Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first seven episodes of Luke Cage.
Greetings, fellow bingers! By now, you’re probably several episodes deep into Netflix’s latest Marvel-based series, Luke Cage — provided, of course, that you didn’t give up after the second installment. Because even by the standards of slow-burn Netflix series, Luke Cage takes its sweet (Christmas) time getting to the good stuff. The first three episodes, in particular, are methodical to the point of monotony, carefully laying out narrative and character terrain that verges on being repetitive. When Yahoo TV spoke with showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker before the show’s premiere, he recognized that Luke Cage would be a long-term investment on the part of viewers, much like a great ongoing comic book series. “I’m a huge geek, so for me the influences come from graphic novels like God Loves, Man Kills and the first 12 issues of Alpha Flight. I remember reading that and how it built up to this huge climax, and I was just like, ‘Whoa.'”
And rest assured, true believers, there are big “whoa” moments coming as you work your way through Luke Cage. In fact, the seventh episode has a moment that goes beyond a mere “whoa” into genuine “WTF” territory. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a quick guide to how the series is unfolding over the course of the first seven episodes.
Episode 1: “Moment of Truth”
(Re)meet Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the superstrong man of steel previously introduced in Jessica Jones. Since the events of that series, he’s moved uptown from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem, where he’s sweeping hair off the floor of a neighborhood barbershop. Even though he thinks he’s out of the crime-fighting game, he’s pulled back in by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), the smooth-talking gangster who runs the nightclub where Cage moonlights as a dishwasher/substitute bartender. While behind the bar, he gets to know police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who is peeking into Cottonmouth’s operation, which may or may not be funding the political ambitions of his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard). It’s a surprisingly sparse series premiere, especially when compared to the intrigue generated by the first episodes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Where those shows gave you a sense of who their antiheroes were right out of the gate, this “Hero for Hire” begins as a bit of a blank slate, even though Colter remains a charismatic screen presence.
Best scene: Luke’s conversation with barbershop owner Pop, played by the great Frankie Faison. It catches you up on where he’s been and what he’s seen without getting too expository.
“Whoa” moment: If you thought that Luke and Jessica’s sex scene in Jessica Jones was steamy, wait until you see Cage and Knight do the horizontal mambo.
Episode 2: “Code of the Streets”
Knight and her partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), investigate the aftermath of a Cottonmouth-related junkyard shootout involving one of Pop’s employees, Chico. Meanwhile, Harlem’s crime kingpin (not to be confused with the Kingpin) drops by Pop’s barbershop with his enforcer, Shades (Theo Rossi), to size up the massive Luke and generally be intimidating. Misty stops by later as well, trading knowing glances with Cage, who didn’t realize his one-night stand carries a badge. A relatively quiet episode ends with a burst of violence when a gunman fires dozens of clips into the shop, killing Pop, even as Luke uses his bulletproof body to protect Chico.
Best scene: Misty and Luke “meeting” each other in Pop’s barbershop, the heat of their previous encounter now replaced by an arctic chill.
“Whoa” moment: None, really. There’s more place-setting in “Code of the Streets” than there is in the series premiere, so everything is pitched at a lower key. This is where some people might decide to jump off the Luke Cage train … or, at the very least, take a binge-watching break.
Episode 3: “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”
Ah, but if you keep going for one more episode, you’ll get to witness Luke’s first big action sequence! A pre-credits sequence teases the aftermath of his one-man siege, before the episode flashes back to lay out the battlefield. With Harlem reeling in the wake of Pop’s death, Misty and Rafael investigate his murder, while Cage takes it upon himself to see that his mentor is given a proper burial. He also wants to secure the legacy of his shop — a goal that carries a hefty $80,000 price tag. Luke decides to get those funds from Cottonmouth’s pockets via his underlings. “Since I can’t touch the king, I’m going to take his queen, his knights, his rooks — I’m knocking all his pieces off the board,” he vows. One of those pieces is a Harlem safe house, which Cage attacks with whatever happens to be at hand, be it a car door, a water pipe, or his own two fists. This sequence is basically Luke Cage’s answer to Daredevil’s hallway battle or staircase gauntlet. And while Luke’s fighting style isn’t as varied as Matt Murdock’s — remember, he’s a brawler, not a ninja — the choreography coupled with the Wu-Tang Clan track that accompanies the battle gives it plenty of punch. If that sequence isn’t explosive enough for you, the episode ends in literal fireworks as Cottonmouth blows up Luke’s lodgings.
Best scene: Cottonmouth and Cage have a tense tête–à–tête in the funeral parlor, where they make their mutual admiration for Pop clear, even as they defiantly remain on opposite sides of the law.
“Whoa” moment: Rafael finally coaxes a confession out of Chico and then promptly murders him as a favor to his employer, Cottonmouth. Say it ain’t so, Whaley!
Episode 4: “Step in the Arena”
Origin story time! In the present day, Luke tries to free himself from the rubble that used to be his apartment and a neighborhood Chinese takeout joint. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we get to learn who he is and how he came to be. It’s a tale that begins in Georgia’s Seagate Prison, a notorious maximum security joint in the Marvel-verse, where former cop Carl Lucas has been wrongfully imprisoned. Forced into an underground fighting ring by a sadistic guard, Carl becomes the king of the ring, though it’s a title that comes with some serious beatings. When he decides to hang up his belt, he ends up beaten to a near-pulp in the infirmary and is only restored to full health (with bonus superpowers!) by secret genetic treatments that are being conducted at Seagate. An explosion destroys the lab, but Carl Lucas walks out a free man … a man calling himself Luke Cage. Coker himself points to this episode as the one that will definitely hook you if the other three don’t, and we tend to agree.
Best scene: Luke Cage discovers his wall-shattering powers for the first time, while wearing his comic book counterpart’s famous tiara for the only time.
“Whoa” moment: Luke meeting his future wife, Seagate psychiatrist Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), whose death plays a big role in Jessica Jones.
Episode 5: “Just to Get a Rep”
Back in the present full time, Luke Cage emerges from the wreckage of his building as a public hero and flexes his muscles for the press. As Luke smiles for the cameras, Cottonmouth contemplates how to recoup his Cage-caused losses, especially since his underlings are starting to express their discontent. To add to his woes, Shades reveals that he’s been sent to check up on Cottonmouth’s operation by none other than Diamondback (Eric LaRay Harvey), a knife-wielding villain who, in the comic books at least, had a personal connection to Luke’s previous alias, Carl Lucas. Keep that name in the back of your head — it’ll almost certainly become important later. Amid all this intrigue, Harlem welcomes back Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the medic who has previously nursed Daredevil back to health and also treated a severely wounded Luke in the Jessica Jones season finale.
Best scene: No longer required to keep his powers a secret, Luke walks directly into a gunman’s line of fire — with the bullets ricocheting off his chest! — until he grabs the guy’s firearm and bends it in half.
“Whoa” moment: Shades name-dropping Diamondback will come the closest for comic book fans, but viewers unfamiliar with Luke Cage’s mythology will be more like, “Who?”
Episode 6: “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
Luke Cage’s increased public profile nabs him a segment on Trish Walker’s popular radio show — the same Trish Walker who claims Jessica Jones as a best buddy. But it also makes him a target for an epic fall, which an increasingly furious Cottonmouth tries to orchestrate. How furious is the formerly level-headed gangster? Furious enough to shoot Rafael after the cop taunts him about Luke having the upper hand, setting off a chain reaction back at the precinct that causes the eye of suspicion to fall on Misty. It also activates another one of Cottonmouth’s moles in the NYPD, who rides shotgun with Knight until she puts 2 and 2 together and gets the drop on him. In the end, the bad guy is locked up for his crime, but don’t expect him to stay in prison for long.
Best scene: Claire and Luke talk about his wardrobe needs, since his clothes take more punishment than his body.
“Whoa” moment: Mariah is humiliated in the middle of a television interview, with a journalist revealing her criminal connections to Cottonmouth and deep-sixing her grand political plans.
Episode 7: “Manifest”
We told you not to expect a long prison stint for Luke’s No. 1 nemesis! Cottonmouth is back on the streets before the credits even roll, and Luke Cage promptly borrows another page from Daredevil’s first season by giving the villain an origin story to call his own. As it turns out, Cornell Stokes and Wilson Fisk do hail from somewhat similar backgrounds, growing up in a violent environment. In Fisk’s case, the violence came from an abusive father, whom he later took his revenge upon in a bit of patricide. For Stokes, the abuser is his guardian, Mama Maybelle, an old-school Harlem gangster who would prefer that the sensitive piano player be a stone-cold killer. And sure enough, that’s what he becomes, his first kill being a turncoat member of Maybelle’s crime family. In a literally killer twist, though, it turns out that “Manifest” isn’t just the origin story of one villain: Mariah witnessed Cornell’s first murder and now becomes a murderer herself, shoving her cousin out of the window of his own club and then beating him to death — a death that she and Shades plan to pin on Luke. And just like that, we’ve got a new big bad up in Harlem. Admit it now: You definitely didn’t see that coming.
Best scene: Mariah killing Cottonmouth with six episodes to go ranks as one of the best twists a Marvel show has ever pulled. And Coker says he can’t wait to see the reaction online when people hit the seventh episode. “The day after the show comes out, I’m going to wake up around 6:30 a.m. to see if Twitter has lost its s***,” he says, laughing. “We’ve been very protective about the second half of the season. The Alpha Flight twist of doing that is so exciting.”
“WTF” moment: But here’s the kicker! Cottonmouth’s death isn’t even the end of the episode! In the last shot, an assassin’s special bullet punctures Luke’s supposedly impenetrable skin and he sinks to the ground, bleeding and crying out in pain. Excuse us while we start watching Episode 8 immediately.
Luke Cage is currently streaming on Netflix.