Jennifer flexing her metahuman muscles.
Image: CW

In his fight to protect his city from those who wish to destroy it, Black Lightning has seen the dead rise from the grave and watched in terror as nearly everything about his life crumbled to pieces. Through it all, though, Black Lightning’s never managed to lose its sense of hope and optimism.

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When you sit down to watch “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” the final episode of Black Lightning’s first season, it doesn’t take long for it to become obvious that the show no longer feels the need to up its stakes. Though Black Lightning’s always had its more fantastical narrative elements (see: Jeff’s suit), the show’s been grounded in a reality much more similar to our own, which has given it a unique kind of gravity that set it apart from the CW’s other superhero shows. In many ways, “The Book of War” is a somber reflection of the realities that Black Lightning’s grappled with since the very first episode, and it forces its heroes to consider just how hard they’re willing to fight to change them.

Jefferson’s relationship with his father Alvin (Keith Arthur Bolden) is one of the most significant elements of Black Lightning’s larger story that we haven’t really seen too much of over the course of the season, but “The Book of War” opens with a powerful reminder that Alvin’s always been with his son in one way or another. Thirty years before the events of the series, a young Jeff witnessed the exchange between his father and Gambi about the ASA’s experiments on Freeland children that would ultimately result in Jeff’s powers and Alvin’s murder. At the time, Freeland was being rocked by daily riots and protests in the wake of the city’s police officers killing an unarmed black boy who was found to have been shot in the back.

As is true of so many real, predominantly black cities and neighborhoods, state-sanctioned violence against Freeland’s black community is a tradition that stretches back decades and informs so much of Jeff’s life. Jeff’s powers, Gambi later explains to Anissa and Jennifer back at their safehouse, first manifested when a group of riot officers attacked him as a small boy, causing him to hit them with uncontrolled bursts of electricity before panicking and accidentally running into an electrified fence that shorts and knocks him out.

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A young Jefferson after the first manifestation of his abilities.
Image: CW

In that moment, the thing that made Jeff different is what saved his life, but it also put him on a path leading to his death by Khalil’s hand at Tobias’ orders. Jennifer’s newfound willingness to use her own metahuman powers in response to watching her father die is more than enough to revive him in last week’s “The Book of Pain,” but “The Book of War” doesn’t immediately bring Jeff back into the fray. Instead, Jeff’s stuck in a place very similar to Black Panther’s astral plane, where death is first and foremost an opportunity to commune with one’s ancestors and experience a time and place of emotional or spiritual significance.

For Jeff, this means returning to his childhood and coming face to face with Alvin in order for the two of them to talk about what their deaths mean for them, personally. Because Jeff never knew his father as an adult, their reunion has a distinct weight to it that speaks to a deep and heartbreaking identification between the two. Both Jeff and Alvin see themselves in one another as people who fought and perhaps failed to keep their families and city safe. Though Cress Williams has shown us Jeff’s more emotionally raw self in other episodes, the vulnerability he brings to his scenes with Bolden is distinct and intense. Broken, Jeff apologizes to Alvin for not trying to stop Tobias from murdering him all those years ago while Alvin struggles to convince his son that none of what happened was his fault.

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“The Book of War” gives us glimpses of the lessons Alvin tried to teach his son during their time together—to think with his head rather than punch with his fists—and the elder Jeff admits to feeling guilt for having become a vigilante who uses violence to achieve his goals. But Alvin reminds Jeff that “peace ain’t always peaceful, son.” The ideas Alvin fought to instill in Jeff were a crucial part of preparing him for the world and Alvin makes clear that even if Jeff isn’t living the kind of life he intended for his son, the most important thing is that he lives his life by any means necessary, an idea that Black Lightning has returned to time and time again.

Jefferson having a heart to heart with his father in limbo.
Image: CW

What was really beautiful about Jeff and Alvin’s scenes together was that, even though it’s never explicitly said, the takeaway from their conversation is that at the end of the day, none of them was ever going to be able to “save” Freeland or their loved ones, because life is impermanent. Even if the world was rid of all of its evils, in time, we all have to die, and that’s okay because the point of living shouldn’t be to tirelessly rage against the inevitable. In raising his son with a strong moral compass and sense of judgment, Alvin ensured that his fight to free Freeland would continue long after his death, and the same is true of Jeff and his daughters.

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If it wasn’t for Jennifer, Jeff would have died and/or lost his powers and Black Lightning would have to become a show about Thunder and the Outsiders or something, because no one seems to have ever thought that it might be a good idea to keep a super defibrillator around in case the electric superhero got got. Trapped in a warehouse with Anissa, Gambi, Lynn, and Jeff, Jean rightfully has the coolest-looking panic attack of all time, recharges Jeff’s abilities, and finds the nerve to zap a few ASA agents who storm their location. With all hell breaking loose, all of Team Black Lightning gets in on the action and wreaks havoc on the unwitting ASA that makes the mistake of coming after the Pierces again under Proctor’s orders.

It’s the ASA that suffers the most casualties this episode, but the most interesting attack on them actually comes from Tobias by way of Lala, who finally learns just how it is that he’s back from the dead and why the spirit of LaWanda White has been haunting him. The ghosts, Tobias explains, are the result of an experimental procedure he paid for that’s seemingly given him control over Lala, a relationship that he really has over all of his associates. Khalil’s newfound super-strength, mobility, and biochemical toxins? Gifts from Tobias. Syonide’s subdermal mesh armor? Gifts from Tobias. As much of a slightly behind-the-ball criminal as Tobias might have appeared to be early in the season, “The Book of War” paints him as a power player who, given the proper berth, could actually become a kingpin—something he conveys by using Lala to deliver a bomb to the ASA that’s in his body while he’s alive.

Jennifer using her pure energy state to recharge her father’s faulty powers.
Image: CW

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We don’t see Lala explode, but it’s tough to imagine that he’d survive that kind of intestinal distress. RIP, Lala. As the ASA’s underground child-experimenting operation crumbles around Proctor, he does what all villains do and attempts to cut his losses with the four last pods with viable metahuman experiments trapped inside. Thanks to the magic of speedy (and questionable) television exposition, however, Proctor’s escape is cut short by the whole Pierce family, who take their turns getting their licks in before Gambi just shoots the racist government agent point blank. It’s a simple, almost funny way to see such an outsized adversary go, but again, this is Black Lightning, where people die all the time. Proctor should have known better than the leave the house without a bulletproof vest.

The closing moments of “The Book of War” are exactly what you’d expect from a CW cape drama—a cheerful shot of the Pierce family reunited and a glimpse at Tobias’ next wicked scheme—but it’s actually one of the citizens on the news whose lines have the most impact. With the ASA’s experiments on black children exposed, the world is outraged to learn that the government would ever have condoned the organization’s actions, but it’s Darius’ father whose embittered words on a local newscast that have stuck with me:

“The government put crack in the ghettos, they gave heroin to the white folks in the rural areas, then they came back and put Green Light in Freeland. And I know because my son got caught up in taking that Green Light. They’re going to put something else somewhere else. This is their M.O. Ain’t nothing new.”

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The horrors committed by the ASA are heightened and stylized for television, but only by so much. While metahumans may not walk amongst us, black people are all too familiar with the long and violent histories this country and others have treated us as cattle, property, and the unwitting test subjects for dangerous, illegal experimentation. That kind of institutionalized dehumanization still haunts and actively harms us today, but the key to fighting it is to agitate and remember that none of this is new. It’s part of a painful legacy that must constantly be revisited and unpacked in order to illustrate the ways in which the impacts of old, generational traumas are still being felt today.

Darius’ father, like the Pierce family, know that the fight isn’t over and as overwhelming as the odds may seem, they’ve all got one another to help keep the faith and moving forward. Also, to help bodyslam racists into the ground.

The Pierce family.
Image: CW

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Assorted Musings:

  • So Khalil’s codename is “Painkiller.” Good for him. Now all he needs is a better wig and costume and he’s all set.
  • I’m curious as to who the four metahumans still living in the containment units are, and who Lynn knows with the capability of keeping them in stasis.
  • Lynn and Gambi’s ambush in the safehouse was excellent.
  • Jennifer wrecking Proctor was absolutely fabulous. Superheroic hair flips need to become a thing.
  • Gambi shooting Proctor was amusing. When will the white-on-white violence end?
  • Let’s all just listen to the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” on repeat until Black Lightning’s returns for season two.

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