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Black Lightning showrunner talks final season, Painkiller spinoff, and teases Ishmael
On Monday, Feb. 8, Black Lightning's fourth and final season, premiered on The CW. The only show on the network with a predominantly African-American cast, Black Lightning has never shied away from real-world issues. Season 3, which ended in January 2020, provided an eerie fictional preview of real-world events for the rest of the year. Freeland was shut down by a government military organization, followed by protests, state-mandated curfews, and police violence against many Black citizens. And everyone was caught in the crossfire between the ASA, armed militia, and the Markovians on the hunt for metas, leading to all-out war.
In comparison, Season 4 starts quietly. A year after The Book of Occupation storyline, Freeland almost looks like it's back to normal. In The Book of Reconstruction, when we first see Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), he no longer limps from the wounds inflicted upon him by Gravedigger (Wayne Brady) in the season finale. But just under the surface lie the telltale signs of trauma that come from the unrelenting stress of battle, the loss of his best friend, Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), and the fact that every member of the Pierce family has had to take a life to survive. No one can reach Jeff, not even close family friend Gambi (James Remar).
This is the storyline that showrunner and premiere episode director Salim Akil drops us into almost immediately. "Since we had dealt with a lot of political issues and wrapped that up last season. I wanted to get back to family issues," Akil tells SYFY WIRE. "The Pierces have gone through so much over the first three seasons. Now they're able to sort of reflect on what they've been through. We're going to deal with the trauma of what going through that does to you."
Jefferson is clearly off-kilter. He shunned the Black Lightning name and suit and used his electrical powers on a couple of abusive cops — in broad daylight without a mask. At home, things aren't much better, as he can't seem to be present for his family, and Lynn, his wife, is at a loss. And in a rare choice for both a superhero show and a story featuring an African-American family, the Pierces go to therapy. "Not all Black people live in neighborhoods with a lot of violence in them, but far too many do," Akil says. "What I wanted to show was the idea of how to heal. That was why I put Lynn and Jefferson in therapy."
To make up for Jefferson's lack of resolve, the Pierce girls, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), "Thunder" and "Lightning" respectively, pick up the slack cleaning up the streets of Freeland from the 100 gang — back to their usual nonsense in Black Lightning's absence. The synergy between Williams and McClain in their roles is palpable and many fans had hoped this meant a Thunder and Lightning spinoff show was in the works at The CW. But hopes were dashed at McClain's reduced role announcement and the cancellation news. However, according to Akil, we will see more of the Pierce sisters in the Painkiller "backdoor pilot" airing as Episode 7 this season. "We're shooting the Painkiller pilot now," Akil confirms. "We fully intend for it to be a spinoff. I know that if Painkiller gets picked up, you'll probably see [the Pierce sisters] in there."
Khalil "Painkiller" Payne (Jordan Calloway) has had one of the more interesting arcs on the show. The character has gone from good guy to bad guy and back again, as Khalil fights his implanted "Painkiller" programming. The software gives him superhuman strength and fighting abilities but comes with an unpredictable psychopathic serial killer DLC option. "With Khalil, I wanted to get into the idea of the duality of Black men," Akil explains. "How, in some cases, you're one person in one area of your life and you have to be another person. I'm trying to figure that out with this character: how do you bring those two parts of you together without sacrificing who you truly are?"
We also see a duality in Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III), who appears not as a hardened criminal, but as an upstanding citizen of Freeland. Of course, as with most things, this is just a ruse for Tobias. His goal was and always will be to get a meta stabilization gene from Jefferson's wife, genius physician Lynn Pierce. Not only can she combine different meta genes to make a meta superpower cocktail for mere mortals, but she has been experimenting with them herself, as we see her use one of Gravedigger's powers to stop a robbery.
Wale isn't the only member of Black Lightning's rogues gallery that will be making an appearance. La La is still running the 100 and Gravedigger's shapeshifting abilities he acquired in the season finale mean he might be anyone or anywhere. Akil also teased a new character for this final season that will challenge the Pierces once again. "Ishmael is a new character that we're going to see, and he's from the comics."
The DC Comics version of Ishmael was created by Bryan Edward Hill and Dexter Soy. A member of the League of Assassins, Ishmael could leach power from other metas. We'll have to wait and see if his onscreen counterpart will share the same power set. On team Black Lightning, familiar faces like Grace (Chantal Thuy), T.C. (Christopher A'mmannuel), and meta earthbender Brandon (Jahking Guillory) will all make appearances in this final season of the show, along with newcomer Melissa De Sousa, who joined the cast during the premiere as new Freelance Chief of Police Anna Lopez.
Black Lightning was the only show on The CW that existed outside of the Arrowverse until the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline brought Jefferson to Center City. That autonomy allowed Akil to create full story arcs for his main characters, and introduce a whole generation of Black superheroes to live-action –– heroes their parents have only seen in animation. And there were some he just didn't have enough time to explore. "You know, I wanted to include Bumblebee, but didn't want to do it just to do it. I wanted to find the perfect storyline, but I never was able to get to it."
Although Akil wishes he could have done more with these characters, he is confident that the show will come to a satisfying conclusion. "I think we could have come up with more stories for a fifth season, but it's just a blessing to have four years to tell stories. Stories that I think resonated with everyone, but particularly the African-American community. I mean, you can't beat that. When I started this, I said, if just one Halloween I could see a young man dressed up like Black Lightning or a young girl dressed up like Thunder or Lightning, then I've done something that lasts a lifetime. And that's what artists want. We want to live through the things that we create."