The third episode of Luke Cage showcases several characters’ attempts to take Pop’s adage to heart: “Forward. Always.” Luke finds a creative way to keep Pop’s legacy – and his shop – alive, which leaves Cottonmouth scrambling to pick up the pieces by the end of the hour. Chico struggles to step up and do the right thing, but Misty’s investigation doesn’t reap the benefit due to her partner Scarfe’s behind-the-scenes allegiances. Even Connie gets a few moments to shine and set aside minor grievances.
Though the episode’s title is never uttered, nor does Gang Starr’s eponymous track play, the question reverberates through every choice made and action taken.
“I’m knocking all his pieces off the board.”
Henry “Pop” Hunter’s death leaves a void in both Luke’s heart and Cottonmouth’s. But while Cornell can fill that hole with his piles of money after disposing of his former assistant Tone, Luke is consumed by a desire for vengeance. To him it’s not just revenge, though, because he also needs a practical way to keep the barber shop open after Bobby informs him that they need $80,000. By appealing to Chico’s better nature and the life debt he owes to Pops, Luke learns the locations of his stash houses. He’s on a one-man mission to leave Cottonmouth penniless, pointing the police to assets free for the seizing and managing not to kill any pawns in the process.
While some may complain about the lack of a signature fighting style in the action sequences, it didn’t feel like such a drawback here because it’s the first extended sequence emphasizing his invulnerability. More importantly, the way he held back when fighting proves the wisdom of true strength lying in mercy. Luke Cage is privileged with super strength, but the way he uses it is what makes him a hero. Not only that, but this episode acknowledged Luke’s mind as well as his powerful physique. The chess analogy is a good one, because Luke had to move the pieces available to him in just the right way to hit Cornell where it hurt.
His motivations for upending Cottonmouth’s schemes are also a very interesting mix of noble and human – he’s saving countless lives by taking money off the streets, but he’s also holding onto his father figure’s legacy and trying to give people like Connie a fresh start. As much as Luke Cage focuses on violence and trafficking, among other sordid subjects, its best moments are the quiet interactions that build relationships and explore backstory. Luke breaking into Mariah Dillard’s office with a battering ram might be thrilling, but it’s his talks with Bobby Fish that bookend the plot and provide it with a beating heart.
“Do something good for somebody for once.”
Another important part of the episode was the climax of Chico’s redemption, but this tale had a less inspiring conclusion. Both Luke and Misty attempt to recruit Chico as a warrior in their separate battles against Cornell Stokes and, while he doesn’t agree to testify at first, he is instrumental in Luke’s plan to dismantle the stash houses. It takes a lot more effort for him to feel brave enough to become a witness, and unfortunately his caution would have been better rewarded than his courage was. In order to keep Cottonmouth’s secrets, police officer Rafael Scarfe kills Chico just as he’s in the middle of confessing what he knows.
Chico’s death was a disappointing and abrupt end to what was shaping up to be a tale of innocence lost and wisdom gained. Actor Brian Marc held his own playing off of both Mike Colter and Simone Missick, and it’s a shame that neither dynamic will carry into future episodes. However, the plot did serve to get Misty one step closer to realizing what Luke is really doing. She was right from the start that Luke was involved in the recent shootings and break-ins, but now she’s starting to see the reasons behind his actions. Furthermore, the twist creates a sense of dramatic irony which should increase the tension in all her future scenes with Scarfe.
Speaking of Scarfe, “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” seemed to be building towards a philosophical debate on the nature of the justice system and the effectiveness of police. It’s almost too bad that the story took the route of a dirty cop murdering his own witness instead, especially when he was the first character to voice that something about the system felt broken. Misty is a heroine and her belief in the good she can do is admirable, but it could only deepen the narrative to have another heroic character questioning the methods employed by those on the side of the law. Obviously Scarfe is not the man for the job, as he is not only a criminal but also a bit of a racist – did Misty even react to his commentary about the “brothers” she would supposedly love to date? Hopefully Luke Cage gets the chance to explore how the police do and should interact with the community, if not in future episodes then in future seasons.
“You can always make more money. I can’t get my name back.”
Cornell and his cousin Mariah have been working together from the start, using the same means to reach very different ends. The great thing about Luke Cage‘s villains is how complicated and realistic they are even as their methods are constantly heightened. Mariah is up to her ears in backroom dealings, but as long as she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on she can remain idealistic about her goals. Meanwhile, Cottonmouth is there at every turn to remind her that she’s just a front, but he also consistently shows how much he values loyalty and family.
Despite not being able to resist getting in some sharp digs at Luke near the start of the episode, Cornell displays both vulnerability and pathos when he offers to cover the expenses of Pop’s funeral. His respect for the departed couldn’t be clearer, and while his raw emotions were more evident last episode, you can see how the death weighs on him throughout. Meanwhile, Mariah keeps pushing back at him in a way that speaks to just how passionately she feels about the New Harlem Renaissance. Her lofty and commendable ambitions are deliciously at odds with the gritty methods her cousin employs with her consent. Alfre Woodward embodies the dichotomy so well that a line like “The only way to save Harlem is to do it legally,” comes across as absolutely sincere despite the fact that nothing she’s doing is legal.
By the end of the episode, Misty and Cottonmouth both have proof – or at least a supernaturally strong hunch – that Luke Cage is the vigilante cleaning up their streets. How each of them will react remains to be seen, but the series is certain to raise the stakes on both sides with every hour that passes.
Luke Cage is currently available to stream on Netflix.