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An overstuffed Black Lightning revels in the shared past of its characters

Illustration for article titled An overstuffed iBlack Lightning /irevels in the shared past of its characters
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One of the pleasures of watching Black Lightning has been its approach to storytelling. Through four episodes the show’s been patient in unraveling the story of Jefferson Pierce once again donning his mask as Black Lightning, while also taking its time filling in the details of the world he occupies. Where so many superhero stories burn through a ton of material right off the bat, necessitating a constant change in villains and motivations, Black Lightning has been much more efficient. It feels like we’re settled in for a solid, focused story about the nature of responsibility and heroism, a theme that’s spread across multiple storylines.

As good as that approach to storytelling is, there’s also the chance that any sudden development can be too jarring. “And Then the Devil Brought the Plague: The Book of Green Light” is a perfect example of changes in tone and plot shifting the story in an off-putting way. Whereas the issue with Khalil’s injury was one of contrived circumstance, the problems with this week’s episode feel more structural. After establishing its pace, Black Lightning is suddenly shifting gears. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on paper, but “The Book Of Green Light” is overloaded with backstory, new understandings of certain characters, and more than a few developments about the scope of the crime syndicate in Freeland. It’s a lot to take in across just 42 minutes.


Black Lightning expanding its scope and deepening its characters is a necessary thing to do, and it’s something that previous episodes have pulled off gracefully. “The Book Of Green Light” is much more rushed in comparison. After weeks of the show slowburning our understanding of Jefferson, Tobias, Gambi, and how they all fit together, suddenly there’s numerous layers to peel back, revealing previously unseen connections. What Black Lightning struggles with is not the content of this information, but rather how it’s rolled out. Gambi’s connection to Tobias, and his sneaking behind the back of Jefferson, has been one of the more troubling teases of the season. It’s purposely evasive in a way that doesn’t feel in line with the way the show is telling all of its other stories.

But the idea that Gambi and Tobias may have this shared past, perhaps removed from Black Lightning, and that Gambi is hiding things from his supposed best friend and crime-fighting partner, is just the tip of the iceberg. “The Book Of Green Light” asks us to follow along with a relevant and insightful backstory for Tobias and Tori, a new suspect in the dealing of Green Light named Joey Toledo, who Jefferson has some sort of past with, and the introduction of a mysterious storyline about Jefferson’s father Alvin Pierce, a journalist who Anissa finds out was set to publish an exposé on children gaining power from an experiment before his editors killed the pieces and Alvin ended up dead.

The details of these developments are fascinating, and certainly serve to flesh out this universe in intriguing ways. Learning that Tobias has a father who despised him because of his pale skin adds a welcome complication to the villain without totally humanizing his horrific actions. Black Lightning is largely a show about family, responsibility, and what it means to find one’s identity within a community. Thus, it’s important that Tobias’ past is littered with trauma. Much like the young kids that get swept up by the 100 gang, Tobias has known nothing but violence and anger. He was never shown another way, never given any other options.

On the flip side, Jefferson is doing everything he can to make sure that his daughters have other options. When Jennifer breaks the wrist of a girl looking to fight her, Lynn and Jefferson have a talk with her about using violence as a means to solve problems. Jefferson may be impressed that his daughter took down two girls at once, but he also understands, from his own experience, that such a response shouldn’t be the norm. Black Lightning himself tries to deescalate situations before resorting to using his powers, and Jefferson tries to instill those same values in his kids.


Of course, both Jennifer and Anissa will likely end up fighting crime in one way or another soon enough—Anissa, with the help of an eager sales worker, assembles her own unique superhero outfit after she splits a seam in her bodysuit because, to use her words, she has “too much ass”—but for now Black Lightning can use their origin stories to muse on ideas of justice and revenge. Tobias gets revenge on his father, breaking his back and leaving him to die a slow, painful death. Will Anissa avenge her grandfather’s murder? Will Tobias be able to fix a past mistake and actually take out Black Lightning? Will Jefferson be able to deal with whatever past he shares with Joey Toledo, all while he struggles with some sort of malfunction that leaves him on the ground writhing in pain?

Everyone in Black Lightning is haunted by their past. Their experiences have shaped them, and it’s great to see the show taking that subtext and moving it to a more prominent position. The slight peek at the Pierce family history is particularly rewarding because we come to understand their struggle with generational violence, which the show explores through the use of superpowers. That’s a fascinating theme to play with, and it’s one that informs so much of the plot, even outside the heroics of the Pierce family. But it feels like too much all at once. Every revelation in this episode is a useful one, and yet it’s hard to ignore that perhaps there was a way to spread things out. “The Book Of Green Light” contains some truly intriguing developments, but it’s also overstuffed to the point where each one doesn’t get the time it deserves to make an impact.


Stray observations

  • After Jefferson learns to use his electric powers to fly as Black Lightning: “I just found my new favourite thing.”
  • “Next time, try using a taser first.”
  • Another revelation dropped in this episode: Tobias has some sort of anti-aging serum coursing through his body.
  • Tori, upon entering Tobias’ villainous lair: “Wow. This is some ominous lighting.”
  • Black Lightning is old school and wants Inspector Henderson to contact him via cell phone if he needs him. He calls it “the black signal,” with a chuckle.
  • David Poe, former editor of Alvin Pierce, warns Anissa that “they’re watching.” Dead rats will soon be the least of her problems.

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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