WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage Season 2, streaming now on Netflix
Mike Colter's Luke Cage is adrift throughout much of the second season of his Netflix drama, angry, increasingly isolated and at odds with Mariah Dillard, Bushmaster and himself. He's reluctantly accepted his role as the Hero of Harlem, and some of the fame that accompanies it, but he's unsure of what the neighborhood actually needs: a sheriff, or a king. His moment of clarity comes not from a visit by Danny Rand but instead, surprisingly, by old foe Shades Alvarez.
Addressing the court in the season finale following her arraignment on 12 counts of murder, including that of Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) delivers an impassioned, if self-serving, speech, warning that there's a "storm wall" around Harlem, built by her grandparents, Buggy and Mabel: "As long as you have been on the bench, as long as everyone here has been alive, there has been a Stokes patching up that wall around Harlem. You need me out there, you want me out there. Because, without me, God help Harlem. God help us all."
Luke thought taking down Mariah would make matters better, but he was wrong. Mariah's words prove prophetic, as violent crime in Harlem soars 75 percent, in large part from rivals seeking to lay claim to her territory. It's too much for the police or for Luke, who's ushered down an unorthodox path by Shades (Theo Rossi). While still refusing to accept his own responsibility in shattering the "old rules" with the assault on Pop's Barber Shop -- "Switzerland" -- in Season 1, he recognizes only one person, "someone who loves Harlem," can set things right. "The fastest way to stop the flow is to put your hand on the faucet," he says.
With that, Luke pays a visit to Rosalie Carbone, head of the Carbone crime family, to broker a deal. After the expected exchange of threats, they arrive at an uneasy truce: The Carbones and their "business partners" will stay out of Harlem, with Luke promising retribution against anyone who "acts a-fool" within its boundaries. Rosalie will convince the other criminal organizations to do the same, or else he'll make her life a living hell.
But if that decision is, at best, morally gray -- "If you’re gonna be the boss of crime, then you’re a crime boss," insists D.W. -- what follows is far more murky. With the death of Mariah, poisoned by a kiss from her estranged daughter Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis), Luke is bequeathed Harlem's Paradise by his old rival, who hopes its power will corrupt the bulletproof hero. “The preacher’s son will think he can use the roost to change things, to control it," she tells her disbelieving attorney. "But in the end, it will change him.”
Luke's immediate response is to reject the building, and order it burned down. However, the scene swiftly shifts to the Hero of Harlem comfortably positioned at Mariah's perch in the nightclub built by Buggy Stokes and Quincy McIver (Bushmaster's grandfather). “Everything flows through here,” he tells Misty Knight (Simone Missick). “I can watch from above, like a hawk.” He insists he can best protect Harlem from that perch, but Misty has her doubts, which no doubt only intensify as crime bosses Rosalie Carbone and Anibal Izaqueda are seated in the VIP section, and she's shown the door, so Luke and his new right-hand man, Sugar, can discuss business.
There are echoes in the finale of Marvel Comics' 2010 storyline "Shadowland," in which Daredevil returns to Hell's Kitchen and assumes leadership of The Hand, determined that the ninja cult can be transformed into an instrument of good. As he wages war against crime, Daredevil's tactics become increasingly extreme, a result of his possession by the Beast, the ancient demon worshiped by the Hand. Although it's highly unlikely will fall under the thrall of a demon in a potential third season, his slow corruption by the power of his new position -- Mariah's dying wish -- certainly seems plausible.
Despite his insistence that he can't be bought, and that he's "the only person that can make Harlem great again," can Luke Cage truly tread the same path as Mariah Dillard, only without becoming mired in crime?
"If I could take your sentence, and basically make that the synopsis of what a potential Season 3 could be, that could be interesting," showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told CBR. "The thing is, hopefully enough people will watch Season 2 to inspire Netflix to order Season 3. But one of the reasons that we did what we did was, if this is the last Luke Cage, we’re leaving in a very interesting place. If we get to move on beyond this, it also leads us into an interesting, unpredictable place. [...] You’ve got these mirrors to gangster politics, you’ve got these mirrors to presidential politics, because people always think that if they have the juice, if they’re in power, they can do things differently, and they begin to realize that all systems, in their own way, corrupt the people at the top of those systems. And so what it does is, the power defines who you really are, and it brings out both impulses, so I don’t care if it’s the perch at Harlem’s Paradise, I don’t care if it’s ruling the galaxy in Star Wars, I don’t care if it’s the presidency, that kind of power can corrupt you awfully, in really bad ways, if you’re not prepared for it."
For Season 3, the question remains: Can Luke Cage bring peace to Harlem, and still remain a hero?
Streaming now on Netflix, Marvel's Luke Cage Season 2 stars Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, Mustafa Shakir, Gabrielle Dennis, Rosario Dawson and Reg E. Cathey.