Sunday, October 2, 2016

Luke Cage Runnin' Away: "Blowin' Up The Spot" Undermines (Almost) Everyone!

The Good: Adequate performances, Misty Knight
The Bad: Most of the characters are undermined, Virtually plotless
The Basics: "Blowin' Up The Spot" is an entirely reactive episode of Luke Cage that does remarkably little to advance the plot of the season.

In every super hero story, it seems there is a moment where the viewer or the reader commits to the story or cuts and moves on to other works. With the Netflix television production of Luke Cage, the story's turning point truly happens in the climax of "Manifest." With "Blowin' Up The Spot," Luke Cage essentially reinvents itself and the second half of the season goes off in a very different direction from the first half. Truth be told, if I were not reviewing Luke Cage, "Blowin' Up The Spot" is where the show would have lost me.

Given where "Manifest" (reviewed here!) ended, it is entirely impossible to discuss "Blowin' Up The Spot" without some references to the prior episode. After all, "Blowin' Up The Spot" is essentially one long running away from what happened in "Manifest" on both the a- and b-plots. "Blowin' Up The Spot" is the proper introduction of the villain Diamondback, for whom Shades Alvarez has been working the entire season. But "Blowin' Up The Spot" is a series of sloppy attempts to reinvent Luke Cage that undermines virtually all of the characters.

Opening with Luke Cage being taken away from where he was shot by Diamondback with Claire Temple working to save his life, Diamondback follows the ambulance and shoots the ambulance. Back at the Harlem Paradise Club, Alvarez counsels Dillard on how to clean up and survive the murder of Stokes. Misty Knight arrives and interviews Dillard and Candice, a worker who implicates Luke Cage for killing Stokes. Dillard uses the death of Stokes as an opportunity to turn the media against Luke Cage.

While Misty Knight interviews Candice and has a terse conversation with Dillard, Claire Temple works to extract the shrapnel from Luke Cage. She learns that Cage's internal soft tissue is as impenetrable as his external skin. Alvarez seizes power by taking over the management of the Harlem Paradise Club while Misty tries to bring in Luke Cage for questioning. When Misty tracks Luke Cage down, she inadvertently leads Diamondback to Luke Cage and the situation goes south fast.

"Blowin' Up The Spot" is one of those episodes of Luke Cage that seems like it was written with a clear beginning by where the prior episode left the story and the writers knew exactly where they wanted to end the episode, but they had no clear idea to make a compelling story between points a and b. "Blowin' Up The Spot" takes place over just a few hours following the death of Stokes and is bookended by Luke Cage encountering Diamondback. The final line of the episode is intended as something of a climax, but it's a whole episode worth of filler setting up the line that could have easily come during the first encounter Cage and Diamondback have with one another.

Misty Knight might be the only character who comes out of "Blowin' Up The Spot" unscathed. In her first scene of the episode, Misty Knight visualizes how Stokes was killed. She is professional, smart, and only hints at the joy she might feel at seeing Stokes laid out. Knight asks all of the right questions, explores the motivations of the suspects and approaches her work with a professional detachment that makes Misty Knight a truly great television detective. Simone Missick plays Knight with a fearless quality when the detective is at the mercy of Diamondback and that is well-executed.

Alvarez is pretty amazing in "Blowin' Up The Spot" and in the episode, his professionalism and efficiency hint at the true missed opportunity of the first season of Luke Cage. Shades Alvarez is arguably the most efficient criminal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Wilson Fisk and his ruthless efficiency and strange sense of pride in his work make for a compelling character. Unfortunately, the first season of Luke Cage does not focus sufficiently upon him and "Blowin' Up The Spot" undermines his character by his association with Diamondback. Diamondback is bat shit crazy in "Blowin' Up The Spot," so how and why a professional like Alvarez would work for him makes Alvarez seem less smart and professional.

Dillard is rendered in an intriguing way in "Blowin' Up The Spot." Her murder of Stokes was, admittedly, an unforeseen twist in Luke Cage. Her character is undergoing the transition from respectable politician to corrupt villain. Dillard clings to her old life and sense of respectability; her admonishment to Alvarez to never again call her "bitch" mirrors Luke Cage's refusal to sit by and let anyone call him "nigger." Dillard is a user and Alfre Woodard plays her well, but Dillard is ungrateful and makes a lot of stupid mistakes in "Blowin' Up The Spot," including goading Misty Knight.

Erik LaRay Harvey explodes into the Luke Cage narrative as Willis "Diamondback" Stryker and Harvey plays him as flat-out crazy. Stryker is given scenes with a lot of overt exposition that masquerades as characterization. "Blowin' Up The Spot" features Luke Cage trying to reason with crazy and Diamondback is a tough character to reconcile in his first full appearance. How does someone so overtly crazy and sloppy with a revenge fantasy orchestrate Carl Lucas's incarceration? How could he possibly get involved with an industrialist like Hammer to get the weapons he now possesses?! It is tough to believe that someone who is so unhinged could be rational enough to put together all of the backstory plots that led to his appearance in Luke Cage. And while Cornell Stokes loathed being called "Cottonmouth" (arguably because it had to do with his teeth getting knocked out by Pops back in the day and/or his quiet nature as a child), Stryker bursts out on the scene in "Blowin' Up The Spot" taking pride in being called "Diamondback." While Stokes rejected his nickname, Stryker takes pride in being called a snake. "Blowin' Up The Spot" is the episode of Luke Cage that makes explicit that both of Cage's obvious enemies are nicknamed after snakes.

Rosario Dawson gets thrown back in the role of sidekick in "Blowin' Up The Spot," which is an unfortunate direction for Claire Temple. Director Magnus Martens uses handheld cameras in unfortunate and awkward ways in "Blowin' Up The Spot." Between the look, illusion of movement and moments when characters unhinge in unrealistic ways, "Blowin' Up The Spot" is more of a mess than it is compelling television.

[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 Alfre Woodard, please visit my reviews of:
Captain America: Civil War
12 Years A Slave
Something New
Star Trek: First Contact


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

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