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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A familiar, formulaic story bogs down Black Lightning

Illustration for article titled A familiar, formulaic story bogs down Black Lightning
Photo: Richard Ducree/The CW (The CW Network)
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What made Black Lightning so compelling right out of the gate was its unique voice and perspective. Musing on various issues and triumphs related to being black in America, the show quickly established a tone that found the right balance between being a family drama and a fun superhero show with a more political bent, something that’s largely absent on network TV. Perhaps the show hasn’t always been subtle when it comes to its message, but it more than made up for that bluntness with nuance elsewhere. It’s in Jefferson’s relationship to the city, and in Anissa and Jenn’s struggles to define themselves as they grow up. Not every episode of the first season has been truly captivating, but at the very least there’s always been the sense that you were watching something different, a story not usually told.

Perhaps that’s why “Three Sevens: The Book Of Thunder” is so deflating. It’s not necessarily a bad episode of TV, but it is rather formulaic. If we posit that a significant part of Black Lightning’s strength is its ability to shift the superhero narrative in unique, interesting ways, then it’s safe to say that the more familiar narrative arcs will likely fall flat. That’s the case this week, as Black Lightning asks one of the most familiar questions in superhero fiction: will our hero cross the line and murder an enemy in cold blood?


The question isn’t inherently terrible by any means. It’s a good way to complicate the hero we’re meant to be rooting for, while also giving them a moment to truly prove themselves as the person they say they are. Superhero fiction is filled with morality tests, and Jefferson has had more than his fair share through the first half of this season. Where “Three Sevens: Book Of Thunder” goes wrong though is in the execution. There’s nothing about Jefferson’s plot for revenge on Tobias, the man who killed his father, that feels unique to this show. Nothing about the storyline screams Black Lightning, and that’s a problem.

Maybe my own morality is a little skewed, but the idea that Jefferson’s wanting to kill Tobias is some sort of horrific line that can’t be crossed feels a little farfetched to me. I’m not saying that Jefferson should kill him, but the fact that Gambi is surprised by his bloodlust, and that it leads to Lynn evoking the children to talk him back to sanity, goes too far into hysterics for my liking. The switch from Jefferson the calm, honorable hero to calm, less than honorable vigilante seems sudden. It’s understandably sudden considering that Jefferson just found out Tobias is in town, but that doesn’t mean the shift in tone and story isn’t unfortunately jarring.

Similarly, the show continues to play coy with Gambi’s current intentions and his past actions. Much in the way the “line crossing” is a rather formulaic story, so is the one about the sidekick who’s also maybe playing the other side, or at least has some sort of connection there. In the episode’s penultimate scene, Gambi goes to see Lady Eve, the evil boss who loves to spend her time in the morgue. We learn that Gambi and her worked together in “the agency,” that he holds some sort of dirty information about Tobias, while Lady Eve knows some dark secret about him. What’s exhausting about all of this is the willful holding back of information. A certain amount of mystery about Gambi is fine, but right now it feels like the show is delaying the inevitable, keeping a mystery intact when the story doesn’t really call for it.

That’s why it’s great to see that Anissa’ powers are now out in the open, and that Jefferson has revealed himself as Black Lightning to his daughter. With Anissa growing ever more confident, and seeing the real change she can affect with her powers—this week’s story is all about racist statues, white nationalists murdering folks with cars, and all that other wonderfully escapist stuff—it was only a matter of time before she became a more active in the community and crossed paths with Black Lightning. Here they get into a fight when both of them show up to save Lynn from Lady Eve’s men.


The fight itself is well-staged, and all of the family drama from the previous episodes imbues the scene with real emotional weight. Earlier, when Anissa gets arrested for her protest, Jefferson chastises her for giving the police an excuse to hurt her. “I don’t want to lose you because of something you should have walked away from,” he says, and in that moment he realizes what Lynn has been feeling all of these years. He finally see her point of view. But when Lynn calls Jefferson and convinces him to not kill Tobias by accepting his Black Lightning persona and how it’s part of him, the family as a whole can begin to heal.

The secrets are what truly do the damage, and that’s something that Black Lightning understands. While this episode struggles to tell a compelling morality tale about Jefferson, and struggles even further to keep Gambi’s shadiness (or lack thereof) interesting, it also moves the relevant pieces into interesting places. Khalil is now willingly in the hands of Tobias, and the secrets of the Jefferson family are about to be exposed, changing their dynamic forever. “Three Sevens: The Book Of Thunder” is a familiar, formulaic episode, but by the end of it there’s a more intriguing path forward for the rest of the season.


Stray observations

  • Great opening scene this week that really underscores just how fallible Black Lightning can be.
  • It’s looking like the police chief is in Tobias’ pocket.
  • Brains scans on Green Light users confirm what’s been suspected: the effects are somehow similar to when Jefferson is using his powers.
  • Another great moment in this week’s episode that’s overshadowed by the familiar storytelling: Lynn being devastated that her daughter has powers. After everything she’s been through with Jefferson, she can’t stand the idea of how her daughter’s life is about to change.
  • This week in the Black Lightning soundtrack (and apologies for sharing a J. Cole track, but there was no other option):

Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.

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