Black Lightning reveals its stakes: superheroes are bad at love

Contributed by
Jan 24, 2018

If last week’s debut was about the lengths showrunners Salim and Mara Brock Akil are willing to go to to portray a nuanced superhero tale of Black retributive justice, this week’s episode of Black Lightning was centered on the stakes of all this hero business.

Everything begins in the body.

Right off the bat, we get a sense of Jefferson’s corporeal struggle to house his electric power. Cress Williams, topless and protruding, grimaces and groans as his daughters and ex-wife sleep in the other room before the latter hears him and comforts him on the bathroom floor. Lynn Pierce (wonderfully portrayed by China Anne McClain) reminisces on the earlier, happier moments of their marriage, holding his head while Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” streams into the background. There’s still so much love between the two characters, and their chemistry is thick. It’s a rare choice to portray a Black couple who have done the whole marriage thing, who still hold so much love for one another but are trying to maneuver the contours of true happiness under the context of a superhero show, but somehow it works. The opening is a self-contained moment of magic that is often missing in shows of this ilk.

But the larger-scale stakes are even more layered than the relationship issues (which we will return to in a moment, I’m looking at you, Jennifer). The 100 has created a dreadful fear in Freeland. When Jefferson holds a townhall-lite meeting at Garfield High, he couldn’t get in two MLK quotes before parents in the community began to voice their displeasure. One mother, Lawanda, voices her concern about her daughter who’s been taken to the Seahorse Motel — where Lala’s gang gets down — during the events of last week’s episode. When she learns that they cannot arrest Lala because there’s “no evidence she’s being held against her will,” Lawanda challenges Jefferson with sharp conviction: “Why did Black Lightning only save your girls, Mr. Pierce?” BIG YIKES.

There’s a lot going on in this scene. Not only does the justification for Lala’s freedom sound terrifyingly familiar, but Lawanda’s questioning brings about the central conundrum of the show with fierce concision: Who is allowed the privilege of being saved? Packed in that school auditorium are the people that both Jefferson Pierce and Black Lightning swore to protect (the teachers used to call Principal Pierce Black Jesus, for what it's worth. Not the most creative nickname but that’s beside the point) and now, somehow, only those with the last name Pierce are worthy of safety?

But even if they’re safe from Lala, Anissa and Jennifer Pierce are still dealing with the trauma of being kidnapped by the 100. One of Lala’s youngest disciples approaches Jennifer like a neighborhood candy-seller only to reveal a toy water gun filled with red paint, pulling the trigger multiple times in front of her home. Courtesy of Lala. Jennifer is stunned and utterly shook from the experience. Later on, after she hides a cigarette she’s puffing while reflecting on her rooftop, Jennifer is joined by her friend Khalil, who, after hearing of her near-death experience, builds the courage to ask for her hand in boyfrienddom.

It’s a cute moment in an episode underpinned by portrayals of devotion old and new that are undoubtedly tested by trauma. Later, Jennifer is seen with a friend just doing what teens do, ya know, drinking a bottle of wine under the gym bleachers no worries. Her excuse? “YOLO.” Probably the show’s most “how do you do fellow kids” moment so far is counterbalanced by Khalil’s emotional response to her pain. The new couple promises to bring some drama and, perhaps, the show’s purest image of unfettered love.

Anissa commitment issues with her girlfriend Chenoa, on the other hand, are only exacerbated by the revelation of her new powers. Chenoa wants to be seen by Anissa as more than just a lover but as a real companion. Anissa, who’s been through quite a bit in the last week, says she needs more time to figure things out; Chenoa presses at first, but then comes to realize that Anissa’s terrifying experience is still taking its toll on her, mind and body. Telling Chenoa about the broken sink (that somehow no one else in the Pierce house has noticed yet?) felt like a step most shows wouldn’t take — usually wanting to keep powers and all things supernatural a secret between lovers to drum up the drama — Chenoa’s clear-eyed shrugging off felt a little odd. So now the revelation of Anissa powers is in this in-between space of secret and sad attempt.

Speaking of really sad attempts. Remember Lawanda? Well, at that meeting, she vowed to handle things on her own by videotaping Lala at the Seahorse — flying in the face of Jefferson’s warnings. She confronts Lala with video camera in hand and it doesn’t take too long for him to pop a few slugs in her chest, instantly killing her (I mean, this is a dude who kills his own cousin earlier in the episode, so there’s absolutely no hesitation knocking off Lawanda). The scene harkening back to Jennifer’s scare with the neighborhood kid. But Lawanda, understanding the gravity of her sacrifice, had her phone camera propped up on the dashboard, capturing everything and eventually sealing Lala’s fate.

When Jefferson learns of Lawanda’s death, he’s heartbroken and irate. Williams’ face reddened in anguish, tells Lynn that he cannot live like he doesn’t have the god-given powers they once called “a blessing.” He suits up and pretty much runs roughshod all over Lala’s men at the Seahorse. Black Lightning is a power brawler, throwing haymakers and heavy roundhouse kicks charged by his inner electricity. Finally reaching Lala, he is stopped a bit prematurely before he can deliver the final blow. That honor would be given to Tobias Whale, who, through his connections with the local police, is allowed into Lala’s cell, comments on Lala’s unpredictability being untenable, and crushes his throat with one hand. Sheesh, that’s a cooooold muhfucka, man.


If this episode taught us anything it’s that the show is undeniably concerned with tug and pull of love and heroism. Lynn cannot, in good faith, be a lover to Jefferson if he takes on the mantle of Black Lightning once again. Their love, forever strained by the mysterious addiction he might’ve had to his powers almost a decade ago. Jennifer and Khalil’s love will be tested by the residual traumas she’s experienced and the power that she has yet to tap into. And Anissa, coming to an understanding that her power is actually power, will have to reckon with Chenoa’s pressure for commitment later in the season. With the stakes made plain, Black Lightning settles into a lather of strained familial dynamics; new, exciting power; and a struggling community fighting an upward battle against corruption. Buckle up.