Luke Cage Season 2 is perhaps the first time a Netflix Marvel show had their second season turn out to be better than the first. Most of this has to do with the villains. Luke Cage's first villain, Cottonmouth, was a showstopper, but Diamondback really faded in comparison, making the second half of the first season a bit of a letdown. This season, though, both villains are superb, with Mariah as fierce as ever versus the new John "Bushmaster" McIver, who is more like Luke Cage than anyone wants to admit. Why does Bushmaster want to kill Mariah in Luke Cage, though? Warning: Spoilers for Luke Cage Season 2 follow.
One of the most interesting things about Season 2 is there was no "Big Bad Swap" halfway through. This is the moment in a Netflix Marvel series that usually comes somewhere between episodes 6 and 8, where the primary antagonist is either killed off or otherwise revealed to not actually be the real antagonist. Think Daredevil Season 1, when Madame Gao comes in and dresses down Wilson Fisk until audiences realize he's not the real Big Bad, he's just a small-time goon with dreams of medium-badness. Or Luke Cage's first season, when Mariah kills Cottonmouth.
It looked like Season 2 was going to take this route when Bushmaster tied up Mariah and her daughter and left them in the burning house. But no! Instead, the show left both of them alive, in a fight to the finish.
So, where does Bushmaster's seething hatred of Mariah come from, and why is he so determined to make people call her "Mariah STOKES"? Turns out it goes back generations.
Luke Cage dedicates an entire episode to Bushmaster's backstory, starting with the first time he saw Mariah and her cousin Cornell. They were young teens at the time. He was an employee working to keep the guests happy at a resort. Mariah and Cornell were guests of the resort, and Mariah wasn't shy about lording her position over him.
Why were they there? Because John's mother was trying to sue Mariah's grandmother, Mabel Stokes, for her share of Harlem's Paradise. It turns out the Stokes didn't found the place alone. Grandpa Stokes had made a deal with McIver's father. He had the Bushmaster rum recipe, Stokes had the place to build the club, and the two of them put all their savings and their sweat equity into it. McIver even built the bar where our characters drink.
But then, betrayal. The Stokes family pushed out the McIvers, killing John's father, and forcing him and his mother to run back to Jamaica. Now, his mother was pushing for her rightful share, with little more than a cocktail napkin signed proving her case.
Rather than beat her in court, Mabel simply firebombed their house as they slept, killing McIver's mother. John escapes, but rather than stop him, Mabel merely drunkenly jeered. Later, she reconsidered allowing the kid to live, and sent an assassin after John, taking him out lest he one day decide to come for his birthright.
Except John didn't die. The Nightshade concoction he takes to make himself bulletproof like Luke Cage all throughout the series saved him back then. It was the first time he even was given it, and when it saved him rather than killing him, it marked John as stronger than anyone he knew.
Since then, he's taken it as a sign he should return to Harlem, take back his birthright, and, most importantly, take down Mariah Stokes. Putting her in jail for her crimes isn't good enough, either. In his mind, the job is not done until she burns.