The seventh and arguably most powerful episode of Luke Cage begins with the soft, potent voice of Nina Simone, singing "Plain Gold Ring." It’s a mournful song about immutable circumstance, lamenting how the pain of the past can remain ever-present with a simple reminder: a gold ring, a gun, a bullet… and sometimes a reminder isn’t necessary. Sometimes, there are events one can never forget. It’s an amazingly apropos choice of music for this episode, but the reason why is not completely clear until near the end as the revelations of the past converge with the action of the present for calamitous effect.
Luke Cage – S01E07 – Manifest
Mariah's political career comes under fire, and Cottonmouth picks up information that could put Luke on the run. (Netflix)
Adrian: Cornell is being released. Aside from the journal of the now-deceased Scarfe, there is insufficient evidence to hold Cornell. Misty watches Cornell tapping his fingers, playing the keyboard in his mind, probably reading this affectation as bemused detachment; she storms in, is stopped by Captain Audrey (Sonja Sohn). After some crude remarks from Cornell, Misty promises Cornell will get his just due. It seems that despite being an intuitive and talented detective, she was hoodwinked by Scarfe and can’t ever seem to get any dirt on Cornell or anyone else she’s interested in busting. It’s as if her failures as a detective are a necessary plot device to keep the stories moving along. Does anyone else find this frustrating? What do you think of Misty’s predicament?
Aranwe: I disagree over here. It’s all too often that fictional detectives are completely perfect at their jobs, and always solve their cases 100% neatly. There’s no doubting that Misty is a great detective, but her weaknesses, especially those relating to proper procedure, are often her downfall, and that makes her a much more relatable character. The frustrating part is knowing what Cornell has done, and yet watching him walk anyway, but that’s a frustration you’re supposed to feel.
Dominik: I’m with Aranwe on this one. it felt pretty natural that the case wasn’t solved immediately. If anything, it makes her more human, unlike most other fictional detectives.
Ivonne: I find it frustrating that Cornell is getting away with stuff, but I actually am perfectly okay with Misty’s flaws. She must be a flawed character, and she must start to believe the system fails justice, because she must start to believe in vigilantes, not only Luke but eventually herself (for all the comic book fans out there, you know what she becomes).
On a fundamental level, like Aranwe said: TV detectives are often perfect. One of the reasons I was loyal to Criminal Minds for like nine years was because the FBI agents were very human, they had their flaws, and they didn’t always get their perps.
One more thing: it is OK for female characters to fail. They are human just like anyone else, and I find it compelling to find a woman detective that isn’t perfect.
Adrian: With Cornell free and clear, he calls Luke for a parley (as Diamondback denies Cornell’s request for a Judas bullet to kill Luke). As Cornell plays the keyboard (there’s that keyboard again) he reveals to Luke that he knows Luke’s secret identity: Carl Lucas. Cornell suggests he will blackmail Luke, forcing Luke to work for him under threat of revealing his secret to the authorities. Luke decides he should flee when Claire smartly adjusts Luke’s priorities. He asks “If I go to prison, who’s gonna wanna follow me?” and she points out “Half the people uptown have fathers, cousins, uncles, brothers in prison. You’re no different than anybody else. You get your wish. You’re not special.” and that, in fact, Luke making a stand and taking down Cornell will give Luke the path to freedom he seeks. His personal needs align with his duty. Do you think Luke finally gets it? Also, were any of you shipping Claire and Luke as hard as I was at this point? Clearly, she is precisely the balancing force Luke needs!
Aranwe: Claire is awesome. Her role on Luke Cage may be her best yet in all the Netflix shows… but you can’t pry me away from Luke/Jessica. Sorry.
Dominik: It’s good to see Claire finally able to talk some sense into at least one Netflix Marvel protagonist. No shipping, though. Power People shipper for life.
Ivonne: Claire is awesome and she is just what the nurse ordered. The chemistry works between these two, and I ship it. But in my heart of hearts, I ultimately hope to see Luke and Jessica reunited. Come on, man, the original Marvel power couple!
Adrian: Back in his office, Cornell looks at a pearl-handled pistol he keeps in a gold box. What’s its significance? We’ve rightly spent a lot of time learning about Luke’s past, but now it’s time for an intense flashback into life of the Stokes cousins, Mariah and Cornell. Playing the near-mythic figure Mama Mabel is LaTanya Richardson Jackson, wife of Samuel L. Jackson. We all love Samuel as Nick Fury and his many other memorable roles, but my god, LaTanya is not being given the attention she deserves. We need her in more films, but I digress. On to the flashback:
Cornell is practicing on his keyboard while Mariah is studying. Their Uncle Pete dotes on Cornell, suggesting he attend Julliard, who loves the support while conversely, Mariah does not seem to appreciate the attention she receives from Pete. Pop enters the room to show deference and offer tribute to Mama Mabel (although, the first thing he says is “Hi Mariah” which for a fleeting moment, seemed like a cute interaction. Maybe he had a crush on her, what could have been, etc.).
With Pop is the ill-fated Donnie, who has been caught dealing drugs in Harlem against Mama’s wishes and she asks him to explain himself. Donnie briefly looks to Pete for help, but Pete averts his eyes. Donnie does do well on his own and doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation, while everyone else in the room does. Mama’s calm demeanor does not indicate safety, but threat. It is now that she is the most dangerous, and Donnie does not realize this, speaking with attitude and waving his hand around. His words and his hand offend her, and she twists his arm down and uses her pruning shears to cut his finger!
Mama Mabel sends Uncle Pete and Cornell to dispose of Donnie. Uncle Pete suggests that Cornell isn’t ready for that kind of work yet, but Mabel has decided, he needs to learn “how to piss standing up.” As we hear Uncle Pete and Cornell presumably stab Donnie to death off-camera, Mama Mabel calmly looks the severed finger and shears… and picks up the loot Pop gave her earlier, counting it. Mama Mabel might be extremely violent, but she is not bloodthirsty. The violence is simply her sense of ‘gangster pragmatism’ manifesting itself. Amazing. Terrifying.
As Cornell sits back down at his keyboard, bloody-handed, Mama Mabel comes behind him, and carefully, lovingly grasps his bloodied hands, comforting him. As this last moment plays out, we hear adult Cornell playing the keyboard in the present. If it wasn’t already clear, it’s made bare now: when Cornell plays the keyboard in his office or when Misty observed it in the precinct, we’re seeing him retreat into his safe space. I was enthralled by this flashback. The story, the performances from all involved, this was amazing to watch. Any thoughts?
Aranwe: Holy heck, was this scene amazing.
Dominik: This was an amazing scene, very humanizing for Cornell. It did wonders for him that the similar scene in Daredevil Season 1 didn’t for Fisk, making us wonder what could’ve been if he grew up in environment that really cherished his talents. Instead, he’s a broken man forced into a life he never wanted.
Ivonne: Brilliant flashback, and it really put a ton of stuff into perspective about Cornell and Mariah. I cannot gush enough about the narrative genius in this scene.
Adrian: Meanwhile, as Luke hits Colon’s base of operations and reclaims the stolen Hammer arsenal, Shades has let himself into Mariah’s home. He tells her about how much of an influence Mama Mabel and the Stokes family name meant to him as a kid growing up in Harlem, and how Cornell and Mariah have done nothing worthy with it. He says “I think that when you get the nerve, you’re gonna be surprised at just what you’re capable of.” After seeing Mariah not flinch when Donnie was dismembered, I have to think Shades is right. Although, it seems odd that he would be so forward by invading her home and getting in her face. This seemed very personal. What do you make of Shades’ motivations?
Dominik: Too early to tell, but Shades seems to have a plan of his own for Harlem. Something that seems separate from what Diamondback might want.
Ivonne: Shades is shady, no doubt, but I actually get the feeling he has a legit interest in Mariah coming to power. Shades doesn't seem the type to grab the reins directly, himself. He's a good background manipulator and super smart, but I think he prefers to have a boss, and for whatever reason, he seems to trust that Mariah is a better choice over Diamondback.
Adrian: In the second flashback, one of Mama Mabel’s girls, Sister Boy, has been roughed up by a customer, which she blames partially on Cornell for being absent. Ultimately, Cornell confesses that his absence was due to Uncle Pete meeting with the Colons in Spanish Harlem. I thought it was a nice touch to show that at least one of Mama Mabel’s girls was transgender. Mama was prepared to fight for her, even slap Cornell around in her defense (when he misgendered her!). It was a brief, but worthwhile moment of humanization for Mama Mabel, while also acknowledging the presence of transgender people in history. I’m yearning now for a Stokes family prequel. What did you think of this detail?
Dominik: Really nice. I wish there was more of an LGBTGIAP* presence in the MCU, preferably in the main cast department, but a nice detail like that is good acknowledgement. At least until that Runaways series.
Ivonne: Marvel doesn't engage in anywhere close to enough representation of LGBTQ+ people, so this was a really nice touch. As Dominik said, what we desperately lack is solid representation in the form of main characters, but this is a decent tip of the hat.
Adrian: In the final flashback, we see Mama Mabel confront Uncle Pete. At first he’s defensive, saying he’s always put the family first (despite harboring envy toward Mabel’s deceased husband, who won Mabel over Pete, back in the day). Then he shifts toward resentment: he thinks the family business should have been his. It all culminates as Mama Mabel tasks Cornell to execute Uncle Pete for his betrayal. Mariah sheds no tears, hinting that Uncle Pete sexually abused her. Pete attempts to bargain for his life, suggesting that only he cares for Cornell, that he believes Cornell could be someone other than a criminal. It’s not enough, and with the pearl-handled pistol he still keeps, Cornell shoots Pete. As adult Cornell later confesses, he believes Pete’s suggestion to be true, and regrets killing the one person he felt had his back.
This all comes to the surface in the present when Mariah comes to Cornell, desperate as she is being asked to resign her council seat. Everything she’s worked for is falling apart. The barbs come out and Cornell resents Mariah for being coddled in boarding school while he was forced to work the streets. She corrects him: she was not being coddled, but protected from Uncle Pete… and this is when Cornell makes the biggest and last mistake of his sad life.
He accuses Mariah of purposely tempting Uncle Pete and suggests crudely that the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands was consensual. His accusation decimates Mariah, stripping away all that remained of her calm and collected demeanor and she transforms into fury incarnate. A bottle to a head, a shove through a window, and a brutal beating with a mic stand later, and Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is dead. Wow. I think Alfre Woodard deserves awards for this performance and I’m so glad Marvel was willing to double-dip, and retain her for this role after she played grieving mother Miriam all too-briefly in Captain America: Civil War. I was left all but speechless. What do you have to say about all this?
Dominik: Cornell had it coming for that awful jab, but damn. This was an amazing scene, really letting Alfre Woodard unleash her acting chops. And talk about a twist! I don’t think anyone expected the way this episode would end, completely destroying everyone’s preconceptions about the show’s second half. I loved the acting, and the cinematography (that red lighting!), and the boldness in scripting.
Ivonne: I honestly can say nothing beyond this: Alfre Woodard is queen.
Adrian: Finally, we end the amazing episode on Luke. Luke turns over the Hammer guns to Misty, but she makes it clear, this does not undo “all the trouble you’ve caused.” He says he’s going to come for Cornell and she should be ready for that. He leaves and strolls with Claire in the park, talking about his future as superhero Luke Cage. He’s decided that she’s right and he can’t keep running, when suddenly, Luke is sniped with a Judas bullet from a mysterious van by a mysterious figure who knows Luke’s real name! What??
Dominik: Well. Guess Diamondback’s finally come to town.