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TV Review: Black Lightning (Season 1, Episode 2)


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After a triumphant pilot, Black Lightning proves it has what it takes to keep riding its momentum in ‘LaWanda: The Book of Hope’.

This episode explores the tragic story of LaWanda White, an ex-student of Jefferson’s, in her mission to rescue her daughter from The One Hundred, using this arc to explore Jefferson’s dilemma as to the best way in which he can help his community.

In exploring the shortcomings of law enforcement’s abilities, and the perception from within some black communities that the police simply don’t have their best interests at heart, Jefferson must decide who Freeland needs him to be: the ‘Black Jesus’ of the community or Black Lightning?

In a different vein to many other superhero shows which use policial ineptness to necessitate vigilante intervention, Black Lightning goes on another, far more mature route, which is to explain why the police can’t intervene to rescue LaWanda’s daughter. Henderson elaborates that girls who sell their bodies for the gang develop a Stockholm syndrome mentality, exemplifying the legal limits placed on the police. In this way, Black Lightning is still needed to fill a gap in the system, but rather than laying blame at the doors of individuals in the police department, the episode places it in the broader judicial and political systems.

And for Jefferson, a sacrifice is inherent in all scenarios. Were he to return to his days as Black Lightning, he would be sacrificing the possibility of reconciliation with Lynn, and the reuniting of his family. Yet if he ignores the injustices around him, he will be giving up what he believes is right. Experience has taught him the cost in balancing two scales of justice, and has taught Lynn to recognise a parallel between his heroism and his ego and addiction. Dynamics of justice are convoluted, and the implicit acknowledgement of this lends the show an underlying melancholy that is strangely refreshing.

This instalment also makes a point of exploring privilege within the black community itself. “Unless all of us are free, none of us is free,” LaWanda quotes, questioning why Black Lightning would rescue Jefferson’s daughters, yet not her own and countless others’. The question serves as a stand-in for questions of economic privilege; Anissa and Jennifer come from a middle-class family, their father is respected and recognised, and thereby can call on relationships with high-ranking members of the police.

It's thematic explorations like this that set apart Black Lightning, and make it such a strong show. It grounds the superhero drama in real issues, to the point where the classic superhero staples become secondary to the social commentary provided. Set in comparison to the Avengers battling aliens and AIs, or The Flash and metahumans, Black Lightning feels more important and harrowing than other superheroes on the big and small screen right now, with its fight against institutionalised racism, police brutality and corruption, gang violence and economic hierarchies.

‘LaWanda’ is also a shocking follow-up to the pilot. Maybe swayed by comparisons to other, much lighter DC shows on the CW, this episode nonetheless plays on expectations by brutally killing off Jefferson’s friend. The killer is not even brought to justice – Lala was strangled inside his jail cell by Tobias Whale, so never faced justice the way his victim deserved.

However, that leads us to one of the low points of the show so far. Tobias Whale still feels like a superficial, unbelievable James Bond villain, especially when set against William Catlett’s portrayal of Lala. Granted, this is only the second episode, and there is yet plenty of time for a character study or a delve into his past and motivations, but let’s hope Black Lightning does not hold out on these for much longer.

The subplots involving Jennifer and Anissa’s romantic lives falls out of step with the episode’s general pacing, and the writers make the mistake of tying their relationships in with the trauma from their kidnapping. The episode seems to rush through dealing with potential PTSD, an issue which I can only hope will be addressed again in the following weeks.

Black Lightning is available to stream on Netflix, with new episodes arriving weekly.

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