At one point in the newest season of Netflix's Marvel superhero show Luke Cage, the titular hero, played by the perfectly cast Mike Colter, tells his cop friend Misty Knight (Simone Missick) that he's "not in the market for a sidekick." "Who says you're not my sidekick?" she snaps back. "Me," he retorts after she's walked away, "It's my show." And if you've gotten to that point in the season, you'd be forgiven for thinking, "Is it, though?"
Yes, the show is named after the character, but for a good chunk of the second season, the spotlight seems to be very deliberately not on Cage himself. Instead, much of the drama of the show centers on three women: former New York City councilwoman-turned-Harlem crime boss Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodward), her estranged herbalist daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), and the aforementioned Misty Knight, whose reacclimation to the NYPD after losing a limb in last year's The Defenders miniseries poses its own series of hurdles.
Dillard gets the lion's share of screen time, as the show delves into her family history after John "Bushmaster" McIver (Mustafa Shakir), a superpowered Jamaican with a justified grudge against her family, comes to town and shakes things up in a number of ways. Woodard gives a hell of a performance, creating the most well-rounded villain of the small-screen branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of the Kingpin in the first season of Daredevil. Her take on Mariah Dillard – a woman desperate to create some sort of good for Harlem to redeem the years of violence and terror her family inflicted on it, but incapable of shedding those tactics herself – elevates the character far beyond the cartoonish "Black Mariah" of the comics.
Meanwhile, most of Luke Cage's arc in the first part of the season has to do with his inability to turn his newfound status as the "Hero of Harlem" into any sort of steady paid work. This frustration, combined with old feelings of resentment that come up when his pastor father, James Lucas – played by veteran character actor Reg E. Cathey in his final performance before passing away in February – cause Cage to spend a bit too much of the season wallowing in inefficacy.
A late team-up episode with Iron Fist Danny Rand (Finn Jones) helps recenter the character. It's worth noting that the episode marks the first time I've ever wished there were more of Jones' Iron Fist in anything, hopefully boding well for the follow-up to the disastrous first season of Iron Fist. Similarly, a meeting between Misty Knight and kung-fu teacher Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) will have fans clamoring for an overdue Daughters of the Dragon team-up series.
Despite a tendency toward sluggishness, the season ends up breathing fresh air into the sometimes stale Defenders wing of the MCU. Harlem's Paradise – the nightclub where much of the plotting between characters takes place – gives showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker a chance to showcase some blistering musical performances from the likes of Gary Clark Jr., Jadakiss and Faith Evans, KRS-One, Rakim and others. And the conclusion – without giving away too much – leaves Luke Cage in a surprising new status quo that's sure to divide audiences, but has to be respected for the way it turns basic expectations on their head. Always forward, forward always.