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?
TURN BACK NOW, MASSIVE SPOILERS COMING UP.
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.
SERIOUSLY THIS IS A MAJOR SPOILER, DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW BECAUSE IT’S REALLY GOOD AND YOU SHOULD.
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.