The Netflix original series Luke Cage came back with a thunderous season this June. From stronger storylines to a profoundly proper introduction to the West Indian contingent in Marvel’s (black) New York neighborhoods (Jamaican accent-authenticity notwithstanding), the show took bold steps that moved past some of the slip-ups of season 1. However, one theme stood out: relationships.
From Luke and Claire to Misty and Scarfe; Luke and Misty; Bushmaster and Mariah; or Mariah and Tilda, her estranged daughter, there’s a world of conflict at work. But, among the many great stories, there’s some real conversation to be had in the long-building, slowly revealed relationship between Darius “Comanche” Jones (Thomas Q. Jones) and Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi).
Introduced at the beginning of the season, Comanche is Shades’ right-hand man. If you remember in season 1, they were the two who beat Luke Cage to a pulp, allowing the corrupt doctor at Seagate to have an opportunity to experiment on Harlem’s Hero. Now newly—and mysteriously—released, Comanche’s immediately brought into Mariah’s goon squad, but not without friction. From telling quips to overlong looks, Comanche seems to dislike Mariah on a fundamental level and tells Shades as much. It’s not until halfway through the season that a pivotal set of scenes reveals why.
During a stakeout at Pop’s Barber Shop, Comanche and Shades bond while debating if this night will be their last. The two exchange barbs and ruminate with jokes; as many men do. That is until Comanche argues that he and Shades were “more than” just boys, specifically about their time at Seagate. Shades rebuffs him, saying that “inside was inside...we’re out now.”
This twist shades everything we’ve seen up to that moment. And it sets up a tragic trajectory of forlorn love between the two men; Comanche continually vies for Shades’ attention while Shades tries to relegate him to the past. Things come to a head when, in a heartbreaking moment, Shades discovers that Comanche is the snitch in Mariah’s organization. Being the cold-blooded killer he is, Shades shoots Comanche and frames his police handler.
The aftermath is arguably the most significant part of this storyline, as we see Shades contend with killing the only person who he ever really loved without question. As Mariah walks closer to the dark side and fulfills her villainous arc, Shades finds himself wrought with both fear and regret, but not entirely mourning. From confronting Comanche’s mother to being ruthlessly questioned by Mariah, the show plays with this tension for several episodes by continuously putting Shades in situations where he is prompted about his relationship to Comanche, but never allows the audience—or Shades—the opportunity to experience closure.
It’s an interesting stylistic choice that points to Shades’ own closeted, compartmentalized nature. In his mind, he can only relate to his queerness as phases spurred by situational moments. This is best illustrated by his last conversation with Mariah, wherein he claims that “when you’re at college [see: prison], it feels real...but when you graduate, you grow up.”
It’s a poetic, albeit sad comment on how many people—let alone men—relate to their sexuality in ways that are outside a strictly heterosexual norm. This is especially true of men of color, black and Latinx men, in this case, whose relationship with hypermasculinity and machismo is fraught with rules, regulations and emotional vices that contort more than they liberate. Where Comanche was never afraid to be who he was, inside or outside, Shades still lives in implicit fear, denying himself the full spectrum of his sexuality and associating it with the criminality he seemingly wanted to leave in his past. This dynamic between the two men is a vicious pendulum. We see them be loving and intimate with each, but also, we see their care be so deeply tied to violence and broader notions of loyalty as Shades kills Comanche while proclaiming he loved him. This nearly always fatal convoluted masculine attraction that’s steeped in both violence and genuine love, as many have pointed out, has been included in many projects like The Wire, Hap and Leonard, The Night Of and others.
But it’s important to highlight how all these factors come together in Luke Cage because to see a Marvel franchise approach such a profoundly nuanced topic with care for the characters is a rare gift that complicates the narrative. Not only around men’s relationship with sexual queerness but also– precisely—the types of stories that can be told with merit in a comic book universe with maturity.
Moreover, alongside the other very heady issues Luke Cage’s second season wades into, Cheo Hodari Coker and his team have brought some solid grounding to the show’s more high-flying moments as a modern take on a genre-mixup of spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation themes and crime narratives.