Luke Cage Recap: Family First

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Alfre Woodard as Mariah. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix
Episode Title
Manifest
Season
1
Episode
7
Editor’s Rating
4/5

"Family first" is a line that gets repeated at pivotal points in "Manifest." On the surface, it's an ethos meant to evoke loyalty and a sense of belonging. But other times, the line is spit out like venom. For some, family is the living embodiment of a past best forgotten. In this way, the people in a family — no matter how much we love them — can feel like a literal haunting. For Cottonmouth and Mariah, this is all too true. "Manifest" explores how their bloody past has warped them into the people they are today.

Watching Luke revert back to his struggle with heroism feels like such an empty story line compared to what happens between Cottonmouth and Mariah. His celebration over Cottonmouth's arrest proves to be a bit premature, since he's a free man not even three minutes into this episode. Matters get worse when Luke meets Cottonmouth for a parlay, which quickly turns into a blackmail attempt: If Luke doesn't agree to work for him, Cottonmouth will reveal his past life in Seagate prison.

Thankfully, Claire isn't as limited in imagination as Luke. "Sometimes if you want justice you have to get it yourself," she says. She pushes him to embrace his role within Harlem, to carefully consider the choices he makes. However, Claire's pep talk can't distract from some of the nagging issues with Luke's character, especially his streak of conservatism. I've come to jokingly think of him as "Hood Jesus," in part because of the show's many biblical allusions.

Cottonmouth: "Niggas act like he can walk on water."

Shades: "Can he?"

The episode has other issues, particularly with regard to its editing, but it's almost beside the point. The performances of Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard are so gut-wrenching and the flashbacks to Cottonmouth and Mariah's childhood are so well-executed that everything else is elevated.

Mama Mabel is the kind of character you have to carve with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. We've heard so much about her already; would her character live up to the stories and whispers? Well, she does — and then some. Mama Mabel is obsessed with familial loyalty and wields dangerous control of everyone in her orbit, including the teenage Cottonmouth (Elijah Boothe) and Mariah (Megan Miller). In just a few minutes, we understand how this family works: Mariah is sheltered from the family business and encouraged to focus on her studies, but Cottonmouth isn't as lucky. Despite his musical talent, Mama Mabel is shaping him in her image. Although Uncle Pete (Curtis Cooke) acts kindly to Cottonmouth, the episode script written by Akela Cooper (one of the black women on the writers staff) dances around how he sexually abused Mariah.

We learn than Mama Mabel refused to get involved in the prosperous drug trade, as if that puts her on some moral high ground. Let's not forget that she uses her house as a brothel. Or that, in the blink of an eye, she goes from trimming roses to chopping off the finger of one of her employees for deciding to sell drugs. That this hustler is just a kid close to Cottonmouth's age only makes it more uncomfortable to watch. When she forces Cottonmouth to join Uncle Pete to clean up the mess (and kill the kid), the true arc of these flashbacks become apparent. We're watching Cottonmouth lose his soul.

One of the most striking elements of the flashbacks is how claustrophobic they feel. Everything takes place in Mama Mabel's house, save for a final scene at night in the backyard. The tension builds and builds — Luke Cage can be quite good at this — until it seems like almost any character might die.

We don't see what happens when Cottonmouth follows Uncle Pete in the next room. But we hear it. The pounding of flesh against flesh, the cries of this kid who dared to disobey Mama Mabel. She is totally unaffected by the bloody finger on her table or what she's forcing Cottonmouth to become. Even more effective is how Cottonmouth looks when he shuffles back into the room. His hands bloody, his eyes glazed over. He stumbles over to the piano to play, but he's too shaken to do much but sit down. Like all the villains in Luke Cage, Mama Mabel is most interesting when she exhibits a soft, manipulative kindness. When she cradles Cottonmouth's hands with a surprising tenderness after his first experience with violence, it puts in sharp relief why Cottonmouth and Mariah grew into the people they are now. When Uncle Pete goes behind Mama Mabel's back to work with the Latinos and sell drugs, Cottonmouth is forced into a situation that shapes the course of his life.

Seeing Uncle Pete whimpering on the wrong side of the gun, we know his death is a foregone conclusion. Mariah and Mama Mabel whisper at Cottonmouth's side that he must make this choice, that Uncle Pete betrayed the family. Cottonmouth can barely look at Uncle Pete, his hands shaking with a nervous energy. "You're not built for this. You can be better than all of us," Uncle Pete pleads to Cottonmouth. When Cottonmouth shoots the only person who seems to genuinely love him, he has to close his eyes. He's as shocked as Uncle Pete. Watching these two as teenagers, it's obvious that Cottonmouth was groomed to take Mama Mabel's place, but Mariah upholds her traditions.

It's worth noting a small issue with the flashbacks: We're inadvertently reminded of the age difference between Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard, who are about 20 years apart. I wouldn't want anyone but Ali in the role, of course — I just wish the writing figured this out because it sometimes takes me out of story. Nevertheless, Ali gives a towering performance. He's turned Cottonmouth into a fascinating portrait of what society expects from black men. It's not his swagger or violence that makes him interesting, like so many other crime bosses in pop culture. It's the vulnerability at his core.

"All the things I could have done with my life, my music," he shouts during an argument with Mariah. Cottonmouth finally has to reckon with a life that is not his own. These two cousins have finally reached the brink, not because of their dueling agendas for Harlem, but because their relationship is defined by a well of hurt. They may both love each other, but they're terribly wounded people.

At one point Shades says to Mariah, "I think when you get the nerve, you're going to be surprised at just what you're capable of." We're seen plenty of hints at what was to come for Mariah and what she's capable of doing. And yet, it surprised me to see her kill Cottonmouth in a fit of rage.

The stage was set for this to happen. Mariah's political career seems unsalvageable; her political allies have abandoned her and she's being forced to resign. Cottonmouth has become too reckless to see things clearly. Their argument begins with Cottonmouth getting his own On the Waterfront moment, lamenting the role he was forced into and the life he could have had as a musician. From there, the scene takes a dark turn when Cottonmouth accuses Mariah of wanting the abuse that Uncle Pete forced upon her. It's here that a schism in the character reveals itself — between the respectable smooth veneer Mariah puts up and the dark vengeful identity that lies out of sight most of the time. She hits Cottonmouth over the head with a bottle and pushes him out the window of his office. After he drags himself across the floor of Harlem's Paradise, she stands above him and beat him to death with a mic stand. "I didn't want it!" she screams, over and over.

Like I said, it's a shocking moment. I am going to miss Mahershala Ali's presence on this show and the dynamic he created with Alfre Woodard. His death gives Luke Cage its most emotionally resonant scene yet. It leaves us with a burning question: Where can the show go from here?

Maybe that's why "Manifest" ends with another surprise: The Judas bullet that Cottonmouth so desperately wanted has torn itself through Luke's skin. Claire cradles him as he howls in pain, unable to see who fired the shot. But we do. It's Diamondback, a.k.a. Willis Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), finally introduced from the shadows. Although this explosive ending casts into question the limits of Luke's abilities, it isn't what stuck with me from the episode. It's the image of Cottonmouth bleeding on the floor of the nightclub he so desperately wanted to hold on to. It's Mariah's face contorted by rage and grief as she beats the cousin she loves so dearly with shocking brutality.

The red lighting at Harlem's Paradise during this pivotal sequence is a visual reminder of violence and danger, turning the club into a hellish landscape shaped by trauma past and present. And there is no hell more difficult to navigate than a broken family.