It took me about half the second season of “Luke Cage” to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting sucked into it. It’s not that the characters are bad, or that it isn’t written well. Individual pieces of season 2 are, in fact, extremely compelling and even thought-provoking. But the whole of it just doesn’t add up.
Officially, season 2 of “Luke Cage” is about, according to the official synopsis: “With the rise of a formidable new foe, Luke is forced to confront the fine line that separates a hero from a villain.” I can see that, abstractly. The main thrust of the season involves a three-pronged conflict — Luke Cage himself (Mike Coulter) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) in one corner, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) in another, and a Jamaican badass called the Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir, who is incredible) in the third.
The Bushmaster has a secret vendetta against Mariah, who is undeniably a terrible person who needs to be taken down, but his methods are brutal and his motivations obscured for longer than they should be — for nearly half the season he just plays like a bloodthirsty gangster looking to carve out his piece of Harlem. His actual story is basically the Punisher in “Daredevil” season 2 all over again, but without the name recognition it’s a lot less obvious what we’re supposed to think about Bushmaster since it takes entirely too long to get to the point.
That three-way conflict sounds cool in theory, but in reality this second season of “Luke Cage” really should have been the first season of a “Bushmaster” show. This story is more about his conflict with Mariah than it is about anything else, and Luke and Misty are just interlopers who are along for the ride.
But that emphasis on Bushmaster vs Mariah could be great if it didn’t feel stapled on top of Luke’s story, which brings me to my main complaint about this season. It feels as though showrunner Cheo Coker and his writing team had a story they wanted to tell — Luke Cage figures out how Mariah Dillard — and that story fell victim to the strange demands of Marvel’s shared TV universe.
Luke Cage has to go up against a superpowered foe, thus we have Bushmaster. There has to be some crossover with the other Marvel Netflix shows, so Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) shows up in one early episode and then disappears forever, and then Danny Rand (Finn Jones) shows up in a later episode talking about his pledge to protect all of Manhattan — and so he can teach Luke about meditation — but then bails without notice once that episode is over even though the fight is not. And after Danny leaves he isn’t even mentioned again. They just had to throw Colleen and Danny in there to tease potential Daughters of the Dragon and Heroes for Hire teamups and not because they are part of this story.
Meanwhile, returning characters also suffer. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who is a character shared by all the shows, can’t be in too many episodes here because of that and so she just leaves a couple episodes in and never comes back. Misty Knight gets her trademark robot arm because she has to but it’s barely even acknowledged and its inclusion doesn’t matter much — she certainly does not function as a superhero at any point.
There’s just too much stuff to really do justice to any of it, and that lack of focus makes it tough to latch on to anything the season is trying to do. It’s very rarely about the big picture Luke vs. Mariah vs. Bushmaster conflict, instead swapping between Luke vs Mariah and Luke vs Bushmaster and Bushmaster vs. Mariah at random — never really finding its direction.
To make things worse, it’s just as muddy thematically as its story is. There’s a part midway through where Misty’s captain says that if they don’t get the gang war situation under control in 48 hours then the governor will probably call in the National Guard and, because the war involves a Jamaican gang, ICE. But that threat, and any of its potential thematic and story ramifications, are quickly forgotten even though the situation definitely only gets significantly worse from there. The season is full of things like that, compelling topics and thematic material that are broached and then tossed aside.
When I look back at season 2 of “Luke Cage” as a whole I see a half-dozen really interesting stories that all could have worked on their own. But the problem is that it needs to function as one big story, not six individual ones. And since those individual arcs never really congeal into something coherent, the whole of it simply does not work.
It’s a problem we’ve seen multiple times with these Marvel shows. The best chunks of this TVverse are still the first seasons of “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” because they stayed focused. And “Luke Cage” season 2, like the first season before it, ultimately falls apart because it doesn’t.