This Black Lightning review contains spoilers.
Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 3
Victory is rarely clean—a reality many superhero narratives work hard to ignore. Black Lightning is, refreshingly, not one of those superhero narratives.
In “Lawanda: Book of Burial,” Black Lightning technically saves the day, stopping Tobias Whale’s rogue shooter from a mass killing, but he is unable to prevent all violence. He doesn’t have that kind of all-consuming power. That’s not how life works, even when you have superpowers—a fact Anissa might have to learn herself as she giddily explores what her burgeoning superpowers could mean for her quest to make the world a better, safer, and more just place.
It’s fitting that this theme, the humility and frustration of accepting (or not) that no one can control everything, be explored in an episode that is so much about organized religion. “Book of Burial” begins during Lawanda’s funeral, as Reverend Holt delivers a sermon about his inability to sit back any longer and let The 100 rule Freeland’s streets, killing without consequence. He organizes a march of “God-fearing” citizens to demonstrate to the gang that their reign will not be endured quietly, that someone cares about Freeland.
The exploration of another one of the community’s Jefferson Pierce considers himself a part of highlights just how much this is a) an ensemble show and b) a show where setting really matters. In five plus seasons of watching the Arrowverse, I have never once felt like any of the shows were set in real places. Those shows are not interested in exploring Star City, National City, and Central City in any real way, which is a shame because it lowers the stakes, makes them less visceral. We care that Oliver Queen is trying to save Star City because we care about Oliver Queen, not because we care about Star City. The fact that Arrow has never truly explored the place its trying to save is wasted narrative potential, an opportunity that Black Lightning is wasting no time seizing.
The church Jeff, Lynn, Jennifer, and Anissa (um, occasionally) attend is not just a religious center; it’s a community, a place to air grievances and discuss community matters. Following his sermon, Holt is approached by Inspector Henderson and Jeff. Henderson in particular asks Holt not to go forward with the march, to let the police do their job. But that’s the strategy Holt has been employing, and it’s not working for him. The police, who are half in the pocket of The 100, are not working quickly enough. People are dying everyday at the hands of The 100, including Lawanda.
For Henderson, people like Holt and Black Lightning are simply getting in the way of the work he is doing everyday. It’s a fascinating scene, arguably the best of the episode, as it sees three men with the same motivation and goal, going about solving a community problem in three very different ways: as a religious leader, as a cop, and as a vigilante. Refreshingly, the show doesn’t act like one is superior than the others, despite the fact that this is a superhero show. They are all blunt instruments, with their own sets of pros and cons.
Let’s take a moment to talk about this thing they are all fighting, because it gained greater clarity in this episode. We have known since Episode 1 that The 100 truly answer to Tobias Whale, but in tonight’s episode, we see who Whale answers to: Lady Eve. This web of corruption seems to go ever deeper, leading to the question: Who does Lady Eve take her marching orders from, if anyone? In the comics, she is part of the Kobra Cult.
Whatever Eve’s backstory, she lends an ominous presence here. She doesn’t care if people believe in God, she just doesn’t want them believing they can take back the streets. Her motivation? Money. As long as the police are unable to effectively protect the people and businesses of Freeland, she can make “protection” money. It’s a clear, believable villainous motivation, one that Black Lightning doesn’t need to spend too much time outlining because it exists in the real world.
While Lady Eve may be the woman behind Tobias Whale, Jefferson Pierce has his own man in the shadows: Peter Gambi. This episode really upped the superhero tech stuff, giving Gambi more to do. I’m not sure how well the holograms and pseudoscience fit into this very grounded story. Right now, Gambi feels very disconnected from the rest of this world. That being said, it’s only the third episode, and Gambi’s decision to erase Tobias Whale’s image from the footage of te shooting is an intriguing moment that makes me wonder more about his relationship with Jeff. Presumably, he is doing this to protect his friend, drawing on backstory we don’t yet know yet.
Another character who was somewhat of an outsider from the main action this week (though still very much grounded in this world) is Anissa. Fresh off the true discovery of her superpowers, she distances herself from her loved ones as she tries to figure out just what this means. It’s nice to see a young, black woman so revel in her power. When Anissa successfully channels her strength in a beautifully-lit junkyard scene, she whoops for joy. For a woman who is so keenly aware of the limits of her own power when it comes to changing the system, this feels like it could be the very thing she needs to make people finally listen.
But just because she’s jumping for joy doesn’t mean she’s not also freaking out. As she tells her new friend (and maybe something more?) Grace, everything is changing in her life. She wanted to hold onto girlfriend Chenoa, even though it wasn’t working out, because she wanted something to stay the same. That doesn’t happen, mostly because Anissa takes Grace up on her offer to dress up as superheroes and go dancing together at the bar Grace works at.
Anissa isn’t fooling everyone. When Lynn asks her what’s going on and Anissa tells her she and Chenoa broke up, Lynn’s not buying it. She tells her daughter she is here to talk when and if she needs to. I’m actually dying to know how Lynn might react to the revelation that Anissa has superpowers. It’s been at least a decade (how long was Jeff a superhero before he gave it up?), and she still hasn’t accepted Jeff’s superpowers. No doubt it will be even harder when it comes to her daughter.
While Anissa is working through this change in her identity, Jennifer has her own rite of passage to embrace. She and Khalil have decided to have sex. As we find out during another adorable rooftop conversation, they are both virgins. They make plans to have sex on Saturday, and Jennifer promptly tells her parents over family dinner. It’s a refreshing depiction of teenage sex. First, the teens seem to have multiple conversations about the sex before having it. Second, the teen tells the parents instead of hiding it. Third, the parents don’t try to prevent it, instead making sure the sex is safe.
Basically, everyone acts very maturely. (Except for maybe Jeff when he takes the opportunity to punk Khalil with a lecture about not giving his daughter athlete’s foot.) It’s family drama done well and in service to the larger plot. During the march, it’s not just Holt who is shot, but Khalil. Though it seems like he will live, he may never walk again. This would be tragic regardless of the context, but the fact that Khalil hoped to get an education through his track abilities makes it even more heartbreaking.
We’ve only known Khalil for two episodes, but we know that he has worked incredibly hard so he doesn’t have to rely on the corruption and violence of the worst parts of the neighborhood. He is a shining example of what Jefferson Pierce is trying to do with his school: give the kids of the community a chance to not only feel safe, but create a future outside of the limited options of their neighborhood. The 100 doesn’t just kill people; it kills dreams. That’s why it needs a nemesis like Black Lightning. As demonstrated so beautifully by Holt’s leading of a round of “Amazing Grace,” Black Lightning doesn’t just save people; he saves dreams.