In surprise tone shift, this week’s Black Lightning season finale starts 30 years in the past.
In Flashback Land, we’re greeted with a tween Jefferson Pierce and his father; a younger, more vibrant, Granddaddy Pierce. Grandaddy Pierce has broad shoulders and a blinding smile. He laughs warm, deep from his belly. It’s clear that he thinks the sun rises and falls on his child. And it’s not a stretch to see the Jefferson Pierce that we know in his father.
Roughly a third of the finale takes place in Flashback Land, much of it covering plot points that we’ve heard about in past tense, but now get to watch play out in real time. Grandaddy Pierce has written an exposé on Tobias Whale and the Freeland Experiment, but Editor Huggy Bear has pulled the piece from publication. A brunette — as opposed to greying — Gambi shows up outside of the Freeland Gazette to warn Granddaddy Pierce that he’s taken it too far. He tells him that he’s only just begun to fight. You see, he willingly let Jefferson take one of those toxic vaccines. He’s possibly endangered his son’s life, and that is not something he’s willing to forgive. Or forget.
He pays for those choices with his life, his funeral marked with torrential rainfall. A short time later, the news tells that Freeland is engulfed in violent protest. The police shot an yet another unarmed young black man. An elderly man interviewed by reporters argues, “I don’t condone violence, but the police didn’t have to shoot that young man like that. He was running away.” In its final hour Black Lightning firmly plants it’s feet once again within a Black Lives Matter narrative, even 30 years before our current timeline.
Jefferson’s running amid fiery blown out cars as the police chase after him with billy clubs. My heart scrambled into my throat when they finally caught him. I was certain this was going to end with violence taken out on the young man’s body. Instead, this is the night when Jefferson’s powers first manifest.
The signature piercing electric blue of Jefferson’s eyes flash as the cops force his arms behind his back. He turns to face them, zaps them both to the ground, and escapes. Unknowingly, he runs right into a high voltage electric fence. Rather than die of electrocution, his body absorbs the energy. It’s there that Gambi finds him, alone, on the ground, and in the dark of a rainy nightfall.
Black Lives Matter have become trendy on television over the last roughly five years. Almost every major or critically acclaimed show has found a way to fit the theme into its narrative, whether it be for a “Very Special Episode” or a season long tarc affecting the show’s black characters. Almost uniformly, the theme has fallen flat. Particularly in the hands of non-black show runners, Black Lives Matter plots runs the danger of being overly sensationalized or treated as a violent spectacle. Even within black storytelling, it’s a weighty albatross to bear.
I would have never guessed this back in January, but it’s very possible that the best undertaking of Black Lives Matter on television thus far comes from a superhero show on the CW. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Science Fiction and Fantasy genres have the freedom to explore the full complexity of human emotions without narrow parameters of realism. Wonder Woman is about the imaginary island of Themyscira, yes, but it’s also about what women can accomplish when they are divorced from the strangling requirements of patriarchy. The X-Men are about mutants banding together, but it’s an allegory for the strength that can be found among those most marginalized. In it’s original 1970s production Black Lightning was about a superhero who saved his inner-city neighborhood from gang violence after it became clear that Superman wasn’t coming to the ghetto of Metropolis. Those themes still ring true in its televised reboot, but the show layered other complexities of blackness into its tale.
Yes, the One Hundred gang terrorizes Freeland. But, as the show reminds us time and again, they do not operate in a vacuum. The police of Freeland are often corrupt. Government agencies steeped in white supremacy openly experiment on black bodies. Those who pull the purse strings want to “Make America Great Again.” The background music has sung the name of Erica Gardner and Sandra Bland. It’s reminded us that we can’t breathe. Much like Anissa, who controls her breath to activate her powers. The night that Jefferson’s abilities first erupted, he was terrified for his life because of Freeland PD.
Black Lightning has weaved Black Lives Matter into every aspect of the Pierce’s life. It’s not a special “topical storyline.” It’s unrelenting. It also doesn’t stop the Pierces from finding room for their own black joy. It doesn’t become so oppressive that there’s no hope. There’s a literal spark, a belief that we can fight back. That we will win. To quote Assata Shakur, “we have nothing to lose but our chains.”
In many ways, that’s what makes the show so great. It understands that honoring Black Lives Matter first means honoring and celebrating the richness of black lives, black culture. But, also that celebrating blackness means never letting up in the fight against those who would rather snuff out our light.
In our current timeline, Jefferson’s still in critical care. Lynn is attending to him, but his powers keep short-circuiting and sending his nervous system into shock. Everyone’s worried.
In particular, Jennifer’s beating herself up about all of this. She’s worried that, by serving as Jefferson’s defibrillator last week, she somehow hurt her father more than she helped. She’s “a freak, from a family of freaks” and her dad is knocking on death’s door.
Gambi explains to her that unlike the Pierces, who are genetically meta human, the strength of Tobias’ crew is man made. Syonide was found as a baby in a dumpster. Tobias saved her from an abusive orphanage and raised her to be a super assassin; he had carbon fiber body armor implanted underneath her skin. Khalil has a new bionic spine and legs, but they produce a neurotoxin that causes instant paralysis. That’s what he was shooting into the darts last week at Garfield. He’s known as “Painkiller.” Lala’s party trick of having those who he once killed talk to him as ghosts and then become tattoos on his body makes him “Tattooed Man.” These are all hat tips to super villains from the Black Lightning comics, which leads me to believe that we have a real squad on our hands going into the second season.
(Well, except maybe for Lala — he became a suicide bomber and blew himself to bits in an ASA interrogation room.)
All of the Pierce women are reacting to their bleak reality in their own ways. Anissa’s frustrated. She’s over waiting around in the woods for trouble to find them. She wants to do what she does best, get out there and fight. Jennifer, usually a fierce smart ass, has never looked more terrified or small. Lynn is laying her body down next to Jefferson while he’s still in a coma. She’s mourning. She’s afraid that she’s lost him for good. Still, she won’t allow herself to give up. Jefferson’s vitals are dropping through the floor. They are losing him.
That’s when we have our final trip over to Flashback Land. Surprise! This time time it’s not a flashback! The O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” is grooving on the record player (a black pop culture deep cut! I laughed so hard, I nearly rolled off my couch!) and adult Jefferson Pierce tentatively comes down the stairs to greet his father. You know in Black Panther, when T’Challa and Killmonger take the heart shaped herb to be greeted by their fathers at the tree of the ancestors? It’s that scene, but television sized.
Jefferson lets go of his existential baggage, he laments that there has been so much violence in his father’s wake. Grandaddy Pierce reminds him that the fight for “peace ain’t always peaceful.” Then he sends his son home to his family. He still has more work that needs to be done.
Jefferson comes back to life in a bed flanked by Lynn, Anissa, and Jennifer. He’s awake, but his powers are gone. Worse, there’s no way to know if his powers will ever come back. Like Lynn says, if you drain a car battery enough times, it stops holding a charge. And at least 20 ASA operatives are surrounding the cabin. They’ve run out of time.
Gambi suggests that they retreat, but Anissa Pierce is NOT ABOUT THAT LIFE. She doesn’t run away from white men who try to intimidate her. She and Gambi devise a plan — Gambi will draw fire out of the front door, and Anissa will Thunder a hole in the cabin’s side wall. Then she’ll Thunder Clap to clear a path, and the Pierces make way to a secret tunnel that will lead them to safety.
My brave, sweet Anissa. Her face is determined. She will not mess up. Her family is depending on her.
But Jefferson can’t let his daughter walk into slaughter. He decides to suit up as Black Lightning anyway, powers be damned. He’ll draw fire out the front door, and Gambi will lead the rest of the Pierces to safety. Jennifer’s full on freaking out now. Her dad’s suit may be bulletproof — but his head sure as hell is not. He won’t make it back to them, and they all know it. He kisses all three of the women in his life goodbye.
That’s when Jennifer’s shaking intensifies. She struggles to catch her breath. Her arms glow, then her eyes, her body, and before she knows it she’s running to Jefferson and giving him an electrified hug. She summons all her power to jump start her father’s. For the second time, Jennifer is there to save his life. She gets it now. Being great is what they do.
All the season’s major players are colliding for the grand final battle. The ASA are surrounding the cabin, but with their headquarters defenseless, Tobias and his crew are simultaneously making their move on ASA’s home turf. Freeland PD have heard reports of shots fired in the woods, so Deputy
Commissioner Gordon Chief Henderson and the police are on their way.
Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Shining Star” gets cranked all the way up. Anissa Thunder Claps in every direction, sending those ASA cronies flying in the air. Black Lightning follows her. Inside the cabin — and this is the moment I’ve wanted all season without even knowing I wanted it — LYNN PIERCE PICKS UP A GUN!!! She’s ready to go full on Pam Grier on their asses!!!
The music shifts gears into a banging hip hop soundtrack. Thunder and Black Lightning are defending their family with all their might. Thunder gets caught in a electrified bubble designed to stop her powers. Her dad is there to break her free. When the operatives comes through the front door, Lynn and Gambi take out their guns and go to town! Lynn misses one while her back is turned, but Jennifer electrifies him on her mom’s behalf.
While the Pierce’s escape their cabin, Tobias, Syonide, and Painkiller take over the ASA. Of course Proctor slithers away like the slime ball he is. Too bad for him, when he gets to the secret pod lab where he’s holding the last of the Freeland Experiment victims, the Pierces are already there waiting for him.
Surrounded by the entire Pierce clan, Proctor smiles smugly. He finally can prove that Black Lightning is Jefferson after all this time. In his version of a villain’s final monologue, he scoffs that if it wasn’t for him then all these black “test subjects” would have ended up in jail or on welfare anyway. He did them a favor.
You would think that his racist rhetoric would rile Anissa first, but it’s Jennifer who impulsively lights his ass up! She lassos him in orange electricity, lifts him in the air, and when chastised by her father for the violence, finishes the whole shebang off with a carefree hair flip.
I love this girl.
Gambi shoots Proctor dead. For real this time. Then Lynn calls for help to free the victims stored in the pods.
News coverage tells us that the Freeland Experiment has finally been made public. The offscreen reporter’s interviews with Freeland citizens bring home all of the season’s themes; government corruption, the police’s unwillingness to protect black communities; the history of environmental and medical racism inflicted on black bodies.
In a perfect mirror image to the premiere episode, the Pierces end their time together by going on a run. Jefferson’s just a half step in front of both his daughters, playfully taunting them, as they race home to Lynn. They are together, finally with the space to breathe and love each other without any lurking fear.
Well, that is until next season. Tobias Whale has stolen Proctor’s secret suitcase of doom. Painkiller and Syonide both by his side. Who knows what terrifying mess those three will get us into next!
In an post-show interview with Entertainment Weekly, executive producer and showrunner Samil Akil once again promised on record that Grace Choi will definitely be back next season. I guess your milage on how much comfort you take in that will be proportional to how bothered you are by her prolonged absence in the first season.
I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Anissa Pierce. Specifically, I thought a lot about what I wanted to write about her in the closing of this season. I wish we had spent more time with Anissa’s romantic life. I hope that in the second season we get to explore more of her adult world outside of the Pierce household. It’s vital to her character development moving forward.
I’ve jokingly called The Pierces the “supercharged Huxtables.” To tell you truth, I’m not fond of the nickname. I hate having to reference Bill Cosby in any fashion, ever. I keep falling back to the Huxtables because in the over 25 years since they took their final bow, we’ve only seen roughly a dozen famous black families on tv, each to a varying degree of mainstream recognition and popularity. The Pierces, as a black family unit, are important. Seeing a queer character who’s allowed to just be a part of her family is important. So often LGBT stories are told separate from our biological families. And when those bio families are incorporated into our storytelling, they are often a source of pain. This is even more true for families of color.
I don’t regret watching Anissa tease and play around with her younger sister. I don’t regret watching her go on superhero missions with her dad. I don’t regret watching her geek out over science with her mother. I’m glad that we got to know Anissa through their eyes. She’s their mouthpiece, their protector. I wouldn’t have traded any of it. I think we benefit from storylines that feature queer characters outside of their bedrooms. After all, in our daily life, isn’t that how we all walk around?
But, we can’t lose track that there’s a thin line between this kind of three-dimensional representation, and erasure of Anissa’s sexuality. I don’t believe we’ve crossed that line yet, particularly if Grace is better incorporated into the show next season. I’m happy where we ended this year, and I’m keeping my eyes peeled for what’s up ahead.
Thank you all for going on this journey with me! I cannot send enough love to each and every one of you. You made my winter and spring brighter with each passing week. I’m already sad to be losing our conversations in the comment thread! I hope we get to spend more time together soon! Hang out around Autostraddle, and you’ll see me. I’m always around 🙂