This season’s penultimate episode opens with a shot of Mariah’s foray into the drug business: We watch as her product takes effect inside of a crowded party, bringing its users to violence. The drug has been titled Bushmaster. And the next morning, Luke is updated at the barbershop — he diagnoses the “Bushmaster” labeling as a play by Mariah to bait her nemesis into the open.
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“You need to handle this shit, Luke,” says D.W.
And it’s clear that he’s right — but Luke is tired. Sugar (who, apparently, tags along with Luke now) confirms that the drug is the work of Mariah and the city’s Chinese gang. But right on cue, we cut to Mariah as she calls a meeting of the local mob leaders, assembling everyone in an auction. Mariah informs them that she’ll allow their presence in Harlem, as long as she takes a cut of their earnings. The gang leaders haven’t forgotten about Diamondback (who’d killed most of their predecessors), and they liken that old enemy to Bushmaster. Rosalie Carbone, one of the gang leaders, says, “The Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese have been running networks for centuries. Blacks are the only ones who can’t keep themselves organized.”
“Tempi cambi,” says Mariah. “That’s your weakness, Carbone. You’ve always kept yourself isolated.”
Mariah offers her “legitimate” access to legal and political assets, adding that the leaders will “legitimize” the arrangement with her, unless they want the Chinese gang to have unfiltered access to Harlem. But as Mariah makes plans for the long term, we watch as Bushmaster stakes her out from afar. He clearly hasn’t forgotten what he’s here for — but it’ll take a minute for for him to regain his bearings.
In the meantime, Bushmaster arrives at the Chinese gang’s drug-packing plant, and he’s looking to bust things up when he runs into Luke. Luke tells Bushmaster that he can tag along, but only if they do things Luke’s way – if Bushmaster kills anyone, he’s on his own. And that conversation leads to the second-best fight scene we’ve caught this season (after Misty and Colleen’s bar brawl way back when). But it isn’t long before Bushmaster turns on Luke, and the two have hardly begun to fight among themselves before Bushmaster escapes (again).
Meanwhile, Misty and Ridley hold Shades in an interrogation room. After a quick discussion, they decide to try and build a federal case against Shades. But first, they hear him deliver his testimony, in hopes of coercing him into a deal. If he cooperates, he just might walk out of this unscathed. So Shades recalls the events of season one, working his way up to Mariah. In the middle of his confession, Shades’ lawyer recuses herself from defending him (she realizes, quickly, that Shades was nearly responsible for her son’s murder). And later, Shades also eventually admits to baiting and killing Candace Miller — an act that Misty ties back to the gun that was used to kill Anansi.
When Misty asks Shades about Ridenhour, he tells her that Comanche shot him. But Shades also admits that he was responsible for Comanche’s killing.
“I should’ve let him bleed out,” says Shades, “But I didn’t want to watch my friend suffer.”
Mariah tells Shades that the revolver he used in that murder connects him to the killings of Bushmaster’s uncle, Candace, and Pistol Pete Stokes. And just as Shades takes that news in, Comanche’s mother walks into the interrogation room, assisted by Chief Ridley. She spits in his face. Shades looks forlorn. And Misty tells him to sit back down, because she isn’t done with him yet.
“We need that gun,” says Mariah, “or else this whole deal goes away. So where is it?”
The answer is with Mariah. And, across town, Luke checks in with her to tell her she’s on notice. But Mariah’s quick to point out that, despite everything, Luke is the only one who’s come to her aid time and time again. He may be Mariah’s nemesis, but he’s also her protector.
“You are the only man I’ve been able to count on,” she says. “Harlem, too. You are a real man of the people. That’s your weakness.”
“Things change,” says Luke. “I just decided I’m not out on duty anymore.”
He tells Mariah that if Bushmaster comes for her, Luke won’t be there to protect her. So she forces Luke’s hand. Mariah organizes a “unity concert” for Harlem’s Paradise. If Bushmaster tracks her down looking to fight, he’ll risk harming Harlem’s residents, too. Mariah gambles that it’ll force Luke’s hand.
But, either way, Bushmaster will be assisted by Tilda. She seeks him out to tell him that Mariah personally killed his uncle. When Bushmaster asks her why she went out of her way to deliver this information (a very good question, considering the circumstances), she tells Bushmaster it’s because she wants Mariah dead.
“I don’t need motivation to kill your mother,” says Bushmaster. “I need opportunity.”
So Tilda offers him a supershot of nightshade (which, she can, apparently, make now). It’s double the potency, but also double the risk. Bushmaster decides that the leap is worth chancing.
And it’s the last major move that sets the stage for that evening — Shades and Misty arrive at Harlem’s Paradise, right on time for the unity concert. The venue is packed. They’re searching for Mariah. But Shades is wired, recording his conversations, and Mariah’s quick to pick up on that fact. Shades nearly entices her back to the office, to talk in private, but not before she gathers her own suspicions. When Mariah spots Luke — who’s also shown up — in the crowd, she mouths, “I told you so.” And the thing is — she did. For better and worse, Luke can’t leave well enough alone.
But Mariah brings Shades to “the lair,” the new bunker that Misty had no idea about. As they descend, Shades gradually realizes that he is probably doomed. So he makes a last-ditch effort, bringing Mariah into a kiss, and it isn’t long before she pulls a gun on him (the revolver), uncovering the wire. And we immediately cut to Tilda, who’s waiting for Bushmaster outside of the nightclub. After showing him the tunnels leading into Harlem’s Paradise, she reminds Bushmaster that he’s only supposed to kill Mariah.
“Wait for me,” Bushmaster tells Tilda.
Underneath the nightclub, Bushmaster injects all of the nightshade into his neck (exactly how Tilda told him not to). And just like that, he’s all juiced up: the party descends into chaos as he tosses henchman after henchman in search of Mariah. When Luke tries to stop him, Bushmaster flings him aside. And it’s only another moment before Bushmaster makes his way to Mariah’s bunker, where he quickly dispatches Shades. Before Bushmaster puts his hands on her, Mariah yells “Where the hell is Luke Cage?”
Turns out, he was only around the corner: Luke and Misty make their way into the bunker, battling Bushmaster alongside Shades. At one point, Bushmaster nearly chokes Mariah, but he can’t hold it before Misty clocks him, and Luke wrestles his way into an arm bar. As Mariah shouts for Luke to kill Bushmaster, Misty yells for him not to give in to the aggression he’s been courting all season — and he doesn’t. But Bushmaster takes advantage of the opening, and slips away. At the episode’s end, he’s still at large, out in the world. But although Luke and Misty haven’t captured Bushmaster, they’ve gotten ahold of the next best thing. Shades hands Misty Mariah’s revolver.
Moments later, Mariah is arrested on the charge of killing Candace, Anansi, and ordering the massacre at Gwen’s. After five episodes of losses, the heroes have finally pulled out something like a victory.
“Finally,” says Misty. “A win.”
But her counterpart, correctly, isn’t so sure.
“We ain’t win shit,” says Luke. “This shit ain’t over yet.”
And it isn’t — although their saga is rapidly drawing to a close. But while whole swaths of this season have proved over the top and hard to follow, this episode reins the action into something more tangible and controlled. It is, unexpectedly, a bright light in the series. Here’s hoping that the finale finds a way to follow suit.