Tuesday, April 17, 2018

REVIEW: 'Black Lightning' - The Pierce Family Must Rally Together to Survive in 'Shadow of Death: The Book of War'

The CW's Black Lightning - Episode 1.13 "Shadow of Death: The Book of War"

The aftermath of the showdown with Black Lightning leaves everyone reeling. Meanwhile, Tobias gathers his forces.

This was a fantastic debut season for Black Lightning. In the very first episode, the drama was so distinctive in a genre that has become very formulaic and familiar over the last few years. It presented a new way to tell a superhero story. It made the show about the central family. All of the emotions of the narrative came from the relationships Jefferson had with his daughters and ex-wife. The show understands the power of its community as well. It has an awareness of just how important its visuals are. It's important to see people of color putting on the superhero outfits and being the saviors of this community. It's presenting a metaphor for the excellence and strength of black bodies that must be cherished at all times and not immediately viewed as threats. It also told a gripping story about the ripple effects of generational oppression and trauma. So much of this season was framed around Jefferson's father, Alvin, dying because he wrote an exposé on all the heinous stuff that Tobias Whale and the ASA were involved in. He wanted to blow the lid off of this whole operation in Freeland. It cost him his life. Jefferson developed powers because of these experiments. He was their most successful test subject because he had Gambi looking out for him and training him. He used his powers in order to protect his community. But that wasn't the only way he was choosing to give back either. He saw the importance in educating and giving the younger generation the tools they needed to succeed and earn respect in the world. He became a community leader both as Jefferson Pierce and Black Lightning. That duality doesn't stand in opposition either. Here, it's a wonderful framing device to see that one informs the other and allows both to have strength when the situation requires it.

Now, it could be a huge problem for the first half of the season finale to sideline Jefferson in a bed where he is unconscious and his family doesn't know if he'll ever recover. It could be seen as nothing more than a stalling technique so that the show doesn't have to build up to its climatic conclusion to its season-long story until the very end of the hour. But there's so much power that comes from the Pierce family having this time to regroup and worry about one another. The finale opens on a black-and-white flashback to Gambi confronting Alvin about naming names in his exposé. He sees it as a huge mistake that paints a target on his back. Alvin sees it as the just thing to do because he has a personal stake in this story. The audience already knows the tragedy that occurs next. Alvin died as a principled man who refused to back down. It robbed Jefferson of a father at a time when he really needed one. And now, it's important to see that the first time Jefferson experiences his powers he's running away from the police. He's involved in a protest that gets out of hand. The officers are completely willing to use excessive force to detain Jefferson. He survives only because he has these gifts. He doesn't understand them or know how to control them. But he is alive because of them. He feels that gratitude and feels inspired to take action to ensure he uses them for good. Throughout this entire story, he has always wondered if the sacrifices he was making as Black Lightning were truly worth it. Was he actually making Freeland a better place? That's what makes it so resonant when Jefferson has a conversation with Alvin while in this limbo state. His father understands that it's a burden that only Jefferson can recognize and carry. But there is so much importance to him giving these opportunities to the people who are systemically taken advantage of.

Of course, it's also annoying that the show has a brief tease where it seems like Jefferson has lost his powers. It comes right after Gambi delivers a whole speech to Jefferson outlining how metahumans like the Pierce family are different from Tobias Whale and his associates. He notes that it is genetic for Jefferson, Anissa and Jennifer. For the villains they are facing, it is synthetic brought about by advances in technology that have gifted them with these abilities. As such, it always seemed unlikely that Jefferson's powers were gone for good. But the act of restoration is so powerful that it makes up for that fact. Jennifer has been so reluctant about her powers. She didn't want to explore what she could do. She only saw them as a burden that she wanted to get rid of as soon as possible. But now, her abilities have helped save her father's life on multiple occasions. She served as a defibrillator when Jefferson's heart stopped beating. And now, she is able to transfer some of her energy to her father in the hopes of starting his powers up again. It's an act that works. It's so special because it builds this new connection between father and daughter. Jefferson has been so proud of his girls for this entire season. He has been so invigorated to see them listen to his advice and make the right choices when involved in very dangerous situations. Anissa has come a long way as a superhero. And now, it's thrilling for Jefferson to see this realization for Jennifer. She is now starting to see that her abilities are actually miraculous. They are literally life-saving. Jefferson appreciates that so much. Jennifer is able to protect her family when they need it the most.

All of this is phenomenal personal drama that the show mines so effectively. The focus on the family has been the highlight for the entire first season. The Pierce family started the season fractured by their secrets. They were carrying those individual burdens not knowing how to talk to each other about them. And now, they are so inspired because of this open and honest dialogue amongst them. It is able to fuel them as they face off with this severe threat. The most glaring problem of this finale is the one-note characterization of Proctor as the villain. He's basically just the stand-in for white corporate America that strives to oppress people of color at every turn. It's a character type that Gregg Henry has played before and quite well too. He is still menacing and relishes chewing the scenery of this story. But it's over-the-top in a really lame way to see him lose his cool here as he just wants to "make America great again." That seems tacked on in a way to make the show itself seem more relevant and topical when it's been doing such a brilliant job in addressing things in a more subtle and nuanced way. It makes it easy for the family to get their fist-pumping moments while easily defeating these government soldiers. Everyone gets their moment to shine as well. Jefferson and Anissa are the ones with the superhero identities who are making the choice to stay in Freeland and face these threats. But Jennifer has her moment of protecting her mother while Lynn and Gambi are more than comfortable using guns to hold their positions in the cabin. It's a strong action sequence because it's everyone working in unison because they are all on the same page about what they want.

It's still a story that does end in Proctor's death. Gambi is the one who shoots him. It's a fitting conclusion because Gambi already sees himself as a monster. This way he's not forcing anyone else in the family to corrupt their values just to deal with this threat against them. But the power of the conclusion comes from the Pierce family releasing their findings to the community around them. It's completely left up in the air what happens to the bodies of the missing children. The ASA was storing them until they could manipulate the metahuman gene to their advantage. Many of them were in the midst of dying because of needing to be moved several times. Lynn's grand idea seems to be broadcasting the truth which earns the respect of the community once more. It's truly profound to listen to the people on the street talk about people of color being justified in feeling paranoid about the world being out to get them. They have a right to fear for their lives and safety. The world has proven again and again that they are expendable. That's just not right. Black Lightning and Thunder helped expose this injustice. They are ultimately praised by the police - even though Henderson is still extremely against vigilantism. He sees this as a victory despite the complicated heroes at the center of it all. And in the end, it's just so pleasant to see this family enjoying being together in their home. It's a fitting conclusion for the story this season. They have been fractured because of generational fears and oppression. And now, they are the ones responsible for alleviating some of that despair. That's a victory that they can relish in for a little while. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Shadow of Death: The Book of War" was written by Charles D. Holland and directed by Salim Akil.
  • Once Proctor was introduced and stepped up as a series villain while Tobias was taking a step back, it seemed pretty clear that the resolution of the show would be tied to dealing with Proctor and the ASA and not whatever was going on with Tobias. As such, Tobias survives to fight for another season. That's a great thing too because Marvin "Krondon" Jones III's performance continues to be so excellent.
  • Tobias is still a very active component of this finale as well. He also helps cripple the ASA's operation. At the moment, he feels it's what he has to do because they no longer serve a purpose for him. He failed to deliver Black Lightning alive. So now, he must deal with this threat. He does so fairly easily too. He, Syonide and Khalil are able to storm the facility and attack with their enhanced abilities. In doing so, he potentially retrieves a vital weapon.
  • Of course, it's also a little weird that the show waits until the season finale to outline the enhanced abilities that Tobias and Syonide have. It's always been clear that they have powers that make them formidable foes. But now, Gambi explains how Tobias is so strong while seemingly not aging. He also gives a tragic backstory to Syonide as well as a brutal tale of the torturous procedure done to make her stronger.
  • The resolution to the Lala story is incredibly lame. That subplot has been so intriguing during the second half of the season. It was the show's apparent turn into the mystical. Now, it's explained that Tobias has invested in a program that can reanimate people back to life. That's certainly ominous. He can control them as well. As such, Lala's story ends with him becoming a bomb that's planted in the ASA headquarters. That's a lackluster way for him to go. But him being revived once creates the assumption that he'll be revived again.
  • The show has already been renewed for a second season. It proved to be a strong success story for The CW. It didn't even need a ratings boost from its lead-in, The Flash. It was able to establish itself as a self-starter right away with a loyal audience. Of course, I also wonder how many episodes it will produce next season. 13 really was the perfect amount for this season. Because it doesn't have a procedural element, 22 could be really daunting and uneven. So, I remain hopeful that everyone involved will be smart in capping it off at shorter runs.