Black Lightning Episode 13 Review: Shadow of Death — The Book of War

Black Lightning stumbles a bit in its first season landing, but remains one of the most important superhero shows on TV.

This Black Lightning review includes spoilers.

Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 13

Since we first met him in the Black Lightning pilot, Jefferson Pierce has never been completely comfortable with his superhero persona. There are too many people in his life with varying opinions about the matter for him to put his head in the sand and do what feels powerful without wondering if it’s what is right. He’s that kind of man. In many ways, the Black Lightning season finale was anti-climatic—the first half was exposition-heavy with a literally unconscious protagonist to boot—but there were enough wonderful moments tied to Black Lightning’s season-long origin story to make this season-ender if not show-stopping, then cathartic.

Have I mentioned that Jefferson Pierce was unconscious for half of this episode? This resulted in a pretty slow, clunky first half. We started out with a bang, seeing a montage of young Jefferson Pierce kick-starting his powers against riot cops and spending time with his father. These flashbacks continued to be the best part of the first half of the episode. It’s no surprise that Alvin Pierce was a special guy. It was him who taught Jeff the mantra he still passes on to young, black youth: Whose life it this? Mine. What are you going to do with it? Live it, by any means necessary. That’s a startingly powerful statement for a demographic that has continuous, systemic violence and oppression forced upon it.

In what may be the most powerful scene in the entire episode, Jeff gets a chance to talk with his father (well, you know, he’s still unconscious, but it seems like Black Panther rules here). He tells him he loves him, of course, but he also asks him if he feels his death was worth it. Earlier in the episode, we see Alvin tell Gambi that he is willing to die for his cause. Because he wants to make a better future for his son. It’s a startingly honest scene: for Jeff to so honestly ask his father if giving up his life was worth losing a life with his son.

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Of course Alvin doesn’t know. He will never know what his life would have been if he chose to stay quiet about the government experiments being conducted on young black kids in Freeland. He made his choice and, while it may have led to Jeff having to grow up without a dad, it also led to Jeff devoting his own life to helping his community. His father, a man who “punished” Jeff by having him study the Constitution, gave him that example.

When Jeff asks Alvin if his sacrifice is worth it, he is also asking if his own sacrifice is worth it. You have to decide whether or not Black Lightning is worth it for yourself, Alvin tells Jeff. Jeff has spent the entire season, in part, listening to other people—and there is an importance to that (*cough* Oliver Queen)—but, at a certain point, Jeff is the only one who can make the decision. Just like his father. Just like everyone else.

For a brief time in the episode, the decision is taken away from Jeff altogether. When he wakes up, he is powerless. It is a big moment and one I would have liked to see Black Lightning explore in greater detail as its own arc rather than shoehorned into the season finale. Perhaps it is what Jeff needs to make the decision for him. After Jennifer gives him a jumpstart with his powers (that girl certainly is handy to have around), Jeff is Black Lightning again. But, regardless, he was willing to go out there and face Martin Proctor’s men. He made his decision. For his family, he would do anything. He chooses to stay.

In that high-stakes moment, Anissa makes the decision, too. Unlike her father or Jennifer, she hasn’t had any doubts about how or even if she wants to use her powers. Anissa was a hero before she ever found out she was Thunder, protesting against the injustices of the community and of her world. We can’t leave our community behind, she tells her family and Gambi. It’s the choice every privileged person gets to make, sometimes over and over again. Will you take your power and run with it? Or will you stay and help those who have none? It’s usually a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, but it’s there and, for the Pierces, it’s never really been a choice.

The result is the Pierces standing their ground in that remote cabin in the woods. It’s an epic enough fight, with even Lynn getting a chance to take out some ASA agents. However, it might have felt a bit more thematically resonant if it were somehow tied to the community the Pierces are so intent on protecting. Much of this episode suffered from the absence of the more grounded aspects of the show. We didn’t see Garfield High at all and, while the police department certainly played a role in the story, this episode was mostly centered on the more superpowered, weaker elements of the show.

In the end, the Pierces win the fight and somehow find their way to the facility where Martin Proctor was keeping all of the kids in stasis. It’s a rushed ending for the Donald Trump-esque villain, who spouts “Make America Great” several times in the episode. Gambi shoots him, which I guess is a kind of moment for his character, but also feels like a simplistic, too-neat ending for this storyline. A throwaway line about how Proctor was actually running a rogue mission, divorced from the ASA, is given to explain the ease with with they take out Proctor. Kara is nowhere in sight.

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Perhaps Black Lightning knows that this is a botched job, but is interested in limiting its number of villains for Season 2. Though we don’t see Lala actually die, he seems to be exploded. (It would be a shame if this character doesn’t come back for Season 2, especially given how his curse of having the people he murdered show up on his body and in his brain could lead to an interesting redemption arc, should the show choose to head in that direction.)

With Martin Proctor, Tobias Whale is firmly in control of Freeland’s underworld. He even has Proctor’s all important suitcase (which shone with a heck of a lot of green light in that ending scene) and two solid lackeys in the form of Syonide and Khalil. Of course, they don’t know what they are up against when it comes to Team Pierce. This is a family affair. This is a community affair. Freeland is protected.

Additional thoughts.

Gambi was infected with some kind of exposition disease in the first half of the episode, spewing random backstory information left and right to whoever would listen (mostly Jennifer and Anissa). It was painful to watch.

As annoying as Gambi’s information dumps were, I did like how he presented Khalil’s situation to Jennifer. Sure, have empathy and be aware of the context of Khalil’s transformation, but also respect the agency of his actions. He chose and still chooses to throw in with Tobias Whale. He chose to terrorize his own school and community. Everyone has a choice, and Khalil made his: legs for loyalty.

Is Lynn the kind of person to believe in some kind of psychic connection with Jeff? Personally, I don’t think so, but Christine Adams certainly sold the idea with her performance.

Khalil’s hair is kind of dumb, but he looked so cool when he was walking down that hallway at Proctor’s HQ. Well done, director.

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What happened to Grace? 

The Pierces let that random lackey not only see their faces, but listen to their whole, climactic showdown with Martin Proctor. Unless he turns out to be their new, nerdy sidekick in Season 2, that feels like a major mistake.

All in all, this was a hell of a first season. In many ways, Black Lightning played it safe when it came to its superhero drama, but its character work was top notch, as was its centering of real-world, racial issues. The superhero genre is one that analyzes and depicts power, and Black Lightning is making that happen in ways that no other show on TV is even attempting to do. I can’t wait to see what it has in store for us next.


3.5 out of 5