I can think of no better way to start a conversation about my disappointment with the convoluted season finale The Flash — and with the second season in general — than with a flashback.
A few weeks ago, in an episode entitled “The Runaway Dinosaur,” Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) was sucked into the Speed Force, a metaphysical realm that is the source of his extraordinary powers. In a scenario similar to the climax of the Jodie Foster sci-fi flick Contact, Barry, marooned within a pocket of time-space and stripped of fleet-footed ability, interacted with benevolent higher order entities that assumed the form of loved ones. In something of a cosmic intervention, they exhorted Barry to recognize and release a psychic burden causing him so much identity drag: lingering anger over the childhood injustice that marked him and shaped his life, the murder of his mother. Barry did as coached and regained his heroic franchise. Flash, rebooted! Reflecting on this mystic science regression therapy with biological father Henry (John Wesley Shipp), Barry spelled out the lesson learned. “Everything that has happened to us — good and bad — it has made us who we are. And I don’t think I would change it, even if I could.”
It was a lovely sentiment, a geek gloss on the serenity prayer. Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. It was also very suspicious. “Even if I could” was a curious choice of words, considering that Flash has long had the means to quantum leap. Last year, he came thisclose to using his gift to avert his mom’s murder and alter history, and by extension, negate the histories of everyone connected to him. (They gave him their blessing to do so, a bit of grace that defied reason.) This was clearly not the right thing to do, no matter the permissions granted by friends and families (I don’t recall him asking the rest of the world; what about me, dammit?!), and fortunately, he didn’t follow through. Barry aborted the mission at the scene of the crime after being stopped by… himself! Or rather, a future version of himself, showing up in the nick of time, at this increasing well-nicked point of time, to wave him off. Why? Huh?! Mystery! Barry let mom die, but as she bled out, they shared a tender moment that, IMHO, seemed to give Barry the catharsis and lesson provided by “The Runaway Dinosaur” again a couple weeks ago. That re-visitation wasn’t a meaningless redundancy — you could argue Barry still had stuff to work out, even if the storytelling wasn’t actively acknowledging it — but it wasn’t necessary, either. Not unless it was setting up something else.
Which it was. In retrospect, we now see that “The Runaway Dinosaur” was a cunning bit of set-up. Those words “even if I could” were either trying to distract us from a possibility or foreshadow it, one that arrived in the season 2 finale. The plot had Barry racing — literally — to defeat the year’s big bad, Zoom (Teddy Sears, helped by Tony Todd’s spooky warble), a psychotic alt-reality Thanatos enslaved by pride and rage, bent on corrupting Barry and blotting out the multiverse. It involved a who’s-faster? contest between the rival speedsters — a silly-petty final battle and part of a scheme to power a doomsday machine — and “time remnants,” vestiges of aborted timeline. A boggling but nifty concept. Less cool: bogus suspense, like benching Barry for a chunk of the episode or stranding Barry’s adopted dad, Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), on an imperiled Earth-2. Flash engineered Zoom’s destruction by siccing the Time Wraiths (the Dementors of the Speed Force) on him. In doing so, he saved countless parallel worlds from getting zoom-zoomed — a crisis on infinite earths, if you will — and satisfying a scary thirst for vengeance: An episode earlier, Zoom had murdered Henry, leaving Barry without both his birth parents. Justice or bloodlust? Debate.
None of this was terribly surprising. It was rather perfunctory, actually, although kudos to Gustin for an impassioned performance. The shocker came after the battle had been won. Still reeling from Henry’s death, overwhelmed by the compounded pain of past losses and failures, and with nothing at stake except his assuaging his own existential misery, Barry renounced the lesson of serenity of “The Runaway Dinosaur” and decided to commit timeline suicide. Running away from his hard, agonizing present, Barry darted back to the moment of his mother’s murder, assumed the role of Wave Off Flash from the season 1 finale, defeated (killed?) Reverse Flash and saved her, erasing most of his history in the process. He made this choice without consulting friends and family, or, perhaps, with the assumption that the blessing they gave him in season 1 still stood. It was Barry breaking bad and indulging a quality that has historically distinguished the anti-hero from the hero, selfishness over selflessness. Flash might have the multiverse from Zoom, but Zoom won the battle for Barry’s soul.
Barry’s fall, spiraling from fury to hopelessness, was clearly and rigorously presented from opening scene to last. And yet, I didn’t buy a single damn moment of it. “The Good Dinosaur” had settled something, didn’t it? I thought so. Barry should have drawn upon that experience — upon two years of extraordinary experiences — to navigate the chaotic emotional terrain of the finale without getting lost in it. But no: The Flash, for an episode, at least, punted to the batty pessimism you find in grimmer geek fare — most notably, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman-Joker graphic novella of The Killing Joke or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight — the idea that even the best of us are just “one bad day” from going zoom-zoom mad and bad. There is room for this bleak perspective in the heightened reality of superhero stories, where morality is explored with extreme representation. But I don’t think The Flash earned it. Here, Henry’s death and Barry’s meltdown in response were contrivances to force the preferred storytelling set-up for next season.
By the way, though not apropos of nothing: Where were the superhero time-cops of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in all this mess? Barry’s subversion is exactly the kind of time crime Rip Hunter and company resolved to fight in last week’s season finale. C’mon, CW. What good is a shared universe if you’re not going to make logical use of it?
Perhaps Hunter and friends will play a role in cleaning up this mess this season 3 premiere. (Theory: Barry didn’t really change the past. He was abducted by the Legends and he’s working out his issues via some VR simulation of changed history aboard the Waverider.) Perhaps season 3 will indulge the fun of imagining an alternate timeline created by Barry’s actions. (Think: Fringe, season 4; the sideways world of Lost season 6.) Or perhaps my colleague Natalie Abrams is correct with her theory that the finale set the stage for an adaptation of Flashpoint, a seminal Flash story from the comics.
Regardless, I hope Barry’s past is not lost to him. Learning from his experience — from his successes and failures — is the true source of his heroism. Maintaining continuity also gives this serial a feeling of saga. Don’t look for Barry’s moral fugue to linger. I suspect season 3 will quickly set Barry on an arc of regret and redemption. The Flash — praised by many as the antithesis of a joyless dark knight chic — has too much invested in its anti-antihero brand positioning.
One possibility: crooked Barry and his increasingly tangled timeline get straightened out via a story that represents a true take on Crisis of Infinite Earths, a landmark saga from 1986 that sought to streamline DC’s chaotic superhero universe and refine the publisher’s storytelling policies. It could happen — or culminate — in the crossover event slated for December involving Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and the CBS exported Supergirl. Whatever story producer Greg Berlanti and company tell next, I hope they’ll establish new, clear rules for time travel, because the way they’re practicing it now has produced a situation not unlike the one that prompted Crisis 30 years ago, an increasingly untenable mess.
The sophomore season of The Flash was certifiably slumptacular. Earth 2 — the bold idea that launched the season — didn’t live up to the hype. The show lacked the interest or budget to fully realize it. Maybe next year. The emotional angle of the multiverse didn’t always work for me, either. Barry could be triggered to weird effect by confrontations with alt-world counterparts or lookalikes. When he met Earth-2 Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh), he immediately assumed the man had to be evil, just like Earth-1 Harrison Wells. Beholding Earth-3 Jay Garrick, a dead-ringer for his father (he was played by Shipp), intensified his murdered parent grief and catalyzed his final actions. Neither position felt authentic to Barry, the former more so than the latter. He can immediately wrap his big brain around “time remnants” and “time wraiths” and roll with then, but he busts on alt-earth doppelgängers and can’t manage his emotional response? Maybe I just expect too much from near-genius superheroes.
Barry’s romance with Patty (Shantel VanSanten) had some promise, but it felt like romance for the sake of romance, and it didn’t make sense he’d pursue it in light of the ongoing threat of Zoom and other struggles. His continued romantic fixation with Iris (Candice Patton) — with his adopted sister — will never work for me. Barry’s rapport with Joe, animated by great Gustin/Martin chemistry, is one the show’s greatest strengths and best sources of meaning. There wasn’t enough of it in season 2, due to the decision to introduce a biological son for Joe, Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale), and the effort to nurture Barry’s motivation for changing time by emphasizing his attachment to Henry. But Henry was an intermittent and awkward presence this season, especially during the endgame, and Shipp’s performance struck me as conspicuously stilted. Neither the writers nor Shipp knew what to do with the character until he could fulfill his function, i.e., getting killed by Zoom. (Small tangent: It does blunt the impact of a major character death when you can keep the actor by having them play a multiverse double. In the case of Cavanaugh and Harrison Wells, this was inevitable and absolutely essential; Cavanaugh is indispensable. Shipp as Jay Garrick? I thought that reveal diminished the sting of Henry’s brutal exit.)
*Addition on May 28, 2016: Since posting this review, several readers have objected to my characterization of the Barry/Iris relationship and my views on Barry and Joe. I’d like to make some clarifications. I erred when I identified Iris has Barry’s “adopted sister.” Joe never adopted Barry. My choice of the word “fixated” proceeded from a perspective that Barry would have given up his romantic feelings for Iris (which predates his mother’s murder) once they started living together when he was 11. Yes, show canon says Barry never gave up the crush. But this insistence doesn’t mean we can’t question it. Isn’t it likely Barry would have come to regard Iris more as a sister? It’s not an unreasonable perspective and it’s one I’ve always had. Regardless, I concede that it’s debatable. Moreover, while I wish we got more Barry/Joe this season, I would NOT have wanted it at the expense of the time the show gave to Joe and his other kids, Iris and Wally.
Zoom was a bust. He began as an alluring mystery but lost zip over time. Once revealed as Sears’ “Jay Garrick” (an identity he stole of Shipp’s Earth-3 character), Zoom became a weak embodiment of generic villainy — the scary romantic, the wannabe world conqueror, the if-I-can’t-be-happy-no-one-can-be-happy misery-maker — explained by familiar catastrophe psychology. His motivations and madness went from muddy to banal, his tactics made no sense. It would be inaccurate to call him a Harrison Wells rehash, but affected the protagonist in similar ways, like co-opting Flash in his endgame scheme. Other repetitions bothered me, too. Can we put a moratorium on stories that require Flash to run really fast* in order to generate energy that can power some piece of sci-fi machinery?
*Flash’s powers are conceptually fascinating and can make for cinematically exciting spectacle. But I wish the show took a more hard sci-fi approach to him — I was never a fan of the Speed Force concept — and I’m not sure a TV series can maximize the possibilities of the character given the limitations of time and budget. You need an endless supply of metahuman villains to fuel story for this show, and endless diversity to keep the show interesting. They should give Barry real problems — even win a skirmish or two — before Barry figures out a way to defeat them. And yet, unless said bad guy also has super-speed, god-like powers, or takes Barry by total surprise, Flash should be able to see and dodge any punch, any bullet, any blast of energy hurled at him. I worry the show is running out of producible ideas for expressions of Barry’s abilities. The Flash needs an imagination upgrade. But can the show afford it?
The Flash has a great cast and winning characters, relationships and chemistries that can rock inspired material. I wonder, though, if the show is running out of inspiration. Barry’s season was a repeating motif. He lost himself, he found himself. He drifted from strength (his powers; his community), he reconnected with it. His choices in the finale suggest a break in form — but only because of the finale. Come next season, I suspect Barry will quickly snap back into shape. There’s wisdom in this — I can relate to ebb and flow more than boundless ascension — but I’m not sure how long the show can run with that perspective. You can only play the same motif so many times before becoming bored with it. Is this all there is to The Flash? Flash, rebooted, over and over? Maybe that’s enough for you to keep watching. I need something different. But I need it earned.