Black Lightning finale recap: 'Shadow of Death: The Book of War'
As climactic as this season finale was, I have to say that I’m mostly just bummed that Black Lightning is over so soon. Oh sure, it’s been renewed for a second season, but the show has been on such a good run — complete with evocative storylines, strong performances, and a city that actually feels real — that I’m bummed I already have to wait another year for more.
Maybe it’s just because I rewatched Black Panther the other week, but I noticed multiple parallels between Ryan Coogler’s world-conquering movie and this Black Lightning episode. The first and most obvious is the hero’s conversation with his dead father on the astral plane. In Wakanda, there’s a ritual for this: The new king is put through a mystical ceremony that actually does allow him to spiritually meet with his father and get closure on whatever resentments and fears had been left hanging so he can assume power for himself. I keep thinking that would be a great idea in real life, since lingering parental resentments can so easily distort one’s worldview — and, thus, how one chooses to use power.
This paternal communion certainly works just as well in Freeland as it did in Wakanda. This whole season, we’ve seen just how many things — Jefferson’s enmity against Tobias, Gambi’s conversion from ASA goon to superhero mentor, Anissa’s own inquisitive quest for justice — go back to Alvin Pierce, but we haven’t seen much of Alvin himself. This week, as Jefferson lies comatose in Gambi’s secret cabin, we see scenes from his childhood before Alvin’s death. In black-and-white flashback filter, we see Gambi warn Alvin to stop pursuing Tobias as young Jefferson watches from the car. We later cut to Alvin’s funeral, where Gambi realizes how alone Jefferson is without his father. We get other scenes, too, in which we see Alvin instill Jefferson with a lifelong love of education and self-betterment. Best of all, we get that aforementioned Black Panther echo of the adult Jefferson conversing with Alvin. There’s an amazing soundtrack for this scene (“Stairway to Heaven” by The O’Jays) and a fascinating conversation between these Pierce men. Jefferson apologizes for hiding under the bed when Tobias came, and Alvin tells him that’s exactly what he was told to do. Jefferson also apologizes for the violence he’s committed and perpetuated as Black Lightning, and gets a very important message from his father: “Peace ain’t always peaceful.” For his part, Alvin apologizes for leaving his son so soon. Both men are crying, but their time is up now. Alvin tells his son to go back and finish his business.
With that, Jefferson roars back to life. He got help from Jennifer’s powers, Lynn’s love, Anissa’s passion, and Gambi’s loyalty, but it was the connection with his father and their struggle that brought him back to life. Speaking of Ryan Coogler films, it reminds me of the great climactic scene in Creed where Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis appears to be down for the count. Adonis’ whole life flashes before his eyes — his training, his loves, his family — but it’s not until he gets a glimpse of his father that he, too, comes back to himself to finish what he set out to do.
There’s just one problem here: Jefferson’s powers appear to be gone now. There’s always a price for life, eh? (Recap continues on next page)
Last week we saw a huge battle between Black Lightning and Tobias, but we’ll have to wait until season 2 for the sequel. The more immediate foe for both combatants is Martin Proctor, who just goes full-on Trump this episode. I mean that literally: The ASA boss screams “make America great again” multiple times this episode, and loves to make sweeping generalizations of black people. The ASA has been conducting illegal super-science experiments on kidnapped Freeland citizens for decades, and Proctor’s only justification is that “they would be on welfare or in jail by now anyway.” The only difference between these two is that while Trump positioned himself as a political outsider, Proctor has been here all along — just like the racist, authoritarian trends in American culture and government that preceded Trump’s arrival in office.
However, for all his big talk, Proctor is losing and he knows it. His test subjects in the pods are dying and he has no idea why. His only chance to redeem this whole sordid enterprise is to get DNA from a living metahuman. He first tries to find out if Tobias has a lead, but Tobias sends LaLa to him as a human bomb (I wonder, will this Tattooed Man get reanimated again?). So when his operatives finally pinpoint Gambi’s cabin, Proctor goes all out and orders ASA troops to descend on the Pierce family.
Jefferson is ready to make a heroic sacrifice for his family. Even without his powers, the Black Lightning suit should make him a big enough distraction for the ASA that his family should be able to escape unscathed. Like father, like son — after all, Alvin didn’t have any powers when he put his life on the line to investigate the ASA and protect his son. Jennifer refuses to accept this reality, however, and this time she can actually do something about it. She gives her dad a loving hug, and her orange flames reboot his system and return his power. So now it’s game time.
Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner” plays over this epic battle, which makes another stellar music choice by the show. We haven’t heard anything from Desiigner in awhile, but “Timmy Turner” remains a fascinating achievement — here, its haunting sound gives the battle a real sense of danger and stakes (I can’t imagine how horrifying it would’ve been playing over Khalil’s school-shooting-like assault on Garfield High last week). When Thunder gets hit with a power-neutralizing containment field, it feels like that danger is real. Luckily, a Pierce dad is always there to protect his children. Black Lightning holds off his own power-neutralizing assailant with a blast of lightning (creating a great Kamehameha-vs.-Galick-Gun effect) and then frees his daughter, just as Lynn and Gambi shoot down the troops who try to seize the cabin. Once Henderson mobilizes the Freeland PD, Proctor finally orders his troops to abort their mission and retreat to a new safe house for the pods. (Recap continues on next page)
When Proctor gets back to the pods, however, he finds the Pierces waiting for him. This seems like an impossible predicament for the law-abiding Black Lightning, since Proctor promises to use all his resources to return and hunt them down. Luckily, the Pierces have a killer among them. When Proctor calls Gambi a “monster,” Gambi agrees and shoots him dead at point-blank range, before dragging away his corpse like so much garbage. Ice cold, Gambi! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow, I say.
So the pod kidnappees are finally saved, and the black citizens of Freeland see once more that their “paranoia” was right all along. I especially loved this line from one man on local news: “The government put crack in the ghettos, they gave heroin to white folks in rural areas, and then they came back and put Green Light in Freeland. They gonna put something else somewhere else. Ain’t nothing new.”
And so the struggle goes on. With the ASA vanquished, Tobias uses Proctor’s severed thumbs (a lovely macabre touch) to open a secret briefcase. We don’t see what’s inside, but only get a Pulp Fiction-style glowing light effect — except this light is green, like the drug. Whatever it is, it seems to instill Tobias with confidence. Calling himself the “King of Freeland,” he declares that his first order of business is to finally destroy Black Lightning. As actor Marvin Jones III told EW last week, don’t doubt that Tobias is still hurting over his sister’s death and still wants to hold Black Lightning responsible. Cyanide responds “long live the king,” which feels like another Black Panther echo. Even better was when Tobias stormed the ASA headquarters as Khalil took out all of Proctor’s henchmen and the camera swung all the way upside down — just like when Killmonger takes the Wakandan throne in Black Panther. It’s a good way of representing that monumental change when up becomes down and someone very different takes charge of things.
That’s all for now, so it’s time to kick off the next phase of my Black Lightning fandom: telling everyone who will listen that they need to watch this show. I was blown away by the show’s originality, the conviction of its storytelling, the vibrant performances of its cast, the amazing music cues, and all that superpowered action. See you all next year!