Black Lightning – Season 1 Episode 13
“Shadow of Death: The Book of War“
Black Lightning ends its first season with the Pierce family taking a collective stand against the A.S.A. and Tobias manoeuvring himself to the top of Freeland’s political food chain.
Family has been a really strong theme in a thematically rich season of television. At the core of everything in this show is the Pierce family and their dynamic. It feeds into pretty much every part of the show and helps the world built here feel more real because the people living in it are far more than characters inhabiting a TV show taking certain actions because plot dictates that they do so.
Last week ended on something of a pessimistic note with Jeff defeated by Tobias but also a hopeful one when Jennifer revived him. The first half of the episode is focused on the Pierce family licking their wounds before figuring out their next move. Gambi’s safe house is the ideal location for self reflection and just taking a breather to process everything that has happened.
There are a range of attitudes on display that make sense in the context of the characters and compliment each other in different ways. Anissa wants to leap into action and take on the A.S.A. all by herself where Gambi advises caution and encourages her to see the value in a more deliberate approach. This is something the season has largely done well where other superhero shows feature the hero rushing into a situation they aren’t prepared for because of the need to resolve a situation quickly before people get hurt. This is a show about a superhero with life experience which allows for the realisation that failing to take the time to consider a situation carefully will likely make it worse. Gambi represents the strategic school of thought where Anissa is the young hero eager to immerse herself in protecting as many people as she can when that might not be the right move. It’s a learning curve and for the purposes of this episode Gambi represents that point she needs to get to even if he delivers too much in the way of clunky exposition to get to bring that across. At this point she follows the instruction but doesn’t yet understand the reason behind it.
Lynn is trying to be the picture of calm despite her concern for Jeff’s well being where Jennifer is struggling to deal with the situation. Jennifer has only recently learned the truth about her father, her sister and her own powers and has spent the past few episodes coming to terms with all of it. It’s a lot to take in for someone so young and all she wants is to have a normal life where she doesn’t have to worry about her life being endangered. Lynn held that point of view at one point but has grown to accept that being a member of this family means finding a way to accept that part of it. Jennifer isn’t there yet but there’s a sense that she will eventually learn to deal with it as Lynn has. There is also a mention of some deeper connection between Lynn and Jeff allowing her to feel his pain that hasn’t been previously established and comes out of nowhere. Christine Adams sells it with her performance and it could be more significant next season.
A big part of Jennifer’s arc will be understanding what this part of her life involves. Her conversation with Gambi early in the episode allows for another step towards understanding. The discussion is specifically geared around Khalil who has allied himself with Tobias. Gambi points out all that has been done to him and that it’s important to understand the context of this transformation but he also points out that Khalil made a choice that he now has to live with. Jennifer doesn’t want to believe that Khalil is the sort of person he appears to have become but Gambi tells her on no uncertain terms that he is and she shouldn’t fool herself into thinking that he’s misguided. Whether this is objectively true or not is up for debate but a big part of this season has been about the consequences associated with making choices so it’s good that no excuses are made for the choices Khalil has made because he did have an alternative. Desperation and pain may be the reason for those choices but Gambi doesn’t subscribe to the removal of agency in these situations and encourages Jennifer to think along the same lines.
Jeff spends the first half of the episode unconscious but that doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt. Flashbacks to his childhood establish a baseline for the values he holds most dear. These values come from his father, Alvin (Keith Arthur Bolden) who stood up for what he believed in for the greater good of Freeland. The first flashback shows Gambi telling him that naming names following his investigation into the A.S.A. wasn’t necessary and will definitely bring violence to his doorstep. Gambi saw that action as unnecessary but Alvin is committed to making a better world for his son and was willing to accept the consequences if it meant playing a part in creating that better world. It does unfortunately mean that his son grows up without a father but it also helped shape Jeff into a man who devotes his life to making Freeland a better place.
Following this we get almost a montage of those consequences such as a glimpse of Alvin’s funeral and the social unrest that his work helps to inspire. We see a riot as the young Jeff (Kaden Washington Lewis) runs from the riot police and uses his powers for the first time. This could be seen as an unnecessary origin story but there’s so much weight behind it that it doesn’t feel clunky or out of place. Seeing his powers manifest is more symbolic than anything else because he uses them for the first time in the midst of a really tense situation. The symbolism comes from their first usage being in service of protecting himself from the oppression that pollutes Freeland setting up the fact that he continually uses them to fight that oppression.
Jeff’s interactions with his father in the flashback also add weight to the values he upholds in his role as a Principal and community leader in general. After being suspended for fighting Alvin forces him to read the constitution because this teaches Jeff the value of education over violence. Reacting violently to being mistreated by another student may have felt like the right thing to do at the time but the long term consequences were that he was suspended for that action despite him not starting that conflict. His thoughtless approach meant that he was punished and Alvin uses that opportunity to teach him a valuable lesson about the power of education and words over his fists. In his adult life Jeff would adapt that lesson into using violence as a last resort but always valuing the use of intelligence until there is no other option.
Jeff being unconscious allows him to interact with the memory of his father as an adult. He asks Alvin if being Black Lightning is worth the sacrifice that comes with it and Alvin tells him that it’s up to him to decide that. Jeff has had others delivering their own opinion on whether he should be fighting crime as Black Lightning or not. Gambi has been the one encouraging him where Lynn spent a lot of the season discouraging him resuming that mantle. The choice to become Black Lightning was one that Jeff made and largely hasn’t apologised for but he has been conflicted over whether it was the right thing to do. His conversation with the memory of his father allows him to solidify that commitment and be fully invested in his own choice. It’s about realising that he is the only one who can decide if the associated sacrifice is worth it or not and ultimately he decides that Freeland is a better place with Black Lightning in it. It’s a subtle affirmation and is handled really well.
There is a brief roadblock to his full acceptance of the Black Lightning mantle when he wakes up without his powers. Reference is made to a car battery eventually no longer holding a charge suggesting that there will come a point where he can no longer be Black Lightning. Thanks to Jennifer he hasn’t reached that point yet as she uses her powers to jump start his and return Black Lightning to full strength. This is another example of the theme of family showing that the family are stronger as a unit than any of them are individually.
The A.S.A. attack on the safe house further shows this as the whole family pitches in on the battle. Jeff and Anissa use their powers and further demonstrate their ability to work together effectively as Gambiband Lynn back them up with guns. Having Lynn take up arms is a surprise but her desire to fight to reclaim her life is clear. Jennifer is involved by restoring her father’s powers and even manages to use her powers to take down one of the attackers.
It’s a great sequence that can be added to the list of creative action that the show has produced prior to this point. The combination of visuals, music and strategy add up to something really impressive and there is always a kinetic sense of urgency to it. Nothing about the sequence is about being heroic as it’s more focused on a family fighting something larger than themselves so that they can escape it rather than defeat it. The problems in this show can’t he easily defeated but survival to continue fighting against them is seen as its own victory.
A big part of the episode focuses on streamlining the villain presence for the next season. At this point we have Tobias and Proctor who were working together to an extent but there was never any doubt that Tobias wanted to end that partnership. He sends Lala as a bomb mule which services as a declaration of War of sorts and takes the opportunity to attack when Proctor’s resources are divided by his campaign against the Pierce family.
Tobias benefits greatly from having engaging lackeys in the form of Syonide and Khalil who greatly enhance the sequence where he attacks the A.S.A stronghold thanks to their skills. It’s a wonderfully shot sequence that makes good use of these characters and shows Tobias as a force to be reckoned with. It looks like he’s now the real villain power in Freeland with a fresh supply of Green Light so the writers have put him in a strong place going into the next season.
The apparent departure of Lala is really disappointing as the character was proving to be really interesting. Tobias’ confirmation that everyone he kills will come back to haunt him as a side effect of the reanimation process creates potential for a lot of varied guilt based characterisation so having him explode feels like a missed opportunity. I’m personally not convinced that he’s dead but the episode certainly wants the viewwr to believe that he is. It seems pointless to bring him back and establish that background only to cast if off so abruptly.
Proctor is more problematic as there is very little nuance to him. There’s a throwaway reference to him working on his own renegade operation which leaves the A.S.A. on the board as a villainous presence in the future while still solving the immediate problem. Gregg Henry does a good job delivering a larger than life performance but the character is too on the nose. Two separate instances of “Make America great again” is really heavy handed as social commentary goes and in general there isn’t enough to the character to make an impression. His artificial metahumans in pods plot doesn’t go anywhere other than give the Pierce family something to look at in disgust and want to save. It’s structurally problematic to spend so long building something only to have it result in very little though I’m sure this isn’t over quite yet and will be picked up in the second season. He is also dispatched in a really underwhelming way with no real fanfare to it.
In general nothing is really resolved in this episode though that is largely by design as the problems of Freeland can’t be resolved in a single season. It is a varied community that has systemic issues in need of addressing. Jeff is working to set an example in his role as Principal and Black Lightning but there is a lot of work to do. What this season has done is create a family dynamic that has grown stronger in the face of everything they’ve endured so it’s fitting that the finale of the first season would end with that family together and happy as they ready themselves to take on any future challenges.
The perspective of the common people is brought into the episode as well. News reports show that the people are grateful for Black Lightning stopping illegal human experimentation which shows something of a restoration of their faith in him as their Hero. It also acts as an emotionally drive summary of what has been happening in the season so far. It’s the bes way to sum everything up because it connects the events to people and how it made them feel which is far more effective than empty exposition. It’s a sign that things are getting better and that the people aren’t going to be so easy to control in future.
An excellent finale that focuses on the Pierce family and their ever changing dynamic. Having the characters represent opposite sides of an argument is a great idea such as Anissa being ready for action as Gambi encourages a more measured approach. Similarly Jennifer is struggling to accept the situation when Lynn has come to terms with it to a certain degree. The flashbacks involving Jeff’s relationship with his father and the influence he had on the values he holds are great. It’s clear that the influence is profound and ties into the ongoing themes of the show.
The A.S.A. attack sequence is really well handled with strong focus on the Pierce family working together to defeat them. Everyone has something to do including Jennifer who restores her father’s powers and uses her own to defeat someone. The sequence where Tobias takes on Proctor is also great. It’s really well choreographed and makes good use of the skills of the characters. Putting Tobias at the top of the criminal food chain is a good starting point for the next season. Proctor is the weak link as far as villains go as he is lacking in depth and is dispatched really quickly as his plot comes to very little. In general little is resolved in this finale as expected because Freeland has more problems than can be solved in a single season. For the most part this has been a story about a family growing stronger in the face of adversity.
The short answer is that I’m not sure as this season doesn’t resolve any of the larger issues. I didn’t expect it to and I’m glad that the writers didn’t try to wipe the slate clean going into next season because there was so much built up that any resolution would have been half baked and disappointing.
My guess is that Tobias won’t go unchallenged for long and will have some sort of rival early next season where he will have to assert his dominance once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if the A.S.A return in some form to throw a spanner in the works as well.
In terms of the Pierce family I’d expect Anissa go deal with unexpected challenges as a hero and possibly suffer some detriment to her personal life as a result. As she grows she may realise what the true price of leading a double life is and I wouldn’t be surprised if she risks her true identity being exposed.
Jeff will most likely continue to juggle his various responsibilities to various degrees of success. I’d personally like to see more of him mentoring kids who really need him and develop relationships around that. As this is going on there will likely be challenges as he and Lynn figure out their newly rekindled relationship.
Jennifer’s arc will probably focus on her learning how to deal with her powers and have her torn between her desire for a normal life and the urge sue has to help others. Khalil should play into this as I doubt she will be ready to give up on him.
What I’ve supplied above is only speculation on my part. Truthfully I’m perfectly content with what the writers have done so far and trust them to continue on as they have. This season wasn’t flawless but what is? This show is certainly unique in its focus on a strong family dynamic and really sophisticated world building so that all of the elements feel as real as possible. I will certainly be watching and continuing to review the show next season.
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