In season 2, Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker successfully shifts the series from a street-level superhero story into a propulsive and engaging urban crime drama, one that is more in keeping with not only Coker’s sensibilities as a writer and producer, which he honed on shows like Southland and Ray Donovan, but also with the show’s eponymous character. Removed from the limitations and obstructions of the stultifying, archetypal superhero origin story, Coker brings forth a multifaceted story with themes of identity, legitimacy, and the control one has over their own narrative. It turns the series into a true ensemble, making great use of not only Mike Colter as the bulletproof hero for hire, but also Alfre Woodard as crime queenpin Mariah Dillard (née Stokes) and Theo Rossi as her right-hand man/lover, Shades. The season also includes a compelling new arc for Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who, in the wake of the injury she suffered during the (injurious) Defenders miniseries, is struggling to redefine her place in the NYPD.
Part of what makes season 2 work and makes it an improvement over season 1, as well as much of what Marvel TV has produced in recent years, is how Coker repositions Luke Cage as a single figure on a much larger canvas, rather than as the central figure in a story about him. That shift in perspective keeps the series from overindulging in the character’s past and power set, and instead emphasizes who Luke is now, how the persona he’s built and the — for lack of a better term — brand he’s cultivating fits into the show’s version of a Harlem that’s in the midst of a similar evolution. It’s a matter Coker and the series’ writers are interested in exploring from a variety of different angles, as Harlem’s hero comes to terms with the concept of celebrity and the idea that being a “Hero for Hire” raises questions as to what Luke is meant to represent.
The notion of superhero-ing as a for-profit industry is woven into the season’s narrative, routinely bringing the story back to a question of legitimacy. Characters question their roles in whatever corner of this world they’ve managed to stake a claim on. Coker, in part, uses those questions as a springboard to introduce a new villain, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), whose history with the Stokes family has him seeking a different kind of legitimacy in Harlem and a claim on Mariah’s turf. At the same time, Mariah and Shades make a concerted effort to go legitimate, to leave the underworld behind, but as is so often the case, a person may be done with the past, but the past is not done with them.
Yet Coker and his writers stay firmly entrenched in the present. For the most part, the season is free from digressive flashbacks or efforts to rehash what the audience already knows. Instead, each episode strives to give the viewer a better understanding of who these characters are now, often just as the character is learning it themselves. This self-discovery unfolds through a series of dramatic choices that keep the narrative ticking along at a surprisingly brisk pace.
Some of the season’s best moments are actually two-handed scenes, conversations between characters that signal an almost meta-awareness that they’re participating in a superhero drama and just how weird that can be for them to wrap their heads around. Since Daredevil first premiered, that role has primarily been filled by Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. Dawson is back this season as Luke’s love interest but also as the audience proxy, the one whose job it is to call time out and to signal to those watching what’s happening is indeed extraordinary.
This season, though, she has some company with a greatly expanded role for Simone Missick, who walks an interesting line between audience proxy and burgeoning superhero after Misty receives her robotic arm. Then there’s the late Reg E. Cathey as Luke’s semi-estranged father and minister, who gives a typically absorbing performance as a man working to legitimize his role as a father after having failed his child to the frankly ludicrous degree that he had. Both Missick and Cathey make for great verbal sparring partners with Colter and, in one way or another, both represent institutions that have seen the legitimacy of their power and authority increasingly scrutinized in recent years. All these details add up to a richer, more detailed world in which this story unfolds.
As for the Big Bad, Bushmaster makes for a more compelling villain than Diamondback, particularly because he’s not tied to Luke and his convoluted family history. Instead, Bushmaster’s story links him to Mariah Dillard, which in turn leads to revelations about Mariah’s past and questions about her future that afford Woodard a chance to shine and weaver her character through moments of vulnerability and wickedness in equal measure. As for Bushmaster, his power set makes him a worthy adversary for Luke, but Coker wisely treats the Jamaican crime lord’s extraordinary abilities as secondary to his unbending will and desire to see his bloody course of action through to the very end.
While the character work feels more nuanced and the narrative more engaging, the biggest achievement of Luke Cage season 2 is in how Coker seems to have cracked the code as far as streaming drift is concerned. Rather than break Luke Cage season 2 into two halves, split by the usual road trip of self-discovery or severe injury that makes the hero question his or her life choices for an episode or two, the season’s narrative structure follows a much more conventional arc, with each hour gradually building to a far more satisfying climax at the end of the season. The season itself is still too long by about two or three episodes, and some of the episodes could stand to lose 10 or 15 minutes, but overall the series’ second outing turns a superhero show into a thrilling, well-paced crime drama that’s one of the most fulfilling of Marvel’s Netflix series.
Marvel’s Luke Cage season 2 will stream on Friday, June 22 on Netflix.