In the much anticipated Luke Cage pilot, our first glance of our hero comes at a local barber shop, where he is sweeping hair and talking smack to his friends about the NBA (for the record – GO MAVS!). Involved in the conversation are Luke (Mike Colter); the owner of the shop, Pop (Frankie Faison); and clients Chico (Brian Marc) and Shameek (Jermel Howard). All of these characters seem to be relatively familiar with one another, but we learn that Pop and Luke have the deepest connection of all — not only are they both ex-cons, but Pop is aware of Luke’s abilities. Pop encourages Luke to live his life and do some good in the world, while Luke strongly disagrees, still mourning his dead wife and still bitter about his transformation. He says to Pop, “You think I asked for this?”
Luke makes his way to his second job as an under-the-table dishwasher at a swanky club called Harlem’s Paradise, but soon learns he will be taking over the bar for the evening since the regular bartender, Dante (Hughes Faustin) is MIA. Luke dons the standard (but way too small) uniform and makes his way to the bar, where he meets and flirts with a mysterious woman.
Meanwhile, the club’s owner, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), is sipping champagne upstairs with his cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). He and his associates celebrate the easy million he plans to make that very evening after a Grade-A weapons deal goes through. Unfortunately, the deal goes bad after Shameek, Chico, and Dante show up and kill everyone in order to obtain the money. Dante gets freaked out after everyone is killed, and wonders if Cottonmouth will know it was an inside job since he conveniently was not present for his shift the same night the incident took place. Shameek agrees that this is problematic then shoots Dante and leaves him for dead before he and Chico take off with the money. Dante ends up living just long enough to use his dying breaths to call one of Cottonmouth’s associates at the club to tell him what just happened.
Meanwhile, Luke runs into the mysterious woman outside of the club when his shift is over. She asks him for coffee, not unlike one of the women at the beginning of the show, but this time Luke replies, “I don’t like coffee.” To his surprise, the mysterious woman retorts, “Neither do I.”
What follows is not a shock — some hot and heavy love making by two incredibly attractive individuals.
A short time later, the mysterious woman is called into work. She claims to be an auditor, but this is very obviously a lie to both the viewer and to Luke. It turns out that she is an investigator with the NYPD. The aftermath of the bad weapons deal was discovered by police, and the mysterious woman (now known to be Misty Knight, played by Simone Missick) and her partner Detective Scarfe (Frank Whaley) are on the case. Misty pulls off Dante’s mask and immediately recognizes him. At this moment, it seems like she and Scarfe both realize that something big is brewing.
That same morning, Councilwoman Dillard is posing for cameras, shaking hands, and making big speeches about the gem of Harlem and her plans for a Harlem Renaissance, starting with a new (expensive) housing complex. Cottonmouth shows up much to her chagrin, and the two discuss the funds they had agreed to exchange. Dillard is nervous because she used tax-payer money and federal grants to build Harlem’s Paradise, so she very much needed the easily million he planned to make from his weapons deal. Cottonmouth assures her that things will be taken care of with the assistance of Shades (Theo Rossi), another ex-con who was in prison with Luke, and who works for the Big Boss (referred to as Diamondback).
Shades is able to track down Shameek, and brings him and the money he stole to “meet” with Cottonmouth, which the viewer knows will end badly, but Shameek, miraculously, does not. Cottonmouth tries to get Shameek to talk, but is not successful. With the portrait of Notorious B.I.G. looming behind him, the crown coincidentally positioned just right over his head, Cottonmouth beats Shameek to death with his bare hands.
His associates dump Shameek’s body in the gutter near a church, where it is discovered by police. Scarfe asks Misty about the bartender that replaced Dante that night – did she remember anything about him? Is it possible he knows something about this incident? Misty pretends she knew nothing about the man and claims to have barely spoken to him, but it is clear she is somewhat haunted by her partner’s musings.
While this is happening, Luke returns home, shaken from having seen Shades. He paces his apartment and wonders if his former prison “buddy” recognized him. He is able to calm himself by conjuring up images of his late wife, assuring her (and himself), “I’m clear. I’m focused. I’m ready, baby.”
When he leaves the apartment, he comes across some gangsters stirring up trouble with his landlady and her husband. – the men are intimidating the couple into supporting and donating to Councilwoman Dillard’s Harlem Renaissance initiative. When the couple refuses to comply, the gangsters begin to threaten them, but Luke steps in. The gangsters seem unfazed by his presence and begin to attack him. The first’s man’s wrist splinters upon contact with Luke’s jaw, and Luke easily tosses him out the window. The next few men are apparently slow learners, trying their own hand at taking down Luke. The last man standing disowns his friends and quickly flees the restaurant. The couple is grateful for Luke’s intervention and ask him to work for them. He refuses, but assures them, “You have my word – I’ve got you,” before pulling up his hoodie and exiting the restaurant.
I thought the pilot was a little slow moving, but I think it was in the interest of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series and providing us with necessary background information. I was surprised that the Luke Cage we met in this episode was even more mysterious and withdrawn than the Luke Cage we met in Jessica Jones. I am looking forward to seeing where this series goes, especially with such an all-star cast.