LUKE CAGE makes it personal with “Take It Personal,” shining light on multiple areas in Luke’s past. The story takes a political turn as well, with escalated police brutality against Harlem’s people that Mariah uses to her advantage.
Since this episode picked up where the last one left off in the middle of a science experiment, already it was ahead with me. I loved Claire just chucking things into Luke’s acid bath because, hell, nothing could go worse, right? Dr. Bernstein laying out the implications of Luke’s powers and trying to convince both him and Claire to stick around and help him save the world teetered on the border between altruistic science and terrible military uses gone wrong. Again, Luke’s “action” scene here is less about cool violence and more about expressing his quiet ideals. He destroys the lab so that no one will ever be experimented on in that way again. It’s one of those Marvel moments like with Captain America and Hulk where it’s clear that the only reason someone getting superpowers hasn’t gone terribly wrong is because the powered person is inherently just a good guy. Powers on someone else would be unbelievably dangerous. And now I’m mad again that Captain America: Civil War didn’t do any of this debate justice so I’ll move on to keep myself happy.
All the great science aside, my favorite part was when Luke saw Reva’s case recordings about him. He had idealized her so much, especially after her death, that I was always put off by their relationship. The fact that she was duping him so that she could continue her research tarnishes that romantic sheen and simultaneously makes her so much more than a nurturing love interest. Like two minutes of clips on a computer gave a dead character that much development. Even better than Reva getting her own life and motivations is Luke’s ruminations on how he loved the idea of her and not Reva herself. That’s one of my pet themes. I hate the way we tell romance stories because they’re almost always promoting harmful cycles of idealization and devaluing. We’ve codified it into our narratives that actual cycles of abuse are somehow “romantic.” Luke recognizing that he never knew Reva and was only in love with his idea of her had me cheering hard at my TV. No one ever outright says that and I’m thrilled that it was acknowledged here. Also! No kisses! Yes to no kisses!
While Luke was in Georgia, he went to visit his father’s old church and had some revelatory childhood flashbacks. There’s so much Luke Cage in Luke Cage this go around! What is happening? It also gives us a little bit more background on Diamondback though really not enough. His relationship to Luke and the reason he hates him comes more into focus, but the whole betrayal incident is still all a vague mystery. It’s funny, I’m thinking about how willing I am to leave brief mentions of experimental procedures and military drugs to future explanations but if you leave out the chunk of story that explains motivation I start getting testy. I’m sure they’ll tell me what happened eventually, but they are stretching this out longer than I’m comfortable with.
Yet Luke and all the science aren’t even the best parts of this one. Mariah’s political machinations outshine everything when the show mashes up Black Lives Matter and police brutality with a narrative of otherness surrounding powered people. It’s not even an X-Men style metaphor. Superheroes aren’t discriminated against because of their difference here. Instead, they’re scapegoats blamed for all of the problems in the world and used by unscrupulous politicians (like Mariah) to gain power. Let me back up. First, Diamondback has a marvelous speech that he gives to Mariah about black fear being the driver behind authoritarian government. This provides them with an easy way to drum up hysteria so they can sell super-grade artillery to public officials. Then he puts on a special tech backpack that makes him super strong, dons a hoodie, and kills a policeman shouting that he’s Luke Cage. So much is going on there. There’s the implicit understanding that any powerful black man in a hoodie will be mistaken for any other one, the street-level tech-based superpowers being within the reach of anyone with money (something my friend and I keep trying to will into being on Agents of SHIELD), and finally the backlash of police brutality that the killing inspires. We end up with photos of a black boy’s battered face plastered on Mariah’s campaign and Mariah giving a speech where she masterfully spins fear of powered people into wanting to arm police even more heavily. The very police who just beat up the entire neighborhood. That was very well written. If it had been even vaguely sloppy the whole plot would have fallen apart. It all hinged on Mariah’s spin and I was satisfied.
Misty ends up tied up in Mariah’s political stunt as well by virtue of being a member of the police. More prominently, her boss Priscilla has her trying to find Luke Cage so they can quell all the violence erupting in Harlem but Misty is more focused on figuring out who the dude was that held her at gunpoint. That is, Misty is on the right track because she’s sniffing after Diamondback. Go Misty! She also tries to smooth over the rift caused by all of the police violence in Harlem because she has such a close relationship with the community. Then she just charges in and goes straight for Diamondback when she’s certain he’s the one she wants. I love her a lot.
Luke Cage ups its game here and gets outright political while at the same time keeping to its own universe borders. It delivers a message about our world without preaching too hard and tells a compelling story in the process. That’s some great storytelling right there.
Season 1, Episode 10 (S01E10)
Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor