Friday, September 30, 2016

REVIEW: 'Luke Cage' - A Tragic Death Motivates Everyone Into Action in 'Code of the Streets'

Netflix's Luke Cage - Episode 1.02 "Code of the Streets"

Luke is pulled deeper into the fight for his neighborhood when, as a favor to an old friend, he tries to help a kid who's in trouble with Cottonmouth.

Death can be a powerful motivational tool - especially in comic book stories. It's a trademark of the genre. One character dies so that the hero can be propelled on his or her journey of vengeance and redemption. It's a commonplace trope that has expanded way beyond this particular genre. Death is a tool that can easily give a project some intense stakes. It ramps up the tension in a way that the audience and characters can immediately feel. At times, the Marvel shows at Netflix use death too much. At the end of their respective seasons, Daredevil and Jessica Jones just started killing off a bunch of characters to make it clear that the tension and severity of the situation is only getting worse. That's not always the best way to tell story. Death is a powerful storytelling tool. But it's not the only way to create stakes and tension in the medium. In "Code of the Streets," death becomes a key part of Luke Cage's journey into becoming a hero. It's a formulaic and somewhat expected twist. However, it also puts him on the path he needs to be on to become the vigilante that Harlem needs right now.

Plus, Luke Cage does something smart in not having Pops' death occur right away. It wouldn't mean anything if the first thing done in this series was kill off this character. A connection needed to be established between him and Luke so it could really resonate when he is killed. That's not something that could happen in a brief amount of screen time. So the show waits until this episode to kill Pops and put Luke on his journey for the season. These opening two episodes are filled with rising action and plot contrivances forcing these characters and conflict together. It is a little messy a lot of the time. But when those bullets start flying and Luke chooses to protect a kid instead of his father figure, it's a powerful moment. The connection had been formed between Luke and Pops. It felt like he would be a significant character on the show for the season. And now, it's clear that his purpose was to die so that Luke can stand up and take the fight to Cottonmouth and Mariah. It's a grim purpose that makes him more of a plot device than an actual character. But Frankie Faison does enough strong work in these first two episodes to really make the lose of his character feel important.

Luke decided to stand up for himself and not run away at the end of the premiere despite the chaos that is building around this community. He wanted to flea because it seemed like his life in Harlem was no longer safe. His jobs at the barbershop and nightclub were just becoming too visible to the rest of the world. He found the strength to stay and protect his home by remembering what his wife told him. He used his powers for good to help the Lins from the gangs of this neighborhood. That was a solid action beat to end the premiere on. But it didn't mark a significant change in Luke's thought process. He just wasn't going to run away. He isn't getting involved with all the nefarious actions of this community. He's not chasing danger in order to stop bad people from hurting innocents. He's simply continuing to live his life and go to work. If he is exposed because of that, then so be it. The only reason he ultimately gets involved with the situation with Chico and Cottonmouth's missing money is because Pops asks him too. He's calling in a favor and Luke reluctantly agrees. He tracks down Chico and gives a message to Cottonmouth in the hopes of ending this conflict peacefully and without further bloodshed. That's not what ultimately happens though.

Luke isn't the only person who is motivated into action following Pops' death though. "Code of the Streets" also explores the past history between Pops and Cottonmouth. Pops didn't get his nickname because he's the beloved paternal figure of the neighborhood. No, he got it from the sound his fists would make while beating someone up during his youth as a gangster. Cottonmouth was a part of his crew as well. He got the nickname "Cottonmouth" because he lost a couple of teeth in that line of work. It was a long time ago but it's still a connection both of them remember and honor. Of course, it's still tense when Cottonmouth comes into the barbershop looking for a shave and hoping to discover where Chico is. That's all that he cares about right now. When Pops actually finds him, he's hoping the barbershop can continue to act like Switzerland and facilitate a fair trade. Cottonmouth agrees to the meeting because of his history with Pops. Without that, there's no way he would have taken this old man at his world. That's certainly not what his right-hand man does. He hears about where Chico is and immediately shoots the barbershop up. He doesn't care about the history of this community or the respect of the people. He's all about the money and impressing his bosses. Cottonmouth cares about the money too. He believes it's the single most important thing in this world next to family. It's more important than any kind of legacy. But Pops' death forces Cottonmouth into being even more of a criminal as well.

It's clear that Mariah is battling for Cottonmouth's soul a little bit. She respects their connection and will do anything to protect her family. But she doesn't understand why her cousin wants to get back in this criminal business when their ancestors fought so hard to ensure their freedom and rights in the first place. Cottonmouth doesn't believe black martyrdom is the only thing that can define black history and the black experience in 2016. He believes he can run this criminal enterprise just as well as anyone else out there. He's not afraid to use his skills to get the job done. He beat Shameek to death and isn't hiding that fact at all. Everyone can see the cuts and bruises on his knuckles. But he's still proud and in charge. Mariah is concerned about the money because she doesn't want anything to ruin the project that she cares so much about. She has her hand in the criminal world of Harlem. She purposefully doesn't want to know everything that's going on. But she's in enough to be facing serious consequences should she ever be exposed. She wants to know why Cottonmouth would be taking such a huge risk. And yet, he makes his full transition into being a criminal when he throws the man who killed Pops off the roof of the club. It's a horrifying and chilling visual. It's not something that sits well with Mariah. She may have to start questioning whether she can stand by family despite all of this. The deal is done. She has her money. But things are bound to only get more complicated moving forward.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Code of the Streets" was written by Cheo Hodari Coker and directed by Paul McGuigan.
  • Paul McGuigan really has brought an interesting perspective in the direction of these first two episodes. The continuous shot of Stokes throwing the guy off the roof was just as impressive as the guy breaking his fist while trying to punch Luke in the premiere.
  • Luke and Misty meet again. And now, Luke realizes that Misty is a detective and working the complicated case. Meanwhile, Misty sees that Luke keeps popping up everywhere in connection to this case. They are both starting to be very skeptical about each other.
  • It is great that Misty is the point-of-view character in the investigation story. Her partner, Rafael Scarfe, seems like the more veteran one of the duo. But she's the one trying to connect all of the pieces together by getting people to talk to her. He's mainly just along for the ride and reacts to the lack of details they actually find.
  • Misty is convinced that Luke got hit with a bullet during the barbershop shooting. He shielded a kid and walked away without a scratch. She realizes that that is just too impossible. She doesn't yet suspect he has powers. But her curiosity is certainly peaked. 
  • Even Misty has a connection to Pops. She grew up in this neighborhood and knows all of the players around town. They know her as well. Her reaction to Pops' death is yet to be fully seen. But it should be just as important as Luke and Cottonmouth's. 
  • Turk from Daredevil is the one who comes forward saying that Chico is in the barbershop. After Cottonmouth throws the guy off the roof, Turk says he's going back to Hell's Kitchen because the criminals of Harlem are just too crazy for him. Again, it's a way to raise the stakes for the audience because we know what happened on Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But it just feels tacked on in a weird way.
  • Shades remains such a mysterious character. Luke recognized him right away and was terrified. But Shades doesn't seem to know Luke at all. 
  • It wasn't particularly necessary to have the last scene of the episode play at the very start to show pending danger for Luke. It was a powerful scene at the end after everything that had happened. But it wasn't particularly great without knowing the context at the very beginning.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.