How do you balance taking a character through a believable arc versus the audience’s tolerance for negative characters and depressing relationships? This is something the CW has struggled with before, and it seems so far like Black Lightning is struggling with it this year. Black Lightning has consistently been one of the more interesting shows among the CW’s superhero slate since its debut, with Season 3 having been especially enjoyable. We’re now two episodes into the fourth and final season, though, and we have questions about where things are going. Spoilers follow for Black Lightning Season 4, Episode 2, “The Book of Reconstruction Chapter Two: Unacceptable Losses.”
“The Book of Reconstruction Chapter Two: Unacceptable Losses”
Black Lightning has kept its seasons relatively svelte, opting to cap things at 13 or 16 episodes. This final season is no different, clocking in at just 13 episodes before the end of the series. Knowing that the end is nigh, though, has an unexpected side effect. We’re looking at every single thing happening and asking “do we have time for this?”
Right now, Black Lightning doesn’t feel like a superhero show so much as it does a family drama. Family has always been at Black Lightning‘s core, but it feels like it’s taking a front seat and maybe kicking superheroes out of the car altogether, at least for now. In the aftermath of last season’s occupation and costly final battle, the members of the Pierce family are all traumatized and dealing with it in different ways.
For Jeff, this means, primarily, continuing to drink and lash out. But it also means to continue to tempt fate with terrible judgement regarding his powers. Aside from the fact that Black Lightning’s needs his suit to protect himself from his powers, Jeff has been using them as another way to lash out. Jeff wakes up in the middle of the night, stands on his porch in his robe and screams, unleashing a bolt of electricity into the sky that shakes him so badly that he loses consciousness until morning. He goes after another gang member, again dressed in a suit, and breaks the kid’s leg. When he comes face to face with Tobias in front of Garfield High–where Jeff works–he immediately starts crackling with electricity.
The only thing that gives this behavior some direction is also one of my favorite moments of the episode. Jeff and Lynn were in couples therapy last week, and this week they go individually. In Jeff’s session, the shots between Jeff and the therapist are really close up. In the room, they sit pretty far apart. These close-up shots, then, feel like they’re telling us a lot about the characters.
The therapist seems to know Jefferson is not just leaving out huge portions of his story. Her demeanor and posture are that of someone who sees right through people. Meanwhile, the angles on Jeff ratchet up the tension. He’s lying to himself and to the therapist. He laughs when she prods him, so convinced that he knows better than her despite his wildly self-destructive behavior.
The camera in CW shows generally doesn’t do a lot of storytelling work beyond framing characters for visibility or to hide visual effects, so it’s fun to see the camera doing work like this.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Christine Adams, the actress who plays Lynn Stewart. The character is not just a doctor, but a pioneering geneticist. Her role in the show, though, has primarily been to worry about her kids, argue with Jeff, and nag on all three. Season 3 expanded her role to include being a lying drug addict. Now, Season 4 has her shooting up metahuman serum and putting on a COVID-style facemask with the intent to go out and protect her daughters despite having no training, and then getting mad when her daughters object to both parts of that bad decision.
Lynn’s arc throughout Black Lightning has been unsatisfying to say the least, and this season isn’t doing her any favors. Half of her scenes are her nagging her daughters, and the other half are her engaging with or denying her addiction.
Adams seems like a good actress, and being the only non-superhuman in a family of superhumans should be an interesting role, but the writers do her a disservice by making her into the show’s Swiss Army Buzzkill.
Jen and Anissa have their own stuff going on. So far this season, though, Jen seems to be relegated to being a bratty teenager, responding sarcastically to, well, everyone in between adventures up into the high atmosphere where she can pull down solar energy like Phoenix from X-Men. There’s just not much going on for her.
Anissa, meanwhile, is actually doing doctor stuff while also running what seems like a mercenary company as her other alter-ego, Blackbird. As Blackbird, she orchestrates the kidnapping of the gangster Lala (played by William Catlett, who has easily the coolest voice of anyone on any of the CW’s shows) and Eve’s right-hand assistant. This sequence is good for Anissa’s character, because we learn that she’s starting to bend her own morals to pursue justice, but there was no run-up to this sequence. Suddenly Lala who is, by all accounts, not to be messed with, is being hauled up with a hood on by some of Blackbird’s goons. How did they just snatch up a guy who terrifies all his enemies and employees? This seems like important information.
Elsewhere on the show, Gambi is laying groundwork to try to protect the metahumans of Freeland, but it’s causing a rift between him and the superheroes of the Pierce family. Tobias Whale has an assistant who looks a lot like actor Anthony Carrigan (Gotham‘s Zsasz), but actually isn’t. Oh, and the new chief of police, standing in for the late Bill Henderson, has a vendetta against metahumans that calls to mind Marvel’s “Civil War” and “Mutant Registration Act” storylines.
Where is this going?
I like most of the characters in Black Lightning. I think it’s generally been a well-written show. Hell, it managed to make Wayne Brady look like a badass. Freeland is fleshed out in a way that Central City, Star City, and National City could only dream of. But we’re two episodes into a 13-episode season, and I can’t help but wonder where the show is going. Right now, it feels like it’s wasting time and spinning its tires.
Black Lightning airs on The CW on Mondays at 8 PM CST.