It’s appropriate that Black Lightning, a show that probes how the weight of history is felt across generations, and the way it manifests itself in oppression and violence, begins with a flashback. “Shadow Of Death: The Book Of War” starts with Gambi and Alvin Pierce, Jefferson’s father, having it out on the street. Apparently Alvin has named names in his look into the A.S.A., something his whistleblower warned against. Gambi warns him that this will bring violence to his doorstep, but Alvin is prepared to accept the consequences. Gambi sees no reason to fight on that level; the elder Pierce sees all the reasons he needs in the front seat of his car, as Jefferson looks out the passenger side window.
The first few minutes of “Shadow Of Death: The Book Of War” are, despite the use of a flashback, stirring in their immediacy. The show gives us glimpses of Alvin’s funeral, and of a Freeland that’s changing due to social unrest. The streets are home to riots after the cops shoot an unarmed black man. A young Jefferson runs from the riot police, who are wielding batons with menace. The stark black and white is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Alright”; “and we hate po-po, want to kill us dead in the street for sure.” Jefferson is running for his life, and that leads to the first use of his powers. It’s Black Lightning underlining what’s been there all along, which is that Jefferson’s powers aren’t just life-changing, they’re life-saving, not just for him but for his community, and for black bodies. His powers prevent him from being another statistic, and that sets Jefferson on the path to being a community leader. He can’t transfer his superpowers to the children of Freeland, but he can give them other powers: knowledge, education, hope, and opportunity.
In the present though, Jefferson is laid up in bed, barely recovering from Khalil’s attack. In fact, the finale keeps Jefferson in that bed for half the episode. Initially, it’s a worrisome move, but before long the episode is crafting a compelling story about a family rising up together, and it takes Black Lightning to new heights. It could be disastrous for the season finale to spend so much time having the Pierces musing on responsibility and anger in Gambi’s cabin in the woods—“we’re literally walking down memory lane, and this isn’t helping us,” says Anissa—but as the episode progresses, the goal of the patient pacing becomes evident. This is a slowburn finale in a sense, taking its time to secure a few emotional revelations before getting down to the final confrontation with the season’s bad guys.
Those emotional revelations are important because they’re rooted in the nuanced character work of the season, and they inform the violence of the final stretch. “Peace isn’t always peaceful,” says Alvin to Jefferson, now grown and having a vision that fits in with the flashbacks. This scene, this catharsis for Jefferson, where he gets to apologize to his father for not protecting him while also gaining his approval for the man he’s become, is the lynchpin of the finale, if not the season. Jefferson, and the Pierces in general, have struggled to define their role in Freeland as people with powers (and Lynn, who has to deal with it all). Alvin has always loomed large on his conscience. Was he doing the right thing? Was he making his father proud? Now, he’s reconciled Jefferson with Black Lightning, and sees his purpose clearly.
What’s so great about “Shadow Of Death: The Book Of War” is how the whole family comes around to this idea of responsibility, both to each other and to their community. Jenn’s only seen her recently discovered powers as a burden, but when she saves her father’s life and restores his powers before Proctor’s armed force storms the cabin, she sees their purpose. She sees the good she can do. “Oh, so this is what we do,” she says with a smirk, and Jefferson flashes one back. Again, the Pierce family dynamic shines, especially in these small moments. Yes, there’s the heartbreaking emotion of Lynn pleading with Jefferson to wake up, but there’s also the shared glances and the freedom with which they smile at each other. Black Lightning has done a tremendous job of making the Pierce family feel real, and that makes their stand against Proctor, complete with Lynn toting a shotgun, all the more satisfying. The first season follows a true arc, as the Pierce family, splintered as the season began, finds a way to work together for the common good.
There are moments in the finale that aren’t perfect. Namely, Proctor as the representation of evil, corporate, white America is too on the nose; having him say he wants to “make America great again” twice is a little much, you know? Also, Lala’s arc is disappointing, his (potential, though unlikely) demise as a “bomb mule” for Tobias a lackluster finish to a story that was just starting to get interesting in the back half of the season. Those imperfect moments don’t detract from the overall assuredness of the episode though, and “Shadow Of Death: The Book Of War” is about as good a first season finale as you’ll find. It’s tonally bold, easily moving between being funny and politically poignant, while also wrapping up the story of Proctor and setting up plenty of intrigue for next season, with Tobias as the new “King of Freeland.” “Shadow Of Death: The Book Of War” is a confident, compelling, moving end to a season that boasted all those same qualities throughout. Black Lightning might be back, but Black Lightning is just getting started.
- There are a lot of great lines in this episode, but the best comes from Tobias: “The laws of convention and morality do not apply to me. That’s Napoleon, and he was a weak-ass Frenchman.”
- Speaking of Tobias, Marvin “Krondon” Jones deserves a lot of praise for adding a ton of gravitas to a character that could have easily steered into silly.
- Another nice emotional moment: Gambi telling Anissa that she’s “the strongest of us” to show her why she needs to stay at the cabin and not run head first into the A.S.A.
- Lala may have blown himself up at the order of Tobias, but I doubt that’s the last we see of him. After all, we know that Tobias already paid to have him “reanimated” once before.
- I really like the switch from Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Shining Star” to Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner” during the climax because it underscores the shift from fun superhero team-up to something much more serious.
- The people of Freeland are well aware of how their opinions are viewed: “We always paranoid until the truth comes out.”
- That’s it for the first season of Black Lightning reviews! Thanks so much for reading along. It’s been a lot of fun watching this show grow and find its footing, and it seems like a lot of you were drawn to the show’s strengths in the same way I was. Hopefully I’ll see you back here next season!
- This week in the Black Lightning soundtrack: