Everything about Luke Cage communicates strength. The burly Harlem resident seems patient and unfeeling. Bullets can’t wound Luke Cage, and knives can’t cut his Black skin. In 2016, this feels like a touching political and artistic statement. But what to make of this man, who has been asked to be Harlem’s champion?
Netflix's latest Marvel series is stunning. Luke is powerful but vulnerable. He moves concrete like it’s cardboard, but wants to retreat into obscurity. He’s happy sweeping a broom. But Harlem is undergoing a “New Black Renaissance” by a shady political family, and the neighbourhood begs Luke to intervene and put a stop to the tyranny.
There are a lot of names and histories to introduce in the first episode, so keep track of the primary antagonists and be sure to groove to the funk music. Here we go: Ernie and the Top Notes are playing, Harlem is warm. The battle to save the neighbourhood has begun.
Something special goes on in Black barbershops as the afternoon drags on. It’s a steamy day in present-day Harlem and Pop’s barbershop is home to that mix of trash talk and Black machismo that comes from cutting hair all day with the fellas. New Orleans funk band Ernie & The Top Notes play as we overhear boss man Pop hold court about the latest NBA draft.
Luke Cage is the shop’s handyman. He’s burly and mysterious. He schools the young bloods about Pat Riley, the NBA coach who led the Lakers to five NBA titles. When a woman picking her son up from the shop flirts with him, he politely declines her offer to get coffee. Pop teases him about it and we learn that these two men have something in common beyond just working together: “I shook everything else after I got out. Cigarettes, paranoia...but the pacing,” Pop says, “I do it, too.” Both men have spent time behind bars.
Pop has a lot of nicknames for Luke: Power man, Mr. Bulletproof. It’s during this conversation that we figure out why. Luke picks up a washing machine like it’s an empty cardboard box. “You should be out there helping people. Like them other fellas downtown,” Pop says, referencing the crop of superheroes that have sprung up. Luke says that his ex — Pop’s daughter — used to say the same thing. “You think I asked for any of this?” Luke asks. “I was framed, beaten, and put in a tank like some exotic fish.” Another clue to Luke’s mysterious past: his powers weren’t acquired by choice. His only ambition is to be left alone.
As Luke leaves the shop later that night, he runs into Chico, one of the younger barbers who talked smack in the shop. Chico’s in a hurry and drops a gun on his way out the door. Luke looks at him cautiously, but Chico says something about the sweeper not being his father and then jumps in the passenger seat of a car driven by Shameek, the other loudmouth youngster from the barbershop.
Harlem’s hottest spot is a nightclub owned by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Don’t let him catch you using his nickname, though: “Cottonmouth” is his street name, from his former life as a full-time thug. His Harlem club makes good on the Black Renaissance's American Dream, a place for Black people to gather and spend their money at a Black-owned business. While Luke tries to be anonymous, the Stokes family is infamous in the neighbourhood. Cottonmouth’s cousin is Black Mariah, a local city councilwoman who likes to look past her cousin’s dirty dealings and believe their family is completely legitimate.
“Politics is where the power is, Cornell,” Mariah says. But who cares about politics when it’s Cottonmouth’s weapon dealing that’s helping her fund a costly revitalisation project? “When the smoke clears, it’s n------ like me that let you hold on to what you’ve got,” Cottonmouth counters.
A dealer named Domingo arrives to Cottonmouth’s private balcony. The two shake on a wholesale deal for a cool million dollars. “UPS ain’t the only brown that delivers,” Cottonmouth says with a grin, not knowing that in a Harlem parking lot, his men are being robbed. Three gunmen roll up on the trade off between his guys and Domingo’s. A simple robbery escalates into a shoot-out. The shooters are Chico and Shameek, from Pop’s shop; and Dante, a bartender at Cottonmouth’s club who took the night off to pull off the heist. When he gets second thoughts about his involvement, Shameek shoots him.
Luke moonlights at the club as a dishwasher. When Dante calls in sick, Luke steps up in his place to earn the tips. He pours a Cosmo for a striking woman who seems, in a word, grown: She’s a few years older than the club’s typical millennial crowd and isn’t impressed by Cottonmouth’s flash. She and Luke flirt and sleep together that night. In the morning the woman gets a call from work — she’s an auditor, she says. But in reality, she heads to the junkyard, the scene of the previous night’s shoot-out. She’s Detective Misty Knight and the lot is a crime scene.
Cottonmouth is taking heat from everyone over the shoot-out. Domingo, the buyer, thinks it was an inside job. Diamondback, Cottonmouth’s disgruntled weapons supplier, is even more upset. He’s sent a man named Shades to oversee Cottonmouth’s attempts to recoup the money (from the thieves), and the weapons (from the police). Black Mariah’s pissed, too: She used federal election funds to renovate his club, money that she expected to be returned to her after the sale. If the money isn’t replaced soon, she could be facing an audit that could end with jail time for everyone.
Cottonmouth’s cronies eventually catch up with Shameek (Dante ratted him out before his death) and convince him to meet with Cottonmouth about the money he and Chico stole. Luke sees Shameek and Shades come through the back entrance. Luke has a flashback to his time in prison where it looks like he and Shades shared a cell. When Cottonmouth beats Shameek to death, it’s expected, but also a little sad. Pop was a mentor to Shameek, Chico, and Dante — he’s devastated that they’re twisted up in Cottonmouth’s thuggery.
When Misty and her partner, Scarfe, find Shameek’s body, Scarfe suggests Chico is the prime suspect. But Chico is hiding out with his half of the bounty, scared shitless. Instead, finding the bartender who took over for Dante is the next move (despite Misty’s protests). Looks like Misty and Luke Cage will be reunited in the daylight hours.
“Somebody got jacked, somebody got pissed, and somebody got dead.” That’s the conclusion that’s driving the police investigation of the shoot-out the other night. Luke Cage is doing his own asking, too. Chico is still missing, but Luke is onto something bigger: Cottonmouth’s thugs regularly shake down Harlem businesses to fund Mariah’s “New Harlem Renaissance” revitalisation project. The cousins, raised by a matriarch evil enough to be the “devil’s ex-wife,” rule Harlem with a pair of iron fists. They both respect Pop, though. His shop is neutral territory.
Cottonmouth comes around for a shave and Shades is with him. This is a fact-finding mission — the men are fishing for information about Chico’s whereabouts. Pop gets nervous that they’re getting closer and asks Luke to find Chico before Cottonmouth or the police do.
It takes Luke four hours to find Chico. That’s how bad the kid is at hiding. Even though he’s terrified of what could happen, Chico tells Luke that he’s not interested in whatever plan Pop is trying to work out to secure his safety. Pop is upset at the news and gives Luke a little family history: Pop, Cottonmouth, and Chico's dad, Wilfredo, used to own the streets when they were young. The three of them were buckwild until fate finally caught up with them. That’s why Pop is so insistent on becoming a mentor to young kids on the street. “So those young knuckleheads have a place to get away,” he says.
After Luke and Pop finish talking, Chico comes in the shop through the back door. A grifter named Turk Barrett gets a good look at Chico and then bounces. On his way out, he runs into Misty and Scarfe, who are on their way to see Pop. Scarfe is curt, but Misty has an obvious rapport with Pop. She has an awkward moment with Luke, but ultimately the cops don’t get any info, either.
Pop guilts Luke into approaching Cottonmouth for a parley for Chico’s safety. Cottonmouth takes some convincing, but calls off the search party for Chico. He tells Tone (his right-hand man) and Shades to hold off on pursuing the thief. It can all be settled in the morning. History — his own and his culture’s — is important to Cottonmouth, but he doesn’t have time for wistful nostalgia. “You know what people remember over Black martyrdom?” he asks Mariah. “Black money.”
Cottonmouth’s reps, however, have ideas of their own. When Turk rats on Chico’s whereabouts, Shades and Tone do an impromptu drive-by shooting of Pop’s barbershop. Luke is inside and Pop is cutting a preteen client’s hair. Chico is wounded, but it’s Pop who is killed. Shades grabs the money before he and Tone jet.
When the cops get there, Misty sees that Luke protected the boy who could’ve died in the shooting. But how? Luke has bullet holes in his shirt, but seems fine. There’s no evidence at the scene that points to the perps.
Tone is cocky when he returns to the club and is eager to show off the money’s he recouped. Shades is hesitant. The pair meets with Cottonmouth and Mariah on the roof for a private talk. Cottonmouth isn’t thrilled about the shooting, but is happy it got the job done. Then, Shades breaks the news: Pop is dead. Tone killed him. Cottonmouth looks deeply hurt. Tone calls it a “casualty of war.” Then, Turk appears on the roof, asking for the money he’s owed for ratting on Chico (When Cottonmouth asks how the hell he got up there, his line is iconic: “I’m Turk Barrett, baby. The door ain’t been built yet that can hold me back.”) Cottonmouth looks at Tone and then pushes him from the roof onto the sidewalk. “You can collect your money from Tone downstairs,” he yells. Turk doesn’t need the drama. “Y’all Harlem n------ is crazy,” he says. “I’m going back to Hell’s Kitchen, where it’s safe.”
After the shoot-out, Luke spends the much of the night watching the Crispus Attucks Community Centre. The structure is the bastion of Black Mariah’s political power. After scaring off a young crook (and, impressively, shooting himself in the gut and remaining unwounded) Luke sees Black Mariah go in the doors with Chico’s backpack full of money. As everyone else — Maria, Cottonmouth — mourns Pop, Luke is up to something.
The episode opens with a stunning shoot-out. A burly man in a hoodie walks calmly out of of the Crispus Attucks building with a duffel bag of money. Luke Cage? You got some ‘splaining to do. But we’ll get to that later.
It’s another day in Harlem. Luke is trying to scrounge up cash to pay for Pop’s burial, but Cottonmouth appears and offers to foot the bill. Luke agrees, but holds the smooth-talking criminal accountable for Pop’s murder. Meanwhile, a robbery over some guns Cottonmouth was running leads detectives Misty and Scarfe to Chino’s bedside.
Pop’s shop is in ruins and it turns out his finances were, too. The barbershop needs $80,000 to stay open, according to Bobby Fish (Pop’s friend and occasional chess opponent). Luke brainstorms ways to score the cash quick.
After the detectives press Chico for answers in the hospital, Misty runs into Luke outside Chico’s room. Her investigation and his personal life are colliding in ways that make her suspicious. Luke flirts with her a little and then goes inside to reason with Chico. Luke blames him for Pop’s death, but the headstrong kid is too stubborn to shoulder it all on his own. He just wants to get out of the game for good. He’s the first to pin down Luke’s secret: The barbershop broom man has some special abilities.
Remember how Luke needs money to keep Pop’s shop open? Cottonmouth has more than enough and the powerman wants to put a hit on the gangster’s funds. Chico spills everything he knows about Cottonmouth’s operation: He’s got fronts and stash houses all over the city, but most of the money is held inside Crispus Attucks. The building is like their own Fort Knox — there’s a vault in the centre, one way in and one way out, and about a hundred defence weapons and guards in-between. Chico bets that the shooting the cops were asking him about was probably just Domingo clapping back at Cottonmouth. Luke comes up with a plan: hit the stash houses a few times to force Cottonmouth to move all his cash to Crispus Attucks, where Luke can collect all the assets at once.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. Domingo stops by the club to set the record straight — the drug dealer is not the one that’s been hitting Cottonmouth’s operation — but Harlem’s king is still scared. Domingo has declared war.
Luke wasn’t playing around, earlier. We’re back to that short sequence from the episode’s start. Bullets rains down on him, but Cage is unscathed. He makes it to the belly of the beast and strolls out of Crispus Attucks with a single duffel bag full of cash. He leaves the rest of the millions for the police to confiscate, sending the boldest message.
At the precinct, Scarfe and Misty bicker about the robbery. The conversation isn’t groundbreaking, but it does explain Misty’s skepticism about superheroes: they’re untrained vigilantes. On the other hand, she holds steadfast to regulations and order. Scarfe shrugs, happy to let a renegade do his work for him. Chico calls Scarfe, finally brave enough to be a witness against Cottomouth. Scarfe and Chico meet under a bridge to chat. Surprise! Scarfe is a dirty cop. Moments after Chico agrees to testify, Scarfe chokes him. RIP, Chico.
Cottonmouth is frantic when he realises he’s been hit. After Luke’s stunt, 80% of the cash is gone. Scarfe — who is on Cottonmouth’s payroll — reports that Luke Cage is the source of Cottonmouth’s headaches, according to Chico. Scarfe has Cage’s address and passes it along. Later that night, Luke’s landlady makes him a late meal at Genghis Connie’s (the restaurant she owns below his apartment). But uh oh, there’s Cottonmouth on the roof of nearby building. The gangster shoots a rocket launcher, bringing the whole building down on top of Luke and his landlady.
The explosion of Genghis Connie’s rocks Harlem. The restaurant and the apartments above it (remember, this is where Luke lives) have collapsed and Luke and his landlady, Connie, are underneath. Misty and Scarfe are trying to put together the pieces.
But first, a flashback: Back in the day, Luke was a prisoner in a Georgia prison called Seagate. An icy officer oversees him (he’s like the warden from Cool Hand Luke, but without the sunglasses). He’s mean, manipulative, and bullies Luke early on. The prison guard mentions something about Luke being a former lawman. Luke grunts something about it being a past life. When the guard punches him, he stumbles, feeling the pain.
In prison, Luke wasn’t extraordinary. He was still a behemoth, but his name was Carl Lucas then. A pretty, bespectacled woman named Riva is the prison’s psychologist. She looks a little familiar — her photo was tucked away in Luke’s medicine cabinet in episode 1. In group therapy, Luke is silent. There are rumours that prisoners at Seagate are experimented on, but Reva denies them.
The prison guard offers Luke a shot at an easier time in prison. Fight for him in the facility’s underground boxing league and the guards will go easier on him and give him extra rations. “Slavery was always a good offer to a master,” Luke says. But he agrees when the guard threatens his deepening friendship with Reva. Luke’s BFF, Squabbles, begins training him.
Something starts to change in Luke when he fights. He becomes the most debased version of himself. He’s winning, but at the expense of his soul. You can see the weight of these battles on his face. Reva reminds him that there’s more to life than just surviving prison. When he makes it clear that he wants out of the ring, the prison guard sends Shades and another crony to give him a serious beating. Reva begs the prison’s medical doctor to save Luke’s life.
The doc places Luke in a weird high-tech bath of sorts. It’s supposed to speed up the healing process. Then, the prison guard, furious that Luke will expose his underground dealings if he lives, tries to shut the machine off. Instead, there’s an explosion. Whatever happened in that bath, Luke wakes up and can punch through walls. He reunites with Reva later on in the night. With these new abilities, Luke — Carl Douglas — needs a new name.
In the present day, Luke punches through the rubble to free himself and Connie from the wreckage. A news crew, the fire department, and Misty see it happen. A news reporter follows him as he walks home from the scene, peppering him with questions. “My name is Luke Cage,” he says.
The episode starts with Jidenna rehearsing a rap for a performance at Cottonmouth’s club. So really, this could go anywhere.
Cottonmouth is broke. And not just broke — very broke. He’s out 7 million dollars and the streets are whispering about his wavering status. He’s becoming unhinged, too. He sends his thugs to collect extra money from the local stores, calling it the “Luke Cage Stupidity Tax.” Zip — one of Cottonmouth’s thugs — robs a memorabilia store, snatching an heirloom MLB ring.
Elsewhere, Luke prepares for Pop’s funeral. Bobby Fish has become something of a mentor in Pop’s absence. Luke and Fish are still working on reopening the barbershop. He gives Luke the keys to the apartment above the shop.
The streets are talking about the busts that have been happening up and down Harlem. “Cottonmouth figures if he can’t drop you, he’ll get Harlem to push you out,” Fish predicts. It’s true — and it’s working. Luke tries to restore order in the streets. Cottonmouth starts to crack under the pressure of maintaining his name.
Soon enough, Luke lands at the club. Cottonmouth is snide. “It costs to be a saviour,” he says. “Ask Jesus.” Cottonmouth can only think of people in terms of power. He thinks Luke wants to be at the top of a hierarchy that only he and Black Mariah really subscribe to. Luke just wants to be left alone and for Harlem’s residents to be free of this dictatorship. When Luke is leaving, Shades finally recognises him as Carl Lucas from Seagate.
Now, Cottonmouth’s plan is to kill Luke in any way he can. Shades has a connection to a gun that doesn’t shoot straight-on so much as it blows the victim up from the inside. Cottonmouth wants to buy one to kill Luke, but the price is steep. He makes a promise to get Domingo his guns so Diamondback will be willing to loan him money for the weapon.
There’s a new player on the scene. Claire Temple, a nurse in Hell’s Kitchen, has come uptown to visit her mother, Soledad. Claire’s seen other people who have superpowers and wants to work with them more. She’s seen Luke on TV and wants to befriend him.
At police headquarters, the higher-ups start to suspect that Scarfe is dirty. Misty defends him.
Pop’s funeral turns into a cold war of eulogies. Cottonmouth talks about Pop as a reformed gangster. Luke paints him as a hardworking man who believed in Harlem’s future and wanted to protect its residents from the selfish (a.k.a. Cottonmouth). “Where some people saw hard-rock kids, Pop saw precious jewels,” Luke says. “Pop saw the shine of everyone that walked into his barbershop.” Cottonmouth frowns, consumed with rage.
Misty isn’t happy after Luke’s speech, either. “Your ass might be bulletproof,” she says, “but Harlem ain’t.” Luke has just started World War III and Misty is afraid he’s making things worse.
Harlem is split as to what to do about Luke Cage. Half of the ‘hood thinks Luke is a good person, the other prefers the law and order of the police department.
None of that really matters when it comes to Cottonmouth, who is going off the rails. When Scarfe tries to extort him for more money, Cottonmouth shoots him in broad daylight. It’s clear Cottonmouth isn’t playing around. Black Mariah isn’t, either. Her smile is saccharine, but she’s her own PR machine, trying to recover from being associated with the robbery of Crispus Attucks. She’s tired of Luke and his drama. “Does the n---- have gills? Drown him. Can he burn? Can you poison him? Find his weakness,” she instructs Cottonmouth. “And squeeze.”
After Scarfe’s shooting, the department’s higher-ups get even more anxious. Misty actually starts to suspect that Scarfe is dirty, but she defends him to the brass. No one knows that Cottonmouth has another rat in the department, the lieutenant “investigating” Scarfe.
It turns out Luke and Claire met once before. Claire says she was Luke’s nurse when his girlfriend brought him to the hospital one time. Luke and Claire are together when they find Scarfe, bloodied from the shooting, hiding out in the barbershop. He admits to being a dirty cop and to killing Chico. He says he’ll be a witness and sheds more light on how Cottonmouth operates. The gangster uses a mortuary to dispose of bodies and Scarfe has kept detailed notes of murder investigations he’s covered up.
Mariah is taking a beating from a local reporter on camera. She’s agreed to a lengthy interview, but the reporter twists the knife. “Which Harlem is you?” the reporter asks, pitting Mariah’s PR stunt of prosperity against her dirty dealings with Cottonmouth. The reporter recounts Luke’s attack on Crispus Attucks and details Black Mariah’s connection with criminal activity. Mariah is speechless and demands the interview end.
Luke and Claire are trying to transport Scarfe to safety, but his injuries make it difficult. Cottonmouth puts pressure on his dirty lieutenant to find Scarfe and kill him. With Cottonmouth’s goons on their tail, Scarfe is killed, but not before Misty realizes the truth about the lieutenant who is trying to skew the investigation.
Back at Mariah’s house, the reporter ambushes her. “Councilwoman Dillard, can you comment on the arrest of your cousin, Cornell Stokes, on charges of extortion, police corruption, and murder? Is it true that he’s responsible for the murder of decorated Harlem Police Detective Rafael Scarfe?” It’s true — Cottonmouth is escorted out of his club in handcuffs. Has his reign ended?
Claire and Luke walk home after the adventure. Luke kind of hits on her and she firmly says that it’ll never happen. Back at headquarters, Misty is caught up in the day’s news: Scarfe is dead and Cottonmouth is behind bars.
And just like that, Cottonmouth is out of jail. Nina Simone’s voice echoes through the streets. Misty and Cornell have a tense scene together, the meeting of two true rivals. Luke is really just an interloper who has has disrupted their war, but these two are the ones who want Harlem built in their image. Misty says she can’t throw Cottonmouth in prison. He smiles. “See, that’s the problem with a bitch,” he tells her. “Once they get their mouth on a bone, they don’t wanna let go.” Damn.
Cottonmouth has a reason to be gleeful: He shot a cop in broad daylight and got off the hook. He’s stolen the guns back to sell to Domingo, so that’s one less person breathing down his neck. Mariah won’t be pleased with the headlines, but she’ll fall in line. Shades snaps him back to reality when he asks for the pricey gun he wants from Diamondback. Cottonmouth asks for a one-on-one with the weapons dealer. Then, he has a flashback of his own, to him as a scared teenager holding a gun that looked like it belonged to Pistol Pete, the brother-in-law of Mama Mabel. Back in the day, Pete was one of Harlem’s power players.
At the police department, Misty is visited by Inspector Ridley, a snobby woman who Misty calls “Inspector Gadget.” Back at her brownstone, Black Mariah gets a visit from her own antagonist, a younger politician named Damon Boone. He gives her an exit strategy for her current troubles: he’ll take her seat. In a year, she might be able to re-emerge.
Cottonmouth wasn’t always the hardened gangster. In a flashback, we learn that his first love was music. Mama Mabel was the matriarch of the Harlem underworld and he was scarred by her brutality. Luke and Cottonmouth have a parley: Cottonmouth lays out everything he knows about Luke’s past. He was a sheriff in his life as Carl Lucas and Cottonmouth threatens to rat out his ex-con past to Seagate and Harlem. “I have a use for bulletproof n-----,” Cottonmouth says. “I own you now.”
Shades visits Black Mariah. The Stokes family name used to mean something, he says. It’s a random, weird conversation. Shades is suddenly the defender of the Stokes name? He must be playing at something bigger.
Luke is ready to run and start a new life somewhere else now that Cottonmouth knows his secret. Claire reasons with him: Half of the people uptown have brothers, cousins, fathers, in prison, she says. People will be drawn to the fact that Luke isn’t perfect. He agrees — begrudgingly — and goes to get the guns from Domingo.
Black Mariah is forced out of politics. The city needs her resignation. She’s furious and Cottonmouth isn’t having any of it. Their conflict is actually much bigger than any of us know. Cottonmouth wanted to be a musician and get out of Harlem’s underworld, but it was Black Mariah that Mama Mabel sent away to boarding school for a ritzy education. He was pushed into the gangster life and forced to run the streets for Mabel until she had him sign away his own soul. Uncle Pete, whom Cottonmouth favoured, was running a drug scheme behind Mabel’s back. She made Cottonmouth shoot him when he was 14 and he never recovered.
Mariah doesn’t have any sympathy. Pete used to molest her and she says Mama Mabel sent her away for her own safety. “You wanted it,” Cottonmouth screams, saying that she used to walk around house “half-naked.” That pushes Black Mariah over the edge. She throws him from the window of his office, onto the club’s dancefloor. She kills him. They always said “family first.” Shades appears out of nowhere, proud of Mariah’s brutality. He suggests they blame Luke for Cottonmouth’s death.
Conveniently, Luke and Misty have a conversation about Cottonmouth on the sidewalk. They butt heads over the value of the system. Luke plainly admits that he has no interest in killing Cottonmouth, because he wants him to suffer behind bars. Misty’s pissed.
Then, in the last moment, a twist: Luke walks with Claire through a park. Diamondback, sitting in a parked car, has the powerful Judas gun that Cottonmouth was so eager to get his hands on. “Hey Carl,” he says. “One Judas for another.” He shoots and the bullet pierces Luke’s chest. Mr. Bullettproof bleeds.
Luke Cage has been shot! According to Claire, the bullet made a drilling sound as it burrowed into his flesh. The two of them on the run in an ambulance driven by one of her old friends, but they’re being chased by Hummer. That’s Diamondback, finally out to play.
“Carl, come out to play!” he shouts. These two have a long history, but it isn’t clear just yet.
Back at the club, Misty is skeptical: The way Black Mariah is framing Luke Cage is too perfect. A bottle girl named Candace is saying she saw Luke Cage, but everything isn’t adding up. How did Candace make it into the club that night? Why was she there? Misty think Mariah did it, but she doesn’t have the evidence.
At the club, Shades is in charge. He’s talked Mariah through covering up her tracks at the crime scene and he’s ready to hold court. He tells Cottonmouth’s goons that he’s their new boss.
Diamondback tries another hit on Luke as Claire tries to figure out what’s wrong with him. They’re hiding out in a women’s clinic. Misty arrives to see the action. She’s trying to get answers from Luke and figure out an alibi. When Diamondback tries to shoot Luke again with the Judas gun, the bullet blows a massive hole in a wall, but he’s out of bullets. The bullets from a regular gun are starting to wound Luke, as well. Diamondback snatches Missy away and thinks about kidnapping her, but ultimately leaves her behind and runs off into the night.
Luke follows Diamondback to an old theatre. “Stryker!” he calls out. That seems to be Diamondback’s real name. He’s offscreen, calling to Luke and teasing him, mentioning something about them hearing the same sermons as kids. Could they have grown up in the same house? It seems likely. Luke calls Diamondback “Willis,” his given name, instead of his reptilian nickname. “I am a snake,” Diamondback tells him. “I shed my skin for something better, stronger. You left me to rot, Carl. In a gutter. But I changed that sewer into a garden.”
Diamondback has been the cause of chaos in Luke’s life. He’s the one who framed Luke and had him thrown in Seagate. He’s pissed that Luke survived: “I sent you to hell. And you came back with superpowers!” Luke and Diamondback fight. Slowly, Luke regains a little of his skin’s resilience, but still he’s bleeding.
Misty and Claire spar in an interrogation room. “You’re either too weak to stand up to pressure, or too stupid to see that Luke is innocent,” Claire says. Misty looks wounded, like she’s losing her ground. She snaps, pushing Claire against the room’s walls. Inspector Gadget comes in, furious, breaking up their fight.
There’s something weird going on between Shades and Mariah. He’s hitting on her, but also bringing out the worst in her. They pay off the bottle girl for lying to the police — they plan to kill her and all her roommates if she decides to snitch and play all it off as a home invasion.
“Pity,” Mariah says. “It would bring down the property value.” Shades gives a weird grin. “That’s my girl.” Does anyone really need a romance between these two?
Dimaondback catches up with Luke outside the theatre, shooting him with the Judas bullet once again. Luke looks sad and says he loved Diamondback like a brother. Diamondback rolls his eyes. “N----, I am your brother,” he says.
Shades likes sitting behind the big desk and being the club’s boss. But there’s something missing from his leadership — and it’s not just because Mahershala Ali is so charismatic on camera. The club is called Harlem’s Paradise because it’s supposed to be the realisation of a Black American dream. Shades has had Mariah do his dirty work, but Diamondback interrupts the new king holding court. Diamondback loved Cottonmouth and is mad that Shades was arrogant enough to think he could replace the overlord. “Luke Cage isn’t dead until you find his goddamn body,” Diamondback says, instructing everyone to figure out where Luke disappeared to.
Luke fell into a garbage truck after being shot by the Judas gun, and is on the run. The police want him in for questioning. It’s not Misty who’s looking for him, though: She’s in a mandated therapy session. Assaulting Claire in the interrogation room was not a good look.
Luke finally catches up with Claire, who has been busy analysing his cells and trying to figure out how to heal him. He had to steal a police car to do it, but Claire’s been busy, too. “I’m looking up seashells to better understand the structure of your skin,” she says. She wants to visit Dr. Burstein, the prison doctor that created the bath chamber that gave Luke these powers. He might be the only person alive with a clue as to how Luke can recover.
As the new queenpin, Black Mariah demands a meeting with the rest of the head gangsters. Shades tells her she needs to assure Cottonmouth’s old buyers that they’re still in good hands.
Through all this, Misty is still in therapy. She’s paranoid, but it reveals a deeper fear. Luke’s ascendance, Cottonmouth’s death, the truth about Scarfe — she’s terrified that she’s a bad judge of character and that she’s really amounted to nothing.
On the way to the prison doctor’s house, Luke is delirious with pain and talking out of his head. “Willis thinks he’s my brother...the things he said about my father...he can’t be my brother,” he says.
By the time Luke makes it to Dr. Burstein’s couch, he’s in bad shape. Claire thinks that whatever makes him stronger is also making the shrapnel hurt him more internally. Before her death, Reva (Luke’s ex) stole a USB drive full of the doctor’s medical experiment data. Now, the three of them are using that information to figure out how to save Luke.
Hennessey is poured and all the gangster heads are sitting around the table. Black Mariah calls the meeting to order. “I’m out,” she says. But then, Diamondback shows up uninvited. He kills all the heads, save for Domingo and Black Mariah. Domingo lives because he has friends south of the border. Diamondback also needs a witness to let people know how serious he is. Diamondback and Mariah have a common enemy: Luke Cage. They join forces to peddle more of the Judas guns.
Because of Luke’s cells and the chemical reactions in his body, he needs to be dipped in hot acid to get the shrapnel out. They all go to Burstein’s lab in his barn. It’s a dangerous experiment. Luke tells Claire to make sure to get Reva’s data back, no matter what happens to him. He’s dipped into the chemical bath and immediately starts screaming. It’s not working — his skin is still impenetrable. Then, he flatlines.
The bath didn’t work and Claire is desperate. She electrocutes Luke and it works, his heart keeps beating. They decide to boil him to mimic what happened the night he got his powers. Finally, Claire picks the shrapnel out and it looks like Luke might finally heal.
Diamondback and Black Mariah have a meeting. He’s trying to mass produce the Judas gun and he needs her business acumen to help him do it. The single bullets will be less powerful, but he can sell them for cheaper. “[Buyers] need to look at dashcam footage and ask themselves if the world is ready for bulletproof n----- that eat cops for breakfast,” he said. “Black fear.” They’ve found a sales pitch.
Diamondback starts wearing hoodies and kills a cop, posing as Luke Cage. He’s created a device that can let him pack a punch nearly as strong as Luke’s, so he has most of Harlem fooled.
Back in the country at Dr. Burstein’s, Luke has a revelation. Dr. Burstein unencrypted Reva’s files and Luke see her video diary entries discussing their therapy. The Reva on camera is different from the one in Luke’s memory. She was playing him, prodding him as a potential test subject. Seagate’s prisoners were subjects in an experiment to provide lasting youth.
Misty is slow to point the finger at Luke. Street cops rough up local teens for info about Cage. When an officer beats up the teen from Pop’s barbershop in episode 1, Mariah attaches herself to the media circus. She turns a story about police brutality into a witch hunt for Luke Cage. Misty sees through it and presses the inspector to do the same. Using facial-recognition software, she sees that Willis Stryker was actually the person whose face was hiding in the hoodie when the cop was killed. Stryker is Diamondback’s true identity and she’s convinced he’s wrapped up in all of it. However, she hasn’t yet realized that he was the one who held her at gunpoint before he shot Luke Cage for the second time.
Meanwhile, Luke is in the South with Claire. He destroyed Burnstein’s bar when it was clear the scientist wanted to mass produce Luke’s abilities. He’s still sad about Reva. “I don’t love her anymore,” he tells Claire. “I just loved the idea of her.”
He’s still trying to piece together his personal history with Diamondback. He takes Claire to his grandfather’s church and has a flashback. When Luke’s dad was pastor, he had an affair with his secretary. The woman got pregnant and had Willis. The signs were there for all of Luke’s life, but he’s only just now putting them together. He and Willis/Diamondback are half brothers. “I am my brother’s keeper. It’s on me,” Luke says.
Luke makes it back to Harlem just in time for Mariah’s phony rally against him at the club. She’s effective on camera, painting him as the real villain, telling the people that police need to be properly armed to fight superpowered vigilantes. Boone, her nemesis, congratulates her on expertly changing the media narrative around the Stokes family.
Misty is at the rally, too, keeping an eye on Diamondback. He’s watching from above, in Cottonmouth’s old office. Misty tries to sneak up on him, but Diamondback shoots her. Luke springs into action, rescuing her from the gunfire, but they’re still stuck behind the club’s bar waiting out Diamondback’s goons.
Luke’s shielding Misty from the barrage of gunfire from Diamondback’s crew. Civilians are running out of the club, terrified of what they’ve seen. Misty’s been hit by gunfire and Luke carries her to the kitchen in the back. All of the possible exits are secured, so it seems like the pair are sitting ducks. Then, Luke opens a trapdoor in the kitchen’s floor. Lucky Luciano used to own the building, he explains, and there are still a few prohibition tunnels left.
Diamondback doesn’t really have a plan, but is banking on the confusion to help him come out unscathed. “One hundred people just saw you open fire on a female cop,” Shades says. Diamondback doesn’t care. If he can kill Luke and make it seem like he’s saved Harlem from the menace, he’ll be fine. Everyone not in his crew — including Claire, who didn’t flee from the club — are being held hostage now. Mariah’s city council nemesis, Boone, is a hostage, too. So is Candace. When Claire helps her with a sprained ankle, the bottle girl tells her Black Mariah paid her to say she saw Luke kill Cottonmouth. Since Candice spent time on the waitstaff, she also knows about the kitchen’s secret basement and tells Claire about it. Claire sneaks downstairs to find Luke and Misty.
Outside, the police have gathered to negotiate the hostage situation. Diamondback is posing as Luke and has Boone on and off the phone with police, talking demands. An aide to the mayor arrives in the police setup to advise Inspector Ridley, who is handling the situation. The mayor is in a special secret meeting with Mariah Dillard about the Judas weapons Diamondback is mass producing. Both the inspector and the aide are cautious about using it, but it’s being pushed by the top brass. Neither of them trust anything being repped by Black Mariah.
Misty’s health weakens. Diamondback confides in Boone about his troubled childhood. He just wanted his father’s approval and he thinks that Luke hogged the spotlight. They release a few hostages and the escapees tell the police the truth: the goons were firing on Luke, not the other way around. Inspector Ridley starts to think she has the truth backwards.
Shades and Diamondback spar over what to do. The hostages need to die and they need to find Luke Cage. They’ve realised Claire is missing, so Shades goes looking for her. Meanwhile, Diamondback goes into more detail about his childhood with Luke, this time over the club’s PA system. When he and Luke were teens, they were arrested for grand theft auto. Their dad, the respected pastor, argued for Luke to join the Marines. Diamondback, meanwhile, was sent to juvie and, eventually, to prison. He tells Luke to come out of hiding and meet him in Cottonmouth’s old office or he’ll kill a hostage every 10 minutes. Luke is on his way up, but Diamondback kills Boone.
Luke frees the rest of the hostages and finds Diamondback dangling Candace to her death. Luke rushes to save her, but it’s just as the police storm in, armed with the Judas guns. Luke surrenders and is arrested. Diamondback runs. Shades, who stumbled upon the kitchen’s trapdoor, is captured by Misty and Claire.
Luke is put in three sets of handcuffs and thrown in the back of an armoured police car. Child's play. At his first opportunity, he escapes.
With Shades in custody, Diamondback is officially the only one in control. In a funny moment, Zip tries to don a pair of sunglasses and act like he knows what’s up. Diamondback calls him out for his foolishness. Turk Barrett returns! Diamondback has liquidated many of his assets to make an easy run after he kills Luke. The weapons dealer is also hilariously annoyed with all of his goons. They keep questioning him and he doesn’t like to be trifled with.
Some other developments in Harlem: Domingo’s crew has convinced him to go after Diamondback. He wants the drugs, money, and guns. Back at the police station, Misty is desperate to prove Luke’s innocence. The inspector sees that Diamondback should be a person of interest, but she’s still interested in talking to Luke and wants him brought in. Mariah goes back to the club after the shootout. It’s sad — the club was Mama Mabel’s legacy and was Cottonmouth’s dream, too. Her ambitious aide tells her that she can rebuild the club and her family’s legacy.
Candace calls Misty and tells her the truth about Cottonmouth’s death: She was secretly in the club and saw Mariah kill her cousin. Then, she saw Shades telling Mariah how to cover it up. She’s more afraid of Black Mariah than Cottonmouth. Mariah’s aide secretly watches their meeting from a car parked nearby.
Luke beats up some goons trying to rob a bodega. Who’s inside? Method Man! He goes on Sway’s radio show later, singing Luke’s praises. “There’s something powerful about seeing a Black man bulletproof and unafraid,” Method Man says on-air. The rapper’s words improve Luke’s rep on the streets. It becomes a trend for Black men to wear hoodies with bullet holes.
Diamondback has Zip bail Shades out of jail. Zip tries to strangle Shades, but at the last second, he grabs a gun and turns the tables. “Who gave you the order to kill me?” he asks. It was Diamondback, who’s at Mariah’s house. He needs her loyalty. He says her new effort to rebuild Harlem’s Paradise is smart and gives her a duffel bag of cash as seed money. It’s about rebuilding Harlem in her image, he says. But he’s forgotten — Harlem has always been made in Mariah’s image.
Later that night, Shades meets up with Mariah and makes his case for them to be in cahoots again. They think the same way, he says, and he’s always been the ally of the Stokes family. She agrees and they come up with a plan: pit Luke against Diamondback. If they both die in their fight, Shades and Mariah can retake control of Harlem. They share a brief moment as they’re staking out the barbershop. If Mariah hadn’t killed Cottonmouth that night, Shades would have.
Luke threatens Turk and gets him to admit where Diamondback is hiding out. Meanwhile, Diamondback is handling a shootout at the warehouse where he’s moved his operation. Domingo tried to hit him, but he gets away. Domingo tells Luke that Diamondback had a weapon that’s more powerful than he imagines.
Mariah and Shades go to Pop’s to parley with Luke. Shades stole documents from Diamondback that can prove that Luke was innocent of the crime he went to Seagate for all those years ago. Mariah says she’ll pin Cottonmouth’s murder to Diamondback. In exchange, they want him killed. Misty shows up and interferes. She was hiding in the back and wants to arrest the odd couple. Then, another uninvited guest arrives: Diamondback, dressed in costume. “What the hell? What type of Jean Paul Gaultier shit is this?” Bobby Fish says. “What are you, a pimp stormtrooper?” I’m laughing.
Diamondback makes him bulletproof, too. He and Luke start to fight. Misty chases after Shades and Black Mariah. Bobby Fish is pissed that Pop’s shop is in ruins again over all this nonsense.
Luke and Diamondback battle. It’s just like the fights they had when they were teens, when Willis taught Carl how to box. Luke tries to make amends — their father was disappointed in him, too — but Diamondback is still full of wrath. Luke’s getting his butt kicked until the crowd starts cheering for him. He lays out Diamondback. Misty arrests Mariah.
Claire and Misty have become twisted sisters in Luke’s drama. He slept with Misty all those days ago, but he and Claire have feelings for each other, too. It’s awkward at the precinct, when Misty gets Luke’s full story. He explains that he wasn’t in town when Diamondback killed that cop and he was shot when Mariah killed Cottonmouth. Luke’s name is finally cleared and the NYPD isn't after him anymore.
Shades stole Misty’s phone back at the barbershop and lures Candace to a bodega. He shoots her in the head. The cops find her body and Misty is heartbroken. Mariah gets out on bail, since they don’t really have a case against her. Shades is waiting in the car.
U.S. marshals come to the NYPD precinct. They’ve come to pick up Luke Cage. Mariah told the media about his other life as Carl Lucas and they take him away to Georgia to finish his sentence at Seagate. He and Claire kiss.
Back at the barbershop, Bobby Fish is looking through the rubble. He finds the Diamondback's file, which can clear Luke of his Carl Lucas charge.
Harlem’s Paradise is back in action. Mariah has Cottonmouth’s portrait of Biggie Smalls replaced with a Basquiat. Heavy lies the crown, that sort of thing. She and Shades kiss. Misty’s down below on the dance floor, watching them. She’s not finished with Mariah Dillard yet.
Diamondback is in the hospital and we get one peek at his doctor. In a shocking twist, it's Dr. Burstein.
As for Luke? Power man is in the back seat of the marshals’ car. He’s headed back to Seagate, it seems. “Sometimes backwards to move forward. Always forward,” he says, adapting Pop’s old mantra. Harlem has settled, but Mr. Bulletproof has business to settle in Georgia.