In its second episode, Black Lightning proved that it’s putting characters first and superheroics second — and that’s a good thing. To tell a great superhero story, you need a story that matters outside of the super-powered stuff. In its premiere, Black Lightning packed in a ton about the world of Freeland, Jefferson Pierce’s family, his world view, his life as a vigilante, his work as a principal, and a variety of different black experiences within the city itself. All of those were introductions, however well it filled them out, but “LaWanda: The Book of Hope” gave space to explore those dynamics much further — and only a small fraction were related to powers.
“LaWanda” also showed just how savvy the show is when it comes to tech and the media. In “Resurrection,” we saw how characters are always referencing, typing on, or generally holding on to their cellphones. Throughout both hours now, we’ve seen a lot of emphasis on local news, talking heads, and most importantly how powerful a camera can be. In the premiere, Anissa and Jennifer tried to film the police detaining their father. In “LaWanda,” a cell phone played a pivotal role in showing Lala as a killer. “Mobile phones are the enemies of bad guys,” Gambi says later to Jefferson. “When are they going to learn?”
I don’t know if The Wire was an influence in the creation of the Black Lightning TV series, but its legacy about cell phones and criminals is certainly living on in this show. LaWanda wanted to make Lala and his cronies at the Seahorse accountable by filming the johns and taking down license plate numbers, and she gave her life for it. As she had told Jefferson though, she was willing to die to protect or save her daughter. She did pay that price, but it was nice how quickly she was avenged by a recording cell phone that put Lala behind bars.
Of course, he didn’t last long, and that is bringing some interesting stakes to the show. Tobias Whale, who made his “hatred” of black people clearer in this episode, continues to be a mysterious figure. (“I love black people” he says to Lala. “But y’all keep us acting like newly freed slaves”).There are a lot of racial politics tied up in the character of Tobias, as an albino black man who is helped along by a coterie of white people, but it’s too much for me to get into in a mere recap. What I will say is that it’s fascinating, and in both Will and Lala’s slaying (or Lala’s potential slaying), Black Lightning is showing how cheap life is on the streets of Freeland these days.
It’s worth noting specifically that there is a lot of violence, particularly gun violence, on this show. Lala executed his own cousin. We aren’t used to seeing this on The CW. Arrow, the darkest of the network’s DC shows, has long had Oliver killing faceless goons. But Black Lightning makes sure these deaths are not faceless. They are characters we are just getting to know, and maybe even care about (like in the case of LaWanda). When death comes, it’s intimate and personal. It brings weight to the violence on the show. When Jefferson went through the Seahorse (and later, through the apartment building or hotel), he was fighting hard and knocking people out. But as far as can be seen, he wasn’t killing. Death on Black Lightning is not taken lightly, even though the characters on the show feel differently. (One of the most chilling things I’ve seen on TV in a long time is how casual Lala was both in the slaying of Will and LaWanda. He could not have cared less).
“LaWanda” also slowed down, narratively, and gave us more character building than there was time for in the first hour. Jefferson jokes around with (and gets frustrated with) Henderson, who is being built up as a true friend. Lynn and Gambi spar over what’s best for Jefferson in a way that smartly reveals both of their pasts as well as his own. Anissa is revealed to be gay, and it’s no big deal to her parents, which is refreshing (there’s no big coming out, it’s just a simple fact). Jennifer continues to revel, but she’s being held to account by her fantastic boyfriend Khalil. We even got small moments like how Kara at the school clearly has a crush on Jefferson. Again, a lot happened, but it was all focused on getting to know these characters better.
No scene, though, was perhaps more revealing than when Jefferson went to confront Lala in the parking lot (or as Lala called it, “Ghetto Circus Ole”). As much as Jefferson has done for the community, here he is laughed at and disrespected, even knocked down. Again, his emotions start to activate his powers, but he represses them. He then says a fantastic line: “Don’t mistake my patience for weakness, boy.” Though Lala laughs it off, it was a powerful delivery with an important message.
“LaWanda” was a revealing episode in many ways, including a sequence at the end that again teased Anissa coming into her powers. But it also brought us to a necessary point: Black Lightning is back, and Jefferson is ready to accept his powers and use them to help the neighborhood. Things are just getting started, but the future looks bright.