The great Luke Cage binge is upon us. Head here to see my reactions to each episode. Keep reading for my thoughts on “Step in the Arena,” episode 4 of Luke Cage‘s first season.
Which One Is “Step in the Arena”?: The one with the flashbacks to Luke’s origin story in prison.
The 5 Things That Mattered Most to Me:
1. The origin story completes Luke’s emotional journey, going all the way back to Jessica Jones
That was the extent of Luke Cage’s origin story on Jessica Jones, at least as it relates to his powers. Luke asked Jessica how she got her powers (her answer: “Accident”), she returned the question (his answer: “Experiment”), and that was it. As Jones‘ showrunner Melissa Rosenberg told THR, “I knew what I needed from [Luke] for Jessica, and that was really the objective. This is not the Luke and Jessica show. It was really about how does this character resonate with Jessica as opposed to telling his whole backstory, so all the story of his deceased wife and all that was what we got to tell because it was also about Jessica.”
Rosenberg left the job of telling Luke’s full origin story to Cheo Coker and his writing staff, and “Step in the Arena” is what they came up with, hewing fairly closely to the comics by revealing Luke’s real name is actually Carl Lucas and he was falsely imprisoned. Once inside, his tough guy facade was gradually broken down by a longtime inmate and the prison therapist, but as soon as that happened they were used against him by the corrupt head prison guard (aka, that prison’s version of Clancy Brown from Shawshank) who wanted him to be in his secret prison fight club.
Let’s stop and go back to Jessica Jones for a second, though. “I protect myself and what’s mine, but that’s it. Being a hero just puts a target on your back.” That was Luke’s explanation for why he doesn’t use his powers to help people, which mirrored Jessica’s own attitude on the subject. However, we knew Jessica’s worldview had forever been skewed by her tortuous past with Kilgrave; we didn’t know what had made Luke that way, other than losing his wife.
Turns out, the first four episodes of this entire season have been devoted to answering that question. We’ve seen Luke refuse to help others for fear of exposing himself to unwanted attention, and then once he did step up his game it put a huge target on his back and instantly cost him his home as well one of his friend’s restaurants. And now “Step in the Arena” reveals this is a pattern which has repeated itself in Luke’s life for when he did set out to expose the fight club in prison his best friend was beaten to death. He would have been as well if not for a life-saving medical experiment gone wrong.
As such, seeing Luke announce his name to the media after miraculously surviving the explosion at the restaurant, and defiantly walking into the night with a “Bring it on!” expression on his face was one of the most purely heroic moments in the entire series thus far. Luke was put in a hell hole for speaking when those in power didn’t want him to. He lost his best friend and nearly his own life when he again worked up the courage to speak truth to power. He lost his father figure due to his refusal to intercede, and then once he lashed out for vengeance he was beaten back down. But this dude literally punched his way out of prison and through the rubble from an exploded restaurant. Fuck yeah, he’s Luke Cage.
2. The moment when past and present collided with Luke’s fists
This episode’s diretor (Vincenzo Natali) and writer (Charles Murray) did an excellent, but imperfect job of cutting back and forth from the flashbacks to the present. Typically, whenever they could cut from Luke in the past to the present they were on solid ground. However, when they had to cut from Luke in the past to Misty and her partner in the present it inevitably felt awkward. Similarly, there was no natural transition into the flashback where Luke and his fellow inmates discussed the rumors of experiments being performed on the prisoners.
But whatever editing/writing sins this episode had are all forgiven thanks to the powerful symmetry of Luke’s first action in prison being to punch a wall in frustration only to pull back some bloody knuckles, and his last act being punching his way through one of the walls after gaining his powers. Plus, having the past and present collide with Luke’s fists, merging his prison escape with his escape from the restaurant rubble, was an applause-worthy cap to one of the show’s finest episodes so far.
Okay. Not true, but he was played by the same actor, muMs da Schemer.
What do you mean you never watched Oz? Fine. It was a prison show on HBO in the late 90s/early aughts, created by Tom Fontana, also responsible for Homicide: Life on the Street. It was notable at the time for being HBO’s first hourlong drama series, and taking full advantage of the freedom of cable, unleashing a stunning combination of foul language, violence and pessimism about the potential for good in the world.
Poet was one of the show’s more intriguing figures, a soulful heroin addict who would regularly recite his original poetry to the other prisoners, kind of like Oz‘s version of Deadwood‘s endless soliquoys. However, his journey spoke to the general dark worldview of the show in that he was paroled in a moment of triumph for all involved only to quickly come right back to prison for murder, at which point he joined one of the prison gangs but always delegated duties and sued for diplomacy.
I think. To be honest, it’s been a real long time since I’ve seen the show since I watched it first-run and never felt the need to re-watch. I mostly remember muMs da Schemer was Poet, and he was awesome. Now he’s been awesome in one episode of Luke Cage as well.
4. “If you don’t make attempts to befriend someone, loneliness is guaranteed to eat you alive”
This is the first thing we hear Reva Conners tell her group in “Step in the Arena,” but it’s not the first time we’ve heard this line this season. Back in the pilot when Luke was freaking out over whether or not Shades recognized him, he sat on the bed on his apartment, and Reva was suddenly sitting in front of him reciting the line in what we now realize was a highly cinematic, but very brief flashback. This line speaks to Luke’s continued struggles with opening up to others, and it’s a doubly interesting mantra since we know Luke’s journey is to ultimately befriend Daredevil, Iron Fist and Jessica in The Defenders. He’ll have come a long damn way once he reaches that point.
Of course, the flashbacks also revealed Luke’s connection to Shades, and showed us exactly how he met and fell in love with his wife. Those are obviously both hugely important aspects of this episode, yet it was the repeat of that line during the first therapy session which most stood out to me as it felt as if we were being told the overall theme of the season or at least theme of the first 4 episodes.
5. All Dem Easter Eggs
I said at the outset that I’ve never read a Luke Cage comic book, but I’ve seen some individual panels and covers. Moreover, I’ve seen enough geek TV to recognize when an easter egg has just flown by, and “Step in the Arena” was clearly having a lot of fun with Luke’s headgear, bracelets and yellow shirt post-experiment. He said he looked like a damn fool, but that was indeed Luke’s basic costume in the comics at one time:
I don’t know that this particular easter egg was necessary for the episode, i.e., it does nothing to advance the story and adds an extra minute to the nearly hourlong run time, but it certainly made me laugh.
On to the next episode: “Just to Get a Rep”
Or you can use these direct links to my other reviews: