Sunday, October 2, 2016

Rise Of The Luke Cage Villains: "Manifest" Plods Along Until A Wonderful Last Act!

The Good: Some of the performances, Last act
The Bad: Pacing, Mike Colter seems bored, Generally basic plot, Does not adequately explore Dillard's backstory
The Basics: "Manifest" gives the two main Luke Cage villains a thin backstory before dramatically altering the direction of the season.

The key to every hero story is giving the hero an adversary or adversaries worth combating. Luke Cage suffered in its first season because the enemies of the seemingly invincible protagonist were hardly a match for him. In fact, almost immediately, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes was illustrated to be comparatively weak and essentially a middleman for the invisible power in Harlem, Diamondback. The seventh episode of the season, "Manifest," attempts to flesh out the backstory of Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard while advancing the menace they pose to Harlem and Luke Cage.

Picking up where "Suckas Need Bodyguards" (reviewed here!) left off, it is impossible to discuss "Manifest" without referencing where the prior episode left off. After all, there are huge ramifications to Scarfe's death, Stokes's arrest, and the television interview Dillard did that went south. "Manifest" starts to put the pieces together for Luke Cage and raises the menace of Stoke, Dillard, and Shades Alvarez.

Opening with Zip trying to unload guns for Stokes, Luke Cage approaches and attempts to intimidate him, but learns from the thug that the gangster is getting out of prison. Zip is right and Stokes is released, much to the ire of Knight and Cage. Stokes returns to his club, where Shades is waiting for him. Having re-established his street credibility, Stokes is annoyed that Shades will not vouch for him with Diamondback. At Pop's, Cage is frustrated, but Claire Temple tries to motivate him to do what the police cannot. Stokes calls for a parlay with Cage while Misty Knight reacts to her boss getting replaced for failing to make an effective case against Stokes. While Knight's career is threatened by the new Inspector, Cage visits Stokes. Stokes reveals that he knows Luke Cage's true past and extorts Cage to work for him.

In a series of flashbacks, Stokes and Dillard's backstory is revealed. Under the reign of Mama Mabel, the gangster effectively running Harlem while Stokes is living with her, Stokes and Dillard learn how to run a criminal empire. Stokes was a musical prodigy who was quiet and sensitive, who witnesses one of his friends - who started selling drugs in Harlem, against Ma Mabel's wishes - killed by Uncle Pete. When Cottonmouth sees one of Mama Mabel's hookers hurt, to get himself out of trouble, he accidentally outs Uncle Pete for spending time in Spanish Harlem uses Stokes to kill Uncle Pete, setting him on the course to taking over the business after Mama Mabel dies.

"Manifest" is interesting because it transitions the villains in Luke Cage. Alvarez has consistently been an operator working in the shadows of Harlem for the mysterious Diamondback. In "Manifest," he sees the potential in Dillard, much the way that Claire Temple sees the potential in Luke Cage. Placing the two scenes back to back where others influence the protagonist and antagonist is a clever foreshadowing for the revelation of how the menace of the season will truly progress.

Mariah Dillard is a person who is used to being in authority and control. By "Manifest," most of Dillard's power is stripped away and she is being asked by her party to resign from the city council. Dillard losing her power puts a crack in her veneer and she starts slipping over the course of the episode into pure anger. Alfre Woodard finally makes Dillard into a force to be reckoned with. Dillard is given a wounded, horrible, backstory over just a few lines in "Manifest" and when Dillard cracks, Woodard brings her a-game to portraying Dillard's fracture. One of the problems with "Manifest" is that Dillard's traumatic backstory does not have nearly the realistic impact of someone who has been so victimized. Beyond that, Dillard and Stokes are given an incredibly basic backstory that never quite rises to the height or complexity of Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, Frank Castle, or Elektra.

Luke Cage's heroic ascent continues as he puts the squeeze on Domingo for the weapons the gangster got back from Stokes. By "Manifest," Mike Colter looks bored with the fights and scenes where Luke Cage is being shot at. While it makes sense that Cage would be bored by always being shot at, Colter seems bored in "Manifest." Colter's dry performance plays off Simone Missick's more emotional, engaged portrayal of Misty Knight.

What saves "Manifest" from being a wash that is firmly average is the climax of the episode. Dillard's snap and Cage's newfound resolve are well-executed to be a gripping end to an otherwise basic episode.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Luke Cage - The Complete First Season, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!

For other works with Curtiss Cook, please visit my reviews of:
House Of Cards - Season 4
House Of Cards - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 2
House Of Cards - Season 1
Shutter Island


For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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