Black Lightning star Damon Gupton has been let go by the CW series in what can only be described as a huge disappointment. Gupton, who has played Inspector-turned-Chief Bill Henderson since the start, tweeted Sunday that he wasn’t asked back for the upcoming season 4—and the show will not be the same without him.
In some ways, the writing was on the wall for Henderson. Black Lightning has changed drastically since its first season, evolving from a gritty drama about a superhero to a full-fledged superhero, sci-fi adventure series. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, in possibly the best role of his career) is no longer dealing with high school problems and street thugs; the show’s moved on to secret science experiments, a whole family with superpowers, and the gang members are usually working for supervillains.
As the show reached further out into the fantastic, it got harder to find a place for a normal, non-powered, hard-working cop. Promoting Henderson to Chief of Police felt like a move to keep him relevant to stories that got bigger and more away from his line of work. And now, the producers have decided just to do away with him altogether, which is a shame and the last farewell to what originally made Black Lightning stand out.
What was truly interesting about the show when it premiered in 2018 was that it wasn’t just another superhero series. Fans also saw Jefferson deal with legitimate real-world issues as the principal of the local high school and a dedicated member of his community. He was just as compelling without his powers as he was when using them, and not every challenge he faced was about the next bad guy.
Bill Henderson was part of that; he grounded the show as the representation of the normal person who could still fight for justice and peace without any kind of special ability. He put himself on the front lines every day just with a badge and a gun, and unlike Gambi (James Remar) and Lynn (Christine Adams), he wasn’t also connected to the superhero story. He was just a good man trying to do good things, and he had a great friendship with Jefferson, too.
Henderson was a shining example of what many superhero TV series overlook or can’t quite get right. It’s important to have someone in the main cast who’s not a hero: someone that gives the show that dose of reality, who can be the audience’s outside eyes and ears, who provides contrast to the fantastic things they see. Henderson made Black Lightning more credible because he was powerful without being powered, because he asked the questions that needed to be asked, and because he ensured that there was always some connection between the superhero stories and the rest of Freeland.
But now, like Tommy Merlyn in Arrow, he’s extraneous to a show that’s moved beyond him. Even though it shouldn’t.
And separate from your thoughts on Henderson is the fact that Black Lightning, like Arrow, just dropped a fantastic actor. There’s a reason Colin Donnell remains beloved by Arrow fans and Tommy Merlyn has kept turning up over and over again; Donnell is really, truly amazing and created a character who was the heart (and charm) of that show’s first season. Likewise, Damon Gupton is so incredibly good at what he does. He worked very hard to make Bill Henderson a three-dimensional human being—not just a stereotypical cop, not just the friend, not the guy who was constantly clueless about the superhero roaming around in his city.
Gupton made Henderson feel like a complete person. He was the kind of cop we wanted in our cities and never felt like he was just there to support or to play off of Jefferson. No, when he showed up, you knew it was for a reason and you cared what he had to say. It was so wonderful to see a police officer on a superhero series who wasn’t simply there to get in the way or be left in the dark; this guy was a hero in his own right, and that’s because of Gupton playing him with integrity, class and a wonderful screen presence.
If you haven’t had a chance to see anything else he’s done, do yourself a favor and take the opportunity now. From guest-starring opposite Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom, to playing other cops in The Player and the U.S. remake of Prime Suspect, to his excellent work as co-lead on The Divide, he’s someone who deserves much more attention than he gets. If there’s any silver lining to this news, it’s that he’s now got the opportunity to land another starring role and impress us again sometime soon.
Because of all of this, Black Lightning won’t feel the same next season. It will move on, of course, but it will be missing that extra heart that Damon Gupton brought to the table and to every scene that he was in. Bill Henderson will be missed in Freeland, and Damon Gupton’s absence will be felt dearly.