The Unexpected Joy of “Luke Cage” Power Couple #ShadyMariah

Marvel/Netflix (from Theo Rossi's Instagram account)
Marvel/Netflix (from Theo Rossi’s Instagram account)

Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. On paper, these two people shouldn’t even be in the same stratosphere of influence. But in reality, these two go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Perhaps you’ve seen the internet become besides themselves with this new power couple, otherwise known as #ShadyMariah. Heck, even Shades himself, Theo Rossi, is onboard.

I asked some of my followers and #ShadyMariah fans what they thought about the pairing. The reaction was a little more subdued because as we’ve come to know Shades, we’ve come to see just how his self-serving mind works. It could be possible that we don’t know Shades the way we think we do.

Related: “Grown Folks Marvel”: Marvel’s “Luke Cage” Excels on Many Levels

Speaking honestly, we really don’t know what the endgame for these two will be. Will one turn on the other? Will it be Uncle Pete in the backyard all over again? There’s a reason they showed that particular scene. Not just because it showed how intense Mama Mabel could be. It also showed how Mama Mabel was frustrated with the fact that she’d opened her heart to a man who ended up betraying her (despite his assertion that he was trying to grow “the family business”). Mariah doesn’t want to end up like Mabel, and we don’t yet know she will. But we do know is this:

1.  Mariah has opened her heart to Shades, and Shades was happy to work for it. 

It took a lot for Mariah to trust Shades, and she can’t be blamed for that. She’s trying to keep her reputation afloat as well as grow her power and influence. Not to mention she just killed her beloved cousin in a pique of anger. (Killing’s wrong, but she had justified anger, since Cottonmouth blamed Mariah for being molested by Uncle Pete).

At first, she can’t tell if she can trust Shades, but she’s wise enough to know she needs him to get through covering up Cornell’s death. Next, she needed him through what she thought would be a turnover of power. Then, she needed Shades to traverse the madness that is Diamondback. But when Diamondback lies to her about Shades’ death, she realizes that she had come to trust him despite herself. Feeling lost without Shades made her realize that perhaps she had opened herself up to him more than she thought.

Shades managed to worm his way into her heart by being forthright and honest, which is, frankly, the strangest thing to say about a villain. But even still, Shades has been with her every step of the way, and even before Mariah caught a body. Remember when Shades told Mariah, in both blunt and urgent tones, that he wanted her to win and regain the majesty of the Stokes name?

Shades has always been on Mariah’s side, and it could be that he went to Cottonmouth originally because he was hoping the Stokes brand could be revived. When he first saw Mariah, he was looking with thirst (as Mariah herself says), but some of that thirst isn’t white-hot lust; Shades also had the thirst for power at the forefront, and he saw Mariah’s stature and poise as power that could revive a lost name.

2. Shades gave back the champagne bottle, meaning he now has no chips to play when it comes to her. 

“We’re in this together now,” he said after giving her back her murder weapon, which was basically him saying, “I’m opening my heart to you. I’m for real.” If he was really about himself alone, he wouldn’t have given Mariah the bottle because, as Mariah said, he could have used it to blackmail her. Why give her the bottle if he has some ulterior motives? Shades is a smart dude, and he should know that giving her that bottle—giving her the power, power she could use over him—would be a less-than-smart thing to do if he had some other bad plan up his sleeve. He’s actually being serious with Mariah; he wants them to be equals.

3. Shades has always been straight-up and, in his own disturbing way, comforting to Mariah

Shades has always had Mariah’s back. He’s always wanted her to succeed. His speeches to Mariah about regaining the Stokes name and how to cover up Cornell’s death are two such examples.

But he’s always gracious to her in other ways, too. As shown in a gif-set on Tumblr, Shades subtly notices Mariah on the roof when he, Tone, and Cottonmouth are discussing what went down at Pop’s.

http://michaelxtrevino.tumblr.com/post/151526709353/luke-cage-s01e02-code-of-the-streets

He’s also the one who looks back to Mariah after Cottonmouth throws Tone off the roof; without saying anything, he’s trying to see how she’s holding up after that shock. However, at this point in time, he can’t say anything; he’s still under both Diamondback and Cottonmouth, and because of Cottonmouth’s influence shielding Mariah from him, Shades hasn’t gained enough permission, for lack of a better word, to openly see about her. What would Cottonmouth do if Shades was the one to ask if Mariah was okay and not him? He’d probably be over the side of the building with Tone.

Shades is also always a gentleman around Mariah, which again, is something odd to say about a literal murdering villain. Shades always holds the door open for Mariah, always does her the courtesy speaking to her with his shades off (making it seem like Mariah is speaking to Hernan, as if Shades is his alter-ego), walks behind her as she goes into action, and is constantly hovering close to her or holding her shoulders in a comforting way. He also doesn’t want her to get her hands dirty (which might mean that he didn’t expect her to kill Cottonmouth, which begs the question of if #ShadyMariah would have even happened if Shades was able to follow through with his plan).

There’s a lot of subtlety about Shades that makes him one of the most intriguing villain characters I’ve seen from Marvel, certainly. But he’s also one of the most intriguing villains I’ve seen on TV period.

Marvel/Netflix (screencap)
Marvel/Netflix (screencap)

Mariah herself is pretty intriguing as a villain. She’s sympathetic and she also represents someone that people might actually vote for in real life. To an engaged voter, she’s laser focused on keeping Harlem out of gentrifying hands, uplifts the city’s black history, and (seems to) care about the people of the city. She’s also gotten stuff done, too; it’s not like she’s just using her platform as a complete ruse. The fact that she actually wants to make Harlem better—whether or not its an altruistic goal, because she does participate in cynical “there are black people and then there are N-words” ideology from time to time—is what makes her the true heir to the legacy of Mama Mabel, who seemed like the woman everyone in Harlem ran to when they had any type of problem. Mariah’s power and her intelligence are what Shades is attracted to.

I’ll end this post on a small discussion of the Basquiat painting Mariah had hung in Cottonmouth’s former office. We saw in the beginning that Cottonmouth considered him the king in a hip-hop way; he wanted to run things like how Biggie rapped, hence the Biggie photo. Like some of gangster rap (maybe particularly Biggie’s brand of east coast rap), Cottonmouth is blunt, to the point, unpredictable, and hardcore. However, bluntness isn’t what’s going to keep Harlem under the Stokes iron grip.

Mariah, however, represents everything she and Shades could be together all in one picture. I’ll quote Reddit user Emerson73:

The painting however is a piece called “Red Kings” painted in 1981 by Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was a black artist that died to young and spent a good amount of his short time in association with Andy Warhol. This piece is understood as his personal proclamation or claim to the throne. The ‘king’ on the left being him as he placed the main letters of his name in the open parts of the face and the ‘king’ the right being [Picasso]. He saw himself as stepping up to be on [Picasso]’s level of greatness and a king in the art world. I think many people would agree that even in his short time he did step up to a very high level in the art world and maybe would have gone further if he hadn’t died younger.

I think this painting works great as a replacement of the Biggie photo. In the quick subtlety of it being hung up in the background the audience is left without question that we are supposed to perceive the ending of Maria and Shades’ arcs as stepping up to supplant Cottonmouth and Diamondback as royalty of the illegal trades in Harlem and surrounding areas. It is also another place of fitting in an important part of black history and cultural relevance into the show and even pushing Maria’s original sentiment of ‘keep Harlem black’ by supporting the continuation of black culture as important.

Maybe there could be several more things read into these topics and i’m sure their story doesn’t end here. Maybe one or both will die sooner than they planned just as Basquiat did. But the main thing for me is that an addition to the show like that makes me even more sure that this material is in the right hands at Marvel.

Related: ‘Luke Cage’ Baddies Shades and Mariah Are the Best MCU Villains | Inverse

In short, everything about #ShadyMariah is coming together nicely and maybe, just maybe, there won’t be an “Uncle Pete in the backyard” situation again. Since Shades seems like he’s completely into Mariah, we just might have our first Queen and Consort of Marvel Villainy. In that respect, Mariah doesn’t have to worry about ever becoming Mama Mabel.

The cherry on the evil sundae? #ShadyMariah actually has a theme written into Luke Cage! If you’ve got the soundtrack, it’s “Bad Love,” which plays right after Shades talks her through framing Luke for Cottonmouth’s murder in Episode 7 (listen immediately after Shades fixes Mariah’s hair for her).

What do you think about #ShadyMariah? Give your opinions in the comments section below!