Supergirl 3×13: “Both Sides Now”, The Flash 4×13: “True Colors”, Black Lightning 1×04: “Black Jesus”, and Arrow 6×13: “The Devil’s Greatest Trick”
Buildup and payoff. Those are the core pillars that serialized television is built on. Each week we’re promised that the events we’re watching will build to a satisfying conclusion in the weeks ahead. That’s what makes this model of storytelling so addictive. It’s also what makes it so hard to review.
In the best series out there, both the buildup and the payoff will be enthralling in their own right. But quite often, a story that initially seems exciting and intriguing can end up with a lackluster resolution (or no resolution at all), which can cast a taint on what came before. Conversely, an episode that’s dull or confusing can end up being a necessary step on the road to an amazing climax.
Because of this, reviewing a serialized TV show as it airs often involves a bit of prognostication, tempering one’s opinion of the episode at hand with an effort to predict where the story might be going and whether this installment will ultimately prove worthwhile. That’s something I thought about a lot with regards to this week’s Arrowverse shows.
Let’s start with Black Lightning. We’re now four episodes into a 13 episode season, and the pace is beginning to seem sluggish. We are thankfully past the point where Jefferson needs to debate with himself or others whether he should be Black Lightning again, and he’s now fighting criminals and rescuing people without his daughters’ lives being in jeopardy. But while that marks some forward progress, it still feels like not too much of interest actually happened this episode.
Part of that’s due to the relative lack of Biff!-Pow! superhero action. There were technically quite a few action scenes this episode, but they were all so short, and so one-sided to the benefit of our heroes, that there was barely a chance for any adrenaline to build up. Other than the motel battle from the series premiere, Black Lightning has been so lacking in big action set pieces, I’m not sure whether the showrunners are deliberately making the fight scenes quick and simple in order to keep things grounded, or if they’re suffering from a lower budget than the other CW superhero shows. The fact that Anissa taking down some pricks in a parking lot happens almost entirely off-screen, with her most overt display of superstrength (stomping her foot so hard the ground shakes) only being glimpsed via security camera footage, makes me think the latter might be the case.
Even if the action scenes were all amazing standouts, though, the story they’re being used to tell still wouldn’t be all that enthralling. A new, highly addictive drug hitting the streets, prompting our hero to hunt down the drug’s source, is a well-worn story, both within the superhero genre and without. And Jefferson’s method of investigation (beat up/intimidate drug dealers for information, repeat as needed) doesn’t allow for much in the way of twists and turns. What’s more, once he tracks down where the drug, Green Light, is coming into Freeland, he’s drawn away by what he thinks are explosions, and the expected showdown never comes.
When he’s not dealing with all this exciting, crime-busting action, Jefferson is also embroiled in the wild world of school administration. I don’t want to sound heartless here. A principal (particularly one as goodhearted and committed to helping his students as Jefferson) having to cede much of his authority over student discipline to a not-so-caring school board is a very real concern that can have a tremendous impact on students’ futures. But unless you’ve got crackerjack dialogue, watching people discuss administrative policy reform is just not very interesting. The dialogue here is good, but it ain’t that good.
The emotional center of both these stories is a student named Bernard, who ODs on Green Light at school, prompting the school board to want him expelled. Bernard represents all the young people of Freeland that Jefferson wants to protect, whether by fighting crime as Black Lightning or defending their right to an education as their principal. We care about whether Jefferson succeeds here because Bernard’s future, and the future of many more kids just like him, hang in the balance.
Trouble is, we never get to develop an attachment to Bernard. He’s in precisely three scenes this episode. In one of them, he’s hulked out on Green Light and barely able to talk. In another, he’s passed out from taking more Green Light, so also unable to speak. And in the one scene where he is allowed to speak, most of the dialogue goes to the adults in the room, while Bernard mainly provides exposition that will fuel Jefferson’s investigation. If the show wants us to care about Jefferson fighting drug dealers, and especially if it wants us to care about the intricacies of school policy, it can’t depend on us being emotionally invested in a guy who’s more prop than character.
Meanwhile, in sub-plot land, we’ve got Jennifer’s boyfriend Khalil struggling with his physical therapy and the news that he’ll never walk again. Good drama has been made out of this stuff before, but Khalil is such a tertiary character, and we see so little emotion from him, that it’s hard to care too much.
Tobias Whale is still around, now plotting Black Lightning’s demise, but we don’t see any action from him on that front until the episode’s end, when he decides to corrupt Khalil into blaming Black Lightning for his paralysis, step one of a plan to turn the community against its hero. While making the hero hated by the public is a plot that can, on occasion, work well, this effort feels so flimsy and half-assed that it lacks any real menace.
Even the family drama, which was so engrossing in the last three episodes, is weak and barely present here. All we really get is that Jennifer wants to quit the track team to spend more time with Khalil, her parents are unhappy but respectful, and they make her agree to give it a couple days before making a final decision. That’s frickin’ it.
The one really strong storyline this episode is Anissa continuing to explore her new superpowers. Here we see her taking her first active step towards superherodom, attacking a pair of drug dealers she’d earlier seen selling to her students . . . and being more than a little shook when she sees them lying on the ground, barely breathing. The bit where she hesitates, then checks their pulses, then hesitates again before calling 911, is wonderfully real. While not the first fight we’ve seen her in, it’s the first time she’s gone looking for a fight, committed violence as a pre-meditated act, and the fact that this troubles her is a very human moment that most superhero stories wouldn’t think to include.
But when she defends Grace from some attackers later in the episode, we see righteous fury bubbling up in her again. And when she tends to an injured Grace, looking for validation that what she did was right, that she should continue doing it, you can tell she’s making the decision, in this moment, to become a superhero. Nothing has to be said about it, but the moment is clearly there, and it works beautifully.
Sadly, Anissa’s story continues to be a slow burn, and most of the episode is dedicated to those less interesting plots I discussed above.
But remember: buildup and payoff. While this episode didn’t hold much of interest, many of the things it established could prove to be the building blocks for much better stories later on. It’s easy to see Green Light becoming a major plot point this season, especially with the large organization we glimpse bringing it into Freeland. Jefferson’s decision to abdicate some of his authority to the school board could very well come back to bite him, with a student more interesting than Bernard at stake. And while Tobias’s plan to turn Khalil into an anti-Black Lightning crusader seems like a poor idea now, it’s possible the writers will actually take it in a good direction. Even Jennifer’s decision to quit track could prove important . . . though I’m kinda doubting that last one.
Black Lightning is a new enough series, and its first three episodes were solid enough, that I’m willing to have faith that this is all heading somewhere.
While Black Lightning had a lot of dull buildup this week, Arrow seemed in a terrible rush to pay off its current storyline and move immediately into building up its next.
There is just so much happening this episode, and only some of it in the fun, just-how-much-crazy-stuff-can-they-throw-at-us? way that you might get from, say, Legends of Tomorrow. In the course of one episode, Team Arrow needs to convince Cayden James he was wrong to blame Oliver for his son’s death, round up the rest of Cayden’s posse so he can figure out which of them was really behind it, lose all of the posse in a big, violent brouhaha, and convince Cayden to abandon vengeance all together, all with a city-destroying bomb only four hours away from going off.
Add in Quentin and Dinah fighting over whether to kill or try to redeem Laurel, Cayden James having flashbacks to his son, William rushing into danger so Oliver can get a bonding moment with him, and the least likely member of Cayden’s posse revealing himself as the real mastermind and killing Cayden in police custody . . . it’s all a little too much for the episode to handle. There’s no time for anything to develop much dramatic weight when it has to be rushed through as quickly as possible. It’s telling that the Flash had to make a split-second cameo just to explain how our heroes could get across the city fast enough to make all this happen.
The emotional journey Cayden James goes on, both in the flashbacks and in the present day, had the potential to be a great tragic villain story. Michael Emerson certainly gives it his all, delivering an absolutely standout performance, but he has to relay so much information and make so many emotional pivots so quickly, it never quite feels natural or earned.
Everyone else has the opposite problem: there’s such an overabundance of characters, all with so much going on, that we only get to touch briefly on each of their character arcs, with the promise that we’ll get more in-depth on all that later.
And there we are coming back to buildup and payoff again.
Ricardo Diaz (a.k.a. Dragon) has been by far the least developed of the main villains this season. With no special skills, connection to the main characters, or even any noteworthy personality traits, he seemed like he was just there to make Cayden’s organization seem larger. Revealing that he was the one who manipulated Cayden into this insane vendetta, as part of a complex plan to seize control of the city, is certainly a surprise, and the scene where he explains this to Cayden finally gives the character a sense of charisma and menace. But after we’ve just seen a villain as hyped up and brilliantly acted as Cayden James get a dissatisfying finish, it’s hard to have faith that this guy, who’s seemed like little more than a hired goon until now, will fare better.
As for our main cast, most of them end the episode without much about them being changed or revealed, since, as I said, there was just not much time for any of that. The one exception is Laurel and Quentin, with the former displaying the most depth and hidden potential she has to date, while the latter takes his overly-protective/controlling-father instincts to the next level by kidnapping Laurel to try and force a redemption arc on her.
That story has promise, but it’s not too immediately enthralling, since we’ve seen Laurel captured by the heroes before (earlier in this very episode, in fact), and it’s unclear whether this is supposed to represent Quentin going off the deep end, or if we’re supposed to take his forced redemption of Laurel as good, with the only problem being that he’s apparently (ugh!) keeping it a secret from the team.
The Flash, meanwhile, delivered an episode I quite liked, but still left me with similar concerns about the story going forward.
This episode marks the conclusion to the Barry-in-prison storyline, so it’s fitting that it centers around a prison break. Seeing Barry and some of his villains break out of prison this week was, like Supergirl and some of her villains breaking into prison a couple weeks back, a bit of a wasted opportunity. Barry MacGyvering his way out of his cell was pretty neat; we haven’t seen science nerd Barry in a long while. But once he and the other inmates are out of their cells, their big escape attempt is little more than just walking down a sewer tunnel till they get to an exit.
Still, despite these villains each appearing in only one episode before, they all have well-defined personalities, and seeing them bounce off of each other and Barry is a lot of fun and yields quite a few funny lines. Their breakout attempt is also motivated by the crooked warden planning to sell them to metahuman slave trader Amunet Black, who I think I’ve mentioned that I adore. Between her, the collection of rogues Barry’s teamed up with, a wonderfully smug Warden Wolfe, and the DeVoes (who we’ll talk more about later) this episode was a smorgasbord of delightful villains.
There’s also a lot of fun stuff going on outside the prison. Barry being locked up these last few episodes has given other characters some room to shine, most prominently Ralph Dibney. His character arc this episode may have the simplicity and lack-of-subtlety of a kid’s cartoon show, but it leads to a lot of hilarious moments. They even find some new spins on the patented Flash pep talks, with the characters becoming shockingly self-aware about the whole thing (“We just need to talk this out. Let’s go visit with Dr. Hallway.”)
But the absolute best moment for our dear Ralph was him getting Barry out of prison. Despite his new shapeshifting powers being established early in the episode, I did not predict he’d show up in court disguised as Clifford DeVoe and go all “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. And apparently the DeVoes didn’t see this coming either, because the shock on Marlize’s face was priceless. It’s a ridiculous moment, and you can poke plenty of logistical holes in it, but it’s exactly the right kind of ridiculous for this show. I laughed out loud when it happened, but I also kind of wanted to cheer. Our heroes have spent the whole season up till now dancing on the Thinker’s strings, so seeing them finally score a victory over him by doing something audacious and unexpected was a major fist-pumping moment.
And that brings us back around to the DeVoes. So far they have been the most interesting villains The Flash has given us since the Reverse Flash in Season 1, partly because of how they’ve challenged Team Flash in unique ways, and partly because, despite their diabolical machinations, they’ve shown genuine love and devotion to each other and a belief that what they’re doing is necessary for the greater good. This episode starts to change all that, creating a rift in the DeVoe marriage, giving the Thinker an arsenal of powers that will let him be a physical challenge to the Flash, and having him become a darker and more outright evil character. Yet this potentially makes them even more interesting than they were before.
As Marlize starts to have doubts about Clifford (both about the reliability of his superhuman intellect and about some of his unnecessarily violent actions), we see that, if the DeVoes ever were equal partners as they claimed, that equality has fallen apart as Clifford has acquired more power for himself. Clifford sees nothing wrong with his abilities or his actions, and has no compunctions about reading his wife’s thoughts to make sure she feels the same way. Marlize has begun to fear her own husband, constantly humming the same tune in her head over and over to try and keep him out of her mind, and their scenes together now carry an undercurrent of simmering menace.
That reaches its peak at the end of episode, when Clifford, frustrated by his wife’s increasing doubts, spikes her drink with the tears of the Weeper, inducing a euphoric high and erasing all her worries. The Thinker has always been an interesting villain, but this moment, dancing happily with the once-loving wife he’s now drugged to be as happy as he is, is the first time I’ve found him a truly frightening villain.
He also becomes a far more powerful villain this episode, stealing the bodies, one by one, of the bus metas locked up at Iron Heights, finally landing in the body of Becky Sharpe, but with all the powers of the metahumans he’d claimed before. Until now, the Thinker has been a threat because of how he’s planned for everything, despite being physically no match for Barry or any member of Team Flash. Seeing him gain an array of powers that make him possibly the most powerful foe they’ve ever faced (plus or minus a Music Meister) on the heels of becoming a much darker villain, has great potential for the episodes ahead.
But for all that I’ve enjoyed this episode, and can see the events here leading to great payoff down the road, I can also see how the payoff to these events could go wrong. Ralph impersonating Clifford DeVoe to get Barry released from prison was a great moment, but if there are no further consequences from Barry’s time in prison, then it will seem like kind of an anti-climax, and Barry’s prison stint as a bit of a pointless plot detour. The Thinker becoming more powerful and more menacing could make him an even better villain than before, but if poorly handled, could make him more generic, robbing him and his wife of what made them appealing in the first place. I’m hoping these plotlines are handled well in upcoming episodes, and this season of The Flash has been enough of a turnaround from the last two that I do feel optimistic, but that doubt is still there.
Finally, Supergirl. In keeping with our buildup and payoff theme, this episode was mostly buildup meant to further the season’s story arc, with the episodic plot being barely there and not that interesting. But unlike with Black Lightning, much of this buildup was compelling enough in its own right to make for an overall entertaining episode.
A lot of the credit for that goes to our new World Killer, Purity, and especially her actor, Krys Marshall. The captured villain taunting our heroes until they make a big, violent escape in Act 3 is a well-trodden story, but she makes it work. She oozes arrogance and menace as Purity, her threats never feeling like empty bluster despite the cage she’s locked in. And when Kara confronts her with a photo of her human persona, Julia Freeman, and of Julia’s closest friend, she lets just enough humanity slip into her voice and expression to let us know that this does mean something to her, without ever feeling like Purity has lost control.
I really wish much more time had been spent on Purity and Julia this episode, because seeing Kara and Alex talk about Purity and how to handle her ended up being the episode’s weakest part. Once the Worldkiller has been captured, Alex sees her as nothing but a monster that needs to be treated with the utmost harshness, while Kara, having gotten a glimpse of Purity as Julia, wants to reach out to the humanity in her. This could have made for a good conflict between the sisters, but because we’ve already seen how Worldkiller split personalities work with Sam and Reign, and because Supergirl is a show where idealism always wins out over cynicism, we know from the beginning that Kara’s approach is right and Alex’s is wrong.
What’s more, it turns out Alex’s aggressive attitude towards Purity wasn’t because of a general ideological conflict between her and Kara, or because she’s been seriously shaken after the last World Killer inflicted such violence on the two of them. No, it’s because she’s still reeling from her breakup with Maggie, and the writers have decided that, for this episode and this episode only, that makes her super angry and hostile.
This is all leading up to a climax where Alex finally tries reaching out to the Julia side of Purity, and that side emerges just long enough to offer herself up to Reign in order to save Alex’s life. It’s a theoretically good moment, but one that would have landed much harder if we’d spent less time on conflict between the Danvers sisters and more on the internal conflict within Julia/Purity herself.
Still, as I said, this is buildup, and it is very solid buildup. Reign has now recruited a second World Killer to her side, but one whose human side is also proving difficult to manage, and Kara has come to realize that instead of defeating the World Killers, she needs to save them from themselves. Given how Reign and now Purity have been a colossal step up over previous seasons’ Big Bads, and given the ending scene where Lena finally seems to be putting together that Sam is Reign, this all has terrific promise for the future.
What’s less inherently promising is the sub-plot about marital strife between Mon-El and Imra. In theory, the revelation that Mon-El and Imra’s relationship was originally a political marriage, but that they’ve grown to love each other regardless, without quite rivaling the wild passion Mon-El had for Kara . . . that could be used to tell a very interesting and complicated love story. But Kara’s romances have always been so haphazardly written on this show, I’m not inclined to expect any great complexity, but instead a quickly deployed way to write out Imra and get Mon-El/Kara back together without making our hero a homewrecker.
Not helping matters is that this B-plot once again goes to that old well Arrowverse shows always seem to draw on: romantic couples need to be honest with each other about absolutely everything. Still, it is kind of amusing that Mon-El tries to patch things up with Imra by being honest with her about his confusing feelings about Kara, then she immediately reveals that she actually stranded them in the past on purpose as part of a secret mission. That secret is so much more massive than anything Mon-El was keeping to himself, it makes all the earlier angsting feel insignificant. It’s also yet another piece of buildup for the future, but without any clue at this point what Imra’s secret mission could be, this one is just too early to call.
- We got another short scene with Lady Eve this week on Black Lightning. She does friendly-yet-threatening very well, and the fact that, while she’s talking with Tobias, she’s also embalming a guy who’s either still alive or just been brought back to life, wonderfully distracts from just how much “as you know” exposition is being crammed into the dialogue.
- Now Gambi is not only keeping Tobias’s presence secret from Jefferson, but also Anissa’s developing powers. I don’t really know what to make of the guy at this point.
- I ragged on this week’s Black Lightning a lot for not being interesting, but Black Lightning’s interrogation of Two Bits was fantastic, and I hope that character sticks around.
- Michael Emerson aside, Katie Cassidy was definitely the highlight of this week’s Arrow. Her performance feels alive and energetic in a way all the more grim character work being done by the rest of the cast doesn’t. The moment when she tries confessing to killing Cayden’s son so that he doesn’t blow up everyone is also a remarkable bit of selflessness coming from Evil Laurel.
- I used to love Rene, but ever since Team Arrow split up, he’s been really bugging me. They keep writing him like something much more severe and traumatic happened to break up the team than what we actually saw, and consequently he seems like a whiny little baby blaming Oliver for everything.
- Despite how very few emotional moments were given proper time on Arrow this week, I did get a little choked up when Oliver, seeing Cayden was about to detonate his bomb, chose to spend his last moments comforting William and telling him not to be afraid.
- The Thinker jumping into Becky Sharpe’s body means we’ve changed actors for him yet again. Sugar Lyn Beard may not be Neil Sandilands, but she is a more immediately engaging presence than Kendrick Sampson. Let’s see how long she sticks around. By my count, he should be getting the body of Tom Baker soon.
- Ralph’s old friend was so blatant in setting up Ralph’s character arc for the episode, it reminded me of the video Trailer For Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever (“Specific outlining of your major character flaws!” “Overreaction!”)
- No one seems remotely curious about the fact that Kara had a prophetic vision of the World Killers. Is this some obscure Kryptonian power from the comics that I don’t know about?
- I actually thought Kara and Alex had a pretty solid good cop/bad cop thing going on while they were interrogating Purity. Their approach doesn’t have to be all one or the other.
- Most of these shows will be going on hiatus after this week. Arrow and The Flash will only be off the air for a few weeks, but Supergirl won’t be coming back for a couple months. However, Black Lightning will continue uninterrupted, and next week marks the glorious return of Legends of Tomorrow! Hot dog!
MVP of the Week: Purity. She’s just an awesome new villain.
Question of the Week: What DC Comics character do you most want to see appear on these shows?