Luke Cage's Complicated Queer Romance Is A Part Of Gangster Movie Tradition

Theo Rossi as Shades and Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard in Luke Cage.Image: Netflix

Even though Luke Cage is a show about a bulletproof superhero battling villains, in its deepest heart of hearts, it's really a dramatic soap opera that's at its strongest when it focuses on loving relationships.

Love takes on a number of different forms in Luke Cage's second season as it pushes together and pulls apart each of its characters. For heroes like Luke, Misty, and Claire, love — of their chosen families and of their communities — is what fuels their desires to protect Harlem and one another.

For Luke Cage's returning villains, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Shades (Theo Rossi), love is far more complicated and ultimately perilous. Though the pair are still very much a couple as the series opens, in time, we learn things about them — things that recontextualize their relationship and help us make sense of the decisions they make.

The sixth episode of Luke Cage's second season, "The Basement," finds Shades and his lifelong friend Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) on the hunt for the broker Raymond "Piranha" Jones (Chaz Lamar Shepard), who's responsible for stealing all of Mariah's newly-acquired funds at the behest of Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir).

While searching for their target, Comanche admits to Shades that he strongly feels that his friend should be the one running Mariah's business empire, the same belief that's driven him to leak information about Mariah's dealings to the police. Though Comanche doesn't own up to his betrayal to Shades, the pair reminisce about their time together in Seagate prison and it's revealed that the two were romantically involved while incarcerated. It's a detail that reframes Comanche's digs at Mariah that are peppered throughout the season, and it makes the character's death at Shades' hands in the following episode that much more horrific to witness.

When I recently spoke with showrunner Cheo Coker about his decision to introduce this aspect of Shades and Comanche's identities, he explained that as out of left field as it might have seemed to some, the characters' queer romance is, in a way, an important part of the gangster genre that Luke Cage exists within:

"All gangster stories are love stories. Goodfellas? Casino? They're basically love stories between men without sex. Because all of these movies start with a relationship built on intimacy. If you took a lot of the language gangsters in these stories use with one another and put them into any other kind of movie, you'd still interpret it as romantic.

Even if we never went down that road where things happened between Shades and Comanche while they were in prison, that homoerotic subtext would still be there because when you factor Mariah into their dynamic, theirs is still a story about two people in love with the same man. Mariah and Comanche are fighting for Shades' soul."

To Luke Cage's credit, the show never goes so far as to frame Shades and Comanche's past relationship as merely a product of their being imprisoned. When Shades visits Comanche's heartbroken mother after killing him, she implies that she knew about the bond they shared even as children, suggesting that their relationship is something that grew over time.

Though Comanche's arc is relatively short in the grand scheme of the season, his feelings play an important role in motivating him to at first push Shades to usurp Mariah — and later, to try and get them both away from her criminal outfit by working with the police. Coker says that in the moment that Comanche reminds Shades about their past, what we're seeing is Comanche attempting to be open and honest about who he is:

"What was really interesting about what [writer] Aïda Mashaka Croal did in episode six is that it really shows how Comanche's gone through a really profound change that leaves him not being afraid of his feelings for Shades and not trying to hide them.

So, in episode seven when Shades kills Comanche, it's not borne out of any latent homophobia, he kills him because he realises that he does love him, but loving people — loving anyone — is pulling him out of his sociopathy and blunting his criminal senses. He couldn't see Comanche's betrayal coming and that's what scares him more than anything else."

Shades and Comanche's past adds a fascinating and surprising dynamic to the triangle they form with Mariah, and while Coker's point about the inherent queerness of gangster movies is very valid, that's not to say that there aren't issues with the way Luke Cage handles the subplot.

It's important that a wide array of different queer experiences are well-represented on-screen and the fact of the matter is that not all gay love stories end happily. That being said, there's a longstanding history of queer characters being disproportionately given tragic plot lines that often culminate in death. It's difficult to grapple with what happens to Comanche not just because it's sad, but because within the context of the show, it makes sense and aligns with the person that Luke Cage makes Shades out to be.

He's a tortured, lonely man who's surrounded himself with people who solve their problems with guns rather than approaching situations with empathy and honesty. It's a rough, difficult life — one that would leave almost anyone cold and capable of hurting the people that they love.

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