Right out of the gate, Black Lightning had an understanding that every superhero drama needs, well, both its superhero aspects and its drama aspects. The first two episodes of the series made it very clear that Jefferson Pierce—the father, the ex-husband, and the community leader—was, in many ways, more important than Black Lightning. Maybe “more important” isn’t right; rather, the show quickly found a way to show how Jefferson and Black Lightning are intertwined in complicated ways. Obviously they’re the same person, but it’s more than that. Those first two episodes succeed because they interrogate the roles of both Jefferson and Black Lightning in the community, splitting Jefferson’s identity in half while also showing that one doesn’t exist without the other.

Most of the show’s time has been spent with Jefferson. We’ve come to understand him as a parent, his complex relationship with Lynn, the way he’s respected in the community, and the way Black Lightning continues to draw him in. By focusing on him as a citizen, and the dynamic of the Pierce family in general, we’ve come to understand both Freeland and Black Lightning better. In those first two episodes the show strikes an incredible balance between fulfilling the necessary beats of a superhero resurrection story, complete with the menacing villain and his sometimes-capable cronies, with a larger sense of how Jefferson fits into that world, and his own home.

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“LaWanda: The Book Of Burial” is the first misstep of the season, largely because that balance feels off. There’s a creeping sense in this episode that the slow burn style of storytelling is perhaps wearing thin. This is by no means a bad episode, but it’s one where the cracks in the storytelling are briefly exposed. Where “LaWanda: The Book Of Burial” misfires is in the family drama, which is surprising considering how much the Pierce family dynamic acted as the anchor in the first two episodes. Here though, the beats feel clunky, the more natural and lived-in feel of “The Resurrection” and “LaWanda: Book Of Hope” replaced with something much more contrived.

Before getting there though, there’s plenty to love about “LaWanda: The Book Of Burial.” With Black Lightning officially back in some capacity, the city’s upstanding citizens feel emboldened. Reverend Holt uses a funeral for LaWanda as a soapbox for his proclamations about reclaiming the community. He’s sick of the death and the violence, and with Black Lightning as his motivator, he riles up his congregation and organizes a march through the streets to let the 100 Gang know that these people won’t be afraid. Black Lightning doesn’t spend all that much time on the community effort to organize, instead using the march as a way to dig into Jefferson’s conflicted feelings about bringing his caped alter-ego back.

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Essentially, Jefferson has to grapple with the influence of Black Lightning. Galvanizing people, showing them a way out of violence, can be a powerful thing, but it can also be dangerous. Jefferson knows this all too well, and yet he can’t give up the mask. Much like the Seahorse Motel arc, this kind of nuanced story is ultimately good for Black Lightning. Jefferson’s reservations don’t feel like contrived internal conflict because we’ve spent so much time getting to know his family, his history, and his role in the community. He sees the hope Black Lightning brings to these people, but when he can’t prevent Reverend Holt from getting shot at the march, he has to admit that any uprising will have casualties.

What “LaWanda: The Book Of Burial” gets right is this internal conflict. It feels immediate and urgent. With the community already taking action, Jefferson is thrust into a sense of responsibility on a scale that he didn’t predict, and that’s a boon for the story’s stakes. Where the episode falters though is in blending that with the Pierce family drama. Again, there’s plenty of good stuff peppered throughout the episode; drawing parallels between Jefferson’s reckoning with his identity and Anissa’s own struggles is a particularly nice touch. With that said, too many pieces have to fall into place before the episode’s climax, and the result is a rushed story that feels out of touch with what the show’s been doing so far.

The storyline that moves from Khalil and Jennifer talking about losing their virginity together, complete with a conversation where Jennifer tells her parents about her intentions, to Khalil getting shot and maybe losing his ability to walk, is a mess. There are good character moments mixed in there, like Jefferson and Lynn having to come to grips with the fact that their daughter is going to have sex at what they feel is a young age while also giving her credit for being mature about it. But the overall arc is melodramatic and contrived in a way that doesn’t suit the show.

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The arc starts to go downhill when Jefferson confronts Khalil at school, asking him questions about how he showers and towels off before frightening him with talk of “athlete’s foot where athlete’s foot doesn’t belong.” It’s a strange scene, and not just because of the content. It’s strange because it doesn’t seem to fit with the show’s otherwise-nuanced approach to the personal drama of these characters. Even ignoring how played out the “overbearing, intimidating father” trope is, the whole arc relies on emotions that just don’t resonate.

This is the first episode where you can see the strings being pulled. Considering all of Black Lightning’s nuance, the personal drama of “LaWanda: The Book of Burial” is regrettably broad. Khalil’s diagnosis, coming after the episode’s focus on Jefferson and Lynn struggling with their independent, confident daughter’s decision, seems like the show having its cake and eating it too. It coasts on the tension brought about by Jennifer and Khalil’s decision, before pulling back from any fallout and therefore sacrificing character for conflict. It’s an unfortunate turn, but hopefully one that’s not a harbinger of what’s to come.


Stray observations

  • I really love the opening scene that cuts between Jefferson, Lynn, and Jennifer listening to Reverend Holt, and Anissa in a junkyard trying to figure out her powers. In particular the wide shot that captures her kicking a washer halfway across the yard is stunning.
  • “I’m tired, man.” Reverend Holt, speaking for us all.
  • Tobias has a boss, and her name is Lady Eve. She’s sweet and intimidating in the span of two minutes.
  • When he’s asked about whether he’s read the Bible, Tobias has the perfect answer: “My life hasn’t exactly led me down a spiritual path.”
  • Thematically, this is a really sound episode. Every storyline is about shifting identities, transitional periods of unrest, and the discovery (or rediscovery) of hope.
  • It looks like Gambi deletes security footage of Tobias at the scene of the shooting. He does whisper an apology to the absent Black Lightning in the moment, but something tells me that won’t be enough.
  • Tobias has some choice words for the congregation marching in the streets: “They all want to go to heaven, but none of them want to die.”
  • This week in Black Lightning’s killer soundtrack: The Queen of Soul.

 

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