This Black Lightning review contains spoilers.
Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 9
For a genre that is known for its secret-keeping, superhero TV doesn’t always do a good job exploring the nuanced fallout of when those secrets are revealed. Leave it to Black Lightning, the best superhero show on TV right now (yep, I said it), to make all of its genre bedfellows look like emotionally-simplistic nursery rhymes. “The Book of Little Black Lies,” as you might expect, is all about what happens when lies are exposed. Sure, there are some major plot developments, but this show has chosen again and again to prioritize emotional truth over plot mechanics, and the fallout of the reveals of both Jennifer’s powers and Gambi’s betrayal are no exception.
Let’s hit the reveal of Jennifer’s nascent powers first because that was at the heart of this episode. In another generically refreshing move, Black Lightning wastes no time letting the secret of Jennifer’s powers spread. But rather than make this solely about others reacting to the revelation of Jennifer’s powers, as we all might have expected, the show shifts the focus to how Jennifer reacts to the reveal that her entire family has been lying to her for years. (Well, to be fair, Anissa has only been lying to her for a couple of weeks, but still.)
As you might expect, Jennifer is not happy. She is at an age where she is struggling to make her family see her as, if not an adult, then not a kid. Something in-between. She reads the secret-keeping as not only a betrayal of the trust this family is supposed to have for one another, but also a sign that her parents and Anissa don’t think she’s mature enough to know the truth.
Of course, it’s not just the emotional betrayal that smarts; it’s what powers mean for Jennifer’s future. In the best scene of the entire episode, we see Jennifer finally open up to Lynn. She’s not like Anissa, she tells her mom. She doesn’t want to save the world. She just wants to live in it. She wants to be a “normal” teen and go to college and get married and have kids. This calls that all into question—or, more accurately, complicates matters. It makes sense for Jennifer’s characters, both in terms of her age and what we have seen from her before, that these are the questions she has about what her powers will mean: Will anyone love her? Will she be able to have kids?
Jennifer’s reaction is no less valid than Anissa’s, in some ways, much easier response. They are very different people and, while Anissa may be subverting the expectations of what female superherodom looks like, Jennifer isn’t less of a woman or a person for wanting to follow a more traditionally feminine path. It’s pretty cool and mature that she can even articulate this all to her mom. Anissa has had much more time to figure out who she is separate from her superpowers, to grow into her own identities. As a teenager struggling with Khalil and growing up in general, Jennifer is in a much more vulnerable place.
It’s nice that Lynn and Jefferson don’t make any empty promises to their daughter, and speaks to the strength of this family, as well. When Jennifer breaks down about her future, Lynn just holds her. She doesn’t tell her that everything is going to be OK or that she has the answers to all of her problems. Later, Jefferson doesn’t promise anything other than honesty and the truth. This is all that Jennifer wanted from the beginning. This family will be OK because, when it comes down to it, they respect, trust, and love one another. They also have some mad communication skills.
Gambi, on the other hand, I’m not so sure of. While Jefferson’s tactic in apologizing to Jennifer is to be vulnerable himself with his emotional truth, Gambi tries to make up for years of lying to Jefferson about some very important topics by torturing helpful information out of a guy using snake venom. You see how those actions are not the same? One points toward an understanding of the pain you’ve caused, and a pledge, through actions and words, to do differently. The other points toward a guilty man who is avoiding emotional vulnerability and leaning into the same guilt-fueled patterns of violence, desperation, and skulking around in shadows that got him into trouble in the first place.
I’m not saying Gambi isn’t helpful; I’m just saying I worry that he is going to end up alone, in denial of the extent of his own issues. Or maybe the Pierce family will do the emotional labor needed to give him a chance at peace of mind and a life free of guilt. Wilder things have happened and, if anyone could pull this off, it’s the Pierces. Their real superpower is not thunder or lightning, but emotional intelligence and superior communication skills.
It seems like Gambi might already have Anissa in his corner. While she gives him some serious judgy-eyes for his mention of acting as a “scout” for the evils, she defends him to her father, comparing the secrets Gambi kept from Jefferson to the secrets Jefferson kept from Jennifer. I agree with Jefferson that these two situations are different in many ways, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Jennifer’s own offer of forgiveness might encourage Jefferson to do to the same for Gambi. We all know Jeff is a big softie.
But can we talk about Anissa’s new suit? While it’s been teased in promotional images, it’s something else to see this thing in action on the screen. My favorite part? How strong it looks. Most female superheros are dressed in a way that accentuates their (usually) delicate natures. But Anissa is subverting the patriarchy, y’all. (Side note: It has to be Grace that started that fanpage, right?) Her shoulders are broad; her suit is somewhat bulky. This isn’t about looking delicate; this is about looking strong (and, you know, staying safe).
Anissa’s new suit gets a great first mission: break into the lab that is making the Green Light and blow it to the skies. I’m not sure if lightning-ing dangerous chemicals is the way to do this, but Anissa and Jefferson make a good team. They even get to do the walking away from an explosion without looking back thing. It prioritizes style over realism, but it sure does look good. It helps that the raid of the lab got extra realism points for including so many frantic lab lackeys scurrying for safety as Anissa, Jefferson, and Inspector Henderson busted the operation.
Speaking of Henderson, he made some serious hero moves in tonight’s episode, putting himself in some seriously dangerous situations—not to mention using his precious vacation days—to help Black Lightning hunt down the people behind Green Light. In other words, he chose a side, and it is not the side of his corrupt, sometimes brutal, often racist institutional authority. It sends a subtle, but subversive message that Henderson actually has to take time off from his job that is supposedly about protecting the innocent and bringing criminals to justice to actually protect the innocent and bring criminals to justice. That’s some topical, well-earned shade, Black Lightning.
Henderson’s decision to prioritize human life over institutional power is the exact opposite decision of the one Gambi made all those years ago when he first game to Freeland. As we learn in a flashback, Gambi was straight up identifying kids with powers in order to have them brought into the A.S.A. Sure, he could argue that he didn’t know what they were going to do with them, but that is bullshit. He might not know the details, but Martin is someone who openly speaks about Freeland as an experiment. He doesn’t see the people there as humans; he sees them as lab rats. That is obvious from one conversation with the dude. Gambi may be working hard to make up for his past misdeeds, and that is admirable, but I don’t think I am ready to forgive him just yet, and I would understand if the people of Freeland demand more from him, too.