Like many of you, I’ve just finished watching Luke Cage. Personally, I consider it some of the best television every made. The characters are compelling, the plot was decent, the acting was beyond great and the show was littered with subtle attention to detail that made it memorable. Unfortunately, Luke Cage also revealed something truly terrible about humanity.
[SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers about season 1 of Luke Cage]
Unlike many other shows, Luke Cage doesn’t have a single, central villain. The show instead centers around three primary antagonists: Cottonmouth, Diamondback and Black Mariah. There is also a fourth (meta)antagonist is who makes everything truly horrible.
Cottonmouth, who is cousin to Black Mariah is a pretty straight forward gangster. He is simultaneously repulsively amoral and oddly sympathetic. Like The Operative in Serenity, he is aware that he is a monster. Moreover, in rare moments of seemingly earnest introspection he seems to genuinely be interested in using the power and wealth he obtains to make his scrap of nowhere a better place.
Again, like The Operative, Cottonmouth seems cognizant of the fact that he will not be welcome in any “better place” he creates. He is aware that his methods are amoral, unethical and unwelcome. Unlike The Operative, however, Cottonmouth has a desire for personal wealth, power and “respect”, which undermine his noble goals and make him vulnerable to an obsession with Luke Cage that ultimately destroys him.
If Cottonmouth is a villain that seems reasonably typical, he’s also easily the most complex. The writing and the acting both cause Cottonmouth to strain against the tropes that bound the character and there are real moments of insight into the complexity of human thought and motivation.
The other two of the show’s villains are straight up tropes. Diamondback is the completely unhinged psychopath with daddy issues hellbent on murdering Luke Cage. Black Mariah is Lady MacBeth.
The fourth antagonist
Diamondback cooks up a special bullet called the Judas which is designed specifically to kill enhanced individuals like Luke Cage. When two of the bullets fail to kill Cage, he and Black Mariah cook up a scheme to sell a slightly toned down version of the bullets to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and have them mow Cage in their stead.
This makes perfect sense for the characters: above all, Diamondback wants Cage destroyed. Black Mariah wants ever more political power: selling these weapons will provide both funding and a political feather in her cap. This reveals to us the fourth antagonist: the human race itself.
The secret to the Judas bullets is that they are made from Chitauri metal. The Chitauri are the aliens who invaded Earth and attacked New York in The Avengers.
To me, this represents the existential horror of the show. Judas bullets are manufactured from scavenged Chitauri metal for the sole purpose of killing the very people that saved the Earth from that invasion.
That’s horrible in and of itself, however, the various politicians fall all over themselves to buy the things, and there are police officers who simply cannot wait to use them. To the point that when a police officer is begged by one character to save Luke Cage by using the Judas bullets on Diamondback (who was very close to killing Cage), the police officer, with a cold and menacing sneer, replies simply “no”.
Perhaps what bothers me most is not even the eagerness of a scared public to design weapons to kill their saviours. I do understand that the public is being depicted as feeling powerless in a world that now contains enhanced individuals.
What shocks and appalls me are the reactions of real world viewers of Luke Cage to this phenomenon. many have said to me they felt the villains of the show were weak, or mundane. That the plot was too simple. They never even considered the idea that the real villain was our own collective willingness to bend our ethics to breaking out of nothing more than irrational fear.
Real world viewers of Luke Cage, by and large, don’t seem to have stopped to consider the cold calculation of Black Mariah’s promotion and sale of the Judas Bullets, nor that her use of existential fear of enhanced individuals is far more damaging with much longer term repercussions than the violence and bullying of Cottonmouth and Diamondback.
The fact we are so inured to that sort of fearmongering that we barely even notice it is shameful. That we no longer see see xenophobia and those who whip it up as “compelling” shows the true horror of Luke Cage: we ourselves are the true villains of the piece.