At the start of Luke Cage‘s 11th episode, “Now You’re Mine,” the villains Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) and Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) have a heart to heart amidst the wreckage of Harlem’s Paradise. Cage (Mike Colter) is on the loose somewhere in the club, protesters trapped inside have now become hostages, and the police are on their way. Shades isn’t particularly fond of the situation and thinks everyone should bail, but Diamondback — who only just entered the picture three episodes prior — won’t budge. For reasons unknown to Shades and somewhat understood by the audience, he won’t rest until both Cage and his cop friend, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) are dead.
“With them dead, we control the story,” Diamondback explains. “The bigger the stall, the more time we have for other diversions. Misty will be dead, I’ll have another shot at Cage, and there’s bound to be another way out of here. We’ll cross that bridge soon enough.”
Unimpressed, Shades quips, “That’s your plan? That’s it?”
The playful (but serious) animosity expressed between the two speaks volumes about their relationship. After all, Diamondback serves as Luke Cage‘s Thanos-like big bad, pulling the strings throughout the first half and ultimately showing up to do it himself. And Shades? Considering just how often he coerces individuals and manipulates events throughout all 13 episodes to serve the whims of Diamondback, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), he’s more like Loki’s string-puller (or as Rossi explains to us, the Marvel/Netflix world’s closest equivalent to Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger).
However, this scene (and others like it) also demonstrates what the Marvel/Netflix partnership has accomplished that — aside from a handful of examples — its cinematic forebears never could: The creation and execution of complex, well-rounded villains whose individual story arcs are almost as complete as their heroic rivals. David Tennant’s Kilgrave achieved a horrifying version of this in Jessica Jones, and if Rossi and Harvey’s performances alongside Ali and Woodard are any indication, so too has Luke Cage.
From the first moment Rossi’s Shades enters the picture in “Moment of Truth,” the question of who he is and what he wants becomes central to the show. The guns Diamondback had given to Cottonmouth to sell are being held by the police, the money for the failed exchange is missing, and here’s Shades — wearing his trademark sunglasses indoors while offering his services. “Why is this feeling like a takeover?” Cottonmouth demands of his old friend, who responds: “It’s not. If it was, you would never even see Diamondback coming. He wants you to win. How can I help?”
“Shades is strictly about power, and he’s playing the long game. It’s a marathon to him. This isn’t a sprint. From the second he came in, people had no idea what was going on,” Rossi says. “He’s happy in a position of power, but nobody knowing it. That’s why I’ve always loved that reference Cheo said about the Littlefinger, like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. He’s the Littlefinger of Harlem in a way, because he’s kind of dictating the way things are going and nobody sees it. Though the really astute fans and the smart fans are starting to see it.”
Rossi, who first gained fame on Sons of Anarchy, “grew up drawing comics and reading comics” long before the Marvel/Netflix collaboration ever came to be. So when the opportunity to play a comic book villain in Luke Cage arose, he jumped at the chance. “To me, the villains that I’ve always looked up to were the ones for whom it didn’t matter who the hero was. They were just going for power. They didn’t have a personal vendetta against somebody. They didn’t have whatever. They were just going for this thing and the hero was trying to stop them. It’s like Wilson Fisk [in Daredevil]. Fisk is just going for power. He doesn’t care who’s trying to stop him.”