If you’re partial to a TV season that heavily references its pilot in its finale, then you should be pretty happy with “Shadow of Death: The Book of War” (as I am and was). Black Lightning has had an outstanding inaugural season, one that effectively wove together the crime fighting and day jobs and the personal lives of the Pierce family, making sure that family always came first. While I praised the series early on for always putting character development before plot, things got a little messier as we went into the finale. But the show has still emerged as possibly the best first season of a CW superhero series so far — even though its finale didn’t quite live up to the bar it set for itself.
One thing that Black Lightning got very right, though, was not getting rid of its main villain, Tobias Whale, or either of his main lackeys. A problem that the Arrowverse has succumbed to over and over again is forcing a focus on a Big Bad that has to be defeated by the season’s end. Why? An arch-villain like Tobias is better served as a multiple-season foe, like Sherlock Holmes with Moriarty. He’s extremely powerful and pulls a lot of strings, and has a very personal connection to Jefferson. Why get rid of such a great character? Instead, Black Lightning substituted in a variety of other mini-bosses — including Lala, Lady Eve, and Martin “Make American Great Again” Proctor (a line that hasn’t aged well and really stuck out) — who were defeated instead. The war between Jefferson and Tobias goes on, as well it should. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
The more important storyline that “Shadow of Death: The Book of War” wrapped up, though, was the unification of the Pierce family, including Gambi. Gambi’s truth came out, he was forgiven, and the family (including a shotgun-wielding Lynn) came together with the acknowledgement that they would not run. Instead, Jefferson, Anissa, and Jennifer would use their powers to help the people of Freeland. It’s a sea change from the start of Black Lightning, when Jefferson hesitated to get back into the suit for fear of losing his family. But the show also, smartly, held back on his daughters getting their powers until later into the season, and at different times (and in different ways: Anissa embraced it, Jennifer rejected it). It allowed a natural progression of acceptance.
All of that worked together beautifully, not only in the way the family came together and fought together, but how their core dynamic never changed (Jefferson reprimanding Jennifer for lassoing Proctor — and her eye roll at his reaction — was perfect). The scene of the family jogging and sitting on their porch together was also a great callback to the premiere, where again, their bond was strong but in a different way. Black Lightning’s success has come chiefly in how it has incorperated the entire Jefferson family (even non-superpowered Lynn!) in key ways, never allowing the narrative to fall entirely onto Jefferson to carry.
Having said that, not everything was perfect, and “Shadow of Death: The Book of War” felt rushed in a number of odd ways. A few of the things that didn’t land so successfully: Khalil’s complete personality change into a villain; Lala being booby trapped; the conclusion of the pod people storyline; Gambi’s exposition dump. Let’s start with poor Khalil, whose transition into becoming Tobias’ lackey may have made more sense if he had started out as an edgier character, but the child was an angel. Though we did get some scenes of Tobias charming Khalil at the hospital while he was at his lowest point, and we know that he allowed him to walk again, that’s a pretty big leap to go from the all-around golden boy to a neurotoxin-spewing baddie. I’m hoping we get a little more shading to that character next season.
Speaking of lackeys who didn’t get much time for development, Syonide was by Tobias’ side all season, and it took until the finale for Gambi to explain who and what she was (as well as more about Tobias and his powers). Most of it we could have guessed, including that tease about her synthetic skin during her fight with Anissa. Yet as much as I praise the show for not revealing things too quickly or rushing plot lines, that particular reveal seems like it might have made her more interesting earlier in the season. It suggests, perhaps, that Syonide may play a larger role in Season 2, though it’s a strange reveal to hold on to.
Then we have Lala, who has had one of the most psychedelic arcs of the season (reminding me of Twin Peaks at times). Again, I love the fact that the tattoos weren’t overtly explained until the finale (that everyone he has killed will come back to haunt him, and cover his body with their faces, which again, seemed like the reasonable guess). But … is he dead now? For real? Or will the “reanimation program” that Tobias paid for (which Lady Eve seemed to have been in charge of) save him from his explosion where he was booby trapped? Had he been shot it would have seemed like less of a stretch, but exploding feels like something that’s hard to come back from, corporally speaking. If Lala is truly dead this time, it seems like a waste. His penance for the deaths of so many (and so many key characters early in this season) was one of the show’s more interesting arcs.
Finally, there are those poor pod kids. The decision to close that story with a few newscasts was another odd move. Are the kids alive? Who did Lynn know who could help them? If they kids are alive, do they still have powers? Will there be more metas in Freeland? The briefcase that Tobias gained access to with Proctor’s thumbs to close the episode seems like it might have something to do with the harnessing of those pod kids’ powers (since the guy who was monitoring the pods said he needed the briefcase in order to safely free them). Is that why Tobias is now declaring himself the king of Freeland? Or if he doesn’t absorb those powers himself, will he bestow them on others to create an even more powerful army of allies? (And what about Fowdy?)
Ultimately, “Shadow of Death: The Book of War” made sure that Black Lightning’s name was cleared, along with Thunder, and even Henderson had to thank them for their assistance in uncovering the illegal human experimentation being carried out by the A.S.A. Jefferson was not only restored to the position of Black Lightning, but got his powers back thanks to Jennifer in an act of love rather than anger (like in the premiere). And perhaps most importantly, in the realm between life and death, he got an affirmation from his father that he’s doing the right thing by suiting up and helping the people of Freeland. It always comes back to that — family, yes, but also community. It grounds the show, and most importantly, reminds us what really makes someone a hero.
Black Lightning will return for Season 2 on the CW.