Tuesday, October 4, 2016

REVIEW: 'Luke Cage' - Mariah Reaches Her Breaking Point While Luke Worries About His Past in 'Manifest'

Netflix's Luke Cage - Episode 1.07 "Manifest"

Mariah's political career comes under fire. Cottonmouth picks up information that could put Luke on the run.

Things felt like they hit a pretty climatic beat in the previous episode when Luke was able to get Cottonmouth arrested for his crimes. Scarfe may have died but he produced enough evidence to send Cottonmouth away. And yet, it's not surprising that his arrest doesn't actually stick. The plot complications that lead to him getting out are pretty laughable as well. All it takes is Cottonmouth having a good lawyer for him to go free. Scarfe's evidence wasn't as damning as it appeared in the previous episode. Cottonmouth is able to walk out of the precinct with no problem. Luke and Misty weren't as victorious as they initially seemed. There is still more to do in this war for the soul of Harlem. And yet, "Manifest" produces quite a shocking moment that proves this may be the end of Cottonmouth's time on the season. It's an odd way to structure things but it indicates at an even darker and more precarious future for the show.

Cottonmouth is able to emerge unharmed from the police precinct but his arrest still affects the lives of the people around him. He is open to a parlay to try and talk things out with Luke so that things can go back to normal. But that's impossible to do right now. The damage has already been done to Mariah's career. Her fellow politicians and the journalists outside her home don't care that Cottonmouth is innocent of these charges. They are attacking her because of the known history of crime in her family. They latch onto this idea that Cottonmouth is a criminal and Mariah is his knowing accomplice. They don't care that she doesn't know any of the details of Cottonmouth's antics. She's just reaped the rewards. That's still pretty damning though. Her entire time on the show so far has focused on the funding for the center. She has tried to revitalize Harlem. And now, her cousin has ruined that for her. Her political career is over. This pushes her over the edge and proves that there is so much more to Mariah than what she initially appeared to be.

It's startling to watch as Mariah beats Cottonmouth to death. He was the big bad for the season. He can't die now. That's not how this story plays out. But the show's willingness to play with those conventions makes this twist so exciting and surprising to see play out. This episode belongs to Cottonmouth and Mariah. Flashbacks detail how they got to this point. They both grew up in Mamma Mabel's house. But they both had wildly different upbringings. At age 14, Cottonmouth was forced to take on the criminal business. He had to kill and protect the people in the community for Mamma Mabel. He had to do that instead of following his musical talents. It helps explain why he is still so stunted to an extent in the present day. He still finds himself torn and erratic in his life. He lashes out at Shades only to apologize later on for the error of his ways. Harlem's Paradise means so much to him because it's the only way he can continue to express himself through music. But he also resents Mariah because Mamma Mabel protected her from this life. She was sent away to fancy schools. She was given the ability to make something of her life. Of course, she was sent away because their uncle Pete was sexually abusing her. Luke Cage doesn't tacking that subject matter as well as Jessica Jones did. And yet, it's very telling that Mariah is sent away to protect the family. Mamma Mabel doesn't kill Pete for what he did until he goes against Mamma Mabel herself. Then, she has no problem ordering Cottonmouth to put a bullet in him.

These flashbacks really help bring further dimension to the dynamic between the cousins. They have always put family first. Mamma Mabel has cast a big shadow for them to live in without her protecting Harlem. But it helps immensely to see all of this backstory happen on screen. It highlights the animosity both of them still feel towards each other. Neither of them feel lucky to have lived the lives they have. Cottonmouth hates Mariah because he had to kill the one person who believed in his musical talents. To him, she wanted Uncle Pete to do what he did. She invited him to do it. So, it was unfair when he was punished for it. To her, she got no protection despite Mamma Mabel always being there for the rest of the community during times of abuse. And yet, deep down Mariah still questions whether or not she did want it. It's a complicated set of emotions that then lead to anger and murder. Mariah's career is over. Cottonmouth's is starting to get back on track. They are more divided than ever. The flashbacks help the audience understand how Mariah could be pushed off the edge. She has a lot of Mamma Mabel in her too. She is just as vicious and lethal as Cottonmouth is. She takes out her anger on him. It kills him in the process. It's a starting sight but one of the most effective sequences of the entire season so far.

This episode is all about that fight between Mariah and Cottonmouth. It represents a huge turning point for the season. It reveals that Mariah has been the villain all along. Cottonmouth was just a part of her rise to power. That's a powerful character arc. And yet, the rest of the episode suffers from not being as interesting. The rest of the plot is largely just wheel-spinning. It's important that Cottonmouth is taken out now in order for the season to transition to what comes next. But this hour really doesn't know what it wants to do with Luke, Claire and Misty. They have all been fantastic characters on the season so far. But here, they are mostly stuck in the same plot dynamics that aren't really going anyway. It's a big deal that Cottonmouth is let go. It could signal the end of Misty's investigation. But mostly, she's stuck wondering who Luke Cage really is. He's a mystery that needs to be solved to her. Of course, the audience already knows all the answers she's searching for. She realizes that he was created and that his life can't be adequately monitored through his online presence. She learns more about him just by talking to him. But again, it's not the most engaging story right now especially as things are ramping up elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Luke is once again trapped in the formulaic story of questioning whether he should stay and fight or run away to protect his identity. This is a debate that should have ended as soon as Luke told the world who he was. He has made a difference in Harlem. Everyone recognizes him when he walks up to them on the street. He's famous. He's disrupting the criminal operations of this world. But he's still afraid about his criminal past. Cottonmouth threatens him with that information as a way to get him to leave or join the fray. It's not a great plot development at all. It's a fantastic scene between two wonderful actors. But it largely just produces a way for Luke to once again question what he's truly doing in Harlem. It's become a very annoying plot detail for the season. Luke chose to stand up and stop Cottonmouth in order to honor Pops. That is now over with. He doesn't know it yet. But it is. He chooses to stay and fight. It's cool watching him defeat Domingo's goons and take back the stolen guns. But again, it's a formula that has played out already without adding anything new to the conversation.

And yet, "Manifest" ends with Luke being shot by the Judas bullet. That was a threat introduced a few episodes ago. This bullet is made from alien material that could affect him differently than regular bullets. He's indestructible but this bullet does some serious damage. It happens when he's just walking down the street with Claire. He's opening up to her about his past. The show really hasn't earned that kind of intimacy between the two. He's sharing details about his past incarceration and his estrangement with his own father. It's a conversation that feels like it'll be important for the future more so than it informs the character dynamics of the present. It's a good thing that Claire is there to help save Luke's life. He's not going to die now. It's thematically rich that the hero and villain of the show both seemingly die in this hour. It shows that there is so much more going on this season than the conflict between Luke and Cottonmouth. That includes the mysterious threat from Diamondback. He's the one who has the Judas bullet. He has been teased throughout the season. But this is his first appearance. He better be worth all of the buildup though. Otherwise, the show would have killed a great and interesting villain for nothing.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Manifest" was written by Akela Cooper and directed by Andy Goddard.
  • Misty's commanding officer is forced out of the precinct as well because she didn't know about Scarfe. She's taking the responsibility for that while Misty is still under investigation from Internal Affairs. They want her off the Cottonmouth case but that won't be so easy for her to give up.
  • Misty also keeps her cool when confronting Cottonmouth after learning he's being released. It's a heated scene where they discuss the implied meaning of the word "dogged." It's pretty interesting seeing the two of them interact like that. There weren't too many of those scenes this season.
  • Shades and Mariah are going to be a powerful team. He knows just how powerful she is capable of being. She just needs to channel it in the right way. Once she kills Cottonmouth, he's there to help her through it.
  • One would think that word about Luke's abilities would have spread throughout the criminal underworld. But nope, Domingo's men are still shooting at him hoping it will put him down only to be surprised when the bullets just bounce off him.
  • Claire mentions that she has a lawyer friend who might be able to help Luke. Wouldn't it be great if Matt or Foggy showed up to help Luke with his fugitive problems? Claire knows both of them but is more than likely referring to Matt - even though he's now fighting crime full time and not working as a lawyer.
  • Mahershala Ali sure was great as Cottonmouth. He will be missed a ton during the remainder of the season. But it should be exciting to see what his death means for the rest of the characters and the overall tone of the show.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.