Warning: The following contains spoilers from episode 12 of Black Lightning. Read at your own risk!
This week’s episode of Black Lightning brought a long-awaited return, one that led to an epic fight between the titular superhero and his archenemy. Over the last few weeks, Black Lightning has been expanding its world by exploring the developing superpowers of Black Lightning’s daughters and delving into Peter Gambi’s (James Remar) dark history with the manipulative government agency known as the ASA — but one particular absence has been keenly felt. Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III), Freeland’s premier drug kingpin, has been missing in action for four full episodes. The last time we saw Tobias, his planned jazz club opening was ruined by the arrival of Black Lightning (Cress Williams). The superhero blasted the crime boss to the chest with lightning, and in the resulting melee, Tobias’ sister Tori Whale (Edwina Findley) was killed. Understandably, it’s taken Tobias a little while to come back from that.
“He took a lot of losses, and he’s been going through a recalibration process,” Jones tells EW of how Tobias spent his off-screen time. “After the loss of his sister, the only person in the world he cared about, he’s trying to balance between that idea of who he is as powerhouse and succumbing to the consuming nature of revenge. Making decisions when you’re consumed by revenge ultimately results in your detriment. He’s struggling with that, especially during that opening scene in the mirror. ‘How am I gonna handle this now? I still have to maintain my position after suffering these losses.’ That’s where he’s at.”
Shortly after getting back in fighting shape, Tobias was told by ASA boss Martin Proctor (Gregg Henry) to bring Black Lightning in alive for testing. Tobias decided to go straight for the jugular, recruiting his young protege Khalil (Jordan Calloway) to mount an assault on Garfield High. Tobias still doesn’t even know that Black Lightning is secretly the school’s principal, Jefferson Pierce; he just knew that Garfield High is the heart of Freeland, and if it was attacked Freeland’s superheroes would come running. He was right, and ended up face-to-face with his rival in a hallway standoff. Unlike last time they met, Tobias was now wearing lightning-resistant clothing, forcing Black Lightning to get up close for a brutal brawl.
Although he is gifted with superhuman strength, Tobias has preferred to spend most of the season ordering lackeys around and manipulating events from behind the scenes. This fight sequence finally brought Black Lightning’s primary hero and villain together for an extended length of time.
“Cress and I haven’t had a lot of scenes together, we’ve been on opposite sides of the wall,” Jones says. “When we have met it’s been really quick, like the second he blasted me I was out of there. With this one, there was a lot of training involved, and we had to get really close and personal. I wanted to come to the fight overly prepared, because I knew he was going to do the same, and we could have time to work this out. We were actually talking about it over the weekend, how it’s interesting we didn’t really use doubles in this fight. Him and I have such a closeness, representing two perspectives on the show. To come together in the moment and create that magic, it was tiring. That scene was really intense for everybody — me, Cress, Jordan Calloway. We were in that school for 14 or 15 hours shooting every intricate detail of that scene. Physically it was traumatic, especially for the guy with the big suit on. I’m just hoping it came off great and people enjoy it. It was one of our bigger scenes we’ve done, but they have even bigger scenes happening next week, so worry not.”
One factor in the intensity of the scene is that it begins with Khalil’s solo assault on his old school. The imagery of this alienated student walking through his high school in an all-black outfit committing violence — ripping doors of hinges, shooting his former classmates with darts, causing fear and chaos — is somewhat reminiscent of school shootings. Throughout its first season, Black Lightning has been unafraid to make both implicit and explicit comparisons with real history and current events. As Jones points out, the existence of superpowers removes the world of the show from our own, but there are still lessons to be gleaned from the characters’ actions.
“That association is to be expected, because we are in a time where that’s something we hear a lot about,” Jones says. “Having Khalil walking through the school shooting darts, it definitely lends itself to remind you of some of the happenings we’ve been faced with in that environment. But it’s different in the sense that it is make-believe and it’s supernatural. Black Lightning is there because he’s protecting the school. That’s why he’s there. I would hope that when people see this show, they take upon themselves the responsibility we have to face adversity and things that are trying to come and destroy us, and band together. I think that’s what that scene represents.”
In the end, Black Lightning isn’t even the one who saves the day. The epic fight at Garfield results in Black Lightning’s death — but thanks to someone who’s a better healer than a fighter, it’s only temporary. Viewers have seen Jennifer Pierce (China Anne McClain) horrified at her burgeoning superpowers, but here she’s able to use them to resuscitate her father.
The episode ends with Black Lightning and Tobias back on opposite sides of the chessboard, licking their wounds and preparing for next week’s finale. Jones teases that the season finale will represent “a huge payoff” for viewers, but also says we may not have seen the last of Tobias dealing with his sister’s death.
“I think in years to come, with the character of Tobias Whale on Black Lightning, you might see the issues he’s having about that loss explored more,” Jones says. “Even though this episode was mostly about Tobias, it was still his return and it has to be maniacal because he’s a maniac. At the same time, loss is something you deal with for a time to come. It keeps coming back and rearing its head. That was only the beginning of his rampage regarding Tori Whale.”
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.