Warning: This is a recap, and as such, contains spoilers for the 7th Luke Cage episode, “Manifest.” Get out of dodge if you haven’t watched the episode yet.
We’ve spent six episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage watching our hoodie-wearing hero protect Harlem from the influence of Cornell Stokes, a.k.a. Cottonmouth. We got front row tickets to Luke’s origin story, and it’s time to do the same with Cottonmouth. Various pieces have been dropped throughout the series—we’ve heard about Mama Mabel and the way she kept Harlem shipshape—but “Manifest” brings the opportunity to visit the past and look at why Cornell is the way he is.
Other villains have come before Cornell on Netflix’s Marvel shows, so it’s hard not to compare him to his predecessors. We saw the backgrounds for Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave and Daredevil’s Fisk, and both of their pasts included parental problems, shall we say. The environment one grows up in and the stimuli one’s exposed to during formative years can do much to influence one’s entire life. You have to wonder if being raised in Mama Mabel’s household shaped immutable paths for both Cornell and Mariah.
The exploration of Cornell’s background came right after his release from prison. Just when Luke thought he’d finally scored a major victory for the streets and, let’s be honest, a win in the column labeled “avenging Pop’s death,” Cottonmouth slithered away. Though he was downright smarmy about being let go, Mariah was angry. She’s a stereotypical politician through and through. She knows being associated with Cottonmouth doesn’t send a positive message, but she also knows his partnership brings her benefits and she uses him anyway. Make no mistake, she’s as rotten and ruthless as he is and she’s starting to crack.
This is where I pause to point out the talents of Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali. They’ve both brought irreplaceable characteristics to the table as these cousins. Their shared scenes seem to ignite something in both actors and make them more frightening.
As she exploded at Cornell for his mistake of being implicated and dragging their family name through the mud, we went back in time. We were introduced to a younger Cornell, making beautiful music on the piano, and Mariah, head buried in her homework. It’s like they’re miniature versions of the adults we’ve been spending time with. And finally, Mama Mabel came onto the scene along with Uncle Pete.
Mama Mabel made an impression immediately. The woman has presence. With only a handful of dialogue, you can see why she’s calling the shots and why people listen to what she has to say. She’s all the more intimidating because of her seeming sweetness. She cares about Harlem and its people, but will lay the wrath upon you if you don’t do what you’re told. Uncle Pete pales in comparison, merely seeming like a creepy hanger-on.
Pete was put in a better light as far as Cornell was concerned. He was supportive of Cornell’s gift with music. He wanted to make sure the boy pursued his talent and saw a way for Cornell to take his musical skills and find a better life. So, at least he had a winning quality. But Mama Mabel wasn’t having it. Her affections seemed to land only on Mariah; she wanted the smart girl to be exempt from a life of crime and pushed Cornell to take up the family business instead. It pit the cousins against each other and the topic is still divisive in the present.
Cornell didn’t want to step into his family’s violent doings, but he was groomed for it. And when he told Mama Mabel about Pete planning against her, Cornell was forced to take out the trash. That’s when we saw Mariah’s ferocity; she seemed quieter back then and buried in her studies, but she stood behind Mabel when she forced Cornell to end Pete. The importance of family and being loyal was drilled into both of them, which became especially relevant when we cut back to the present.
The pot that’s been simmering since Luke started busting up Harlem boiled over. Cottonmouth pushed back against Mariah’s arguments, pointing out she was given opportunities he never had. She was allowed to better herself and pursue a different life. Cornell was forced. Their shouting match had the ring of a fight they’ve had time and time again, but it ended permanently this time. When Mariah pointed out she was sent away to school in order for her to be safe from Pete, Cornell said she was asking for it. That was the absolute wrong thing to say for many reasons, and it was obviously a trigger for Mariah.
She screamed she wasn’t asking for it and beat Cornell to his death. We watched her go completely unhinged and unfiltered—this woman who puts on a prim, proper, optimistic face to the public lost herself in a berserker rage. I applaud this change in direction. And from what we saw of Shades’ reaction, I think he does too.
So, Diamondback has to show up soon, right? With Luke actually bleeding and injured by the special bullet, and now with Cornell down, the time is prime for him to arrive.
Were you shocked by the twist with Cottonmouth? I let loose an audible gasp. Tell me about your reaction in the comments or come chat with me on Twitter.