WARNING: The following contains spoilers from season 1 of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Read at your own risk!
And with a literal fall from grace, the Cottonmouth King’s reign (of terror) over Harlem has come to an end. In the final minutes of the seventh episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage, Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali) is toppled from his throne inside Harlem’s Paradise club by his own cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). In a fit of rage, Mariah knocks a bottle of wine over Cornell’s head and pushes him out of his office window.
That’s not all. She follows him downstairs and, as he tries to crawl away from the scene, attacks him with a microphone stand. Shades (Theo Rossi) sees the carnage, but the pair don’t finish the deed or clean up the scene until later. Luke Cage (Mike Colter), after all of Cottonmouth’s worrying, didn’t have to do a thing.
For Ali, knowing his character would die was one of the reasons he took on the role in the first place, as he’d never been into reading comic books as a child — “I was a sports kid,” he says — and hadn’t seen the other Marvel-on-Netflix series at the time. “When [Netflix] approached me about Luke Cage, they gave me the arc, and for the first time, I found myself excited by a character’s departure, because I felt like this was something I could give my all to for a period of time before saying ‘peace’ to him, you know?” he says. “I could let go and move on to the next thing. It was like shooting a film, as opposed to stepping into another marriage that you never know how long is going to work out. It gave me a certain freedom to try to do my best work and make peace with it once he…” Ali chuckles before finishing his sentence. “Experiences his demise.”
Don’t be fooled by that chuckle, though: Ali never found Cottonmouth’s grisly death amusing. Instead, the actor says he sympathized with the villain who wanted to be king — and just missed the mark. “Cottonmouth is not the person he wanted to be,” he says. “Cottonmouth is the result of having to react to his circumstances. He had to, in some ways, take control of the situation and own his circumstances. But as a result of that, he became a person he didn’t intend to become.”
Playing a Big Bad with a nasty temper, though, still took its toll. While the indestructible eponymous hero prefers anonymity and staying out of trouble (at least at first), Cottonmouth was all about grandiose speeches and ruthless violence, hiding the tortured person underneath. “I had so much space with that character. He has a sense of hypermasculinity but a deep sense of vulnerability, and that was exciting to me,” Ali says. “The things he does, the choices he makes, feel so different from the choices I would make, so when I would go home at night after having just beaten someone’s face in…” He laughs nervously. “That was just a little bit hard to shake off.”
Even so, Ali says he’s proud to have been a part of the series. “People are really paying attention to the comic-book genre, and there’s a lot of time and attention being invested in these projects with a wonderful sense of quality control,” he explains. “I was just up for stepping into that world and keeping it diverse.” Now that’s a motive Luke Cage and Cottonmouth would agree on.
Marvel’s Luke Cage is streaming now on Netflix.