Antagonists and Luke Cage


I’ve been working on the Nick thing, but the other night I took a break for dinner and decided to watch the first episode of Luke Cage, just to see what it was like. Full disclosure, I consumed the first Daredevil series in three days, but quit after the first episode of Jessica Jones (fantastic production but I just couldn’t face another damn rape back story) and the first two episodes of the second Daredevil (because it was boring). I fully expected a street vigilante to be a one-and-done experience because I don’t like vengeance/vigilante stories.

Seven episodes later . . .

The show hits it out of the park most of the time. I had a few quibbles in the beginning–there’s one character that reminded me of the Far Side’s “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal” because he might as well have had a target on his forehead and a red T-shirt that said “Born to Be Fridged.” I’m against fridging because I find vengeance a lousy motive. If your protagonist needs to have somebody sacrificed to spur her or him to action . . . never mind. Anyway, the refrigerator door slams and our hero is off to the vindictive races. Except he’s not vindictive, he’s more . . . corrective. He’s interesting. (He’s also gorgeous, but let’s not be shallow.) And he’s supported by a truly astounding cast. Plus after the stereotypical opening (and come on, it’s based on a comic book, they’re all stereotypical hero openings), the story slams into gear, building its momentum and expectation and delivering two sit-up-and-stare plot twists that are fully foreshadowed and yet still stunning.

And yet I haven’t gone back for the second half. Last night, sifting through the comments on Nick (extremely helpful, by the way) while waiting for the poly to dry on the kitchen counter I’m trying to finish, I thought about why. I love these characters. I love these relationships. I love this setting. The music is incredible. The performances are riveting. Why am I not interested in going back?


The main conflict is between Luke Cage, a former cop framed and sent to cliched hellhole of a prison in a flashback I’d just as soon forget who is now on the run in Harlem, and Cornell Stokes, a musical prodigy denied his music and forced to follow in his mother’s footsteps as a crime boss in Harlem. They both have a lot of rage and they both hide it under false demeanors, Cage under almost catatonic calm and Stokes under almost manical expansiveness. And they’re both willing to give each other a lot of room until one of Stokes’ minions goes rogue and fridges the aforementioned character. Cage goes out to exact revenge, but he doesn’t try to kill anybody, he’s too smart for that. He decides to cripple Stokes’s organization by breaking it financially: he invades the fortress that Stokes calls “Fort Knox” and creates a crime scene so that the local police department will take all the money as evidence, taking enough to save a small business that’s important to the community, cementing his This-Is-A-Really-Good-Guy status.

He can do that because he’s bullet-proof. The science is a little hazy on this, but as explained in the back story, he was so severely beaten in prison that he was on the point of death, so friends put him in this experimental chamber . . . you know, it doesn’t matter. He didn’t get bitten by a spider or hit with gamma ray, but it’s the same thing. An event occurred and now bullets bounce off him, literally. So he breaks into the building and a lot of people shoot at him, and his hoodie damn near disintegrates under the fusillade, but Cage implacably walks on, taking out the fools with the guns (fuck you, NRA and racist cops) as he deals a body blow to Stokes’ organization.

Mike Colter plays Cage and Mahershala Ali plays Stokes and they’re both terrific, setting up a complex conflict with even more complex subtext, Cage going quieter, Stokes swinging wider as the story escalates. The characters in the subplots are equally good, and Alfre Woodard as Stokes’ cousin Mariah Dillard is more than equal, she’s amazing, never more so than when Stokes, in his hour of triumph, makes the mistake of telling her that she wanted the molestation she suffered as a teenager. That scene is a tour de force, and the follow-up scene is quietly just as stunning, setting up the second half of the series.


Here’s the thing about a central conflict: It becomes the central story question. Will Cage defeat Stokes and save Harlem from his toxic influence? It’s a super-hero story so the answer is yes, but we don’t care that we know the answer, we want to see how it plays out. The question is not “who wins?” but “how?” and the payoff is Cage vs. Stokes at the climax. But at the end of episode seven (“Manifest”), Stokes is dead. (Cage has also been brought down by an alien bullet, but let’s face it, Luke Cage isn’t going to die, he’s a superhero plus he’s going to be in The Defenders next year.) My central story question has been answered. Even though I know Dillard and Shades are going to go after Cage, and even though Woodard’s Dillard is a worthy antagonist, complex and driven and, after episode seven, clearly lethal, and Theo Rossi’s Shades is a quietly intelligent and malevolent force on his own, that’s a new story, one I’m not invested in. You killed my antagonist, I’m gonna go have lunch.

So this has been nagging at me: How do you fix this and still tell this story?

One way is to change Luke’s goal from bringing down Stokes to saving Harlem. But that’s a lousy goal, unfocussed and probably impossible since Harlem’s problems are many. Focussing on Stokes as a malevolent force whose removal would make things better is an achievable goal. “Saving Harlem” is basically “world peace,” not achievable because it’s too wide.

A better way, I think, would be to make Dillard the antagonist, but that may just be because I love Alfre Woodard. She’s in there from the start, but she presents as a partner to Stokes, a second tier antagonist, a council woman who is legitimately trying to make Harlem a better place, allied with her cousin in illegitimate money schemes to finance her recovery project. She’s complex and conflicted and driven and haunted, a fabulous character, but I don’t see a crucible for Cage/Dillard since they both want to help Harlem and their solutions aren’t antithetical to each other; in fact, Dillard solves Cage’s conflict for him when she offs Stokes.

Which brings us to Theo Rossi’s Shades, the quietly thoughtful sociopath who observes and then moves when the time is right. The way he invades the stunned Dillard, seizing on her moment of madness as an entry into her confidence, is masterful. Watching these two characters (and these two actors) develop that relationship forged in violence is probably going to be great. But watching him use Dillard to bring down Cage is probably not going to be as great as the conflict that just ended. It’s just not as thematically rich, although the fact that Shades is white might add a layer of intensity there.

So then I read the spoilers, and the series is going to bring forward another character, Diamondback, who has that relationship to the Cage character. So we’re starting over. Luke Cage, season two. Diamondback has always been present in the script since Shades works for him, but I don’t think we’ve seen the character, he’s just a presence in the background. And I’m thinking maybe the background was the wrong move here, that if we’d seen Diamondback manipulating Stokes through Shades, then we’d have been anticipating that final conflict. It would have weakened the Stokes conflict, but any conflict that ends halfway through a story should be weaker than the central conflict, and I think it would have raised the stakes since fighting with Stokes was dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as the fight with Diamondback would be. The idea that if Cage takes out Stokes he’ll be fighting a much bigger threat would add a lot more weight to that. It would even help with the problem that Cage doesn’t actually take out Stokes, Dillard does that, but she does it because of the blowback from Cage’s Fort Knox heist: the bad publicity from that endangers her council seat and she goes to Stokes in a rage, which he then fans, the idiot. Do not mess with Alfre Woodard.

I’m still puzzling this out. Those of you watching this, too, any ideas? Disagreement is good, too, although I would prefer not to hear about this show is racist because it doesn’t have many white people in it. Seriously, there’s actually a wave on Twitter trying to make that argument. I assume they’re all voting for Trump.

29 thoughts on “Antagonists and Luke Cage

  1. First off, Shades is the devil. My god, that actor.

    Secondly, I have one episode to go and you are so right: it’s two seasons in one. Stokes is a far more interesting character than Diamondback, so what really saves it is the women. It’s worth it to watch where they take Misty, how great the actress is, and of course one of the best parts of the MNU: Claire.

    I see why you wouldn’t watch Jessica Jones, but I’d argue rape isn’t the backstory; it IS the story. It’s a tough watch. Jessica was always one of my top five characters since I read Alias back when, so I set aside my own past and its resulting triggers. Tennant helps because he’s so compelling, so charming and entitled and terrifying. Ritter may not have been my first choice for Jess, or my tenth, but she does a great job, as does the woman playing Tricia, and I’d watch it again tomorrow if I didn’t have Flash (whyyyy), The Good Place, and HTGAWM to catch up on.

    1. Shades is amazing. He disappears into the background but you always know he’s there.

      I love Misty but she seems to be inhabiting a different storyline completely. I know that she’s after Stokes, too, and their storylines overlap, but you could take her out and Luke’s story line would still be complete. Same with Claire at the moment. However, I’ve just seen the first seven.

      I liked Ritter, I like everything about Jessica Jones, I even understand that the rape theme is about more than just the plot, that it’s about agency and the way the world works for women, I just couldn’t take the darkness. Haven’t caught The Good Place yet, but I hear marvelous things about it.

  2. Yeah, once again we’re back to music. Phrases end in what are called cadences, and there’s a hierarchy to them, with the Authentic cadences giving the most resolution. There are a lot of these types of phrase endings, but they break down into three or four main types. Half cadences leave you hanging, waiting for something more. Deceptive cadences make you think you’re going to get a resolution, but you don’t. And the authentic cadences provide resolution. And these work, much in how writing works in structure, because they work to propel the reader/listener to the end of the piece. What you’re describing here is a nice authentic cadence halfway through the series, where we don’t get any feeling of a need to move on. A deceptive cadence would have worked — had Diamondback taken him out and left some sort of clue that what happened wasn’t just a resolution, then that would have worked to pull the viewer along toward the next phase of the work. The best example of something like this is the false resolution in Crocodile Dundee II, where Mick resolves the issue at the first part of the movie with a resounding clear victory. And though the rest of the movie is entertaining and instructive, it always feels like the hero has no real risk for the rest of the movie because he’s unbeatable outside of his home environment, so back home there’s no risk at all. (Don’t get me wrong, I love all three of the movies, but the second one doesn’t put as much on the line as the other two do after the rescue) So the fix for Luke Cage (which I haven’t listened to yet, as I’m way behind on my Netflix listening) would be to pull things forward so there were motives that were hinted at even when it seemed the story was about one thing. John Williams did this beautifully on the scoring of The Phantom Menace, where his upbeat young Anikin theme started ending with that set of notes that made up the main motive in The Imperial March. (Tay mae doh, for those familiar with solfege) Just a bit more musical perspective on these kinds of structure issues.

    1. Music is HUGE in this series. Stokes runs a nightclub so there are performances all the way through and all the episodes are named after songs.
      I’ll be really interested when you get the chance to see this, to see if hip-hop plays into the structure.

  3. Apparently you, Lani, and Alastair have conditioned me well, because when Stokes died my first thought was, “Why did they kill the antagonist half way through the season?” I agree that Diamondback isn’t as interesting as Stokes. It doesn’t help him that Mariah and Shades are still there the whole time being way more fascinating than him. However, the line “What are you, a pimp Storm Trooper?” might be one of my favorite things in the whole Marvel universe, and Diamondback made it possible.

    Spoilers…………I think they’ve set up Mariah as the antagonist for season 2. I found the end somewhat unsatisfying because of the fact that Mariah and Shades essentially get away clean. They’re great characters, but I wanted to see them pay for what they did, and we didn’t get that. That might have been a bigger problem because this series followed Jessica Jones and Daredevil (specifically season 1), which each had a single antagonist that was defeated at the end of the season. The contrast made the loose ends left by Luke Cage more irritating than they would have been without the comparison.

    Claire remains the best. It’s fun to see her pop up in every series, and she’s probably my favorite character across all of them.

    Am I the only one that’s kind of annoyed with the way these series are handling romantic subplots? I have no enthusiasm for Matt and Karen (really – none); it was very disappointing that Claire was not his love interest. Then I imprinted on Luke when he showed up on Jessica Jones and Misty when she showed up in the pilot of Luke Cage because I’m a romance reader, and neither of those relationships stuck. It’s starting to frustrate me.

    Finally: There are people complaining about the number of white cast members in this show??? WTF?

    1. Honest to god, they’re calling it racist. Because if there’s one group that’s underrepresented in film, it’s white people. If it helps, they’re being mocked, but still. ]

      In other news, Drudge and Limbaugh are floating the idea that Matthew is not that bad a storm, Obama’s just using it to become more popular. People who listen to them are going to die. Which might reinforce Darwin, but come on, that’s criminal.

      Back to Netflix/Marvel: I really wanted Foggy and Karen to make it, but I bailed on Daredevil 2 early. I think Matt and Karen are comic canon, though.
      I think Luke and Jessica are also end game in the comics. In fact, I’m pretty sure they get married. So I was expecting Misty and Claire to be non-starters, especially Claire since she’s in everything.

      Daredevil 1 was amazing because of Fisk (and D’nofrio). I’m pretty Jessica would be great if I watched it because Tennant is so damn good. I thought Stokes was going to be the same in this one, but then . . .

      I will say this: that was a helluva way to die. And if it’s going to be Dillard and Shades next series, I will probably tune in. They’re remarkable.

      1. I ran Wikipedia searches around the time everything was released, so I read about Luke and Jessica. That’s why I was surprised she wasn’t anywhere near his show apart from references to “his rebound girl.” Then they seemed to be setting up Misty, then that fizzled immediately and Claire and Luke seem to be a thing now. That’s fine, I just want them to pick a lane. Karen does seem to be the plan on Daredevil, but they spent most of season two on Matt and Elektra, so they don’t seem eager to get there and I don’t care if they ever do. Maybe they’ll be more interesting later.

        I’m glad the idiots are being mocked. Heard about Limbaugh. That man is awful. Come on people, it’s Florida. Watch the Weather Channel, and if you have to hear it from a Republican then think about the fact that Rick Scott says it will kill you and evacuate.

      2. Some libertarian site put up a question to their readers. Do you believe Obama instructed the military to create a hurricane to take out Trump’s home?

        No, it’s not the Onion.

        43% yes, 40% no, 17% waiting for more evidence.

        The editors of the site are Brits so this may just be dark humor but how scary is it that I think there are people who believe this is even physically possible? Four years ago I would have put it down to a spoof. After reading a lot of red state & drudge posts, I’m no longer sure.

        1. Wow, the layers in that are stunning. I especially like the idea that the military can not only create hurricanes but can aim them at specific real estate.

    2. I also was hoping Matt and Claire would be an item, and I was hoping Foggy and Karen would end up together. Both of those couples have a lot of chemistry.

      In Jessica Jones I was invested in Luke and Jessica. I was really disappointed that there hasn’t been any mention of Jessica in Luke Cage, but I’m only at episode 3. There was only a bit from Pops.

      1. Claire mentions her in passing (but not by name), and that’s pretty much it. I’m looking forward to seeing them together in The Defenders, though.

  4. REALLY?!? The hurricane is the October Surprise? Take it from a Gulf Coaster and expletive evacuate. Dear Limbaugh and Drudge, please review the Katrina, Ike, and Sandy footage and shut all the bad words up.

  5. I was actually expecting Diamondback to take out Stokes for the business mishaps and Mariah to be the first season big bad (revealed to have been the power behind Stokes all the time). This was mostly because Alfre Woodard was too good to be so much in the background.

    I find JJ and LC both felt a couple of eps too long, and dragged around the middle…better to trim the order a couple of eps, and keep the story tighter, IMO.

    JJ was good, and I’m glad they’ve stopped starting with the origin story for every hero they introduce, but it was a very dark, depressing season and I couldn’t watch it all straight through.

  6. Season 1 of Daredevil sucked me in immediately. Season 2 was more hit and miss as I didn’t feel a spark between Karen and Matt. And the friction between Foggy and Matt was annoying. The only part of Season 2 that pulled me in was when the Punisher was the focus. I’m very much looking forward to his show.

    Jessica Jones had me at episode 1. I was fully invested, and I gulped that one in about a week. Watching Luke Cage now, I’m thinking about rewatching Jessica Jones.

    Luke Cage is not pulling me in too much. I’ve only watched three episodes, so maybe it’ll suck me in as I watch more. But so far I’m only liking two of the characters, Luke and Misty. And Luke is a little flat for me. I think I’d be invested more if he had vulnerabilities, and I don’t mean emotionally. I’m trying not to read too many of the comments above, because I don’t want to spoil myself.

  7. I would argue that Cage and Mariah are less of two sides same coin, and more that Stokes and Mariah are. Mariah and Stokes were both raised to want power. Stokes got his through drugs and guns, and Mariah got hers from exploiting Harlem. (which becomes more and more apparent) Luke was a guy a who tried to do good, paid for crimes he didn’t commit, and then had to go on the run. He’s reluctant to help, but then when Harlem loses its person, he sees fit to honor his legacy in his own way. He steps up to protect his community that been giving him shelter. I would argue that disaffected communities find beauty in a literal human shield.

    I think we’re always meant to distrust Mariah and her motives, and it’s all just a slow build up to her taking center stage in season 2. However, that pivot at epi 7 is intended to make the power vacuum that allows Diamondback to unleash his chaos.

    In the end, I often found Luke to be a lynchpin for dynamic women doing what they always do, make the world spin and clean up after men.

    1. I’ve only got the first half (seven eps) to go on, so I’ll have to catch up. (Later, when I’ve plowed through some work here.) I really thought Mariah wanted to help Harlem. Rats.
      Woodard is amazing in this, as always.

    2. I think Mariah liked the power but didn’t always want to admit that to herself. She seems to be trying to prove to herself that she’s not her grandmother, and helping Harlem is the vehicle for that. She was trying to distance herself from being part of a crime family, and then gradually lets go of that and embraces the fact that she likes power. She’ll certainly be great in season 2.

  8. My only comment is to stick with it, it’s worth it. Putting aside the great acting, superb music, Harlem history, and all the wonderful references to literature, there are some fun comic book style episodes, and more importantly, really great character interactions to come. Stokes was a good antagonist, but Diamondback’s back story, and the political machinations at the end are fantastic. Can’t wait for season 2!

    1. Oh, I’ll go back to it. I was just trying to figure out why, since I was really caught up in it, that I hadn’t felt the need to go back. Stokes is gone, story over.
      But I’ll absolutely finish it.

      1. I’ve loved that all two main characters, plus Misty, seemed to have the same goal of being role models for other black people. That’s what Stokes wanted, that’s what Luke wanted, and Misty. But that’s not quite what Mariah really wanted based on her conversations with her brother. Which I found fascinating.

  9. It’s interesting to me that you felt like episode 7 was a natural end point for the story, because I felt that way about episode 6. Luke had won the first battle, whatever came next was a new act. So Shades moving in to take advantage of Mariah’s moment of insanity (and good for her, too) was, for me, the opening gambit in a new conflict, followed up by the alien bullet. They’re foreshadowing Diamondback through Shades, but unless he’s really great, I’ll be disappointed that Mariah and Shades don’t take over the show and make mayhem together. What a team.

    That said, I haven’t gone back to it yet either, because the new conflict they’ve set up didn’t grab me the same way the first one did. Possibly because I don’t see Luke reacting to his shooting the same way he did to Pop’s fridging. Which just made me realise that episode 7 felt slow to me, in the same way that episodes 1 and 2 did, so possibly episode 8 will feel slow too, because it’s the second half of a new season opener and I thought the first season opener dragged.

    The biggest problem for me with getting rid of Stokes is that they open episode 7 with him still acting as the antagonist. If they’d shown Diamondback in the episode somehow, moving in to take over Stokes’s operation maybe, or even just making the foreshadowing heavier by having Shades threaten Stokes more explicitly, the new conflict would have felt more established. I wasn’t surprised when Stokes died, but it meant that the new antagonist didn’t enter the frame until right at the end, and even then only through a minion. An awesome minion, but a minion nonetheless.

    You’re always saying to get the antagonist on page 1. I think this is a pretty good example of why.

    1. That really is the only problem here.
      If they’d set Diamondback up as a present antagonist from the beginning, using Stokes as a key partner, then Stokes’s death which Shades tells Mariah they’ll pin on Luke is a major turning point, bringing Diamondback out of the shadows to engage Luke directly. Because it’s been Luke vs. Stokes all along (and a great conflict), once Stokes is dead, even Shades drawing Mariah into his web, while fascinating, can’t change the fact that the story is over because the conflict is over.

      1. This is why I like the writers who can do stealth continuity — it’s great to see the antagonist from the very beginning, draw your own conclusions as to what is going on, then find out that it’s something else that is also rational and a strong possible option but it didn’t occur to the mind earlier. It’s why I love certain authors above others and will seek out their work every time, and why a very small number of shows have so much loyalty from me. I tend to read closer than most of the folks I interact with, especially since losing my sight, (which became glaring when I was taking a wonderful literature class in college) so I have a bigger problem with what is called “telegraphing” in recreation combat circles — Nothing frustrates me quite like knowing the ending of a book two thirds of the way in. (It was the biggest thing that disappointed me about Jane Eyre and that I loved about Tom Jones) So when I pick up a new Neal Stephenson fiction work I know that it’s not going to work out in predictable ways, though it’ll be something that at the end worked from soup to nuts, and it’ll introduce new ways of thinking about something in the experience of the read. It’s also why I’ve moved away from strict episodic works, like some TV series and comic books, because those seem far more about playing with permutations than telling a story. Give me a good story arc, either hard or soft, any time. Just don’t change that arc in mid-story, making some of what you put down earlier meaningless or inapplicable. (/me glances in Ronald D. Moore’s and David Ike’s direction)

  10. Jenny, I was listening to Tom Ashbrook’s On Point on NPR today, and they did a whole panel discussion on Luke Cage and the other Netflix super hero shows – Jessica Jones and Daredevil. The conversation was framed by the fact that all of these shows are celebrating heroes who are “other” than the white, straight cis male hero we typically see – a black man, a woman, a blind person. I just kept thinking of you because of this post and because of the posts on the exploration of adding diversity to your characters, so in case you might have missed it, I wanted to let you know. I thought it was a super interesting conversation.

  11. PS (I’m only part way through the Luke Cage series at this point…you would not believe how much owning a business while having a 7 month old slows down your TV viewing… so I didn’t read past the “massive spoilers warning” and I apologize if my On Point comment is a repeat)


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