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Luke Cage: Cottonmouth (Episodes 1-8)

Despite trying to live a life of anonymity, Luke Cage can’t turn his back on the forces that are corrupting Harlem.

Episodes 1 – 8:

1: Moment of Truth
2: Code of the Streets

3: Who’s Gonna Take the Weight
4: Step in the Arena
5: Just to Get a Rep
6: Suckas Need Bodyguards
7: Manifest
8: Blowin’ Up the Spot

Recap

When we meet Luke Cage (Mike Colter), he’s a super powered ex-con working at a barbershop under the care of Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter (Frankie Faison). Despite Pop urging him to use his powers to help other people, Luke just wants to earn a modest living an be left alone. His time in prison and his past relationship with his late wife, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), seem to still haunt him. Luke’s second job is at the club “Harlem’s Paradise”. The club is owned by the gangster, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Stokes and his cousin “Black” Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) are big players in Harlem. Cornell helps control the underworld while Mariah plays politics. When some kids from the neighborhood come up with a plan to rob an arms deal between Cottonmouth and Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas). Events start to unfold that force Luke into direct confrontation with Cottonmouth and some other unsavory characters in Harlem.

The robbery gets the attention of Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick), a New York detective who’s investigating Cottonmouth and his organization. Luke actually runs into Misty at the club and sleeps with her before finding out who she really is. The robbery also gets the attention of Cottonmouth’s superior, a man only known as Diamondback. Diamonback sends Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) to help/check on the situation with Cottonmouth. Luke also recognizes After a short investigation, Cottonmouth gets his hands on the kid who betrayed him and beats him to death, leaving the body in the streets. That leaves Chico as the last man standing and everyone involved with the situation looking for him. At Pop’s request Luke tries to track Chico down before anyone can hurt him. After Luke tracks Chico down, Chico decides to come back to Pop’s on his own. When he comes to the shop he’s seen by Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan), the low level arms dealer who was seen in Daredevil. Turk lets the information leak about Chico’s whereabouts which leads to the barbershop getting shot-up by Cottonmouth’s overzealous henchmen. During the shooting, Chico is shot and Pop is killed.

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After Pop’s death, Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) helps Luke keep the barbershop open while Luke starts to work taking apart Cornell’s organization. Word gets back to Cottonmouth that he’s under attack, but no one can seem to give a clear description of the indestructible hooded man who’s attacking all his strong holds. Not knowing who’s coming after him, Cottonmouth becomes paranoid and ends up causing conflicts with his other partners. Eventually, Luke his way to Cottonmouth’s “Fort Knox”. When he takes that stronghold down, Cottonmouth finds himself down $7 million. Cottonmouth gets a break when Misty’s crooked partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) comes to see him. Scarfe was contacted by Chico, who wanted to stand up and do the right thing. When he lets Scarfe know that Luke is the one who’s been going after Cottonmouth, Scarfe kills him and takes the info to Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth promptly finds Luke at the Chinese restaurant under his apartment and shoots a rocket into it, burying Luke and the restaurant’s owner under piles of rubble.

The police start investigating the explosion while Luke tries to dig out the rubble from the inside. This gives the show time to flashback to Luke’s time in prison. He remembers how he was sent to Seagate Prison as a framed police officer Carl Lucas. Carl was forced into a prison fight club by Albert Rackham (Chance Kelly), one of the guards. This is also where he met Reva, the woman he fell in love with. She was the prison psychologist at the where Carl was held. Carl tries to take down Rackham and his corrupt prison, but ends up getting himself sent to the infirmary. Reva finds him there, barely clinging to life.  She begs the prison doctor, Dr. Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff), to save Carl’s life. Burstein’s only recourse is to try an experimental procedure. When the procedure is interrupted by Rackham, there’s an explosion that ends up killing everyone in the room except for Carl, who emerges from his chemical bath with super strength and indestructible skin. Taking hold of his good fortune, he leaves the prison before the guards find him. Presumed dead in the explosion, Carl assumes the new identity of Luke Cage.

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After surviving Cottonmouth’s attack, Luke Cage’s abilities are discovered. At the same time, Cottonmouth decides to squeeze the streets of Harlem for money, Sheriff of Knottingham style. His thugs attack, bully and rob people all over Harlem to try to recoup the $7 million that Luke caused to be seized. He also instructs all of his thugs to tell everyone to blame Luke Cage for the uptick in crime. The downside to that plan is that people do actually come to Luke, which forces him into a confrontation with Cottonmouth. Luke makes a show of force against Cottonmouth, but it ends up revealing his true identity to Shades, who was one of the people who put him in the infirmary at Seagate. Knowing who Luke is, and what he’s survived, Shades suggests using a new technology called the Judas bullet. Made out of alien metal recovered from the Chitauri incident, the bullet had the ability to penetrate heavy duty kevlar, which suggests that it could hurt cage. However, before he can get the money to purchase such expensive artillery, he has to right his organization so that he can get a loan from his superior, Diamondback.

In order to “right the ship”, Cottonmouth enlists the help of the cops that he has on his payroll to release the weapons that were confiscated after Chico and his friends ruined the exchange. This includes Misty’s partner, Scarfe, who is under investigation from Internal Affairs (IA) due to suspicion that he may have silenced Chico, among other things. Misty doesn’t believe the reports at first. Before the investigation gets too intense, Scarfe ends up getting in a confrontation with Cottonmouth that ends with Scarfe getting shot. Scarfe heads to the barbershop to get help and from protection Cage, using his information about Cottonmouth as leverage. Fortunately for Scarfe, Cage has nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) with him. While both sides of the law search for Scarfe, Cage and Claire try to keep him  alive and get him to the appropriate police so that his evidence can be used. Scarfe ends up dying before they can get to the authorities, but Cage, Misty and Claire get the whole story before he does pass. That’s enough to get Cottonmouth arrested, but not to keep him behind bars for long.

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Because of the police corruption and Mariah’s political corrections, the city quickly releases Cottonmouth. They also fire the Misty’s police captain, and replaces her with Inspector Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman). Ridley believes that Luke may actually be behind everything that’s going wrong and basically tells Misty to bring him in. Meanwhile, Cottonmouth is feeling himself after walking away from shooting a cop. He orders Shades to arrange a meet with Diamondback and summons Luke to a meeting. Cottonmouth uses the information he got from Shades to blackmail Luke. He tells Luke that he will expose him if he doesn’t follow his orders. Faced with this new information, Luke decides to flee but Claire convinces him to stay and fight. He starts by taking Cottnmouth’s guns from Domingo and bringing them to Misty. Luke also tells Misty that he plans on bringing Cottonmouth to justice.

Even though Cottonmouth feels invincible, his recent escapades have put both Mariah and Shades in a rough spot. Shades comes to her in order to try to encourage her to confront Cottonmouth. Mariah ends up going to the club. When she gets there she and Cottonmouth get into an argument that ends up bringing up their past. When Cottonmouth suggests that she wanted their Uncle Pete to molest her, she loses it. She throws Cottonmouth through a window and beats him to death with a mic stand. Just as she finishes, Shades arrives and starts to orchestrate a cover-up that would pin Cottonmouth’s death on Luke.

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While Misty races off to the scene of the crime, Luke is taking a walk through the park with Claire. He tells her that he is going to fight even though he could be sent back to prison if anyone finds out about him. Just as she’s bringing up the idea of getting a “lawyer friend” to help Luke out, a mysterious sniper shoots Luke with a Judas bullet. When Claire and Luke try to escape the sniper in an ambulance, he causes it to flip over. The mystery man also reveals that he knows Luke as “Carl”. The chase ends when sirens are heard heading towards the scene. Luke and Claire head to a secret location in order to avoid putting Luke in the hospital system. The bullet is still lodged inside Luke, causing problems for him. The problem is that his super-hard skin is preventing any kind of surgical procedure from being effective.

While Luke is clinging to life, Mariah has gone to work spinning Cornell’s death. She has Candace Miller (Deborah Ayorinde), an employee at the night club, claim that Luke Cage was the one who killed Cottonmouth. Misty finds Luke and Claire while Claire is trying to figure out how to save Luke. At the same time the police force finds evidence planted in the barbershop that links Luke to Cottonmouth’s murder. Misty is about to arrest Luke when the sniper attacks again. Claire saves Luke from being shot again and Misty tries to take out the sniper, but he ends up getting the drop on Misty and taking her as a hostage in order to escape. The sniper acts like he’s going to kill Misty before knocking her unconscious, promising to hurt her more later because Luke likes her. The entire event leaves Misty rattled. She ends up lashing at at Claire in an interrogation room later, which ends up getting her put on suspension.

Still injured, Luke chases the sniper into an abandoned theater for a showdown. The sniper reveals that he is Willis Stryker, aka Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey). Diamondback also reveals to Luke that he’s been the architect of all of his suffering. Being framed for crime, sent to Seagate, the punishment he endured there, and Reva’s demise; Diamondback claims responsibility for all of it. These two have a history together, and Luke admits that he wasn’t a good friend to Diamondback. Their fight drags on from night to  the early morning. Diamondback is able to get the drop on Luke again. When Luke says that he loved Willis like a brother, Diamondback response by telling him that he is his brother. Diamondback then shoots Luke again, causing him to fall into a garbage truck.

Favorite/Other/Notable Moments

  • “Coffee”
  • Luke has a little “spider-man” moment when he realizes that he could have stopped Chico from getting involved with the robbery that turned fatal, but he chose to mind his own business instead.
  • The scene where cottonmouth beats a guy to death is an awesome way to introduce how dangerous he is.
  • At the beginning/end of episode 2, Luke goes on a long black history siloloquy when a young thug calls him a nigger at gunpoint. It’s a little heavy handed, but it’s Luke’s moment to decide to take action.
  • “Jesus Saves, I don’t” – Cottonmouth
  • There are a lot of references to Luke’s comic origins. In episode 1, Pop refers to him as “Power Man”, one of his old aliases in the comics. In Episode 4, he ends up dressed in a faximily of his classic yellow and blue costume after he steals some clothes off of a clothesline. He looks at himself in a window and remarks, “You look like a damn fool”.
  • The club is a revolving door of acts, including:
    • Raphael Saadiq – episode 1
    • D-Nice – episode 1 & 2
    • Faith Evans “Memserized” – episode 2
    • Charles Bradley “Ain’t it a Sin” – episode 3
    • Jidenna “Long Live the Chief” – episode 5
  • The show is also littered with facts about Black history and culture. Here’s a few:
    • Crispus Attucs, the name of the center that housed Cottonmouth’s fortune as well as the name of the first black soldier to die in the war.
    • The Boston Celtics progressive stance on race
    • Authors Walter Mosley and Chester Himes
    • Lisa Bonet (Denise from the Cosby Show)
    • Dapper Dan the “Hip Hop Tailor” of Harlem is a real person who appears on the show to give Luke a suit for Pop’s funeral
    • Jackie Robinson park
  • Episode 7 shows Cornell’s transformation into Cottonmouth. He was a boy who had the talent to be a musician, but thanks to Mama Mabel (Latanya Richardson Jackson) he was turned into a killer. They also reveal that Mariah was molested by their Unlce Pete (Curtiss Cook).
  • One of my favorite, unexpected lines from this is when Misty tells Priscilla “you let your little soror ‘sqee-wee’ on out of here.” A reference to the fact that Priscilla and Mariah are sorority sisters. That’s a specific reference to the call of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority.

Commentary

So, my first impression is that this show is “really, really black”. It’s trying so hard to invoke black culture that I was halfway expecting there to be a Kwanza special at some point. Even so, I don’t think that it goes so far that it reaches the point of being insincere pandering. Best case scenario, all these cultural references will cause viewers to go do some research and learn something new. Worst case scenario, they will just be confused by some of the random references that are made in the show’s dialogue. I think it’s an admirable gamble that the show is making.

Luke Cage is doing a lot of things right outside of trying to teach people about Black culture. The soundtrack is amazing; the characters feel like they fit perfectly into the MCU version of modern New York; and, maybe most importantly, they found an intriguing villain in Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth may be the best version of the MCU style of villain: someone who isn’t inherently evil, but was made evil through their circumstances. Unlike the Kingpin (Daredevil) and Killgrave (Jessica Jones) before him, Cottonmouth has a story that makes you actually feel like he’s both tragic and dangerous. I think part of that is that he’s not a huge, iconic character like his predecessors. Even in the context of the show he’s not in charge of his own organization. Despite his lack of power, he’s got character, style and a bravado that lets you know he won’t give up. Even his end is unique. Luke has almost nothing to do with his death, it’s his own history and bravado that end up taking him down. It’s nice to have a villain that feels like just as much of a human character as anyone else. Really, almost everyone in this show feels like a “real” person. Real people who, occasionally, say some incredibly corny things. I know that the idea of these Netflix shows is to make the characters feel more grounded, but this show really nailed that goal.

What really made Cottonmouth fun was the way that he and Luke go after each other. Their confrontation seems to happen simultaneously in secret and in public. For example, in episode 5, he and Cottonmouth both give dueling speeches at Pop’s funeral, and it seems like Misty and everybody else there knows that it’s just them throwing down the gauntlet. Then in episode 6, there’s a radio conversation about whether or not Luke Cage is a good guy. It is a little unclear just how much the public knows about both Luke and Cottonmouth. It seems like they’re both too known to not have people talking about them. I suppose that does make sense with the stunt that Cottonmouth pulls, wrecking Harlem and blaming Luke for it. Beyond that, it would be realistic for people in a neighborhood like that to be talking about stuff like this happening.

The realism does become a little bit problematic when this show tries to make people exceptional. The show does this strange thing with Misty where she seems to be able to visually recreate a crime in her mind. It’s never really explained whether or not this is an actual superpower or some kind of representation of her mental process. They do something similar with Shades where they make it seem like he has some kind of extrasensory abilities linked to his eyes. I assume that both of these are just abstract visualizations, but in a world where people have real superpowers, it’d be nice to make that a little more clear.

Overall, the first half of the season is strong. There may be some things it could do better, but it’s balancing a lot of things very well. Perhaps most importantly, it manages to fit into the feel of the other MCU Netflix shows while still having a very distinctive identity of its own.

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