After one really good season, and one throughly flawed season, The Flash returns with a dull episode that does a lot of setting up without seeming to move in one direction.
Language warning (since it seems my relatives recommended reading this blog–a sincere thank you for the advertisement!)
The Flash as a series began out of Flashpoint, Geoff Johns’s revised origin story for Barry Allen in the comics: a man always running forward, but trapped in the past of previous traumas. To the show’s credit, for most of the first two seasons, it has had well-done acknowledgement of the daily task of working through trauma, without allowing for quick (pardon the pun) fixes. It is commendable that, for most of its first two seasons, the show avoided having Barry (Grant Gustin) travel back in time and change the past to erase his mother’s (Michelle Harrison) death, thereby erasing his trauma. The reasons to justify Barry’s decision not to prevent his mother’s death can be flimsy, but those reasons prevented the show from being too unrealistic: as our world cannot undo such traumatic events, it would be difficult to have someone like Barry erase his traumas while members of the audience cannot. Many of these points have been addressed well in other texts, and even within The Flash itself, “The Runaway Dinosaur” probably the best episode this show has created.
Unfortunately, Season 3 of The Flash is continuing with the worst parts of the Johns’s revised origin story from the comics, in which Barry, having prevented the murder of his mother, finds himself in a revised timeline, and should he not allow his mother’s death, the fate of this world will worsen. For tonight’s episode, the fate that would worsen is the potential death of Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale), the new Flash of this timeline. This one person’s death is not as weighty as what happens in alternative tellings of this story, especially in the comics, and also in the animated film Flashpoint Paradox, in which saving the life of Barry’s mother has a ripple effect that also creates a global war between Themyscira and Atlantis for…some vague reason. (How does Barry saving his mother lead to Aquaman and Wonder Woman having a failed peace pact again?)
Much as Barry is trapped in the past, this show is trapped in repeating the same plotline about Barry’s start-and-stop approach to not necessarily closure and acceptance, but a story that is not so repetitive. The episode tries and fails to acknowledge that repetition in some cute way, with the numerous allusions to the series premiere: Cisco (Carlos Valdes) referring to the Rival (Todd Lasance) as a “Weather Wizard,” Barry undoing a tornado, Joe (Jesse L. Martin) saving Barry by shooting the villain to death. As this episode is the beginning of a longer arc to change the status quo for The Flash, I have to suspend some criticism until looking at it in its totality, even as it fails to remove the unpleasant taste I had from last season’s finale. As an episode on its own, “Flashpoint” fails in its own encapsulation. If the fights were more than lighting-speed running with intercuts of Barry and the Rival flipping each other over, if the Rival had a good costume and not something out of a Party City bargain bin, if the mythology gags were better and funnier (minus Cisco with a Vibe-like Viewfinder and seeing images of getting his heart crushed), then this episode would be great. This episode failed in each of those qualities, so it fails as an episode on its own. Whether this episode succeeds in establishing a larger arc for this season remains to be seen.
As well, if the ripples affected more than Barry’s world but more obviously those for Green Arrow and the Legends of Tomorrow (as would be indicated here, not in their own shows only), at least this episode would feel important. Yet it does not. Even the death of Nora Allen lacks weight. That moment should hurt, yet it has been seen so often, and it has been an establishing part of the show, that I feel numb to it. I could say that is a feeling similar to Barry’s acceptance that he cannot save his parents, as he gives his goodbye to them about the last three months (because, you know, that’s the same amount of time that has past for the audience during summer hiatus) and brings Thawne (Matt Letscher) back to past to kill his mother. It is bad enough that the show starts on a stuffed in the fridge trope, to then be denied some better story with Barry and his parent Nora and Henry (John Wesley Shipp) that stands as more than a quick scene of his parents asking him to get out of the fucking house is a waste.
Instead, as with problems I had with Luke Cage and am having increasingly with the Marvel Netflix series, The Flash is trading on loose continuity that may be mitigated by marathon viewing rather than weekly viewing. For example, the episode sets up interesting ideas–Cisco as a business magnate, Wally as the Flash, Iris (Candace Patton) as his mission control and informant–that are not given their full opportunity to be explored. Loose continuity is delaying the gratification of those elements combining in some important way for meaningful payoff, similar to how Agents of SHIELD had the opportunity of numerous episodes in Season 1 to lead to payoff, only to wipe out SHIELD’s entire infrastructure with The Winter Soldier HYDRA reveal, making most of what preceded pointless viewing for a retroactive continuity restart.
The Flash tonight thankfully avoided that kind of ret-con, something seen as well in the later Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comics, and opted instead for…erasing that timeline with CEO Cisco, Flash Wally, and informant Iris before we saw where any of that could go. Maybe if this episode would do more with Iris instead of having her repeat that the universe wants her and Barry together, and as more than talking to him through an intercom for moral support, then we could have had time to show her as the Oracle to Wally’s Oliver. And maybe the impermanence of this alternate timeline is why Cisco’s company hardly looks any different from the original STAR Labs set (that, and it’s cheaper for set construction), which makes the episode’s visit to an alternate universe pointless–or maybe easy enough to bring back. I don’t know–and that confusion is frustrating me. This is not like having Earth-2 always there to bring back; this feels like a foreclosed timeline that had potential wasted. It doesn’t help that Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) barely was involved in the story, as if the writers don’t know what to do with her unless it involves pulling the trigger and making her Killer Frost already.
The exercise in another timeline adventure seems pointless, even with Thawne chiding Barry at episode’s end about how much still has been changed, indicated by Wally’s explanation to Barry that Iris has nothing to do with Joe anymore.
Given my confusion about this episode, and how it is not fair to judge it without consideration of its place alongside the other episodes in this Flashpoint arc, this review will be shorter until I see what comes next for this series–which means reviews of subsequent episodes may be longer.
- Another problem with summer breaks between seasons: you come up with interesting theories only to have them jossed. Like, I had thought Wally already had his speed powers after Barry’s absorption into the Speed Force last season, and that his Flash suit was a modified version of the spare Reverse-Flash suit Thawne left behind before his death (as established in the Season 2 Gorilla Grodd episode). But nope–he just has a yellow suit because.
- Let’s count the ways Barry is still functioning as a dislikable, unheroic superhero: stripping your foster dad for a shower then shoving him in a suit to get him to work on time against his will; using his knowledge of the other timeline to try to score a date with Iris; kidnapping Alt Universe Team Flash instead of putting on the red Flash suit, introducing himself properly, and getting on to business. Seriously, so many of Barry’s problems in Season 1 could have been solved by him being direct and honest, and yet when he still is called out on that behavior by other characters, he is like the protagonist of The Natural: he just doesn’t learn. And a protagonist who does not learn is one who is not dynamic and likely not interesting. Maybe that static aspect to Barry could serve as one representation of the problems with trauma and grief; here, it seems more like the writers needed a way to quickly move the plot forward, so having Barry kidnap his friends was sufficient.
- Also, Barry’s repetition of Wally as “Kid Flash” is disconcerting. Even as a mythology gag to Wally’s origins in the comics as the superhero with that name, the age difference between Barry and Wally in this continuity makes that joke fall flat. Iris later steps in to say that is the name she also calls Wally–and that joke would have worked so much better, as that is her _kid brother_. Instead, having Barry, a white man, refer to Wally, a black man, as “kid” is edging close to the racism of calling a black man “boy.”
- The scientific inconsistencies in this episode are more annoying, since there was little to enjoy in costuming, plot, jokes, or nerdy references. For example, if Barry brought Thawne to the present to lock him up, how was Thawne not able to escape? Did he lose his super-speed, or did Barry figure out how to rig a jail cell against speedster with just materials in an abandoned factory?
- Also, if Barry brought Thawne to the present, that means there is still that child Barry in the past who grows up to become Barry–so shouldn’t there be two Barry’s, the one who grew up, and this one who came back to the present day?
- And why did Wally’s healing factor not work? Was Barry sucking up all the Speed Force in this timeline that it couldn’t heal Wally, too? And how is it that using up his speed was making Barry forget the previous timeline? Because he was using up so much speed he was severing a connection to the Speed Force?
- “ALCHEMY!” 10/3 was yesterday, The Flash. You already missed Fullmetal Alchemist Day. (And before I get another “Actually…” remark, yes, I know the Alchemist is the villain this season–and good, as maybe something pseudo-magical would be a threat to Barry, rather than going back to the Harrison Welles–I mean, the well of speedsters.)
- “I made a big mistake.” When the preview for next week’s episode is a callback to a tired Arrested Development running gag, there is a problem of unintentional humor.