In many ways, the first season of Marvel’s Luke Cage was about the rift between cousins Cottonmouth Stokes and Mariah Dillard. Now, in Season 2 of the Netflix series, Mariah stands in that spotlight alone and, in doing so, has become the show’s most exciting character.
Played masterfully by Alfre Woodard, Mariah is walking the line between good and evil–Dillard and Stokes–throughout Season 2. In many ways, she’s a hero to Harlem just like the titular Luke Cage. They both believe they are fighting to save their neighborhood. Of course, their methods are very different. While Luke is constantly trying to live within a moral code, Mariah doesn’t mind playing dirty to achieve her goals. For Woodard, getting to further explore this side of Mariah is what excites her so much about Season 2.
“One of the fun things about being an actor is you get to behave in a lot of different ways,” she says during a group interview. “And, especially as a woman, especially as a southern woman, from the time you’re three years old, everybody says to you, ‘Be nice. Be nice.’ They never say that to the guys, they can be whatever they want to… I think women actors like to be, you know, not compliant. They like to do what they feel like doing. Sometimes [it’s] not legal, sometimes it is. But I really liked finding a woman that answered to her conscience the way a man has always had liberty to do.”
And that’s certainly how she answers it. Without giving anything away, Season 2 is as violent and brutal as the first year of Luke Cage, and some of that blood falls right at the feet of Dillard.
“Alfre, in some ways, when you get deeper into the season, will prove to be the biggest bad,” creator Cheo Hodari Coker explains during a group interview. “You can’t really say that Bushmaster or Mariah Dillard is a bigger bad because they both do some pretty heinous things.”
In Mariah’s own mind, though, what she’s doing doesn’t make her the villain of the story. “She’s a hero,” Woodard says. “She doesn’t have superpowers, but she has super tenacity. And she is a hero.”
Adds Coker, “What I will say is that all of our villains have dimension. The one thing that [head of Marvel Television] Jeph Loeb always says is that the villain’s story should be a hero’s story from the villain’s perspective.” Together, he and Woodard have crafted that journey for Mariah in Season 2, even getting to a point where she may outshine Luke Cage himself.
“Alfre’s portrayal of Mariah Dillard is as a woman that’s conflicted on a moral level, but not paralyzed,” Coker teases. “She evolves, she reacts to things. There are very good reasons why she feels the way that she feels.”
That doesn’t mean she won’t pay the price for her actions, though. “When she makes a decision, when she turns a corner, that corner’s turned,” he explains. “She turns corners here, in the season, that are gonna be very hard for her to turn back from.”
What it will all come down to is how the character sees her true identity–which is one of the core stories of Season 2. “The thing is, in terms of Mariah, is that she can be strong for Harlem, but still be at war with herself as to, is she a Dillard or is she a Stokes?” Coker says. “It’s that split and her trying to figure that out that becomes the crux of the season. When she finally embraces one or the other.”
While he won’t reveal what side of the line she’ll fall on, Coker warns, “When you see her make her decision as to whether or not she’s a Stokes or a Dillard, it sticks. It’s a culminating moment; honestly, one of my favorite in all 26 episodes that we’ve filmed thus far.”
You’ll be able to see for yourself exactly what Coker is talking about when Season 2 of Luke Cage premieres June 29 on Netflix.