As I watch the third season of The Flash, my mind keeps returning to the way EW’s TV critic Jeff Jensen described the show’s titular hero in his review of the second season: “He’s a blazing streak of Tomorrowland in a gloomy, doomy, fury road culture.” It’s a perfect characterization of what the hero represents and what made the show so lovable in its first year. And that sentence has been on my mind recently because The Flash has been missing that sense of hope this season. In tonight’s episode, the show finally acknowledges that.
Helmed by first-time director Tom Cavanagh and written by The Originals‘ Carina Adly MacKenzie, “The Once and Future Flash” is a wheel-spinning hour that’s bolstered by the fact that it’s about restoring hope to a sad future, which is a theme I can get behind. At times, the hour veers too far into grief-porn territory; however, it feels like there’s a purpose. This may be the first time MacKenzie has written for The Flash, but she demonstrates an understanding of the characters and what makes the show great. It’s just a shame that her script — which features some of the show’s best-written dialogue — is weakened by the larger issues with season 3 as hole.
In fact, “The Once and Future Flash” opens with one of the season’s biggest problems: Killer Frost, who is throwing a frosty tantrum in S.T.A.R. Labs. As I’ve written multiple times this season, I still don’t understand why using her powers suddenly turns Caitlin evil. The show has failed to explain this, which is baffling because it could easily be explained away. Just look to the comics. For example, in James Tynion IV’s current run on Detective Comics (which you should definitely read), it’s revealed that Clayface became evil after he transformed into, well, Clayface because being in that clay state alters his brain and thereby his ethics. It would be great if the show could provide us with some explanation like that, because right now the way it’s handling Killer Frost feels pessimistic: Unless you’re Barry, Wally, or Cisco, you’re doomed to become evil if you’re a metahuman. But I digress.
Barry arrives in time to stop Killer Frost from killing Cisco, Julian, and H.R., all of whom were singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as they hid from her in the pipeline. (It was actually a funny moment). Somehow, Caitlin manages to escape in the shuffle, but Barry quickly pushes that out of his mind because he’s got something more pressing to do: travel to the year 2024 (a.k.a. the year listed on the Time Vault newspaper) to find out Savitar’s identity. He reasons that 2024 is a good place to start because there’s no mention of Savitar in the newspaper, which means he was defeated by then. So with Wally’s help, Barry speeds off into the future, leaving his teammates behind to twiddle their thumbs.
Surprise: 2024 is not the future Barry envisioned. It’s a dark and depressing place that looks even darker than Barry’s present does, which, let’s be honest, has gotten visually darker all season. Mirror Master and Top are surprised to find a Flash in the street because he hasn’t been seen in years. They try to kill him, but Barry manages to escape. Clearly, a future without a Flash means darkness.
From there, the grief-porn tour begins. First up, there’s Cisco, who lost his hands in a fight with Killer Frost and whose mind seems slightly off kilter because of the depressing state of the future. As I watched, I got the sense that what little remained of Cisco’s chipper demeanor had become a coping mechanism for 2024’s sad state. But encountering this Barry from the past has perked him up because he thinks they finally have a chance of righting what’s wrong.