How 'trauma is sort of the big bad' in the final season of Black Lightning
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the season 4 premiere of Black Lightning on the CW.
Jefferson Pierce and his family squashed the Markovian invasion in season 3 of Black Lightning, but the cost of that war is at the heart of the CW superhero drama's fourth and final season, which premiered Monday.
Picking up a year after the season 3 finale, season opener "The Book of Reconstruction: Chapter One" found Jefferson (Cress Williams), who had given up being Black Lightning, mourning the death of his best friend, Chief Bill Henderson (Damon Gupton). Jefferson's grief not only created a rift between him and Lynn (Christine Adams), but also made him angry. He took his rage out on two police officers harassing an innocent Black kid, electrocuting them and destroying their car. Then after Jennifer, a.k.a. Lightning (China Anne McClain), was injured during a drug bust, he tracked down the gang member who shot her and put him in the hospital. In other words, our hero is in a dark place.
Meanwhile, Lynn started giving herself metahuman powers and going out on the town as a vigilante, unbeknowst to Jefferson. Unfortunately, her life became even more complicated once Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) — who knows the Pierce family's secret — emerged from the shadows as Freeland's new benefactor and started investing in Lynn's research.
Below, EW chats with Black Lightning showrunner Salim Akil about the show's final season premiere.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you know Black Lightning was ending when you first started mapping out this season?
SALIM AKIL: Not really. I personally had maybe a slight feeling that it could be, but we didn't know right away. The CW, who I have a lot of love for, at least told us early enough so that we could construct the season in a way that would be satisfying to not only the fans, but us as well.
When you found out this would be the final season, what were the things you knew you wanted to do and see before the show ended?
I think I just wanted to go back to dealing with the family. We had ended on such a broad note of ending the Markovian war. I wanted to then go back to the family and see what trauma looks like and how do you go about healing yourself. If you remember, Jefferson is depressed because his daughters have killed people, his wife has killed in people in this war, and he feels like he's let them down and it's his responsibility. Trauma changes people. So I wanted to explore the idea of trauma, especially in African American families, because not all of us but far too many of us live in areas where gun violence and crime is prevalent on a daily basis, and nobody is really doing anything to try and solve it or report it anymore. So there's a lot of trauma out there, and I just wanted to say to the people watching, "Hey, in order to heal, you have to talk about things. You have to deal with them and you have to seek help." I think if there's a theme this year, someone said that "trauma is sort of the big bad this season."
Is Jefferson's biggest obstacle right now not fully seeking out help and not talking?
The scene with them in therapy: It's funny because we did it in a way where they really couldn't talk about their real issues in therapy because they're hiding the fact that he's Black Lightning. So yeah, that's a huge obstacle for him this season. He'll come around, I'm sure.
We've never seen Jefferson this low before. Is this the lowest we'll see him, or does he still have a ways to go before he can turn it around?
I don't want to do one episode where everything is cool and cured in one episode. But he still has that side of him that is concerned about his community and concerned about his family, but this is what depression looks like. We'll spend a few episodes on that. We won't linger on it too long.
It's not only that Jefferson is depressed, he's also angry in this episode. He takes his anger out on the cops and on the gang member. Can you talk a bit about exploring Jefferson's anger, especially in the wake of the social justice protests from last summer?
The opening was inspired by Elijah McClain, the young man who was killed in Colorado. It is a balance. There's almost a yin and yang. In one moment, you could feel righteous in the thing that you're doing with the cops, and then become almost a vigilante in dealing with this gang member because he wasn't trying to save anybody in that moment. He was seeking revenge. What I like about it is that you get to see the yin and the yang of that. And we're going to have to deal with that. It's fun. It's like when Batman turns evil or Superman turns evil.
What are the consequences of Jefferson harming the gang member and the cops? Does Black Lightning become public enemy No. 1 for the Freeland Police Department?
Well, that's what they think. Certainly the new chief of police, Anna Lopez [Melissa De Sousa], thinks that. But I think there's a really nice reveal of what happens when he gets loose, because he goes dark. He goes comic book dark in the series. So I'm really excited for people to see it.
What are the consequences of Jen spending so much time in the sky?
When we talked about trauma earlier, she's retreating. It's almost instead of retreating into depression or retreating into her room, or back to marijuana, she enjoys getting the thrill and retreating into the ionosphere, because it's such an energy charge up there. That's what makes her feel safe. That's what makes her feel good. And it also gives her a great deal of power. We set up last year that her powers are more powerful than anybody's in the family, so every time she goes up there she's getting more and more power, and we'll explore that even more and what the consequences of that [are].
Lynn is retreating into her work and testing out these metapowers. What appealed to you about exploring Lynn as a metahuman?
Lynn's always been an outsider. She was the super-smart person in school and college. She excelled in her field, but she's always been an outsider. I think for Lynn, she's trying to find a common ground with her family. When she used the powers in Markovia, that was a necessity to help save everyone. In this case, I think she is trying to actually learn more about her family and what powers are and what do they do. If they're not going to not have powers, then she's going to have powers. So I think that's her coping mechanism: "I'm going to be just like you guys, and I'll be part of the team."
Of course, Tobias re-enters her life at the end of the episode. What can you preview about their story line together?
You know, Tobias always has some kind of plan. [Laughs] But I think what's interesting about that story line is that, in all of this talk about trauma, [there's still] fun to me. To me, Tobias is that fun. He's going to be a thorn in the family's side the whole season, and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch because Marvin is doing an amazing job of reinventing the character into an upstanding person.
Since this is the final season, are we building to the long-awaited fight between Tobias and Black Lightning?
Yes indeed. [Laughs] You hit the nail on the head there.
Wayne Brady previously told EW that he wants to return as Gravedigger before the show ends. Have you started thinking of a way to bring him back?
Oh yeah, we're trying to think of a way to bring him back.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.