This review includes spoilers up to this episode of The Flash.
When in doubt, have your villain use poor logic and have other characters claim that they are insane. It won’t make them complex, but evidently it’s just about moving the plot forward.
Television, like comics, is a visual medium. Therefore, it is frustrating when a show like The Flash depends on telling rather than showing. From the first minutes of the episode “Versus Zoom,” we are treated to yet again seeing Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) origin story, so that it is made obvious to viewers how his origin parallels Jay Garrick’s (Teddy Sears) origin story: each one loses his mother at the hands of a dark father figure.
And it doesn’t work for me.
Why is Jay wearing his father’s helmet? A perverse reminder?
Why did he identify Earth-1’s Hunter Zolomon to Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker)?
How did he not anticipate that Caitlin would mention this to Wells, who would realize Jay is actually a serial killer?
I see no logic, no method here–and unlike Apocalypse Now! that lack of method is not making for an entertaining story but one that poses far too many questions to find enjoyable. And those questions concern how this episode address complex topics, such as post-traumatic stress, mental health, and cycles of violence–and while there are more episodes left in this season, I am bothered by how poorly I think this episode failed to address any one of those topics very well.
Jay’s back-story is finally revealed in this episode. Jay Garrick, the man without a mask, is actually the metaphorical mask for Hunter Zolomon, a serial killer on Earth-2 who witnessed his father murder his mother, then, while undergoing electroshock therapy in Central City to treat his mental condition, was transformed into a speedster by the STAR Labs Particle Accelerator explosion. After this transformation, Zolomon presented himself to the public as Jay Garrick–and somehow no one could notice that he and Zolomon, a known serial killer (and the subject of Earth-2’s Serial podcast) look exactly the same. And for some reason, Jay did his superheroics so he could raise people’s hopes, then, as Zoom, dash those hopes. This is a dark mirror to how Supergirl’s finale, which aired the night before, referred to hope overcoming fear. Here, it is Zolomon, Jay, Zoom, whatever to call him, running together a set of motivations simultaneously, and none of them feels like it sticks.
The lack of logic reinforces Jay’s insanity, and that not only comes across as offensive–reducing mental health problems to making the person contending with them into a villain–but a cliche. I want my villains to have a perverse logic that takes a reasonable idea to an unreasonable conclusion. Such motivation has been effected more adequately in other stories, such as giving the villain a desire to guide humans towards saving the planet, whether that means through fascistic rule of them (as in the case of Loki in The Avengers film adaptation) or their elimination (as with Ultron in Age of Ultron)–and in some cases, the villain slips between both desire both to rule and eliminate (as Non had all at once in the Supergirl Season 1 finale). There are other motivations for villains that exaggerate some human desire, such as enforcing progress through social Darwinist approaches (the Light in Young Justice, Medusa Gorgon in Soul Eater), using humans as a means to an end (Father in Fullmetal Alchemist), or satisfying one’s hedonistic desires (such as the vampire Spike early on in Buffy the Vampire Slayer desiring not to eliminate humans but to feed on them, as he says, as walking Happy Meals).
Instead, Jay’s motivation is his traumatic experiences, and those are hardly as well developed. This is not helped by having Jay’s father, a veteran of a war, engage in domestic abuse that, due to the speed of this cold opening, has him almost immediately kill his wife with a shotgun in front of his son–for no motivation at all. His father is shouting about his post-traumatic stress, without seeing any interaction with his wife beforehand to build up to this moment. It’s escalation without motivation except, as with Jay himself, to shrug off this idea and suggest that they are simply insane. And that is the problem: to reduce the post-traumatic stress of Jay’s father, and the traumatic experiences and torture of Jay, to cartoonish villainy is taking away the less helpful exaggerations of superhero comic books. They also perpetuate negative associations with such psychological difficulties. And it is not as if The Flash and its sibling shows have been unable to better address such mental health experiences: Supergirl has addressed rage and trauma, and Arrow itself had an entire episode centered around Deadshot’s trauma from war and how it, as with Jay’s father, motivated domestic abuse in his household.
All the more frustrating is how Jay describes himself, through his remarks about Caitlin: he describes how he had to tell her about Earth-1’s Hunter Zolomon to “get her to stop trying to fix me.” Is that an admission that Jay thinks he needs to be fixed? Already that word “fixed” is complicated when it comes to mental health and contending with traumatic experiences; to hear Jay say it could be a moment to slow down and let that word hang. Unfortunately, in the confines of 40-something-minute broadcast television, that development is swept aside to keep the story moving.
It is not as if other superhero narratives have failed to show the cycle of trauma as motivating the worst behavior in characters–how the trauma of war harms Jay’s father, which harms Jay, which then can harm Barry and his peers–while largely keeping those characters grounded in reality, even provoking empathy or sympathy from viewers. A counterexample to this episode would be Jessica Jones on Netflix, which managed to make Will Simpson, albeit far too campy for my taste in a largely serious series, a victim of the cycle of trauma and hyper-masculine posturing instigated first by Kilgrave and motivating Simpson’s descent. That character’s own trauma was allowed to develop, shown to viewers and showing his frustration with conditions outside of his control–and in that desire for control, having a realistic motivation to become a villain.
In contrast to Simpson in Jessica Jones, the motivation for Jay is limited to a few moments of events beyond believability: Jay’s father kills his mother, none of Jay’s family will take him in, Jay is assigned to an orphanage, and suddenly, in his adulthood, Jay becomes a serial killer. For all the mockery many of us make about the over-reliance of flashbacks in Arrow, maybe a few flashbacks could’ve been cut there and brought over here. And as flippant as many of us are about the over-reliance of parallels between Season 1’s Reverse-Flash and Season 2’s Zoom, if only this Season 2 episode could’ve been the equivalent of Season 1’s “Trickster,” giving us extensive flashbacks, shown rather than told, to set up the backstory for Jay Garrick. David M. Perry gently mocked this over-reliance on such flashbacks to backfill the villain’s motivation (his examples including Gideon Malick in Agents of SHIELD), but at least such flashbacks with Jay could’ve invigorated what was a dull story with extraneous content.
Speaking of extraneous content, some of it would’ve been fine–in another episode. At risk of repeating my points about Lucifer’s recent episode, there are multiple narratives, and their contributions to this episode are underwhelming. For example, Joe invites Wally to move into his house–which really could have happened in previous episodes, based on how close the father and son were getting along and hence could give more time to actually build a relationship between Barry and Wally, setting up the work for whenever Wally becomes the Flash.
I have read interpretations of Season 2 of The Flash as a renunciation of the Golden Age. That much was apparent where, underneath the veneer of a Tomorrowland aesthetic, was a villain like Zoom, that despite the presence of Atlantis and Gorilla City were serial killers like Killer Frost and Deathstorm, and that despite Jay Garrick wearing an emblem of a war hero and Harrison Wells as a Thomas Edison, both men spread discord to the world around them. It is not as if The Flash is the first to take this approach: “Legends” in the Justice League animated series took a similar approach. However, that episode at least was a celebration of that Golden Age, while developing a frightening story like something out of The Twilight Zone and ultimately embracing the point of heroism, even if that means self-sacrifice.
It is disappointing to see this episode of The Flash give merit to that reading of the Golden Age being a facade for the true difficulties of the world and identifying that, in any time period, violence and trauma persists. The comic book fan in me wants that campy Golden Age to have an adaptation, one that does not have to be a deconstruction like Watchmen but something more akin to the silliness of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Yet, at the same time, I can appreciate how “Versus Zoom” demonstrates that there is no utopia: the violence that Hunter Zolomon experienced as a child on Earth-2 has its corollary in the violence Barry Allen experienced as a child on Earth-1, and such violence seems to be the constant of this multiverse. I only wish the episode had a more deft hand at showing such a comparison rather than having Barry and Jay monologue it at each other.
- For simplicity, I opted to referred to Zoom almost throughout as “Jay Garrick” rather than as “Hunter Zolomon.”
- Was it just me, or was Barry’s opening title sequence literally darker, in terms of lighting, than in previous episodes? In Season 1, the title sequence had Central City in daylight. Here, in this episode, perhaps because it is a story about the villainy of Jay Garrick, the clips used for the title sequence featured more nighttimes scenes or ones with low lighting.
- This episode introduces the tachyon chest device that Barry wears to travel to Supergirl…which means that, as Barry was running through Central City then asks “How long?” he was actually asking, “How long has it been since I left our Earth and went to Supergirl’s Earth?” That’s it–that’s the extent of our crossover with Supergirl. If there was any other hint that that episode of Supergirl happened at all, I missed it–which makes the attempt at synergy here disappointing. When Supergirl would benefit from having more of itself put into Barry’s story, it is frustrating that we don’t even get a quick mention by Barry about that side-adventure in National City, even if it would disrupt this episode’s flow.
- Barry’s plan: “Hey, let’s get Zoom onto this Earth, not contain him in a physical space, and instead let him chase me around Central City!” And he ignores the potential that, once Zoom realizes Barry is faster than him, he will instead take a hostage. And sure enough, Zoom does. Barry Allen: our competent hero!
- A longer post can be written just on the portrayal of Iris and Caitlin in this episode, and this episode’s failure of the Bechdel Test. Next week does not fill me with optimism, regarding Caitlin being kidnapped by Jay.
- That Iris and Caitlin seem to have their agency limited is paralleled by a conversation between Joe and Barry, regarding whether the latter should give up his speed to rescue Wally. “You can’t give up your speed,” Joe says. “That’s not your decision,” Barry answers. So much of The Flash is a question about fate versus agency, predestination versus existentialism. Barry seems to be the only character with some control over his fate, and time and again it is not Joe and the other characters who have that control–because Barry can literally re-write time as suits himself (and the writers). This has been a problem for Barry long before Flashpoint in the comics, and it feels like a reckoning has to happen in this series for someone to call Barry out on the people harmed by his manipulations of time.
- Every episode of Season 2 is just another tease for another way in which Wally will gain his super-speed. For this episode, I figured the fight between Barry and Zoom, to absorb the latter’s speed enough to defeat him, would have an electrical discharge that inadvertently gives the captive Wally some of Zoom’s super-speed. Then again, I had this same theory back when Jesse Quick was imprisoned in Zoom’s lair, so it’s not much of a new theory. And in previous episode, I figured it would be Velocity-9 or a blood transfusion, both of which this season has suggested and still has not paid off. It’s actually kind of funny, how impatient I am at how slow this show is to give Wally and Jesse their super-speed.