There are things that can’t be out-runned, there are things that show people aren’t invincible–and loss and trauma are two of them. The Flash takes trauma a lot more seriously this time around, although a death of a character leaves me ambivalent whether it had a strong emotional register. (Spoilers for this episode below)
Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is a character who knows his future: he’s seen it from time travel. He is within a universe that has repeatedly shown the future to characters, like in Legends of Tomorrow, or to viewers, as in the timeskip this season on Arrow to learn that someone will die. (Spoiler: It’s Laurel Lance [Katie Cassidy], whose Earth-2 villainous doppelganger Black Siren pops up in this episode.)
It is therefore oddly thematic that, in my approach to seeing a show like this, where time travel meets police procedural, I keep looking for the clues set up that something tragic is going to occur. And the impetus for that examination was the commercial last week for this episode, which ends with Barry screaming “No!” in horror at something happening.
So, I took a tally of which moments hinted that someone would die or turned against Barry against their will, and the potential victims of Zoom in this episode were:
- Henry Allen (John Wesley Shipp): Brought back after being out in the wilderness (so his re-introduction is simply a setup to kill him off); last week said he was moving back for good (which of course someone would say before they are killed off–to make it a lost opportunity); finally gets his meeting with Dr. McGee, reuniting her actor Amanda Pays with Shipp, whose characters in the 1990s CBS The Flash had a romantic relationship (hence the actor allusion is done and we can kill off Henry already)
- Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker): She’s experiencing intense trauma from Zoom’s kidnapping and psychological torture, and there is enough mad science in this universe that still could mutate her–so, you have the character motivation and the science-fiction means to turn her into the Earth-1 Killer Frost
- Joe West (Jesse Martin): Like Henry, he’s another father figure whose death would set back Barry’s progress and shatter his confidence just before the finale; it would hurt like hell given the joy Martin brings to the role in just a laugh or a snarky retort; he actually talks about the prospect of having grandchildren in this episode (“They’ll call me Paw-Paw”)
With Barry so idealistic after his encounter with the Speed Force, thinking karma is on his side, of course he was going to face a reality that said just because the universe has a plan doesn’t mean it is one he will like, and just because he will be victorious in Zoom (Teddy Sears) does not mean he will not experience more suffering. As the Reverse Flash told him, via a video will, at the beginning of this season, just because Barry frees his father from prison doesn’t mean he will automatically obtain happiness.
And sure enough, the Reverse Flash’s words were the first bookend to this season, with the second bookend arriving here:
Zoom kills Henry Allen.
To this show’s credit, it has taken seriously the Reverse Flash’s warning: the traumatic memories of past events continue to follow these characters. While I think the representations of post-traumatic stress as experienced by Zoom’s father and then developed into a traumatic experience for Zoom are frighteningly overly simplistic–making the villain into someone who has experienced trauma, as if there is a one-to-one correspondence between villainy and trauma–I can appreciate that this episode took Caitlin’s trauma seriously. However, the episode also wrapped her trauma up far too quickly with a situation that was like something out of a sitcom: hilarity ensues as Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin try to delay Black Siren by impersonating their villainous Earth-2 counterparts Reverb and Killer Frost, then the episode ends with a group hug for Caitlin as she continues on the road to recovery. It is all too clean, and as with many developments for Caitlin’s character tend to be overshadowed by Cisco’s ebullience and developing metahuman abilities (he finally got his comic book superpower of vibrating objects–yay!).
As well, at least transforming Caitlin into Killer Frost would keep her character around. One of the complaints I have had in pop culture–stories about superheroes in particular–has been the tendency to kill off female characters, as if a hero needs even more motivation to be an upstanding person. If a writer can only think that Kyle Rayner will be the Green Lantern because his girlfriend was killed and had her body stuffed into the fridge, then that writer is not thinking more creatively about what motivates people to take courageous action. If Arrow has thought that the reason to motivate Ray Palmer to become the Atom is because his fiance was murdered and not because he is in such a crime-ridden city like Star City, then the writer is not thinking more creatively. And thus the Reverse Flash’s killing of Nora Allen has not felt like a necessary motivation for Barry Allen, shown since childhood to be someone stands against bullies, to do the right thing.
Now, here is where a death can be suitable motivation for a character: when that motivation draws out a new dimension to a character. The death of Coulson in The Avengers was the impetus to motivate the team to literally avenge someone’s death–and, as I wrote, it was a clever reversal, having the person killed be a man who was fighting to the last minute, treated by Steve Rogers as a fallen soldier but seen by Tony Stark as a friend. The death of Oliver and Thea Queen’s mother in Arrow is one born out of desperation and a willingness to sacrifice herself for her children. And we got to know Moira Queen for about two seasons before Slade Wilson killed her out of revenge for Oliver’s assumed hand in Shado’s death. Coulson and Moira were characters that had development, had motivations, and had actual relationships with other characters. But Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend is just that: she’s Rayner’s girlfriend. I have to look up her name, Alexandra DeWitt, to remember who that character is as an actual person and not as only a motivating factor. Same with Palmer’s fiance Anna Loring I know very little about Nora Allen in The Flash because the show does not let her exist except as a memory.
So I’m conflicted about The Flash having Zoom murder Henry Allen. We as an audience have gotten to know him…sort of. The show has gone out of its way to keep Henry off-screen, despite being Barry’s father, so that he serves, like Nora Allen, less as a character and more as a motivational factor for Barry’s entrance into superheroism. Season 1 was about Barry avenging his mother’s death and freeing his father from a crime he did not commit. He is kept off-screen as a character who exists to absolve Barry of his guilt for not saving his mother, to absolve Joe for wrongfully arresting him–he is less of a character and more of an object. Then Season 2 freed Henry Allen from prison in the very first episode–just to write off Henry, perhaps out of an inability to have his actor John Wesley Shipp around all season, or an inability to find a way to write Barry’s father as a supporting character.
The way that Henry Allen was sent away at the beginning of Season 2 had its basis in a reality: he has been imprisoned for decades, he has a world to re-discover, a trauma to work through, and his son is a speedster who can come see him any time, no matter where he is living. However, while realistic, it feels like a missed opportunity to do something with a character. We get to know a bit about his personality–to the extent that he is friendly, protective of his son, and a physician. But the show felt less invested in the relationship Barry and his own biological father as it is invested in the relationship he has with his adoptive father, Joe, and his fatherly mentor, Harrison Wells (Earth-1 or Earth-2–take your pick).
The killing of Henry Allen also reveals that flaw in Arrow this season: this pointless timeskip to build up a mystery–who will die?–already had one frustrating killing in the season. Yes, we’ve had seasons to know about Laurel Lance, but we haven’t really had much time to know who is her alter ego, the Black Canary. I’m hesitant to refer to that as fridging in the same way as DeWitt and Nora Allen, so I can say that this season of Arrow-verse shows feel like a practice of shocking swerves that really aren’t that interesting. Arrow wasted time building up a mystery. The Flash at least had the murder be so abrupt that it hurts. And that’s not even touching on the equally pointless, but at least abbreviated, mystery as to who would die on Agents of SHIELD. All of this makes me annoyed with timeskips: they always obscure character development because writers are more interested in addressing scheduling realities (the timeship is the same length as a series hiatus) or to get to the next plot point. All of that ignores ignores the value of, say, “filler” as an opportunity to keep developing characters and make audiences care about them–so that their deaths do not seem meaningless.
So, what is done right in killing off Henry Allen? As I wrote, the signs were there, producing a sense of dread throughout the episode that something bad would occur. When you have Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) willing to sacrifice himself for his daughter Jesse (Violett Beane), the idea of a parent reminding their child of their love for them and their willingness to die for them is already present–which makes Henry’s last words, no matter how abbreviated they are, motivate such sadness because the setup was already present.
The credit goes less to adding a new dimension to Henry, as happened with Coulson in The Avengers before his demise, then to the cleverness in having Barry be largely victorious when there are still 10 minutes before 9:00 PM and the end of the episode. It’s a heightened contrast, even as I know from the preview that something depressing will occur, to have the story build upon cliche after cliche of a happy ending: the family get-together, the metahumans largely locked up or having escaped (with Zoom conveniently not yet defeated), Henry flirting with McGee, and Barry and Iris (Candice Patton) seeing where their future relationship goes.
To break off familial happiness with a spectacle–and that’s what it is, in the same fashion as Gotham this season has been spectacle after spectacle, as covered in this AV Club review–is to distract from what may not work: I’m too busy at the shock of Zoom really about to kill Henry, and the dread I feel that it will occur, to notice problems, such as why Barry didn’t think, “Oh, Zoom is still out here: let’s not get too comfortable.” And even that problem is ignored because of other surprises in this ending, such as Wally finally learning his foster brother is the Flash.
Overall, the episode was enjoyable as a superhero story: I get people in silly outfits in battle, with Barry fighting metahumans throughout Central City, and I get silly science fiction with STAR Labs building upon the previously introduced information about Earth-2 denizens at a different vibration (“higher vibration”). Black Siren allows Cassidy to be frightening, complete with decent foreshadowing via the mirror as her first clue that Cisco and Caitlin are not who they claim. And the humor was there, whether “Beats by Wells” or just about every line from Cisco. Tonight also finally let Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale), in his most concise, well-written, and well-acted monologue yet, explain to his father why he wants to be a hero.
And all of that excitement and sincerity makes Henry Allen’s death feel painful. A friend pointed out to me that the ending was again an indication that DC Comics’s television series are largely handling representations of death better than their film counterparts, like Man of Steel: whereas Superman’s murder of Zod was treated as spectacle, and whereas the death of Pa Kent was a pointless motivation for Clark, who already should be heroic without needing death to make him a good person, The Flash made Henry Allen mean something to Barry, so that his pain, and the quick cut to black after Henry’s death, is going to sit with me for awhile.
- And then that pain is evaporated by the silliness of Zoom deciding once and for all how to defeat the Flash…by hosting a race. This is comic book silly to the point of absurdity–but it’s such a trainwreck of an idea that I want to see where it goes. My theory is that, based on Cisco’s visions of Earth-2 torn at its magnetic poles, that Zoom is going to use his and Barry’s speed to rip apart that world, drawing upon their kinetic energy similar to how the Weather Wizard drew upon Superman and the Flash’s speed to power his meteorological manipulation machine in Superman: The Animated Series. And I think that is the longest sentence of comic book nerdiness I have written in one of these reviews so far.
- John Wesley Shipp, the actor who portrays Henry Allen in the CW Flash and Barry Allen in the previous CBS Flash, was at a local comics convention a few months ago. I didn’t get to see his talk or speak with him, so I imagine how far in advance he knew he was going to be killed off.
- Why are we waiting around to confirm whether Jesse and Wally are now speedsters? Why bother having Caitlin do a medical checkup on Jesse? Just wave Harry’s metahuman detecting watch on them–BOOM!–answer received.
- I didn’t get a chance to write out Zoom’s monologue to Barry about what makes them the same, as well as Zoom piercing Barry’s armor to tell him that while he’s playing superhero Zoom will be “winning.” However, the monologue was well done, both in writing and in Teddy Sears’s performance, finally bringing a believable menace and sociopathic joy in his villainy that has been lacking all season. I was grateful the episode let Sears give that performance rather than having Tony Todd again ADR’ed over his face.
- And let’s face it, two episodes ago, the show revealed that Henry’s mother’s last name was “Garrick,” so I’m not going to be surprised if Barry runs into his Earth-2 doppelganger and learn that world’s Henry Allen is, I don’t know, the Man in the Mask?
- So McGee, as a scientist, knows Barry is the Flash. I have to imagine Singh (Patrick Sabongui), who is the police captain, knows as well: that the Flash leaves without a goodbye only for Barry to pop up is too obvious for Singh to ignore. But it’s funnier that way if I imagine Singh is just trolling Allen. “I’m a police chief here, Allen. You got the same goofy grin and baby face as the Flash, mask or no mask.”
- This review is super-late due to hate-watching Agents of SHIELD–because I can’t resist snarking at how poorly handled that show has felt all season compared to this season of The Flash. As bad as Season 2 has handled Barry and company, at least it avoided flaws Agents of SHIELD had, even in its two-hour finale. Agents of SHIELD ends with a shot of Daisy, now finally with the superhero name Quake, flying up to the roof of a building–while The Flash already had Cisco with a superhero name, having fun with his abilities, and finally vibrating as his Earth-2 counterpart could. Agents of SHIELD finally introduces Hive’s actual face, with some decent CGI, after this season of The Flash had convincing CGI for the returning Grodd and the newly arrived Killer Shark. Oh, and The Flash actually was working to a conclusion rather than, as with Agents of SHIELD, introducing a mystery that was inevitably going to be disappointing: if you depend on a timeskip to make a story interesting, don’t be surprised when, getting to the answers, your audience either already figured out those answers or had a much better story in their head that makes your own story pale in comparison.