The first season of LUKE CAGE was — at its core — a story of identity. It was about a man who, confronted with the criminal activity overrunning Harlem, chose to stand against it. Where Daredevil fought from the shadows, Luke Cage walked straight into conflict with his identity exposed. LUKE CAGE Season 2 continues this narrative by successfully evolving that theme to its next logical step.

Thematically, Luke Cage walks a path between the feared “black criminal” identity and the “bulletproof black man.” His very abilities offered an antithesis to the numerous police shootings that continue to spark outrage today. He wants to be seen as a hero but must do so in a public sphere overridden by stereotypes.

This asks the big question of Season 2: once someone has found their identity, what arises from that title?

Harlem’s Protector

LUKE CAGE Season 2
LUKE CAGE Season 2, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

Following the events of Season 1 and DEFENDERS, Luke Cage is back on the streets of Harlem again. Only this time, he is regarded by the people as a celebrity, complete with selfies, autographs and endorsement deals. This newfound status builds an identity that Luke never previously had, but it also comes with some side effects.

The most notable change is in how Luke perceives himself as not only bulletproof but invincible. As he states for social media, Luke Cage can’t be shot, burned or broken, so don’t even both trying. He’s cocky to a point of arrogance, flaunting his strength against crime as if he were above the law. And, as we later see in some of his fights, Luke kind of enjoys roughing up bad guys.

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This belief in his invincibility sets up the sources of Luke’s inner conflict: finding the balance between vigilante and hero. If he’s the virtuous hero, then any violence taken against criminals, no matter how brutal, can be justified. But it also means that anyone trying to make him see reason just “doesn’t get it.” They don’t have his powers, so they can’t understand his burden.

The return of Luke’s father, Reverend James Lucas (the late Reg E. Cathey), accelerates his inner turmoil. From their opening interactions, it’s clear that Luke still harbors animosity towards his dad for understandable reasons. Having abandoned him in prison, Luke still see Reverend Lucas as he once was, rather than who he is now. He can’t let go of the past because it means re-experiencing old wounds that affect even a bulletproof man.

Get Physical

LUKE CAGE Season 2
Luke Cage and Reverend Lucas, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

Two incidents at the beginning of Season 2 force Luke to confront the toxic influence of his idealized, ego-driven self. The first is his breakup with Claire Temple, showcasing how far Luke’s new identity isolates him from allies. More specifically, from the woman who was not only his romantic partner but also recognized Luke’s personal struggles early on. She sees that Luke has yet to reconcile with his father and that anger, combined with his newfound persona, is turning him into something ugly.

The second moment- Bushmaster publically defeating him – hurts Luke physically as much as his break-up did emotionally. As someone seemingly on top of his game, Bushmaster’s victory quite literally brings Luke back down to earth. This offers a complete rejection of the previous status quo: Luke’s claim that no one can “break” him. On the contrary, there is indeed someone who can stand up to, and defeat, Harlem’s hero when no bullet can.

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Without Claire, Luke’s biggest emotional tether is Misty Knight, who is currently undergoing her own crisis of identity. Recovering from her arm-loss during the DEFENDERS storyline, Misty is literally struggling to continue without a part of herself. This makes her feel unbalanced, refusing to be seen as neither victim nor inexperienced police detective.

Arm Of The Law

Because being a cop is part of her identity, Misty’s inability to perform that job weighs heavily on her actions. This is physically solved through the acquirement of a badass bionic arm, courtesy of Danny Rand. However, despite being physically “whole” again, Misty finds herself struggling to view the law as an effective tool against corruption.

Over thirty criminals she and her former partner Rafael Scarfe locked up are now free due to the latter’s corruption. Thus, Misty must find some way to lock these criminals up again without them exploiting the system to get out.

LUKE CAGE Season 2
Misty Knight and Collen Wing in LUKE CAGE Season 2, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

Misty’s disillusionment divides her between two paths: make bargains with criminals, or use corrupt means to arrest the bad guys. The latter reflects her former ties to Scarfe, who locked up criminals for falsified charges, despite the extent of their known crimes. The former embodies Police Captain Ridenhour’s “by the books” outlook, relying on amnesty deals that reward criminals for snitching. At first, rather than succumb to either side’s mentality, Misty decides to resign from Harlem police.

Following Captain Ridenhour’s murder, however, Misty must confront what type of cop she wants to be.  The drive behind this goal: like Luke, Misty wants to protect Harlem but must do so through legal means. Thus, to protect Harlem from Bushmaster, Misty must make sacrifices like offering Mariah a deal that ensures her assistance. Misty’s legacy, therefore, ties into her sense of duty, rationalizing how she can change things through the law versus her new abilities.

The Brick that the Builders Forgot

Where Luke and Misty’s conflicts reflect their need to do good, Bushmaster’s actions are that of an anti-hero settling a score. Yet he is also driven by identity and legacy- the legacy of a family stripped of power by the Stokes. Born John McIver, Bushmaster’s Jamaican family were once business partners with the Stoke family until the latter betrayed them. Now, armed with nightshade herbs that enhance his strength and healing, Bushmaster seeks revenge on Mariah Dillard for her family’s crimes.

Looking Back on Luke Cage Season 1

Despite his violent tendencies, Bushmaster was genuinely wronged by the Stokes’ actions. His eye for an eye mentality showcases a need to ensure that the family’s past atrocities are rectified. This is evident by his refusal to address Mariah by her last name Dillard, as he views it as a cover for her family’s crimes. She is Mariah “Stokes” first and foremost, no matter how many philanthropy donations she makes to the public.

LUKE CAGE Season 2
Bushmaster in LUKE CAGE Season 2, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

To avenge his family, Bushmaster exposes the corrupt underbelly of Mariah’s family to the public. He strips her of both money and business partners as if to personally claim Mariah’s criminal legacy for himself. This extends to Mariah’s claim on Harlem Paradise, a location constantly referred to as the source of the Stokes’ power. If Bushmaster can seize control of Harlem’s crime syndicate, then he has fulfilled his birthright and family legacy.

Family First

At the spectrum’s opposite end is Mariah Dillard, whose attempt to go legitimate ultimately turns her into Harlem’s Michael Corleone. Despite committing criminal acts to acquire legal income, Mariah does them to get “out” of her family’s lifestyle. This includes reuniting with her long-estranged daughter Tilda in an attempt to better improve her public image. Such a positive public legacy, while good for the cameras, allows Mariah to ignore the blood spilled on her watch.

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Much like Luke Cage, Mariah’s fixation on having a legacy alienates her those whom she previously trusted. Bushmaster’s actions only further this belief, cutting off her wealth and depriving her of financial allies. In doing so, he destroys the image Mariah desired for herself as Harlem’s benevolent matriarch.

LUKE CAGE Season 2
Mariah Dillard-Stokes in LUKE CAGE Season 2, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

When she is unable to escape her family’s lineage, Mariah decides to embrace it instead. As she explains to Tilda, the Stokes name was once synonymous with unfiltered violence. Mariah is also a victim of that violence, having been sexually abused and raped by her uncle. With no way to make an honest name anymore, accepting her namesake is the only way to retain a lasting legacy.

However, despite retaking Harlem Paradise, her wealth, and sending Bushmaster a retaliatory message, Mariah ends up alone. Her actions mirror Luke’s own identity crisis, making rash decisions and rejecting help from those who lack her unique status. Both wish to control the crime flow in Harlem, albeit with a different rationale for “protecting” the public. However, the uncomfortable truth is that, because of their power, both Luke and Mariah see themselves as above the law.

LUKE CAGE Season 2: “The Sheriff of Harlem”

Mariah’s arrest is a cathartic moment for Luke and Misty, as it concludes a two-season-long mission. Rather than go to prison, Mariah is, rather ironically, murdered by the legacy she never wanted. Tilda, a child conceived from incest and rape, has had enough of her mother’s actions and secretly poisons her. Thus, Mariah’s death signals the “true” end of the Stokes lineage.

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That is until we read her will. In it, Mariah leaves Harlem Paradise to Luke for the sole purpose of challenging his morals. She knew that Luke would try to use her Club as a means of keeping crime in check. Just as he claimed himself unbreakable, Luke also deems his actions pure enough to not be corrupted.

LUKE CAGE Season 2
LUKE CAGE Season 2, Courtesy of Marvel/Netflix

That, however, is exactly what Mariah is counting on. Her final legacy is the supposed downfall of a hero by the very object that embodied the Stokes’ power. Luke might want to be a sheriff rather than a kingpin, but one cannot hold power without dealing with rivals. And, unlike Luke Cage himself, the “Sheriff of Harlem’s” legacy is far from bulletproof.

The Marvel Netflix Legacy

Despite some pacing issues, LUKE CAGE is the first Marvel Netflix show whose second season improves upon the flaws of its predecessor. Its story feels like a continuation of the first season’s themes, shifting from character identity to character legacy. By challenging the status quo, LUKE CAGE forces its characters to change, making Season 2 feel like it has a purpose.

Where DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES’ narratives dipped in quality, LUKE CAGE ensured that its overarching narrative mattered. By giving motive to heroes and villains alike, the show’s consistency also proved stronger than that of Season 1. These changes ensured that plot investment never dwindled, effectively solving a problem that has long plagued the Marvel Netflix programs. Thus, one could look at LUKE CAGE Season 2 as a template for maintaining audience investment.

Oh, and as a bonus, LUKE CAGE fixed Danny Rand/Iron Fist’s characterization in a single episode. That alteration alone speaks volumes.

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