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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black Lightning expands its universe, for better or worse

Illustration for article titled Black Lightning expands its universe, for better or worse

It was inevitable that at some point Black Lightning would expand its scope. The show could only stick to telling the story of the Pearce family for so long. The very nature of the superhero show demands an expansion of the universe; explanations about where powers come from and what they mean within a larger social context is unavoidable. The first season of Black Lightning did a great job of avoiding the pitfalls of the typical superhero narrative, working around the origin story cliches by jumping into a story that’s well under way, with Black Lightning “returning” to Freeland to hunt down his father’s killer.


That story, by season’s end, expanded to include shady government forces and a nefarious experimental drug called Green Light, but the stakes in the first season were still personal, still contained within the Pearce family. “The Book Of Consequences: Chapter Two: Black Jesus Blues” is the first substantial sign that a shift is underway, and it’s one that could open up new storytelling avenues for the show. The question is, are those avenues worthwhile, and will they allow Black Lightning to continue to do what it does best, which is using superhero tropes and storytelling tricks to comment on larger themes both political and familial? If we’re working off of “Black Jesus Blues” alone, the future looks mostly promising, with a few red flags popping up here and there.

The inciting incident for the narrative expansion is two of the metas escaping from their pods. The first, a young man, instantly kills one of the doctors by shooting some sort of ray out of his mouth, and then proceeds to die, seemingly a result of his powers being too overwhelming. Then a young woman wakes up and escapes as well, but she fares better. She doesn’t die on the spot, instead using her power to control the wind to blow a hole in the lab and escape while Lynn and a bunch of other ASA doctors look on helplessly.

The surviving meta, Wendy Hernandez, was kidnapped thirty years before, and she was one “spotted” by Gambi. Her escape sends everyone into a panic, as Wendy’s power remains unpredictable. Her storyline serves a few purposes, and their success, or their potential for success, is certainly up for debate. Her story of overwhelming, unexplained powers serves to complement Jenn’s own story, while also adding to the themes of family and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Where Wendy has no one to help her navigate her new reality— Gambi informs the team that her parents are long dead, leaving her with no family— Jenn has her mother, father, sister, and Gambi. She has a whole support system in place, whereas Wendy is the victim of a government separating children from their families.

Jenn’s struggle to accept and control her powers was one of the first season’s highlights, which is why it’s so fascinating to see a similar story playing out with not only Wendy, but also Issa. The two, whose cells aren’t changed naturally but rather by Green Light, which means they can’t revert back to normal and will die at any moment like the first escaped meta, are given different choices: they can either live out their lives with death coming at any moment, or they can go back inside the pods while Lynn and her team work on a cure. Wendy chooses the pod, but Issa, who has the power to get people to tell him the truth, refuses. He wants to take his chances on the outside, even though that could put him in danger; just ask Agent Odell, who greets the news that Issa will be out and about on his own with a sinister laugh.

It’s encouraging to see these parallels and contrasts playing out with Jenn, because it underscores how privileged the Pearce family is. In fact, the season so far seems to be setting them up for a downfall, specifically Jenn and Anissa. For all of Jenn’s angst about her powers, she’s still given space to explore her options. Khalil, on the other hand, was simply thrust into his role, and now he’s stuck doing dirty deeds for Tobias. “Black Jesus Blues” is worrisome in the ways that it treats Issa’s story as something procedural and episodic—long term storytelling is the show’s strong suit, so a slip into weekly, isolated stories calls for a little hesitancybut it’s hard to argue with the way the episode presents new challenges to the Pearce family, and the way it reframes how certain characters are coming to terms with their new reality.


It’s too early to tell if this push into new territory will suit Black Lightning. “Black Jesus Blues” has elements that work and some that don’t. Deepening the government conspiracy angle is a smart choice, but both Issa and Wendy’s arcs feel rushed, especially when you consider how patient this show usually is when it comes to its storytelling. Still, Black Lightning needs to expand its scope beyond the Pearce family; we’ll just have to wait and see if it can do so successfully. 

Stray observations

  • I mentioned this a bit last week, but oh man, Anissa is getting way too overconfident. She thinks she’s untouchable right now, both as Thunder and as herself, and it’s bound to catch up with her.
  • In fact, both her and Jenn seem primed to take a tumble this season, with Jenn potentially getting wrapped up in Khalil’s struggle with Tobias.
  • Lynn is also in way too deep with the ASA. She seems to think she’ll be able to change things from the inside and help those kids in the pods, but odds are she’s just going to end up doing some research that they’ll exploit for nefarious means.
  • That episode-ending moment was both incredibly cheesy and kind of sweet.
  • This week in the Black Lightning soundtrack:

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.