A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The horrors of the prison industrial complex seem to be perfectly at home within the narrative of Luke Cage, a show that is unapologetically black and pulls no political punches as to what it means to be black in America. That this episode touches upon various aspects of that horrible complex but doesn’t explore most of them in greater depth is disappointing. It is understandable that there are less than sixty minutes to explore that facet, but either the show needs to commit to that for two episodes or eliminate the more superfluous elements from this episode. Luke Cage doesn’t need to explore what the prison industrial complex’s relationship with the black community means for Luke and how that feeds into how he perceives his own black identity, but if the show is going to go anywhere near that construct, than it needs to commit and explore it. Dabbling in that exploration doesn’t serve the characters, the story, or the audience well, especially considering that the episode doesn’t exactly use its time well as it is could have to begin with. The episode loses that time by lacking a narrative focus. That focus in turn could have been garnered by not cutting back and forth between Luke in prison and the present-day hunt to try and see exactly what caused Connie’s storefront and the building on top to be brought down in a blast of fire. The present-day sequences lack that tension and finesse to be arresting in and of themselves, displaying no urgent sense of information that could have been gained elsewhere.
“Step in the Arena” overall functions in that tepid fashion, not taking many steps forth into the narrative but instead choosing to go backwards to the critical moments that created the Luke Cage of the present. It’s an episode that is a requisite of the superhero television series, but it’s arguably less compelling than the Defenders origin stories that have arrived before it in Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Perhaps that’s the benefit of hindsight and the expungement of time, but Luke Cage’s origin story lacks originality, recycling a story that has been seen before without adding the benefit of something unique. The aforementioned dabbling occurs here as well, leading to a doubling down of the feeling of languidness in both timelines. The inhumane prison ubiquitous with inhumane individuals is nothing new and the show doesn’t delve into any of the promising segues it sets up, primarily the segue of relationships that could be so complex but instead come off across as blunt. That bluntness tends to overshadow everything else, be it the secret fighting ring or the better but underdeveloped therapy sessions. Reva’s interactions with Luke are the most interesting part of the episode, as the two individuals form a close bond in inhumane circumstances over their interests not in tearing each other apart, but from deconstructing their complexities to find a shared human connection. It’s the sort of bond that’s largely absent elsewhere in Luke’s past, which is understandable in one sense considering the setting but at the same time it’s too simplistic.
The biggest flaw in the episode, outside of the divided timeline structure, is how it doesn’t keep the focus on the inhumanity of the system that is being developed. Rackham’s corrupt fighting ring is an allegory towards how the system of slavery is simply replicated with a prison, but it’s an allegory that is robbed of its power because it comes across as unrealistic. The simplicity of the industrial prison complex is how it uses the banality of legalese to keep the cycle of slavery going forward in a different fashion and that banality is a lot more excruciating in its cruelty than a fighting ring. Perhaps the show wanted to display where more of Luke’s physical ability came from but going there felt unnecessary. The first three episodes already created enough of a knowing note as to Luke’s physicality, so that seems unlikely. It simply felt like an odd narrative choice to pursue, one that served to shock and disgust but offer little depth outside of it being deployed as a narrative device. “Step in the Arena” had a lot to say about individuals within the system and it certainly didn’t espouse any sort of subtlety in that regard, but it never really tackles the system as a whole and specifically how the system targets African-Americans at a disproportionate rate. All of the prisoners in Luke’s therapy group are African-Americans but when they voice that they have heard rumors of how a private prison uses prisoners for the sake of experimentation, Reva denies that any such thing would ever be likely. The historical connotations of black and brown individuals being used disproportionately for such experimentation and testing of products from the medical to the cosmetic are left unspoken. There’s after all, a fighting ring that is more enticing to note.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Slavery was always a good offer to a master.”
+Luke thought “Luke Free” was too on the nose as a name. I like Luke’s dry sense of humor. It fits the character well.
Episode Title: Step in the Arena
Written by: Charles Murray
Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Image Courtesy: Nerdist
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