of the havoc that ensues comes from one of the oldest, purest forms of making-shit-way-more-complicated: family ties. Much of this terrific season of “Luke Cage” concerns itself with family—the families you’re born with and those you choose, the damage you can bury and the damage you can’t, the importance of family history and the power of the future; the complexities of those histories, relationships, and choices. It’s there in Luke’s relationship with his father (the late Reg E. Cathey in his final, excellent performance) and Misty’s (the predictably terrific Simone Missick) connection to the police force. It’s in Mariah’s ongoing quest to both seize power and keep her name clean, as she conquers with Shades and reconnects with estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis). And it’s there with Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir, pictured above), a new villain whose drive to embrace what he believes to be his destiny—his “birthright”—makes him an idea foil, not just for Luke, but for Mariah as well.
Of all the great ground that “Luke Cage” revisits in season two, it’s this triangular structure that’s perhaps best. With the death of Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), the first season began to stumble a bit, spinning its wheels and turning to some plot devices that felt more than a bit creaky—the three-way tug-of-war between Luke, Mariah, and Cornell was compelling stuff, and it was never topped. It seems as though Coker and company learned the best possible lesson from that, which was to make sure they had three gripping figures, with needs and desires that were sometimes opposed and sometimes aligned. Then they let them loose in this playground and allowed chaos and tension to ebb and flow.
That’s possible because all three performances are, frankly, electric. In his earlier appearances in the Marvel TV Universe, Mike Colter wasn’t always the most engaging performer. Charming, absolutely; endearing, to be sure. But the heavy-hitting stuff didn’t always land in the way one might hope. That’s no longer the case. Colter’s turn this season now feels right at home in conversation with the performances of Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), David Tennant (Kilgrave), and Jon Bernthal (Frank Castle). There’s thought, empathy, restraint and the lack of it, a cunning sense of timing and an underlying, ever-present bite. As Luke struggles with anger, remorse, shame, and ego, Colter draws you further and further in; as a result, when the season hits its inevitable Netflix slump (much less pronounced here than in perhaps any but the first season of “Jessica Jones”), it’s easy to stay wholly committed to the narrative, even if the mind wanders just a bit.
Newcomer Shakir is equally good, a figure of menace who crackles with intelligence, but if this season has an MVP (and it does), it’s Woodard, and Black Mariah. Here’s another place where “Luke Cage” took notes on what worked and went all-in on those things: Mariah is always, always more than one thing at once. She reconnects with her daughter for political expediency, but her longing and and joy at the reunion are sincere. She proudly trumpets her role as a nurturer for her community, takes genuine pride in it, all while looking clear-eyed at the damage she has done, and continues to do. She’s regularly a mix of rage and sorrow, flint and steel, fear and fury, love and its opposite. The ice in her blood that Shades identifies in her first, harrowing killing creeps out in ever greater quantities, but even as she marches toward a new life—as a crime lord, a legitimate philanthropist, or both—she remains a study in contradiction, brought to vibrant, frightening, and often playful life by Woodard.
There are other outstanding performances—Missick, as mentioned above, remains a standout among standouts, and Rossi’s Shades has far more to do in this season than the last—but they all shine the brighter because they’re so well-served by the crop of directors and writers that bring this season to life. That word playful applies here as well, a strange thing to say about a series with so much acid tucked into its cheek, but “Luke Cage” has perfected the level of self-referential winking needed to add a sense of fun to some truly dark shit. This is especially true of many of the combat sequences, as Luke squishes guns, chucks giant tires, holds people high over his head with a single hand, and even chucks one unlucky protectee from one rooftop to another, much higher rooftop. This is a superhero show that enjoys being a superhero show, and knows it doesn’t have to sacrifice substance to gain style.
And my oh my, is there plenty of style. As with the first season, the score, by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, is perhaps the show’s most invaluable asset; the recurring musical guests are used even better here, particularly in its use of reggae and reggae-inspired music, which might play as clichéd in less savvy hands. The colors are rich, the costuming often surprising, and the excellent cinematography makes nearly everyone seem to glow from within (even a bionic arm has a certain appealing lustre). But all the style in the world couldn’t make up for lackluster writing, and luckily, this season has little that could be described as such. By honing in on what made the first season exciting, “Luke Cage” far surpasses that initial outing. Luke emerged from that bath in season one tougher, and more formidable. It seems as though his series did, too.
Full series watched for review.
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