Luke Cage is angry with the system. It unfairly sent him to prison, it subjected him to corruption while in prison, and it kept him from living free while out of prison. In his new life outside of Seagate, Cage faces gang violence, murder, and wayward youth, in interactions that typify the spirit of anarchy. At every turn, the series is relentlessly challenging authority.
But despite these clashes involving police on the streets of Harlem, these do not largely happen along racial lines. Luke Cage is a socially conscious series in its own right – the vast majority of cast members are black, and the infusion of rap music as well as the setting of Harlem itself evoke black culture. But many of the cops are black as well, allowing the series to focus less on racial tension itself, and more on power dynamics between authority structures and citizens. Injustice in “the system” abounds, although it is often in spite of the efforts of Detective Misty Knight. Luke tries to mostly avoid these run-ins, and sticks close to the symbol of the story’s moral center: Pop’s Barbershop.
The barbershop itself, through the efforts of Pop, represents a kind of virtuous local activism. Pop is involved in the lives of the young men (and women) that come through his shop, trying to help steer them in a better direction. He represents a kind of traditional morality for the series, right down to having a “swear jar” stacked more than halfway full with quarters. When Luke finally steps across the line to become a reluctant hero, it’s the traditional morality of Pop that serves as his guiding force.
In between the bullets the bounce off of Luke’s skin, and the jailhouse origin story that we see in flashbacks, there’s a continual theme of Luke, the everyman, fight against villains that represent corruption of a formerly just framework. “The system” gets a lot of talk during the series. Luke, a former cop, becomes jaded against all things official criminal justice when he ends up in a cell despite innocent. He deals with corrupt cops throughout the series, and the first of his villains, a gangster named Cottonmouth (played marvelously by Mahershala Ali) has connections to a local politician, Mariah Dillard, who later becomes a more prominent villain. As we learn more about Luke’s past and upbringing, we learn that he has reason to be distrustful not only of politics and police, but of pastors as well.
It’s not difficult to see where this fits in to a vigilante mindset. But despite this cynicism toward traditional structures, Luke remains moored to traditional morality, at least when it comes to drugs and violence. When it comes to sexual ethics, Luke behaves more in accordance with the show’s expected TV-MA rating, including a one-night stand and, later on in the show, living with his girlfriend. The show occasionally (though not frequently) introduces other similar content, including a visit to a strip club, and the rough language of the streets is continual (including from Cage himself).
And yet, the traditional morality on important questions of violence and virtue should not be overlooked. “Everyone has a gun, no one has a father,” Luke says. And when the show is at its best, that’s what Luke is trying to do – give the boys on the streets a father. Or at least make it a little bit safer to wander through life without one. Like most of the Netflix superhero series, it loses its way and becomes more about propelling the show to its 13-episode run than telling a compelling story. The first part of the season with Cottonmouth as its focus is engaging, but once the focus shifts to other villains, it becomes far more cliche and less interesting. But the effort is there, and unlike some of Luke Cage‘s counterparts, there’s enough here that retains promise of deeper exploration, even if we may have to wait until future seasons for that itch to be fully scratched.