Warning: MAJOR spoilers ahead for Episode 7 of Marvel's Luke Cage, read ahead at your own risk
Wow. That's all that we really have to say at this point. Seven episodes in, and Luke Cage has very firmly continued the Marvel Cinematic Universe's tradition of hard-hitting, compelling storytelling on Netflix, and the events that transpired in "Manifest" really hammered that idea home. In keeping with the consistent chess motif that has popped up time and time again on the Harlem-set series, the pieces have shifted in this episode, and the death of Cottonmouth Stokes has shown that it's actually the Queen who wears the crown, and not the King.
Plenty of game changing moments occur during the events of "Manifest," from the flashback to Cottonmouth's first murder to Luke's skin being broken by a "Judas" bullet, but none of those moments seem quite as important as Mariah Stokes' decision to murder Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes in the middle of his own club and then to ally with Shades to pin the murder on Luke Cage. In a fit of rage, she proved that she had "the nerve" to give up her political aspirations and became a powerful player in Harlem's criminal underworld, and her decision to kill her own cousin has effectively moved up the time table for Diamondback's imminent arrival.
Up until this point in the series, the audience had been led to believe that Cottonmouth is the ultimate evil that Luke Cage must face off against on the streets of Harlem. If Cage can just get him out of the way, then peace can be achieved, right?. The shift that occurs when Mariah kills Cottonmouth allows us to realize that Cornell Stokes was actually the only thing keeping things manageable for Luke. It's a moment that calls the final scene of Batman Begins to mind: it's all about escalation.
Cottonmouth had become increasingly incompetent and sloppy as a gangster in recent episodes, and his sudden demise has created a power vacuum that will likely pave the way for Mariah's ascension and alliance with the mysterious Diamondback. She has tried to walk the straight and narrow her entire life by leaving the criminal dealings to Cottonmouth, but Mariah has come to the very harsh realization that she's always been on a collision course for her new role as Black Mariah.
We should note that everything leading up the shocking death in "Manifest" is also expertly handled to inform the nature of these characters. Marvel's Netflix properties have consistently proven themselves as the cream of the crop when it comes to establishing sympathetic backstories for their antagonistic forces, and Luke Cage has proven no different in that regard. In many ways, "Manifest" feels very similar to the Kingpin-centric "Shadows in the Glass" episode of Daredevil's first season in the sense that both are used to inform the trauma that leads to evil. In another life, and under other circumstances, Cottonmouth could've been a true talent in the world of music, but Mama Mabel put a gun in his hand and quite literally made him shoot his dreams in cold blood in the form of Pistol Pete.
However, "Manifest" sets itself apart in the way that it shows how weak Cottonmouth truly is, rather than how strong he is for embracing violence. The chaos of his upbringing didn't make him an effective gangster, just as escaping Harlem and getting an education did not make Mariah peaceful. In the end, this episode proved that we'd been looking at the wrong person as the central antagonist of the entire series by completely reversing the balance of power between Mariah and Cornell.
With Cottonmouth gone, Luke Cage has set the stage to show that the time of the old school gangster has come to an end. For all of the good that the titular hero can do for the people of Harlem, his presence will inevitably lead to increasingly more difficult battles. There's no telling where this conflict will go next, but it's abundantly clear that -- just like the other Defenders series -- Luke Cage isn't messing around.