SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” the season one finale of “Black Lightning.”
When sitting down to craft the first season finale of his CW superhero drama “Black Lightning,” Salim Akil didn’t have to look farther than a specific issue of the comic. He even keeps a signed and framed copy in his office of Tony Isabella’s “Black Lightning Volume 2. Issue 5,” entitled “Requiem.”
“In the comic, you’ll notice that Black Lightning is in the hospital, on his deathbed, basically, and he started ruminating about his past in flashbacks in the comic. And so that structure was really what captured me,” Akil tells Variety. “It really did allow me to go back in time with him as a kid and deal with his father’s death and then allow him to actually take the stairway to heaven to go see his father and have a conversation that I thought was needed for Jefferson to at least start on the road of healing.”
The penultimate episode of “Black Lightning” saw the newly weaponized Khalil (Jordan Calloway) actually take down the titular hero, but when the youngest Pierce family member Jennifer (China Anne McClain) saw her father lying dead on the floor, she was so overcome with stressful emotions her powers erupted and ultimately shocked him back to life — but he remained unconscious.
Eventually in the season finale, entitled “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” Jefferson (Cress Williams) woke up — but without his powers. His family then had to rally around him to take down Proctor (Gregg Henry) and reveal that the so-called conspiracy theory around the missing kids was actually very real.
Here, Akil tells Variety about the importance of seeing Jefferson’s origin story, why Gambi (James Remar) had to be the one to take down Proctor, and what’s next for the Pierce family now that they’re fighting as a unit.
Why was it important to show Jefferson’s powers come out when he was running from and then caught by cops, as opposed to other moments of high emotion in his life like when he watched his father get beaten in his own home?
I never wanted it [to be] then because him being under the bed was an experience that I had with the violence in my house. And so I never wanted him to exhibit it there. I just wanted him to be a child — a child who was witnessing something that would shape him for the rest of his life. I don’t know why [but] I’d always seen that moment from the beginning of the season of him running. [He was] running in chaos and discovering this power that he had and didn’t truly understand even until some years later. That was just a moment when it popped out of emotion and [I wanted to connect] that to Jennifer. Because her powers manifest out of stress, so I wanted to connect those two in that way.
Watching young Jefferson run from the cops — although they had their batons out, rather than guns — seemed to shine the light further on how there is still so much work left to be done for progress.
You can look around and you say to yourself, “Wow, some things have gotten better but some things haven’t changed.” It seems like we’re on a loop. Just the other day these young men get arrested in Starbucks just for sitting there, and it reminds me of in the ’60s when people were getting arrested for sitting at a lunch counter. It’s a different context — it’s different reasons, I guess — but I think it’s the same thing with the show. I’ve always wanted to just have a conversation with the audience, and I’m glad they were willing to have the conversation with us. Let’s explore these things. It really has not changed a lot, but some things have gotten better, and we tried to show [those] things, but we try to point out the things that seem to be on a loop [too].
Why did you want Jennifer to give her father his powers back, rather than just have her go out and fight when he couldn’t?
I didn’t want her to become this full-fledged superhero right from the beginning because she’s still a child, and he or [Lynn] or Gambi or Anissa wouldn’t want her to go out there not understanding her powers.
Jefferson was also willing to go out and fight without his powers. Did you ever consider actually letting us see what that would look like?
There was some discussion about Jefferson not getting his powers back — that he would go out there and sort of fight the best he could. But I felt, at the end of the day, I didn’t want to try to carry that over into the next season. I wanted them all to be strong so there would be some sort of wish fulfillment. I think people really like the family, so I think the idea was of them all alive and fully ready to walk into the second season with baggage but with their powers also.
There was a really strong theme of the family affair — of the Pierces being all-in and all in this fight together now. Going forward will they be able to work easily as a unit?
In certain situations. I think one of the things I really enjoyed was exploring the different personalities. I don’t think that Jennifer has fully accepted her powers. I think that she used them in the concept of war and heightened emotional situations, but I’m still not convinced that she is accepting of her powers. I think what we’ll have to grapple with in the second season is everybody’s point of view of how they move forward. I’ll take Lynn for instance — Lynn shot someone. She’s a doctor. And although she did it in a situation of self-defense, she still shot someone, and how does that affect [her] emotionally? I really want to address that because I don’t think you can shoot someone and not feel it in some shape, form, or fashion. Of course the reasoning is, “I shot someone because they would have shot me” — but that’s the same reasoning Jefferson’s been giving her all of these years, “I’ve got to go out there and protect the people.” So I think it will be interesting to explore that with Lynn. And then she has two daughters now with powers, and she knows what powers look like — she’s experienced the positive and she’s experienced the negative. So when you have children who are going to go out and try to live this life, that is a major cause for concern. It’s like if your daughter said, “Hey, I’m going to join the military and fight ISIS” — it’s a heroic endeavor, but it doesn’t end well for most folks.
Speaking of the shootings, why did Gambi have to be the one to kill Proctor?
In that situation, Proctor says to Black Lightning, “I knew it was you,” and Black Lightning says, “That’s going to be a problem.” And that [identification] was going to be a problem. And Gambi says, “I’m a monster” and in a way we hadn’t really seen that side of Gambi — this cold-blooded, “I know how to handle a problem and this is the only way to handle the problem” [guy]. Gambi, in previous episodes, has said, “The reason they don’t know how to deal with your powers is because you’ve never killed anyone,” so in that regard, I think Gambi being his father-figure just wouldn’t want him to pull that trigger. And with the whole family being there, I don’t think it would have been wise to have Black Lightning kill him in front of his family.
Do you feel it also would take the show in a very different direction if one of the Pierces pulled the trigger instead?
Yeah, it would have — it really would have. And it’s not that we don’t want Black Lightning to kill someone, it’s just that we want to do it in a way that we can all have a conversation about it. If we ever do that, it’s a choice — it’s a real choice.
Lala (Will Catlett) was resurrected this season but Lady Eve (Jill Scott) was not. What is the line you want to walk with the very real, grounded issues you’re addressing and those more surreal elements in order to keep the stakes high?
Here’s what we don’t want to do: we don’t want to just start bringing people back because everybody liked that character. One of the things I’ve always said is, “I hope you really enjoy the character because I will kill them at any moment!” I don’t know if Lady Eve is coming back or not, but what I will say is the time we spent with her we really enjoyed it — or at least I did — so can we just let that meal go and find another meal to chomp on? The line, I guess, is if it feels as real as possible then we can do it, but if it just feels like we did it, for lack of a better term, willy-nilly, I’m not interested in that. It would have to be a really convincing storyline to be able to bring her back — or to bring anybody back. I felt like bringing Lala back was a good thing in the sense that Tobias wanted to use him for a certain purpose.
Speaking of Tobias (Marvin Jones III), is he ultimately who you see as the big bad going forward?
He is our villain, but there are always going to be people who threaten to upset the apple cart. We’re always going to have a situation where you do not get comfortable with anyone. And that’s the one thing I want the second season to be: uncomfortable for everyone involved — emotionally and spiritually and just from the aspect of something always keeping you on the edge of your seat and not being allowed to say, “Oh I know Tobias, and I know how he’s going to do this or that.” I want to be unpredictable.
What can you tease about how bad things will be now that Tobias is in possession of that briefcase?
What’s in that briefcase is horrible — but empowering to Tobias. What’s in it is just completely horrible and distasteful — but that being said, what’s horrible and distasteful to us is just lovingly beautiful to Tobias. There’s power in that briefcase — and a type of power that he’s never had.
Do you plan to pick the second season up in the immediate aftermath of the finale, or is a time jump to be expected?
Honestly I’m not sure yet. There are some things that we want to explore that may mean we have to pick it up in real time, but what I don’t want to do is repeat things that we’ve already done, and that’s a challenge.
Do you anticipate further getting to know Jefferson’s father (Keith Arthur Bolden) in other flashbacks?
We’ll still do flashbacks. I enjoy them, and in terms of that comic that inspired me, it’s a big part. The other thing I want to see is Jefferson’s mom, so that will be interesting [because] I have some ideas for that. So yes, we’ll definitely use more flashbacks.
What are your plans for the superhero suits next season? Will Jennifer get one and are there plans to alter Jefferson’s or Anissa’s (Nafessa Williams)?
Jennifer will get her suit in the second season. There will be some modifications [to the others] but they’ll stay pretty consistent until I get bored. I’m sure [designer] Laura Jean [Shannon] will have something to pitch to me! She’s always working, so I say it now that things won’t change, but Laura Jean is so good at what she does she always has something up her sleeve.