“My woman was pregnant when I went in. Haven’t seen her or my son since he was thirteen. I have this nightmare that one day he’s gonna come to the shop, ask for a cut, sit in my chair… and I’m not even gonna know him.”
“Code of the Streets,” Luke Cage‘s gorgeously shot and unevenly scripted second episode, offers up both a visual feast and a fair primer on the black community’s internal conflict over assimilation, respectability, and silence. If it employs a lackluster “how’d we get here?” cold open to do it, and if a few of its conversations feel disjointed and repetitive, they’re minor blemishes on a fun, fast-paced hour of television. And hell if it doesn’t look good.
The cavernous wide-angle shot of Misty Knight staring at the expansive wall of evidence tied to the junkyard shooting gives us a taste for the intensity of the detective’s focus as she emerges from a silent-but-for-gunfire internal recreation of the crime itself, a Three Stooges blitz of collapsing bodies and muzzle flash. The perpetrators are as empty of motivation and personality as department store mannequins, the human elements that drove them to such an explosive end still absent from Misty’s picture. It’s a cut above the usual “reconstructing the crime” claptrap dished out by most procedurals, a fleeting and evocative look at the construction of a hypothesis.
Pop’s and Luke’s sidewalk conversation places the two men in juxtaposition with two apartment buildings across the way, one old and the other newer, as Pop explains that his folksy nickname comes from the sound his fists used to make when he beat people. “Snap, crackle, pop,” he recounts with a combination of wistfulness and self-loathing. His nightmare about the son he never knew coming back to haunt him feels like a grim vision of the Uzi-toting gangster soon to destroy his shop and steal his life, a harsh circle of criminality and broken connections leading to men willing to kill at the drop of a hat. That it concludes in a messy back-and-forth of truisms about finding who you’re supposed to be doesn’t do much to detract from its invocation of the specter of prison as a shatterer of families, a role once occupied by slavery.
Luke Cage does great work with color from the cool blues of the basketball court to the faded-blood red of Cottonmouth’s office where the portrait of Biggie stares out at nefarious proceedings like the modern-day eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. The cool, relaxed whites and greens of the barbershop support the ease and friendliness with which Luke and Pop bicker about black writers, Luke championing Walter Mosley and other prominent voices while Pop champions Donald Goines, a man Luke dismisses as someone who “…lived like a criminal and died like one.” Pop, with a lifetime of experience under his belt and a keen knowledge of the importance of community ties over respectability, tells Luke he sounds like FOX News. It’s funny, and the show keeps it light, but you can see the depth of the divide between the two men, Luke with his zero-tolerance policy for criminal behavior, Pop with his youth as a man who’d have brawled and dealt his way into an early grave without people to love and accept him.
It’s the same exchange Luke and Cottonmouth have over the Old Testament and the New, in a way. The thirst for punishment and justice set against the need for mercy and redemption. To trust in the law is to set aside personal responsibility, a heroic arc as old as drama itself. The final blow to Luke’s belief in the system, the tipping of the scales he imitates when he weighs a departed Pop’s bloody, busted swear jar in one hand and a pamphlet for Marissa Dillard’s New Harlem social program in the other, comes when he sees Dillard herself carrying Chico’s backpack into the building. It’s an ugly scene, and while I’m not sure what the show will carry forward from it in terms of Luke’s personal journey, it’s richly textured with the knowledge that respectability as forwarded by the establishment is an idea rotten to its core.
Luke Cage has done strong work uniting the experiences of its hero and its antagonist. In the pilot, Luke and Cottonmouth were both beset by frustrating workaday problems. Here they’ve both been robbed of Pop and of their illusions about justice in the world, but while for Luke it’s a shattering calamity, for Cottonmouth it’s just the last thread of his connection to an antiquated way of life snapping under the tension of progress. The roof on which Stokes stands, after a thrillingly balletic and immediate murder, tilts under his feet like the deck of a foundering ship. He goes to the rail to look out over the neighborhood. Later, alone in the comfort his lavish rooms, he weeps over a lost childhood and the death of a friend. He and Luke may be on opposite sides of the war for Harlem, but their affection for Pop binds them together as surely as their opposing visions for black America, Cottonmouth’s exaltation of power, money, and the exceptional individual and Luke’s burgeoning sense of community guardianship, will lead them to tear one another apart.