SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Luke Cage Season 2. Proceed at your own risk.
The MCU has been doing pretty well with its villains lately. Black Panther’s Killmonger was a heartbreakingly tragic figure, worlds away from the two-dimensional likes of Ultron. Infinity War, meanwhile, brought the complex Thanos front and centre, whose plot to wipe out half the universe drew sympathisers. And then of the big bads in the Defenders’ series, there’s Jessica Jones villain Kilgrave, who’s a detestable, evil so-and-so; and Daredevil’s troubled Wilson Fisk. But it’s Mariah Dillard’s arc through two seasons of Luke Cage that have us convinced she’s Marvel’s greatest ever screen villain.
Like Killmonger, Mariah is a tragic figure. Having been raped repeatedly by her uncle, Pistol Pete, as a child, she grew up under the brutal regime of her matriarchal crime-boss grandmother, Mama Mabel. Under her care, Mariah watched Mabel indoctrinate cousin Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes into the gangster life. Mariah vowed not to follow in her footsteps, and went into local politics, but the saying the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree was perhaps never more apt than in Mariah’s case. And in case you missed it, her desire to succeed in politics was actually always about her pursuit of power – an early sign that she’s cut from the same cloth as Mama Mabel. She even says in Season 1: “Politics is where the power is, Cornell. Forget about all this other noise”.
Mariah’s past comes back to haunt her when she kills her cousin in Season 1 of Luke Cage. The ‘king’ of Harlem, Cottonmouth controlled the criminal underworld. But when he suggested to Mariah that she enjoyed being raped by her uncle, Mariah snapped, killing him in a fit of rage.
This is the turning point for Mariah and sets her on a journey to fulfilling her destiny, mirroring that of her grandmother. It’s the point where she first officially crosses over into the criminal underworld, assuming the crown previously worn by Cottonmouth. She takes over Cornell’s nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, the metaphorical throne for the ruler of Harlem, and symbolically replaces Cottonmouth’s portrait of Biggie Smalls hanging in the ‘control’ room for the famous Basquiat “Red Kings” painting. She is still adamant on separating herself from the Stokes family, and the Biggie portrait was representative of the Stokes, while for her the Basquiat represents herself, a Dillard. Sadly, she’s doomed to repeat history, despite her hatred of her origins and efforts to distance herself, and that’s heartrending.
She Transforms Gradually
Mariah’s brutal murder of Cottonmouth is one of a handful of pivotal moments that gradually lead to the making of a monster; the monster Mariah fully transforms into by the end of Season 2.
In Season 1, we saw Mariah’s career as a councilwoman begin to fall apart, which contributed to the moment she snaps and murders Cottonmouth. After this, she has no choice but to align herself with Shades, who witnesses the murder and helps her to clean up the crime scene and cover up the mess. Having passed the point of no return, she becomes deeper integrated into the murky world of organised crime when she starts working with Diamondback – Season 1’s main villain whose vitriol is fuelled by a deep-rooted resentment stemming from childhood towards half-brother Luke Cage.
As Mariah does everything possible to avoid jail for her actions, she orders the murder of Candace Miller, the nightclub worker who was witness to the murder. At this point, Mariah embraces her inescapable fate as Harlem’s crime lord, taking over Cottonmouth’s empire.
In Season 2, we learn more about Mariah’s background and as she’s put in increasingly challenging situations, we see her mired deeper and deeper in the criminal underworld. She goes from selling weapons, to losing all her money and taking increasingly desperate steps to save herself.
In a plot that has echoes of Luke Cage and Diamondback’s story in Season 1, Mariah comes up against villain Bushmaster, a Jamaican gangster bent on revenge against Mariah, for the sins of her family against his. When he succeeds in taking her empire – and her power away – she decides to fight fire with fire and savagely slays almost all of Bushmaster’s loved ones. Entirely lacking in empathy, she stands by her actions. Even when Shades is trying to make her see how wrong she is, and how what she’s done has led to her downfall.
Mariah’s time in prison later in the season hardens her further, and demonstrates her knack for wielding power.
She’s Got Depth
The source of which is a fully fleshed-out backstory. That’s the beauty of a long-running series – it allows time and space for a character to develop in ways that they can’t always in a one-off two-hour movie. It allows a backstory to be built and properly explored, and it allows for all the complexities and idiosyncrasies of a character to be delved into. Of course, plenty of series don’t take advantage of that, which is why, in part, Mariah stands out.
One of the most interesting things about Mariah Dillard is her ability to manipulate. And not only the people around her, but the audience too. On numerous occasions, we feel for her. Her crocodile tears work on us, and every time we fall for it. She’s not so bad, we think. Circumstances have made her like this; there’s some good inside; she’s misunderstood; she’s coming around – but every time she reveals she’s the unfeeling, selfish “monster” her daughter describes her as.
It helps, of course, that Alfre Woodard is as accomplished an actor as she is. She acts her socks off and brings an unprecedented depth to Mariah.
The Broken Relationship with Her Daughter
From the start of Season 2, there are clues that point towards Mariah’s total selfishness. One of which is her treatment of her daughter, Tilda. She uses Tilda as a pawn to further her own ‘Family First’ initiative. Trading on the idea that she’s all about family, the lies she’s peddling couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we find out that Tilda is a product of Mariah’s rape at the hands of Uncle Pete, it’s heartrending. But when Mariah callously tells Tilda the truth, and informs her that she never loved her, we see the extent of her selfishness and ability to inflict serious damage. She doesn’t consider her daughter’s feelings here, she’s only focused on herself. She is unable to feel empathy, or love for anyone – even her own daughter. At the same time, we understand to a degree Mariah’s difficulty in accepting Tilda.
However, Mariah’s words and lack of emotion are all the more crushing since mothers are rarely portrayed in this way. We’re used to seeing screen mothers – women full stop, even — unable to escape their motherly instinct. Here, Mariah twists the knife. “You’re a monster,” says Tilda.
Later, she will tell Tilda: “Nobody will ever hurt you because you’ll never be hurt worse. You’re prepared. Nobody will ever betray you because you’ll never let them close enough. You’re welcome”. And then she’ll say: “I no longer see Pete’s face when I look at you, I see mine.” Oof. Is this a hint that events will repeat themselves again? A case of the sins of the mother being visited on the daughter?
She Out-Villains Other Bad Guys
In Season 1, Shades was an odious scumbag. In Season 2, the sunglasses-wearing gun even kills his best friend. So it’s really something when he calls Mariah, who he’s romantically involved with, “cold”. It’s then that we start to suspect she’s not finding redemption in this story.
Such is Mariah’s level of villainy that Shades is compelled to reassess his life choices. And sees fit to counsel Mariah on keeping things on the good side of bad. A vicious killer, and one who, it seemed, might have done whatever it took to rise to power himself, his turnaround in Season 2 is sparked by the pure evil he witnesses in Mariah. He eventually tells all to the police.
She also turns the series’ initial villain, Bushmaster – a man intent on gaining control of Harlem and destroying both Mariah Dillard and Luke Cage – into a sympathetic character following the revelations of their intertwining backstories coupled with her inhuman assassination of his loved ones. Just as Tilda describes Mariah as a monster, and Shades refers to her as “cold” Bushmaster also calls her “the devil made flesh”. He’s not wrong.
Luke Cage Season 2 is available to watch now on Netflix.