Season 1, Episode 2 – Code of the Streets
The plot of “Code of the Streets” could’ve been told in under ten minutes, but for whatever reason, it was told in a full hour instead (57 minutes, to be exact). Apart from its very basic plot progression, the episode dedicates most of its time in developing its characters. Particularly Pop, whom we get to know quite a bit in this slogfest of an episode. We find out about his history with Cottonmouth and his motivations, all of which was done for the sole purpose of making the audience care about the fact that he dies by the end of the episode.
Killing off characters who are important to the protagonists to give them cheap motivation isn’t a new concept. It especially isn’t new in the world of comic books. Indeed, that’s where the very trope originated, from a storyline in a Green Lantern comic book where the corpse of the protagonist’s girlfriend is found literally stuffed in a fridge. Thus the term “Stuffed into the Fridge” was born, wherein characters who are important to the protagonists are killed off (girlfriends, sidekicks, or family members), causing intense anguish and driving the lead character to pursue the villain.
While this trope has become repetitive in the past decade, it can still be used effectively. After all, nothing makes a villain more villainous than directly hitting our heroes where it matters most. Having a character seek revenge for a loved one’s death might not be a wildly original or daring concept, but when done effectively it can still create a very involving narrative that will have audiences on the edge of their seat.
Luke Cage, unfortunately, does it poorly because Pop’s death feels cheap and lazy. I mentioned in my review of the first episode that I couldn’t understand what motivates Luke Cage to get involved with the show’s conflict. Now that Pop, an important father-figure not only to Luke but for the community as well, is killed off, I can understand why Luke Cage gets involved, but it cheapens everything from here on out. Practically everything that Luke Cage does at this point is because of Pop’s death. Bad enough that it’s already a derivative plot progression, but it becomes harder to get involved with Luke Cage’s arc. He’s simply reacting to this event. We don’t discover anything about Luke Cage other than that he’s angry and he wants to uncover Cottonmouth’s illegal activities. That’s it. That’s what kick starts this whole thing and it’s already trapped in some generic action movie plot line that everybody forgets about a week after it’s released in cinemas.
To make things worse, Pop’s death was an unnecessary accident. Cottonmouth was more than willing to accept Pop’s terms and meet at the barbershop to parley regarding the stolen money, but Cottonmouth’s overly enthusiastic guard decides to come in guns blazing so as to make an impression. I suppose it gives Cottonmouth some much-needed depth to see him grieving the unnecessary death of an old friend, but the entire plotline ends up feeling forced and manufactured because the turning point for Luke Cage hinges on the brash actions of someone who doesn’t even matter to the story line at all.
The execution is just as much to blame for this episode’s poor writing. I already mentioned earlier that this episode is a full 57 minutes long, and it makes you feel every minute of it. The pace is meandering and sluggish because the plot and even character development barely fills up twenty minutes. All of the important details could’ve been told in a more concise way that would’ve made everything more interesting, but the episode stretches out into a full hour instead.
There’s also a scene that unintentionally points out a glaring mistake: Luke Cage finds Chico, the last surviving robber who has the remaining cash, in just under four hours. He then warns Chico that if Luke Cage can find him by just asking around, then Cottonmouth (who the most motivation to find him) can do it even faster with his hired goons and street sources. And yet Cottonmouth doesn’t even seem remotely interested in finding Chico throughout the episode. He seems more than happy to sit back and wait for some random source to give him the info, which is exactly what happens when Chico shows up at the barbershop.
Just two episodes in and I’m already pessimistic as to where things can go from here. Everything still feels so disjointed. Luke Cage has barely done anything despite being the lead character, the plotlines are paper-thin and doesn’t justify each episode’s absurdly long length, and once again, I found myself paying more attention when the antagonists are on screen. Probably the best part of this episode is that we no longer have to endure long talks in that barbershop, because for all of Pop’s immaculate qualities, being interesting definitely wasn’t one of them.