Marvel and Netflix are launching their new original series Marvel's Luke Cage today, September 30, with 13 original episodes. The superhero series developed by Cheo Hodari Coker exists in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Avengers movies, but is more closely tied to fellow Netflix Originals Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Because we're so excited about the show, we're going to recap each episode every hour as we go through and watch: you can check out our recap of the premiere, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4,episode 5 and episode 6. And needless to say, spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage past this point!
Well, that took a surprising turn. For the past six episodes and change, Luke Cage has been about more than the titular bulletproof superhero... It's about Luke protecting Harlem. It's about how Harlem is represented and seen by Luke Cage (Mike Colter), his enemies, and the people who live there. That seemingly all changes by the end of this episode.
Before we get to the dual, game-changing cliffhangers, though, let's talk about history. Because as much as Luke Cage has been about the geography of one of New York's most famous neighborhoods, it's also been about the legacy the past has left for the present. Whether that's the death of Pop (Frankie Faison) spurring Luke on to make his name as a hero on the streets; or the oft-mentioned Mama Mabel who raised Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Masershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), bringing them close by instilling in them a sense of the close ties between crime and culture.
It's the latter that takes center stage this episode. Cottonmouth is pretty much as low as you can get, having depleted his money, his resources, his men and — despite getting handily released from police custody, much to Misty's (Simone Missick) chagrin — his reputation. Even if he's being overly cocky with big boss Diamondback's second-in-command Shades (Theo Rossi), recklessly saying, "I just shot a cop and walked away free. What is there not to like?" he's making poor decisions... And deep down, even he knows it.
We've been talking about how Cottonmouth is a tragic figure since the very first episode of the show, and here we finally get his devastating backstory. We meet Mama Mabel, her partner "Pistol" Pete Stokes, and even young Cottonmouth, a gentle piano-playing boy who has never hurt a soul in his life. Pete thinks Cornell could go to Juilliard, get out of this life; but Mama, who runs a whorehouse in the front, and a family house in the back knows better. For someone like Cornell, there's no escaping crime if you're from Harlem. You embrace it, you get hard, or you die.
Mariah gets that, too. It's unfortunate that her backstory as a broken-but-driven career woman involves the requisite molestation (or at least strongly implied molestation) by Uncle Pete. But her — if not acceptance, then infusion of her own tragedy is used to make her as hard as Mabel. That's how she survives. That's how Cornell thinks he's surviving, helping kill young Wilfredo (Chico's Dad), and eventually Pete. He thinks he's becoming Cottonmouth, but deep down he'll always be the piano playing boy who dreamt of leaving Harlem for Juilliard.
That's why he has to die.
Shockingly, it isn't Luke who kills him, or Shades, or even Diamondback. It's Mariah, who lost her political career due to Cottonmouth — she's removed from the Harlem Council due to her association with Cornell's criminal actions — and everything she's been working for. All she needs is a little push from Shades to remind her that she has Mama Mabel's blood running through her veins... And that the history of Harlem isn't culture; it's power. It's death.
Cornell knows this about her, and he goes too far, taunting her about how she "wanted it" from Uncle Pete. She goes nuts, hits him with a bottle, knocks him from a second story window in his own club, Harlem's Paradise, and then beats him to death.
Enter Shades, Harlem's own Iago, who tells her, "Look at you. You've got the nerve. And you stepped up," before continuing ominously, "Look at what Luke Cage did to your cousin."
In their own ways, both Mariah and Cornell (and let's call him Cornell, out of respect for the dead) are trapped by their own personal histories. Cornell thought he could be a perfect gangster, but ultimately he was stuck in the one moment where Uncle Pete told him he could make something else of himself. Mariah actually left! She went to college out of town to escape Pete, but the siren song of Mama Mabel's legacy has ripped her back to who she truly is: not Mariah Dillard, but Black Mariah.
And though she's now the woman she was meant to be, with Shades by her side... She's going to have a hard time pinning Cornell's death on Luke. That's because the show's own history catches up to our hero: if you introduce a bullet that can pierce Luke's unbreakable skin, he's going to get shot with it sooner, rather than later. That's, of course, exactly what happens, while he and Claire (Rosario Dawson) plot to take down Cottonmouth (not knowing his bleeding to death on the floor of his own club, a few blocks away). Luke looks shot at the blood pouring from his stomach, and collapses.
Will he have to head back to Seagate Prison, and his own origin, to get the help he needs? After all, he's going to have a hard time removing a bullet from his own unbreakable skin. And this episode was nothing if not about the pull of history.
Ultimately, this show isn't just about the physical landscape of Harlem; it's about who gets to write the next chapter of its history book. Right now, it looks like Mariah is the one holding all the pens.
Easter Eggs and References:
- "You knock down a few doors, speak in a church. And now you Harlem's Captain America... N----, please," says Cottonmouth. The funny part about this is that in the comics, at least, the formula that made Luke's skin unbreakable was based on the same Super Soldier formula that created Captain America.
- "I might have a lawyer friend who can help," Claire tells Luke moments before he's shot. She's talking about Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a.k.a. Daredevil, from the series of the same name.
- In case you're wondering, here's all the info on Luke's (definitely fake) driver's license, which he should probably think about getting renewed:
New York, Ny 10036