Black Lightning -- "The Book of Reconstruction: Chapter One" -- Image Number: BLK401fg_0003r.jpg -- Pictured: Cress Williams as Jefferson -- Photo: The CW -- © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Despite being a show about a family of superheroes who live in a town that was literally occupied by a military force for months on end, Black Lightning has managed to stay pretty grounded compared to most of the other DC superhero shows that air on the CW network. It makes sense, then, that the fourth and final season starts on a pretty rough note for all the show’s main characters. Where do they go from here? Spoilers follow for Black Lightning Season 4, Episode 1, “The Book of Reconstruction: Collateral Damage.”

“Collateral Damage”

To call the events of Black Lightning Season 3 traumatic would be a wild understatement. After Markovian forces caught wind of the concentration of metahumans in Freeland, the city became a battleground between the covert organization known as the ASA and the Markovian military. The city was under brutal siege for months, and in the climactic battle that forced both armies out, people made tough decisions to defeat Gravedigger. Police chief and life-long friend of Jefferson Pierce, Bill Henderson, died fighting to save the city. We pick things up a year later, to the day, to find Jefferson still mourning the death of his good friend.

Jeff’s downward spiral

In this time, Jefferson has apparently not once donned the Black Lightning suit, though his daughters are out in full force doing their best to fill in. This episode is, at its core, about Jefferson’s pain. He feels responsible for his friend’s death and for the terrible actions his wife and daughters had to take to survive the occupation of Freeland, and its taking its toll on him in a variety of ways. CW shows aren’t known for their subtlety, generally, but in an especially heavy-handed moment, Jefferson witnesses two cops arresting a young black man who was walking on the sidewalk with his violin. This is, of course, a reference to the tragic, avoidable, and reprehensible murder of Elijah McClain, a young man who played violin among many other things. If you follow the news surrounding police brutality in the United States, it’s tough to miss the reference.

In this case, writer and showrunner Salim Akil takes a moment to fantasize about what Elijah’s life might have looked like if he lived in Freeland. That is to say, Jefferson steps out of his car, without his suit on, and when the police point their guns at him, he unleashes his lightning powers on them. He knocks them out, destroys the tech in their car, and zaps their memories, allowing the young man to get away unharmed. Jefferson’s Black Lightning suit not only protects his identity, but also helps channel his powers to make sure they don’t damage his body. In this moment, he’s being reckless in a way we’ve never seen before.

Elsewhere in Freeland

Throughout the episode Jefferson fights with his family and Gambi and pushes all of them away even as they try to help him. He picks fights with nearly everyone he encounters. He sits alone and drinks, whether at home or a bar. When Jennifer ends up hurt–temporarily–he goes after the guy who shot her with the anti-metahuman gun, again without his uniform, and uses his powers on the guy in front of his terrified girlfriend, before straight-up blinding him with his powers.

It sure seems like Jefferson is trying to dull his pain by getting himself killed.

The rest of the family isn’t doing much better. Lynn continues to lie about her addiction even as she experiments on herself with the meta-gene serum that lets her use Gravedigger’s mind control abilities. Jennifer and Anissa are, again, out fighting crime, but they’re getting cocky. Meanwhile, all of these people are blaming each other for their problems. Jefferson wasn’t with the girls to protect them. Lynn pushed Jeff away when he was hurting.

Meanwhile, we get another heavy-handed moment when Tobias Whale appears on the Freeland news station to talk about all the good he’s doing for the city and how he, a ‘former’ criminal, plans to Make Freeland Great Again. In exactly those words. The show doesn’t give us much to chew on with Whale, other than reminding us that he knows that Black Lightning and Jefferson Pierce are the same person. Following Bill Henderson’s death, the police have a new chief, and she’s promised to “tag and monitor” metahumans in the city to make people feel safe. With the ASA and Markovia out of the way, gang violence and police brutality seem, for now, to be the show’s primary villains.

It’s part of the system

This is one thing I’ve consistently enjoyed about Black Lighting. While there are absolutely villainous people to focus on as specifically antagonizing the city and the Pierce family, systemic problems are as much a part of the show as those villains. Jeff and others are constantly having to contend with police, military, gangs and even the city’s education system. It’s quite different from the challenges that some other Earth-Prime heroes face.

Barry Allen and Oliver Queen seem to interact very little with the workings of the world around them. When Oliver lost all of his money, he somehow still had access to the bunker. Kara Danvers can fly off for days at a time. Does Barry ever actually go to Central City Police Department? His office might be the show’s least-used set. Jefferson has his bunker of course; it’s part of the CW superhero formula. Where else are they going to put their impractical supersuit mannequins (imagine Jeff and Barry breaking the mannequin down each time to get the suit off, seriously) and walls full of monitors that can do one-hundred-percent-accurate facial recognition? But even so, Freeland feels like a real place, where Central and Star City especially often feel like just Vancouver, British Columbia with a hat on. Because they are, and that’s okay–this is just a nice change of pace. With Black Lightning ending, I’m hoping Batwoman can take its place in this regard, which–so far–it seems to be doing.

Darkest before the dawn?

Overall, this episode is really dark. One of the few bright spots comes with Lynn tells Jeff that she’s been blind to his pain, and seems to be genuinely trying to reach out to him. The episode was tough to watch with so much darkness, even if every bit of it was earned. I’ll forgive the show’s lack of subtlety, too, since that doesn’t really seem to work in 2021. This is the final season of Black Lighting, though, so it has a lot to get done. We need conclusions for Jeff and his whole family, Peter Gambi, Tobias Whale, and Freeland itself. Considering Jeff’s reckless behavior, he has even further to fall before he can climb back out. I’m optimistic that they can pull it off; Black Lighting has been more consistently interesting than most of the other CW superhero shows, and it’s hard to imagine the creators suddenly dropping the ball this close to the end. Despite the darkness, I’m excited to see what comes.

Black Lightning airs on The CW on Mondays at 9/8 central.