Black Lightning's timing challenge as we approach the season finale

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Apr 11, 2018

Good news, folks: Black Lightning's been renewed for a second season! Congrats to the Akhils, the cast, and all those involved with the creation of the show.

With all the jabbering going on in the penultimate episode of Black Lightning, it's a wonder the central issue rocking the Pierce family is a miscommunication. That disagreement, between Lynn and Jennifer, actually remarks a larger one between the parental unit stretching back to the first episode. Lynn has always had that worried look on her face when she hears of Black Lightning's exploits so it's safe to say her blood pressure has been on the rise in the last few weeks.

But in an episode so caught up in getting us to the finale, "The Resurrection and the Light: The Book of Pain" undermines the family drama as well as the return of LaLa, Kahlil (with new, hideous faux dreads, no less!), and Tobias by burdening them with exposition. It's sort of ironic (and speaks to the shifting expectations between each episode) that after a mid-season swoon during which the showrunners were holding back intrigue, we reach season's end and Black Lightning can't help but show its cards.

Credit: The CW

Such is the difficulty of a weekly episodic in the streaming age. TV audiences are no longer primed for slow burning reveals; our thirsts are quenched with every mash of the "Next Episode" button. Luckily, on the whole, Black Lightning contends with the shifting expectations rather well; the show is so keyed in on the development of the Pierce family identity and its larger connection to the Freeland community. At times, the challenges and messiness of pacing a 13-episode superhero show were all too apparent. The show's long-term mysteries stretch over what feels like large patches of time, leaving audiences twiddling their thumbs waiting for pins to drop while subplots add context and weight to the narrative. Plot points like Anissa’s relationship with Chenoa and LaWanda haunting LaLa were forgotten altogether.

Where Black Lightning shines — the school town hall meeting in the second episode, the march against The 100 that left Kahlil paralyzed, the action-packed "Revelations," and Jefferson's booking scenes last week — is when its superhero narrative serves as an additive to the larger societal woes that Freeland faces.

Unlike previous episodes which usually feature a healthy diet of fight scenes, wonky superhero drama and whimsical dialogue, "The Book of Pain" slogs through long-winded explanations, flurrying through major narrative progressions built up over an entire season. Answers about Kahlil's disappearance are explained in two separate conversations with Jefferson and Jennifer (with a throwaway scene with Kahlil's mother in case we didn't believe he turned evil the first time); the miscommunication subplot wherein Jennifer suggests that Lynn is trying to "fix" her by taking away her powers is solved in two scenes; and Gambi's search for the weapons that killed Lady Eve are resolved rather quickly. This episode was so focused on preparing for next week, each subplot felt superfluous, only functioning to take us from point A to point B.

A measure of exposition is, of course, necessary for any story, but when Black Lightning is on, the dialogue gives way to exhilarating climaxes that unlock potential drama for the Pierce family moving forward. To be sure, the fight scenes during Kahlil and Tobias' attack on Garfield High is a doozy. With mirroring shaky shots jumping from Black Lightning's tussle with Tobias and Thunder's kicking Syanide's ass, "The Book of Pain" rumbles into next week's episode with searing momentum.

Black Lightning is hit with one of Kahlil's darts and assumed dead. But before Tobias can take off his mask, Thunder blows him backward through the school's hallway. Through gasps and tears, Jennifer (who needs to learn a thing or two about secret identities) jolts his heart to life using her powers. As terrified as Anissa and Jennifer seemed, the emotional gravity of the moment was nil. And it wasn't because we knew Jefferson would survive; it's more to do with the previous 50 minutes unabashedly preparing for next week. There was no way, narratively, that Jefferson could stay dead, even between episodes.

Black Lightning's challenging pacing doesn't take too much away from the show's magnetism. It's still a joy to see this gorgeously rendered Black superhero family search for happiness and cohesion both interpersonally and within a tight-knit Freeland community. It's still attempting to speak to the institutional methods of subjugation —this episode's opening scene between Tobias and Proctor highlight this especially — and the ways Black communities' reslience is taught and sustained.

Maybe it's trying too hard to do too much, but it's juggled the multileveled narrative well. Not to mention the fact that showrunners naturally become better at concretizing a show's center and developing a speed to explore that center. In its second season, the Akhils may be allowed to flex their more eccentric muscles after growing more comfortable in their superhero outfits. The season finale is sure to be one in which the major players come out guns blazing.

All one can hope for in anticipating next season is for Black Lightning to keep that same energy flowing throughout.