“Believe it or not, there’s supposed to be rules to this shit.”
Writer/creator Cheo Hodari Coker has said that the Gang Starr songs he used as episode titles for Luke Cage aren’t meant to thematically link to the content they adorn. While that may hold true of the lyrics for each song, the titles of the first two episode have felt very thematically relevant. I discussed the correlation between episode one and its title, “Moment Of Truth,” yesterday and how well it worked, and “Code Of The Streets” continued this trend. The above quote, said to Shades by Cottonmouth after he throws Tone (Warner Miller) off the roof, is an apt summation of one of the central themes of this series. It’s an idea brought up a number of times during this episode, as Pop (Frankie Faison) believes that his barber shop is “Switzerland” (aka neutral territory) and that he can parley (fancy war-talk for speak and strike a deal) with Cottonmouth there about the fate of Chico (Brian Marc). Pop and Cottonmouth have a sort-of mutual respect dating back to their days of growing up together (given the apparent age difference between the two now, we have to assume that Pop was a good deal older than the rest of his crew in that flashback) and beginning a budding life of crime along with Chico’s dad. They both believe that their history and the code of the streets they used to live by (and presumably still do) will extend to their current predicament. Pop is banking on his love for Chico’s dad being shared, at least in part, by Cottonmouth.
Unfortunately, the streets are a chaotic place, and just like the kid who holds a gun to Luke’s head at the beginning/end of the episode, some people who operate in this game have no respect for the supposed rules or for the seemingly ancient history of those who espouse said regulations. Despite Shades’ (meek) protests, Tone decides to light up Pop’s place in an effort to take care of Chico. He sees it as a boss move, taking the fight into his own hands. He likely even has vision of Cottonmouth (just don’t call him that to his face) rewarding him for the initiative. But Tone’s lack of respect for the rules and for history means he doesn’t understand the bond between his boss and the old man he just gunned down. It’s a lesson he only has a few moments to learn, as he plummets to his death during Cottonmouth’s fit of Fisk-like rage.
One of the major rules of the streets provides many of our characters with their call to action. Unlike the Avengers, who generally have quite bombastic reasons for intervening, owing favors is a powerful version of a folk-contract in street-level stories like this one. Just as Pop and Cottonmouth share a past, so too do the barber and his protégé. Luke and Pop share a connection through Reva, Luke’s wife who died at the hands of Jessica Jones (and the mouth of Kilgrave), and that relationship enabled Pop to look past the ex-con who showed up with Reva and later needed a job under the table when she died. He didn’t even balk when Luke started lifting appliances up with one hand, following the general tradition of people being seemingly unfazed by Luke’s powers in the MCU. All that kindness isn’t lost on Luke, so when Pop loses his life to one of Cottonmouth’s lieutenants and tells Luke he owes it to him to step up, Luke moves from last episode’s sense of civic duty to the next level of vigilantism: trying to take down the big bad.
Of course, all of this action draws in the cops, and from their perspective, Luke seems just as connected to the chaos as Cottonmouth. That’s likely to become more explicit over the next few episodes and won’t go unnoticed by Harlem’s most gifted detective. Last episode, we met fake auditor/real detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) who’s undercover at Harlem’s Paradise and ends the night with Luke (just gonna leave the “under the covers” pun alone). Unbeknownst to Luke, however, is the fact that his hookup is actually a detective, and her investigation is bringing her right into the center of the mess Luke is trying to clean up. He’s not exactly hiding his powers, but he does say he’s a fugitive, meaning he’s trying to avoid too much heat. Unluckily for Luke, Misty is no ordinary cop. While she doesn’t have a straight up superpower, the way the show chooses to demonstrate how she recreates crime scenes in her head is masterful, providing us with a neat visual replay of information (without characters simply expositing it) and also let’s us know she’s a notch above the other flatfoots. Missick has a powerful presence and Knight has a long history in the comics, both of which make it no wonder that people are already clamoring for a spinoff. Knight also has history in this world. See, she knows Pop from way back, and she used to play ball on the same court as Chico, Shameek, and Dante. When she shows up there asking questions, she uses the fact that she’s a cop and a woman to get a local kid to agree to talk if she can school him; he accepts, but soon learns his mistake. Misty’s just as much a baller as any of them, and once again, not knowing the history of the street’s that he’s playing in got a young kid in over his head.
History itself is another key element of this show. Much as the series revels in the chaotic and familial code of the streets, it’s also deeply obsessed with the past of its characters and location. History plays out in the references people make, the names of locations, the relationships at play, and even during the opening credits. At first, I wasn’t feeling the titles that launch the show. They felt a bit generic and a little too similar to the opening of Jessica Jones. The more I watched them and thought about them, however, the more it clicked. The music sets the tone, much as it does throughout the series, and provides us with the hazy atmosphere and loaded history of both jazz and hip-hop, while dreamlike images of Malcolm X Boulevard and Luke’s fist wash over the proceedings. That same dreamlike state is how the show decides to show what happens in each character’s mind, from flashbacks to prison for Luke, to the crime scene recreation for Misty. It’s a clever visual way of drawing us in and establishing the tone of the what we’re about to watch. As keyed into the past as the series and those who populate it are, however, Pop’s and Luke’s motto outlines Luke Cage‘s ultimate focus and direction: Always forward. Forward. Always.
4.5 Games of H-O-R-S-E out of 5.
Speaking of music and references, there were some Quentin Tarantino homages peppered throughout this episode. From Tone describing his shootout of the barber shop as worthy of the auteur, to the musical stings throughout from composers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge that brought to mind some of Al Hirt‘s inclusions on the Kill Bill soundtrack. Coincidence or not, these are all fitting as Tarantino has long wanted to make a Luke Cage movie that focused more on the 70s exploitation that he’s obsessed with and that Luke was born into as a character.
The biggest MCU reference was the surprising prominence of Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan), last seen on the receiving end of a Daredevil beating earlier this year. While playing chess with Fish, his charm almost makes you forget how terrible of a person he is (we first meet him trafficking young women in Season 1 of Daredevil), but he shows his true colors by episode’s end when he rats out Chico to Cottonmouth’s lieutenant/hood ornament Tony.
Mama Mabel is mentioned as the deceased matriarch of Cottonmouth and Dillard’s family. While that seems a good candidate for a comic book character name, I can’t find any reference to her nor does she sound familiar to me.
The literary discussion Luke and Pop have references the Kenyatta series by Donald Goines (which shares a lot of thematic similarities to the show), Walter Mosley (Luke is reading his book Little Green), and Dennis Lehane (best known for Shutter Island).
Tonight’s musical guest was Faith Evans.
Pop says Luke used to find people. Was this brought up in Jessica Jones? I don’t recall it but it seems like something they’d be able to connect on. Guess we’ll learn more on that soon.
Luke and I have the same stance on reclaimed slurs.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you thought in the comments below and make sure to add a spoiler warning if you wanna discuss anything past this episode.