This Black Lightning article contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 7.
This is the final season of Black Lightning, which means the end of Jefferson Pierce’s story. But Jefferson has never been the sole focus of the show… Black Lightning has introduced us to many complex characters whose personal journeys have kept us tuned in week after week. Over the three previous seasons, we’ve watched both Anissa and Jennifer Pierce begin to master their meta abilities and step into their power as protectors of Freeland, alongside their dad. Black Lightning, Thunder, and Lightning have come a long way, but they haven’t been alone on their journeys into heroism. From Lynn and Gambi, to Khalil and Grace, the Pierce family has always been surrounded by loved ones whose proximity to the heroes meant joining the fight themselves. “Painkiller,” a backdoor pilot for a proposed spinoff centering Khalil (Jordan Calloway) demonstrates just how many stories this world has left to tell.
When we meet Khalil in season one, he’s a star athlete at Garfield High School, where Jefferson teaches. He and Jen, who were platonic friends since childhood, started dating after she was saved from the 100 by Black Lightning. At Reverend Holt’s anti-violence protest, Khalil is shot and subsequently paralyzed from the waist down. Tobias, who orchestrated the shooting, convinces Khalil that Black Lightning is responsible, and promises to make Khalil walk again. Khalil is given a mechanical spine and the ability to shoot toxin—and the moniker Painkiller—and works as Tobias’ enforcer until he turns on Tobias who then rips out his metal spine. Agent Odell of the ASA resurrects Khalil, making him a literal machine capable of killing with a single touch, and taking the name Painkiller to a whole new level.
As Painkiller, Khalil commits horrible crimes at Odell’s behest, including murdering his own mother. When he breaks free of Odell’s programming, he struggles with his guilt and fights to maintain control over his body to not be taken over by his killer alter-ego. After the Battle of Freeland, Khalil leaves the city and he lands in the Akashic Valley, where we meet up with him in this episode that serves as the backdoor pilot to the Painkiller spin-off. Akashic Valley is a near-futuristic city that blends elements of both Eastern and Western aesthetic. The city is like Las Vegas, but cleaner and more modern. The neon lights make it a cool, sleek playground for Khalil.
In “Painkiller,” Anissa and Grace travel to Akashic Valley on their honeymoon, and Grace is abducted from a local bar. Khalil intercepts, but when he sees Anissa, Painkiller takes over. He poisons Anissa, which stops her from getting to Grace and almost kills her. In his mental landscape, Khalil battles with Painkiller for control, and is able to subdue him and get Anissa to safety. Anissa basically bullies Khalil into finding Grace. In the year since leaving Freeland, Khalil has recovered millions of ASA funds and used it to buy the bar up top and build a high-tech lab below, so his friend and former ASA employee Philk (Alexander Hodge) could help him keep Painkiller in check. He’s formed a small team, which also includes Cousin Donald (James Roch), who is a healer, and together they discover the dangerous underbelly Akashic Valley. This episode unlocks so much potential, and the twist at the end leaves us anticipating what comes next.
“It’s a completely different tone from Black Lightning, which is what made me extremely excited about it too,” Calloway told TV Line of the proposed Painkiller spinoff glimpsed in the backdoor pilot. “We’re showcasing other cultures and other types of people, which I think is a blast. It feels good to showcase that for other audience members and to be that draw for them as well.”
Jordan Calloway has always brought a depth and nuance to Khalil that makes him a fan favorite, and he builds on past performances to deliver something great here. Proposed spinoffs—especially ones introduced through backdoor pilots—don’t always make a lot of story sense. They are driven too much by a desire to maintain an already engaged audience and not enough by a narrative vision. This isn’t the case with Painkiller, which has the rich narrative ground of the push-and-pull between Khalil and his alter-ego, and the struggle for control over his body and his mind, to explore. The empathetic way Khalil negotiates with Painkiller juxtaposed against the brutality they exhibit is an interesting dichotomy that would be fascinating to continue to see play out. The door is always open for Thunder and Lightning to make future appearances and I hope to see more of them alongside Khalil in the future. Black Lightning is almost done, but Khalil’s story is just beginning.
If The CW decides to pick up Painkiller for a series order, the Black Lightning spinoff would likely be a part of the 2021-2022 lineup on the network.