After its intimate, personal first season, Black Lightning faced a bit of a conundrum. Where the first season was able to focus mostly on Jefferson’s conflicted feelings about donning the Black Lightning costume again, and what his role in vigilante justice should be, the story couldn’t stop there. It couldn’t be contained. Of course Jefferson would become a superhero again, and therefore the story and this world must build and expand.
In that expansion, something was lost. The first season of Black Lightning worked so well because of the lack of world building. Rather than sending the story out in a bunch of different directions, the show kept things simple, and delivered a season propelled by well thought out character motivations. It didn’t reinvent the superhero wheel, but it did offer up a refreshing perspective.
As the world built out and evil governments (both foreign and domestic), undead villains, and mentions of Civil War raised the stakes to something closer to the grandiose, city-destroying ones we’re used to when we go to the theater, Black Lightning lost its character-focused touch. The show had to grow out of necessity, sure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the loss.
The show had its moments across seasons two and three, but the foundation was cracking under the pressure, and the fourth and final season has seen some of the shakiest, and least consequential, storytelling yet. There have been “Moments,” ones meant to convey moral dilemma and inner struggle. There have been mysteries and cliffhangers and political intrigue. But none of it has ever really coalesced into something meaningful or impactful.
That’s especially clear throughout the series finale, which is largely made up of endless exposition and not much else. The first half of this episode is nearly all setup and talking, with scene after scene of characters explaining what’s happening and what they need to do rather than, you know, actually doing those things. We listen to Lynn dump information about needing to find Tobias but also needing to get to the emitter to get meta powers back all while everyone debates how best to move on now that Jefferson is “dead.”
It’s rather maddening to watch unfold. I know this show was dealt a tough hand with cancellation (and The CW choosing not to move forward with the Painkiller spin-off), but still, there’s just no urgency here. There’s no stakes, or at least none that feel more than your average, generic “we need to save our city” type of stuff. Every bit of action here is predictable, and it feels like the show is just going through the motions without really trying to engage us in any way.
It’s really a shame, because Black Lightning has had more than its fair share of great moments and story arcs, and it probably deserved more time to tell more stories, but external circumstances doesn’t stop the series finale from feeling like a dud. I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to connect with here? Jennifer coming back is a neat moment, as is the way the show tied Jefferson’s killing of Tobias to the very first time he used his powers to kill someone when he was younger, but otherwise this all feels very anticlimactic. The raid to destroy the emitter is executed with little flair, everything involving Lopez and Shakur is a waste of airtime, and keeping your protagonist locked underground in a coffin for most of the episode is certainly a strange choice.
With that said, more strange choices might have been preferable to what this series finale ended up offering. This is one of the tidiest, conflict-free endings to a show I’ve ever seen. I don’t even mind some of the stale elements, like Lynn and Jefferson deciding to get remarried, or the “passing of the torch” moment at the end of the episode, but I wish everything that came before that final family scene was more compelling, more adventurous and complicated, like the show has been in the past.
Ultimately, I think Black Lightning simply got to a point where there wasn’t much left to tell in any interesting way. Sure, the show could have kept going—oddly enough, Lala gets the final line of the series, coming back from the dead (again) to laugh at the impaled body of Tobias—but this whole season has been defined by the show struggling to find new ways to capture the energy it used to have. As Jefferson now knows, you have to let go of the past in order to keep moving forward. It’s just a shame that while letting go of the past Black Lightning couldn’t find another a more meaningful path for itself.