Barry deals with the loss of his mother, while Iris escapes a zombie. Oh, and the title of the episode is after a children’s book. Wait, are you sure this isn’t “The Body” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Or “Penny and Dime” from Daredevil?
That the teaser for the next episode is the least interesting part of “The Runaway Dinosaur” demonstrates a flaw in The Flash, as well as many television series, superhero or otherwise: there is little room to breathe and let characters talk. Narrative structure varies based on genre and location: in Japanese animation, having an episode of filler, where characters have a slice-of-life experience or can discuss the aftermath of events, seems far more common in the action genre than what is offered in United States television, especially in live action television.
But when it is done well, it is excellent.
A key example is the 2001 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Body.” Joss Whedon and company make sure to keep the trappings of an action fantasy series: a zombie will appear…sort of, as the incantation is performed, someone is banging on the door, but we never get to see whether it was the corpse of Joyce Summers reanimated or not. The episode has more in common with the ending to “The Monkey’s Paw” than a zombie story: be careful what you wish for.
Here, The Flash tries for a similar approach: a lot of characters talking about the loss of someone in their lives–Barry (Grant Gustin)–while contending with a zombie–and, despite being a DC Comics show, it’s not Solomon Grundy (darn it) but instead a reanimated Girder (Greg Finley), who bullied Barry and stalked Iris (Candice Patton) in Season 1. And it is a shame that it is not Grundy: when Barry returns, his fight with Girder is so quick, and Barry’s verbal dismissal of him and quick remark of letting him rest in peace, lacks the pain of Shayera putting down Grundy in Justice League Unlimited. There, Shayera had a pre-established alliance with Grundy that made her need to euthanize him painful; here, Barry admits that he and Tony were never close, so the loss of a character we did not get to know, and who lacked the charm of third-person-speaking Mark Hamill-voiced Grundy, is not going to hit the right emotional note.
And while this episode is not, as the title suggested, some Doctor Who story about an actual runaway dinosaur, it was probably the best episode of Season 2 so far, thanks to focusing on characters, good dialogue, and some good direction from Kevin Smith.
And, like a runaway dinosaur, it is about being stuck in the past, and how Barry, who has run fast away from his responsibilities and traumas, faces the ramifications.
When I spend the entire episode invested in Barry’s first experience with the Speed Force, and with the shenanigans of Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and company, than I am with this season-long arc around Zoom, the Reverse Flash wannabe, there is a problem with how the serial structure is handled. That the return of Zombie Girder as a Monster of the Week distracts from Barry’s journey back to his superpowers and to address the trauma of his mother’s death is another problem.
All of that said, Kevin Smith–one of the most obvious of the comic book fanboys–provides a well-done direction to this episode. As condescending as “capable” and “sufficient” sounds, that is what the episode needed: it was direction that was not trying to distract with an announcement, “Here is Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks.” Some shots were as impressive to me as seeing how Joss Whedon handled The Avengers: the bright lighting yet dark shadows in the Speed Force evoked the past, like looking at an old photograph, and the way Smith centered the shot on Barry before his return to his world was the framing and coloring I expect from a pivotal moment in film or in a comic book.
The episode also drew well upon what Smith has done well: dialogue. This episode’s forward momentum was dependent not on Iris in a rather awkward damsel in distress narrative (albeit one where she exercises agency, including standing in front of Cisco when he demands she stay behind him) but on long conversations. Some dialogue is not going to work as well: Henry (John Wesley Shipp) and Joe’s (Jesse Martin) remarks about Jesse’s (Violett Beane) health and Barry’s loss cover the bare minimum, as did Joe’s suspicion of Wally (Keiyan Lonsdale) having been transformed into the metahuman. Yet the dialogue between Barry and the Speed Force’s various forms addressed, perhaps in too obvious of ways, the complicated regard Barry has for them–the mentorship of his boss and adoptive father Joe, his affection for Iris, his guilt towards his father Henry, his mourning and shame in front of his mother Nora (Michelle Harrison).
While Barry’s remark that he has never been to Nora’s grave seemed unrealistic, it was the setup to address how he avoids his mother’s death and to discuss what has been left hanging since the Season 1 finale: Barry screwed up. The show did not bother addressing again how the Singularity led to the death of Ronnie, the arrival of Zoom, or Barry’s repeated mistakes in manipulating space and time. Rather, it focused on the major conflict about whether it was right for him to not save his mother, for the arbitrary reason of listening to his alternate timeline self’s silent headshake, or the obvious realization that changing the timeline further could have more horrific problems. While Barry’s actions deserve continue chastisement inside and outside the series, the problem with approaching traumatic experiences and one’s own mistakes is having to accept those mistakes, if one is to retain a sound mind to improve and avoid such mistakes in the future. The Speed Force, and Nora Allen, gave Barry that opportunity. And that is far more interesting than Steroid Metal Mario trying to hunt down Iris.
There are other details that are slightly bothersome. The send-off by Nora to Iris is odd, as if Barry is replacing his mother with his girlfriend. The unfortunate implication is that Iris now serves as a maternal role rather than as an equal to Barry, or as a romantic partner and not someone who is there to raise him. However, it is also a subversion of traditional tropes centered around marriage: rather than the father giving away the bride to her husband–the husband replacing the father–here it is the mother giving away her son to his romantic partner.
I can appreciate that detail a lot more if it was not promulgated on the needless death of Nora Allen as part of Barry’s origin story. The comics functioned well when Barry’s powers were not attached to such a cliche as the deceased mother. A deceased relative was not the primary or only influence for speedsters in DC Comics to be heroes: long before Geoff Johns altered Barry’s origin story in the comics, to, as he puts it, give Barry a trauma in the past that he cannot run away from, no matter how fast he is, such fridging of female characters was not necessary to get to the core of Barry or Wally West, Jesse Quick, Max Mercury, Bart Allen, or numerous other super-fast superheroes. Sometimes that kind of darkness improves a character; other times, especially with a character like the Flash, so steeped in the Golden Age and Silver Age, you just want a fun series where the emotional stakes do not depend on cliche “dead mother” tropes. Not every series has to be Fullmetal Alchemist (although, Barry refusing Cisco in this episode did seem very similar to Al refusing Ed at the Gate of Truth in the manga and Brotherhood).
Grounding the Speed Force as a motivational speaker for Barry also seems to pull away from it its mysticism. There is a bit of ambiguity to keep its mystery going, indicated when it is vague as to whether its words are from itself or from Nora Allen. But the most confusing portion, and I hope one to set up further mystery as to the Speed Force, is what it meant, when speaking through Iris, about Barry having given up his speed. The concluding scene, with Barry tapping into the Speed Force to bring Jesse back to consciousness seems to be one hint, as does the potential setup for Wally and Jesse to be speedsters: when claiming Barry gave up his speed, the Speed Force did not mean he gave it up to Zoom but to share with Wally and Jesse. If that is indeed the case, the finale for Season 2 could have a powerful moment, similar to that already present in other superhero works ranging from The Fantastic Four to The Avengers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles about the power of family.
Handled poorly, however, and this episode still is a notable exception to disappointments of Season 2.
After all, “The Runaway Dinosaur” at least addresses Barry’s past and the actual struggles of dealing with traumatic experiences. That scene, in which Henry explains his return to Central City, goes a long way to address an obvious problem this season has had, regarding how it addresses Henry’s post-traumatic stress. This season has set up the paradox that, first, he was the one who decided to leave Central City and, in Episode 1 this season, told Barry he still had family here in the form of Joe and Iris, only now, at this point in the season, to lecture Joe that he still has his own children, while Henry risks losing his own.
The dialogue carried a lot of weight for addressing the lingering effects of trauma on both Barry and Henry, and while this episode reaches some closure, it, like other recent works in the superhero genre on trauma, notably Tony Stark’s narrative since the first Iron Man film up to Civil War, shows that trauma is something that is focused on day-to-day experience, not some one-off solution. I can appreciate, then, that the episode ends with Henry coming back without presenting it as some false cure to his and Barry’s challenges, and that the episode ends (before the teaser) with Barry and Iris uncertain of the future, having lost their mothers, but looking to a potential step forward with their own relationship.
However, where I am unsettled regards what is the next step. Every television series, whether action, drama, or comedic, is advertising that they have only two episodes left this season. With Barry’s loud “No!” in the preview to next week’s episode, it feels like there is setup for another tragedy to befall him. And with Henry returning to Central City, and the unlikelihood that Shipp will be boosted to a recurring or main cast role in the series, I am concerned that the show will kill off Henry Allen, with the trade-off being a surprise that the Man in the Mask is Jay Garrick, but played by Shipp. Or maybe the show will kill off Joe West, which also would hurt based on Martin’s talent and the persistent problem with far too few black actors cast in superhero stories, hence the killing off of those characters becoming far more obvious at eliminating diversity in overall television casting.
- I noticed the closed captioning really emphasized the mood of each bit of music: “melancholy music,” “foreboding music,” “exciting,” “tense,” “ominous,” and “somber.”
- I appreciate the show’s blindsiding, as obvious as it should’ve been, that the person Barry is chasing is his mother. After all, the episode started at the scene of her murder–and it would help explain why SpeedForce!Joe said he wanted to give Barry something “comfortable” when its forcing Barry into a scene that is so not comfortable.
- The show still has no idea what to do with Wally. That Iris so easily and quickly compartmentalized Barry’s seeming demise to get Wally home, back to the house, so that he can still do nothing in this series shows a problem. At this point, with Jesse seeming to have gained something from the Speed Force, and Wally still not obviously getting anything, it is a disservice to the character. At least it gave two moments of levity: Iris complaining that she bought Joe that mug (echoing her remark about Barry’s favorite mug from Season 1 getting broken), and it can lead to an alternative interpretation that Wally indeed has superspeed but was too much of a jerk to his dad to catch the mug for him.
- They don’t bother giving proper funerals or cremation to their deceased captives at STAR Labs? This show does a bad job making superheroes look heroic, when the STAR Labs crew continues to look like throwbacks to George W. Bush policies on Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
- “That’s my mom’s car!” Of course Jason Mewes shows up for the funny in a Kevin Smith episode.
- Tom Cavanagh’s face when Cisco speeds through Plans A through G to Barry and how “we’re all going to die” makes him a national treasure–well, a Canadian national treasure. The simultaneous “Plan H” by Wells and Cisco makes me hope he and Jesse stay on Earth 1, if just for that pairing of Cavanagh and Valdes.
- As I said, the setup for next week, as Zoom (Teddy Sears and Tony Todd) finally unleashes his Evil League of Evil onto Central City, skipped my mind. I was more invested in this story, and I was ignoring, “Hmm…What is Zoom up to, and why hasn’t he attacked the city yet?” That he was busy getting the Earth-2 supervillains, including Earth-2 Black Canary and I guess some Earth-2 Hawkpeople, makes sense, it also just reminds me how poorly done the season arc has been and how much I miss these episodes that offered a break. The loss of Captain Cold and Heat Wave to Legends of Tomorrow has not helped The Flash: the show tends to do better when its filler episodes have far more entertaining setups, rather than a dull ominously evil but secretly boring man like Hunter Zolomon involved in the plot.