Towards the end of Luke Cage Season 1, Harlem councilwoman and philanthropist Mariah Stokes Dillard (Alfre Woodard) murdered her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and took over his illegal operations as well as his popular nightclub Harlem’s Paradise. As Mariah continues on her criminal trajectory in Luke Cage Season 2, she crosses paths with her estranged daughter Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis). Tilda will play a key role this season, but she'll be significantly different than the Tilda Johnson in Marvel comics. If her TV persona falls in line with her comics history, however, she may become Luke Cage’s (Mike Colter) next nemesis.
Tilda Johnson made her first comic appearance in Captain America #164 in 1973. Her family history wasn’t explored, but she was established as a child genius living in poverty. Tilda wanted to escape her dire circumstances and decided to pursue a life of crime and academic excellence as a teenager. She taught herself doctorate-level knowledge about genetics, robotics, biochemistry, and physics and later used this knowledge to experiment on prisoners to transform them into slave werewolves.
She dubbed herself Deadly Nightshade (a.k.a. Nightshade) and became a regular on the street crime circuit, causing her to pop up on the radar of heroes like Captain America, Falcon, and, of course, Luke Cage. Nightshade's abilities include being skilled at hand-to-hand combat as well as taking advantage of other's ability to underestimate her because of how she looks. She also downplays her intelligence to gain an upper hand with her enemies.
The comics version of Nightshade did team up with Detective Misty Knight, who is portrayed in the TV series by Simone Missick, in the 2011 series Villains for Hire. Nightshade was a part of a team of villains who would help Misty out on some extremely dangerous (and potentially deadly) missions. Her willingness to work with Knight meant that the source material's Nightshade may not have been 100 percent bad after all.
Speaking over the phone ahead of the season's release, Dennis reveals that she wasn't familiar with her character's comics arc, but that after playing Tilda she wants to find a way to dive into her background. "I’ve seen synopses and things like that, but never read the comic books," she says. "Honestly after watching the season, I was like, ‘Ooh, I wonder how do you find these comic books?' I want to start from the beginning."
The actor also notes some major differences between her TV character and its comic counterpart, particularly her relationship with her mother (Nightshade was never written as Black Mariah's daughter in the books) and with another very important character on the series.
“There’s going to be elements that are similar [to the comics] or that people are going to recognize, but I think one of the biggest differences would obviously be her relationship to Mariah Dillard and her relationship to Harlem in its purity," says Dennis. Nightshade and Black Mariah are not daughter and mother in the books.
"When we find her, she’s almost an invisible character for a while, you know? And by that, I mean she’s not threatening," she continues. "I’m interested to see where they’re going to take Tilda’s character and see if and how close it can be to the comic.”
In the series trailer, Tilda interacts with Mariah, who says Harlem needs a queen instead of a hero. She also tells her that she can be a better mother to Tilda and let the past die. Tilda appears to be a calm and ethical woman, serving as a foil to her morally ambiguous mother — she doesn't trust her, and for good reason.
Their dueling philosophies on helping disenfranchised people will likely be the major focus of their relationship. Tilda's TV character is described by Marvel as a holistic doctor who uses natural medicine to heal others and is disturbed by her family's dark past. She quietly runs her shop Mother’s Touch and minds her business until Mariah slithers her way back into her life. Now, she will have to figure out the game and who she can trust in a world where trouble is always present. Will she follow her mother down a dark path in hopes of inheriting the crown? Or, will she join forces with Luke Cage to make Harlem a better place? Her story can go either way.
Tilda’s potential to flip between good and evil interests Dennis, who believes the gray personas in Luke Cage are a fascinating aspect of the show.
“I feel like what is so interesting, not only about Tilda’s character but even with Luke Cage, this character — they all struggle with that balance of good versus evil," she says. "She does that dance with good and evil this season as do many of our other characters in the show.”
Tilda’s comic character may have a different backstory and relationship with Harlem than the TV adaptation, but Luke Cage may still become her enemy. If the series returns for Season 3, Tilda may decide to debut her Nightshade alter ego and use her brilliance to continue to become a powerful force in Harlem.
Additional reporting by Sage Young.