Black Lightning – Season 1 Episode 6
“Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder”
Black Lightning spends some time focusing on personal connections when Jeff learns that Tobias Whale is still alive and in town.
This was definitely coming sooner or later and there’s a lot of emotional weight behind it thanks to the information that has been given about Jeff’s relationship with Tobias Whale prior to him giving up the life of a superhero. Tobias killed his father and represented a really visceral challenge for Black Lightning so there is a significant grudge there to be worked through.
Jeff is very much consumed by his desire to get revenge in this episode and sets his sights on putting an end to Tobias Whale once and for all. The issue of whether to murder in cold blood for the perceived greater good is a very common moral issue in superhero fiction for very good reason as it presents a very difficult real world issue to the hero that often proves to be defining no matter what they choose to do with it. In a show that focuses on difficult moral questions on a weekly basis this should work better than it does.
The main problem is that the issue is presented in a way that comes across as derivative. Nothing about Jeff’s desire for revenge feels unique to his character and the emotional beats have been done before in so many different places. It isn’t bad as such because Cress Williams is still able to sell the emotional connection and there’s the right amount of tension where it needs to be but I can’t help but feel that there was a better angle to this.
One issue is that Jeff killing Tobias is treated as a moral line that shouldn’t be crossed and that it should be something that Black Lightning as a symbol is above doing. He has consistently been a hero that will try non violent means to solve a problem before resorting to using his powers but it hasn’t really been established what his stance on killing is before now. If it’s something that he has sworn not to do then this needs to be part of the framework of his character and if it’s something that he has accepted as necessary in particular circumstances then this should be part of it as well. It hasn’t really come up in prior episodes because he hasn’t been faced with a situation where he might have to kill someone but addressing it in this episode in such a way suggests that it should probably have been brought up before now.
The execution of Jeff’s decision to put an end to Tobias is problematic because the episode takes such a boring approach to dealing with it. Gambi is surprised at Jeff’s determination to kill Tobias despite how well he knows Jeff. Bringing Lynn in to remind Jeff of his children in order to bring him to his senses is an overly sentimental approach for this show as well. The family dynamic is one of the pillars of Black Lightning but Lynn’s plea to Jeff was a lot cheesier than we are led to expect on this show.
Gambi’s role is still being kept purposely vague which is becoming frustrating. Jeff does suspect that there’s something that Gambi isn’t telling him which is good because intelligent characters who notice the obvious is always more engaging than those being blindly led along. All that happens for now is that the seeds of suspicion are planted which is enough to begin a rift between Jeff and Gambi. This is compelling because it feels like this is growing naturally and is coming from the characters rather than being simply necessary for the plot.
We gain further insight into Gambi’s past when he goes to see Lady Eve and they have a clumsy conversation about when they used to work together in “The Agency” and that there are secrets being kept that could be destructive if revealed. For now the information held by both sides functions as something of a Nuclear Deterrent as both parties stand to suffer if it comes out. The frustrating part is that the withholding of information seems to be in service of developing a mystery that has no business being there. Gambi as a man with a mysterious past is theoretically interesting on its own but all of this secret keeping comes across as a delay tactic more than anything else. It’s possible that the pay off will be satisfying but for now it’s a weak link in the show.
This episode excels when handling the family drama. The Pierce family dynamic is one of the strongest aspects of the show and it’s used to great effect here. Anissa and her development as a superhero is folded into this in different ways. She is seen early in the episode up to her old tricks by protesting a racist statue and getting arrested which links back to the opening scene of the first episode where Jeff picked her up from jail after something similar.
The resulting exchange between Jeff and Anissa is a really interesting one as it helps Jeff see Lynn’s point of view on his heroics. Jeff’s point of view is that Anissa shouldn’t give the police an excuse to hurt her. All it takes is for one cop to see her for nothing more than her colour and she might end up dead. In that moment Jeff realises the reasoning behind the concern that Lynn felt all the years he was enforcing vigilante justice. Up until this point he was unable to see her point of view and now that he does this might create some common ground. Similarly Lynn’s acceptance of the Black Lightning persona when she tried to convince him not to kill Tobias could be a sign of a step forward for them as a family.
Anissa is still trying to define herself as a hero and researching the science behind super powers is helping her do that. She hits a dead end and asks for Lynn’s help which causes certain questions to be asked. Lynn isn’t stupid so realises there must be a very particular reason for asking these questions but she chooses not to pursue it because she trusts that Anissa will tell her the truth when the time is right. It’s a great showcase of the relationship between Mother and Daughter and clearly shows the trust that has been built up over the years between them.
We aren’t left wondering how long it will take the truth to come out either as Anissa resolves to tell Lynn the truth mere scenes later. It doesn’t feel rushed because the events surrounding that decision make a lot of sense. Having her fight her father without either of them knowing who they were fighting made for an entertaining scene and I look forward to see how the their relationship changes now that the truth is known. Cress Williams plays the guilt and terror at doing harm to his daughter flawlessly and the lack of hesitation around being honest with her once he realises who he was fighting is admirable.
Jennifer is also used well in this episode. Her relationship with Khalil has stalled following his injury quite deliberately on the part of the writers. She opens up to Anissa about feeling conflicted over this and feeling guilty about being disappointed that her perfect image of having a boyfriend has been shattered. She was looking forward to having fun in her teenage years rather than caring for her injured boyfriend and she feels terrible for thinking that way. It isn’t Khalil’s fault that this has happened and Jennifer’s reaction is a very human one. It’s interesting to have an uncomfortable subject addressed so directly and for a character to be faced with resolving their feelings about it. From Jennifer’s point of view she is really young and apparently carefree so to be thrust into a difficult position of responsibility with a boyfriend that she doesn’t know that well is a massive adjustment and it’s good that this is addressed rather than simply making Jennifer a paragon of virtue ready to stand by Khalil no matter what.
Social commentary also creeps in where Jennifer is concerned when she is once again picked on by other girls at school for being who she is. Jeff gives her important advice about how some black people resent others for being successful because they believe there are so few opportunities that the success of others takes the chance away from them. It’s a difficult thing to quantify and discuss but Jeff points it out as a possibility rather than a fact which is about the best he can do. It’s an open and frank conversation with his daughter about how complicated life can be for black people as well as people in general and shows a lot of respect for his daughter’s ability to understand the complexities that come with everyday life.
Khalil is acting out against her and Jeff offers her two possibilities to consider. The first is that he is lashing out because he’s in a lot of pain and doesn’t know how to process it and the other is Jennifer is finally seeing the real him brought out by his injury. Either way Jennifer has a lot to deal with and is aware of the choices she has to make. It’s a great scene that reinforces the Father/Daughter relationship while developing Jennifer as a character and removing her from sitting on the sidelines as she often does.
Jennifer’s scene with Khalil where she stands up to him and points out that she isn’t to blame for his injury whether he wants to place that blame on her or not. The beauty of this is that Khalil’s feelings are complex and relatable. What happened to him isn’t fair by any definition; he points out that he did everything right by working hard, staying out of trouble and trying to make something of himself. His injury has shaken his faith in God and in himself so it’s easy to see how Tobias’ offer would be so tempting to him. Tobias makes big promises such as letting him walk again so it will be very tempting for a desperate man. Of course there is an agenda at play on Tobias’ part and this will clearly cause further issues down the line.
An uneven episode that cuts too many corners with plotting that doesn’t really work for this show but excels in the family drama and dynamic. Jeff’s fixation on killing Tobias Whale makes sense given their history but the way the show approaches it doesn’t work very well as it recycles typical beats of people telling him he’s a better man along with a desperate plea from Lynn that comes across as overly cheesy. Similarly the mystery surrounding Gambi is more frustrating than anything else and feels badly out of place.
The familial relationships are well done here. Jeff seeing Lynn’s point of view through his concern for Anissa’s well being is subtle and well done. Lynn trusting Anissa to come to her with the truth in her own time is another nice touch and pays off almost immediately. I liked seeing the fight between Anissa and Jeff where neither knew who they were actually fighting. Jeff’s reaction to finding out he hurt his daughter was perfectly played. Jennifer being honest about the doubts she’s having around her relationship with Khalil is a very real and human reaction to a relatable problem. Khalil’s anger is also relatable because he’s fully aware that he doesn’t deserve what has happened to him which ultimately makes Tobias’ offer even more tempting.
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