DISCLAIMER: This is a spoiler-free review of Black Lightning season 4, episode 7 “Painkiller”, the backdoor pilot for the potential spinoff series.
The Arrowverse has come a long way over the course of 9 years as The CW’s DC TV franchise has only gotten bigger for every season that goes by. Black Lightning is, unfortunately, one of the shows that are coming to an end after this season as the Pierce family drama added a lot of new dimensions to the superhero genre. Even before the series joined the rest of the Arrowverse, Black Lightning was refreshing by taking the comic book element to new levels that aren’t always reflected in other superhero shows. With the show being able to highlight real-world issues and big topics from the get-go, Black Lightning has always stood out more. As sad as it’s that Black Lightning is coming to an end, a part of it might live on in its potential spinoff series: Painkiller.
Ever since his first appearance in Black Lightning season 1, Jordan Calloway’s Khalil Payne has had one of the biggest emotional rollercoaster journeys in the series. Following the events of the third season, Khalil has left Freeland and moved to Akashic Valley to start a new life while still having the Painkiller persona within him. After all the trauma Khalil has dealt with from Tobias Whale to Agent Odell, the backdoor pilot allows the character to be put in a different spotlight than previously. Without revealing too much, the addition of Akashic Valley is both visually stunning while also offering a lot of mystery around it.
“Painkiller” feels like the first time, properly, where one can really see how Khalil and Painkiller himself, have been affected by everything that they’ve gone through and why they’re where they’re now. Because Khalil and Painkiller are at the center of this episode, the backdoor pilot is able to establish what the possible spinoff show will look like. What’s fascinating about Painkiller as a series concept is the anti-hero angle that is displayed. Compared with most superhero shows, particularly the Arrowverse, Painkiller is the network’s first time tackling a comic book story with an anti-hero rather than a superhero at the center of it. While the network has had dark and gritty comic book shows like Arrow and the ongoing Batwoman, Painkiller brings something different to the table through Khalil and Painkiller co-existing.
Since Painkiller is based on Black Lightning, the sister show’s theme and tone organically follow the spinoff, but also getting to stand as its own thing. Khalil and Painkiller’s respective struggles are now what drives the possible spinoff show where it can be properly executed. In a way, it feels like the backdoor pilot is the first time in a while where Khalil gets to truly explain how heavy these past three years have been for him. Due to all the main arcs revolving around the Pierces, the ASA, Tobias, the War of Freeland, there was never really a chance for Khalil to tackle the aftermath of his experiences. That also applies to Painkiller who in this episode get to show some layers that viewers may not be expecting.
While “Painkiller” goes deep into Khalil and Painkiller’s emotional beat, Calloway’s spinoff also gets to introduce key players that take part in their worldbuilding. In DC TV Podcasts’ interview with Calloway, the actor talked about how his team is more of a brotherhood, consisting of Alexander Hodge as Philky and James Roch as Cousin Donald. The Arrowverse has always structured their shows with the main character having a unit of their own and Painkiller is no exception. However, because this is taking place a year after Black Lightning season 3, the backdoor pilot gives viewers a glimpse of the already established group. Should the spinoff get picked up, it’s likely that flashbacks and exposition will highlight more of how they came together and what makes them click.
Because of the time frame, the characters are already used to each other, which is why there was room for a particular moment between Khalil and Philky. It’s brief, but it’s an important scene that says so much about their specific relationship that sets the foundation for their dynamic in Painkiller. Roch’s Donald is also a great addition that adds more depth to the trio but also gives Khalil a character to relate to. Sibongile Mlambo’s intriguing Maya is one that fans will want to pay attention to, especially if Painkiller goes forward. Based on what goes down in the backdoor pilot, Khalil and Painkiller’s new path has so much meat to it that The CW will hopefully go forward with this spinoff.
Just like Black Lightning, Painkiller brings new energy into the Arrowverse and the anti-hero element is something that can help flesh out the comic book genre on the small screen. But for Khalil, especially for those who have followed him since the beginning, it’s compelling to see Calloway’s long-time Black Lightning character in a spotlight where they get to the bottom of everything that has happened to him. Because of how they have established Painkiller’s own mythology over the years, the spinoff has so many ways they can take both him and Khalil in new directions.
As much as this is a story rooted in a comic book universe, Painkiller’s backdoor pilot also alludes to that factor in Black Lightning of still being grounded and drawing in real-life issues. After everything that both of them have gone through, the episode demonstrates how this potential spinoff can finally begin to humanize both characters. That’s something to look forward to if The CW picks up the show. In conclusion, “Painkiller” is a solid backdoor pilot that has the potential to push this genre in new directions while also allowing Calloway’s characters to continue and enter new territories after his arc on Black Lightning.
“PAINKILLER – Khalil Payne (Jordan Calloway) is a young man ridden with the guilt of his troubled past from his former life in Freeland City, where, as a super-enhanced killing machine known as Painkiller, he was both a member of Tobias Whale’s gang and a weapon of Agent Odell and the shadowy ASA. After attempting to bury the darker, devastatingly lethal Painkiller part of his persona, Khalil has distanced himself away from everyone he knows and loves in a new city, Akashic Valley, in order to find peace… but peace never comes easy for men with pasts like Khalil Payne and Painkiller. As his violent, destructive history crashes his idyllic new beginning, Khalil is thrusted back into action with a new mission – bring justice where he once gave out punishment – but to do that, he will first have to deal with and harness his darker side, Painkiller. The episode was written and directed by Salim Akil.”