Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review - 'Luke Cage', S01E04 - 'Step in the Arena'

With Luke Cage and his landlady, Connie (Jade Wu), trapped beneath the rubble of what would have to be one of the best named business establishments to ever appear in a work of fiction ('Ghenghis Connie's'), the situation looks somewhat bleak – not necessarily for Luke, of course (since, he remains as indestructible as every), but certainly for Connie. With the 'present day' story-line effectively contained for the moment, though, it also seems that the season's fourth episode is the perfect time to finally begin to delve into Luke Cage's so far largely unexplored history. So, while in the present day we have Luke forced to reveal his superhuman abilities to yet another person as he struggles to save an injured Connie, we also have flashbacks to Luke's time in prison – in a time before he actually acquired these abilities.

Of course, it's not actually Luke Cage that we meet in these flashbacks – since, as fans of the character might have already known, 'Luke Cage' isn't actually his real name (although, as someone with only passing familiarity with the character, I admit that this caught me by surprise). Instead, we are introduced to Carl Lucas – an ex-police officer who has now found himself in Seagate Prison. Here, we learn that, despite seemingly being innocent of whatever crime saw him sent to prison in the first place, Carl Lucas is still a man plagued by a sense of guilt for whatever else he may have done – so, rather than continue to try to prove his innocence, as someone else might, Carl seems resigned to simply 'do his time'.

He is also a man who is clearly determined to keep everyone at arm's length – firmly convinced that trust, in a prison environment, is too dangerous a risk to take. Despite himself, though, we soon learn that Carl was eventually won over first by fellow inmate, 'Squabbles' (Craig Grant), then by the prison's psychiatrist, Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley) – who, as we already know, Luke eventually married.

Early on, it is these scenes that Carl Lucas shares with Squabbles and Reva that are the episode's strongest element. Squabbles is, in fact, such a naturally entertaining character that it seems a genuine shame that this single episode is likely to be the only time we ever see him – and, Reva's mix of intelligence and compassion makes it fairly obvious why he would fall in love with her. Honestly, with the quality of these early scenes, I think I would have been quite happy if there was no greater drama to these flashbacks than a man simply trying to get through his time in prison.

But, of course, things aren't so simple for Carl Lucas – as, it turns out that Seagate is far from an ordinary prison. Not only are there the persistent rumours of strange experiments conducted on the prison grounds, but there is also the fact that the prison guards seem to have arranged their own 'fight club', of sorts – forcing inmates to fight for their own amusement. On prison guard in particular, Albert Rackham (Chance Kelly), now seems to have his sights set on Carl Lucas – convinced that he will be able to make a small fortune by placing betting on the imposing new inmate. Carl, naturally enough, has no interest in taking part – but, when Rackham threatens those he has grown close to, he finds that he has no real choice.

In the end, I think one of the major problems I had with this episode is that it tried to cover too much ground. Not only did we have Luke's present day efforts to rescue both himself and Connie from the rubble of the restaurant, and Misty Knight's continued investigation, but we also have what seems like the entirety of Carl Lucas's time in prison. It simply felt like too much for a single episode – and, the episode, as a whole, seems to suffer as a result. While it all starts off well, eventually the rapid transitions, and frequent time-jumps, result in an episode that feels increasingly jumbled and unfocused.

Even worse, though, is the fact that the moment in which Carl finally does acquire his superhuman abilities (when a severe beating leaves him in desperate need of the experimental treatment developed by the prison doctor), the entire sequence comes across as very underwhelming. It was a sequence of events which just felt sluggish and poorly developed, to me – and, it definitely fell short of the epic 'hero moment' it was supposed to be. Although, that being said, I will admit that the manner in which the episode contrived to put Mike Colter in the character's original comic-book outfit from the 1970s, following his super-powered escape from prison, was both hilarious and a great moment for long-time fans.

It's a shame, too, because the episode does have its share of truly great moments. There were the episode's various quiet character moments, which I have already mentioned, for example – and, there was the entire sequence depicting Carl's experiences while being forced to fight for the guards made for some great moments of action. In the present day, too, Luke's very earnest and genuine desire to save Connie was a great, character defining, moment – and, it definitely felt like an important step on his path toward becoming a true hero. The issues isn't with the quality of what is presented – but, rather, with the fact that the episode seems to feel the need to rush through so many of its various plot-points. It simple felt as though the episode would have been much more successful, if it had been better structured.

Of course, even though we have now seen the series of events which lead to Carl Lucas becoming Luke Cage, there are still plenty of questions left to be answered. Who was Carl Lucas, for example? We now know that he was a police officer, and it seems that he even served in the military – but, we don't know anything about how he ended up in prison. And, what about Reva? How involved was she, actually, in the secret experiments that were conducted at Seagate Prison. And, of course, what about the experiments, themselves? On the first season of Jessica Jones, there were hints of some sort of possible connection between the source of Jessica's, Kilgrave's, and possibly even Luke's superhuman abilities (and, maybe even Matt Murdock's heightened senses, as well) – so, it definitely seems as though the people behind these series' are building toward something, here.

Obviously, I don't want these background details to push aside the already very compelling Harlem focused story that the season has been telling – but, at the same time, I am still very interested in finding out the answer to some of these questions.

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