No pun intended, Black Lightning was the “black sheep” of the CW superhero macrocosm known as the “Arrowverse” that premiered in January 2018. Starring an All-Black cast (save James Remar’s character Peter Gambi) series’ developer Salim Akil had the audacious ambition of telling both a socially conscious and family oriented saga with a distinct African-American flair, utilizing one of comic’s premiere and underappreciated black superheroes from the DC Comics pantheon.
The opening four-chapter book “Reconstruction”, started off well enough. Time-jumping one year from last season – post-Crisis – we find the Pierce family severely fractured. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), still distraught over the death of Bill Henderson, tries to reconcile his dueling identities as a floundering family man and a past-his-prime heroic symbol, having retired the mantle of Black Lightning following the Markovian/ASA debacle. Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams) and Jefferson are in couples’ therapy, trying to maintain their brittle relationship, which has been complicated by Dr. Stewart’s unresolved addictive personality with the meta-human serum she derived last season for Gravedigger. Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) now operate as the de facto dynamic duo of Thunder & Lightning protecting Freeland from gangs in their father’s absence; but their personal lives are not really any better.
In terms of the other returning cast, Gambi (James Remar) and TC (Christopher A’mmanuel) are consigned to a meager supporting role. Gambi is no longer the remorseful surrogate father, or former assassin seeking absolution; but is relegated to banal sub-plot duties, tech support and exposition responsibilities. Christopher’s character also suffers this fate, only ever really being on screen in “the layer” to help the Pierces alongside Gambi. There is a vale attempt at a budding romantic relationship between him and Jennifer, but this comes off as nothing more than unrequited pining on his part. Shapeshifter Grace Choi/Wylde (Chantal Thuy) has a more prominent role this season, as not only Anissa’s wife, but partner in crime-fighting. Due to budget constraints, the full extent of her metamorphic powers are reduced to feral claws and ADR snarls. Lala/Tattooed Man (William Catlett) also returns, but is soundly taken off the board early on. While I always adored William’s performance since season two, he remains woefully underutilized in this show. His character has been treated as the unfortunate punching bag since his debut, which does not befit either the character or the actor.
New this season is Det. Hassan Shakur (Wallace Smith), a cynical officer who once idolized both Black Lightning and Chief Bill Henderson. Replacing Henderson as Black Lightning’s “man on the inside”, Wallace comes off as that stereotypical “tough good cop who plays by their own rules”. I liked the premise of them working out their burgeoning, if uneasy, relationship while avoiding the trope of that familiar Batman/Gordon dynamic. As a fresh tertiary character, I can’t readily say Wallace’s performance stood out as well amongst his seasoned peers – but he is definitely the one who stands out for me from the new additions. Perhaps if given another season, he could have come into his own like some before him on the show.
We’re also introduced to chief of police Ana Lopez (Melissa De Sousa), who acts as this season’s cartoonish parallel antagonist, pushing a zealous anti-meta-human agenda on Freeland. It was hard getting behind Lopez’s cliché motivation or manic obsession that goes off the rails like a bad supervillain origin story by season’s end. One of this season’s many fax paus.
The only other new character worth mentioning is the cutlass–wielding assassin Ishmael (Rico Ball); if only for being a paper-thin “Painkiller” imitation introduced in the latter half of the story as the main physical foil for our family of heroes. Needless to say Rico doesn’t hold a candle to Jordon’s performance; and he’s just too generic and one-note to warrant further discussion.
“Book of Reconstruction” is the strongest part of this season, as it revels in the emotional torment of the Pierces, particularly Jefferson. Cress is allowed to flex a gamut of emotions, while he wrestles with his own self-loathing and short-comings as both a father and a husband. There are subtle nods to coax him to return to form as his electrified alter ego, but none are compelling enough to garner a second thought. His interactions with fellow cast members, particularly Christine, really accentuate their respective acting acumen.
The subsequent “Book of Ruin” aptly shows Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) execute his magnum opus on taking over Freeland and getting his revenge on the Pierces with sinister and systematic precision, befitting the nefarious criminal mastermind of his reputable caliber. Marvin deliciously chews up the scenery whenever he is on screen. More Gene Hackman’s “Lex Luthor” than Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Kingpin”, Marvin’s performance as the diabolical albino Whale deserves recognition, as he’s equally charming, comically offensive and menacing. And when the domino pieces of his well thought-out scheme start to fall into place, it gives one pause as a genuine crucible our cast must overcome. It ends with a standout performance by Christine when she is incarcerated, which may be heart-wrenching for some viewers to watch.