Spoiler warning: spoilers throughout. Best to read this after watching the whole season! Which I recommend!
It was during a small, nearly throwaway scene deep in episode 10 that it hit me like Jessica Jones’ fist: Luke Cage is the most feminist show I’ve ever seen.
The scene, captured in the screen grab above, features four women characters — four black women, not a one of them under the age of 30 (and none of the actresses under 35) — each of whom is in fundamental conflict with the others, but who come together in two temporary alliances to fight a multi-level battle. Yes, it’s complicated.
Misty Knight (Simone Missick, far left) is a main character, and the police detective tasked with figuring out if our hero Luke Cage is innocent or guilty of the various crimes he’s been accused of. Her task is complicated by the fact that she had a one-night stand with him early in the show. Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman, far right) is a secondary character, a police inspector (a sort of deputy chief), and a political rank-climber who would rather throw Cage to the wolves than fall afoul of her superiors.
Center right is, of course, Alfre Woodard, playing Mariah Dillard, another main character: a city councilwoman and citywide representative of Harlem’s best aspects, whose career is propped up by financial influxes from her crime-boss cousin, and whose cash flow was interrupted by Luke Cage. And to her immediate left is Cassandra Freeman as Patricia Wilson, mother of a young teen boy roughed up by the cops, who is about to complete her law degree, and who has an unrequited crush on Luke Cage.
It almost doesn’t matter that they have met to discuss the police’s misconduct toward Patricia’s son. What matters is that each of these women is a leader in a variety of ways, and the complexity of the interaction, of the alliances and conflicts between and among the characters. This scene is some next level Bechdel shit, passing the test with flying colors because, although on the surface the women are all talking about two male characters — the son Lonnie Wilson and the protagonist Luke Cage — the entire interaction is primarily about two or three layers of subtext, none of which have anything to do with men.
Misty and Priscilla, who earlier in the show were fighting over the direction of Misty’s investigation and whether or not they should scapegoat Luke Cage (subtext: fighting over Misty’s addiction to finding The Truth vs. Priscilla’s addiction to working her contacts, one of whom is Mariah, and climbing the ladder) have been thrown back on their heels by the combined fury of their fellow (largely white, male) police officers, who think Cage killed a cop and have been viciously stop-and-frisking young men all over Harlem in response (subtext: they’re both conflicted about whether they are more blue or black.)
Misty and Priscilla are thrown together into a temporary alliance (which lasts the remainder of the show) by the sudden, aggressive onslaught of Mariah and Patricia. Mariah is accompanying Patricia as her public representative, and the representative of the Harlem community currently being ravaged by the police, and the two are there to make their displeasure known. Mariah is using Lonnie Wilson as a symbol for this police action (subtext: Mariah is a suspect in a murder and a money laundering scheme and is being asked to step down as councilwoman, but leading a protest against police violence could up her political capital and save her reputation.)
In any other tv show or film in the world, Patricia would be played for laughs in the first half of the show (a woman who wants a man who doesn’t want her? Hilarious!), and then either portray the brittle or the pathetic aspect of outraged motherhood in the second half. But in Luke Cage Patricia first acts as a foil to Luke’s inability to commit to a real life or community. Then she, small as her role is, represents nothing less than the embodiment of respectability politics in Harlem.
She is a young, single mother of a teenaged boy who has completed her education and is about to deploy that education for the good of her community. She has also raised a straight-A student son, for whom she has sought out the best father figures the community has to offer (Pop and Luke Cage), and actively sent him to interact with them. When she shows up at the police station, it is not as Mariah’s pawn, but entirely under her own power. The show offers her not the slightest hint of disrespect or spin.
And Mariah, a fascinating mixture of weakness and strength, nurturing and violence, is not only on the right side of the surface question (police violence against the Harlem community,) but has always and sincerely advocated for this position. Mariah genuinely believes herself to be seeking power equally for its own sake and for how it benefits her community. In fact, the action of the show represents the first time in her life these two goals have come into conflict for her and the choices she makes as a result nearly break her, as they reveal to her what her real goals are.
I’ve never seen a scene like this on tv. And I can’t remember ever seeing a scene like this in a film, either.
Remember, this is a show: 1) named for its male superhero protagonist, 2) whose action is set off by a robbery perpetrated by male characters against male characters, 3) whose protagonist is motivated by the murder of a male character/father figure, 4) whose primary and secondary antagonists are both male, and 5) whose primary antagonist has both severe daddy issues and brotherhood issues with the protag. In such a show, a single scene as the one described above would be extraordinary, but Luke Cage is utterly infused and interpenetrated (used advisedly) with such female characters, situations, and subtexts.
Aside from Misty (good guy) and Mariah (bad guy,) we also have Claire Temple as a main character. Claire is currently the primary connector among the three Marvel Netflix shows, but it is only in Luke Cage where Claire comes into her own as a character. Fans of character continuity will be disconcerted by Luke Cage’s Claire, who in Daredevil and Jessica Jones was a world-weary, anti-violence nurturer desperately conflicted about the role of vigilantes and unwilling to date one, but in Luke Cage is reborn as a bright-eyed superhero booster who emotionally and physically pushes Luke into a hero role, law and order be damned, all while throwing herself at him. (Tho’, let’s be honest, Daredevs can’t help but look kinda cray-cray, not to mention weedy, next to Luke Cage. How are they gonna manage that in the Defenders show?)
Also? Claire’s function as medic to the enhanced finally starts to take flight here. She is given the time and space finally to think and talk about what she wants to do with her life, and she clearly articulates what her role will be moving forward: fixing superheroes, supporting them. Her MacGyveresque ingenuity when dealing on the fly with weird medical issues is finally called out here for what it is: genius. Relegated to living rooms and dark corners of hospitals in DD and Jones, Claire finally gets to operate (literally) in a mad doctor’s private lab here, and we start to see her really spreading her medical wings. I can’t wait to see her setup in Iron Fist and The Defenders.
I should also mention five other essential female secondary characters:
- “Genghis” Connie Lin (Jade Wu), Luke’s hardass landlady, first superhero save, and foil for his flashbacks;
- Betty Audrey, the honest, supportive police captain whom Priscilla Ridley replaces, played by national treasure Sonja Sohn;
- Soledad, Claire Temple’s mother and the show’s female version of Pop, played by international treasure Sonia Braga;
- Luke’s dead, flashback, kept-her-own-name wife Reva Conners (Parisa Fitz-Henley,) who was an innocent victim in Jessica Jones and is revealed to be a very morally complex character in Luke Cage;
- and the dead crime boss Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson,) also seen only in flashbacks, but whose ghost casts the longest shadow in Harlem and whose balance between positive community influence and violent community corrupter paints the whole show in her color.
Like I said, the show is positively littered with strong, complex female characters … of color. More than that: none of these characters actually need Luke to activate them. They’re all motoring along on their individual and interconnected arcs when Luke enters and distorts their fields. But they would still have essentially the same stories without Luke.
All of this — the strong female characters, the complex interactions among them, the arcs independent of the male protagonist — make this show already unique in television. But beyond even these, it’s the relationships between female and male characters in the show — realistic and aspirational, both — that make the show a real standout.
Hands down my favorite female/male relationship is the one between Mariah and Shades. Shades, the Platonic ideal of a gangster lieutenant, is sent by his boss, Diamondback (the primary antagonist of the show,) to assist Mariah’s cousin and partner, Cottonmouth (the secondary antagonist) and, it is hinted, prepare Cottonmouth to be subsumed into Diamondback’s operation. Shades, however, ends up replacing Cottonmouth as Mariah’s partner in crime, in one of Luke Cage‘s many light-and-dark, mirroring character moments.
Mariah, a tremendously complex character with an equally complex background, is introduced to us as one half of a crime/politics machine family, established by her long-dead grandmother, Mama Mabel, with the help of their uncle. The other half of the machine is of course Cottonmouth, whom Mama Mabel raised together with Mariah. Mama Mabel pushes Cottonmouth away from a musical career and into one of crime, while their uncle champions Cottonmouth, protecting him from the family’s violence and supporting his musical genius. Yet that same uncle sexually molests the young Mariah, and Mama Mabel sends her away — partly to protect her, and partly to establish her as the legitimate side of the family business.
Thus, Mariah stands by as Mama Mabel forces Cottonmouth to murder his beloved uncle (for betraying Mama Mabel, not for molesting Mariah,) an act that breaks Cottonmouth permanently. This is the source of his ineptitude, his inability to fulfill his part of the partnership. Their complex and heartbreaking dynamic boils to a head in a devastating scene in which Cottonmouth (justifiably) calls out Mariah for failing to protect him and then (unjustifiably) accuses her of bringing her rape upon herself — and Mariah, in a passionate rage, brutally and bloodily murders him. It’s a testament to the the way the show commits fully to its own circumstances, that in that moment the audience is fully behind Mariah’s bloody act, even while sympathizing with Cottonmouth and cringing at the violence.
In this same moment Shades, who has been sincerely admiring Mariah from a bit of a distance, steps forward to praise and support her for an act that he reframes as one of strength and necessity, rather than one of rage and pain. Shades tells her what to do and cleans up for her, simultaneously proving himself the opposite of Cottonmouth (who made a mess for Mariah to clean up) and putting Mariah in his power, by keeping her murder weapon for possible future blackmail.
Shades’ machinations are automatic for a character of his type, but what is unusual is his genuine respect for and desire to serve Mariah. And when, a few twists and episodes later, Shades offers Mariah her preserved murder weapon back as a gesture of fealty, I actually shivered with feeling. Shades is the smartest, coolest, most loyal gangster on the show, and his respect and support are really worth something. And underneath that is the fulfillment of a promise of true partnership that Mama Mabel made to Mariah but was unable to provide after breaking Cottonmouth’s spirit. There’s more pathos in Mariah’s relationship with Shades than in any other relationship in the show.
…With the possible exception of the relationship between Detective Misty Knight and her partner, the crooked cop Rafael Scarfe. The characterization of Misty, like that of the other good guys, is slightly flattened in Luke Cage, which follows Daredevil in saving its best characterization for the bad guys and the morally ambiguous guys in the middle. But Misty benefits tremendously from her association with the to-be-redeemed bad guy Scarfe, to whom she remains loyal even after his perfidy is uncovered.
Scarfe, on his side, despite lying to Misty for years while he works as an informant for Cottonmouth, never wavers in his respect, admiration, and support of her. Misty clarifies this after he’s definitively revealed to be dirty, and she doesn’t have to underline how hard it must be for a woman of color on the police force. We all know it, and Scarfe’s unequivocal support of Misty raises his stature in the eyes of the audience. The way Scarfe dies — running and hiding around Harlem under the care of Luke and Claire — amps up the pathos even more: it’s clear that he should have died in Misty’s platonic embrace.
The theme of strong men supporting strong women, like most of the characters and situations in Luke Cage, has its dark mirror as well. Most obviously in the partnership between Mama Mabel and the betraying, rapist uncle, who was a genuine partner to Mabel but, it was hinted, couldn’t stand to be second to anyone, much less a woman. But also, less obviously, in the relationship between Luke Cage and his dead wife, Reva.
They have a subject/object relationship from the beginning: overtly because she is the prison therapist who is shrinking his and his fellow inmates’ heads; but also covertly because Reva identifies Luke early on as a potential lab rat for her and the doctor’s experiments. Although the apparent betrayal is that Reva is dishonest about her interest in Luke, the subtext (again) of this betrayal is that Luke had always thought he was the hero of his own story and Reva the supportive helpmeet; yet he discovers that she had her own agenda, her own project, and was the heroine of her own story, in which Luke himself was the unwitting assistant. It is the upending of his role as hero that is the true betrayal Reva perpetrates.
The one false note in the feminism of Luke Cage is the light mirror that Luke’s relationship with Claire holds up to his relationship with Reva. Claire fulfills the role of helpmeet and pushes Luke into the role of hero and protagonist. Thus, although Claire is more fleshed out in Luke Cage than any other Marvel Netflix show, she’s also the one major female character who isn’t entirely here for herself. And it’s apparent in her isolation from the other female characters, the way she floats alone, a sort of lighthouse for Luke Cage in the sea of interconnected, complex women.
There’s a great deal more to be said about this amazing, frustrating, faulty, groundbreaking series, but I’ll leave it to others. Whatever you may think about the sloppy plotting, weird pacing, and completely failed depiction of Diamondback, there’s no denying that Luke Cage is and will be the most interesting show of 2016, nor that it raises the bar on women’s representation to unprecedented heights.