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Luke Cage: "Just to Get a Rep" Asks... Who Owns Harlem?

Is it Luke? Cottonmouth? Or someone else?

Alexander Zalben

Marvel and Netflix are launching their new original series Marvel's Luke Cage today, September 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, episode 2,episode 3, and episode 4. And needless to say, spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage past this point!

Who owns Harlem? Is it the heroes? The villains? Or maybe, as the fifth episode of Marvel's Luke Cage posits... Nobody owns the neighborhood, it's just a collection of people. That last idea -- which Luke (Mike Colter) throws out to the attendees at Pop's funeral later in the episode ("I don't believe in Harlem. I believe in the people who make Harlem what it is"), is probably refuted by the opening credits themselves. But let's get a little deeper into it.

Luke Cage's strong suit is, well, that he's strong, even in a suit. So when Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) sends his thugs out into Harlem to collect tithes, and he tells the people to ask Luke why they're being robbed... Luke doesn't waste a whole lot of time taking the fight back to Cottonmouth. Clearly both men are on edge. Pop's funeral is happening later that day, and each has their own special relationship with the departed barber. To Luke, he's a father figure. To Cottonmouth, a brother. Both feel like they let Pop down: Luke by not saving him from a hail of bullets; Cottonmouth by never quite living up to being the man Pop thought he could be.

So Luke stalks around Harlem non-stop, destroying his fancy new funeral suit, and -- frustration filling his furrowed brow -- trying to help as many people as he can at the same time.

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

Cottonmouth, meanwhile, has a far different reaction: he's panicking, and everyone knows it. Luke's actions have depleted his criminal empire down to just Harlem's Paradise, his club; and some very, very nice suits. Three episodes ago Cottonmouth killed Tone (Warner Miller) for going nuts shooting up Pop's shop, growling, "There are supposed to be rules." Three episodes later, he's blown up a Chinese restaurant with a rocket launcher, shot one of his associates for suggesting, "Maybe if we just give this Luke Cage cat his side of the street, we take ours?" and is calling in favors from all over to buy a super-bullet called Judas that might be able to break Cage's unbreakable skin.

Before that, though, it's Pop's funeral. And if you watched Netflix's The Get Down, you'll know what's about to happen. Cottonmouth gives the Ed Koch speech, while Luke gives Zeke's coded message speech to the people. Or in other words, Cottonmouth does what he always does: focuses on himself and the money; while Luke talks to the heart of the people.

And Luke wins the war of the words! Which is good. But then Misty (Simone Missick), who has just found out her partner Scarfe (Frank Whaley) is under investigation, confronts Luke. "You just started World War III in there," Misty says. "And you may be bulletproof. But Harlem ain't."

She's the one who's right, of course: ultimately, nobody owns Harlem, it owns itself. Cottonmouth may represent Old Harlem, and Luke the raw justice of the streets; but ultimately, if these two ideologies don't work together to stop what the uber-bad Diamondback has planned (or whatever is going on with Mariah Dillard), it's the city that's going to pay.

Hopefully, the duo can decide on joint custody of the city before that happens.

Easter Eggs and References:

- Hey, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is back! She's shown up in every Marvel/Netflix series so far, first (and third) as a nurse taking care of Daredevil, and then as she tells her Mom, she helped watch Luke after he got shot in the face in Jessica Jones. Oh, and in the second season of Daredevil, she quit her hospital job. So that's what she's doing in Harlem! Other than getting there just in time to help Luke heal from his super-bullet wound next episode, probably.

- Shades (Theo Rossi) shows Cottonmouth a gun test of the Judas bullet, and explains it uses metal from "the incident." That's the Chitauri attack from the first Avengers movie, so he's not-so-subtly saying it's alien metal.

- Scarfe has Cottonmouth as "Charlie Mack" in his phone. No comics reference there, it's just cute.

- Dapper Dan, the real life "Hip-Hop Tailor of Harlem" shows up to give Luke his suit, which is pretty cool (and also marks the second cameo after Method Man of real life awesome dudes giving Luke clothes).