BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1
Plot
Casting
Themes
Summary
The premiere of BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 wasn't entirely perfect. With lackluster villains, some of the appeal for this first episode is lost. However, BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 is still one of the best superhero television releases. With its in-depth thematic focus and its deeply complex main cast, this is a series to keep your eyes on. You wouldn't want to miss a single flash of lightning.
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It is finally here! After seemingly coming out of nowhere, BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 has hit our television screens with a crack of thunder. Despite its minimal press, this DCTV show really had me excited. As a character, Black Lightning’s focus on family has always fascinated me. Any character who can balance raising two daughters and still kick ass in the streets deserves your attention.

However, as a human being, I cannot ignore the positive potential that BLACK LIGHTNING has. With a majority black cast and lead characters, BLACK LIGHTNING gives the CW a chance at representation it has never had before. LUKE CAGE showed the world that black superheroes could be just as popular and awe-inspiring as teammates. It’s time for BLACK LIGHTNING to reinforce that.

What Is BLACK LIGHTING About?

Jefferson Pierce lives a happy life. With his two daughters Anissa and Jennifer and a respectable position as a high school principal, some might say it is ideal. However, Jefferson lives in Freeland, an American city in the throes of gang violence, meaning his days are fraught with anxiety.

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But Jefferson Pierce also has a secret. Nine years ago, Pierce hit the streets as the vigilante Black Lightning. After nearly dying in the field, though, Pierce hung up his tights and focused on raising his family. After his daughters are kidnapped by members of the 100 gang, Pierce decides to step out of retirement.

First Episode Jitters?

The fear with BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 that I had stemmed from past ArrowVerse showings. While not a part of the ArrowVerse proper, BLACK LIGHTNING still runs the risk of mirroring shows like ARROW and THE FLASH. I didn’t want another brooding Oliver Queen or impulsive Barry Allen. Thankfully, BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 delivers a premiere that feels decidedly different.

BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1
Courtesy of DC Entertainment

This difference comes from a lot of potent sources. In large part, it stems from BLACK LIGHTNING unabashed focus on social issues (more on that later). However, what appeals to me first and foremost is that BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 knows what it wants to be. This show is so multi-layered.

It is a family drama, a crime thriller, a superhero show, and a commentary on race in America. It is so many things, but most importantly, it comes out feeling entirely balanced. No element takes center stage. BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 manages to feel altogether cohesive with so many narrative strands.

Jefferson Pierce: The Hero We Need and Deserve

A lot of this narrative cohesiveness stems from Jefferson Pierce’s character. Pierce’s entire character arc in this episode stems from his many responsibilities. As a father, he has to protect and care for his daughters. As a principal, he has to keep order in his school despite the air of violence that surrounds it. And as a human being, he has to handle the racially backward atmosphere around him. At the same time, he also has to take to the streets and risk his neck to save lives.

Black Lightning Episode 1
Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Pierce’s entire narrative fits nicely into this struggle to balance his life; something superhero shows have seemingly done away with. Flash and Arrow never feel like they need to balance their personal and extracurricular lives. Rather, they fit together nicely. Jefferson Pierce’s vigilantism and personal life are seemingly at odds until his daughters are threatened. This leads to a story filled with a unique sense of drama that is only benefited by the stellar casting of Cress Williams.

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Williams manages to give BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 a welcome dose of cynicism. He makes Pierce a far more mature character, giving him a more realistic edge. There is no extensive brooding. In fact, despite the chaos and hate around him, Williams manages to inject a sense of optimism to the fray. Pierce doesn’t need to save the world. If his family is safe, then he has won. Williams never comes across as something we’ve seen before, and that is definitely a good thing.

Anissa and Jennifer: Stars in the Making

BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 is not entirely Jefferson Pierce’s show, though. It couldn’t exist without his daughters Anissa and Jennifer. This narrative benefits from the family element in general. China Ann McClain and Nafessa Williams give us two performances that feel highly realistic and give a positive light to the series. They act as perfect foils to Williams’ Jefferson, but most importantly, they aren’t simply victim characters to be saved. They have they’re own fleshed out personalities and motivations, and more than once, they stole the spotlight from Williams.

BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1
Courtesy of DC Entertainment

I had not heard of Nafessa Williams before BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1, but I am amazed by the power she brings to the screen. Her Anissa is entirely devoted to the cause of equality, even to the point of getting herself in trouble. In fact, the episode starts with Jefferson bailing Anissa out of jail for participating in a protest.

Her character is contextually impulsive, doing what she thinks is right whenever she wants. She also acts as the voice of reason through the episode, which is a fun dichotomy with her more head-strong side.

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I was most surprised by China Ann McClain’s casting as Jennifer Pierce. Her recent roles on the Disney Channel have given her a lot of street cred in my household, but I haven’t seen her in a particularly adult show. And yet her character adds a much-needed youth and vibrancy to the show.

Of the cast, Jennifer Pierce has the most obvious motivations. She is the principal’s daughter, meaning that she has always carried the “Queen of Garfield” title. Her family expects so much from her, and she is fed up. In a show where men can shoot lightning from their hands, McClain gives the show a much-needed grounding.

A Villainous Parody

BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1
Courtesy of DC Entertainment

With such an exceptional cast and plot, I find myself a bit underwhelmed with the villains at play. Thankfully, as an introduction, the villains Tobias Whale and Lala have the opportunity to grow more complex. However, as of this episode, I never felt like they had their real shot. In fact, for much of the episode, Marvin Jones III’s Tobias Whale is just a face. He has some intimidating scenes near the end, but he doesn’t quite feel like he lives up to his opposites.

He feels like a James Bond villain at the moment, set up in a high-tech penthouse suite with aquariums all about. Tobias feels very “comic book.” In any other circumstance, this wouldn’t be a complaint. However, in a show as complex and cinematically rich as BLACK LIGHTNING, he just feels out of place right now.

Lala, played by William Catlett, has a bit more potential. While he still comes across as a truly cruel man, his motivations and purpose seem relevant to the show. Lala is a man who wants to see the people of his neighborhood become something. This means drug peddling and gang violence, but in his mind, he is doing what is best for Freeland. In fact, he and Jefferson have an unspoken understanding to keep things civil around the high school. The dynamic there works surprisingly well, but Lala gets so little spotlight. We see his work through the lens of his cronies, who are mostly unnamed, one-dimensional tools who think with their guns.

Cinematic Superheroing

BLACK LIGHTNING EPisode 1
Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Part of me can almost forgive the lackluster villains because they only matter regarding the plot. For a superhero show, BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 is about so much more than dressing up in tights and punching bad guys. This is a show with a complex social atmosphere, that is incredibly timely. It carries a dialogue of police violence, race, privilege, and broken families like none I’ve ever seen. In many ways, the superhero angle is only a means to draw in fans of all stripes. BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 is all about its themes, first and foremost, and luckily, it manages to succeed at every step.

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Much of this thematic success comes from the fact that this show doesn’t pull any punches. Police accost Jefferson Pierce two times in this episode. In the first, the sense of fear for his daughters comes across as increasingly palpable. In another instance, a television spokesperson speaks out about the fact that Black Lightning is called a vigilante, while other costumed crimefighters are heroes.

This social tension fills every moment of the episode. However, you needn’t worry about being overwhelmed. Yes, this is a heavy show, but the plot and brilliant acting throughout help to balance the message. As in all great stories, theme aids the plot, while plot reinforces the theme.

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To put it simply, BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 hit it out of the park. With an intricate, heroic cast and potent conversation on race and police violence, this show started 2018 off right. While the villainous cast has a few kinks to work out, this introduction focuses perfectly on the elements that truly matter to this universe. This is the type of show that we need right now. It has the mass market appeal to spread an incredibly important message, and it uses that opportunity with surprising grace. Jefferson Pierce is the perfect superhero for today.

BLACK LIGHTNING Episode 1 is the first of what (hopefully) could be many episodes. Having not read many BLACK LIGHTNING comics, I might not be the best source of what characters hopefully make appearances. I do see a great future ahead for the BLACK LIGHTNING television universe. I want the show to explore more about the causes behind gang violence and the issues within the prison system. There are several compelling moments in the episode that signal toward these themes, but nothing ever comes about.

With the episode’s ending, I want to see how this universe expands. In the comics, Black Lightning’s daughters become superheroes as well. With the tease at the end of episode 1, wherein Anissa accidentally smashes a sink, I am excited to see how this show handles a superfamily. Will it forge a deeper bond? Or the anxiety and pain drive a wedge into the family structure? Also, I cannot wait for the possibility of a Static Shock cameo, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

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