Power, Loyalty, and Leadership in Luke Cage

Fair warning: This recap is filled with spoilers, so read at your own peril.

Episodes 4 through 8 of Luke Cage is where things start getting twisty and turny. The characters are still reeling from the aftermath of Pop’s death in the third episode, and in true comic book form, it’s the death of an inspirational figure like Pop that catalyzes our hero into action. Pop’s death is also what turns the criminal world upside down, hoping that out of the jumbled confusion, normalcy will come back into play. However, normalcy is far from what fate has in store for these characters; with Shades laying in the cut (to use a popular AAVE turn of phrase in this show), the ground is constantly being laid for a new order.

The majority of storytelling throughout these four episodes is allowing us to see more of what makes our hero, and our current villain Cottonmouth, tick.

We get a look back at Luke’s time in jail. Back when he was Carl Lucas, he felt like his time in jail was penance for some other wild stuff he did—stuff we’re still not entirely clear about. He feels guilty, but the fact is that he was serving time for a crime he actually didn’t commit before he was transformed into the superpowered Luke Cage we know today. As tragic as that is, Cottonmouth’s story is even more tragic and, dare I say, more compelling. At least Carl had a friend in Squabbles; Cottonmouth’s own family was what did him in.

Cottonmouth and Mariah’s grandmother, Mama Mabel, was both a respected and feared individual who sent her grandchildren on two very different paths, even though they eventually wound up in the same place. Mama Mabel was adamant about Mariah going off to school to become a lawyer or politician, but she was also preparing Cottonmouth—then known by his real name, Cornell—to be a gangster, having him kill people in the backyard of their home. The twist is that Cornell wasn’t someone who naturally took to crime; he was a musician. While Mama Mabel should have been encouraging Cornell’s musical talents like Uncle Pete did, she chucked those talents aside since they had no use for her and her business. Instead, she wanted him to become part of the brothel’s protection.

A running theme throughout Cottonmouth’s arc is the question of the person he could have become if he was allowed to become an artist. The fact that Harlem’s Paradise means so much to him is evidence of Cornell trying to keep alive that part of him that Mama Mabel tried to stamp out. When everyone around him is telling him to sell the club to recoup the losses on that busted gun deal, he refuses. “This place is my reputation… my blood, my legacy,” he says. What he’s really saying is that the club represents the last stitch of humanity he has left.

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Cornell’s prized keyboard also helps him keep his gifts alive despite the life he was groomed to lead. When he’s in a bind mentally, he turns to his keyboard to see him through. In many ways, he’s as caged as Carl was, unable to trust anybody, forced to do what was necessary to survive. (If Cornell didn’t kill the people Mama Mabel wanted killed, what do you think would have happened to him? He’d probably be considered a family traitor and shot out back, too.)

It’s a fascinating turn to have the only person in Cottonmouth’s corner be Uncle Pete—a man who can spot talent… but is also lecherous scum. Uncle Pete represents another part of black America that’s swept under the rug too often: that uncle. The familiar, predatory figure of that uncle or that cousin or that grandpa that is doing some undercover stuff to the younger women of the family. That family member is the one that always survives due to others making excuses for him, saying something similar to what Mama Mabel always tells her grandchildren, “he’s family.”

However, when Mama Mabel says “family first, always,” she means that no family member should never betray one another. Even if you’re family, if you betray another family member—especially Mama Mabel herself—then you have to pay the price. Pete might have been the only one willing to vouch for Cornell to go off to Julliard, but he’s also the one who made Mariah feel like a stranger in her own skin. When Mariah and Cottonmouth argue over Pete, neither can see how both the Encouraging Pete and the Sexual Abuser Pete can reside in the same person.

Cottonmouth signs his own death warrant when he blames Mariah for Pete’s advances on her. He tells her that she was asking for it, that she always wanted it. Just like Pete, Cottonmouth has a duality that is unsettling. We can see that he’s a broken spirit who’s now become a successful kingpin (at least until Luke Cage decided to become a hero). But he’s also a misogynist, nearly hitting Mariah with a bat in one episode during a peak of rage and, as a kid, blaming one of Mama Mabel’s girls for her customer’s assault. In that case, the woman also happens to be transgender (played by transgender actress MJ Rodriguez). Mama Mabel slapped him so hard he starts crying, but this time, Cottonmouth’s punishment for his misogyny is much steeper. This time, he dies by Mariah’s hands.

Marvel's Luke Cage

Mariah’s snap into murder was just what Shades wanted. As I mentioned earlier in this review, Shades has been lying in wait the entire time, and it’s interesting to see that play out upon a second and third watch. Shades is probably one of the most masterfully-crafted characters in this series—and that’s saying something, since nearly all of the characters in this show, even the ones who don’t say anything at all, are heavily nuanced and multi-dimensional. Shades is that dude you never see coming, and then when you realize he’s the one pulling the strings to make things go his way, you have to sit back and wonder, “Wow, why didn’t I see this?”

Shades is a very particular character to portray and to write. First, he’s not a typical lackey. In fact, he’s not really a lackey at all, as much as he is someone who flits from Big Bad to Big Bad until he finds the right fit. Basically, he’s been auditioning Cottonmouth, Diamondback, and Mariah to see which one was going to step up and be the person he decides to side with.

Shades constantly demonstrates that he’s his own man, but he is happiest when he’s working for someone who has an overarching dream. Over the course of the fourth through eighth episodes, he’s realizing that Cottonmouth isn’t what he had hoped. Cottonmouth has no dream outside of his own selfish intentions to run Harlem. This leads Shades to Mariah’s door.

Shades has been scoping Mariah out for a while; in the second episode, Mariah called him out for staring at her. “Does your guard dog want a drink of water?” she says to Cottonmouth, while Shades just laughs, amused. As many on Tumblr have already noted, Mariah was calling Shades out on being thirsty, and not in a “needing water” kind of way. Once again, Shades has us all fooled; most viewers probably went in thinking that Shades was going to be content to be the go-between for Diamondback and Cottonmouth, but eventually we realized that Shades has more complicated feelings toward Mariah.

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Admittedly, where exactly Shades stands with Mariah is still something that’s up for debate with fans. Some think he’s just trying to use Mariah, but others believe there’s something else beneath the surface that propels Shades to confront, consult, and then protect Mariah when he actually has no selfish gain for doing so. I’m of the latter school of thought (#ShadyMariah, if you’re down with shipping). Did he need to go to Mariah’s house and tell her in so many words that Cottonmouth was ruining the Stokes family reputation? No—he’s working for Diamondback; there’s nothing at stake for him. But Shades went there because of his own feelings toward Mariah and the Stokes name itself. It’s clear from what he tells Mariah that he idolized that family, Mama Mabel in particular. In his mind, it seems like there’s a level of safety attached to that name, and for Harlem to be all right, then the Stokes name has to be as powerful as it was back in the day. Shades urges Mariah to do something to make that happen.

What’s fascinating is just how he urges her toward this end. If Mariah hadn’t killed Cottonmouth, Shades already had his own plan in the works (which we find out later in the season). Even still, he bides his time as Mariah comes to terms with her own talent for criminality. Cottonmouth’s rage made Mariah’s decision to become a “bad gal” easy. Once again, Shades is there to guide her into her newfound powers of sorts, helps her clean up the mess, and shows tenderness towards her at the same time. Everything’s falling into place for Shades. He’s been a soldier without a leader for a while, and he’s one step closer to finally having a leader he feels deserves his loyalty.

I’ll cap off my Shades/Mariah discussion with these two quotes on leadership I came across while working on this review. Evangelical Christian pastor Rick Warren told Ladies’ Home Journal in 2008, “Great leaders genuinely care for and love the people they lead more than they love leading itself. Leadership without love degenerates into self-serving manipulation.” Right below that quote is a quote from Lord Byron in The Two Foscari: “When we think we lead, we are most led.” Two people from different time periods and philosophical styles both manage to describe Shades’ relationship with power and leadership in a succinct way. Shades hates leaders who believe themselves to be worthy just because of their own might; instead, he needs a leader with a multiplicity of  layers, and that’s what Mariah is. She does care about Harlem (to a point; there are also moments like the one in which she uses hand sanitizer after touching the neighborhood kids in the first episode) and she cares about its history. But she also knows how to think laterally, something Shades identifies with. (It’s also something Cottonmouth and, as we find out later on, Diamondback can’t do).  She’s Shades’ perfect leader. In his own way, Shades earnestly manipulates her into that role.

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Other key moments:

  • Seeing Pop’s funeral used as a power play between Cottonmouth and Luke was really fun. The battle to take on Pop’s legacy clearly winds up squarely in Luke’s corner, since his speech garnered him a standing ovation. But Cottonmouth proved he can give Luke a run for his money with his own inspirational speech. As Misty said, however, it was clearly a pissing contest, and no one comes out of those unscathed; basically, they both kinda looked like meatheads at the end of the day.
  • There’s been a lot of fuss made about respectability politics in Luke Cage. To that, I say, what do some of y’all want? Is it really respectability politics if Luke doesn’t want to be called the N-word and gives big ups to Harlem’s history? Even as he’s emasculating criminals, he’s teaching them about their surroundings. Example: when Luke tells Zip, whom he is choking out at the time, that the park they’re standing in was named for the illustrious Jackie Robinson and that if Zip would respect himself enough, he could learn to feel pride in the black American legacy. Another example is in the second episode, when Luke tells the boy who’s about to kill him that the Crispus Attucks complex is named after a man whose death started the Revolutionary War. However, when his patience grows thin, Luke himself actually uses the N-word. In short, for some to call Luke Cage another Cliff Huxtable is missing the point—he’s no saintly black man stereotype; he’s just a black man who respects his black heritage and hates the N-word. If the show’s internal discussion about the use of the N-word by other black people is what’s being labeled “respectability politics,” then that’s a label that doesn’t jibe with me, since it’s the same discussion we, as a collective, have been having for decades.

More Luke Cage recaps coming soon! What do you think of Episodes 4 through 8? Give me your thoughts!

Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and is the founder of the upcoming MoniqueJonesConsulting.com, an online consulting business geared towards entertainment creators who are developing characters of color.

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