Black Lightning – Season 1 Episode 3
“LaWanda: The Book of Burial”
Black Lightning continues to explore the consequences of Jeff’s return to the life of a costumed crime fighter and the people’s reaction to the gang violence.
It should be clear by now that this is a very different show to the other shows based on DC heroes on the CW. This is something I greatly approve of as it would be boring for me as a reviewer if every show I watched was too similar. Different isn’t always better but this show does a lot of interesting things with its approach.
The basic premise of this show is that a man decides to return to a superhero identity that he left behind a number of years ago. This is something that only works if the storytelling is sharp enough to get a sense of what life was like when Black Lightning was a fixture of Freeland as well as what life was like without him. So far the setting is very well established and does a great job of filling in enough of the gaps to make it all work. In many ways it feels like a sequel to a TV show that never existed.
I bring that up again because it’s important to remember that Black Lightning was a symbol of hope that the city lost and Jeff is still realising what he truly meant to people when he was in the costume. Since then he has done a lot of good as a Principal but when considering the wider scope of the city as a whole he hasn’t really done enough and things are worse than ever.
The return of Black Lightning has restored a sense of hope to the city though not by itself. LaWanda’s death last week has made people talk and reach a tipping point when it comes to the violence against the people courtesy of the 100. In short people aren’t going to accept it any more and feel inspired to take action. There is an extra layer of comfort in knowing that Black Lightning is looking out for them so it feels like the right time to take action for many people. Reverent Holt (Clifton Powell) organises a match in memorial of LaWanda and as a sign of defiance against the 100 gang to show that the people aren’t afraid of them any more.
This show portrays a palpable sense of community in all of the episodes so far but particularly in this one. The Church is shown to be much more than a Church to those that attend it as it doubles as a meeting place to discuss matters that affect the community, discuss problems and generally support one another. Basically it embodies what a Church is supposed to represent in its purest form and the sheer volume of attendees shows how important it is to this community. It also reinforces LaWanda as an integral part of that community based on the volume of attendance at her funeral.
Reverend Holt’s march is seen as a huge risk by Inspector Henderson who pleads with him to cancel it and let the police do their jobs. Hot makes the point that he has tried that already and it hasn’t worked. He’s painfully aware that corruption is rife within the police and one of the purposes of the march is to highlight that justice is something that the people are willing to put themselves on the line to achieve.
Henderson sees Holt as someone who gets in the way of what he’s working to achieve. He’s a bit like Jim Gordon in the Christopher Nolan Batman films in that he’s one of the few good cops in a bad city and does the best with what few trusted resources that he has. His point about citizens trying to take the law into their own hands is valid but so is Holt’s point about police corruption and the lack of real safety in Freeland. Also involved in the conversation is Jeff who feels the need to take the law into his own hands as well. It’s a great scene because it features three men of considerable standing within their community with conflicting yet equally valid points of view about how it should be protected.
Much of the episode is spent building up to the march. Jeff and Gambi both feel that Jeff has to be ready for anything because violence is very likely to ensue. This brings in most of the superhero aspects and handles them well. Jeff learning how to refine his powers so that innocents aren’t hurt is a nice touch as it shows how rusty he is after so long away from crime fighting while also clearly establishing that his priorities lie in protecting the innocents. Gambi is still problematic in the context of the rest of the show and erasing Tobias Whale from camera footage does nothing to fix that despite the implications it carries.
The march itself proves to be worth the build up and feels tense right from the beginning. There is the clear sense that something is about to happen and when it does it still manages to be shocking thanks to the way it is handled. The fight choreography is impressive and the shooting of Reverend Holt has every bit the shock value that it’s supposed to.
It offers a clear source of internal conflict for Jeff as he sees with his own eyes that there will be casualties in this fight against the gang influence in Freeland. The question he has to wrestle with is if he still feels that his cause is worth the collateral damage that will come with it. Reverend Holt definitely escalated that uprising and Jeff failed to predict that this would happen so is thrust into an increased level of responsibility that he isn’t prepared for. The march is massive in its scale and Jeff is only one man so it’s easy to see why the whole thing overwhelmed him.
The criminal element is developed further by revealing that Tobias Whale actually answers to Lady Eve (Jill Scott); a woman with very clear and deceptively simple goals. She doesn’t want the people believing that they can reclaim the city. She can continue charging individuals and business protection money as long as they believe that the police can’t protect them. Her motivation at this point seems to be nothing more than making money which is a very clear statement in opposition to the privileged elite in society and the influence that they have because of their wealth. It’s a motivation that is very easy to understand because it is so evident in the world we live in.
There is also a strong focus on Jeff’s family and the dynamics that exist there. The biggest surprise of the episode was Jen being open with her parents about her desire to have sex with Khalil. This shows her relationship with her parents to be a strong and respectful one with openness encouraged in her upbringing. Jeff and Lynn are naturally surprised but impressed that she would be so adult about her decision and brought it to them so that they were aware what her plans were. The first episode showed Jen to be immature and rebellious in keeping with a teenage character but this episode expands her character to show that it isn’t always the case.
It’s also refreshing to see teenage sex handled in such a mature way with it being openly discussed as a couple and with parents who don’t try to prevent it. Jeff does wonder if they are being too liberal as parents but trusting their children appears to be paying off. This doesn’t stop Jeff having some immature fun at Khalil’s expense by warning him not to give his daughter athlete’s foot. It’s a bizarre scene that seems to exist for little more than the sake of entertainment.
Khalil appears to be a good influence for Jen as well as a representation of everything Jeff has worked for as Principal. He works really hard so that he doesn’t have to be dragged into the violent side of life outside of the school and long term wants to achieve lofty goals that he has set for himself. Jeff’s main for the school is to give young people like Khalil the chance to build a future independent of the worst parts of the community and feel safe while doing so. This optimistic message is shattered when he is shot and may never walk again which symbolises that everything Jeff worked for risks being torn down.
Anissa spends much of the episode learning about her powers and making some important life choices. The practice scene is really well done on a visual level as well as establishing that she is excited about having super powers while having no idea what she’s going to do with them. For now testing them and learning to control them is enough but it’s clear that it’s only the first step. Her seeing them as an opportunity is really important as it offers a direct contrast to Jeff seeing his as a complication. Once their abilities become known to each other that should create a fascinating point of debate that puts the beginning of a costumed hero career against a more seasoned and jaded one.
There is a clumsiness to this plot more down to the introduction of Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy); a Librarian with a love for superhero comic books. This character is clearly introduced to get Anissa thinking about how she will use her powers and offer a contrast between the way these things play out in comic books. vs the “real world”. The mention of the cosplay party was interesting as it directly references Supergirl which could mean that she’s a character in a comic book in this world or she actually exists in some form. I quite like the idea that the Arrowverse could exist in comic book or TV show form in this universe. It would add an extra meta layer to all of the shows and allow the writers to play around with them in interesting ways.
It’s clear from the beginning that an attraction exists between Anissa and Grace which is as expected for a meet cute like the one seen in this episode. The obvious complication is Anissa’s girlfriend which is removed by them breaking up. It feels clumsy because there was no reason to invest in this relationship meaning there was no impact to it ending. It left me wondering why it was introduced in the first place if it was just going to be abandoned a week later. Anissa’s statement about holding onto that relationship because it represented stability in a life full of change even though she knew it wasn’t working sounded more profound than it was and feels like a cop out to avoid letting Anissa feel angsty about it over the coming episodes. She also mentions the standard yet solid feeling that she could be doing more than protesting.
Another strong episode that focuses on Black Lightning’s impact on the people of the city as well as the sense of community pride they feel. The build up to the march is really well handled from Jeff and Gambi preparing for it to the discussion between Jeff, Reverend Holt and Inspector Henderson about their views on it. None of them are any more “right” than anyone else which shows how sophisticated the writing in this show is. The death of Reverend Holt sends a powerful message to Jeff that fighting against the criminal element will bring casualties and forces him to consider if it will be worth it.
Jen being upfront with her parents about her decision to have sex is a really refreshing way to handle this issue. The doubt experienced by Jeff over whether he’s being too liberal or not feels natural and Jen’s honesty helps him feel secure in his parenting technique. Khalil is clearly a good influence on Jen and embodies everything that Jeff has been working for as a Principal while also suggesting that it might be crumbling once Khalil is shot. Anissa working to control her powers makes for a great sequence and shows the excitement that comes with the early days of dealing with super powers. The introduction of Grace and the end of Anissa’s relationship feel somewhat clumsy but there is still plenty of potential to be explored.
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