Spoilers ahead for season 2 of Luke Cage.
Netflix’s MCU shows haven’t had much luck with second seasons. Jessica Jones season 2 never found its center, while Daredevil season 2 started strong, then devolved into nonsensical battles against endless streams of ninjas. Luke Cage seems to have finally broken the streak. While season 2 is far from perfect, it not only avoids the sophomore slump, it surpasses season 1 through a relentless focus on how both its heroes and villains are defined by their families.
Season 1 saw plenty of Shakespearean-style family drama, with Luke Cage (Mike Colter) facing off against his half-brother Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) murdering her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). But season 2 is devoted to the deep, lingering wounds that family can inflict, and the difficulty of escaping a legacy.
For Luke, that means facing his father James Lucas (the late Emmy winner Reg E. Cathey, delivering a splendid performance in his final role), who comes to Harlem looking to reconcile. Luke starts the season seemingly in a great place — he’s so beloved that the people of Harlem track him with an app and buy clothes with his name emblazoned on them — but he’s unwilling to confront all the feelings of betrayal and loss that come with his father. His physical strength has increased since season 1, but emotionally, he’s barely keeping it together. His simmering, unresolved anger and his refusal to listen to advice about addressing it drives a wedge between Luke and his friends that leaves him dangerously isolated, and Colter adeptly plays up Cage’s weary frustration.
But season 2 is really more about its villains than about Luke. The central conflict is between Mariah and John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who’s come to Harlem from Jamaica to destroy Mariah for wrongs the Stokes committed against his family. Mariah married well, giving her the resources and reputation she needed to become a political rather than criminal power, and in season 2, she wants to shut down her family’s gang ties for good. But Bushmaster consistently reminds everyone that Mariah Dillard is really Mariah Stokes, and heir to that family’s bloody legacy.
Bushmaster is driven by vengeance, but he’s a thoughtful villain who identifies his rivals and attacks them on multiple fronts, including staging a fight between Luke Cage and a group of minions armed with a variety of weapons, just so he can study the hero’s moves. Watching Bushmaster and Cage fight is a pleasure, with well-coordinated battles pitting speed and technique against raw power, but Bushmaster also holds his own when it comes to verbal sparring. He’s guilty of grave crimes, but made sympathetic by both having legitimate grievances and strong family ties that expand the show’s scope beyond Harlem and into Brooklyn’s Jamaican community. One of the greatest missed opportunities is showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker failing to give Bushmaster as much backstory as Willis or Cornell got in season 1. By the time he provides flashbacks to the character’s youth and the origins of his family feud, there are very few reveals that haven’t already been explained.
Mariah’s material is unfortunately more inconsistent. In a bid to rise up from the scandal that surrounded her in season 1, she looks to reconcile with her estranged daughter Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis), who is the weakest part of any scene she’s in. Mariah wants to use her as a prop, and that’s really all she is, providing an audience either for Bushmaster or Mariah to explain their motivations to, while offering only the weakest arguments about her own desire to do no harm as a doctor turned herbalist. Alfre Woodard, on the other hand, was spectacular in season 1, and she still captures scenes in season 2 as the self-proclaimed Queen of Harlem, commanding rooms of gangsters and Luke Cage himself with a haughty laugh and a biting word.
Unfortunately, her writing and characterization is frustratingly inconsistent. Mariah is the perfect mastermind in one episode, but she makes obvious mistakes or takes unnecessary risks in another. The goal may be to have audiences waver between deciding whether Mariah or Bushmaster is the greater evil, but that setup is clumsy. That’s especially true when seen through the eyes of Theo Rossi’s Shades, who seems to always be stuck in the unenviable position of ultra-competent lieutenant to an unreliable crime boss. Rossi’s cocky smile and swagger brighten every scene he’s in, and the plot exploring the relationship between him and fellow Seagate inmate Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) is one of the best of the season. When Comanche argues that Shades should ditch Mariah and take the crown for himself, it’s hard to disagree.
Luke Cage remains just as stylish as it was in season 1, with Harlem’s Paradise serving as the setting for scenes of violence and intrigue punctuated by extended musical interludes. The writers also continue to dig deep into issues of racism, tackling the divides that exist within America’s black community, and even within a single family, based on ethnic origins and skin tone. Coker is careful to avoid making all his Jamaican characters evil, or turning them into ethnic stereotypes. At the same time, the writers address how violent crime and anti-POC immigration policy have become intertwined in today’s politics.
Police corruption also remains a major focus, with Simone Missick’s Misty Knight dealing with the fallout from the revelation that her partner was corrupt. The police force is its own sort of family, and she agonizes about how she could have missed the signs, and whether Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) might have had a point in season 1 about the limits of by-the-book police work. Those conflicts help provide new nuance for Luke’s interactions with the NYPD, providing a source for continuing conflict by keeping the hero from ever winding up too comfortable on either side of the law.
One of Coker’s greatest talents is keeping this material from ever feeling too heavy or preachy. Like so many MCU properties, Luke Cage blends in humor to lighten up the drama. In one episode, Luke is short on cash and agrees to host a party for sleazy lawyer Piranha Jones (who fortunately bears no resemblance to his bitey comic-book counterpart), which results in a series of hilariously uncomfortable scenes. But when events force Cage to shift gears from entertainer to bodyguard, he and Piranha wind up sharing an intimate moment where Piranha talks about rising to wealth in spite of his familial challenges. That pivot layers complexity on an initially odious character, and returns to the season’s central theme of coming to terms with family strife in a way that feels organic, but is clearly the product of Coker’s skillful engineering.
Coker’s focused narrative drives season 2 of Luke Cage toward a bold, satisfying conclusion. While there are some missteps along the way, season 2 sets the stage for an exciting new conflict, while avoiding the cheap cliffhanger of Daredevil season 2. By letting some antagonists survive season 1 and create an ongoing presence, Coker was able to build on strong character foundations to move the series forward in a way that Jessica Jones season 2 couldn’t. With additional seasons of Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil all in the works, their creators should look to this season of Luke Cage for a model of how to keep the MCU’s television presence going strong.
Season 2 of Luke Cage will be available on Netflix on June 22nd.