The last few episodes of Black Lightning have been quite a ride.
Since the end of the first season, young, talented, and defiant Jennifer Pierce has been struggling with the revelation that she’s the daughter of the one and only Black Lightning himself, and dealing with all the additional complications that stem from that revelation. You know, like almost being murdered by the ASA, struggling not to light things on fire with her complicated energy-based powers, and learning that the boy she loved was actually a deadly henchman for Tobias Whale—the wealthy and conniving mastermind responsible for killing her grandfather and trying his damnedest to kill the whole Pierce family on school grounds. Since then, she’s been cooped up at home, kept away from those who may try to harm her family again.
Then, Khalil Payne, also known as the venom-slinging Painkiller, came to Jennifer’s window a few episodes back, expressing remorse for all he’s done and a sincerely desire to get out of the mess he’s found himself in. It’s Khalil’s refusal to kill Reverend Holt on Tobias’ command, and Jennifer’s own claustrophobic resentment at her parents’ decision to keep her hidden at home, that fuels “The Book of Rebellion,” the latest three-episode arc that opens with the two planning to leave Freeland once and for all in search of freedom.
Hence their decision to hop in a car and drive away from it all, and what emerges on the drive is a strained-but-not-letting-go relationship, all of the romantic tension pulled a little too taut for it to spring back, while two teenagers who didn’t ask for the lives they’ve been given try desperately to leave them behind. Which is…actually kind of interesting.
First, let me acknowledge my own bias: I was not particularly fond of Khalil earlier this season. After everything that had happened in the season prior, and given how much blood was on his hands, his desire to work his way back into Jennifer’s life struck me as having one’s cake and eating it too, up until just a few episodes before this arc. I felt like he had a lot of atoning to do before he’d earned the right to insist upon someone else’s affection, and that Jennifer herself should know better than to rekindle a connection with the man who’d stormed her school in order to attack her classmates and (unwittingly) murder her father.
Now, I find myself being much gentler on him. This is the same Khalil who refuses to follow Tobias’ orders to kill a pastor in episode six; the same Khalil who literally begs Holt to leave town before Tobias just sends someone else to do it; the same Khalil who learns that Tobias was the one who shot and paralysed him in the first place and who has been the victim of Tobias’ emotional and physical abuse on more than one occasion.
It wasn’t like any of this was lost on Jen—the conflict between her feelings for and distrust of Khalil were just two spices in the soup of her frustration. Just thinking about him makes her powers flare up in violent flickers of fire and electricity. Sounds like a teenage relationship to me? But Jen also gets to see Khalil at his most emotionally desperate, once again: in the episodes leading up to the Book of Rebellion, Khalil is like a frightened child. That he sees Jennifer in that moment as the only person he trusts to care for him, just like she did after he was shot, is just a little endearing, if not still dangerously flawed.
We can also talk about what they have to run from—Tobias’ hired blade, Giselle Cutter, sent to take Khalil back to be punished before he could spill any secrets—but really, that they are on the run from anything is enough to drive the story. What’s far more interesting is that Tobias has recruited a new hired brain in the intervening time: Todd Green, an overlooked black tech prodigy struggling to get by (played by RJ Cyler of Power Rangers fame—a casting choice which particularly excited me when he first appeared onscreen). It’s only in contrast to Khalil’s current situation that I noticed something particular about Tobias’ brand of recruitment: he’s willing to say anything to gain someone’s trust and exploit their value, but refuses to ever trust or value them. His desire to see young black men succeed and make gains in terms of culture and capital all goes out the window when they don’t bend over backwards to accommodate his nastiest desires, and he doesn’t even bat an eye in switching between the two modes. More surprising is that Todd seems really unfazed by this, at least in the early stages. I’m curious what that relationship looks like going forward, but we don’t have any reason to believe Todd won’t meet some similarly violent fate soon.
Back on the Khalil and Jennifer front: after they nearly get the boy’s auntie killed by Cutter, narrowly escape being found (and promptly grounded) by Black Lightning, successfully cure a bout of sickening poison from one of Cutter’s scrapes, and hole up in an abandoned train car to plan their next move, they finally they get a long enough moment to truly discuss their relationship. Jennifer admits that she has no intention of giving up on Khalil, but that none of this is what she wants for their relationship. She even lets him know that if he was hoping to get some lovin’, hiding for their life was never how she imagined it. Khalil is a gentle, patient partner here, I daresay even more so than he was in his running days, and this moment marks the kind of relationship shift that I think both of them sorely needed.
Of course, the rest of the Pierce clan is still frantically looking for their child, so after hearing Lynn call out to her daughter right outside their hiding place, Khalil realizes that dragging his love into this mess was not the right call, and he makes a brave decision: Jennifer has to go home. They make their way back to Jen’s house, and after Jefferson cools down and refrains from stomping Khalil into powder, they make plans to have him testify and finally bring Tobias Whale down for good—but not before Khalil admits to coming to the conclusion (all on his own) that there’s no way that Jeff isn’t Black Lightning.
It’s at this point, I’d argue, that Khalil reveals the only weak point of the arc. He pretty astutely observes that Black Lightning wouldn’t so consistently invest in Jennifer’s life unless she was important to him personally, as well as pointing out how similar their powers are. But didn’t Tobias make those similar observations just two episodes ago? But when Khalil gets back, Tobias just…drops it. A very strong potential hint to the identity of his greatest nemesis, and a weak point worthy of exploiting, just seemingly dropped so that he could get back to some petty vengeance business? I can understand why a show like Black Lightning wouldn’t want to pull too heavily on that thread in the middle of its second season, but the fact that the groundwork was laid out so clearly, only to almost literally come out and say that the whole thing doesn’t matter was incredibly unsatisfying and odd. I don’t believe that Tobias is dumb, nor that he would give up a good opportunity for extortion—or worse, a good old-fashioned beatdown.
Moving on: Jefferson reaches out to his now-ex-friend Deputy Chief Bill Henderson about making sure Khalil safely enters police custody, but of course that doesn’t happen. One of Tobias’ inside men lets him know just in time to send Cutter to the police caravan and pick him up, slicing every throat in her wake before dropping the boy at Tobias’ feet. “If you can’t walk with the giants,” he tells Khalil, “then you shall crawl with the snakes,” before snatching Khalil’s spinal implant right out of his back, and leaving him crippled and bleeding at Reverend Holt’s church doorstep.
There’s plenty of stuff going on in the background that’s worth talking about—like Todd unlocking the mysteries of the briefcase Tobias got his hands on last season, which I’m sure will be the primary focus of the upcoming “Book of Secrets” arc, but the promo for the next episode clearly places a lot of emphasis on Jennifer’s story, and so must I. In the next round of episodes, which begin airing tonight, I’m curious about how the show will revisit Khalil’s disability in the greater context of Tobias’ abuse. I’m curious where Khalil’s relationship with Jen will go as a result, and how she’ll immediately respond to his suffering. Even the up-in-the-air question of Khalil’s continued growth and redemption interests me much more than the more visual promise of Jennifer joining the super-family, costume and all.
Jennifer and her on-and-off boyfriend just learned, in brutal fashion, that the reason her life is so far from normal is not because she’s Black Lightning’s daughter (although that doesn’t help), but because Freeland itself is fighting to shake the control of a man too ruthless and cruel to ignore. And I hope that after everything she’s gone through in the last couple of nights, Jen can channel some of that sass she had in the finale of last season and deliver it right to Tobias’ face—with a couple jolts of righteous fury backing it up.
Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, Arsenika, 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.