**SPOILERS** Ahead for the series finale of Black Lightning.
It has been a wild ride, watching Black Lightning on the CW from start to finish. With the series, we got a realistic look at life for Black Americans in an antiblack world. Even if this version of the world also contained metahumans with superpowers.
Yes, Black Lightning, like the DC Comics comic hero and title from which it’s named, was a world of impossibilities. But from the very beginning, many viewers could identify with things they know all too well: antiblack racism. We actually see a Black man, our protagonist, pulled over. He is then attacked and suspected of a crime he didn’t commit. And despite this particular man also having powerful electrical abilities, he must keep them at bay. Lest he endangers his daughters, helplessly witnessing from inside the car.
Black Lightning had a very strong and memorable start, an incredible and endearing cast, strong villains, and supporting characters alike. But most of all the show was very Black. Unapologetically Black. It was, perhaps, the first CW series to feature a majority Black main cast, featuring a Black protagonist, a Black family, and even complex Black love. The series managed to handle a number of relevant social issues while making sure the interpersonal relationships between the characters felt real. The Pierce family feels like a real family. Anissa and Jennifer are like real sisters. Lynn and the girls are like mother and daughters. Jeff and the girls are like father and daughters. Gambi feels like a real father-figure/mentor figure who also happens to be mission control with a dash of Alfred. Quite simply, the show was awesome.
While many would agree the series never quite became bad, it definitely didn’t always maintain the best quality. Certain storylines felt rushed, such as the eventual marriage between Anissa and Grace. Others felt unresolved and discarded. Like where the heck did Brandon go? Poor chile couldn’t act, but he played a large role and vanished by the next season. Did Lady Eve really die? She must have because she didn’t return. Did anyone say if she died? But that gunshot wound seemed a bit anticlimactic despite Jill Scott’s amazing performance and her character’s welcome return.
Also, despite excellent performances, the actual purpose of Lala’s aka Tattoo Man’s character was quite confusing after a while. His inability to die and sole ambition is killing Tobias (take a number, sir) and keeping the 100 strong. For a moment it seemed that his ability to see the spirits of the people he killed might do something. Perhaps offer serious nuance. But after a while, they just seemed little more than an annoyance to him. Ultimately it offered little in the way of character development.
The Grace Problem
It was nice to see Grace return when she did, after a lengthy random disappearance. Unfortunately, the series never captured what made Grace Choi so awesome and interesting when she first appeared in Outsiders vol. 3. She was tough, super strong, butch, very tall, muscular, and an Amazonian badass (she’s actually from Themyscira). Admittedly, casting can be difficult when it comes to specific aesthetics and physical attributes. But the series definitely downplayed Grace’s more fun, upbeat, and somewhat cocky attitude that made her a great comic character. On the other hand, Anissa actually improved. She stands out here much more than she did initially in the original comics. Their relationship was inevitable in the series. The diminishing of Grace’s more interesting qualities made their relationship in the show less exciting than it could have been.
Khalil Payne aka Painkiller
Jordan Calloway did a phenomenal job as Khalil before and after his metahuman transformation. Khalil’s characterization was excellent throughout the series. As was his bidding relationship with China Anne McClain’s fan-favorite Jen. Their many storylines, including the pair running away together, were some of the series’ best highlights. Khalil’s shocking death was graphic and very saddening, but his return was joyous and also foreboding.
And his resurrection is where we get Painkiller, an alternate personality who is cold, calculating, and extremely deadly. Painkiller is like a Black samurai, or better yet a Ronin, a samurai without a master. He mastered martial arts, acrobatics, pressure points, and several other skills along with the power to produce a fatal toxin by touch. Painkiller would give even Batman some serious trouble if they ever crossed paths. At first, Painkiller was under the complete control of the ASA and Odell. Odell made the seemingly soulless young man kill his own mother. While disturbing and triggering, the show pulled no punches when it came to certain storylines. Of course, the real Khalil is still alive inside. The two personas begin to share a body, with Painkiller representing the more uninhibited and kill-happy side.
The Backdoor Pilot
The Painkiller backdoor pilot was good. Very well handled and well-written. It was surprisingly good despite some of the steam that seemed to leave Black Lightning sometime after season three, especially with the untimely end of the incredible villain of Gravedigger, as well as Odell’s departure. Painkiller showed us a futuristic, almost Batman Beyond-style city with neon lights and colors, self-driving vehicles, and sweeping skylines. The premise was simple, yet effective, showcasing our beloved Anissa Pierce and her newlywed Grace. Khalil must fight the kill order still inside to not kill Anissa before he can help save her wife. Meanwhile, he sweetly asks about Jennifer. We meet Kahlil’s crew, who each serve specific useful functions but aren’t immediate standouts like Khalil himself or Anissa.
But everyone’s performance is decent, and they all look good. You can always count on the CW to cast some attractive people. Aside from a woman we meet who supplies weapons and the main antagonist who is revealed to be the daughter of Odell, who is also alive just like last we saw him (begrudgingly spared by Khalil last season), the episode was light on women characters. Anissa and Grace were Black Lightning regulars, and while we knew there were plans for Anissa and Jennifer to appear in the spin-off series, there’s no indication they would have been regulars. Black Lightning had given us many, multifaceted and complex women characters, the one blemish Painkiller seemed to have in its backdoor pilot was that it barely showcased that. There definitely should have been a woman or non-man, perhaps non-straight, maybe even asexual, in the crew.
Nevertheless, the episode was well-executed and there was more than enough there to build upon and make something excellent, especially with the devastating loss of Black Lightning.
Black Lightning’s Finale, Gone Too Soon
The series finale of Black Lightning was not perfect, but it was more than solid. We got a couple of great fights between our hero Jeff and our main villain Tobias, where after an initial defeat, Jeff finally gets his powers back and defeats Tobias. Also the obligatory, “hold on, it doesn’t have to end this way” when Tobias ends up impaled outside, with Tobias basically giving the middle finger and forcing Jeff to end his long life, or perhaps help it along.
We get a very satisfying twist and surprise reveal that “J.J.” was never truly Jen (though some viewers may have guessed this by the lingering shots of energy left in the ionosphere), and China Anne McClain’s Jen returns! Though Laura Kariuki did a very impressive job playing another version of Jen, it never quite felt the same without China’s really impressive chops and sheer ability to execute action sequences (little sis was handling that all this time and many took that for granted until she was gone). Anissa getting her powers back and hearing that weird but very welcome and familiar breathing sound was a joy. It was also easy to grow to appreciate the changes made to Grace’s powers for the series. Cat-like powers are always pretty cool.
A Passing Over
With the knowledge that the CW would not be moving forward with the Painkiller spin-off series, it was incredibly saddening to see that the last we ever see of these characters, Khalil had to remove memories of the Pierce’s to end the kill order. So no Jennifer and Khalil reunion or goodbye. But one might take solace in knowing the two are still alive and could still find each other. Headcanon and fan fiction can and shall live on strong. There is also every chance that another network could pick up Painkiller, and perhaps even Black Lightning for more seasons. Another spin-off for Anissa and Grace, perhaps even Outsiders would not be a bad idea, but perhaps with a soft reboot making Grace a little closer to her comic counterpart and better developing the pair’s relationship.
No matter what becomes of the future of Painkiller or Black Lightning, many of us should appreciate what Black Lightning did for a lot of people. Anissa alone, on TV, and perhaps all screens, the very first Black lesbian superhero, was an excellent representation for a lot of people. We also had a very complex and loving Black family with specific relationships from member to member, examples of Black love, and a queer interracial relationship that wasn’t the obligatory one-white-partner variety (Thanks Love, Simon and Love, Victor btw). Plus on top of that, the Black partner was a lead, instead of an add-on instead of the other way around.
Remembering the Cast
Krondon Jones was a deliciously despicable villain who looked like he enjoyed his role, and played it well. James Remar played a very kind and charismatic mentor figure not to be underestimated. Despite still playing a cop (and please, no more copaganda Hollywood), Damon Gupton played Henderson with dignity and respect, to the point that despite the fact he was a cop, it was sad to see the actor go. Occupation changes for cop characters could be done as well, looking at you Jim Gordon.
Chantal Thuy was not the Grace Choi we deserved, but it was not the actress’s fault, but rather the writing for her in this series. Had the writers maintained even some of the character’s original bite and sass, she might have been better. Either way, Thuy did what she was tasked to do well. Jordan Calloway was more than just a handsome face and a hot bod. The man can really act and sell an action sequence. He would have made for an excellent leading man, and Hollywood needs to scoop him up fast whether Painkiller happens with another network or not.
With Christine Adams’ Lynn, we got a highly intelligent, respected, and gifted Black woman doctor and scientist. Both the character and actress were absolutely essential. China Anne McClain is a young, brilliantly talented actress, and while she may or may not return to acting in the future, she is an underrated talent who utterly elevated this project. Nafessa Williams was as talented and fierce as she is lovely, and her entire presence is already sorely missed. Finally, Black Lightning himself, Cress Williams, just as phoine and an excellent actor as always, was a great series lead. He too needs to be cast in more things, the man has a talent for days.
It’s Not Over, Show Up Even Still
Many of us ought to show further support for the series, at least those of us who really loved it and didn’t want to see it end, by talking about it, and purchasing the seasons, including this final season when it becomes available. While it is a joy that DC’s Naomi and an All-American spin-off are coming to the CW, their passing on Painkiller despite a solid premise and cast as well as no more Black Lightning might lead the wrong person to think that there’s some quota: no more than two Black shows on the CW at a time.