Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black Lightning is back, and it's bleaker and better than ever

Jenn (China Anne McClain) and Jefferson (Cress Williams)
Jenn (China Anne McClain) and Jefferson (Cress Williams)
Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/The CW

Crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing

Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading

Oh, make me wanna holler

They don’t understand

Make me wanna holler

They don’t understand

- “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”—which you could call a “standout track” if every single song on What’s Going On wasn’t a masterpiece—is a political polemic, and a stirring portrait of the forces that ravage black communities in America. When Gaye sings about crime increasing in these neighborhoods, he’s talking about how crime is not inherent, but an unavoidable consequence of government neglect and suppression. Nixon’s “War on Drugs” not only served to criminalize and police black communities in a disproportionate way, it was a strategy that allowed the media to demonize those communities, creating a cycle of image and consequences that reverberates to this day. The album uses the perspective of a Vietnam vet to tap into the disillusion felt by so many Americans, not just with the war but with the increasing disparity in American life between classes.


“We’re looking, here, at consequences,” says the preacher at the local Freeland church, when talking about yet another killing of an unarmed black man. The “consequences” are those that Gaye is singing about, though in a different way. The Vietnam war and the war on drugs is here replaced by the “new crack,” as kids in Freeland end up taking Green Light, which puts them in a state that leads to cops killing them on site. A young man name Issa gets put in a deadly chokehold in the season’s opening scene, the news footage acting as the medium. It’s familiar footage in our world, and one that’s familiar in Freeland too. “Another kid,” sighs Jefferson as he points at the TV later on in the episode, the inevitability of it all weighing his voice down.

Freeland is in the midst of a crisis at the beginning of this season, one that’s set to tear the community apart. Freeland had its issues throughout the first season, but you got the sense there was some solidarity there, that everyone knew the system was the real enemy of the people. Now though, with “metas” running around and Green Light wreaking havoc on a generation of children, the people are becoming divided. Jefferson sees the writing on the wall; all the negative press surrounding metas will lead to a backlash, the people of Freeland will become frightened, and they’ll lose sight of the real enemy and instead see the metas as easy scapegoats for the problems plaguing the community. It may not be long before Freeland has a populist leader seeking to rid the city of metas.

It’s really remarkable that, after the triumphs that came with the season one finale, this premiere, boasting the unwieldy title “The Book Of Consequences: Chapter One: Rise Of The Green Light Babies,” is so damn bleak. It wouldn’t be abnormal for Black Lightning to start from a place of relative joy after Jefferson learned some of the truth about the ASA, Tobias was briefly stopped, and the pods full of metahumans were exposed at the end of last season. But there’s no real joy here. For its 42-minute runtime, this is an episode that’s realistic about the fallout. All these revelations in Freeland— about the return of Black Lightning, about Green Light, about metahumans— has the city reeling. There’s no simple recovery from that, and Black Lightning and Thunder aren’t simply heroes. Everything is more complex than that. One of the reasons the first season was so compelling was that the show made the political personal. That’s once again evident here, as there’s a wonderful sense of the larger community throughout the premiere. This isn’t just a story about the Pierce family; it’s one about a city ravaged by decades of institutional violence. Freeland really is its own character, and Black Lightning knows it, showing the threat posed by cops and authority figures to young black men while also not shying away from showing that the Pierce family is more well off, able to shield themselves from some of the reality because of their status.

Still, there’s no protection here. The premiere puts everyone through the ringer. Jefferson is run out of Garfield High when the school board threatens to shut down the school for good; agents are keeping a close, suspicious eye on Lynn as she works to research the pods; Gambi is brought back into the focus of the ASA when Kara comes to him with hopes of escaping; and, most emotionally gutting of all, Jenn is bombarded with more powers that she doesn’t understand and seemingly can’t control. She’s floating and glowing during the night, and she spends part of the episode locked in her bathroom while sitting in a glowing orb that she can’t seem to turn off. The Pierces may have come together at the end of last season, but this week’s premiere sees them nearly falling apart. With Tobias getting himself back in the game, Henderson discovering Jefferson’s secret identity, and Anissa potentially biting off more than she can chew, there’s a lot coming the Pierce’s way, and they may not be able to handle it, no matter how tight they think they are.

Stray observations

  • Black Lightning reviews are back! I’ll be honest: they’re on the bubble. I love writing about this show though, and there’s so much to dig into. If you feel the same way, please read and share and all that fun stuff so that we can have this space to discuss every episode of season two.
  • It’s really refreshing to see a show that knows how to stage fight scenes. Both the showdown between Kara and Syonide, and Anissa’s run through the drug house, use space in a way that makes sense, and conveys that to everyone watching. We can actually follow the action and understand how each person is moving through the space, which creates a palpable tension and urgency.
  • Kara, after putting a bladed heel into Syonide’s neck: “Bitch, you got my hair wet.” That’s how you sign off after killing your enemy.
  • Lynn: “We’re not seeing eye-to-eye on anything right now.” That about sums up the entire premiere, as everyone is at odds.
  • How about that badass opening title card? I’ll take more of those please. Also, stellar choice to bookend the episode with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” to really underscore the episode’s themes.
  • The only reason I’m bumping this episode down to an A- is because of Henderson finding out that Jefferson is Black Lightning. That whole thing has bugged me for some time because, you know, small goggles isn’t the best way to fool someone who’s supposedly known you your whole life.
  • This show is using/commenting on media in really interesting ways, especially when it comes to issues of social justice and how media representation can be used to persecute groups of people.
  • 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.