Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Luke Cage season 2 finale, “They Reminisce Over You.”
At this point in the Defenders universe, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single season of a Marvel-Netflix superhero show should be much, much shorter. Jessica Jones season 2 didn’t need to be 13 episodes long. Iron Fist season 1 barely needed to be a show. And, Luke Cage season 2 did not need to run for 13 hours.
By dragging what should be a fun, zippy, and still thought-provoking comic book adventure over about 800 minutes, the latest addition to the Luke Cage world naturally loses a lot of steam by finale “They Reminisce Over You.” Yes, even though the episode features a major death (R.I.P. Mariah Dillard) and an equally influential transfer of power (Hello Luke Cage, “boss of crime”). While those two colossal developments lack some of narrative wallop they would have with a much smaller 2018 season, they still prove the future of Luke Cage and Luke Cage will never be the same. Everyone should prepare for things to get dark in Harlem.
The climax of “Reminisce Over You,” arrives when Luke (Mike Colter) goes to see Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, who steals the show and never return it) in jail. The hero only visits Mariah, who spends season 2 executing restaurants full of people and waging a general reign of terror, to ask her not to ruin his hard work. After all, Luke spends much of the finale intimidating New York's various crime families into keeping their dirty businesses out of Harlem, a practice that ended when Mariah was arrested. During Luke and Mariah's behind-bars parlay, she begins spitting up blood before it starts literally pouring out of her mouth. Soon enough, Mariah falls off her chair, slumps to the ground, and dies.
In a matter of seconds, Luke Cage’s greatest villain is gone, murdered by her own daughter, Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis). Although Tilda has now committed a mortal sin of her own, she only killed Mariah, using a poison called “beso de la araña” (kiss of the spider), to put an end to her mother’s relentless, escalating murder spree.
Yet, Mariah’s darkness doesn’t end with her death. As we find out towards the end of the episode, the late woman bequeathed the Paradise nightclub, the seat of her Harlem family’s crime empire, to Luke, of all people. The parting gift is not, however, some last-ditch attempt at goodness. Instead, Mariah tells her lawyer Ben Donovan (Danny Johnson) during a mini flashback, she predicts giving someone as heroic as Luke something as seductive and powerful as the Paradise will ruin him as the sirens of mythology ruined ancient sailors.
“He’ll be lulled by its song, lulled by so-called greatness,” Mariah tells Ben. “The preacher’s son will think he can use the roost to change things. To control it. But in the end, it will change him.”
That is why, in Mariah’s very eerie last words on Earth, she tells her superhero enemy, “We ain’t done yet, Luke.”
As we leave Luke Cage season 2, Mariah’s last words, and last scheme, begin to take shape. Luke puts away his iconic black hoodie and puts on a finely tailored suit as he settles into his perch atop the Paradise. His police ally and on-again, off-again love interest Misty Knight (Simone Missick) warns Luke how dangerous this choice is. He shrugs her off, promising to value her as a check on his quickly growing power.
But a few big moments in this final scene suggest Misty and Luke could be heading for a far less friendly relationship, whether that’s in Luke Cage season 3, which Netflix has yet to order, or some other branch of the Defenders universe. The first time we see Luke in the main Paradise office, which features a painting of Biggie Smalls wearing a crown, the camera settles on our hero in such a way that Biggie’s crown falls directly on Luke. Power Man can say he’s not the king of Harlem all he wants — and even replace Biggie's regal image with a man of the people portrait of Mohammad Ali — but he can’t escape the truth. Next, during his actual conversation with Misty, he uses the kind of a defence that very easily leads one down the slippery slope of criminal behaviour: “When has the law ever really protected us?”
The biggest harbinger of morally-ambiguous-at-best difficulties to come pops up when Sugar (Sean Ringgold), a former Stokes crime family enforcer, enters the room to inform his new boss of some less-than-savoury details. Sugar looks at Misty, a cop who has to live by the actual, legal rules, pointedly until she scoffs and leaves. A security guard then literally closes the door on Misty’s face, and her ever-present lawful conscious, as she watches Sugar whisper in Luke’s ear. This is the new man the Hero Of Harlem has become, and he has to hide it from police. He's also now one Luke Cage creator-executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker has repeatedly compared to The Godfather's Michael Corleone, who refused the pull of the gangster dark side before becoming the embodiment of the mass-murdering gangster dark side.
With Misty out of the picture, Luke also tells Sugar to send his love interest Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the moral compass of the entire Defenders world, home. Those are the final words Luke says in all of season 2.
If this is how Luke behaves after sitting in the Paradise for roughly five minutes, imagine what's next.