This week’s Brief Thoughts will be a little bit different as this week’s Black Lighting was a little bit different. Instead of the continuing chronicle of Jefferson (Cress Williams) and Lynn’s (Christine Adams) disintegrating marriage, the action follows Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Grace (Chantal Thuy) as they take a honeymoon excursion to Akashic Valley. It’s a sci-fi mashup of Vancouver and Atlanta that we’re going to assume came into existence after the Crisis. It’s beautiful to look at and a pretty good place for metas to unwind (and take their honeymoon). But little does Anissa Pierce know that Khalil (Jordan Calloway) made his way their after the ASA occupation of Freeland ended.
Oh, yeah, this is how TV networks used to do backdoor pilots. For those not hip to the TV speak, a backdoor pilot is an episode of a series in which one or two members of the regular cast introduce a new premise for either a favorite supporting character or a completely new group of characters heretofore unseen. The idea is to test a TV concept while using a standing crew of another series to keep costs down. And, as we’ve know for months, the seventh episode of Black Lightning‘s final season would introduce a potential spinoff for Calloway and his tortured meta character. The result is, well, a backdoor pilot. It doesn’t exactly feel like its own thing or an episode of Black Lightning.
What it does do well is present Calloway as a lead on a CW superhero show. He takes charge immediately in both a great fight scene behind his bar and an interior conflict in his mind between Khalil and Painkiller — the alternate and murderous persona the ASA lodged in his brain to kill the Pierces. Eighteen months later, Painkiller is still locked in his mind and still driven by the kill order. The scene establishes a nice visual for the potential program’s ongoing conflict: can Khalil’s two halves find peace? Thanks to some bang-up action, a dojo representing Khalil’s mind, and Calloway’s performance, it feels like the Painkiller series can get a lot of mileage out of that question.
In fact, the episode goes as far as to establish the agreement between them to investigate a way to become whole, which is far more interesting than the two forever wrestling for dominance.
We also get to meet Khalil’s team. It wouldn’t be a CW show without them and so we are introduced to Philky (Alexander Hodge) and Cousin Donald (James Roch). They’re an interesting pair as Philky calls out the Asian tech-genius stereotype he could so easily fall into while the other offers a gentle persona which is incongruous with his appearance; absolutely welcome aspect of the character. His calm demeanor even wins over Anissa after Painkiller escapes Khalil’s mind to kill her. Of course, we only get a few scant minutes with them, but they are some the most intriguing elements of Painkiller so far. Also, we like that they are already Khalili’s team — hopefully the series, if it gets picked up, will continue from this point and avoid the “getting to know you” parts of the story. The established dynamic is too interesting to go backward now.
Of course, the limited time we spend with them means Painkiller still feels half-finished as a pilot. All three principle players — and their presumed antagonist, which we’ll get to in a moment — definitely established themselves as a group you want to spend time with. But the episode’s plot, needing to introduce them while also keeping Anissa and Grace in the story, means no one is satisfactorily served besides Khalil. To an extent, that’s okay because it is a backdoor pilot. Ideas can be massaged if the program goes to series and the characters will only get stronger if we spend thirteen episodes with them next year.
And that brings us to Maya (Sibongile Mlambo), the seeming dark heart at the core of Akashic Valley. Looking stylish throughout, she is a combination mobster and scientist. Her main aim seems to be using human minds to unlock cryptocurrencies, but as Philky kept suggesting, there is some sort of cult-like aspect to her organization. Then, of course, there is her connection to an established Black Lightning villain. Again, it’s all interesting ideas, but it plays out rough in the episode as we only get a few scenes with her which need to railroad past certain aspects of exposition. All that said, we’d love to learn more about her and whether or not the valley puts up with her as the price of of a futuristic paradise.
That would also be an interesting theme for the Painkiller series to explore.
Maybe that’s all this episode needed to do: get us interested in these characters and their conflict. We’re definitely curious, especially as Painkiller looks to be a sci-fi leaning series told by BIPOC creators. That fresh perspective gets us a new DC locale with a very different vibe even if we recognize both Vancouver (where most Arrowverse programs are shot) and Atlanta (where Black Lightning films) in the street signs and storefronts. It also gets us a solid lead character with a very different motivation from his Arrowverse contemporaries. And as we always thought Calloway as Khalil was one of Black Lightning‘s strongest elements, we’re here for Painkiller should The CW take it to series.
Black Lightning airs Mondays on The CW.