[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 2 of Marvel's Luke Cage. Read at your own risk!]
The saying goes, "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," and the titular hero of Marvel's Luke Cage may have taken that a little too seriously at the end of Season 2. The closing scene of the season found Luke (Mike Colter) ditching vigilanteism and his signature hoodie in favor of tailored suits and purveying over Harlem's crime flow from the bird's nest of Harlem's Paradise. He's alienated Claire (Rosario Dawson), Misty (Simone Missick) and D.W. (Jeremiah Craft). Though Luke swears he's taking over the crime seat of Harlem to ensure the neighborhood's safety, it's impossible not to see how he's a mere sidestep away from being Cottonmouth 2.0 (Mahershala Ali).
Luke's ascent to the height of the crime tower was made possible by the death of Mariah (Alfre Woodard), who was poisoned by her daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) in the season's final episode. Luke stepped in plug the hole left by Mariah's absence and to stop any other ambitious crime families from taking over the neighborhood, but that puts him in direct opposition of Tilda, who spent all season building up to her official transition into her comic book alter ego, Deadly Nightshade.
TV Guide spoke to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker about the decision to have Luke turn to the dark side and what challenges await the hero of Harlem — if we can call him that anymore — should Netflix pick up the series for Season 3.
By the end of the season, Luke ends up being the antithesis of everything he previously stood for. Why did it intrigue you to set him on this sort of anti-hero path at the end of the season?
Cheo Hodari Coker: Because I'm hugely influenced by Francis Ford Coppola... [The Godfather trilogy] is a huge influence. Michael Corleone, Al Pacino's character for those who aren't Godfather-fluent, he starts off as somebody who, like Luke, is very earnest and is really a good guy that has in his entire life told himself that he is above the family business and was better than it and is not going to get involved in it. Then, when he does get involved, says, "Okay, fine. I'm going to be involved in the family business, but I'm going to be different than my father. I'm going to be better. I'm going to make it legitimate." Five years, the casino, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. Then, by Godfather II, you realize, well, no. It's going to take a little more than that, and that it's a lot more complicated.
That's kind of where we leave Luke, in that if you break it, you buy it. If you are going to control crime, does that make you a crime boss? That's really, god willing, if we are lucky enough to get a third season... If [Netflix] does agree to bring us back, that gives us a lot of things to explore with Luke in the future.
Do you think that his decision to take over the Harlem crime situation is a symptom of him not squaring himself the way that Claire and Danny wanted him to do all season?
Coker: To a certain extent. I mean, I think when he says to Claire to go home, he basically knows that he is going to go places that he's not prepared to go or have her be affected by. That's a protection mechanism as it is an indication of what he's going to do. It's the same reason that when Michael first leaves the country to go to Sicily, he doesn't stay in contact with Kay. "Tell Claire to go home" is kind of another homage to the Godfather in that he kept Kay at bay for a long time until he was able to really kind of figure out exactly who he was and what he was doing.
Luke was a lone wolf at the beginning of Season 1 and then slowly built an inner circle that he could trust and supported him. Now that he's at this point, is he in trouble of losing these people that he worked so hard to collect around him and make into his crew?
Coker: Well, it's that he's an island right now, and that's one of the fascinating things. We meet Sugar, who is now his new right hand, in Episode 1 of Season 1, where Sugar was the guy who, when Luke asked, "Do you want some?" he says, "I don't even like these n---as, man," and backed out of the restaurant.
The fact that this guy that he meets in the hood is now somebody that [Sugar] trusts shows how full circle he's come. The fact that Ben Donovan, who was Mariah's lawyer, is now giving him legal advice is fascinating, because this is somebody that he's never wanted to work with. The fact that Misty is kind of at odds because she's out of the circle to a certain extent — which is what that shot is about when that door closes on her — the fact that she, for the first time, is out of Luke's circle, the fact that Claire is gone, the fact that Bobby Fish is gone...The question is, is he going to realize that he needs people or is he now basically isolating himself because of the journey that he could potentially take?
You said before the season started that Mariah's storyline was something that you had very early on. Did you always know that you were going to kill her at the end of the season?
Coker:: I wouldn't say that we always knew we were going to kill her. I know I love Alfre Woodard. I knew that she is the kind of actress that would allow us to go anywhere because she can do anything. I think what it was was that if she was going to die, there would have to be a purpose. There would have to be a purpose in terms of her character and in terms of the characters that she affected.
Ultimately, it made sense. We could have just had Mariah go to jail, and then she still leaves the club to Luke's care, but then it's just like, "Okay, then you automatically know if you bring the circle back that she's going to get out of jail and cause more trouble, and that gets to be predictable. Whereas not only is her death unpredictable, it's the way she died, who did it blows you away — the same way that in Season 1, Cottonmouth's death was a rug-pull. I think, from the level of karma, having Tilda be the one to take Mariah out is going to shock other people as well, you know? The fact that Tilda really is Deadly Nightshade, I think, is just the kind of thing that is a great punch in terms of storytelling.
If you do get a Season 3, do you see Tilda stepping into that Mariah role? How do you plan to fill that hole if you get to continue with the story?
Coker: Well, her family legacy is that, so the question is, as we explored in Season 2, do you follow your family legacy? She calls herself Tilda Johnson, but is Tilda the last Stokes? That will be the question.
Tilda does say a lot that she doesn't want anything to do with Mariah, she wants to keep completely out of that, but then she is very noticeably pissed off when Luke is bestowed Harlem's Paradise. What is the inspiration behind her being so mad that Luke's got the club? Coker: Going back to Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much." It's always counterintuitive. If somebody is complaining so much about something, it's because they love something. As much as she complains about her mother and her family, her family tell her, "Look, this is our club and think about what it means to us before you make a decision as to whether or not you want to be around me ever again." And she does. The moment that Tilda sits down at Cornell's keyboard and sings, that's the moment that she — whether she realizes it or not — is embracing her family legacy.
We did see Shades get sent off to prison instead of Mariah. Does that mean there's still a chance for him to come back?
Coker: Theo Rossi is such an amazing actor. The thing I always talk about with Theo is, "If we get the opportunity to do a third season, what do we want to explore with you this season? Is it compelling enough?" We're not going to just bring anybody back just to bring them back. If we're lucky enough to get a third season, it's going to be about having a storyline that could somehow match the things that we were able to accomplish in Season 2. Because otherwise, if you just become a day player or contract player, the whole thing becomes by rote. We really want, as a writing staff, to create storylines that are going to compel and inspire out actors instead of it being another day at work
Luke Cage Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.