The CW’s Black Lightning has always been a show that doesn’t want you to forget how stories about super heroes and villains have the power to shed light on the pressing, real-world issues that audiences have to deal with in their every day lives. Jefferson Pierce and his family are all vigilantes who love putting on garish costumes to take on evil doers, but they’re a group of Black Americans living under the constant threat of a brutal, militarized police apparatus that has no qualms about violating their human rights.
Season three’s premiere episode, “The Book of Occupation: Chapter One: Birth of the Blackbird,” assumes that you’re familiar enough with the series that you can drop right back into the story left off: with Freeland preparing to go to war with the nation of Markovia. But the nature of said “war” is a complicated one.
There’s fighting in the streets and increased police presence throughout the city, but Freeland isn’t exactly a war zone in the traditional sense. Rather, the American Security Agency has capitalized on the fear Freeland’s residents have about the city’s population of young metahumans, who began manifesting abilities following exposure to the drug green light. Under the pretense of keeping Freeland safe from dangerous metas, the ASA’s taken to tracking down the young superhumans, locking them up in internment camps, and essentially disappearing their families—making it impossible for anyone to know the truth of what’s happening.
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) and Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams) are two of the few people with intimate knowledge of what’s happening at the ASA’s detention centers—sterile, clinical prisons where young metas are interrogated, experimented on—because they’ve chosen to remain in custody so that their daughters Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and Anissa (Nafessa Williams) can live freely.
The girls don’t quite know the exact horrors that are being hidden behind the ASA’s walls, but Anissa work as a community advocate gives her the opportunity to tour the ASA facility and she understands that the people of Freeland are being lied to about the gross misconduct happening in their own back yards. Black Lightning wants you to know how its creators feel about the Trump administration’s monstrous policy of forcibly separating children from their families before detaining them, and in the context of the show, the ASA and agent Percy Odell represent that same kind of evil.
Black Lightning continues in its tradition of making its titular hero have to live with the larger consequences of his actions by gaming out what happens to a relatively small town when its primary superhero suddenly goes missing. With Black Lightning “gone,” Freeland’s residents have yet another reason to believe that their city’s falling apart. At multiple points in the episode, you get the depressing (but narratively interesting) sense that for many people, Freeland’s recent problems with police brutality, the green light epidemic, and now the ASA’s disappearing of citizens all feel like part of one continuous story about the city’s decline.
With her father in the ASA’s clutches, Anissa takes it upon herself to pickup both Black Lightning and Thunder’s slack as the “new” superhero Blackbird, who patrols Freeland by night working to disrupt what ASA activity she can. But, super durability or no, there’s only so much that Anissa can really do on her own—especially as actual Markovian strike teams begin to find their way into the city looking for metahumans to steal and bring back to their country.
Because “The Book of Occupation: Chapter One: Birth of the Blackbird” is a season premiere, it feels like a particularly busy episode at more than a few points. That is understandable, given the amount of story that it’s trying to pack in. But what stands out about the episode are the small touches here and there that make the way Freeland’s falling into chaos feel, for lack of a better phrase, grounded in reality. Jennifer and Anissa’s parents are literally locked up in a military-run camp, but both young women find the time to go about their normal lives because they have to, even though their worlds are falling apart. You see glimpses of other character’s lives, and thought the specifics may be somewhat different, everyone’s getting by and keeping on. Because to stop and take stock of what’s unfolding around them might end up being too much for them.
Nothing’s “right” with Black Lightning’s worth right this second, because Freeland’s very much in the midst of a monumental crisis that could very well tear the city apart. But once Team Lightning’s all back together and in a position to better strategize what to do about the enemies they’re facing on multiple fronts, one hopes they’ll be able to turn the tide back in their favor until the next big Crisis throws everything out of whack once again.
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