Before Black Panther and Black Lightning were bringing epic, distinctly black superhero stories to the big and small screens, Luke Cage set out to tell a poignant, timely story about just what it would mean for a black man to be gifted with near-invulnerability in a world trying to destroy him.
By the end of Luke Cage’s first season, you got the distinct sense from the way things wrapped up that the show had managed to accomplish its goal, but that there was more to the characters’ inner lives left to be explored. When we recently spoke with showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker about his ambitions for the second season, he explained how it really wouldn’t have been enough to simply add more characters and up the ante action-wise. The thing that makes you want to come back to these characters, Coker said, was really zeroing in on their humanity and finding out what makes them tick.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
io9: What was different about the way you wanted to shape Luke Cage’s second season?
Cheo Hodari Coker: [laughs] Honestly, everything started with feedback from the public.
Coker: And from critics!
The writer Angelica J. Bastién wrote the recaps for Vulture during season one and, man, there were some critiques that were some of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever seen in my life. But, she’s such an incredible writer that as a former journalist, I loved what she wrote and how she wrote it even though it hurt.
So, I collected all 13 of her recaps and when we established the new writer’s room, which was essentially the old writer’s room because we had very little turnover, and we decided to approach them one by one.
Was there any recap in particular that really stuck with you?
Coker: The one that hit me the most was when she said that it was too bad that the writers of Luke Cage didn’t think of Luke Cage as a man, but only as a superhero. So we said “Ok, how do we approach the show in a way where we’re really dealing with Luke himself at the center of the things—his issues.”
Actually, let’s talk about Luke’s issues for a second. How has Luke’s worldview changed now that he’s got the events of The Defenders behind him? Harlem’s still his home, but given everything he’s experienced, how has his relationship to the larger world shifted considering that he’s an enhanced person?
Coker: If you remove the Judas Bullet as his weakness, what’s left for him to really be afraid of? What is it that can bring him down? What if his anger is his greatest weakness? That’s one of the things we really wanted to unpack in season two and Claire’s the first person to point it out to him.
Even though the “super” is what—for lack of a better term—puts asses in sets, it’s the human that keeps them sitting. So, you always want to make sure that you have both.
Talk to me about Luke and Claire. Even though she’s only in a few of the episodes this season, there’s a depth to their dynamic that really makes her presence felt even when she’s not on screen.
Coker: Their relationship’s in a new place because she’s in that space where she feels as if they have a new, deeper connection. To Claire, Luke is hers and as far as he’s concerned, she’s his. They chose each other. Because even when Luke was hooked up with Jessica, it was a connection and they were building towards something, but once he found out what happened with Reva, it was a bridge that he couldn’t cross.
Are Luke and Jessica on good terms now, though?
Coker: Luke and Jessica are cordial now, but for him, it’s all about Claire. She’s the first person that he’s ever admitted to loving since Reva and it really complicates things, because Claire’s the one person who can get a read on him and tell when he’s bugging.
Even with the structure of the story being told, handling Claire as a foil to Luke, [Rosario] Dawson doesn’t play him like one and it’s what makes her performance so strong. She has the power as an actress with presence and poise and sheer ability to always be at the center of any conversation even though technically she’s supposed to be the foil.
You faked everyone out in the first season when Misty first hurt her arm and seemed like she might have lost it then.
Coker: [laughs] Misty losing her arm really gave us the opportunity to explore her vulnerabilities and the things that ultimately make her so resilient because it’s like she says in episode nine on season one: She always has to have the ball in her hand in order to see the whole basketball court.
But, with The Defenders behind her, how has Misty’s conceptualization for herself changed?
Coker: A lot of people initially thought of her “Misty Vision” as a superpower, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that she’s hyper-aware of critical details much like Sherlock is—really, though, it’s more like a photographic memory, which Simone Missick actually has.
But here’s the thing—if Misty loses her arm, she loses that court vision and so for the first couple of episodes, she’s out of it. She’s depressed, she’s drinking more, and at the same time, her ability to see herself as an effective cop has been deeply shaken. It takes Colleen and the introduction of her new arm to really bring Misty back from the edge, but then another rug is pulled from out under her when she loses Ridenhour, and then she has to figure out whether she wants to fight to step into a position of leadership.
Ultimately, we wanted to see Misty going through it and it comes to a head by the end of the season when her relationship, which had always been cordial in the past, is suddenly one that has a new level of mistrust.
One of the most fascinating parts of the first season was watching Mariah slowly grow into her role as a much shadier, more ruthless villain. What elements of her character were you the most keen on exploring in this second season?
Coker: Alfre Woodard is a powerhouse, master actor, but she’s also someone that you want to interact with, someone that you want to talk to. The main thing for Mariah is that she’s conflicted. She is a Dillard who’s haunted by the fact that she’s actually a Stokes, which is what makes her dynamic with Bushmaster so fascinating. The Stokeses are the ones that ruined his life, killed his father, and stole the family’s club. It’s Mabel who burns his mother alive.
His presence in Harlem, the way he comes at Mariah as she’s trying her best to sell out and become a Dillard for life, it brings the Stokes out in her because that’s who she has to be in order to survive, but there’s more to it than that.
Coker: Right, like Tilda.
Tilda coming back into her mother’s life has a similar effect on Mariah. She’s forced to be alone with Tilda, something she’s always tried to avoid, and it contributes to this overall pressure that requires her to become her true self to protect herself.
With Tilda, though, that moment of truth is... well, it’s dark.
Coker: When Mariah confronts the fact that she doesn’t love Tilda because she’s the product of incest and rape, she’s also confronting the fact that she’s not really a Dillard—it’s all a lie—and a lot of her anger and frustrations are misplaced.
The Rum Punch Massacre is really the cherry on top for her character development this season, because at that point, she’s fully embracing her criminal self and her identity as a Stokes. It’s why the Basquiat and the portrait of Marcus Garvey come down and she puts the Biggie portrait back up [at Harlem Paradise], because it’s a symbol of Cottonmouth—and because then, right there, she’s finally accepting who she is. Mariah Stokes, not Dillard.
Luke Cage season two is now available on Netflix.