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Luke Cage: The Past Haunts the Present in "Code of the Streets"

Those who ignore history, etc., etc.

Alexander Zalben

Marvel and Netflix are launching their new original series Marvel's Luke Cage today, Sept. 30, with 13 original episodes. The superhero series developed by Cheo Hodari Coker exists in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Avengers movies, but is more closely tied to fellow Netflix Originals Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Because we're so excited about the show, we're going to recap each episode every hour as we go through and watch: you can check out our recap of the premiere, here. And needless to say, spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage past this point!

I thought Episode 1 was the Spider-Man style, refusal of the call origin story for Harlem' hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter). I was wrong. Turns out the second chapter, titled "Code of the Streets," gives us the final piece of the puzzle that brings the bulletproof Cage out of his funk, and into full hero mode.

It also ramps up every element from the intro hour, making these first two episodes two pieces of a much greater whole. Visual innovation, some incredible musical moments, powerful statements and Cage finally stepping (back) up to bat. The promise of the premiere pays off in spades in hour two.

After last episode's arms deal gone wrong, Chico (Brian Marc) is hiding from both the villainous Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), who wants his money back; and the cops, led by investigator Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Luke isn't being much help, either. Despite having a lighter tone due both to helping out at Genghis Connie's last episode, and, to use Pop's (Frankie Faison) term, "getting some trim," Luke still isn't totally willing to step up and help Harlem.

He does, however, spend a lot of time staring at a pamphlet for Mariah Dillard's (Alfre Woodard) Green Initiative. We know that the councilwoman's push to bring Harlem back to its former cultural heights is fueled by ill-gotten gains from her cousin, Cottonmouth. Luke also knows that by episode's end: an unfortunate attack on Pop's leaves the store's namesake dead, as well as Chico on life support, and some other guy dead, I don't know who. There's a lot of guys on this show. Following the trail of evidence, Cage sees Dillard take Chico's stolen bag of cash into the to-be-constructed Crispus Attucks Center.

So basically, Pop turns out to be Cage's Uncle Ben. Last episode, Cage turned aside and let Chico leave the barbershop with a gun, just like Spider-Man let a nameless burglar leave his wrestling match after robbing the owner. And just like that nameless burglar ended up killing Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, Cage's actions directly lead to the death of Pop.

We even get Cage's own, "with great power, comes great responsibility" moment. Pop tells Cage several times -- including right before he dies -- to go "always forward." So instead of wallowing in the past (the death of his wife, whatever happened to land him in Seagate Prison, his really, really bad dating experience with Jessica Jones), Cage decides to put on his green and yellow hoodie and fight crime.

What's superb about this show, though, is that it's far more than a cut-rate Spider-Man riff. The idea of people who don't learn from history being doomed to repeat it resonates with nearly every character on the show this hour. We learn that Pop, Cottonmouth, and Wilfredo (the father of Chico) were "snap, crackle and" Pop back in the day. They were the bad guys ruling Harlem's streets, until Wilfredo got hooked on crack, and Pop got sent to prison.

Marvel's Luke Cage is the most important TV show of 2016

Pop learned from his history, building a place where young men could gather and chat, but never talk about the thug life. Cottonmouth hasn't. He, like Dillard, is constantly trying to send himself and Harlem back to an earlier era when crime was easy and had rules, when massive music clubs were the hub of activity, and when it was clear who was right and who was wrong... And that was always the person with the most money.

Even when he's presented with the stark reality of the new world order, when Tone (Warner Miller) shoots up Pop's store, Cottonmouth throws Tone off the roof to his death rather than deal with the consequences. Last episode we talked about how Cottonmouth is a complex, tragic villain in the mode of the other main Netflix/Marvel villains, and that continues here. His realization (complete with tears) that he doomed Pop is as tragic as Luke's final speech of the episode.

Let's talk about that, though, because Mike Colter is playing Cage as a soft-spoken, reserved man. But when he lets loose, he lets loose. And the speech he gives to a young thug outside the Crispus Attucks Center -- about who Crispus Attucks was, and how he refused to believe history was the only determinant of who a person is -- was stunningly good. Add in the recurring discussion of the use of the N-word throughout the episode, and how that ties us -- or not -- to the past, and you have a strong theme of history informing our present actions; but ideally not making us a slave to circular behaviors.

You know, like Spider-Man.

Easter Eggs and References:

- Throughout the episode, Luke is reading Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mystery "Little Green." The mystery novel follows Rawlins as he awakens from a coma, and tries to find a missing boy. Which, since Cage awakened from a coma at the end of Jessica Jones, and headed straight for this series -- and is looking for Chico the whole episode, it's pretty clear what the connection is.

- Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan) first showed up as a recurring character on Daredevil, and has been a supporting character in ol' horn head's comics since 1970. That's why he tells Cottonmouth, "You Harlem n-----s are off the hook. I'm going back to Hell's Kitchen where it's safe." See, it's funny, because he's always getting beaten up by Daredevil in Hell's Kitchen. It's not safe, for him at least. That's the joke. FYI.

- Misty's partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who gets a lot more screen time this episode, was also Misty's partner in the comics. He's actual worked with all the Netflix heroes in the books, including Daredevil and the not-yet-introduced Iron Fist.