Depending on which character you asked the titular question, you’d likely get a different answer, as each would have their own ideas on the subject. For Pop and Luke, the weight is the responsibility of protecting the innocent, the powerless, and the community at large. For Mariah, she’s weighed down by the legacy of Harlem and all the people who helped shape it and black history at large. For Misty, it’s the burden of maintaining law and order and finding justice. Scarfe (Frank Whaley) and Spurlock (Sedly Bloomfield) just want a little extra money and respect, though they’re also likely weighed down by their fear of denying Cottonmouth. And much like Domingo (Jacob Vargas), Cottonmouth feels the weight of the crown. For Cornell Stokes, however, being king doesn’t just represent power; it also means responsibility.
It’s a theme that’s come up a lot in this series and it’s of course one that resonates through a lot of the various Marvel Universes. When it comes to both Stokes and Dillard, however, their intentions haven’t always been as clear as the ones held by Luke and Pop. I’d wager that we’ll see some sort of flashback detailing the early lives of our two villains and what their family was like in an upcoming episode, but tonight’s park bench conversation gives us a little insight. Since we first met her, Dillard has been more than upfront about her plan to make Harlem black again through her New Harlem Renaissance project. This week, she drops some more historical names that will adorn her buildings. On top of the ones we’ve heard, Shirley Chisholm and Crispus Attucks, she added Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Madam C.J. Walker to the list (Luke even drops some knowledge about Attucks to the kid who put a gun to his head). These help round out the picture that Mariah is painting of herself and her initiative as they’re all historic black social and political figures. Attucks was the lone black man to die in the Haymarket Riot that ignited the American Revolution, the first casualty of our war for independence, while Chisholm, Powell, and Walker were all pioneering politicians and social activists; together, they’re some of the most important figures in both the history of black America and of Harlem. For Dillard, they represent her heavy burden and lifelong desire to do whatever it takes to make all of Harlem a paradise for its black citizens and to reclaim its glorious history, all the while adding her name to its list of legends. Stokes hasn’t seemed to share her worldview, but their conversation about their shared past and mission to “keep Harlem black” gives us our first hint that, though he may have faltered, Cornell’s path may have begun righteously. Like Fisk, Mariah and Cornell view their criminal actions as justified in an effort to maintain order in their community. Unlike Fisk, they’re doing so while carrying the weight and history of an entire people on their shoulders. In their world, might most assuredly makes right, but that philosophy leaves a lot of collateral damage.
The episode, of course, ends with a number of lives potentially lost, but we’ll get into that more for the next episode. For now, the most pressing casualty of war is Pop. Cottonmouth may fancy himself the king, and many of his would-be subjects likely agree, but Pop could also have held that title. There’s a small but telling reference in the image above from the memorial for Pop. The Once And Future King continues the literary trend of Luke Cage by giving us some insight into the dynamics of the show and the characters that inhabit this world. Written during World War II, T.H. White‘s story is ostensibly about King Arthur, but it’s more to do with the struggle between his ideas of chivalry and the might makes right philosophy held by those in power. It’s an apt discussion, just as relevant today as it was then, and details the struggle of how to maintain moral and social order without having to use violence and power. If this debate and the accompanying book are setting off nerd alarms in your head, that’s because they both held a prominent place in X-2: X-Men United, where Xavier spends much time discussing the tome and he and Magneto endlessly live out the struggle within. Much like Xavier, Luke, Pop, Misty, and Fish all believe in the power of justice and the community. They feel that the world has certain moral truths that we all have to live by. They also know that sometimes you have to fight to keep that justice and that order alive. On the flipside, Cottonmouth and Mariah share a lot in common with Magneto. They’ve all been wronged by society because of who they are, and they’ve watched their people suffer. For them, justice and order can only be maintained through sheer force and will. The irony of this idea has always been that those that have oppressed them used this same mindset to do so, but that tension is what makes them such compelling villains.
Misty and Scarfe have their own philosophical debate while trying to figure out who’s been hitting all of Cottonmouth’s hideouts. We’ve had a lot of loose discussion in Daredevil about vigilantism, but they straight up get into it here, with Scarfe, who would typically be the no-nonsense old school cop, surprisingly siding with the idea that Luke is handling business much quicker than they could without them having to risk their lives. Misty, who may well be a vigilante someday soon herself, doesn’t agree and thinks that there are much firmer rules than the one’s Luke and his friends live by. It’s a fascinating parallel that’s unfortunately nullified once we find out that Scarfe is working for Cottonmouth. I mean, his opinion is still valid, but the weight is removed when we realize he’s not beholden to the same code as Misty; her side holds up pretty powerfully, though. While it’s hardly Luke’s fault that Cornell decides to decimate an entire apartment building as payback, he did underestimate his opponent and brought down all that heat on the civilians he operates with. It’s this very reason that so many superheroes obsess over secret identities. The villains may occasionally have a code, but they’re also much more willing to bend the rules to achieve their goals than the heroes are. For the innocent, that means a lot of lives lost in the fallout of the battles between these titans. Heroes live and die (and are often reborn) by their code, but it leaves them blind to the might their opponents wield and believe to be righteous.
4.5 Sweet Sisters out of 5. A lot of powerful character moments, bits of history, and the most action we’ve seen yet.
Tonight’s musical guest was Charles Bradley.
Fish brings up Pop’s idea that the barbershop is a safe space. This is common in a lot of communities like Harlem that exist in this sort of philosophical warzone.
Megan McLaren (the credits throw an extra ‘c’ in her last name for some reason) is a prominent reporter from the comics, which is why her intro probably made your ears ring. She’s covered a number of things but is known for reporting on events involving the Thunderbolts, who Luke led for a stretch.
Don’t call Cornell “Cottonmouth” and don’t call Dillard “Black Mariah.” In the comics, that’s her sobriquet and she’s a gang leader instead of a politician. It would’ve been a nice change of pace to have the gang leader in a series like this be a woman and let Cornell’s character be the politician, but oh well.
Has anyone else noticed that Alfre Woodard always seems to be looking slightly away from whoever she’s talking to? I really liked her performance in the pilot and in Civil War but since then she’s exuded some weird, nervous energy. She drops in and out of being intimidating and I can’t tell if it’s a choice or just a product of the material. The writers have put her in an awkward position the past few episodes, to be fair, where she mostly seems to be reacting and complaining. Hopefully, she’ll take a more dominant stance soon.
Speaking of physical acting choices, I’ve noticed Mahershala Ali’s little tongue flick since episode 1, but I just realized it might be a choice related to his snake-like namesake. I approve, especially as it’s much more subtle than what David Tennant did in Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire.
Anyone else confused by the timeline of the past two episodes? At the beginning/end of the last episode, was Luke just scouting out the Crispus Attucks building, or did all of that take place before he hit it at the beginning/end of this episode? Let me know in the comments if you have any theories, and make sure to add a spoiler warning if you discuss anything past this episode. You can read my previous two reviews here and here.