Episode two of Luke Cage starts with some dude rolling up on Luke from behind, putting a gun up to his head. The exchange brings to light some of Luke’s ideals, which are very inspired by the person we will focus on the most this episode recap — Pop.
(There are people that say this show moves slowly. So I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly consider murder threats to be a part of a dull and monotonous life for me.)
Obviously, when you’re Luke Cage trying to do some reconnaissance, you don’t exactly care about someone shooting you in the head. This dude’s already been shot in the head before, you know. Unluckily for the kid who was tasked with questioning Luke about why he was standing outside of the Crispus Attucks building lurking and grimacing, Luke begins to verbally lay into the kid after being called the n-word yet again.
Some people have expressed annoyance with the fact that Luke Cage as a series does not address Luke’s disapproval of the word’s usage by anyone well — Black or not. However, in this scene, I think Luke sums up his personal feelings about it well. Luke chastises the guy holding the gun up to his head about calling another Black man the n-word while standing in front of a building named after one of our community’s greatest heroes.
Whether or not Attucks represents anything near and dear to you, he does mean something crucial to many Black people living in the United States so that we can say we were there fighting for this country’s freedom from another Nation even though so many of our own were still enslaved. Just because I support reclamation of the n-word from the mouths of anti-Black racists doesn’t mean that I have the right to call anyone else that, especially with a gun in my hand. It especially doesn’t mean that the onus is for Luke Cage as a character to explore the complexities of the n-word’s usage be it as a show of affection or an insult. We weren’t asking Jessica Jones to dismantle the patriarchy in her own show, so let’s not ask Luke to become an activist in one season.
And while Luke can easily defend himself from both verbal and physical onslaughts, he can’t always be there to defend the ones he loves as this episode shows.
The scene connects Luke to Pop in a way that goes beyond the time they spend together throughout the rest of the episode. Pop takes the Swear Jar very seriously. He demands respect be upheld in his shop. Luke and Pop share this outlook on life, so it makes sense that when Luke loses Pop, respect is on Luke’s mind.
Much like Pop, Luke deeply cares about the people around him. However, unlike Pop, Luke has always been a bit reluctant to intervene. By Pop’s urging, Luke looks all around town for Chico so that they can help him and keep him out of more trouble. But young people can often be hard-headed whether we want to admit it or not.
Pop, more than anyone, knows that youths can really get themselves in too deep — we learn this episode that Pops used to live a life of crime, with Cottonmouth and Chico’s dad, Alfredo, as his sidekicks. He knows a Cottonmouth that we as an audience don’t know: young, brave to a fault. But the Cottonmouth we see in this episode waltzing into the barbershop to ask for a shave isn’t the one Pop mentored.
While Pop gives Cottonmouth a shave, the tension runs high. He notices scars on Cottonmouth’s hands from beating Dante to death. Upon inquiry from Pop, Cottonmouth says that he cut his hand shaving. You ever cut the BACK of your hand while shaving? I sure haven’t. Pop is wise, and so is Luke — who paces around the shop sizing everyone up and making sure nothing pops off. (Absolutely no pun intended).
This entire scene got on my nerves. Not in a bad way, but the men in the scene just spend the entire time threatening each other through metaphors and parables. Luke referring to Cottonmouth’s crew as “towels” and Cottonmouth talking about being biblically old school and liking the whole “eye for an eye” thing. After they all speak around each other in threats, Cottonmouth none the wiser about the whereabouts of Chico, they try and leave without paying. When stopped by Luke, the eventually acquise into paying, but they don’t leave the money in Pop’s hands, but drop the money on the ground. Another posturing. I can’t!
Pop is less petty than me, though, and doesn’t say anything. He’s too worried about what happened to Dante, Shameek, and Chico. He quickly begins worrying about getting Chico back. He knows what the current life Chico is living does to people, and doesn’t want Chico to have the same fate as him. He is the reformed grandpa many of us knew. My grandpa did a stint in prison in his youth, but by the time I was born and he was an old man, he was one of the sweetest people I knew.
Pop represents this familiar figure. In a community plagued by the prison industrial complex and school-to-prison pipeline, many of the people we know and love have done time in jail or prison. Our mistakes as kids can see us ending up growing up in prison. While many of us keep our heads down and try to avoid any interaction with the police, some of us aren’t as lucky to be able to even do that. This is one of the reasons why Pop wants to intervene before Chico’s situation gets worse, even going so far as to lie to Misty to protect him.
Another reason is that Pop sees these young men as his potential sons. While sitting outside of the barbershop with Luke, Pop talks about his life before he calmed down and became a barbershop owner. His nickname is not an affectionate one denoting him as a father, but rather someone that packed a good punch or a “pop” to the face. While he used to get things through the use of violence, Pop also confesses to Luke that he worries about his own estranged son who he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He worries that one day his son will come in and ask for a cut from him only for Pop to not even recognize him. It’s this anxiety and guilt that motivates Pop to look out for kids like Chico even when it puts his own life in danger.
It’s these complex feelings that ultimately gets Pop killed. Tipped off by Turk that Chico is at Pop’s shop at night, Tone — one of Cottonmouth’s goons and the most punchable-faced dudes on the show — goes off to the barbershop with Shades to confront them. While Shades is cool with just leaning back and staying calm, Tone decides to shoot up the barbershop. While Chico has time to hide and Luke can protect one of the teenagers in the shop, Pop’s life isn’t spared. The shop is left looking like a battlefield, broken glass and bullet holes everywhere.
When Shades and Tone finally report back to Cottonmouth, Cottonmouth is livid that Pop is dead. It seems Tone doesn’t understand the complexity of Cottonmouth’s relationship with Pop. And for his mistake, Tone loses his own life as Cottonmouth throws him off a roof. Skirting around the issue failed, and Tone’s death doesn’t bring Pop back.
What it does do is give Luke that final push to finally take down Cottonmouth. After all the loss that Luke has experienced — from his losing his freedom to Reva’s death — he can’t sit back any longer and continue to let others take from his life and murder his loved ones. We see that Luke standing in front of the Crispus Attucks building is a flashforward and the beginning of his rampage through the ranks of Cottonmouth’s gang to finally reach the leader himself and exact justice for Pop. After taking the kid’s gun and shooting himself with it to scare him off, he recites “always forward, Pop, forward always” before the screen cuts to black.
Pop’s legacy is justice and perseverance, and Pop’s legacy is still alive in Luke Cage heading into episode 3.
Samantha Marie Haynes is a writer, witch, and social enterprise fanperson based in Austin. They love everything data-related, but also enjoy writing poetry, baking, hiking, attending music festivals, watching tv/films, board/card games, magic, modelling, cosplay video gaming, and creating friendly spaces for femmes and women interested in traditionally “nerdy” things. Their twitter handle is @sammhuisache and their personal site can be found at http://sammhuisache.tumblr.