“UPS ain’t the only brown that delivers.”
Actor Mike Colter’s guarded, injured, and ultimately good-hearted turn as Luke Cage was one of the few pleasures the first season of Jessica Jones had to offer. On his own and grounded in a much more immediate and organic sense of place and moment, he doesn’t disappoint. Luke Cage, adapted from the comics created by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, and John Romita, Sr., is an atmospheric pleasure miles away from the one-note sarcasm of Jessica Jones or the relentless action figure workouts of Marvel’s blockbusters. The thoughtfulness and restraint with which the show approaches the struggle over Harlem’s identity, as embodied by the black men and women living, working, and dying on its streets, is refreshing.
Luke Cage sketches the historic neighborhood as a black community deeply divided along lines of culture, class, and generation. Money is either crushingly tight or freighted with lethal risks and heinous acts, family is both deep-running and intimate and systematically broken, and prison looms over every thought and action. Hard time is an experience so common that Pops (Frankie Faison), Luke’s employer and surrogate father, recognizes the younger man’s pacing as a leftover inmate’s tic. Luke himself, just out of jail after serving a grueling sentence, remains by choice apart from the episode’s central conflict for most of its running time. He’s working two jobs, short on rent, and keen to keep his past and his powers under wraps. Until the bone-crunching fight scene that closes out the episode, the only unusual things we see him pick up are a washing machine and an undercover cop.
Colter is a joy to watch, smooth enough to nearly get away with a pickup line like “Dumb men like little girls. Me? I ponder a woman.” and simultaneously ill at ease with his poverty, his past, and his community. His back and forth with Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick) weaves and dodges from seductive to silly to embarrassing, lending their eventual hookup an immediacy which, frankly, makes it way hotter than it might otherwise have been. Director Paul McGuigan’s camera moves slowly over Knight and Colter as they undress each other, finding as much quiet, urgent desire in the shadows between their bodies as in their naked skin. It’s good stuff, the rare sex scene that manages to actually capture something about what it is to want another person.
Positioned as the episode’s centerpiece and juxtaposed with a bloody holdup gone wrong, the conversation between Cornell Stokes (a thoroughly charming Mahershala Ali) and his cousin city councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, perennial MVP of character actors) cuts right to the heart of the paradoxical effects of escaping poverty and degradation. “May as well be the new Cotton Club,” Stokes says smugly of his lavish establishment, the Harlem’s Paradise. Dillard eyes him. “Then I shouldn’t be up in here tonight.” She may be a cynic and an operator, but she’s hardly deluded about the tendency of those who come up in the world to close ranks with the ruling class. Later she even illustrates it herself when, after glad-handing with Harlem’s youth at a public cookout and benefit, she lets her sunny facade slip and washes her hands clean with antibacterial gel. It somehow feels uglier than seeing Stokes’s hands covered in a dead man’s blood, though the two are one and the same image when you come down to it. Both outwardly straight-laced Dillard and her crime-boss cousin are preying on Harlem, the former via the nauseatingly titled Crispus Attucks Center, a funnel to direct clean money into dirty enterprise, the latter literally pummeling the bodies of his neighbors into bloody wreckage in his ravishingly beautiful office with its oceanic desk and its looming print of a crowned Biggie Smalls.
The final fight scene is the episode’s other big effort, and it’s a hell of a scene in its own right. Cage returns home defeated and rent-less after his asshole boss casually stiffs him to find some of Stokes’s men trying to shake down Genghis Connie’s, the Chinese restaurant over which he lives, on behalf of the Dillard campaign. He wades right into the shit on behalf of his imperious landlord and her husband, and Colter lends real threat to Cage’s direct and unselfconscious fighting style, taking punches and letting dudes break baseball bats on his arms as he beats his way through them one by one. It’s hilarious stuff, a real-life Loony Toon complete with hands breaking in slow-motion and Cage stopping a bullet with his palm, and it sets up the inevitable conflict between Cage and Stokes without wasting any time.
“Moment of Truth” is a strong opening episode buoyed by a pitch-perfect cast drawing talent from everything from The Wire to Mr. Robot, a gorgeous sense of New York’s physicality, and sharp and amusing writing. With 12 episodes left it’s still too early to call—Daredevil‘s second season got off to a rock-solid start before shaking and shivering through the last leg of its too-spacious 13-episode run, and even Jessica Jones had a premiere a damn sight better than the lackluster standard it went on to establish-but still, Luke Cage has chops. Let’s hope it stays this good over the long haul.