Black Lightning: The Family That Fights Together, Stays Together

In the very first moments of the premiere of Black Lightning, a bleeding Jefferson Pierce lies face-up in a bathtub, open wounds gushing all over him, as he gazes into his wife Lynn’s eyes and promises that he will leave the superhero game for good.

Obviously, if you’re watching a show called Black Lightning, it’s because you assume that he will never keep this promise. Part of us may even cruelly want to see how long Jefferson can keep toeing the line between his own sense of duty and the concerns of his family. How does one keep the streets clean and keep their family’s minds at ease at the same time? Many a superhero show would have their protagonist hide from that pressure for as long as they possibly could.

This show takes a different path—not only does Lynn already know the score, but Jefferson’s daughters Anissa and Jennifer learn about his superhero moonlighting quite early compared to other shows of its kind, and they also learn that they’re all irrevocably connected to the troubled history of their hometown itself. As it stands, they have very little choice about whether they will be forced to respond to that history—the only questions are how, and how much will be asked of them.

[This article contains spoilers for the first season of Black Lightning, including the finale.]

It’s a particularly ironic, then, that these questions are finally answered in a scene that begins with Lynn once again leaning over Jefferson and gazing at him with worry—but this time, with his entire family around him as well, not only ready to support his efforts but ready to join him, to fight for the same cause.

By the time we reach this point, a lot has gone down in Freeland: Tobias Whale has been using the street gang known as “the 100” to flood the neighbourhood with a designer superdrug called Greenlight, with side effects ranging from increased strength and aggression to fullblown superpowers. 100 lieutenant Lala has been arrested, murdered behind bars by Tobias, resurrected and haunted by those he’s killed, and unknowingly brainwashed into doing Tobias’ bidding. Tobias has killed his immediate criminal superior, Lady Eve, and framed Black Lightning for the murder. The clandestine government agency known as the ASA has been kidnapping kids who’ve gained superpowers from using Greenlight, then storing them in stasis. Garfield High School vice principal Kara Fowdy has been scouting for the men in black the whole time. Jennifer’s boyfriend Khalil, after being shot and disabled by Tobias, is now a superpowered hired gun operating under Tobias’ thumb. All of these things have finally come to a head when Jefferson, hiding from the ASA’s armed strike teams and coming to terms with his two daughters’ newly manifested powers, is caught in a fight with Tobias and Khalil in the halls of Garfield High and is almost killed as a result.

The way the aftermath of this clash is handled is arguably what makes the finale so strong: Jefferson spends a lot of it inactive. This isn’t to say that Cress Williams isn’t doing a hell of a job in the role, or that Black Lightning himself isn’t one of the best parts of the show. It is terribly refreshing, however, to give Jeff’s family room to take over the heroic spotlight. Jennifer receives a good portion of it: following entire episodes spent griping about her powers to an almost-annoying extent, she is ultimately the reason her father survives the fight, using her powers to revive him. Throughout the episode, in fact, Jennifer seems to have finally realized that her love of her family trumps her fear and shame about her metahuman status—and it is that love of family, that need to see them all safe, that saves her parents’ lives at least three times over the course of the finale.

This episode also gave us a moment to discover more about Jefferson’s past. We’re shown more of his father, Alvin—the man who taught Jefferson to uphold the ideals that he now tries to instill into his Garfield students—via flashbacks of Jeff’s youth before his father’s murder. Admittedly, I was more than a little torn about some of these moments: On the one hand, it’s kinda corny to show a teenaged Jeff being punished by being ordered to read the U.S. Constitution because his father’s going to “quiz [him] at dinner.” On the other, the show has put so much work into underscoring Jefferson’s insistence, again and again, that African-Americans have to do and know so much more in order to seize their futures that it follows that his father was similarly intense. One of the most meaningful and affecting outcomes of these scenes is the realization of how acutely aware Alvin was of the stakes of investigating the ASA’s stranglehold on Freeland, even admitting that he is really willing to die if it would keep his son safe.

The flashbacks eventually transition into a kind of séance for Jefferson, a moment in which he is literally able to talk to his father. When this happens, he is floored by it, but it gives Alvin the chance to admit that he’s proud of what his son has done, even if that pride follows a hard question: Jefferson asks his father if he thinks dying for the truth was worth it, and Alvin admits, “I don’t know.”

What’s particularly radical here is that this scene gives Jefferson permission to cry. To be sure, the show doesn’t cut Jefferson off from his capacity to be emotive, but instead of sheer rage or the sorrow of immediate loss, this scene allows him to cry in the more genuinely vulnerable, bittersweet state of a son who is glad, if even for a moment, to have his father in his life again.

Of course, there are still bad guys that need to be electrocuted. Gambi even goes out of his way in his first few scenes to infodump about as many of them as possible, now that Jennifer has stepped into the role of our new clueless audience surrogate. Inevitably, the three-way struggle between Tobias, the ASA, and the Pierce family reaches its climax with Lala swallowing a bomb and trying (unsuccessfully) to wipe out ASA kingpin Martin Proctor.

Running out of time to keep their remaining subjects alive with stable metahuman DNA, and thoroughly frustrated with Tobias’ betrayal, Proctor goes all in on capturing Black Lightning by force, even rousing his subordinates with a literal “Make America Great Again” speech—probably a bit too heavy-handed here, which is saying a lot since a marked lack of subtlety has been working in the show’s favour for so long. Regardless, the result is a squad of black-clad commandos busting into the cabin where the Pierces are hiding just as Jefferson wakes, forcing the family to make a decision when he discovers his powers haven’t come back.

This brings us to the second time Jennifer restores her father—upon hearing that he’s determined to fight anyway, in order to draw fire away from his family, a tearful Jennifer embraces Jefferson for what she thinks may be the last time, her powers triggering beyond her control, inadvertently charging him back to full power. While I’m glad that’s a thing she can do, I really hope that in future Jennifer gets a deeper role in the family superhero business than “Black Lightning’s back-up battery.” Fortunately, the show does give us a taste of what an active, badass Jen can do when she roasts one soldier during the confrontation in order to save her mother. It even shows us Lynn gearing up for combat, rocking soldiers left and right with a shotgun like no big deal—more of all of this, please!

The fight at the cabin also establishes one thing we may need to worry about later on: the ASA seems to have a weapon that places metahumans in stasis, and if it weren’t for Black Lightning intervening in the nick of time, they may have put Anissa in a van and taken off. Beyond that, though, the united Pierces make quick work of their attackers and close in on Proctor, hoping to end it once and for all.

This climactic confrontation is one of the best scenes of the episode: the whole Pierce clan, plus Gambi, circling around a sniveling Proctor; the moment is equal parts powerful and comical. Its biggest highlight: Jennifer lifts Proctor up with a lasso of lightning and throws him against the floor like a toy. Her parents’ first response? To scold her for her rashness.

Even though this is a big win, we mustn’t forget that Tobias Whale wasn’t part of this fight, and the results of Black Lightning’s victory gives Tobias a chance to consolidate power. Some secret ASA tech is now in his hands, and while we don’t know exactly what it means yet, it’s clear that some combination of this tech and the metahuman bodies still in stasis will eventually pose a whole new set of problems for Freeland.

But still, a win is a win. Over thirteen episodes, not a great deal about Freeland has changed—the men in black may still be ready to pounce on the town, and crime still lurks in its alleys. But Freeland is safe for another day—and what’s more, the family that Jefferson always worried would be hopelessly fractured by his heroics is stronger than ever because of his actions, smiling warmly at each other as Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” plays in the background.

I look forward to exploring the full depth of that relationship—the Pierces’ emotional support and activist wisdom keeping them strong as the war continues, becoming a blueprint for unity and commitment throughout. At its core, Black Lightning seems to beabout the resilience of blackness and black community in the face of overwhelming odds, and there is no greater sign of this than a family that refuses to break down. This is the show’s new promise, embodied in the family that fights crime together, a tight-knit unit of black excellence sharing the burden of heroism. And I don’t think many of us would have it any other way.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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