Black Lightning is a heavy family drama at its core. The Pierce family and Tobias’ clan of broken misfits couldn’t be more different. They are, however, similar in a particular way. Both family patriarchs are trying to recover from past trauma. The past will undoubtedly shape your future, and that is no more evident than with Jefferson Pierce and Tobias Whale. The writers and producers have taken the time to illustrate just how drastically childhood trauma can mold your adulthood.
These men are polar opposites as father figures, yet each is defined by their respective fathers. They carry those paternal teachings into adulthood and shape their own family units accordingly. Jefferson, a product of uplifting sentiments, Tobias, a byproduct of abuse. While the Pierce clan strive to protect their super-powered family, Tobias does everything in his power to put each member of his makeshift family in harm's way, which must make for a very awkward Thanksgiving each year. So many empty seats at the Whale table.
Pierce Family Values
Jefferson Pierce is the positive father and mentor he is because of the impression left on him by his own father. Alvin Pierce was the type of dad that would make you study on your day off because he wanted you to be great. Alvin instilled values of hard work and discipline in Jefferson at an early age. He also stood up for what was right, exposing Tobias’ criminal dealings, and lost his life in the process.
While that loss could have sent Jefferson spiraling, Peter Gambi picked up the fatherly slack and became a much-needed source of stability and guidance for Jefferson, especially during his transition into the hero Black Lightning. Jefferson was lucky enough to be surrounded by upstanding people who sought the best for him. Eventually, this led to him becoming the uplifting, Joe Louis Clark-esque motivational principle of Garfield High School, preaching individual excellence in all the children and staff he oversaw.
Jefferson and his wife, Lynn Pierce, are dedicated to protecting their dual-powered daughters Anissa and Jennifer from harm. When those powers finally manifested, Jefferson and Lynn found themselves as a different type of mentor. (They also probably looked back on puberty as the good old days.) As a good family does, they rallied around this change. First, to give Anissa the proper training to help her become the hero she yearned to be. Then, to help Jennifer deal with her newfound “otherness” as she prayed for a boring, ordinary life once again.
The family’s open communication model helps empower their daughters to speak their mind freely and be confident in their own feelings. That’s even if that meant awkward sex talks at the dinner table, conversations that absolutely no family looks forward to!
The Pierces stand as a positive representation of a black family on television. Jefferson and Lynn are successful, smart and loving parents. The wisdom and support provided for their daughters have molded them into strong-willed and intelligent young women. Their family is one that many, including mine, should aspire to.
A Whale of a Bad Guy
Tobias’ despicable nature is comically over the top, but his reasoning for being such a mustache-twirling superbad is built on a solid foundation of mental and physical abuse. Tobias perpetuates the violence and neglect that his father, Eldridge Whale, showed him and his sister Tori as children. The constant psychological and physical torture shaped how Tobias views family dynamics.
Tobias, perhaps unconsciously, creates a tight-knit family of lost souls with him as the patriarch. He then injects a healthy dose of abuse into every relationship. (Okay, it’s about as far from “healthy” as you can get, but you get what I mean.) Each broken, sad, outsider he collects into his organization is kept in line with the same tactics used on Tobias at an early age. Fear, intimidation and in some cases, murder are his disciplinary tools. This includes the way he dispatched his own father, breaking his back and leaving him to die slowly. It’s a far cry from the Pierce family’s loving protection.
Tobias’ warped paternal nature is on display with the treatment of his surrogate daughter, Syonide. She was found in a dumpster as an infant, put into abusive care, and later adopted by Tobias at the age of eight. Instead of raising her as a normal child, Tobias had her trained as an assassin. That clearly isn’t the healthiest profession to teach your kid. He fostered a traumatized child’s urges to harm others and molded her into a sociopathic killer. Let’s all take a moment and acknowledge how much all of that sucks.
We can all agree that teaching a child to kill is one whopper example of child abuse. Yet, that was his twisted act of love to a fellow broken human. Is it not a parent’s priority to protect their kids from harm? Instead, Tobias put his daughter in the one job that will 100% end in a grizzly death. Can you imagine what the parent-teacher meeting was like? Terrifying.
Each new member of his familiar organization tends to fall into similar situations. When Khalil Payne accepted Tobias’ seemingly generous offer to help him walk again, Tobias turned his newfound surrogate son into a weapon. When Syonide was killed on Khalil’s watch, things took a dark(er) turn. Khalil and Tobias's tumultuous relationship echoed that of Tobias and his father. Tobias constantly berated and degraded Khalil, as he blamed him for the death of his daughter. Tobias ultimately ended his relationship with the prodigal son by gleefully ripping his spinal implant out, which once again paralyzes him and eventually kills him.
Every new person recruited by Tobias is bound for destruction. Whether it’s his superhuman assassin and apparent lover Cutter, or newly awakened metahuman-slash-psychopath Marcus Bishop. No one is safe from his perverse patriarchal power trip. He appeals to their immediate needs, moves them into his home and begins the systematic dismantling of their already fragile psyche. What a guy.
Week in and week out the writers give us a glimpse into how two traumatized men navigate a family. They both must deal with day-to-day family pressures. Those pressures just so happen to be compounded with superpowers, assassins and secret organizations. Both fathers tap into the pain of past traumas and perpetuate the lessons learned from an early age. While the Pierces and Tobias have vastly different ways of approaching the family unit, they are both products of their environment and their past.
The moral? Be kind to your kids. Otherwise, you’re rolling the dice on whether they will become a superhero or a psychotic, anti-aging crime boss with a great collection of suits.
We can agree Tobias’ suits are amazing, right?
Catch the Black Lightning season finale next Monday, March 18 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. CST) on The CW. For more news, features and conversation on Black Lightning, click here.
This is Carl Waldron's first article for DCComics.com and the Couch Club. You can find him on Twitter at @mrcarlwaldron.