Final Thoughts On ‘Black Lightning’
by Erik Amaya
Black Lightning was often not the show we wanted it to be. It was excellent at times, but as it was developed separately from the Arrowverse and then plopped onto the same network, its different grammar often left us wondering about its storytelling choices. Ideas would fall by the wayside only to explode into relevance five episodes later. Connective scenes that would be absolutely necessary on, say, The Flash, would be completely missing. Interesting guest characters never got their due while a certain lead villain overstayed his welcome.
And, as we’ve pointed out during its entire run, its reluctance to commit to Grace (Chantal Thuy) as a character was genuinely odd.
The inconsistencies, though, can also be interpreted as the messiness of real people. Anissa’s (Nafessa Williams) relationship with Grace did not become a firm thing until Season 3 — Season 2 even had to dedicate screentime to them getting reacquainted. To an extent, it feels real. But it also feels like the intrusion of outside forces pushing the narrative away from them as a couple. Thus, it is hard to say how much of the messiness is a credit to the storytelling or a failing of the production.
One area where the show almost always succeeded, though, was its central metaphor. In its early goings, the meta-enhancing drug Green Light subbed in for crack cocaine. It’s proliferation on Freeland’s streets mirrored the crack epidemic of the 1980s. And, all the while, agents of the shadowy ASA were picking up youths addicted to the drug who manifested interesting powers. Along the way, we also learned Green Light was an offshoot of a virus the ASA introduced into Freeland thirty years earlier in the hopes of generating useful metas to press-gang into national defense. The parallels to actual schemes perpetrated by US intelligence organizations in our own history could not be more stark. And just to make sure it all became consistent, the first meta turned out to be a World War II era Black soldier who was manipulated by his own government. And though he became a villain, Black Lightning (Cress Williams) ultimately defeated him by getting him justice and exposing the ASA’s sins.
Maybe that’s why this season’s story turned so sour for us: that central metaphor was gone. Although the series used potent images from last summer’s unrest and protests, it never quite incorporated back into Freeland as effectively as we hoped. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the show had to scale down in terms of extras and fight scenes. An early scene of Jefferson Pierce using his powers to stop another Black youth from being killed at the hands of the police suggested a much more intense season that what we ended up seeing. Instead of tackling that issue head on, it was incorporated into Jeff’s ongoing war with Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) by way of Tobias buying the new Freeland Police Chief. And because crowd scenes had to be contained, the notion of any widespread unrest in the city was generally told to us instead of seen.
To be fair, the story they could tell was one of grief. And, at times, that story was very effective. The toll the occupation of Freeland in Season 3 took on Jeff and Lynn’s (Christine Adams) relationship was hard to watch — an absolute credit to Williams and Adams as performers and the writers for detailing the discord so well. In fact, that part of the story was so effective that we still think the characters are toxic for each other. But we are willing to concede that’s probably down to the series running out of time to build their relationship back up.
In terms of Jeff’s more exterior story — becoming Black Lightning again — the season never really worked up to the key point: that it was okay for him to break his code and kill Tobias. That is such a powerful thing to explore and we wish the show had devoted more time to it than a quick conversation with Jeff’s father in that not-quite-afterworld. As it turns out, crushing him was the only option left and it would’ve been nice to see Jeff wrestle with that earlier. Or, perhaps, Gambi (James Remar) voicing it as an option after Tobias got a FBI agent involved.
Then again, this could just our familiarity with Arrowverse grammar asking for something less subtle.
Meanwhile, Season 4 also had to contend with two other missions: setting up the now-defunct Painkiller spinoff and dealing with China Anne McClain‘s departure from the series. The former meant Khalil (Jordan Calloway) was off the show until Episode 7 — a backdoor pilot for Painkiller — and pretty much isolated from the cast for the subsequent six episodes. The latter was dealt with by introducing J.J. (Laura Kariuki), an alternate form of Jen (McClain) who turned out to be a sentient energy form(?) from the ionosphere. Both characters, and their stories, absolutely suffered from these outside production realities even if Calloway proved he could lead a series in Episode 7 and Kariuki seemed like a good replacement for McClain.
In fact, we have to wonder if Jen would’ve returned in the finale had the program been renewed for another year. McClain planned to leave no matter what and for most of the season, it felt like Kariuki was meant to be the real Jennifer — just look at that weird male fridging subplot she was part of two episodes ago. If she was always meant to be a fake, we doubt such a thread would’ve been developed.
At the same time, that sort of seat-of-the-pants problem solving is a consistent element for the show even if it feels inconsistent in the finished product. Grace’s disappearances solve the problem of Thuy’s availability (she was a guest star for most of the show’s run). This is also why Lala (William Catlett) was re-introduced so many times or why Jen’s love interests besides Khalil tended to disappear after a few episodes. While it didn’t get everything right, Black Lightning did roll with the punches — even becoming part of the Arrowverse despite never really getting a chance to use that association. And even if the show frustrated us during the latter half of Season 4, we’ll still miss Freeland, the Pierces, and the talent assembled to tell these stories.
Black Lightning airs on The CW.