Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Luke Cage binge-watch. From Friday, September 30 through Sunday, October 2, A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede will be watching and reviewing every episode of the Marvel series’ first season.You can follow along and comment on the whole season on the binge-watching hub page or chime in on the individual episode reviews. For those watching at a more moderate pace, reviews by Ali Barthwell will run every other day beginning Monday, October 3.
Well that was a twist! Not so much Luke’s potential death-by-Judas-bullet, which was always bound to happen sooner or later. I’m talking about the shocking reveal that Mariah is our true villain after all. The scene in which she murders Cottonmouth was a fantastic shattering of expectations that recontextualizes Mariah’s character without feeling like a retcon. Unfortunately, the rest of “Manifest” was a little more hit-or-miss.
Creator Cheo Hodari Coker cited The Wire as an influence for this series and I see what he means. Like that highly acclaimed show did with Baltimore, Luke Cage casts a wide net over Harlem life, but it’s also fascinated by minutia of those Harlem institutions. Cottonmouth is released because the police can’t make a case against him; Misty adjusts to life under the critical eye of her new boss Priscilla Ridley; and Mariah deals with the political fallout of her cousin’s arrest. At its best the show mines that minutia for real drama, but at its worst it can also be a little boring.
So something like the Luke/Cottonmouth parlay really worked for me because it puts two compelling actors in a room and lets them bounce off one another. But elsewhere Luke’s continual waffling about whether or not he wants to be a superhero is starting to grate. The reveal that Cottonmouth knows his convict pass should be a game-changer, but it mostly just feels like the umpteenth retread of Luke as a reluctant hero. Pick a lane already, dude.
And then there are the flashbacks to Cottonmouth and Mariah’s childhood under the iron grip of Mama Mabel Stokes, which worked better for me in theory than in execution. I like the idea of examining the forces that shaped Cottonmouth and Mariah into the somewhat erratic people they are today. That Cottonmouth was forced into a life of crime when he was 14 helps explain why adult Cottonmouth occasionally feels stuck in a stage of arrested development, as I pointed out in “Just To Get A Rep.” And learning about his lifelong love of music helps us better understand why he’s so protective of Harlem’s Paradise. Booking musical acts and tinkering on his piano are the only ways he can express the musical voice that was long-ago silenced in him.
But, unfortunately, we just don’t spend enough time with the flashbacks to allow for the kind of specificity I praised in Luke Cage’s early episode. It’s fine to tell a familiar story if you can find something new in it. But here the flashbacks are basically reduced to “innocent kid with talent is tragically forced into a life of crime,” which is a story I’ve seen many times before. I like the idea of Mabel as both community protector and ruthless leader—traits that seemed to have been inherited by Mariah and Cottonmouth to varying degrees—but the flashbacks are too short to dig into the humanity behind her more archetypal persona.
On the other hand, I’m not sure the Mariah/Cottonmouth confrontation would’ve worked nearly as well without the information we learned via those flashback. And holy shit was that a great scene.
For all of the confidence they project, there’s just so much pain and insecurity emanating from Cottonmouth and Mariah. Their time under Mabel’s roof brought them closer together, but it also made them resent one another. And they both feel they got the raw end of the deal from her; Cottonmouth because he was forced into a life of street crime while Mariah was given a good education, and Mariah because Cottonmouth was taught to protect himself in a way she wasn’t from her uncle Pistol Pete. And since they can’t lash out at Mabel, they lash out at each other
Sexual abuse is yet another complicated issue Luke Cage now brings to the table, and I’m very interested to see how the show will deal with it going forward. Cottonmouth saw Pete as his one protector and confidante, so rather than face the reality that his beloved uncle was sexually abusive, he blames Mariah for “asking for it.” And Mariah seems to have internalized a lot of the blame as well, likely as a result of Mabel’s refusal to discuss the abuse for what it was. Mabel’s decision to send Mariah away rather than confront Pete’s behavior is, unfortunately, a very realistic depiction of how sexual abuse is often pushed aside under the guise of “protecting the family” (I immediately thought of the Duggars). Noticeably, Mabel doesn’t punish Pete until his actions personally betray her on a business level.
So when all of those issues come bubbling back to the surface and Cottonmouth brings up what is likely Mariah’s biggest fear—that the abuse was her fault—something in her snaps. If “Manifest” as a whole didn’t quite work for me, the Mariah/Cottonmouth fight is easily one of the best sequences Luke Cage has ever produced. It’s shocking and jarring and visceral, not to mention a massive game-changer.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes was set up as this show’s big bad and now seven episodes into its first season he’s dead. That’s an impressively ballsy move on Luke Cage’s part. And it proves that no one, perhaps not even the show’s hero, is safe. (Just kidding, Luke’s gonna be fine.)
Episode grade: B
Mariah/Cottonmouth fight scene grade: A+
Standout moment: Since this is presumably our last episode with him, let me just take another moment to say how much I’ve loved Mahershala Ali’s performance in this show. I really like the moment when Cottonmouth apologizes to Shades for snapping at him. There’s a sort of humanizing humbleness to Cottonmouth that I couldn’t really imagine from Wilson Fisk and certainly not from Kilgrave.
Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: I love that references like “Harlem’s Captain America” sound equally natural in Luke’s world and in our own. Also Claire drops a reference to her “lawyer friend” and now all I want is for Matt Murdock to defend Luke Cage in court.
Burning question: I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that it’s tricky to deal with real-world issues like sexual abuse via the prism of a superhero property. Mariah lashing out at Cottonmouth befits the show’s heightened comic book tone, but you don’t want to inadvertently imply that all real-world survivors of sexual assault are permanently damaged or unhinged. I think the fact that this show exists in the same universe as Jessica Jones, which offers a very different portrait of a sexual assault survivor, helps balance those scales. But I will be curious to see how people respond to Mariah’s backstory.