I watch Netflix’s Luke Cage for a lot of reasons. The acting is stellar, the story lines are entertaining, and the Afrocentric symbolism and themes littered throughout the story are a palpable undercurrent that provides an element of community often missing in live action comic adaptations. Given this already self-imposed heavy lifting, I had no expectation of the show taking on any more. After all, while I would never say no to more visibility and representation in media, one show can’t be and do everything for everyone. So imagine my surprise when I belatedly binged Cage’s second season and found a decidedly non-heterosexual development in series regular, Shades.
When initially introduced, Hernan “Shades” Alvarez was little more than an ominous gangster from Luke’s past. He slithered onto screens and into the good graces of rising antagonists with a calculated ambition, but not much characterization beyond that of a villain. He was bad and better at it than most, with a staying power that outmatched the likes of Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth and Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback, and the rare ability to make Luke Cage sweat; end of story. Only, apparently it wasn’t.
After getting through the usual recaps, check-ins, and plot set-ups required to begin a new chapter, Luke Cage’s second outing began a dive into Shades’ history. More specifically, viewers were treated to a closer look at his ties to his second in command, Comanche. At first blush, the pair were a thin cut above stereotypical lackeys; a matched set of henchmen whose bond was forged by time served in Seagate Prison and a tenure as the dubious warden’s hired hands. However, over the course of the season, the two proved to be a little thicker than thieves, and by the sixth episode it was revealed that they were not only staunch childhood friends, but former lovers.
I won’t lie and claim any firm predictions of their relationship prior to its confirmation. There were, of course, hints to their closeness by way of prolonged stares, the kind of synchronization that comes from long term connection, and even Comanche’s less than warm reaction to Shades’ romance with Harlem crime maven Mariah Dillard-Stokes, but I’ve been used to dead-end subtext for long enough to keep my expectations to a minimum. Which is why the fact that Cage went there at all was both unexpected and, to some degree, rewarding. The conversation that finally disclosed the precise nature of Shades’ connection to Comanche was brief, and shied away from any solid queer terminology, but everything was nonetheless laid out on the line, and at its end there was no question of where either had and still stood with one another. Better still was the way Shades’ identity wasn’t entirely pigeonholed into the typical corners one often finds LGBTQ characters — although this is where things get a bit murky.
On the one hand, he undeniably falls prey to the well worn tropes, and maybe some of the worse ones. He loves his friend but refuses to allow their intimacy any foothold outside of its inception in lockup. Whether influenced by the toxicity of masculinity, the criminal underworld, or just society at large, inside was inside, and in the world beyond Seagate, Shades cannot allow himself to be anything more than a brother in arms to another man. If this weren’t enough, there is the not so insignificant matter of the series’ presenting its only queer characters as a villain through and through.
On the flip side, Shades never denies that he cares for Comanche, and in spite of his denials, it is arguably his love for his (male) best friend and former beau that puts him at odds with Mariah and the direction his allegiances have taken him. Once he catches Comanche in the act of betraying their dubious activities to the police and lethally repays his disloyalty, Shades begins to very visibly crack. Cliche though it may be, it appears that he doesn’t realize how much the relationship meant to him until it is past saving, and it haunts him from the moment of Comanche’s death, all the way to his own arrest at season’s end. Of course, Mariah’s growing madness didn’t make matters easy, but losing one of the few constants in his life, not to mention the love it offered, was the first blow to his defenses, one from which he never quite recovered.
Speaking of Mariah, her relationship with Shades brings about another important detail of his particular shape of his sexuality. While I can’t speak to how much or how little he truly felt for her, by his own private admissions, what they had was its own brand of genuine, and not simply a cover for his homosexuality or his unwillingness to bare it to the world. By this logic, his identity angles closer toward bisexuality than waywardly gay or straight, and this is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the entire exploration. As it stands, even atypical media touting LGBTQ characters as a highlight has had difficulty in properly portraying the acronym beyond the first two letters, even more so when it comes to male identifying individuals. Seeing Luke Cage tackle that deficit, even subtly, is not necessarily what brought me to its second round in the first place, but it’s certainly not unwelcome by any means. I’m not sure whether or not seeing this level of near-unheard of duality in a character like Shades will put in enough work to change the game completely, but no one can say it isn’t a step that many others would do well to take.
Shades is far from a perfect character, or even what I would call a stellar example of queer identity in television. He is, with rare exception, an unrepentant criminal and murderer, and as far as representation goes, the community deserves much better. But, as troubling as Shades’ general characterization is, there is something to be said of how real it is amidst his comic book surroundings, particularly when you consider that you can’t typify queerness as inherently belonging to good people. The further media goes in normalizing LGBTQ presence, the more often we are likely to see individuals at both ends of the spectrum of traditional good and evil, and as fraught as that road is, it’s progress in its basest sense. Do I hope that Luke Cage will take bolder chances and offer up someone better than a closeted villain? Absolutely. Am I intrigued by what I have been given in the meantime? You bet. From what I’ve seen so far, Shades’ story isn’t over yet, and this facet of who he is, or might be, is enough to have me wanting more. Call It a guilty pleasure or embracing a problematic fave, but unlike Shades himself, what the character brings to the table isn’t all bad.