Despite its slow start, the first episode of Luke Cage still managed to do a great job of laying the foundation for the rest of the season. With its three (so far, almost entirely separate) plot-threads, the first episode had been able to pain an impressively detailed picture of both the current situation in Harlem, and the character arcs in store for the series' primary cast. Luke Cage simply wanted to be left alone, but was obviously on a path toward becoming a reluctant hero for the people of Harlem. Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard were firmly set on a path toward grasping whatever power they could – regardless of what they had to do to claim it. And, Misty Knight was drawn deeper into her investigation, as she tried to uncover the truth of what really happened at that Harlem scrap-yard.
With both the police and Cornell currently searching for Chico (Brian Marc), the only surviving member of the trio who crashed Cornell's arms deal and stole his money, Pop is understandably worried for the young man's safety – but, despite Pop's request for help, Luke is still very reluctant to involve himself. But, with Pop calling in the favour that he is owed, Luke finds that he has no real choice but to try to find Chico first – so that Pop can parley with Cornell for the young man's safety.
There is a very impressive level of very genuine dramatic tension throughout much of this episode, as everyone involved was determined to be the first to find Chico, and the stolen money – and, as the three previously separate plot-threads began to intertwine in some very interesting ways. One scene in particular, where Cornell pays a visit to Pop's barber shop, stood out not just because of the very real tension on display, but also because of the incredible performances given by everyone involve. Mahershala Ali's ability to display the calm confidence of such a powerful figure as Cornell Stokes had already been impressive throughout the first episode (even the manner in which he had beaten a man to death had been disturbingly calm) – and, this same level of calm confidence is still very much on display throughout the second episode. Here, though, we also see moments of very genuine anger, and even a surprising display of sympathy, which serves to make him into a much more rounded figure.
Luke Cage himself, meanwhile, finally seems to have the opportunity to step forward as the true star of his own show, as his loyalty to Pop compels him to take a more active role – and, Mike Colter continues to be very impressive. If his performance of the title character, both in the previous episode and in his time on Jessica Jones, has had any real flaw, then it is just that he has occasionally drifted toward seeming a little too passive (although, it has always been pretty obvious that this was a very deliberate choice, rather than any mark against Mike Colter's abilities as an actor). Here, though, we begin to see him taking on a more active, and animated, role as he finds himself caught at the centre of an increasingly difficult situation.
For her part, Misty Knight seems to exist more on the side-lines in this episode, as her own investigation meets a significant road-block in the form of Pop and Luke who, still hoping to arrange a peaceful resolution with Cottonmouth, have clear reason to try to keep her out of the loop. Despite this, though, she still features in a handful of entertaining scenes – not the least of which is her amusingly awkward reunion with Luke Cage, after their one-night stand in the previous episode.
Of course, with all of this dramatic tension, it seems inevitable that the subtle threat of violence that seems to linger throughout the episodes would eventually be realised – and, when that moment finally comes, it is every bit as shocking and dramatic as you might expect. While the first episode of Luke Cage might have lacked that single great moment to properly hook the audience, its second episode manages to provide that moment.
With this episode having the clear sense of focus that the first seemed to lack, it was able to build on the strong foundation laid by the first in a very interesting way. This was an episode which managed to improve on the strong points of the already impressive first in almost very way – and, I can only hope that the series is able to continue in this way throughout the rest of the season.