WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage Season 2, streaming now on Netflix
The death of Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes marked a major turning point in the first season of Luke Cage, as not only did it occur midway through the arc, it opened the door for Diamondback to emerge late in the game as a primary antagonist. Both aspects proved divisive with viewers, both because they liked Cornell actor Mahershala Ali, and, by and large, hated Diamondback. With the second season, the producers make a similarly bold move, only they wait until the finale to do so.
Played by Alfre Woodard, Mariah Dillard begins the season poised to walk away from the Stokes criminal empire, turning her back on the family name and legacy, and live a respectable life -- albeit, one built using millions of dollars earned as a result of illegal gun sales and insider trading. But as she promotes her Family First initiative and toasts her new, laundered wealth, she can't bring herself to give up Harlem's Paradise, long the symbol of her family's power, and the nexus of the neighborhood's criminal activities. ("Everything flows through here," Luke observes). Much like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, just when Mariah thinks she's out, something draws her back in.
Her inability to let go of Harlem's Paradise, and its legacy, proves to be her undoing, as her battle against Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) for what turns out to be a shared birthright drives her to more desperate, and bloodthirsty acts, making enemies of her lover Shades (Theo Rossi) and her estranged daughter Tilda Johnson (Gabrille Dennis). Shades turns informant, resulting in Mariah's arrest on 12 counts of murder, and then Tilda poisons her in Rikers Island. In between, viewers are presented with a gripping character arc that serves as a dynamic showcase for Oscar nominee, and four-time Emmy winner, Woodard.
"Alfre and I are really tight," showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told CBR, "and the more than Mariah did, she’s like, ‘Come on, Cheo, I’m gone this season, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ So she’s like, ‘Look, OK, you gonna take me out? I’ve been doing this for a long time, I just don’t wanna go out like no punk.’ I’m not paraphrasing; that’s Alfre."