This Black Lightning review contains spoilers.
Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 8
A lot of attention has justifiably been given to Black Lightning‘s rare depiction of a black superhero on-screen, but not nearly as much digital ink has been spilled about the other aspects of this show that make it so unique within the pantheon of superhero TV and film. Tonight’s episode, “The Book of Revelations,” centered on of Black Lightning‘s strongest, most subversive aspect: it is about a superhero dad.
Jefferson Pierce’s identity as a dad superhero is already pretty rad, but what makes his interactions with Anissa even better is that he is an uncommonly good TV dad in general. Thus far, this show has done an admiral job avoiding the “I must protect you by keeping secrets/restricting your life” trope that so many superhero shows fall into. (See The Flash, which had both Barry and Joe lying to Iris about Barry’s superhero status for an entire season under the auspices of “protecting her.”)
When Jefferson Pierce first found out his daughter had superpowers, sure, he wanted to keep her from using them. He wanted to wrap her up in cotton and never let her get hurt. This is a normal reaction for someone you love. But, because he is a surprisingly well-adjusted dude for someone who has a fair amount of trauma in his life, Jeff quickly moves past that knee-jerk reaction.
By the time “The Book of Revelations” rolls around, Jefferson is all-out training Anissa, complete with a Men in Black-style training program that gets Anissa to identity threats to limit the collateral damage. By the end of the episode, Jeff is ecstatic to tell his wife that he has been looking at this all wrong. There are things Anissa does better than him; there are things he can learn from her. He saves his life and, rather than seeing that as a threat to his superhero-dom or his masculinity, Jeff is just overjoyed that he has such a smart, cool, strong daughter with excellent instincts. It’s a subversive depiction of both superheroes and masculinity.
Of course, while Jeff is depicting what a respectful, well-adjusted father looks like, Peter Gambi is demonstrating the opposite. As Jefferson’s father figure, he has made some very different decisions, lying to Jeff for 30 years about so, so many things: the truth about his own identity, the truth about Alvin Jefferson’s death, the truth about where Black Lightning powers come from, and the truth about Freeland itself and the ASA’s impact on it.
Black Lightning dropped some major plot development bombs in tonight’s episode, and they were mostly delivered through Gambi’s character. I wish these had hit a little harder on the emotional level. I still don’t totally buy Gambi’s character or his connection to the Pierce family. This betrayal would have played out a bit more bittersweet if we felt the connection between Jeff and Gambi on a more emotional level. So far, we’ve seen Gambi yell at Jeff more than we’ve see them be affectionate towards one another. I know people express their emotions in different ways (and that way for Gambi is, apparently, “sarcastic Italian”), but this show has not sold me on the Jeff/Gambi relationship as a father-son dynamic.
That being said, the ramifications of Gambi’s big reveals are still effective from a plot point-of-view. We learn that Freeland has been used by the ASA, a shadowy government agency, to test out a drug that turns people docile. It’s disgusting, and not without precedent in the real world. Human drug trials have been conducted by U.S.-funded studies before. In the 1960s, Puerto Rican women were used to test the birth control pill, potentially leading to the death of three women. In the 1940s, a U.S.-funded study deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphillis and other STDs. The government also ran the Tuskegee Syphillis Study, conducting harmful research on black men in Alabama for 40 years.
So, yeah, when Gambi meets up with his quasi-boss Martin and Martin spews racist rhetoric about how lucky the people of Freeland should be for the ASA giving purpose to their life, it’s not over the top or unrealistic. It’s also not totally unconnected to Anissa’s instincts to take out the racist white dude who isn’t a direct threat during her training with her dad. We need to find ways to deal with the indirect threats, too, because those are the ones that lead to more visceral, violent reactions. Anissa, she of peaceful protests and racist statue-smashing, knows this better than her dad, perhaps.
Speaking of family secrets, Jennifer is now the only member of the Pierce family that doesn’t know about the superhero squad that seems to be forming under her nose—though, to be fair, she knows something is up. In another superhero moment subversion, when Jennifer finds out that she may have powers, she pretty much immediately goes to tell her sister. Jefferson and Lynn have raised these kids right.
Speaking of Lynn, it’s nice to see Lynn get something plot-heavy to do in this episode, even if I didn’t buy that she would jump from finding out that Green Light and Alvin’s work is connected directly to Gambi must have something to do with it. Lynn is definitely a character that this show has struggled to know what to do with somewhat in these opening episodes. I hope it figures it out. Perhaps, she could take over Gambi’s job as superhero support member now that Jefferson isn’t talking to him?
In other news, Lala is legit going crazy—which is understandable given that he has been resurrected from the dead and is interacting with the woman he murdered, whose face is now tattooed on his chest. I felt a bit squicky about seeing Lawanda and Lala kiss (this is the man who murdered her in cold blood, after all), but as I’m not exactly sure if Lawanda is Lawanda, I’m willing to let this one play out. It’s nice to see that Lala isn’t unaffacted by all of this. After he kisses a disappearing Lawanda in the shower, he cries under the water. Yeah, he’s a mess, but maybe this version of Lala will be better than the last?
It’s kind of amazing to see all of the groundwork Black Lightning has laid in only eight episodes. This show is something different amongt the superhero TV genre. It is a family drama, one that respects all of its characters equally, and one that is grounded in place in a way that no other superhero TV show has managed. Other, lazier shows would have made this episode completely about Jefferson trying to do his job as Black Lightning amidst the anti-Black Lightning sentiment in the wake of Lady Eve’s murder. Not Black Lightning. It has deeper ambitions. May that ever be so.