REVIEW: The Flash, Season 2 Finale, “The Race of His Life”

After a disappointing season, the finale “The Race of His Life” concludes with Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) again trying to out-run his past–or, rather, run back to his past to change it. In light of numerous comic book continuity resets, I’m ambivalent. But at least the finale shows Barry’s attempts to address the traumas of his past cannot be solved by grand gestures and should require patience–something this speedster lacks.

Tonight’s Season 2 finale of The Flash was fanservice. Understanding that term in its widest and most literal denotation (and not its more prurient connotative definition), it’s about putting in as much content to appeal to hardcore’s fans basest interest, which in the case of this finale means mythology gags, references to the most popular parts of the original comics. In revealing the identity of the actual Jay Garrick, the Man in the Mask, confirmed to be Henry Allen’s Earth-3 doppelganger, has the character, as played by John Wesley Shipp, look like he came out of an Alex Ross illustration. Barry’s willingness to have his body disintegrate to prevent the destruction of the multiverse is taken from the Crisis on Infinite Earths comic book story arc (1985-1986). And Barry going to the past to save his mother (Michele Harrison) from the Reverse Flash comes from the Flashpoint comic book story arc (2011).

And it is those last two references that bother me, because I have no idea what to do with this episode.

Today, Film Critic Hulk wrote a review of Captain America: Civil War, identifying a few problems in the film as related to plot, story, and character. I want to write more about this review, including how it forms a lot of what I think about that film’s approach to certain key themes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And Film Critic Hulk builds on an idea I have written about, as the Marvel films feels like works in progress–“some assembly required,” as The Avengers tagline says in advertising.

I see a similar approach to how Berlanti and company have written Season 2 of The Flash, in which nothing feels like closure. That is a frustrating approach when it comes to comic book serialized narratives, especially when those comics are willing to destroy decades of stories for the sake of streamlining a story still in progress.

Both Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flashpoint, as alluded to in the Season 2 finale of The Flash, resulted in DC Comics making drastic changes to its previous continuity, including removing alternate universes from its multiverse setting, changing the back-stories and even personalities of its characters, and serving as marketing ploys to let older readers mourn the loss of one era of storytelling and to attract new readers who would not have to worry about the earlier continuity. Of course, the latter is not quite true: new readers who become invested in a story end up reading the older texts anyway, and thanks to the Internet, you don’t have as much of an excuse not to know about older texts when you can read an evidence-supported citation-heavy summary from a decent news site, Wikipedia article, or fan wiki.

I was conflicted with the Season 1 finale of The Flash, in which Barry refuses to save his mother’s life. On the one hand, it is yet again killing off a female character, who when given barely any development is killed off to motivate the character’s development. On the other hand, at least it avoided the timeline paradox problems that emerged in Flashpoint, which seemed to me so cynical in adding an unnecessary motivation to Barry Allen, as if his heroism had to be born out of a past tragedy rather than simply because using his speed for good is the decent thing to do. It was all the more confusing when The Flash TV show has made it obvious since Episode 1 that Barry does what he does because he is supposed to be good: the episode goes out of its way to explain that pre-superpowered child Barry went out of his way to confront bullies, no Speed Force necessary. If The Flash TV show could learn not to do what the comics did, and instead have Barry accept that the past cannot be changed, then maybe that would show some maturity on his part. The show seems to suggest that time travel and superpowers are not how one moves on from trauma: it is through the daily work of living another day that someone gets through that depression.

Then at the end of “The Race of His Life,” Barry goes back in time and screws up the continuity. Oh, joy.

To the show’s credit, I appreciate that it is not letting Barry work through trauma as if it is one grand gesture. Returning to Film Critic Hulk’s review, I think that is one different they and I have in referring to some storytelling. Film Critic Hulk sounds like they expect some grand gesture that immediately solve the problem for a character. In the case of Civil War, Film Critic Hulk wants Tony Stark to get a much needed comeuppance to punish him for his misdeeds and let him move past his trauma. But that desire overlooks all the other comeuppances Stark gets, at least indirectly: having his friend paralyzed, his romance breakup, and his superhero family torn apart in a custody battle with Steve Rogers wasn’t enough of a comeuppance, not to mention the “Why You Suck” speech given to him by Romanoff in Civil War.

Here, with The Flash, there is that grand gesture designed to suggest he gets closure, whether that is the heart-to-heart with Iris (Candice Patton), or the more obvious one of saving his mother. But we know that saving his mother is not going to be the end to his troubles. That is what I find more successful in this finale, that it is demonstrating that Barry cannot resist screwing things up more and more to try to fix his life. Barry is not someone who can accept his flaws and his mistakes. He had that moment of closure a few episodes ago with “The Runaway Dinosaur,” probably the season’s best episode because, thank God, it was not about a dull villain like Zoom and took time to let Barry breathe and face his problems. That episode showed working through trauma as an exhausting, slow process, which helped to reduce the pace of a super-fast show like this one, which focused on a speedster who wants to out-run his problems.

I’m happy the show is still looking at Barry trying to out-run his problems; I’m not optimistic that the show is going to keep tackling issues of mental health very well, especially when this season’s arch villain was born out of tragedy and, rather than treating his post-traumatic stress with more maturity, made him into a dull supervillain like Zoom.

Speaking of which, Zoom was not the villain this season needed: he was a retread of the Reverse-Flash, only without the vibrant color scheme to make him stand out, only with Teddy Sears failing to match the intensity and seduction of Tom Cavanagh, and only depending on Tony Todd to give Zoom the fearsomeness that Sears was not bringing. Zoom was made into Reverse-Flash’s doppelganger, and in a season of doppelgangers, he was dull. The writers gave no reward to audience members for paying attention, and no mystery, either, so that clues provided could keep the viewers guessing. Season 1 had red herrings to leave us wondering who the Reverse-Flash really was, hinting at Eobard Thawne with the appearance of Eddie Thawne, yet not naming Eobard until the exact moment they revealed he was the Reverse-Flash. Season 1 gave hints it was Harrison Wells, only slowly revealing how a man supposedly confined to a wheelchair and supposedly with no super-speed could be a time-traveling murderous speedster.

In contrast to Season 1 giving the audience some hint of who the Reverse-Flash was, Season 2 took such short-cuts that made the mystery boring rather than interesting, making sure Zoom and Sears’s Jay Garrick were not in the same room until it was revealed that Zoom was Sears’s Garrick, actually Earth-2’s Hunter Zolomon.

As for more fanservice, the time remnants that Zoom used to trick Team Flash at least had a satisfactory payoff in this episode, with Barry willing to make one of his own and that person willing to die to save the multiverse.

And the episode’s setup was hinting at narrative directions to make fans excited. A friend and I discussed while watching how Barry’s race against Zoom would show him the power of teamwork by having another speedster join him, a classic motif from The Flash that has been used in Young Justice and Batman: The Brave and the Bold with Barry’s colleagues like Jay Garrick (the real heroic one) and Wally West (Kid Flash, in those cases) running with him to give Barry the boost of speed needed to take down a threat. Granted, my friend and I thought the speedsters coming to help Barry would be Jesse (Violett Beane) and Wally (Keiyan Lonsdale), shown already to have been hit by the Particle Accelerator’s Dark Matter, not a time remnant, but hey, something cool happened, so I’m satisfied enough to keep the plot moving.

Another bit of fanservice was returning the Time Wraith, albeit for the sake of keeping Barry’s hands clean from killing Zoom and instead just letting those Wraith, mindless as they seem, take away Zoom for his temporal crimes but not Barry. That moment depends far too much on narrative convenience–that the Wraiths would not take Barry with them for his own time travel shenanigans, which he does again at the end of this episode by saving his mother–and on making sure Barry does not look like a murderer by killing Zoom with his own hands–ignoring that Barry has already killed people directly, like Atom Smasher in the Season 2 premiere, or indirectly, as with his guilt over the deaths of Girder, Ronnie Raymond, and both of his parents.

As well, there was another death Barry has been indirectly responsible for: Eddie Thawne’s. His death in the Season 1 finale gave some sadness to the episode. This season concludes with Barry, understandably, upset at learning the real Jay Garrick is his recently murdered father’s doppelganger and his inability to confront that loss. Eddie’s death gave some tragedy to the series, as he chose to die to save Barry. But Barry mourning his father upon meeting the real Jay, and his decision to undo these deaths by first saving his mother, seems to pull out that tragedy. Barry did not give into the darkness as Zoom said he wanted, but now Barry is in the midst of doing something supremely stupid–but also utterly understandable. And I don’t know what to do with it.

As I felt conflicted about the Season 1 finale, I feel conflicted about this Season 2 finale: re-setting continuity is one of the most annoying problems in approaching long-running franchises, especially in comics. DC Comics has been guilty of numerous continuity resets for the sake of removing unnecessary alternate universes, to simplify a timeline, to eliminate doppelgangers, unwanted characters, and legally lost characters, or to introduce DC’s new recently acquired characters through buyouts (whether Charlton Comics, Captain Marvel, or the tentative agreement with Milestone Comics). Heck, DC is about to do its latest continuity reset, this one potentially incorporating Alan Moore, David Gibbons, and John Higgins’s Watchmen (1986-1987) into its main universe, as if DC’s comic books needed to get any more grimdark.

In reviews I’ve posted, I’ve avoided assigning grades. Sometimes I can judge an entry in a series in comparison to other entries, such as ranking Captain America: Civil War with respect to other Marvel Cinematic Universe films and television series. But I prefer to have these reviews exist as analysis rather than judgment. As well, it is vexing to give a grade to an episode without seeing it within its overall context, which I can’t do anyway until The Flash reaches its conclusion. Granted, Barry probably just hit the reset button and destroyed the current timeline–but that doesn’t end the show so much as potentially revise what comes next.

Stray Observations

  • Cisco (Carlos Valdes) was as usual the MVP of the episode, including a snap at Michael Bay’s Transformers and his dialogue with Harry: “Come on, Ramon, you never worked with a tool before?” Cisco: “I’m working with one now.”
  • What was the point of Jesse telling her father that she knew he wanted to stay on Earth-1? That setup was supposed to be more conflict between father and daughter, but the moment she said she was going back to Earth-2, that’s it, of course Harry is going back with his daughter.
  • While Wally’s character development has suffered, I have appreciated that the dialogue has had him serve as a voice of reason amid the people on Team Flash who are far too close to the situation to see alternative perspectives. Wally is following Roy’s storyline from Arrow, but at least it is a sufficient path. Plus, it was Wally who identified that Barry needed food–after all, he has to keep up his metabolism with his super-speed–and called out the others for locking Barry in the PIpeline. Seriously, you keep Barry in solitary confinement? That is going to turn him into a supervillain, people!
  • There is something there with Zoom killing his time remnant to show his seriousness to Barry, as well as to somehow symbolically show Zoom’s suicidal tendencies as related to past traumas–but it is so nebulous that I don’t know how to argue it properly without this kind of an argument becoming insulting to actual mental health care concerns.
  • Well, that the end to Season 2 of The Flash, and probably some elements to this show’s timeline. See you after the summer for the next season!

 

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