The CW's Black Lightning doesn't want us to forget the nine-year period in which these central characters lived full lives; they formed and dissolved alliances, had public and inconspicuous careers, built families, faced residual trauma from those families, and learned to survive in a changing Freeland.
"And Then the Devil Brought the Plague: The Book of Green Light" juggles those multiple important backstories, fleshing out the nature of this period in a packed episode that sets the table for the back half of the season. While the episode itself feels stuffed to a near-dizzying degree, the rich details of each individual story keep our intrigue afloat amidst the show's jumpiness.
The defining feature of Black Lightning's storytelling so far is the relative ease with which it unfolds narratives interlocking the different families and the larger Freeland community. The growth and struggle of the Pierce family has been positioned as a microcosmic view of what's been happening in Freeland with a healthy dose of teases and secrets between family and community members. This week is much more truncated, opting out of the early season's slow burn and substituting a more hurried, table-setting episode that's much more function than form.
Unlike the previous episodes, "And Then the Devil Brought the Plague" reveals, through flashback and exposition, how both Green Light — the highly addictive drug that enhances strength to superhuman levels — and Jefferson's confidant, Gambi, tie the Whale and the Pierce families together in the present with herky-jerky execution.
In the past few weeks, Lynne and Jefferson have repeatedly alluded to the strange, possibly addictive side-effects of Black Lightning's powers that ultimately led to their separation. This week opens with Gambi and Jefferson testing out a new Iron-Man-like flight module in Black Lightning's increasingly sleeker suit. Jefferson is already showing signs of neurological disturbance — piercing headaches we assume has to do with overuse of his lightning power — and pointed aggressiveness. After he does some quick investigative work following another run-in with a Green Light-user, Jefferson learns that an old enemy involved with his father's murder, Joey Toledo, is involved with the dangerous drug.
Toledo was supposed to be dead, according to Gambi — which brings us up to two major criminals he assured Jefferson were out of Freeland — and his presence leaves Jefferson fuming. Dovetailed with a scene of Gambi and Tobias vaguely referencing a deal they made for the latter to remain invisible, it's clear Gambi has a load of secrets that are beginning to make Jefferson skeptical.
Even while his powers are all outta whack, Jefferson tries to maintain composure in stressful situations. He saves the kid ODing on Green Light by lightly shocking him unconscious while reprimanding a couple of police officers' use of lethal force ("Next time, try using a taser first!"). Later, while looking for pain relief medication, he settles an in-store dispute between a customer and a clerk but, even then, he's shown to be holding back quite a bit of frustration.
This push for compromise bleeds over in the ways he trains up his kids, as well. After a very odd talk with the mother and aunt of a girl Jennifer injures in a fight, Jefferson tries to stress the importance of using physical violence only as a final option to quell any further harm. He doesn't so much preach peace as he does encourage the practical and contextual use of physical force. Black Lightning exists on a spectrum of morality, one that sees the utility of force while still remaining responsible within one's own community. The specificity and care entrapped in these moments of father-daughter conversations speak to how Pierce idealizes his place within Freeland.
Upbringing and backstories collide here as the show contextualizes Tobias' childhood, as well. He and Tori are revealed to be products of violent and broken homes where their father, Eldridge, physically and verbally abused them. The show tells this story with Tobias sort of reliving the trauma of his father calling him a "pale ass" troublemaker who will never amount to anything.
The circuity of violence in his life doesn't necessarily make for sympathy — Tobias ends up finding his elderly father, breaking his back and leaving him to die. Instead, it adds a particular weight to the character's motivations as someone who'd kill to prove his worth. And he will have to. If Tobias is to maintain his strength and role as the leader of the 100, he needs to focus on killing Black Lightning, and with haste.
Anissa is quickly becoming the most exciting character on the show as her origin story unfolds. In a way, Black Lightning is creating a new backstory for her superhero persona, which speaks back to the importance of the character's beginnings. Her care for the community began, she learns, two generations ago when her community-focused grandfather was murdered for investigating an experiment on kids with superhuman enhancements. She's charged by what she finds and commits to the superhero schtick — going on a fun shopping spree to procure a functional costume — and trying to learn more about what her journalist grandfather was learning.
Unlike her dad's gaudy outfit, Anissa's blue latex, gold gauntlets, and blonde wig are noticeably brighter and aspiring, and her journey to learn her powers is delightfully structured. It is clear that the show is working toward the Pierce daughters finding their own way into the superhero drama, and if Anissa's path is any indication, it will be the show's hearty center that pulls aspects of community, family, and responsibility together.
As for this week's episode, it reads like Anissa's ripped black latex — just too packed for all the quick, sudden movements the narrative requires. If Black Lightning is to return to the seamless storytelling from episodes prior, it has to centralize its focus on the heady ideas and methodical nature of the first part of the season. The show has to spend less time drumming up the drama of overlapping narratives. That's not to say that the character's previous lives and their new, unfolding journeys don't keep us enthralled. All the table-setting this week is sure to make for some explosive moments in the coming episodes.