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Black Lightning completes its season with time travel and care

Contributed by
Apr 17, 2018

WARNING: SPOILERS for Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 13: "Shadow of Death: The Book of War."

Broken into two halves, the final episode of Black Lightning features last week's residual exposition but, thankfully, imbues those moments with narrative weight, thrusting our momentum forward for the second season. After a week of superfluous jibber-jabber, the first half of "Shadow of Death: The Book of War" featured tense flashback scenes, jumping 30 years into Jefferson Pierce's memory. But there's a war coming. One we've been preparing for — to a much higher degree in the last three weeks. And despite a few script quibbles, the episode did not disappoint.

We've known for some time that the season's major players were going to crash into one another by the end, but it took some time travel to get there. After getting a screw knocked loose in his fight with Tobias and Kahli ... er, Painkiller, Jefferson is unconscious and close to death at the episode's open. The show takes this opportunity to rewind formative moments in Jefferson's relationship with his late father in an attempt to flesh out why Papa Pierce was called to investigate the ASA and how Jefferson's powers and parenting style came to be.

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Credit: The CW

The flashback scenes ranged from resonant to clunky to a hair out of place — sometimes all at once. Take the first of these moments, wherein Jefferson's father uses, naturally, Malcolm X quotes to teach a lesson. After a quiet moment between father and son, Gambi shows up looking like The Feds and warns Alvin that his investigation isn't worth his life, to which the journalist retorts, "No, it's not worth your life." Keith Bolden delivers his best line of the night with aplomb and the sincerity that's engineered some of the show's most pressing arguments. At once, the scene posits Jefferson's dutiful nature as an inheritance and frames, again, the community of Freeland's survival on the labor of Black people who have come to understand the intrinsic value in everyone's lives.

Later on when Jefferson is on the cusp of waking up he meets his father in a flashback as a grown man. The dialogue, however heartfelt, came off wonky as Jefferson apologizes for not stepping up to save his father from Tobias all those years ago. This feeling of guilt was hardly gestured at all in the series. From all we've known up to this point, Jefferson's obligation to rid Freeland of crime is tied to the pursuit of Tobias and other deviants inflicting violence upon its people. Yes, he watched his father die in front of him, but the narrative framed it as an awakening more than a sense of guilt. The powerful cannot subsume the will of the weak.

The scene just before intermission shifted Jefferson's emotional center in ways Black Lightning didn't really earn. It also feels like trying to add significance to the drawn-out war between Tobias and Black Lightning moving forward, though it feels narratively out of place. The flashback could've added that weight weeks ago, perhaps replacing the minutes spent rehashing the scene of Alvin's death.

Finales can and should add baggage to a story between adversaries, especially in superhero shows and especially looking ahead to further seasons. But this felt, at worst, like an unnecessary add-on to a rivalry already teeming with mystique. At best, it could've happened six weeks ago or maybe even next season. Other characters deserved some shine this week that they unfortunately didn't receive.

The show's treatment of the world outside of Jefferson was particularly lacking in intrigue while he was down. Save for a few nice pieces of dialogue between Gambi and the Pierce sisters, the family is basically waiting for him to wake up. Anissa's frustration is the audience's as she's ready to jump into action despite Gambi's measured protestations.

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Credit: The CW

On the other side of the block, Proctor — who we now know, in the cringiest script decision this show has made, is a MAGA fiend — and Tobias maneuver around one another and use LaLa(zurus) as a chess piece; for information in the case of the former and serving as a trojan horse for the latter. LaLa's tortured soul is embedded upon his skin in the form of the faces of those he's killed. What felt like the series opening up another kind of redemption narrative hit a sudden pause as Tobias devilishly lures Proctor into an attack by dangling LaLa in front of him while forcing the latter into a suicide-bombing situation. We do not know if LaLa is dead for sure (comics!) because we didn't see him die (TV!), so the jury is still out on whether he'll return ... but my money is on definitely.

Everything begins to percolate when Jefferson wakes up, with Gambi and the Pierce family jump into action with Gambi running point. Proctor calls for a tactical unit to descend on their location and s*** gets on and popping. After a gorgeously rendered scene where Jennifer revives Jefferson's power out of sheer emotion, Black Lightning, Thunder, Gambi and a shotgun-toting Lynn begin beating down fools. Proctor collides with the family after a few well-done action set pieces — the flow of Thunder's fight with the goons in particular is a far cry from some of the more stiff stuff she was pulling off earlier this season — and the stand-off commences. Jennifer (who's quickly becoming my fave character) drops Proctor on his ass before Gambi pops a couple caps in his chest. It's honestly wild how a murdered rogue government official can bring the family together!

While spotty in some instances, the first season of Black Lightning has been a tightly-focused family drama portraying the reciprocal nature of social schisms — albeit primarily using a Black male lens — and nuclear blood ties that also has, ya know, some superhero stuff thrown in for good measure. Simplistic as it sounds, the premise is executed powerfully as Freeland's cosmology forms around the central idea that justice begins first with care. And care can only happen when we are honest about who we are and empathetic to the struggles of those surrounding us. That is the story of Black Lightning — the hero — and as we charge forward, it will become the story of Thunder, the story of Jennifer, and the story of Freeland. Always together, always caring.

Before we go, it's been a fun, pleasurable experience reviewing Black Lightning this season. Thanks so much for sticking with us throughout!