The CW’s Black Lightning has always been a world apart from its superhero cousins on the network. Originally developed as a show for Fox, it always took the concepts of superpowers and the DC Comics “metahumans” a metaphor for something much closer to our reality. Its inciting incident — the deployment of a vaccine said to prevent a virulent disease, but truly design to stimulate the metagenes in the population of Freeland — has its origins in things like the Tuskegee Study and the CIA’s alleged introduction of crack cocaine into the inner cities in the 1980s.
In the world of Black Lightning, the meta-vaccine operation was conducted by a shadowy government agency known as the ASA, and their tactics have left a lasting mark on Freeland as a whole and central character Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) in particular. Even as the series sprawled out to tell the tales of Jefferson’s family, his arch-rival Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), and Jefferson’s mentor Peter Gambi (James Remar), it’s never lost sight of the ASA. In fact, it is possible they are Black Lightning’s ultimate adversaries.
But at the moment, they also have Freeland in lockdown – an occupation officially meant to keep Freeland’s meta population safe from agents of a foreign power, Markovia, desperate to snatch up metas in a latter-day arms race. The story may echo the CIA’s activities during the later parts of the Cold War, but in illustrating the effects of an actual military occupation on U.S. soil, the show enters unprecedented ground. The stakes have never been higher. As Williams put it when Rotten Tomatoes visited the Atlanta soundstages where the show is produced, “It’s much more than just corner boys and Tobias trying to just take over the city for his own power.” In fact, we got the distinct impression Freeland’s old normal will never be restored.
But, as Williams told us, “The ‘back to normal’ Freeland was never like this idealistic place … It was always, you know, it was flawed. There was crime. It’s why [Jefferson] had to originally put the suit back on in the first place.” Nonetheless, Williams felt it is important for the Occupation to end, even if “we get back to just that” because Freeland is ultimately part of the United States and rights are being trampled on in the current situation.
Granted, the ASA Agent-in-Charge, Odell (Bill Duke), would disagree. When we spoke to Duke, he mentioned Odell firmly believes the Occupation is ultimately protecting Americans from a rogue nation. His methods, though, leave much to be desired. For instance, he kept both Jefferson and his wife, Dr. Lynn Stewart’s (Christine Adams) in a mandatory hold at a secret facility for months and once he had to let them go, he planted subliminal messages in Lynn’s living space suggesting she experiment with Green Light, the power-enhancing drug taking the place for crack in the program’s ongoing storyline.
When it was suggested manipulating Lynn was evil, Duke said, “What really is evil?” It is a question the show is gearing up to address, but in the interim, Lynn is abusing Green Light.
“You’re definitely going to see Lynn in a way you’ve never seen her before,” Adams said of Lynn under the drug’s influence. Her first few attempts to synthesize a safe, non-addictive Green Light gave her increased brain efficiency and allowed her to find a cure for a Markovian virus meant to kill Freeland’s meta population. But it’s also made her obsessive about her work and created another rift between her and Jefferson.
Then again, the fragility of their marriage is another one of the show’s ongoing plots.
“I think it definitely makes sense for their relationship to go like this,” Adams said. But she added the Occupation is putting a very specific stress on them. “They know too much. They’ve seen too much. I mean, they would have to be PTSD if nothing else … like, put them all in therapy. That’s what I would do.”
Their time at The Pit, the ASA’s black site in Freeland, also put Black Lightning off his footing, but Williams suggested the change in outlook may ultimately be beneficial.
“I think he’s angrier, and I think he has the right to be,” he said. “Going from season 1, his school was successful, his daughters were safe, and then you progress to being locked up for over a month and then coming out to an occupation and nobody’s safe. He’s tried to do things the right way and play by the rules and sees the repercussions of that.”
At the moment, an agreement with Odell means he cannot act against the ASA, but it is only a matter of time before he learns the full scope of the agent’s machinations and, perhaps, joins the Resistance.
And then there’s Tobias. Though he is locked up in The Pit, Williams said that Jefferson’s feelings about Tobias haven’t changed.
The feeling is mutual. Though Jones was unwilling to suggest when or how Tobias might escape The Pit, he said Black Lightning is the only person who should worry if and when that prison break occurs.
“I think it’s always going to be Black Lightning,” he added, though he said another confrontation between Tobias and the unkillable Lala (William Catlett) is inevitable. “[They’re] almost like Kobe and Shaq, where they’re on the same team, kind of, but then again they’re not. You know? One has a way of doing things, and the other one doesn’t. It’s kind of like ‘I need the other one to get out of the way so I can do my thing the way I do it. I think they’ll always conflict and run into each other.”
Jefferson and Lynn’s detention at The Pit also left their children Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) to figure out life in the Occupation on their own. Anissa chose to formalize her alternate persona of Blackbird as a hero of the burgeoning Resistance — and establish an underground railroad of sorts for metas trying to escape Freeland — while Jennifer tried her best to be a “normal” teenager.
According to Nafessa Williams, Blackbird and Anissa’s earlier hero persona of Thunder represent two sides of the character.
“[Blackbird] doesn’t have it all together and she doesn’t always do the ‘right thing’ the way Thunder does, but she does it her way because she thinks it’s the right way and she thinks it’s what Freeland needs right now.”
The impulsiveness of Blackbird may cause problems down the line – particularly with the Perdi in South Freeland – but Williams sees the alter-ego as part of Anissa coming into her own.
“She’s really seeing herself as an adult and realizing that she runs her life,” Williams said. Nevertheless, expect some mistakes as Anissa finds her way to adulthood.
But one aspect of Anissa’s life that will be on firmer ground during the Occupation is her relationship with shapeshifter Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy) – a romance teased since the early episodes of the show, but finally a real thing in season 3.
“I think Anissa is really happy to have found someone who understands her,” Williams said of the relationship. “She hasn’t told anyone really who she is other than her family, so to be able to open up and trust someone else and let them in on who she really is and understand them for who they are, I think it’s a match.”
And, as it happens, Grace has also proved her abilities will aid Anissa in getting out of tight scrapes, like Odell’s ill-timed visit in last week’s episode.
Jennifer, meanwhile, has acclimated to curfews, traffic stops, and the ASA’s stated mission a little too well. Bizarrely, the confines of the Occupation gave Jennifer an added sense of independence – something Odell hopes to utilize for his own ends.
“He’s counting on being able to take her humanity and use it,” McClain said. The shadowy agent has already helped her discover new powers which may indicate she is stronger than her father. Also, “[Odell’s] telling her, ‘Your father’s wrong here, your father’s methods aren’t working. You know what I’m saying? They haven’t worked for years.’”
Those sorts of poisonous words could lead to a confrontation between Jennifer and Jefferson before too long.
McClain also teased Lynn’s preoccupation with work at The Pit will become an issue for Jennifer.
But one thing she expects to be unfazed by the Occupation is the sisterly bond between Jennifer and Anissa.
“They’ve always been very close, and they’ve always loved each other, and that is going to remain the same no matter what happens,” she said.
Williams echoed the sentiment, saying, “I think we’ll always maintain that sister friendship.” But she added the Occupation will pull each of the Pierces in separate directions and “maybe [Anissa is] not telling her as much.”
“[Anissa] doesn’t know what [Jen is] doing as much with the ASA or at all even, at first,” she continued. “So that’s an interesting dynamic where at once she felt like she could talk to her about so much and vice versa, but it’s like we’re all kind of doing our own thing and doing what we think is right for Freeland.”
The separation caused by the Occupation left Adams wondering if the Pierces will ever find their way back to a more traditional family structure.
“They can put it back together,” she said. “But will we ever see them just sitting around a dinner table, eating dinner? I don’t know. Too much has changed.”
Cress Williams, a self-admitted optimist, thinks there is a way for the Pierces to bounce back and for Freeland to prosper even beyond its old normal.
“I know that we have to have conflict [on the show], obviously, but you know, somewhere way down the line when we’re doing the final episode, I hope we have left Freeland better than we found it,” he said.
He also hopes the end of the Occupation – whenever it occurs – will inspired the citizens of Freeland to clean up the streets and make the city a much better place to live.
“It’s not going to become Mayberry,” he said. “You don’t have a show if you don’t have conflict. So it’s going to take a while. It’ll be fun and messy and all that.”
Black Lightning airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.