Black Lightning boss breaks down the series finale's JJ twist, Tobias' fate, and more
Showrunner Salim Akil reveals what he would've liked to explore in a fifth season.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Black Lightning.
Black Lightning ended its run with a major death and a surprising return.
In the CW superhero drama's series finale, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), Grace (Chantal Thuy), and Gambi (James Remar) executed a plan to destroy the emitter that was blocking their powers, which allowed Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) to escape the grave that Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) buried him in. Once freed, Black Lightning paid Tobias a visit and finally defeated the crime boss once and for all (read: killed him).
Meanwhile, TC (Ammanuel Darby) was shocked to discover that JJ (Laura Kariuki) wasn't actually Jennifer when the real Jennifer (China Anne McClain) returned and defeated the imposter. It turns out JJ was a spirit who lived in the ionosphere and resented Jennifer leaching power from it. So when Jennifer dissipated in the ionosphere earlier in the season, JJ used it as an opportunity to get a corporeal body and take over her life. Thankfully, Jen put an end to that tonight.
As the finale concluded, everyone gathered at Anissa and Grace's apartment. Jefferson announced he and Lynn were getting remarried (about time!) and that he was going to let Thunder, Lightning, and Grace take over the job of protecting Freeland. (Read our postmortem with Cress Williams to find out why Jefferson is only stepping back from being Freeland's defender and not necessarily superheroics altogether.) In other words, all's well that ends well.
Below, EW chats with showrunner Salim Akil about Jefferson's shocking decision to kill Tobias, Jennifer's return, and more. (Note: This interview was conducted before it was announced that the CW wasn't moving forward with the Painkiller spin-off.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you always had an idea of how you wanted the series to end, or was this finale something you discovered as the season progressed?
SALIM AKIL: It kind of was a discovery. I had an idea of how I wanted to end the series in a season 5. When we were told we were only going to get a season 4, we appreciated it because often shows get canceled and you don't get a chance to end it. But during COVID, and we had a cast member step out and all of that, we had to really pivot. It was one of the most creative seasons in years because we really had to go back, because we had written up to, I think, 11 scripts and had to rewrite. COVID really hit us hard. I'm really, really proud of this season. But to answer your question, the ending actually developed as we went along.
The JJ twist and China's return in the finale definitely came as a surprise. What inspired the idea that JJ was actually this spirit that was in the ionosphere?
Just the idea of other realms. The idea there's the Akashic realm, the spiritual realm. If you keep going up there and borrowing energy, how would someone feel about that? I thought it was just a great pivot in terms of bringing someone into the role that looked absolutely nothing like her. I wanted to see if I could convince people and the family that this was Jennifer, and I wanted to, just as people were about to accept her, throw a curveball because I did want China in the finale. And she was nice enough to come and she was just a joy to work with.
You can definitely count the number of scenes Marvin and Cress have shared over the past four seasons on two hands, which was by design. How did it feel to finally stage their long-awaited battle?
Oh, man, it was so much fun because I knew what people would want was what I wanted. I was just giddy and very happy, [especially because] the music and the stunt team did a wonderful job. I think it's very satisfying.
Did you have a favorite beat or moment in the fight?
I think my favorite beat in the fight is when Tobias picks Black Lightning up over his head, because we really get to see the strength of Tobias in that moment. I also like the moment when he's impaled and we then get to see how old he is.
I didn't expect Jefferson to actually kill Tobias.
His daughters, everyone has been telling him that this is the only way this is going to end. Even at the end, you saw he was trying to say, "Hey, there's another way," and he realizes there is no other way for this guy.
Did you feel that was more satisfying than Jefferson simply throwing Tobias in a dark hole somewhere?
Oh yeah, you gotta kill Tobias.
Jefferson came out of retirement at the start of the show and he finally retires in the finale. Why did that feel like the right ending?
I think because Freeland has so many other options, and for me at least it was clear that Jefferson and Lynn needed to tend to each other and get out of that game. If you think about the idea of PTSD through the season, I think you've seen Jefferson suffering from that with the drinking and fighting out of the suit, and all of these things were just the result of a war — losing a friend, winning the war, but not winning necessarily the mental battle. So I think it was a good thing for him and Lynn and in some ways Gambi to step back, because you've got a whole new crew: TC, Lightning, Thunder, and Grace. They're very, very capable.
You have this Painkiller spin-off in development. When you were looking at ways to build on this world with a spin-off, what made Painkiller the right character for that instead of Anissa and Grace, who seem like more obvious candidates?
To me, it was something totally different from Freeland. I felt like I wanted to do something a bit more youthful, a bit more pop cultural in a sense. But also, I wanted to examine what young people's issues are. In this regard, I really tried to talk about the duality of the African American male. It's a duality that still exists and that we see right now where you're constantly trying to be an American but you're constantly reminded that you're Black. So really, you just want to be whole. It's not that you want to be anyone but yourself, but you just want to be seen as a whole human being and not just one thing. The thing about Painkiller is although he's fighting his good side and his bad side, there's also the idea that he's trying to save himself from his worst self. To me, that was something I felt like I wanted to talk about in a way that was entertaining but also had some depth to it.
In the finale, Khalil learns that removing the kill order in his brain would make him forget the Pierce family altogether, and he decides to do it. What does him forgetting the Pierces open up for you on the show?
Really, it's a metaphor for moving forward. Of course, the kill order is there and you have to get rid of that or he wouldn't have been able to see them anyway. So it's a metaphor for moving on and how painful sometimes moving on is. A lot of us have been in positions, I'm sure, where we had to move on and it was painful, but it was better not only for us but better for the people we care about and love.
Looking back on the four seasons, what do you hope the audience takes away from the show as a whole?
Well, I hope they liked the music. [Laughs] I thought the music was important because it's a cultural, soulful touchstone for Americans in general, but definitely African Americans. We got very American music in the show, and I really wanted to explore that.
The other thing I hope that people got from the show is that you can do a superhero show and base it in the reality of what's going on today, and we really tried to do that every season. I think that's what set us apart from a lot of other shows. When there was violence committed on our show, we didn't just walk over it. People were affected by it. And I really wanted people to see that Freeland is Oakland, Freeland is Richmond, Freeland is Minneapolis. That there are people in our communities, African American men, women, children, who are living in war zones where gun violence is happening every day but doesn't make the news. I really was trying to shine a light on that. That being said, I was also trying to shine a light on the idea of family and how you maintain a family, and what it takes. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not so easy, but at the end of the day I'm hoping people come away with the idea that this is a very, very solid, loving family.
I've always said on this journey that if on one Halloween, I could see boys and girls dressed up like Lightning or Thunder or Black Lightning, or even Tobias Whale, I'd think that I added something to culture. After the second season, I get people every year texting me or emailing me, or DMing me photos of their children in these outfits. So, I really feel like I've added something to the culture. I'm glad people really embraced it the way that they did.
You mentioned how you originally had a plan the show with a fifth season. Is there a story line you didn't get to tell because Black Lightning ended earlier?
After this season of examining trauma, I wanted to then go into the idea of a cohesive, beautiful working relationship between all of them, where we get rid of the tension and get to focus on the idea of actually saving the city and cleaning it up. I wanted to see Freeland cleaned up, and I was really looking forward to the viewers being able to see how a person would go about it. That was the only thing I think I will miss not being able to do. I feel very blessed in terms of the things I did get to do.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.