Second seasons of television are often difficult to nail.
After starting off strong, many series stumble in their sophomore efforts by either trying to do too much or struggling to find a story. Marvel and Netflix’s second season of “Luke Cage” has no such problem. In fact, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker gives this season a different feel altogether, downplaying superheroics in favor of a crime drama.
Make no mistake, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is still Harlem’s hero, patrolling the streets with his powers of super strength and indestructibility. Upon the arrival of John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), another superpowered individual from Jamaica, it appears that Cage has a new opponent to defend his neighborhood from. However, once it comes to light that Bushmaster’s true mission is to get revenge on Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) for what her family did to his, in addition to Dillard’s ambitions of a Harlem takeover, Cage finds himself in a situation where he’s unsure of how to proceed.
Coker wisely realized that having characters talk about how much they love Harlem means nothing when we have no real sense of Harlem itself. Still shot with the same gritty, grainy look, we spend more time exploring the neighborhood. For example, an episode where Cage and a crooked businessman hide out from Bushmaster’s thugs in various locales does more to give a sense of the actual physical space of Harlem than the entire first season combined.
More importantly, however, Coker and his writers emphasize the connection each of these characters have to Harlem. Cage, played with determination and a twinkle in his eye by Colter, sees it as a home that’s steadily getting corrupted. Mariah, brought to sinister, manic life by Woodard, views Harlem as her own personal playground — a chance to make the life she’s always wanted. Then there’s Shakir’s shifty Bushmaster, who considers Harlem his birthright and will do anything in his power to take it from those he views unworthy.
Never at any point does the show lose sight of these character motivations. “Luke Cage’s” second season allows the narrative to spool out of them, pressure-cooking the tension between all three as their blind determination begins to affect everyone around them. The series refuses to characterize a character like Misty Knight (Simone Missick) as a pure beacon of good or Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) as just a thug — they’re caught up in the game just as much as the central trio are.
Despite the title, this isn’t just the Luke Cage show — everyone matters here. When characters bite the dust in this tragic battle for Harlem, it means something, and it pushes Luke toward a decision in the final episode that is incredibly brave of the show. Without going into details, it really makes the audience redefine Cage’s character and opens up a myriad of possibilities for season three.
“Luke Cage” season two once again proves that these Marvel Netflix shows are onto something, presenting a comic book-based story that doesn’t allow that moniker to stop it from telling a mature, complex story about human beings trying to do right by their community.
“Luke Cage” Season 2