[SPOILERS for season 1 of Luke Cage ahead.]
In the lead up to the first season of Luke Cage, it appeared as though Mahershala Ali would be following in the footsteps of Vincent D'Onofrio (Kingpin) and David Tennant (Killgrave) as the big overarching villain. Ali was given plenty of time to develop Cornell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes over the course of the first seven episodes, as he pushed for more power, money, and guns to help control Harlem. In his effort to keep the crown and be the king, Cottonmouth had to align himself with his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a relationship that proved to be much more costly than he anticipated.
Cottonmouth's charm shines through no matter the circumstances, but when he pushed back on Mariah following the loss of $7 million, Mariah literally pushed back. The confrontation resulted in the surprising death of Cottonmouth at the hands of Mariah and Shades (Theo Rossi). Even though he was gone earlier than expected, it was the short tenure on the show that allowed Ali to sign on.
Ali recently spoke to EW about Cottonmouth's arc over the course of the first seven episodes and his death at the mid-point of the season. The actor has recently spoke about his desire to leave House of Cards because he felt there was nothing left for his character to do, and a closed arc gave Ali the chance to do just that. While it was a shock to fans to see him die, he found it to be exciting from the perspective of an actor.
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? 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… experiences his demise.
Even though Cottonmouth is now dead, more flashbacks to Cage's or Mariah's younger days could bring Ali back for a guest appearance in the future. As for now, Cottonmouth will be no more, and he died being a person that he never intended to be according to the actor.
Cottonmouth is not the person he wanted to be. 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.
Cottonmouth's motivations are not too far away from Kingpin's or even Luke's. For all three, the thing they care about most is just protecting their city. Cottonmouth went to extreme measures to make himself powerful enough to where he had the influence to make that happen. Unfortunately for him, it came at the cost of making relationships that turned on him, not to mention the effect his upbringing had on him.
It is unfortunate that Ali's tenure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is already over, with some people hoping he would be a recurring villain for multiple seasons. Instead, it appears as though Mariah, Shades, and Diamondback are being set up for bigger roles down the road. It is unclear when we will see any of these characters again, but as long as Luke Cage gets a second season (or is transformed into a Heroes for Hire series) these villains should be set to return alongside some possible new faces.
Daredevil season 1 & 2, Jessica Jones season 1, and Luke Cage season 1 are now available on Netflix. The Defenders and Iron Fist arrive in 2017. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2, The Punisher and Daredevil season 3 have not yet been announced.