4:00 pm EST, June 25, 2018

‘Luke Cage’ season 2 proves villains are just the heroes of their own stories

By Karen Rought | Edited by Brandi Delhagen

Luke Cage season 2 showcases the complexity of both our heroes and villains, and blurs the line between each as everyone attempts to see their vision become a reality.

Note: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of season 2.

It’s easy to figure out who is supposed to be a good guy and who is supposed to be a bad guy on Luke Cage season 2. Luke, Misty, and Claire are our biggest heroes. Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster are our biggest villains.

But the world is not black and white, and neither is the sophomore season of Luke Cage. Everyone has both light and dark within them, and this season not only showed us that the villains see themselves as heroes, but that our heroes are capable of becoming villains.

Mariah has always seen herself as a hero to Harlem. The crimes she commits have been in service to her community, and so she justifies her actions by saying she’s sacrificing the lives of the few in order to enhance the lives of the many. The notion might be admirable in theory, but it doesn’t make her any less of a murderer.

There is no doubt that Mariah loves Harlem. She has poured millions of dollars into her neighborhood. The Family First initiative we see in season 2 is a genuine contribution, something that will truly help women and children survive and even thrive within the city.

We know she doesn’t love Tilda, and therefore her public motivation for creating the center is probably a farce, but her commitment to making Harlem safer and stronger is as real as it gets.

But Mariah is also not afraid of breaking the law. Even in the beginning of the season, when she was looking to get out of the gun business and go legit, she used Piranha and insider trading to amass a fortune to bankroll the initiative.

Later, when Mariah decides to be a full on gangster, she still justifies her actions. She may hate the last name Stokes, but she’s proud of everything her family has done to get her to where she is today. In her mind, she’s the underdog who has made it to the top. Her family has been through hardship and heartbreak. She is owed the luxuries she cultivates.

While Mariah may have the public persona of a hero and the private personality of a villain, it’s a little bit harder to see both sides of the coin in Shades. He is a gangster, through and through. He is smart, calculating, and ruthless. He and Mariah make quite a pair, so it comes as a surprise every time Hernan is the one to reel her back in.

I fell victim to good storytelling more than once during Luke Cage season 2. I forgot who Shades really was and what he had done. I started to sympathize with him. While that in no way makes him a hero, it does begin to make him less of a villain.

Hernan wanted to get out. He wanted to go straight. He wanted legitimate money and a job as a club owner. He didn’t want to look over his shoulder anymore. While that doesn’t erase everything he had done to get to that point, it is admirable that someone so ingrained in this lifestyle can see a brighter future for themselves. People can change.

Of course, Hernan and Mariah were still breaking laws in order to get that legitimate money, but I did appreciate this softer version of Shades. When Mariah killed a restaurant full of innocent people and lit a living man on fire, he did the right thing. He turned himself in and promised to testify in order to bring Mariah down once and for all.

It’s easy to see this as heroic — turning your back on the woman you love in order to do the right thing — but we all know Hernan’s motives were not entirely pure. We remember this when he’s describing the way he killed Candace in a slow, methodical, and even loving way. While I admire the complexities we saw in Shades this season, I can’t say that I felt too sorry when Misty arrested him after Mariah’s death.

Hernan wasn’t the only character to show complexity this season, however. Despite how brutal Bushmaster was in his vengeance, it’s easy to understand why he was seeking revenge on the Stokes family.

The parting of ways between Mariah and John’s grandfathers had repercussions for generations to come. It’s not fair that the grandchildren of these men pay for their sins, but life is not often fair. While Mariah had no hand in burning John’s mother alive right in front of his eyes, she profited from Mama Mabel’s wisdom as well as her business.

It’s not hard to justify Bushmaster’s killing of Mariah. He is seeking revenge on the Stokes family, and she is a Stokes through and through. All of the crimes she has committed, all the murders she has perpetrated, don’t exactly make her an innocent victim. I would often catch myself becoming sympathetic to Mariah’s fear in one moment and then remembering everything she’s done in the next.

Bushmaster’s methods do leave something to be desired, however. He threw Harlem into chaos when he showed up on the scene, and many people, innocent and guilty, indirectly and directly, lost their lives due to his actions.

But what makes Bushmaster so interesting, and more complex than your average boogieman, is that Mariah was the one to cross the line. When she burns Anansi and has those innocent people killed, we feel John’s pain. In his family’s eyes, he was the hero who would finally lay this war between families to rest. And they paid the ultimate price.

Even after Bushmaster learns what Mariah did to his family, he does not kill Tilda, despite having ample opportunity to do so. Perhaps it’s because she is innocent in this war, or perhaps it’s because she saved his life. Either way, it shows us that villains can still have a sense of morality.

But morality is a slippery slope. The lines between right and wrong are rarely that defined.

I was initially going to talk about Claire, but in all honesty, she might be the purest hero on this show. She understands laws sometimes need to be broken in order to do the right thing, but she’s careful to analyze the repercussions of not only her actions, but those around her. This is where she ends up butting heads with Luke. When she decides to leave, she doesn’t do so out of anger or spite, but in order to give herself enough time to think about what’s best for her.

She doesn’t make rash decisions based on emotion, which is not something that can be said about Tilda.

When Tilda first showed up on Luke Cage season 2, I thought she was going to be a hero. She wanted nothing to do with her mother and she had a much more rigid definition of right and wrong. It was admirable that she gave Mariah another chance to be in her life, but when she learned the truth about her mother’s dealings, she should’ve run in the opposite direction.

Instead, she stuck around. She never approved of Mariah’s methods, but she naively hung on much longer than I thought she would. And rather than helping Luke and Misty, Tilda ended up helping Bushmaster. At first, obviously, she was coerced, but eventually she came to truly care about what kind of impact her family had on his.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Empathy is a powerful tool of understanding, especially for a doctor. But where Tilda crosses the line is when she killed her own mother.

Don’t get me wrong: I feel no sympathy for Mariah. Where I do feel sympathy, however, is for Tilda’s loss of innocence. If you’ve committed murder once, you can find ways to justify it again. You’re a murderer whether you’ve killed one person or 100, so why not use that blemish on your soul to do what you think is right?

Tilda is the product of an incestuous rape, which means she’s got a chip on her shoulder and a vendetta against the name Stokes. She also feels slighted by the fact that her mother gave Harlem’s Paradise to Luke instead of her. When she walks into that club in the Luke Cage season 2 finale, I don’t think there’s anything she wouldn’t do in order to get what she feels she deserves.

But if anyone has the right to have a chip on their shoulder, it’s probably Misty Knight.

Misty has always been on the straight and narrow. She’s an incredible detective who uses her gut as much as she uses the evidence. Regardless, she knows there’s a system in place to make sure the innocent don’t go to jail and the guilty stay locked up. Unfortunately, her partner, Scarfe, was falsifying evidence, which means those guilty parties are walking free.

Luke Cage has been a study in how broken the judicial system can be. Luke was innocent, and yet he spent years in jail, enduring prison culture and illegal experiments. Mariah, who has done far more than Luke would ever dream of doing, has been walking the streets free and clear because she’s smart enough to cause reasonable doubt in a jury.

It’s no wonder that Misty is at the end of her rope by the time she decides to plant evidence in Cockroach’s apartment. She’s doing the wrong thing for the right reason, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong — especially for someone who knows the consequences of her actions if she’s caught.

Misty is a hero, there’s no doubt about that. But sometimes our heroes are just as complicated as our villains. Misty knows she’s bending the law every time she lets Luke in on a case. She also knows she’s breaking the law when she goes to do exactly what she hates Scarfe for doing. At the end of the day, she did the right thing by admitting the truth to her captain, but like Ridenhour says, she’ll have to live with a guilty conscience.

But Misty’s toeing of the line between right and wrong is nothing compared to what our titular character goes through this season.

Luke’s journey throughout these 13 episodes has been a rough one. Coming off of The Defenders, Luke is at the top of his game. Harlem, for the most part, loves him. He’s taking selfies with kids and turning the heads of nearly every woman in the city. All he has to do is look at a criminal and they’ll drop their guns and go running in the opposite direction.

But as it always is with war, when one side develops a weapon to turn the tide, the other side finds a way to keep things balanced. With Luke Cage on the streets, it was only a matter of time until someone like Bushmaster showed up. Between John McIver and Mariah Dillard, the streets of Harlem are running red with the blood of both the innocent and the guilty.

Much like Misty, Luke is at the end of his rope. He has to step up his game if he wants to protect his community. Throughout the season, Luke becomes more and more brutal. He’s meeting his enemies punch for punch, but a hero should rise above unnecessary violence. Watching him nearly beat Cockroach to death or seeing him snap the fingers of Rosaslie Carbone’s bodyguard was worse than watching Mariah burn Anansi alive. At least I knew she was capable of that level of malice.

I recognize that the people Luke is fighting probably deserve what’s coming to them. But Luke used to be a reluctant hero, and now that he’s embraced that title, it seems he’s forgotten what it means.

By the end of the Luke Cage season 2 finale, we see Luke take over Harlem’s Paradise in order to provide himself a better position from which to protect Harlem. His justification might be pure, and his methods may be necessary, but from up on high, Luke is looking a little bit less like a hero and a little bit more like a villain every day.

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