To its credit, “Black Lightning’s” junior season does some bold experimentation that greatly deviates from its past two seasons. Encompassing a hostile military takeover by a government-funded organization, the ASA occupation permeates every facet of the show, to a nauseating degree. This premise, however, is ripe for exploration of severe, totalitarian oppression by a government on its people – in this case the downtrodden denizens of Freeland – and how a community robbed of their autonomy and identity can adapt and rise up against that seemingly insurmountable force. Instead, the writers and producers opted to heavily lean into a Pierce-centric overarching narrative, with all of its associated pros and cons.
The first few episodes paint a bleak picture of Freeland, with the ASA’s draconian grip on every aspect of life, media, and expression, drowned in heavy-handed propaganda spiel and misinformation. The justification is that a foreign power (fictional Eastern-European country of Markovia) is eyeing the booming US meta-human population and the ASA has been deployed under carte blanche presidential sanction to secure (and weaponize) that asset. At first, the Markovian threat plays out like some nebulous boogie man; that I honestly believed it was a facade fabricated by Agent Odell (Bill Duke) as the next phase of cover-ups and experimentation. Regardless, how malicious and ruthless both sides are, left me believing there was no “lesser evil” in this conflict between the two national factions vying over the dwindling stockpile (or chattel) of super-powered pod-kids and Green Light metas.
The emphasis for the majority of the season is “divided we fall”. From day one, the Pierces have been separated from each other, both physically and emotionally, leading to most of them being toyed with by the sinisterly nefarious Agent Odell. Our titular electrifying superhero Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning (Cress Williams) is sort of sidelined this season, being overshadowed by his family and appearing in costume quite infrequently up until the last few episodes. This leaves Williams with very little to do and finds his character involved in a supporting role rather than the lead for most of the season – reluctantly tagging along with his daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and the Resistance.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t have standout parts; those involve his disintegrating relationship with his reconciled ex Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams) which are emotionally charged. Jefferson is clearly a man who desperately wants to rekindle the love and bond he lost to the costume. Speaking of costume, Black Lightning gets a well-requested upgrade in fashion when he finally dons the new streamline suit. I still can’t get over how “difficult” it is to not deduce who Black Lightning is, given his very distinct facial features and build, and the notoriety of his civilian alter ego.
Dr. Lynn arguably has the largest and most interesting arc this season. Manipulating her humanitarianism and overabundance of compassion as a physician, the devilish Agent Odell casts her character into a dark path that involves grey moral choices, self-experimentation and spiraling addiction to a narcotic of her own making. Her fall from grace was both gradual and tragic. Seeing her moral fiber being chipped away with every passing episode was painful; to the point where her once pristine integrity and trustworthiness come into question. Her brief alliance with Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) just exemplifies her desperation and compromised mentality. Thankfully, by season’s end, this remains a thorn in her side that she must deal with, whether by herself or with her family. It’s a powerful message made even more so by Christine’s stellar performance. It is, therefore, no wonder some of the best episodes this season center on her character, like “Lynn’s Ourboros” and “Lynn’s Addiction”. Sadly though, in retrospect, Dr. Lynn is as much a victim of her orchestrated addiction as she is to the story, being ultimately robbed of self-determination.
As for the daughters, it can readily be said that the first set of episodes is definitely “The Black Bird Rises”. Having fully embraced a brand-new alter ego (forgoing Thunder until she is reunited with her father), Anissa fills the void left by Black Lightning’s absence. Rebellious as always, Anissa fights “the good fight” against the ASA occupation, becoming the figurehead for a freedom fighters’ movement, albeit an escalating violent one. She, however, is swift to return to Thunder once Black Lightning himself is in full swing. My only caveat is why the back and forth between (independent) Black Bird and (sidekick) Thunder? Yes, this provides a thematic difference visually, but I do not see the reason to harbor three alter egos.
This makes Anissa seem indecisive and divided by her familial loyalties to her father, and her own need to be her own vigilante. I hope going forward that she settles on one. In regards to the perpetual third wheel Jennifer (China Anne McClain), without her family’s protection, the youngest Pierce is unfortunately brainwashed by Agent Odell’s propaganda and becomes a complacent tool for his secret war. It also doesn’t help that he provides her a new suit, and fully embraces who she is, while her family and Jennifer herself seem to repress that aspect about her. Luckily, she does a one-eighty when the veil of deception is destroyed. Outside of that, all Jennifer is left with this season is being torn between budding new love interest Brandon Marshall/Geo (Jahking Giuillory) and her back from the dead (ex)boyfriend Khalil /Painkiller (Jordan Calloway).
Jordon’s character is also a breakout hit this (mid) season, with every episode he is in worth watching and your attention. Turned into a soulless assassin by the ASA, Khalil must struggle with his actions and his inner demons (figuratively and literally). In every scene he’s in he gives his best and having to ostensibly play two different people must be commended. While not as plotted as Dr. Lynn’s arc, Khalil’s is equally as engrossing with his ambiguous destiny up in the air. Khalil’s presence on the show is one of its greatest and most consistent strengths in “Black Lightning” as a whole; from humble beginnings to wayward and tortured anti-hero over the three seasons.
Moving over to the “primary” villain, I’ve said numerous times in my episodic reviews that Agent Odell is a worthy successor to Tobias Whale as the central baddie. I honestly would not have been surprised if he was revealed to be Satan incarnate, or some demonic facsimile. His severe dearth of humanity is staggering and intoxicating, with his threatening soft-spokenness and disarming presence. Forgoing physicality of any kind for terrifying intimidation, Bill’s well-played character is essentially a masculine Amanda Waller. I truly believed he would have been the end game bad guy, and rightfully so; but ever since the latter half starts to focus on Markovia, there are less than subtle attempts to remove him from the board. As mentioned earlier, the eleventh hour reveal of the final nemesis kind of cheats Bill’s character of a grander climax; a bait-and-switch much like Whale and Proctor in season one. It is sad to see him go (at least for now) by season’s end, but I would not be remised if he returned.
The rest of the enemies this season fair very poorly. Thee Tobias Whale is a hapless guinea pig, with nothing to do to pass the time than spew racial tirades every chance he gets and get into Dr. Lynn’s head. He does nothing of substance all season. Woefully benched throughout season three, it felt more like a contractual obligation to have him “around”. This is a travesty on the writers and producers’ part, as he’s shown growth last season and is more than capable of handling his own physically and psychologically against Black Lightning. I hope that our enviable albino antagonist finally gets his time to really shine as an arch-nemesis, and not get usurped by some last-minute big bad as seems to be the trend (or running gag) of this show.
Then there are the easily forgettable ASA trio of lackeys; timid pushover Major Sara Grey (Katy O’Brian), patriotic traitor Sgt Gardner Grayle (Boone Platt); and zealot meta-human soldier Com Carson Williams (Christopher B Duncan). None of these three seem to be an adequate second fiddle to Agent Odell, rotating in and out of the story as the plot dictates. Lastly, Lady Eve (Jill Scott) and Lala/Tattooed Man (Will Catlett), the two resurrected foils from past seasons, have undoubtedly the most criminally underdeveloped sub-plots this season. It would have been applauded if more time was devoted to fleshing out their characters and feud, as a nice distraction from the stifling ASA/Markovia plot. I’ve made no exemptions in my reviews where the story seemed to lull and drag, and how more aptly it could have been spent on little moments of their interaction. But that came too little and too late. They might as well have been cut altogether without a noticeable impact on the final outcome. Both commendable actors have been deprived of a perfect opportunity to fully flex their muscles, and I fear more of the same will be said in season four.
The bulky cast of secondary and tertiary characters also includes additions to the hero side; like the aforementioned emotionally charged Brandon/Geo who is a serviceable substitute as Jennifer’s wingman, even though his plot and origin seemed half-baked. The same can also be said for Baron/Technocrat (Christopher A’mmanuel) who comes in out of nowhere as a deus ex machina for one episode and sticks around. Admittedly, his character has since grown on me. But TC being Gambi’s (James Remar) protégé may be foreshadowing his mentor’s impending fate in season four.
As for the season’s final boss, Tyson Sykes/Gravedigger (Wayne Brady) was certainly an out-of-left-field entry very late in the game. It would have serviced the show better if there were teases or allusions before he fully debuted. Nevertheless, in what little time they had, he is well built up as a fully fleshed out antagonist to cap off the season. Brady definitely has some fun in this role. In the end, I’m not quite sure if I want more of Gravedigger, as we’ve already had incomplete resolutions with Agent Odell and primo villain Tobias Whale.
To summarize season three, Dr. Lynn and Khalil are by far the highs, and the lows having anything to do with the ASA henchmen and the travesty that is how little Lala and Lady Eve appear. They managed a surprising Hail Mary bringing in Gravedigger near the very end, but couldn’t quite stick the landing when the last episode aired. The over-emphasis on the superhero aspect of the Pierce family led to the detriment of everything else. That being, little focus on their civilian lives in the community, and when the show tries to spotlight Freeland itself, like in “Requiem for Tavon” and “Battle of Franklin Terrace”, those parts are quickly brushed to the wayside. In addition, the number of characters on both sides may explain the unapologetic culling in the final episode. In short, Black Lightning season three makes one nostalgic for the best parts of the last two seasons, rather than give us something new to be attached to. It already has unresolved plot threads with its now trinity of chief villains, and it would be a shame to simply add to that club in season four. Here’s hoping season four is more a return to form, while still making the effort to improve its shortcomings and hone its strengths.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or video games. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and video gamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.