We open in a neighborhood barbershop, where Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is sweeping up while the barbers and patrons talk sports. A diminutive patron gives Luke a hard time about the humble nature of his work, but the attention of a sexy lawyer who comes in to collect her son shines a new light on Luke’s work ethic. She gives him her number saying, “Maybe you’ll need a lawyer sometime,” but the subtext is clear: she’s only interested in what’s in his briefs. (Get it? Like legal briefs! Hilarious, Leona!)
Luke disappears into a private room to look at her number and brood while the men in the barber shop continue talking, the young man who dissed Luke’s job wondering aloud why a hot woman with a briefcase would be interested in a man with a broom. The implication is that the young man is blind, I guess, since Luke is like a giant wall of muscles—like Terry Crews, but not smiling.
The barber, Pop (Frankie Faison), follows Luke into his solitude and confirms that Luke is brooding over his dead wife, Reva. Pop teases Luke for being bulletproof and immune to the charms of a good-looking woman. Luke lifts a washing machine to retrieve a piece of trash while they discuss whether or not Luke is wasting his potential. Luke hints at his origin story, which is similar to Wolverine’s—experiments in a tank left him invulnerable.
Later, Luke bumps into young barber Chico in the alley while emptying trash and sees Chico dropping a gun. He asks what the gun is for, and Chico says he doesn’t need a dad, then hops in a sleek car and takes off. Luke walks to his next job, passing an aggressive street vendor who wants to sell him footage of “the incident” with the Avengers.
A literally blind newsman recognizes Luke (by scent?) and greets him, warning him that his landlord is on the warpath for her rent. Luke rounds a corner, where his landlord confronts him and demands her rent on the spot. Luke gives her the $300 he has and continues to his next job, and now we’re inside the nightclub where the series’s bad guy holds court. Luke is washing dishes when his boss comes in and asks Luke to change clothes and fill in for a missing bartender.
We join Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), our bad guy, chilling in a VIP area on a balcony that overlooks a crowded dance floor, talking with Alfre Woodard’s character, who is proud of him and a councilwoman. They discuss taking money from drug dealers and whether to gentrify Harlem or “keep it black.”
Meanwhile, Luke is working the bar and making friends with a beautiful woman. They agree that the singer on stage, Raphael Saadiq (who filmed this music video in the loft I used to live in, so we are basically best friends), is awesome. (He is.) The woman is preoccupied by watching the conversation Cornell is having with his female companion and a shady underworld character. In this conversation, we confirm that Cornell and Alfre are family and have a legacy that is also shady.
Now we cut to a junkyard, alternating between the nightclub conversation and an illicit arms deal. The guns are made by Hammer. Cornell says that the gun deal will make everyone happy and that “UPS ain’t the only brown that delivers.”
Oh no! Masked robbers show up at the gun deal and a shootout ensues! Raphael Saadiq’s sweet and soulful performance alternates with the scene in the junk yard, where WHAT!? The confrontational youth from the barber shop turns out to be in cahoots with Chico the barber as the two masked men left standing at the end of the evening, absconding with a duffel bag of money after the mouthy one shoots their cohort, Dante.
Back to Luke and his new friend at the bar. Now we know that Cornell’s nickname, which he hates, is Cottonmouth. Luke tells his lady friend that she’s beautiful, but older than Cottonmouth’s usual companions. After telling her she’s old, he says he likes women better than little girls. She’s down for that kind of compliment, I guess.
A server approaches the bar and asks Luke to help her deliver a bunch of booze to “table 7,” which we can assume means Cottonmouth, because she “doesn’t like going up there alone.” Luke gives his friend a drink to “ponder” and carries a massive tub of alcohol up to the VIP balcony where Alfre Woodard leers at him and the men in the balcony leer at the server.
Cottonmouth grabs his arm and says, “You’re a big one, eh?”
Alfre Woodard says, “He’s wearing a little jacket.”
Guys, it’s a loaner jacket, and it does not fit properly. At this point, I think everyone kind of hopes he’ll burst out of it like the Hulk.
Cottonmouth challenges Luke for being behind the bar instead of Dante, and Woah! We know that Dante called out sick to be a robber and was the inside man who just got KILLED in the junkyard—or did he? No! Yes? Someone is moaning and alive and making a phone call to the club to say that he is shot.
Now a flunky is alerting Cottonmouth to the sh**show at the gun deal.
Luke leaves the club, finding his new friend trying to get an Uber, and then he tells her that Cottonmouth has left the club. Now he needs to go home. He just got off work. She invites him to coffee, which he already said he doesn’t drink when that lawyer was trying to get in his biz, and he says “I don’t like coffee,” and she says, “Neither do I.”
SEX SCENE! Topless Luke Cage alert! Also, there is a lady taking off her clothes, if you like that kind of thing. And now Luke Cage is NUDE! But no butt.
Cut to some dude getting beat up in jail?
Now Luke’s lady friend is taking a phone call, and dressing for the walk of shame. They make vague plans to hook up again. She says that she is an auditor. Flirty flirt flirt. Blah blah blah. Luke’s still topless, she leaves in last night’s dress, and he watches her from the window and sees her getting picked up in a shiny town car.
The next day, cops are all over the shootout scene at the junk yard. They’re just making casual racist jokes over the corpses, when SURPRISE! Luke’s new playmate is on the scene in a suit with a badge, and she recognizes Dante! She knows his mom! (She’s no auditor! She’s Misty Knight: COP!) (A.K.A. Simone Missick IRL.)
Next we see Cottonmouth in his office assuring someone on the phone that it wasn’t an inside job, and that although he doesn’t have any of the guns or money, his word is his bond. A sinister fellow in Shades (Theo Rossi) comes in, offering to help Cottonmouth with the fact that the money from last night is gone and the guns are in a police evidence locker. This fellow apparently works for Diamondback. Now he’s taking off his shades and asking again, “Was it an inside job?”
Cottonmouth says, “Hell no.”
This fellow with sunglasses has Cottonmouth’s back, just like back in the day, and assures Cottonmouth that this isn’t a takeover by Diamondback, which is something he wouldn’t see coming.
Time to go to the barbershop with Luke, who is discovering that Dante was one of the casualties at the junkyard. He and Pop talk about the things that drive youth to crime. Luke says, “Everyone has a gun; nobody has a father.”
They both know Dante was doing crime in the junkyard with Shameek, the mouthy young fellow, and barber Chico. They already suspect that one of Dante’s companions killed him, and Luke lies about having seen evidence that either was up to no good.
We join Alfre Woodard in a park, where she is making nice with children wearing t-shirts with her name, Mariah Stokes, on their chests while they do community work to revive Harlem in front of a TV crew. She explains her plan to incubate innovation, creativity and progress in Harlem to the news crew, then walks over to Cottonmouth where he is lounging against an SUV and waiting for her. She does NOT want to be photographed with him. (Too bad! I caught them!)
They send their security details away, and she tells him she needs the money he promised her ASAP. She used federal money to fund his gun deal! And his club! What?? He promises her money, and then she asks about sunglasses guy, who is lurking about. She walks back to her do-gooding children, and he turns back to his flunkies.
Cottonmouth’s flunky who accepted the dying man’s phone call comes up and confirms that yes—it was Dante who called him, which means that now they know it actually was an inside job, and Dante named names! Watch out, Chico and Shameek! The bad guys know who you are!
Of course, stupid Shameek is blowing a ton of cash at a strip club. A stripper rats him out, setting him up to get CAUGHT.
Meanwhile, Luke is avoiding his landlord when some black power advocates who look pretty sinister give him a brochure about keeping Harlem black.
And across town, Cottonmouth is playing the keyboard in his office while a giant portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. and two lovely women look on.
Down in the nightclub kitchen, Luke gets the shaft from his boss who refuses to pay him the money he’s owed, when Shameek is escorted in by Cottonmouth’s flunky! Luke overhears their exchange, and Shameek sees him listening before walking on to meet his fate.
Now sunglasses comes in, and Luke recognizes him from the jail beating! (Was that a dream? A memory?) Luke says, “Shades.”
In Cottonmouth’s office, he stands in front of the Notorious B.I.G. portrait and intimidates Shameek with verbal and physical abuse. Shameek, true to stupid form, spits in Cottonmouth’s face, and the physical part of the abuse escalates while Shades looks on, sans shades.
Afterwards, we see Luke pacing in his apartment above the Chinese restaurant, apparently trying to decide whether or not to run. He is assuring himself that Shades didn’t recognize him, and then flashes back to wisdom from his saintly dead wife. Time for some mirror staring, then some photo of dead wife staring. “I’m clear. I’m focused. I promise, baby. I’m ready,” he says to the photograph.
Elsewhere, Misty and her smug partner (Frank Whaley) find Shameek dead and beaten in a gutter. They know that Chico is involved, and Misty denies to her partner that she talked to Dante’s replacement at the bar the night the gun battle happened, but he insists that they go find Luke and talk to him.
Back at Luke’s, the New Harlem Renaissance thugs who were handing out brochures earlier are in the Chinese restaurant threatening Luke’s landlord and her husband (who are Chinese) with a bat. Enter: Luke. He doesn’t like the thugs’ tone, and here comes the fight we’ve been waiting for! Slow-mo shot of one thug breaking his own fist on Luke’s face, and a quick dismissal of the bad guys.
Luke won’t accept money from the grateful Chinese restaurant owners, but he gives them his word that he’s got them, steps outside to look intense, and the episode comes to an end.
So far, #BechdelTestFAIL
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