Black Lightning Season 4 Episode 1 “The Book of Reconstruction: Chapter One: Collateral Damage”
Director: Salim Akil
Starring: Cress Williams, China Anne McClain, Nafessa Willaims, Christine Adams, Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III, Grace Choi, Peter Gambi, Melissa De Sousa, Wallace Smith, Reggie Hayes
Runtime: 42 minutes
Black Lightning has gotten a lot of praise, deservedly so, for its ability to tailor its superhero stories to reflect the ever-shifting political realities of America, specifically those experienced by black Americans. But it is worth noting that a certain amount of luck contributes to its timeliness as well. After all, when Season 3 ended with the Pierce family and their allies finally freeing Freeland from the tyranny of the ASA the creators had no way of knowing if real-world America was going to get out of its own dystopian period any time soon. Fortunately, the results of the presidential election gave real Americans a similar experience to that of the people of Freeland. The Season 4 premiere continues to replicate the general feel of American life, in which severe difficulties persist despite the major victory that’s been won. Just like we all have to continue to deal with the pandemic and Trump’s lingering influence, the Pierce family and the rest of Freeland must now contend with the cumulative effect of all their traumatic experiences and find a way to rebuild. This is especially true for Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), Black Lightning himself, who has hit something of a breaking point. Williams’ characteristically passionate performance and strong writing mean that Jeff’s struggle is genuinely heart-wrenching but it makes for great television and it seems like in its fourth season, which has also been announced to be its last, Black Lightning will be just as captivating as it was in its outstanding first and third runs.
We pick back up roughly a year after the Markovian invasion was defeated and the ASA was disbanded. Jeff is visiting the grave of his life-long friend Bill Henderson, Freeland’s previous police chief, who died during the Markovian war when he sees a vision of his late father, Alvin Pierce (Keith Arthur Bolden). Alvin urges his son to take up the mantle of Black Lightning once more but Jeff is convinced that his alter ego did more harm than good and is responsible for Henderson’s death. The use of a completely upside-down camera angle to indicate a character’s emotional confusion has become an overused trope, that exaggerates the more striking effect more subtly canted angles have traditionally had, but otherwise, this first scene is strong and effectively sets a somber, emotionally charged tone for the episode and season. Bolden has appeared a couple of times throughout the series but Alvin’s visits are still rare enough to be impactful and his passionate encouragement contrasts sharply with the bitter cynicism Williams brings to Jeff. Some might object to the show returning to the idea of Jeff abandoning the superhero life yet again and Alvin is one of a few characters throughout the episode to point out that we’ve been here before but that’s where this being the final season comes in handy. If this were just another season and the show was going to continue on afterward I would agree that starting without Jeff being Black Lightning again was a mistake, especially since he was out of the suit at the beginning of last year as well, although for different reasons. But since this is the final run it feels like the show coming full circle. Black Lightning began with Jeff becoming a superhero once more after a long retirement and having him do so again (as he surely will) is a good way to bring a sense of finality to his continuing doubts about the good he does. Plus, it’s not like the premiere is devoid of Jeff kicking ass. After he leaves the cemetery he sees a pair of white police officers attacking a young black man. Sick of this kind of repetitive injustice he electrocutes the cops and blows up their car, before using a new trick with his powers to erase their memories so as not to compromise his secret identity. He also gets into another unmasked fight at the end of the episode that I’ll cover later and both scenes effectively convey how he’s not thinking clearly or carefully.
Things are no better for Jeff at home. He and his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) are seeing a couple’s counselor (Bethann Hardison), which is a positive step at least, but their therapy isn’t exactly going well. Lynn points out how emotionally distant Jeff has been for the last year and Williams’ performance conveys how he could be seen as such. But Lynn herself isn’t doing much better. She tells the counselor she is sober following her addiction to Green Light last year but later on we see her using her meta-human boost serum to give herself temporary powers which she is using to fight crime, which effectively seems like trading one addiction for one another. She’s also angry at Jeff for not operating as Black Lightning even though their daughters are still risking their own lives as superheroes. Lynn and Jeff finally came to something of an understanding about his need to be Black Lightning last year but after years of having Lynn criticize his superhero lifestyle having her reverse course so completely makes the character come across hypocritical.
Jeff and Lynn’s elder daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), is still operating in her dual superhero identities of Thunder and Blackbird but she has significant personal struggles to deal with as well. In last season’s finale supervillain Gravedigger mind-controlled Anissa’s fiancé Grace (Chantal Thuy) into attacking her and Anissa was forced to bludgeon her into the ceiling, which left Grace in a coma she still hasn’t woken up from. Anissa spends every moment she can by her side and gets angry when her sister Jennifer (China Anne McClain) suggests it may be time to move on with her life. Anissa’s ego had been growing significantly for the last two years which made her seem destined for a rude awakening and it’s nice to see her get a storyline that doesn’t revolve around super-heroics or social service. Williams captures the character’s confusion and anguish well and hopefully, this dramatic challenge gives Anissa some good character development. Jen seems to be just starting on a similar journey to the one her sister is farther along on. Initially, she seems to have finally mastered her powers and has wholeheartedly embraced superhero life as Lightning but at the end of the episode when she flies up to the ionosphere to absorb energy she seems to overload herself and loses consciousness, falling from the sky. It seems likely that Jen’s arc for the season will, at least initially, be about learning her limitations but there is another possible reason for this development. McClain has announced that her involvement with Black Lightning‘s final season will be limited, as she is stepping back from her acting career, at least temporarily, so dropping Jen from the sky could very well be a way to accommodate that. I don’t think they’ll kill the character off, at least not this soon, and there are plenty of ways for her to survive something like this in a superhero universe but if Jen were to be injured in some way it could explain why she won’t be around as much. The only member of the Pierce family who has their head totally on straight at the moment is, as usual, Peter Gambi (James Remar), Jeff’s surrogate father and armorer. Gambi meets with Lauren Caruso (Elena Varela), a contact from his spy days with whom he clearly shared a romantic past, and is still quite flirty. Lauren offers Gambi a job at the tech company she works at, Monovista International. Gambi turns the offer down but he seems more open to the idea than one might expect and Lauren would clearly accept if he changed his mind. Giving him a new position might seem like a nice way to have Gambi start building a life for himself outside of helping the Pierces with anything and everything but if he winds up taking the job he’d almost certainly be doing so to keep an eye on Monovista. Still, his feelings for Lauren are clearly strong enough that it wouldn’t be a mission he would necessarily be emotionally detached from. Varela does good work in her first episode and she has strong chemistry with Remar, so it seems like Lauren will be a good addition to the show whether she winds up as a genuine ally or a femme fatale.
Another aspect of the season premiere that feels very familiar is the assortment of threats Jefferson and company are facing. With the ASA gone, the Freeland police are returned to the antagonistic role they occupied in the show’s earlier days. Monovista is providing the department with powerful laser weapons called DEGs (directed energy guns) as part of Henderson’s replacement, Chief Ana Lopez’s (Melissa De Sousa) anti-meta human stance. Using the plight of the metahumans as a way to condemn police brutality is nothing new for the show but it’s unfortunately necessary, as the epidemic of racist police violence is still one of real-world America’s biggest problems. Jefferson might have at least one ally among the cops, as posthumous instructions from Henderson put him (or really Black Lightning, although he stays in the shadows without the costume) in contact with Detective Hassan Shakur (Wallace Smith), a trusted friend of Henderson’s with military history. But whatever help Hassan might be able to offer, the show is smart enough to recognize that one good cop is not enough, which it illustrates by forcing Hassan into antagonistic roles when he is assigned to investigate both Jefferson Pierce and Black Lightning. The most direct and dangerous threat to the Pierce family is the return of Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), who has been publicly exonerated and is claiming to work to improve Freeland. The superhero genre’s debates over killing villains are rarely interesting anymore but the one Jeff, Anissa, and Lynn have after seeing Tobias on the news does feel necessary. As of last season, Tobias knows Jeff and the girls’ secret identities, so him walking around free poses an immediate threat to their lives, which adds a sense of urgency to the otherwise repetitive arguments about whether he should be allowed to live. Tobias returning to main villain status was a must for the final season but I’m a bit apprehensive about whether the show will be able to conclude his part of the story in a satisfying way. At this point having Jeff give in to his dark desires and kill him would feel wrong but Tobias has also shown that imprisonment (even at the hands of the ASA) isn’t really a big problem for him so I don’t know how he can really be given a cathartic defeat. Of course, there are plenty of other people who want Tobias dead, not that I really think the show would allow anyone outside the Pierce family to kill him. Chief among them is Lala (Will Catlett), who has returned to his regular activities as a gang-lord after serving as something of an anti-hero during the ASA occupation.
When Jen is shot by one of Lala’s men, who was wielding a stolen DEG, while fighting crime, Jeff hits his breaking point. He goes after the shooter without a disguise, although he sticks to the shadows enough to possibly keep his face hidden. He brutally beats the gangbanger, even blasting him in the eyes with lightning bolts that Jeff emits from his own eyes (an ability we haven’t seen before). Jeff might have a lot of external threats to deal with (something that’s emphasized when Tobias shows up at Lynn’s new lab, which he’s apparently funding) but the most dangerous might be the internal one to his mental health, as it’s causing him to fall from the great man he usually is and his descent (and presumable redemption) look to make for a dark and thrilling final season for his show.
- Main cast member Jordan Calloway, who plays Khalil Payne/Painkiller, is entirely absent from the premiere. He is slated to headline a potential Painkiller spin-off series that a later episode of Black Lightning will serve as a back-door pilot for, so it’s possible that will be his only actual appearance this year. I find the Khalil character fascinating so I’m definitely interested in the idea of a series devoted to him, but I do feel Anissa is the more logical choice for an attempt at a Black Lightning spin-off given her greater popularity and significance as the first black lesbian superhero portrayed in live-action.
- Also absent are the various meta-human teens that served as members of Black Lightning’s unofficial superhero team last year. I hope we see some of them eventually but their absence here does add to the intimacy and “back-to-basics” vibe of the episode.
- I was disappointed at the lack of follow-up to Lynn’s proposal for an X-Men-style superhuman school from last year. I guess that could have been the new lab and we just didn’t see any students but that didn’t seem to be the case.
- The Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover officially made Black Lightning a part of The CW’s Arrowverse superhero franchise but due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely there will be any guest stars from other shows this year as Black Lightning films in Atlanta and the rest of the franchise films in Canada. But hopefully, Williams and other cast members can reprise their roles on other series (and Painkiller, should it get picked up) in the future when the pandemic is over.
Black Lighting Season 4 Episode 1
Black Lightning's final season premiere returns to some familiar territory but draws strength from its political relevance and Jefferson's rage.