We open the final episode of season two with a shot of Mariah in court – which is fitting, because she’s clearly the season’s star. We’ve watched Luke flail from one predicament to another. We’ve seen Bushmaster, an entirely competent villain, reveal that he really isn’t that that bad. We’ve watched Misty — who, clearly, deserves a series of her own — grow in ways that have both challenged and emboldened everyone rooting for her. But Mariah is the one: She’s the character that’s experienced a full, circular arc. Over the course of 13 episodes, she has become fully realized. It’s honestly a shame that Alfre Woodard wasn’t given a more stable platform to magnify her performance.
But, nevertheless, we’ve made it to end.
In court Mariah’s clearly losing her case. The judge is dead-set against her. The public is dead-set against her. She has no family to root for her, and no friends to lift her up, but when Mariah’s given the chance to speak, she doesn’t leap to her own defense — she asks to be freed on behalf of Harlem. Mariah makes it clear that, without a Stokes helming the neighborhood, there will be no one to cordon the rival gangs from choking Harlem’s people and resources. And, as if to confirm her prediction, we watch Rosalie Carbone slip into the courtroom’s audience.
“You need me out there,” says Mariah. “You want me out there. Because without me, God help Harlem. God help us all.”
She isn’t wrong: Since Mariah’s arraignment, violent crime in Harlem has increased 75 percent. We look along as Jelani Cobb talks about why, exactly, that is. The police department is entirely inundated. And in between pursuing the influx of violent cases, Misty pays a visit to Tilda, asking about Bushmaster — she knows that Tilda helped him make his way into Harem’s Paradise.
Stepping through Tilda’s shop, Misty says, “Maybe you’re Harlem’s Patty Hearst.”
It isn’t long before Tilda tells Misty that she needs a warrant. Misty tells Tilda that the sentiment reminds her of Mariah.
“Whatever you think you’re doing” says Misty, “stop.”
The moment that Misty leaves, Bushmaster, his associate, and Ingrid emerge from the backroom where they were hiding all along. Bushmaster is fighting for his life, and Tilda tells his allies he’ll need rest, rehab, and undiluted nightshade in Nine Mile. He won’t last much longer in New York.
“Mariah must burn,” says Bushmaster, slipping in and out of consciousness. “It’s the only way.”
But he won’t be the one to do it. That night, Tilda sees the three of them off. Bushmaster’s headed back to Jamaica, empty-handed and ravaged for all of his efforts.
Meanwhile, Luke does his best to construct how Harlem’s being carved up, and he decides that the “hero” approach won’t be enough to put things back together. At one point, Shades approaches him at the barbershop, looking to give his two cents about the situation. As he has already told us 24 times this season, “The old rules are being broken.” But when Luke accuses Shades of only wanting to capitalize on the chaos, Shades tells Luke that he can’t even do that.
“The whole world knows that I’m a snitch,” says Shades. “I’m out.”
Shades tells Luke that Rosalie Carbone wants to take over Harlem. He adds, in no uncertain terms, that Luke needs to do something about that. And while Luke does heed the advice, he tells Shades that he’ll kill him the next time he sees him.
“See?” says Shades. “You’re not polite anymore. That’s how it starts.”
So there’s chaos out in the world — but Mariah’s no safer in prison. We watch as she’s nearly ambushed and killed by Jamaican and Italian gang surrogates — but, at the last moment, she’s saved by an old associate of Mabel’s. And when the woman, mistakenly, trusts Mariah for half of the half of a second, Mariah cuts her throat. She immediately takes over the woman’s crew. And just that quickly, Mariah has muscle and influence in her new surroundings. When Ben Donovan visits her later, Mariah tells him that Shades’s immunity pass is revoked, along with every nonfamily associate that ever worked for her.
“And Sugar,” she adds.
When Ben asks why, Mariah says, “His wife gave me clothes. I’ll never forget that.” (So, friends, remember to help those in need when you can!)
The next time we see Luke, he’s on his way to visit Rosalie; as he dispatches her henchmen, he does so with more brutality than usual. As Rosalie’s associates shoot at Luke, the bullets bounce off him as usual. Luke even says, “People always want to see if the myth is true,” thereby solving the mystery of why so many fucking people continue to fire guns at him.
He arrives at Rosalie’s desk with virtually zero resistance. But once he’s finally facing her, Luke pulls up short of harming her.
“What are you gonna do if I don’t leave?” says Rosalie. “You gonna kill me?”
“You could kill me,” she says. “That would be easy for you.”
But, she adds, if he does that, her Russian allies will rupture Harlem and its civilians as collateral. (“We make too much money together,” she adds.)
So what does Harlem’s Hero do? He tells Rosalie that if she keeps her action contained, he’ll have no beef with her. He is, it seems, brokering deals before delivering justice. And Rosalie warms up to his offer, even inviting Luke to coffee, and continuing the franchise’s infatuation with latte-sex jokes.
“I don’t like espresso,” Luke tells Rosalie.
“No one’s made you a proper cup,” she replies.
So that solves one problem, but Mariah’s already started cleaning house. Even Alex (Mariah’s assistant) shows up at Tilda’s place looking for safe passage. She tells him (correctly) that he should’ve left when he had the chance, and it isn’t long before we see him shot on the sidewalk.
After an attempt on his own life, Shades arranges to meet Mariah in prison (for closure, I guess). She asks if him if he ever loved her (!), and Shades tells her that he still loves her (!!). But when Mariah asks Shades if he loves her harder than Che (!!!), he tells her that she still doesn’t understand.
“You talked to me about the light,” says Shades, “about being Hernan and putting Shades away.”
But none of that worked out. Shades leaves Mariah in a puddle of tears. And it isn’t long before Tilda arranges to meet with Mariah as well — although when Luke tells Misty that he needs to see her, too (“for closure”), Misty declines to make that happen. Concurrently, he lies to Misty about seeing Sugar. Just that quickly, they’re back to deceiving one another. Luke calls Foggy and asks for Ben Donovan’s number, arranging a meeting on his own terms.
When Tilda meets with Mariah, they don’t reach anything like comfortable closure. They dance around Mariah’s history of neglect, and the mother’s inability to comfort her child. And, at one point, Mariah says, “I know I’m supposed to love you. I just don’t know how.”
So Tilda tells Mariah that she’ll ever leave jail. And Mariah tells her daughter that if there’s a single person from Harlem on the jury, she’ll walk. (“That’s the thing about black excellence, baby,” says Mariah. “It shields you.”)
Even still, Mariah asks Tilda to check in on Harlem’s Paradise.
“Before you walk away from it — from me, from our legacy — you stand inside of it,” says Mariah. “You tell me I’m wrong.”
Before Tilda leaves her mother, she kisses Mariah on the lips, slowly, as the camera focuses on her lipstick. And once she’s gone, Luke walks into the room, carrying himself with more gravity than he’s handled the entire season. Now that he’s brokered peace between the gangs in Harlem, Luke deems himself a “sheriff.” Mariah tells him that everyone else who visited her was called here in some way, but Luke came on his own. He didn’t have to.
“In a strange way,” says Mariah, “we’re responsible for each other. Harlem’s gonna need a king. I’m glad it’s you.”
That’s when, predictably, dramatically, the poison Tilda kissed her mother with reveals itself. Mariah stumbles, coughing up blood. And (in a moment that, despite everything, caused this recapper to tear up), she asks Luke if anyone’s coming to save her. Luke tells Mariah that it isn’t going to happen but what he can do is keep her company while she goes.
So, after two seasons of growth and decline and maturation and metamorphosis, Mariah dies on the floor of the prison. She was, in all respects, the architect of her own fate.
Shortly afterwards, Misty finds Shades to arrest him, citing the dismissal of his lawyer and her possession of anonymously released records (Mariah, it turns out, thought of everything). Harlem settles into something like normalcy. The day, for the moment, is saved. But the neighborhood is reeling from Mariah’s death regardless; at the barbershop, D.W. notes, “Personally, I haven’t felt this weird since November 9th.”
When D.W. asks how Luke managed to broker peace, Luke alludes to the meeting with Rosalie, and his final meeting with Mariah — but it doesn’t take long for D.W. to put the pieces together. Luke has, somehow, entered the crime world himself. D.W. tells him that, “If you’re gonna be the boss of crime, you’re a crime boss.” And if that’s the route Luke’s going to go, Harlem’s Hero is no longer welcome at the barbershop.
Before Luke can protest, Ben Donovan steps through the door. It confirms all of D.W.’s fears.
“I thought you weren’t a king,” he says.
“I’m not,” says Luke. “I’m a rook.”
But Luke may have prematurely diagnosed himself. The lawyer sits Luke and Tilda down to hear Mariah’s will. Mariah has left her daughter a keyboard. She entrusted the entirety Harlem’s Paradise — the club, the deed, and the name — to Luke.
“It should go to someone who loves Harlem as much as I do,” Mariah says, in a flashback. “You can’t rule no kingdom from a barbershop.”
Tilda storms out of her seat. She’s been cheated (although, this time, probably rightfully) once again. When Ben asks if Luke wants the club, Luke says, “Nah. You should burn it. Burn it down to the ground.”
But it looks like Luke knows the difference between what should be done, and what needs to be done, because the next time we see him, he’s looking on from Mariah’s old throne. He removes her painting of Biggie Smalls and replaces it with one of Muhammad Ali. His ascent is a move that shocks Misty, who visits his new spot. She says, “You know, just because she gave it to you, doesn’t mean you had to take it.”
Luke tells her that they can finally protect Harlem again, together — on and off the books. Misty tells Luke that he can’t bypass the rule of law.
“And when has the law ever really protected us?” says Luke.
Misty tells Luke that she’ll “take him down” if he starts “acting like a fool.” Just then, Sugar tells Luke that a handful of gang leaders have arrived at Harlem’s Paradise. And when Luke tells Sugar to seat them downstairs, Misty realizes that the Luke she knew is gone. The alliance between them comes to an end, and just like that, the goodwill between them evaporates.
Harlem’s Paradise is where we receive our final shot of the season: We catch Misty, Ridenhour, Tilda, and the remaining crime bosses — they’re all playing their roles in the club as Luke looks on. But before he addresses any of them, Sugar arrives (again) to tell Luke that Claire is downstairs. And how does Harlem’s respond to the woman he’s loved and lost for most of the season?
Dude doesn’t even speak to her.
“Tell Claire to go home,” he says.
And, honestly, it’s a good thing, because the series didn’t deserve Claire. It really didn’t. Luke Cage didn’t deserve Mariah, either. But it’ll always be worth noting that, despite a regrettable start, the series managed to tape itself together in the last few episodes. The stage is set for entirely new arcs in the next iteration — but, at the very least, Luke Cage has given itself a bit of a head start on the way there.