Black Lightning Returns with a Focus on Consequences

A new episode—in fact, an entire new season—of Black Lightning means confronting a lot of tension; tension that goes beyond the fictional setting of Freeland, bleeding into the realities of our current moment. Facing that tension, especially as a Black audience, is an experience fraught with complex emotions: there is, of course, joy in the heroism and hope on display, but the show being so painfully adept at casting a stern eye upon the troubles of the African-American experience, especially as it relates to crime and policing, can surely be jarring sometimes. I want to say that experience is in itself radical: the series standing in as a speculative fiction watchman over the turbulence of living while black in America, providing an opportunity to channel some anger and power through a critical, empathetic outlet—but that empathy doesn’t rob the anger or desire for justice of any of its intensity or immediacy

The season two premiere, “The Book of Consequences, Chapter One: Rise of the Green Light Babies,” is no exception.

The very first moments of the episode present a conflict that I suspected we’d be seeing at some point this season: a young man, Issa Williams, is unduly targeted as an alleged ‘Green Light Baby’ and strangled to death by police, his still body captured on camera by passersby who scream at the officers that he was just a child. The very next scene takes us to church, as Reverend Jeremiah Holt draws a thick connecting line between Green Light and the American crack epidemic: not only is the drug doing latent harm to the black youth of Freeland, but the mere invocation of it is used as pretense to wield the force of law against innocent black people with impunity. Suffice it to say that this is a massive amount of trauma to pack into a singular speculative metaphor, and it is effective (while potentially being spiritually exhausting, surely, for many viewers).

What’s more, the pods of black children experimented on by the A.S.A.—discovered by Black Lightning and company discovered back in Season One—are now the legal property of the government, making them a perfect, disturbing symbol for the ownership of black bodies and the history of undue experimentation on those bodies, as well as creating a parallel to the present-day trauma that the American government is inflicting on immigrant families. This is powerful, drawing connections with the voiceless and disenfranchised with a directness only a show like Black Lightning can muster, presented in a very intentional, very thoughtful way, as detailed by the series’ showrunner, Salim Akil.

The Pierces, however, all have their own issues to deal with, too: Jefferson has just been reprimanded by the Garfield High School board; the A.S.A. has just robbed Lynn of access to the pods after a particularly rude interrogation; and Jennifer’s powers are still evolving in such peculiar ways that everyone’s still worried about what it’s doing to her—most of all Jennifer herself, who is obviously still processing the whole family-that-fights-crime-together thing in the first place. And it clearly doesn’t help that Jefferson’s struggling to just listen to the people around him, shutting Lynn down when she commits herself to gaining access to the pods, or telling Anissa to prioritize his vengeance against Tobias Whale over assisting the families of the children trapped within those pods in their legal defense. I guess the family can’t sit back ride the high of pride that comes from taking down an army of Men In Black forever—sooner or later, realness catches up with us all.

In the meantime, the upheaval of A.S.A. rogue agent Proctor’s operation has left plenty of people in the cold. The whole mess has shaken Kara Fowdy to the point where she’s ready to defect in exchange for a straight and narrow way out of the life. After a scuffle with Syanide in a parking lot (armed with some pretty damn intense metal stilettos), she comes running to Gambi first thing, begging for a favour: she’s willing to get the briefcase to him, if he can get her out.

Meanwhile, Anissa’s cutting her own path to the pods. The families of the kids affected have just learned that they will need thousands of dollars just to take the issue to court, and without her father’s blessing, she decides that it’s a job for Thunder—or rather, a job for someone in a hoodie and dust mask who just so happens to kick ass like Thunder. I will say that it’s a pleasant sight to see Black Lightning continue that vengeful vein started by the Netflix MCU’s Luke Cage of seeing unkillable black folk bust up drug rings, and there is some kind of joy, however twisted, in seeing the spoils of wickedness be converted for potentially radical ends. It may sound silly, but seeing Reverend Holt raise up two stacks of cash and say “Praise the Lord!” gives off a peculiar kind of charge, given the circumstances.

The most powerful thing, though, is that from all sides, the show is incredibly deliberate about the theme of consequences. Whether good or bad, every action in this episode is shown to have immediate effects. One example is just a simple confession: Officer Bill Henderson, Jefferson’s friend and Black Lightning’s only ally with a badge, figures out that the two are one and the same all by himself, and even though it happens kind of abruptly and is immediately left alone in one scene, I’m curious to see what the results of this realization and Jefferson’s confession may be in later episodes, considering the highs and lows Henderson had to put up with in the latter parts of last season.

Another one of those consequences is the potential loss of Garfield High, after the board finally threatens Jeff with closing it down for good. I can’t speak to the American experience, of course, but I’d argue that losing a committed, engaged school in a troubled community is always a bad sign for that community and its kids. After being confronted by board member and old friend Napier Frank about whether his desire to spare them from learning in a high-security environment inevitably made it easier for the board to punish its students, Jefferson makes the tough decision to step down as principal just to give the board a win, if doing so means that Garfield’s students still have a place to learn. (Also, just as an aside: Robert Townsend is a gem in all of these scenes, and I really hope to see more of him as the face of the school board as the season goes on.)

Even wins have looming consequences here: Lynn closes the episode with access to the pods, and we see Anissa filling another bag with more Robin Hood-ed gains, but if you’ve been paying attention to the way Black Lightning works, you know for a fact that when those plot points turn sour, the results will be far-reaching and painful. Jennifer arguably suffers the consequences of simply being reactive in the episode—to her still-burgeoning powers, to Khalil still trying to sneak into her life despite being on the run from the law, and to her friend Keisha’s jabs at those gaining powers from Green Light unknowingly weakening her own resolve. There is also, however, at least the silent acknowledgement that her father is willing to bear any pain, literally, to keep her safe and calm.

This seems like as good a place as any to mention how important it is that discussions of black mental health found their way into this episode of all. Starting off with such a conversation in the aftermath of the previous season feels incredibly necessary, not only for the characters, but really for the audience, who are consuming this superhero show that operates as a direct metaphor for real black trauma and resistance. The fact that Lynn presents therapy as an option to her family is a really inspiring example of how black families can look out for each other when they see cracks spreading. Not only do they recognise that they don’t have the resources to help Jennifer deal with her own stress, but Lynn goes out of her way to offer the same to a seemingly dismissive Jefferson—who I hope to the heavens takes her up on it soon.

But the episode closes with the revelation of perhaps one of the most intriguing and bittersweet consequences of all: Issa, the boy we saw die at the hands of the police at the beginning of the episode, is being dragged out of a funeral parlor by A.S.A. agents when suddenly the bag stirs, and Issa comes tearing out of it, breathing, startled, alive. His own mother is awed and afraid, rejecting him as a drug addict and an abomination even while his sister begs for her compassion. We see the agents raise their sidearms, Issa’s eyes widening. We see his sister shout at him to run, and as he takes off, he’s not in frame when we hear a single shot.

At the end of the episode, he sits beside a warehouse in the dark and the pouring rain, alone, afraid, a symbol for so much fear and loss and suffering—but also a person, alive, with no idea what to do next.

This, too, presents us with the consequences of so much that has transpired both inside and outside of the lens of the show. And in a way, beyond all the elements that what makes this show electrifying (pun partially intended), I am most interested in seeing these consequences bear fruit, and hopefully give way to a catharsis of all of these traumas in a way only a superhero show about powerful black people can.

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 or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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