You know when you sit down to watch an episode of television, and by the end you have more questions than answers? But, instead of feeling shortchanged or frustrated, you feel invigorated? Like the narrative could truly go in any one of a thousand directions – and all of those directions are a present just waiting to be unwrapped on Christmas morning?
That’s what this week’s Black Lightning felt like to me.
I’ll cut the bull right at the top: I am not convinced that Gambi is dead (maybe he is, the show is certainly moving forward as if he is). I am not convinced that we saw Grace Choi come in to her powers or if instead she’s afflicted by whatever illness seems to be spreading in South Freeland (more on that later). Hell, I’m not even sure if Jennifer is getting back with Khalil (just kidding! She totally is. And I hate the show for it).
Also, Anissa and Grace had sex! It was worth the wait.
None of last night’s plot points were gimmicky or unearned. Each one twisted and contorted on itself, slowly leaving me metaphorically watching the floor where the ceiling should be. This kind of “can’t tell up from down” mystery unveiling was out of step with the narrative structure that Black Lightning’s presented in the past. I hope they play more with it in the future. It built an emotionally resonant, engaging and exciting hour of television.
Let’s start with Gambi. The first family of Freeland’s favorite uncle is driving home when two SUVs pull up beside him at a red light. One of the men in those SUVs pulls out a machine gun and starts firing. A chase ensues, with Gambi weaving in and out of traffic as his car’s fancy schmancy computer tells him that his vehicle’s “structural integrity” is failing. His car spins out of control, flipping onto its side, and bursting in flames. Several eye witnesses watch as the unidentified men drive off – it’s yet to be said who they are but, Two Bits (in a delightful return for my favorite Freeland bootleg man) thinks it was a government hit job. I’m inclined to agree with him.
The entire chase plays out with Dean Martin’s “Ain’t that A Kick In The Head” crooning around us. It’s a song choice that thoroughly stands out against Black Lightning’s established preference for hip hop, jazz, and 1970s soul music. It’s also a perfect tribute to Gambi, whom Two Bits eulogizes as “the only white guy in Freeland other than the cops.” Gambi’s energy isn’t Jefferson’s or Anissa’s. He deserves his own soundtrack. If this is the last time we see him on screen, I’m glad that he got his moment to shine.
Here’s the thing – deep in my bones, I just don’t think this is the last time we’re going to see the Italian tailor/ex-ASA agent. You know why? Captain America: The Winter Solider, that’s why. In the first act of my fifth favorite Marvel film, Nick Fury finds himself in the middle of a chase scene. Much like Gambi’s computer, Nick Fury’s car warns of rampant malfunctioning. Both men find themselves turned over in the middle of the street, their vehicle in flames, apparently dead. In Captain America, they even go far enough to show us Fury’s lifeless body. Guess what? He lived anyway. If the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D have the kind of technology to fake an assassination and car blow up, then I have to believe so does the ASA.
When Henderson visits Jefferson to share the tragic news of Gambi’s death, he responds that Gambi isn’t dead until we see the body. I agree. Perhaps I’m wrong! Maybe my skepticism is overwrought. Anissa breaking the news of Gambi’s death to a blazed (Hey! Medical marijuana is for superheroes, too!) and heartbroken Jennifer was almost enough to turn me. Jefferson mourning the loss of his mentor and father-figure at the local bar, and even more evocatively at Gambi’s shop, almost turned me. Cress Williams’ performance was as fine as I’ve seen in his twenty year career. Black Lightning proceeds as if Gambi is dead. Still, we never see the body.
Reeling from Gambi’s death, Anissa turns to Grace. This is when things get really interesting, so let’s go slow.
First of all, Grace Choi has an apartment! It only took us a full season plus five episodes, but she’s becoming a full person! Progress!! Her apartment comes complete with an artist’s studio that has a canvas and easel already set up. There’s a pile of books on her coffee table and another book that she’s reading while propped on the couch, wearing cut up black jeans, heavy eye liner, and a flannel. If you were wondering if Grace Choi got even sexier since we last saw her, the answer is YES.
Anissa knocks on the door unexpected, tears in her eyes. She knows its selfish to just drop by, but her uncle died tonight. Losing him wrecked her. She roughly wipes the tears falling down her cheeks with the back of her hand. In the wake of her loss, she found herself thinking: If she only had one day to live, who would she want to spend that day with (other than her family)?
Anissa could only think of one name.
Grace demurs, taken aback. What is she supposed to say in response to such a vulnerable confession?
Anissa didn’t expect her to say anything at all. The music behind them builds as Anissa pulls Grace in for a kiss. Slow, romantic, their hands searching for each other. First tentatively, then passionately, as Anissa walks Grace backwards to her living room wall. Grace exhales, and Anissa pins her hands above her head!!
The music may be soft, but they are hot. Sex is often about more than just sex. Their gasps, heavy breathing and messy kisses serve to remind each other that – on the night that Gambi died – dammit they are alive. Blissfully alive. Anissa bites her lower lip and leads Grace to the bedroom.
We catch up with them the next morning, bare except for their underwear, birds chirping and early sunlight breaking through Grace’s bedroom window (small side note: I love that Black Lightning doesn’t pretend that women lay in bed with their sheets up to their neck because of some antiquated, sexist notion of “modesty”). Anissa kisses her lover slowly, in the middle of her back, part worshiping her and part welcoming her to a new day. It’s gentle. Intimate. Alone in their own world.
That is, until Grace pops the bubble.
“This was a mistake,” she laments. Her back towards Anissa, as if she can’t bear to look her in the face. She turns around, “Anissa you know how I feel about you. And… I’m sorry about your uncle. I really am. But, I’m not your handbag. You can’t just show up and have sex with me when you’re feeling vulnerable and then disappear when your world is right-side up again.”
Anissa reaches out to stroke Grace’s face. That’s not what any of this means for her. For what its worth, I believe Anissa. I believe that she’s going to step up to the plate this time, when it really counts. I also understand why, given their history, Grace is hesitant. Anissa’s played the field before. Grace doesn’t want to get caught up in her games.
She pushes Anissa’s hand away, “My family… they weren’t exactly the most present people. I learned a long time ago to just depend on myself, not let anyone in. Then, you walked into my bookstore and… everything changed.”
She locks her eyes with Anissa’s, which are rimmed red with tears. She firms her voice: “If you can’t realize that you can do me real harm, I need you stay away from me. Can you look me in the eyes and promise me that you won’t hurt me again?”
Anissa can’t make that promise. To be fair, I don’t know if anyone who’s honest with themselves can. Even with the best intentions and the purest of hearts, sometimes love hurts. Being open with the softest, most tender parts of yourself means leaving yourself unprotected to the jabs and uppercuts of those you love most. It means trusting that they won’t hurt you, but understanding that sometimes – just sometimes – they will and not know it.
Grace has a lot to protect right now. She leaves her bedroom, visibly upset. Once alone in the living room – her gorgeous tattoos starts to crawl! They literally shake and shimmer as Grace’s skin ripples up arms. She panics, reaching for a water bottle and searching for the pills in her desk drawer. As she gulps them down, the camera pans her neck. Her entire upper body is covered in some sort of markings. Scales? Camouflage? She looks at herself in the mirror as they fade away.
This is my second big question: Were we watching Grace’s superpowers take form? Her body’s reaction came in response to an emotional upheaval, not unlike the first appearance of Anissa’s or Jennifer’s powers. Grace is supercharged in the Black Lightning comic series. She’s gifted with superhuman strength, healing, and enhanced durability (she’s also part-Amazon and Wonder Woman’s cousin!). It was only a matter of time before those powers found their way to Grace’s depiction in the television series. While I don’t think that skin rippling or strange markings would be a side effect of super strength, I suppose the show could be taking her character in a slightly new direction.
Still, my first thought as the episode ended was that perhaps we weren’t looking at Grace’s powers at all. What if she’s sick? That theory involves digging deeper into Anissa’s day job.
Anissa’s accepted a position at Reverend Holt’s free clinic, and two of her first patients are a young pregnant woman and her boyfriend. The boyfriend is incredibly on edge throughout their appoint. Later, he shows back up at the clinic with holes all over his face! He begs Anissa to save his girlfriend and unborn child before collapsing dead! A silver liquid oozes out the holes in his body (it’s massively gross).
After tracking down the couple’s origin to South Freeland, Anissa is pulled over by a racist white sheriff. Then, I fucking kid you not, the sheriff’s skin starts moving! The special effects of his movement weren’t exactly the same as Grace’s. There’s a chance that ultimately they’re not connected. At the same time, it’s hard for me to believe that two plot points involving moving and deteriorating skin are 100% unrelated, you know?
Here’s the other thing about Anissa being stopped by a racist cop in the middle of the woods outside of Freeland – it terrified me. It’s a little moment where once again Black Lightning amplifies the horror of being black in America. Thunder facing Syonide? No problem. Tobias Whale? She can take him in her sleep! Anissa Pierce getting pulled over by a white man with a badge on the outskirts of town? Suddenly I couldn’t remember how to breathe!
I’ve talked about it before, the rare joy of being able to relax into having a bullet-proof black lesbian superhero. Evil villains pose no threat to her. You take that same bullet-proof black woman and place her in front of a white cop, on an isolated road, in the middle of the night? The mind reels. He likely can’t kill her, but what if he had tried something? What if Anissa had been forced to protect herself? What would’ve come of her? Has self-defense ever worked out for black folks in this country? It has not.
Thankfully instead, the creepy white guy’s skin creeped all around his face. One look at him and Anissa said, “Oh hell nah” before whipping her car right out of there!
Quick catch up on Lynn, she gets tricked by Dr. Inmate Jace to perform a dangerous experiment on the ASA Green Light subjects who remain comatose in their pods. As a result, nearly all the subjects die. Only 14 are able to be saved. An outraged Lynn makes good on her promise to have that sadistic doctor thrown right back in jail.
Really though, this episode belongs to Chantal Thuy. She’s been Thunder Grace’s loudest advocate on social media for nearly a year. With this episode, she finally comes into her own. Her performance of Grace continues to be layered, tough yet vulnerable. If you want to get to know the actress better, may I suggest this interview? I can’t wait to see where Chantal takes Grace from here.
Looking at my notes, next week is the mid-season finale! Then we’ll come back together after the holiday break, when Black Lightning makes the move (gasp!) to Monday nights starting in January.
What do you think? Is Gambi really dead? Is Grace Choi superpowered or facing a long, dark tunnel of illness ahead of her? Let me know in the comments! Oh, and drink some water. Stay hydrated. Love you.