Swagger vs Swish in Luke Cage S2

For the most part, I’m not the person to be diving into the cultural explorations at play in Luke Cage‘s second season. Issues of colorism, black exceptionalism, and cultural tensions within the black community are all woven into a strong second season, but they’re also explorations a white dude shouldn’t be judging the success of.

One of the other themes of the season is a recurring motif on what it is to “be a man,” a theme which interacts (intentionally or un-) with the show’s decision to reveal and introduce gay men in the cast. On that score? I have Feelings.

Spoilers for season two follow. Fairly significant ones. If you prefer to watch the season un-spoiled, you can always bookmark this and come back later. The internet remembers everything, but you’ll only get a fresh watch once.

Back to it, then.

It’s not illogical for a story concerned with the amorphous concepts of manhood or masculinity to feature queer characters. To be sure, excluding them is a base level fail. I’m not sure, though, that the writers room at Luke Cage managed anything particularly next level, either. They got as far as “what about gay dudes,” but didn’t / couldn’t conceive of even the barest mention of trans and nonbinary characters. I’m not even sure how much they really thought on the subject of gay cis men, either.

Credit this much: we discover more than one man on the show has explored homosexuality. In a world where queer inclusion is usually limited to The Gay One, plurality is a plus.

Alfre Woodard’s Mariah reveals that her late husband was a gay man. She traded being his beard for the chance to change her name and her own circumstances. Of course, that revelation comes as part and parcel of a gut punch Mariah delivers to her daughter on her true parentage. In that context, what might have been an insight into the various ways in which we hide and negotiate our identities turns into not only was he not your father, but he was (gasp) gaaaaay.

While that particular reveal was frustrating for its context, it’s a blip compared to the other gay subplot of the season, when Theo Rossi’s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Thomas Q. Jones’ Darius “Comanche” Jones spend an evening standing watch for enemies, literally back to back. Their conversation is itself coded, but it becomes clear that Hernan and Darius weren’t just close friends, but in fact had an intimate relationship during their time in prison.

I found the scene itself powerful. Hernan repeatedly attempts to brush aside the past, claiming it was just a thing that happened. A thing, it’s nice to note, he thinks is not to be ashamed of, but also a thing bounded by time and place. It’s the past. It’s over. Darius refuses to take the outs Hernan gives him, however. For him, what happened there wasn’t an exception, it was a truth. And, for Darius if not for Hernan, it’s not something he’ll forget or abandon.

The conceit of the scene means that neither actor can look at the other, and yet their faces carry so much emotion and subtext. Whatever else I have to say abou the season, that scene really is an amazing piece of work.

And then in the next episode, Hernan murders Darius.

I can only assume that moment is meant to be as powerful as the night in the barber shop, standing guard. As Shades, Hernan has spent a season and a half murdering people without remorse in pursuit of his loyalty to various mob leaders. The ultimate show of his love and loyalty for Mariah, now, is that he’s wiling to murder a man he’s loved like no other man in his life when he finds out Darius is reporting to the police.

You shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t work like that for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is trotted back out more than once as the season concludes as a means of first enraging Hernan, and then, later, so that Hernan can compare the relationship to the Gay Until Graduation paradigm. Hernan only had those feelings for one man, and that man’s dead, so.

Let’s be clear: I think a lot of definitions when it comes to sexuality are unreasonably intractable. I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom, reflected in everything from pop culture to blood donation guidelines, that a single sexual encounter between two men Makes You Gay. I’m more than willing to concede that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is a thing he feels no need to recreate going forward.

What that leaves us with, however, is a season in which straight cis men learn to stand up for their morals, to take fatherly responsibility, to look for balance between rage and restraint, to compromise for the sake of their community. They fall from grace and rise to the occasion. When it comes to them, the show has a whole host of answers to its central question of “how to be a man.” The only gay men, however, are either dead or have renounced their identities. It’s a scenario suggesting that Luke Cage‘s answer to “how to be a man” when it comes to also being gay has a single answer: be buried.

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