The Flash Season 3 Episode 2, “Paradox.” Directed by Ralph Hemecker. Written by Aaron Helbing and Tom Helbing.
This episode of The Flash was an improvement upon last week, if just for bringing viewers back to a version of the Arrow-verse more similar to what we know compared to the Flashpoint timeline we just left. But the quick-fixes offered to Barry (Grant Gustin), including the quickness of him earning forgiveness, are frustrating. (SPOILERS below.)
A challenge for a show, moving beyond its first season, is how to persist with what works, while avoiding what has not. “Paradox” persists with a lot of what has not worked in previous seasons of The Flash, and I am struggling to find much that does work in this week’s episode.
For example, what works in The Flash is the comedy infusion from Cisco (Carlos Valdes). That does not mean we don’t let him mourn over the newly revealed death of his brother, Dante, in this timeline–but it also means that there is a lack of balance in this episode, and in this overall season up to just this second episode, when it comes to humor. Felicity (Emily Bett Richards), already serving as some comedy relief in Arrow, guest stars to listen to Barry monologue as to what has happened–how he altered the timeline again, how Joe (Jesse L. Martin) and Iris (Candice Patton) do not get along, how Cisco blames Barry for not altering time to save Dante.
Yet this episode lacks that fun found in Season 1, even in its darkest moments. The previous seasons were able to keep comedy even among its darkest villains, whether Thawne’s (Tom Cavangh) gloating and Big Belly Burger-munching, or the condescending militaristic glee that Clancy Brown has to contain as Eiling. Here, we have an Alphonse Elric ripoff in Alchemy, and the Rival still running around in that heinous outfit–but not one person can bother to crack a joke about how awful that suit looks. There is room for some comedy, and it has to be more than just Cisco re-naming Alchemy as “Dr. Alchemy.”
Speaking of villains, another aspect of The Flash that works is having an arc villain who is not a speedster: we get the somewhat magical Alchemy and his vague Evil League of Evil, so I hope we can resist going back to more speedster villains this season. What doesn’t work, however, is having Alchemy, as this arc villain, be so vague: that does little to heighten mystery to attract viewers, as it instead seems like unclear writing. Even the energy blast sent out by Alchemy at Barry looked so similar to my color-blind eyes like Snart’s freeze gun that the powers seem repetitive. The Flash has to keep pushing itself–as Jay said, move forward–with greater challenges, rather than relying on what is convenient but dull or poorly handled. The show impressed many of us for capturing speedster heroes and villains so well, as well as realistic looking beasts such as Grodd and Killer Shark; now is the time to try villains with superpowers and appearances far different from what we are used to. There are cheats, some that work well and some that don’t: J’onn remaining in his Hank Henshaw form in Supergirl is a cheat but still works as we get reminders of his abilities and Martian appearance, whereas hiding Hive for so long inside Ward for a disappointing season finale reveal in Agents of SHIELD does not.
As well, this mystery about who is Alchemy seems initially like a retread of the Reverse Flash and Zoom: who are they? What do they want? Those are less interesting questions, compared to questions about how Alchemy can exist outside of the timeline, and how they can power-up potential metahumans such as the Rival, Clariss (Todd Lasance), and potentially Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker).
Drama for the sake of drama also compromises a story. Every story needs a problem to propel the plot: what the character wants to happen, and the work they have to accomplish to get there. That is the problem with this story for Barry: what he wants seems less important to me than what his supporting cast wants, and the work they have to do to reach those goals is much harder than it is for Barry, especially when, on a whim, Barry can undermine that work with yet another bout of time travel.
The good drama to this episode is that Joe, Iris, and Cisco’s reactions to Barry are realistic: of course Iris would be upset if Joe kept yet another secret from her, as we learn he hid her mother’s death from her, and of course Cisco would call out Barry’s hypocrisy for revising time to save others, including his parents, but not Dante. The pain I feel for Cisco’s loss also feels more real that Dante dies from a drunk driver, something so quotidian, rather than, as with the death of Barry’s mother, something that is made epic because the murderer was his time-traveling supervillain inverse.
The bad drama to this episode, however, is that, as I fear, the work to return the characters to the status quo, or closer to it, must be performed in 44 minutes, which therefore feels unrealistic. The risk is that, should the aftermath of Barry’s actions be extended for too many episodes, this soap opera goes on too long for a sound, concise narrative.
When addressing such an important topics as grief, trauma, and mental health, there are two iterations of The Flash: before “The Runaway Dinosaur,” and after “The Runaway Dinosaur.” That episode may be the best one to come out of this series, even better than the show’s best season, its first season. It is the quality of that episode that makes all that comes after it pale in comparison, whether the writers jerking Barry’s chain to kill off his father, or having him take on dangerous actions with superpowers that he should not abuse when he is in such moments of emotional grief. Here, Barry screws up the timeline, and informs his peers he will not change time again: “You have to live with those differences.” (Yeah, sure–while Legends of Tomorrow is doing that all the time and likely will bring Barry in to do so again.) Barry gets to lecture his peers that they don’t know the ramifications of such actions, the “heavy burden to bear,” as Barry calls it, when he has demonstrated repeatedly he does not understand them either. He is not learning very quickly, and it’s tiring.
Even characters do not seem aware of how awful are Barry’s actions. For Iris to compare Cisco revealing Barry’s secret identity, to Barry deciding to put in the effort to go back in time, is not even close. The timing is different. Cisco operates under an instant moment of distress: if he did not reveal this information to Snart, his brother would be killed. Barry had all the time in the world to stop, think, and realize going back in time again to try to stop his mother’s death is a bad call. And the methods are different: Cisco just had to say a name, Barry had to go through the effort to run really fast, pinpoint the right moment in time when Thawne was going to kill Nora, and stop that murder. Not even close, Iris. I know her example is hyperbolic to make her point, yet that rhetorical strategy disrupts suspension of disbelief: viewers who may hit pause on the remote and spend more time debating that problem then continuing to watch the episode.
I don’t know what to do with these moments: are his peers supposed to be so flexible every time Barry makes these egregious errors, mollifying them as Iris does to a mere “mistake,” or are they supposed to lock him away? That latter option is not going to work, most definitely not from a mental health care perspective, as Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) saw last season when he was the one to free an irate Barry from the pipeline rather than imprison him indefinitely. It is up to Barry to change–and as he is repeating the same plot of grief without development, he may be a realistic portrayal of the struggles to live through trauma, but that portrayal come simultaneously with him losing more and more of his likable qualities.
The intervention by Jay Garrick (John Wesley Shipp) informs Barry what is painfully obvious to all of us after three season–you can change the past, but you can’t change it perfectly–and maybe that is the best type of therapy that this show thinks it can offer its supposed hero: experience. For me, that form of therapy seems less helpful in this show, as Barry has had two years of such experiences to know better; moving forward in this show, who knows, maybe that will change him for the better.
And that is my impatience with The Flash: I want it to go faster. I want the change to happen now, already.
- Wait, why is Alphonse Elric in an Excalibur mask? Oh, that’s Alchemy? Huh. I know little about any iteration of the character, aside from the cameos two of them made in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Flash and Substance,” and the vagueness of their energy blast in this episode and their secret society means little to me. I don’t care whether those two details are integral to the character in the comic: this is an adaptation, so adapt the character to lend some flash to that substance–make the energy blast look like something other than a freeze gun blast, color them differently, have his organization be something out of the comics (HIVE was already taken by Arrow), but do something in the next episodes to make them far more colorful. And no, my complaints obviously aren’t because I think Fullmetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, and The Return of the Caped Crusaders were more colorful. Obviously not. Obviously. Of course. Okay, maybe a little.
- It is comical how Barry’s changes to the timeline even change how Diggle conceived his child, thus that he has a son rather than a daughter. Granted, this is also some retconning to explain John Diggle Jr. popping up as the future Green Arrow in Legends of Tomorrow, but still.
- Hey, remember Patty Spivot? No? Me neither.
- Jeez, Barry sounded really disappointed that Singh is back as police chief. Look, I miss Alex Desert’s character, too, but no need to be a killjoy, Barry–that’s my job.
- Jay takes Barry to 1999, where the diner is playing the WB Network’s Dawson’s Creek. Of course it is–since the CW was formed out of the WB, and Jay’s actor, John Wesley Shipp, was on Dawson’s Creek, along with some of the producers of The Flash.
- “Too slow, Flash.” While I’m annoyed how this show has Iris serve as a spokesperson for the universe’s desire to have her and Barry together, and to speak on his behalf that he be forgiven, at least Iris has been a considerable improvement over Season 1 in getting to demonstrate cleverness and resourceful. Still, that line by her is way too similar to what I’m sure Reverse-Flash and Zoom has said to Barry before killing people close to him.
- Speaking of doppelgangers, Ellak Roach helpfully pointed out how Barry with the marker on the timeline parallels Thawne/Wells doing the same: Barry has now taken over the role as his own villain. And he didn’t even need a duplicator gun and Bat-Nip to do it.
- Felicity was here, so Barry could narrate the plot to her (and the audience), and so she could offer the comedy relief that a mourning Cisco will not. Then, she just disappears because Barry finished his story, I guess?
- We get a tease about Caitlin struggling to contain her Killer Frost powers, which evidently came to be in this new timeline (perhaps because of Alchemy?). I don’t care right now: we had a great version of Killer Frost last season, this revelation tonight is buried at the end of the episode, it should have been the cliffhanger instead of the kiss between Barry and Iris or someone killing the Rival, and it was spoiled in last week’s trailer–and the fact that Episode 5’s title is “Killer Frost.” And thus, I am the hipster who gets to have his cake, then whine about it, too: I search for spoilers, then I complain about spoilers. Hypocrisy is great!
- Oh, yeah, and Barry has a new officemate in CSI, Julian Albert (Tom Felton). He doesn’t like mysteries, he wants to discover what makes things work, and Barry’s ability to get a sample from the crime scene away from him allows him to suspect Barry has some super abilities he is hiding. As Barry does not remember Julian, and as Julian seems equally surprised by Barry, the show may inadvertently be foreshadowing him as Alchemy. But that doesn’t quite work, as Alchemy’s visions of the other timelines may mean he already knows who Barry is. Still, after already using Wells and Jay (so we thought they were named) as the alter egos to arc villains Reverse Flash and Zoom, I would not be surprised if Julian is revealed or hinted more strongly to be Alchemy.
- “That’s it in a nutshell,” says Julian about the husks. Wait…Nutshell. Husk. Was that a pun?