LUKE CAGE season two deals in themes decidedly grayer than the previous season. There is no character capable of doing no wrong, no villain who does not get a moment of grudging sympathy. However, the most important character in season two is Harlem itself. Or, more accurately, Luke Cage’s Harlem. As the only show in the Netflix brood to feature a black hero and an all-black cast, Harlem and the community within it are an essential part of understanding the characters and their motivations.

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Over the course of LUKE CAGE season two, Luke Cage’s Harlem increasingly becomes the prize to be won between the trio of vigilantes and villains. Moreso, Harlem becomes the justification for heinous crimes to be committed. In episode ten “The Main Ingredient,” Danny Rand tells Luke while they’re eating in Genghis Connie’s, “Harlem was standing long before you, and will keep standing long after you leave.” If there’s anything LUKE CAGE season two has taught us, it’s that Harlem will endure.  

The Harlem Hero App and Public Superheroism

A running gag over season two is the Harlem Hero app. No matter what Luke does or where he goes, anyone can find him. Most notably, the business savvy D.W. often appears wherever Luke’s fighting to record and sell the footage. D.W.’s efforts to brand and merchandise Harlem’s hero hit upon Luke’s deeper connection with the city. At the start, Luke Cage is popular and likable. Regular people on the street line up to take selfies with him, and he draws eyes everywhere. I mean, Nike offers him an extremely lucrative sponsorship deal after he does some showboating on live TV. He functions as a symbol of hope and peace for Harlem. A black man in a hoodie already resonates with people — never mind a bulletproof one.

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The Harlem Hero app also touches on the effects of being a public superhero. Danny Rand works with a cushion of money and privilege he acknowledges — in addition to the alias of Iron Fist. Jessica Jones makes no attempts to assume the heroic mantle. She’s just a woman who wants people to leave her alone. And everyone knows about the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. As Luke Cage puts it, when Foggy suggests that he start wearing a mask, “I’m 6’3, black, and bulletproof.” Just by existing, Luke is going to draw attention. Why not embrace it?

luke cage's harlem
Selfies in Luke Cage’s Harlem. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Luke’s Breaking Point

However, the stress of constantly being held accountable takes a toll on Luke. He’s dedicated himself to protecting a Harlem that won’t allow itself to be protected without a fight. Luke’s ups and downs are tied closely to his current public perception. In one scene, Luke likens himself to a firefighter without enough water. No matter what he does, trouble always keeps cropping up. And all of Luke Cage’s Harlem and the people in it will not hesitate to tell him that he’s not enough to stop it all. If you don’t wear a mask, you can’t live two lives.

Luke’s reputation’s almost irreparably damaged after Bushmaster publically beats him up. The first episode finds Luke targeting a drug dealer who dared to use his name on the illegal product. Part of being an active superhero within a community means actually being liked by that community. If a hero isn’t trusted by those they seek to protect, what good can they actually accomplish? The mounting pressure from the community, in addition to Luke’s inability to deal with the source of his anger and frustration, works to isolate Luke from his loved ones.

The Shirley Chisholm Center and the Family First Initiative

Though early rumors suggested that Bushmaster would be the primary antagonist of season two, the show reveals that it’s truly Mariah Dillard. Or, as she prefers to be known by the end of the show, Mariah Stokes.

Mariah’s obsession with going legit by illegal means sets in motion a terrible domino effect. Over and over again, she cites her desire to save Harlem from itself as the reason for her crimes. However, Mariah’s inability to deal with the past rather than trying to bury it destroys all of her efforts. The name “family first” comes from a common mantra of her mobster grandmother Mama Mabel — Mariah’s attempt to steal something back from the matriarch that ruled her life for so long. Every single one of Mariah’s endeavors to establish herself as a force of good for Harlem fails.

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The season finale opens with Mariah pleading at her arraignment hearing. She gives an elaborate analogy of a speech, comparing her position as a crime boss to a storm wall preventing the worst of a hurricane. Without her fist wrapped around the throat of Harlem, crime will return in a big way. The worst part? She’s completely right.

Tilda tells her mother in the season finale, “Everyone who you’ve ever loved, who you haven’t killed, you’ve pushed away. Including your precious Harlem.” As the local newspapers herald her death, headlines read “The Witch Is Dead.”

Bushmaster’s Birthright

John McIver, also known as Bushmaster, makes his debut as an antagonist for LUKE CAGE season two. He arrives in style, flaunting a dapper suit and immediately taking out his incompetent rivals within the Yardies. Upon his arrival to New York, Bushmaster is concerned with only one thing — obtaining his birthright. Harlem belongs to the Stokes, who cheated Bushmaster’s family out of their hard-earned fortune in the eponymous rum, as well as Harlem’s Paradise. The last nail in the coffin was Mama Mabel’s orchestration of the murder of Gwen McIver, Bushmaster’s mother, to keep her from suing for her share of the profits. Bushmaster acts as revenge incarnated.

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Like Mariah, Bushmaster will go to deadly lengths to see justice done for his family. In fact, Bushmaster is completely successful at the midpoint of the season. However, the problem lies in Luke Cage. Bushmaster is intensely aware of Luke’s popularity in Harlem. He knows he’s not the king of anything if the hearts of his people do not belong to him. It’s why one of his first acts is publically beating up Luke Cage — as soon as that footage gets out, Luke Cage’s Harlem is quick to pounce on its own hero.

luke cage's harlem
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Crown Jewel of Luke Cage’s Harlem

LUKE CAGE season two ends on a strange note. Mariah, dead via her own daughter’s poisoned kiss, leaves Harlem’s Paradise to Luke Cage in her will. By their last encounter, Luke and Mariah had somewhat accepted their reluctantly symbiotic relationship. Mariah won’t lose because Luke’s too good of a man to let her die at the hands of a murderer. Mariah’s motivation to leave the club to Luke is the result of her dying wish to see him ruined. Harlem’s Paradise is the Stokes’ throne. Mariah believes that same throne corrupted Cottonmouth, it corrupted Mariah, and she wants the throne to corrupt Luke as well. Viewers even get the signature shot of Luke framed with Biggie’s crown over his head.

luke cage's harlem
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Over the course of the season, Luke comes closer and closer to crossing the line of no return. His desire to save Harlem manifests in increasingly violent aggression, though he always pulls himself back before making a mistake he cannot undo. However, his efforts to save Harlem in the wake of Mariah’s power vacuum set a dangerous precedent. D.W., loyal to the end, sends Luke away from Pop’s barber shop because he doesn’t believe he’s neutral enough to keep Pop’s legacy of Switzerland.

So what does this mean for Luke Cage’s Harlem? Luke claims he’s the new sheriff but is getting dangerously close to becoming a crime boss himself. Are the people who want to save Harlem destined to corrupt themselves in the process? This is a very interesting and new territory to explore, and I hope we’ll see more of it in a season three.

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