REVIEW: The Flash, Season 2 Episode 18: “Back to Normal”

Barry doesn’t lose only his powers; he also loses the spotlight, in an episode where potential changes for Wells seem to be lost opportunities.

The casting of Tom Cavanagh has been one of the main points of praise for The CW’s adaptation of The Flash. As Cavanagh brought such cold, sardonic intensity to his performance as Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash, masquerading as Harrison Wells, his acting had to be one reason why he was retained even after Thawne was killed off in the Season 1 finale to portray Wells’s alternate dimension counterpart. As Wells never existed in the original DC Comics, and certainly was never Jesse Quick’s father, I’m surprised that Cavanagh’s performance has not led to the character being incorporated into the current Flash comics, similar to other changes to the comic book series that occurred close to the time of Arrow and The Flash airing on the CW, such as the addition of John Diggle, the re-introduction of Felicity Smoak, and the race-change to the West family.

It is also not a surprise, then, that when Barry is left powerless at the conclusion of last week’s episode that Cavanagh’s Wells from Earth-2 is given the focus of “Back to Normal.”

Nothing against Grant Gustin’s performance as Barry, but the writing of this episode was going to struggle to do something new with the idea of him being powerless: this storyline was covered last season in “Power Outage,” and Barry’s speed was not only lost and returned in that same episode but actually increased by the end. Here, Barry seems to be going through the motions. Within his own world, that makes sense: he is contending with a depressive episode. But in the metanarrative sense, it seems like the show does little with Barry’s frustration over his lost speed because, first, that topic can sustain next week’s episode when he attempts to get back his speed with another particle accelerator explosion (because that worked out so well on Earth-1 and Earth-2, as well as the original timeline), and second, this is The Flash–we know he is going to get his speed back.

With Barry moping, it’s left to Wells to take action for the sake of the story. After killing the Turtle for the sake of rescuing his daughter Jesse (Violett Beane) from Zoom (Teddy Sears and Tony Todd), Wells’s murder has lost him Jesse’s trust and prompted her to run away from him. Wells had already sought Joe West’s (Jesse Martin) assistance to investigate where his daughter Jesse ran away, and as established in previous episodes, he is too prideful to depend on others when he can assume agency to accomplish the task himself. Locating Jesse in an apartment, and unable to persuade her to return home, he drives back to Central City–and is stopped by metahuman Griffin Grey (Haig Sutherland), who is rapidly aging due this dimension’s particle accelerator explosion caused by Thawne-as-Wells. Not realizing this dimension’s Wells is supposedly dead and seeing with his own eyes his doppleganger, Grey does make the not-unreasonable assumption that he has captured the man who gave him this curse of rapid aging and demands he cure him.

Since Wells cannot persuade Grey to believe in alternate dimensions–even when Grey can see that metahuman transformations are certainly possible–he too, like Barry, is merely going through the motions: he is too demoralized to do otherwise. There is also a practice in this episode of Wells accepting blame not for Thawne’s actions (he already told Barry not to refer to Thawne as this Earth’s Wells in this season’s “Flash Back”) but for his own: since Jesse cannot be here to be the one to punish him, Wells, broken by his daughter’s abandoning of him, lets Grey serve as that role.

Of course Wells, as a hostage, follows Grey’s order to make sure he will not die–until it is revealed that Wells was following these orders fully aware that there is no cure. That revelation changes the preceding minutes of this episode: Wells has given up, he knows he is going to die, and he is letting Grey be his punisher, be the one to tell him how his hubris harmed so many people. Thawne of Earth-1 caused the particle accelerator to explode in order to produce the Flash, but in the process also causing transformations of numerous other persons, harming their lives and, in their inability to control their powers and to cope with these stresses, hurting other people in the process. And Earth-2 unfolded much the same: not only did Wells’s particle accelerator explosion also produce criminal metahumans, it empowered the serial killer Hunter Zolomon to become the mass-murdering Zoom. For all of Wells’s protests that he is not like Eobard Thawne, this episode forces him to accept not only Jesse’s judgment but also his role in harming the lives of many people.  

And then the episode ends with Wells offering to cause a second (third, when counting Earth-2) particle accelerator explosion to give Barry back his powers.

That is the frustration trying to make sense of this episode without having next week’s to watch, so some of my remarks have to tabled until then. But to start with Wells’s hubris, have his hubris challenged, then have him still engage in mad science is the equivalent of Tony Stark convincing Bruce Banner to try turning JARVIS into Vision after the colossal disaster of making Ultron: this is indeed an embrace of being like Victor Frankenstein, and if next week’s episode plays out as I expect, with Barry attached to a lightning rod and getting electricity pumped into him, the Frankenstein comparison is apt. It feels like the episode has run in a circle: Wells seems to be static, and it is left to other characters to change around him. Barry has to change his goals to suit Wells’s plan; Jesse has to accept her father despite his sins; the other characters have to rescue him because he drove off on his own.

If there is any redeeming factor to that idea of a character like Wells who ultimately does not change, it may be related to the failure for Zoom to change. Even as he faces Killer Frost (Danielle Panabaker), the Earth-2 doppleganger for his captive Caitlin Snow (Panabaker), he is still a mass murderer, and as he thinks he cannot change his nature, he has decided by episode’s end to subjugate other Earths. With so much doubling in Season 2 with dopplegangers, I am starting to think that last week’s episode, that had to knock me over the head to see that Zoom and the Flash are dark mirrors to each other, may have missed the idea that Wells, too, is serving as that foil to Zoom, two characters so full of pride and desire for order that they cannot be bothered to change. With John Wesley Shipp returning next week as Henry Allen, the twinning of father figures in Barry’s life may repeat again as it did last season, in this case, Wells and Henry tugging at Barry to lead him on the path that they think is right.

Stray Observations

  • I know I didn’t write much about Killer Frost’s return–and seeing her alive had me optimistic that, if they didn’t kill her off before, they wouldn’t now. And then she died. Curses. At least Panabaker’s chilly performance against herself was entertaining. I’m also curious whether that detail of Frost’s Earth-2 brother, Charlie Snow, who does not exist on Caitlin’s Earth-1, will be relevant in a future episode.
  • We still don’t know who the Man in the Mask is, Killer Frost doesn’t care, and this mystery is going to persist until the Season Finale–at which point, I will be so bored that, whatever is his identity, I’m not going to be impressed.
  • At least this episode gave us Barry, without powers, doing some actual CSI work again.
  • Barry is forced to take the bus next to a Vandal Savage lookalike. Truly, this is Hell.
  • Wells finding Jesse prompted numerous questions with unsatisfying answers. So, Jesse’s roommate happens to let some stranger claiming to be her dad enter. Then she sees the gun on him and instead of thinking that we have enough gun fanatics in our own real-world who should not be let into any apartment, but in her own world metahumans and all the criminals that Star City has, sure, I’ll let this guy into my apartment and just pretend he’s holding a laser tag gun. Also, why would a laser tag gun be that big? It wouldn’t make it easier to win the game. And Jesse didn’t bother to give a fake first name when she moved into this apartment?
  • Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale) has a simmering background plot regarding his appreciation for the Flash sacrificing his speed for him, and instead of just getting it over with and having him and the Flash, or him and Barry-revealed-as-the-Flash meet, is left to the end for an unsatisfying climax. Of course, it’s unsatisfying because I know this plotline isn’t over: Wally is going to keep running after the Flash, and this will develop into the partnership that, once Wally gets his own super-speed, features two Flashes on this show (because, really, calling an adult Wally “Kid Flash” is going to be an insult).
  • As Wells is held prisoner by Grey, and allowing himself to be abused by the person he (or his doppleganger) harme, I was remembering Marcoh and Scar’s story in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which I was re-watching this past weekend. At least Grey didn’t melt off Wells’s face like Marcoh did. Then again, at least Wells wasn’t stuck with May and Yoki, or he’d probably beg Grey to speed up his demise already.
  • And Barry’s kill count goes up one more number this episode with Grey’s death. Our hero, folks: he tires the villain out until he dies.
  • His name was Griffin Grey. Get it? Grey? Because he’s getting older.
  • The “Zoom sees Caitlin as his mother” detail is clear enough, show. You don’t need to keep hammering that point with flashbacks to what we saw just a week ago–I can remember more than a week ago, and it’s going to be awkward when trying to re-watch back-to-back episodes of this season.
  • As Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and Jesse used Ray Palmer’s dwarf star technology to strengthen the Flash’s suit, a part of me hopes that it was the Palmer of Supergirl’s world that made the dwarf star Fortress of Solitude key.
  • Why are Jesse and Wells still sharing a bedroom? STAR Labs is big enough to create another bedroom. Actually, I’m still not clear how Barry is running STAR Labs without Eobard/Wells’s money: who’s paying for the upkeep and electricity?
  • “One of your sins coming home to roost.” That’s one poorly constructed mixed metaphor, Grey.
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