Friday, September 30, 2016

"Code Of The Streets" Finds Everyone Hunting Chico To Establish The Conflict In Luke Cage!

The Good: Good direction, Decent performances and character moments
The Bad: Very basic plot, which is heavily dependent upon the prior episode.
The Basics: In many ways, "Code Of The Streets" is the second part of the pilot episode of Luke Cage as it belabors resolving the last thief for the junkyard robbery in the prior episode.

Whenever a new element is added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I find myself fascinated by how the producers of the new work try to find the balance between the established Marvel Cinematic Universe and striking out in a direction unique to the new work. With Luke Cage Season 1 dropping on Netflix today, it is strange to see a new work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that harkens back so frequently to The Avengers (reviewed here!), as opposed to newer works (including Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) which could be called back to. "Code Of The Streets" continues to explore a Harlem still rebuilding from The Incident with Luke Cage hiding out there.

Picking up where “Moment Of Truth” (reviewed here!) left off, "Code Of The Streets" continues the tradition of creating serialized television that builds on the prior episodes and makes an episode that is rich in consequences that resonate throughout the season. As a result, it is tough to discuss "Code Of The Streets" without some references as to where Luke Cage has been already. Given that "Code Of The Streets" resonates with consequences from the shootout at the junk yard where three young men robbed Cornell Stokes in the middle of a gun sale he negotiated, the prior episode is heavily referenced in the new one.

Opening with Luke Cage standing outside the Crispus Attucks Center when a thug puts a gun to his head, the episode flashes back to Detective Misty Knight envisioning the shootout at the junk yard. Back at the barber shop, Pop and Cage discuss how Mariah Dillard and Stokes extort people in the neighborhood. Stokes comes in for a shave and quietly puts out the word that he is searching for Chico. Detectives Knight and Scarfe to get information on Chico so they might find him.

Stokes and Dillard continue their hunt for Chico to recover Stokes's money, while Cage manages to track down the young man. Chico refuses to return to Pop's or return the money he stole. Shortly after Cage returns to Pop's, Chico turns up . . . unfortunately in view of Turk Barrett, who rushes back to snitch to Stokes's people. Knight and Scarfe arrive, searching for Chico. Cage attempts to set up a parlay with Stokes to make peace over Chico and the robbery, though Stokes is unimpressed by Pop using Cage as an intermediary. Acting on Turk's tip, Tone brings a team to the barber shop to try to find Chico . . . and tragedy ensues, setting Luke Cage on his course for the season.

Early in the first season of Luke Cage, the writers and executive producers took time to explore culture and make a number of references to black American authors and artists and "Code Of The Streets" is no exception to that. While the show eventually gets lazy and detail-oriented only for the plot and machinations of the characters involved, in "Code Of The Streets," there is a richness of allusions that helps characterize Harlem.

Luke Cage is given more overt characterization in "Code Of The Streets," which helps to bring him from being a supporting character to leading his own show. Cage continues to be wary of being seen by Shades Alvarez and he confides in Pop that he was originally from Georgia. Cage utilizes his tracking skills, as seen in Jessica Jones and for those who came to Luke Cage from that series, using the tracking skill is a nice touch to tie the two together. And, while Cage clearly recognizes Alvarez, Alvarez does not seem to recall Stokes yet.

While Misty Knight is finally named in "Code Of The Streets," it is Pop who has the most significant effect on Luke Cage in the episode. Pop not only reveals more hints of Cage's backstory, but he helps to characterize himself and his establishment as a true leader and a true community resource. Mentor characters are frequently treated as monolithic in genre works, but Pop is surprisingly well-rounded in his brief time in "Code Of The Streets." The flashback that illustrates Pop's violent past is an excellent blending of showing and telling the character's history.

The other significant character dynamic that is fleshed out in "Code Of The Streets" is the relationship between Cornell Stokes and his cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. Dillard illustrates a demanding side in "Code Of The Streets" and Alfre Woodard infuses a sense of menace into her. Woodard plays Dillard subtle, while Mahershala Ali continues the rise of Cottonmouth as an overtly dangerous and powerful character. Stokes is dangerous and Ali has the gangster almost always fidgeting with his fingers to help infuse the idea that Stokes is somewhat unbalanced. Ali finds the right contrast between the twitches and physical restraint to make Stokes seem well-rounded and not a parody of a villain.

Director Paul McGuigan uses tension remarkably well in "Code Of The Streets." Before starting the episode with an incredibly tense moment that the viewer knows will be revisited later on and the amazing shaving scene, McGuigan creates an episode of television where the prevailing feeling is that anything can happen. So, it is delightful when the scene does not turn into a bloodbath or a gun fight. The tension when Cage visits Stokes in the club to pitch parlay is cool in that none of the characters are yet aware of Cage's powers. While some of the shots are unfortunately telegraphed - most notably Tone purposely dropping the payment owed to Pop on the floor - most of "Code Of The Streets" looks good.

The appearance of Faith Evans in the Harlem Paradise Club continues to add a flavor and depth to the setting that feels very authentic. Despite its dependence upon the first episode to truly appreciate the magnitude of the hunt that is on for the entirety of "Code Of The Streets," the second episode of Luke Cage is well-crafted and engaging to watch.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Luke Cage - The Complete First Season, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!

For other works with Mike Colter, please visit my reviews of:
Jessica Jones - Season 1
Men In Black 3
Brooklyn Lobster
Million Dollar Baby


For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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