Spoilers ahead for Luke Cage's Season 2 finale. And just like that, the Stokes' legacy lives on — for better or for worse. In a symbolic nod to Luke Cage Season 1, in which villain Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) was brutally murdered by his seemingly good-natured and mild-mannered cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who then took the last name she had been trying to reject all season long, it happened again in Season 2. But this time, it was Mariah's estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) who, after trying to reject the Stokes name and the violent history that comes with it, murdered her own mother in the Season 2 finale and took her place as the head of the Stokes family. The cycle of Stokes violence just keeps on churning and dispatching one Luke Cage villain after another, and no matter how hard the Stokes bloodline tries to resist, it seems fate keeps getting in the way.
With yet another Stokes villain killed off in a shocking fashion, Luke Cage is falling into a pattern. But unlike Cottonmouth's death in Season 1, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker did not have Mariah's death (she succumbs to the poison Tilda administered with a kiss while she was in jail and dies in Luke's arms) planned from the beginning of the Netflix series. That came about during the development of the second season, when he saw just how malicious she was becoming.
"No, I didn't know she was only going to be a two-season arc," he tells Bustle during a sit-down interview at Netflix. "It's personal for me because I love Alfre Woodard. I hope to write for Alfre Woodard for the rest of my career, honestly. But I also knew that for this season, if Mariah was going to do the things she was going to do, when you go down this road, I think this would be the natural evolution."
After watching Mariah order the mass murders of an entire family, including burning a man alive and waiting to put him out of his misery with a bullet to the brain, it was clear that Mariah had passed any point of possible future redemption. Even Woodard saw the writing on the wall and didn't try to sway the showrunner into prolonging Mariah's stint on Luke Cage past Season 2.
"Alfre was like, 'Yeah, you gotta do it,'" Coker reveals of killing off her character in the finale. "When you have actors that can look outside themselves and understand why a character would do this, as a showrunner that's all that you hope to have."
And to hear her tell it, filming Mariah's death scene didn't affect Woodard in any deep, emotional way because she let the character and scene take over. "You can't be in character and be conscious of what you're doing," she says of filming that day. "I was just Mariah, talking and moving. I'll probably have an opinion when I see it."
That's also why she's not sad about leaving the series after this season — she understands that Mariah's story came to a satisfying end. Plus, she had no interest in overstaying her welcome.
"Cheo told me at the top of the season — or even at the end of last season — but the thing is, I couldn't do any more," Woodard says. "There is nothing else I can do with Mariah without it starting to be redundant. Do I even want to do another season? I'd just be like … [laughs] chewing scenery! No, I was done. I did all my work."
So what does this mean for Mariah's daughter Tilda now that she's gotten a taste of Harlem's criminal underworld and decided she wants more? Dennis believes that Tilda's decision to murder Mariah is both her mother coming out in her and Tilda getting her revenge.
"Sometimes that's just in us," she tells Bustle. "When someone does something to you, you feel the need to get back at them, tit for tat. But I always reference the Kendrick Lamar song 'DNA.' [For] Tilda, the Stokes are in her DNA. She can't run from that."
The shock of discovering that she was a product of abuse — Mariah had been sexually abused by her Uncle Pete (Curtiss Cook) as a child and became pregnant with Tilda, which is why she was forced to give her up to another family — was the spark that ignited Tilda's embracing of the Stokes legacy.
"Especially once she discovers the truth and realizes where she comes from, it's almost like what came first, the chicken or the egg?" Dennis says. "You try to mimic and be a part of what you feel like your legacy is. Her mother tried to protect her from that lifestyle, she sent her away and Tilda tried to create a life of her own and be above all of it. But once you realize the power that comes with that name, power is addictive."
And now "Tilda is now obsessed with getting a piece of that power," according to Dennis. "Momma wasn't trying to share, she wasn’t giving any crumbs," she adds with a laugh. "The bloodline is now gone and I'm the last one standing. She's not trying to be Mariah, she's now trying to be the better version of what Mariah was trying to do and create a new legacy."
But Woodard has a much simpler view of Tilda's murderous turn. "I think Tilda's just a pissed off teenager," she says with a big laugh. "She's just pissed and I don't think there's a higher calling for what she did the same way that we get pissed at our mothers about anything. I think she's going to cry about it in Season 3." Whether she cries about it or truly takes on the Stokes name as the new crime boss in Harlem (who's now at odds with Luke Cage, of course) remains to be seen. Here's hoping Netflix renews Luke Cage for a third season, or that question will never be answered.
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