Here be spoilers for Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 4: "Black Jesus."
The central question for the early-goings of Black Lightning is rather simple: How does newfound power mediate the relationships the Pierce family engages with, daily, on a personal and communal scale? Up until this point, the show has largely portrayed the negotiation in terms of intended and collateral damage. As the line between the Pierces' personal investment in various forms of power and the grave needs of Freeland begin to dovetail, each character is reminded of the human toll their decisions have on the people and forces surrounding them.
The genius of Black Lightning is how the showrunners portray the despair Freeland faces within the Pierce-family microcosm. This week, it feels, the inertia surrounding Khalil’s diagnosis and development as a character is hinted at all throughout the community with each turn — providing some much-needed weight to an otherwise clumsy reveal in last week's episode.
Black Lightning returns to its heady and subtle storytelling in "Black Jesus" as each member of the Pierce family is faced with an intense set of interconnected negotiations.
For Jefferson, who seeks to save a student, Bernard, from the dangers of addiction to a new street drug, Green Light (Gambi: "it's like if crack and PCP had a baby!"), he risks the power gathered over nine years on the school board to fulfill a singular promise. Bernard is ODing in the bathroom, palpitating on the floor and gaining enough strength to rip urinals out of the wall. When principal Pierce uses his power to restrain him, he thrusts himself into a struggle between how his power might save a whole community while dooming the lives of particular individuals.
Searching for the source of the drugs leads Jefferson to a hustler named 2-Bits who he's grown to care for over the years. When Pierce finds out 2-Bits is a part of the crew selling the dangerous drug, he negotiates a compromise that ensures his freedom (he has two strikes against him already, and a third meant 30 years behind bars) while also leading Pierce up the ladder of the organization. In real time, Pierce as Black Lightning considers the power he has to lock up a brotha facing the same systemic issues other black Freelanders deal with, coming up with an alternative that, hopefully, means each gets what they want.
The human toll that comes from superpowers also plays out in Anissa's experimenting with her powers as well. Two dealers pushing their product on a few of Anissa's students are met with her fury after threatening her. Anissa is still figuring out the limits of her powers so when she sends them flying through the air with a shove and a punch, she is concerned about whether or not she's actually harmed them in any permanent way. She checks their vitals and calls an ambulance to come pick them up because she is a character, we've learned, who is still very much worried about the health of her community.
This presents a problem that is hardly captured on superhero shows in the past: to what extent is it ethical to test the boundaries of one's powers on human subjects? Watching her figure out those boundaries will be fascinating, especially as it pertains to her politics. She has the power now to do something about the rising crime in Freeland, but will she hurt more than she helps?
While her sister does not necessarily have superpowers, her position as Khalil's girlfriend while he deals with the psychic and physical consequences of Black Lightning's appearance last week has huge implications for the rest of the season. Jennifer has been spending every waking moment in Khalil’s recovery, neglecting school work and the track team — which she actually ends up quitting, much to the chagrin of her parents. At the hospital, Khalil is focused on proving the medical staff, who assume he will never walk again, wrong by giving everything he can to physical therapy.
Jennifer puts on a strong face for him but is still emotionally shaken by her own fears and doubts. For her, quitting the track team was not only an articulation of autonomy from her parents, but a show of real investment in Khalil. And when he doesn't pay any mind to the landmark decision, Jennifer's face begins to negotiate her investment as the rock of that relationship. When Khalil seeks reassurance: "You still my ride or die?" she hesitates because she's starting to realize this might not be a position of power that she needs to be invested in. Especially without reciprocation.
In smaller scenes, the negotiation of power and investments abounds. Lady Eve is reconsidering the great influence she and her partners bestowed upon Tobias Whale as his claim of Black Lightning's death is proven false. In terms of paying off dividends in the future, Whale himself sees an opportunity to turn Khalil into a problem from within the Pierce camp. Whale sows seeds of hate within Khalil, stoking the anti-Black Lightning fire that could come to mean the dissolution of the Pierce family later on. It’s an ominous, intriguing prospect for the show, that makes last week shotgunning feel worth it in the long run. This partnership is sure to make for an explosive mid-season episode next week.