The fourth episode of Luke Cage, “Step Into The Arena,” jumps back and forth between the present and the major portions of his origin. The present isn’t looking so good, since last episode ended with Cottonmouth launching a rocket attack on Genghis Connie’s with Connie and Luke inside. I’m guessing Cottonmouth doesn’t believe in the concept of overkill. They do make the title work on two different levels, which is a nice job.
The past time frame deals with Luke being in Seagate Prison. We don’t get to find out why he’s there, although he keeps telling himself he’s innocent and he needs to remember who he is. He punches the wall out of frustration, which sets up for something later and very clearly demonstrates he doesn’t have his powers. Just like Daredevil did a good job on legal issues in general but botched some stuff in the courtroom, Cage seems to have the feel of the neighborhood down well but is screwing up some prison stuff. Ex-law enforcement goes in protective custody or administrative segregation, not general population A privately run place like Seagate would enforce that even more, since there would be massive legal liability issues. And while I can accept Rackham “outing” Cage as a former cop just to stir up trouble, Reva does it too, which makes no sense at all.
The early scenes set up Reva as a very caring counselor, Rackham as the cruel and sadistic prison guard (if we’re getting rid of stereotypes in the modern age of storytelling, how about losing that one?), and Reginald AKA “Squabbles” as the one man who is trying to befriend Luke. We also hear Cage’s real name, which before this was just a minor point of comic book trivia since it’s almost never used. We also see that, to start at least, Cage could just as easily be called Rage, and he’s not interested in making friends, joining programs, or getting along with anyone.
Out in the yard, Cage works out, and is observed by Rackham. Rackham tells Shades and Comanche (his comic book partner who gets minimal screen time here) to see if Cage will bend or break. Later, Cage gets jumped in his cell by several inmates, and puts up a hell of a fight… which is just what Rackham wanted. Rackham spends a good bit of time pressuring Luke to join the highly illegal but very profitable fight club the prison has going. There are also rumors of prisoners being experimented on and disappearing, which Reva swears aren’t true.
In the present, Misty and Scarfe show up at the disaster area that used to be Connie’s, watching Fire and Rescue work the rubble. Down below, Luke is alive (no surprise, it’s his show) and somehow or other, so is Connie. Luke starts working on digging them out before Connie’s disbelieving eyes.
Returning to Seagate, Reva leads her group therapy sessions, and I’ll give them credit, they don’t make everyone in there some kind of model citizen wrongly convicted. One of the men gives a very interesting version of “self-defense” as his excuse for why he shouldn’t be in prison. Cage finally speaks up in group, but it’s mostly making Reva doubt herself rather than opening himself up.
The present time frame alternates between Misty and Scarfe finding some more clues about what happened at Connie’s, and Luke and Connie trapped down below. I like how steady and calm Luke is, and how methodical and determined Misty is. It’s a nice bit of characterization for both of them.
Back at Seagate, Luke and Squabbles talk about training, Squabbles’ past, and kung fu favorites. Luke isn’t thrilled that Squabbles prefers Jet Li to Bruce Lee. After another discussion about the N word, with Luke strongly against it, we see some of the fighting. It’s brutal, ugly, and apparently pay-per-view, making someone a lot of money (and violating multiple laws, but that doesn’t seem to matter here). As time passes, Luke spirals down into some nasty version of himself. He becomes more and more aggressive in the fights, and stops taking care of himself, which worries Squabbles. He also stops going to group, which concerns Reva. Things go along a predictable trajectory, until Luke ends up in serious trouble and beaten within an inch of his life. That’s when we learn the second secret of Seagate, and apparently someone’s been lying. The process that Luke ends up part of goes along the same lines as the comic book version. They even manage to get a scene of Luke in damn near his comic book costume (which Mike Colter has said he wouldn’t wear).
There are a lot of nice transitions between the past and present eras. The present has more betrayal by Cottonmouth’s mole with the police. Then, in possibly there best sequence of the episode, Luke punches his way out of Seagate as they show him tunneling out of the wreckage and saving Connie. After he’s freed them both, reporters mob him, and he finally faces them and gives them his name: Luke Cage. I bet a know a gangster in the area who is not going to be happy at the news coverage.
What I liked: Luke’s origin was pretty close to the comic book version. The pay-per-view fighting ring made sense if you accept the corruption in the prison. The nod to his costume was funny. Connie’s surprise at Luke’s abilities was done well, as was Misty’s determination to get to the bottom of the explosion.
What I didn’t: Even with Luke shielding her, I’m not sure how Connie survived the blast. There are a few too many connections between that one neighborhood in Harlem and Seagate down in Georgia: Shades, Reva being related to Pop, Comanche. It’s been years, or that’s the impression I get, since Luke’s escape, but Luke revealing his face to the cameras probably isn’t good. And I’m really curious about Reva being in on the experiments at Seagate and having the flashdrive full of info about Kilgrave. Is there a connection?
Despite my not liking a few things this episode, I’m overall enjoying the series. I’ll give this one a 4 out of 5 and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.