NOTE: Some spoilers from throughout the fourth and final season of, “Black Lightning” are present in this review
Another of the Arrowverse’s DC dramas is officially hanging up its metaphorical tights. Black Lightning unexpectedly became the second Arrowverse series to be retired by The CW, following an announcement suddenly coming out last November, almost a year out from the show’s previous renewal during the pre-COVID-19 era, that the formerly standalone DC superhero series would be coming to an end after its then-upcoming fourth season. Speculation from pundits and insiders blamed everything from low ratings to the show’s insistence on filming in Georgia (unlike the majority of CW programming, which is filmed in Vancouver) to the sudden departure of one of the series’ lead actors, China Anne McClain. It could very well be a combination of all these things as well. Regardless, it was painfully clear that something had gone terribly wrong with Black Lightning during The CW’s struggles with COVID-19-related shutdowns, and it very likely killed the show. The fact that almost no episode promos were produced for its final season, and barely any press images appeared to be made available for the majority of the final season’s episodes, would seem to further indicate that The CW wanted to wash their hands of Black Lightning as quickly as possible.
We could estimate and speculate all day as to what could have contributed to Black Lightning’s rather, ahem, shocking demise, even considering its low ratings and rather pitiful international distribution model (the latter potentially also contributing to the series’ death), but the real question is, does the series at least go out on a high note? Unfortunately, no, not really. As much as some inner turmoil at The CW or with the cast no doubt contributed to Black Lightning’s relatively quick conclusion (by CW standards anyway), it’s also very apparent that the series simply had no good story ideas left for its heroes anymore. After the rather ambitious third season of Black Lightning pitted Jefferson Pierce and his family against all-powerful OG metahuman, Gravedigger, left all of Freeland temporarily occupied due to a war between the now-defunct ASA and the nation of Markovia, finally folded Black Lightning’s world into the larger Arrowverse following the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, and even went on to form the basis for fan-favourite DC superhero team, the Outsiders, it was evident that the series had gone as far as it could go. Nothing could hope to top the scale of these Season 3 conflicts, and no enemy to the Black Lightning family could ever prove quite as dramatic or dangerous to face as Gravedigger, the ASA or Markovia in the case of The CW’s shared DC TV Universe.
This left the Pierce family frequently meandering and directionless throughout Black Lightning’s final 13 episodes, wasting time on petty slights and hyper-emotional drudgery, while the admittedly still-appealing villains gobbled up all of the best narrative hooks. Restoring arch-villain, Tobias Whale to power certainly allowed him to spearhead a vicious, citywide campaign against both sides of the eponymous hero’s identity during Black Lightning’s final season, after Tobias came to learn just who was under his bitter nemesis’ goggles at the end of the previous season. Likewise, Lala once again found himself ascending to an exciting, morally complex station, as he struggled to rally the remains of The 100 in a violent gang war against Lady Eve’s criminal outfit, the Kobra Cartel, now being overseen by Lady Eve’s underboss, Destiny. The 100/Kobra gang war raging throughout Freeland got frustratingly little focus throughout Black Lightning’s final episodes, but it does at least have the benefit of ensuring that Freeland’s next generation of superheroes continue to have foes to battle against, contrary to Arrow’s rather shaky final solution of disbanding Team Arrow because Oliver Queen’s death somehow leads to Star City having no criminals whatsoever for decades.
The one heroic character that actually did get a consistently good story arc during Black Lightning’s final season was Khalil, who didn’t even appear until over halfway through it. Following the events of Season 3, Khalil went on to live in self-imposed exile within another fictional city made up for the Arrowverse, Akashic Valley, where he tries to unite himself with his dark side, the ASA-created Painkiller personality, as a Venom-esque anti-hero. After Anissa and Grace get married, and take a brief trip to Akashic Valley as a sort of honeymoon, they re-encounter Khalil, which allows Khalil to have a link back to Freeland, even if his lingering kill order means he can’t have direct contact with the Pierce family. Khalil opting to erase his memory of the Pierce’s, including his great love, Jennifer, during Black Lightning’s series finale also felt effectively bittersweet, even if this was meant to serve as the basis of a planned Painkiller spin-off series that The CW ultimately didn’t pick up. No surprise there, considering how little regard the network seemed to have for Black Lightning in general at this point.
Oh, and speaking of Jennifer, her final season arc had a major wrench thrown in it, after Jennifer’s actress, China Anne McClain suddenly announced that she was leaving Black Lightning’s cast, barely a few weeks before The CW suddenly announced that the series would be ending after its fourth season. McClain’s departure was supposedly at least partially motivated by a career pivot resulting from COVID-19 challenges (something that supposedly also contributed to Ruby Rose exiting the lead role of sibling Arrowverse series, Batwoman), but regardless of why it happened, it put the show in quite a bind. After all, considering that Black Lightning is a very family-themed DC superhero series, having to drop Jennifer would irrevocably cripple the show’s storytelling. Thus, Black Lightning’s final season contrived a thoroughly weird, but generally functional solution, at least by DC Universe standards; McClain would be temporarily replaced by another actress throughout most of Black Lightning’s final season, due to Jennifer’s DNA being fundamentally altered by an energy reaction in the Ionosphere. Yes, Jennifer effectively ‘regenerated’, Doctor Who-style, or so it initially appeared.
First-time actress, Laura Kariuki ended up taking McClain’s role for most of Black Lightning’s final episodes, a role that she fit into quite well, easily settling into the series’ core family dynamic. In fact, Kariuki settles into the Pierce family dynamic so well that the last-second reveal that she was actually an undercover villain the whole time during the series finale, a physical manifestation of the Ionosphere that envied Jennifer’s physical life and wanted to steal it (because DC and CW), feels completely unearned and irritating. This was likely a way to ensure that McClain could return to the role of Jennifer in future Arrowverse projects, an option that’s now available thanks to the formerly standalone Black Lightning universe being merged into the Arrowverse’s new Earth-Prime setting after Crisis on Infinite Earths. I suppose it’s also true that Kariuki landed on her feet anyway, despite her brief stint as the Arrowverse’s ‘new’ Jennifer Pierce effectively being her acting debut, since she recently secured a lead role in ABC’s promising-looking reboot of classic sitcom, The Wonder Years. Still, it’s tough not to feel that Kariuki was done a bit dirty here. There was no true buildup whatsoever to Kariuki’s Ionosphere villain having ill intentions, and nor did she ever present any real danger to the Pierce family, or anyone else, at least beyond the ‘old’ Jennifer, whose character didn’t feel like she had anywhere else to go anyway.
That problem is frustratingly prevalent between all of Black Lightning’s heroes during this final season in fact. Despite the previous three seasons of Black Lightning presenting harsh stakes, layered social justice commentary, and morally complex family drama, Black Lightning’s final season felt like it suddenly had nothing meaningful to explore with the Pierce family. Their faithful ally, Peter Gambi at least got a semi-interesting arc when he’s forced to infiltrate his former flame’s company, Monovista International, but this doesn’t end up leading anywhere meaningful for his character, beyond a perfunctory retirement in the series finale. Likewise, while it’s good to see Jefferson and Lynn finally agreeing to get re-married, following a lengthy stint in couples’ counseling (something they’re heavily overdue for at the rate they’ve been going!), neither of them had anything meaningful to do throughout Black Lightning’s final episodes either, except mope, yell at each other, and get thoroughly dominated by Tobias Whale, whose own complex villain agenda completely stole this entire season and ran with it.
Even as Black Lightning’s conclusion nonetheless ensures that the series’ core characters can still have some sort of future via guest appearances in other Arrowverse projects, the series’ final season never nailed down anything beyond bare minimum developments for them. Anissa and Grace finally got married, but that was inevitable. Jefferson eventually confronts Tobias and kills him in the series finale, but that was also inevitable. Even Tobias taking out the long-teased Shadow Board, a faction of original villains that were clearly set up to be antagonists in a fifth season that won’t be happening, is thankless and dull. There’s just nothing to dig into here, because any characters introduced, relationships developed, or conflicts overcome often feel perfunctory and unrewarding. That’s before considering the ridiculous amount of time that the Pierce family spends refusing to use their powers throughout this final season as well, a clear indication that Black Lightning’s final season budget was slashed to ribbons by The CW. This frustratingly forces the show to keep inventing lame excuses as to why its superheroes can’t function like superheroes. Hell, the Black Lightning family even spend most of the show’s final few episodes without their powers entirely, thanks to Tobias contriving convenient power-dampening technology from both Lynn’s lab and Monovista’s anti-metahuman tech!
Even some attempts to bring the show’s conflicts full circle, such as Jefferson finally making peace with the ghost of his dead father during the series finale, or one of the show’s most powerful legacy metahumans, Looker somehow being hired by Tobias to manipulate a frame job against the Pierce family (Looker’s return is another great hook that gets frustratingly little focus in the end), don’t quite work, because they feel contrived out of nowhere. All of this is symptomatic of the fact that Black Lightning probably ran for one season too long, or at the very least, a few episodes too long. The series’ final season impotently tries to stretch maybe five or six episodes’ worth of climactic material into a grueling thirteen episodes, and it just doesn’t work.
This is merely the latest problem with Black Lightning ultimately winding up on The CW to begin with, a network that never really felt like an ideal home for it. Not even this final season manages to build any meaningful connections to the rest of the Arrowverse (beyond some token mentions of characters and locations on The Flash, Arrow or Batwoman), and while it’s nice that the Black Lightning characters now being part of the Arrowverse means that they could be brought back in another of The CW’s DC dramas someday, it was nonetheless always evident that The CW’s lengthy seasons and FCC mandates hamstrung the series in too many places. Black Lightning was sadly doomed to run out of gas after just a few seasons on The CW. It clearly needed a true TV-MA rating in order to go all out with its formerly mature direction and starkly grounded stakes, plus it would have been better able to flex a meatier budget and sense of pacing on a streaming platform like HBO Max, where Black Lightning also could have confidently stood alone within its own self-contained universe.
Considering that FOX, the originally planned home for Black Lightning, almost killed the series in the crib when they passed on it though (in fairness, Black Lightning probably would have died even faster if it had been successfully picked up at FOX), I guess four seasons on The CW is better than none at all. Even so, Black Lightning feels like one of several modern DC shows, and Arrowverse shows, that felt like it deserved better, even before its thankless conclusion. Black Lightning’s final season too often felt tired and contrived, and that was made worse by the series’ microscopic final season budget. The CW tightening the series’ funds to barely-existent levels constantly left the Black Lightning family in situations where they couldn’t or wouldn’t use their powers, while the villains completely stole the show. Even Black Lightning’s foundational family drama and social justice commentary barely felt present at best, or became outright juvenile at worst, something that feels especially insufferable when you consider that most of Black Lightning’s core leads are in their late 40’s to late 60’s!
I’m a little sad to see Black Lightning go, because it was definitely one of The CW’s more ambitious DC dramas, at least when it started out. I am nonetheless aware that the series clearly needed to be put out of its misery though. It’s become a shadow of what it was during its especially standout first season, and its run likely should have ended after Season 3. At least Black Lightning’s characters can potentially live on in some other form during the Arrowverse’s future, but if anything, being forcibly sandwiched into The CW’s increasingly counter-productive network production mandates is probably part of what killed the series’ potential in the end. Like I said, Black Lightning deserved better, but I will nonetheless be thankful for the good ideas that it still managed to have during its run, and the further steps it took to continue building a foundation for proper Black representation in superhero media.
Black Lightning's blatantly compromised final season presents an awkward, unfulfilling conclusion for the Pierce family's saga in the Arrowverse, even if Tobias Whale and several of his fellow villains still manage to shine.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Tobias Whale returning to his full villain potential
Khalil's fashionably late anti-hero arc
Jefferson passing the superhero torch as Freeland's threats endure
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
The Pierce family has nothing meaningful to do for most of the season
Making Laura Kariuki's Jennifer a villain is ultimately unnecessary
Blatantly slashed budget heavily compromises the special effects and superhero material