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.
Sadly, Barry is more concerned with figuring out Savitar’s identity. So Cisco takes him to meet his future self, who disbanded the team after Iris’ death and locked himself away in the now abandoned S.T.A.R. Labs. Unfortunately, FutureBarry isn’t any use because he never learned Savitar’s identity. Realizing he wasted his time coming here, Barry tries returning to his present, but he fails for some reason. He’s stuck there.
Next on the tour is Julian, who works at Iron Heights and watches over an imprisoned Caitlin as Killer Frost. During the visit, Killer Frost not only reveals that she knows who Savitar is but that in the past, she teams up with him to fight Team Flash. What a devastating reveal. Unfortunately, she refuses to tell Barry who Savitar is. So, Barry decides to pay Wally a visit, who has a broken spine and is unresponsive after a confrontation with Savitar. Joe’s situation is even more depressing because all he does is sit by Wally’s side and visit Iris’ grave.
The state of Team Flash has a profound effect on Barry because he realizes that this is the last thing Iris would’ve wanted. In fact, before Barry sped off to the future, Iris made him promise that he would be there for Joe if she died. Clearly, FutureBarry didn’t live up to that promise. The pain Joe feels from Barry abandoning him in the wake of all that tragedy is especially upsetting for the audience because the show has told us time and time again how much Barry means to Joe.
Barry figures out that Cisco is the one keeping him in the future because he wants Barry to help get the team back together in order to fix things. Despite his desire to return to the past, Barry agrees to stick around long enough to get the team back together because The Flash wouldn’t accept such a dark future.
Barry zips around Central City and collects the men of Team Flash for one goal: defeating Mirror Master and Top. The reunion brings some much-needed light to the world; everything looks a bit brighter. In fact, Barry’s determination to restore hope in this future inspires FutureBarry to get off his butt and help him take down Mirror Master. It’s worth noting that the Mirror Master/Top fight features some cool and trippy Inception-like visuals when Top hits The Flash with some vertigo.
FutureBarry agrees to work with Cisco and Team Flash to continue restoring hope. And before Barry runs back to the past, FutureBarry gives him the name of someone who could help with Savitar: Tracy Brand, a physicist who developed the technology that trapped Savitar in the Speed Force four years after Iris died. Hopefully, Barry can use the flashdrive he gets from him future self to help Tracy make her technological discovery years before she actually does. With that, Barry returns to the present, leaving a slightly lighter future in his wake, which is all we can ask for.
Meanwhile, Killer Frost meets with Savitar, who promises to make sure Caitlin never returns. Killer Frost is wary of trusting him until Savitar unmasks himself. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next week to find out who he is.
So to recap the recap: The Flash found a way to prolong the question of Savitar’s identity, which is incredibly frustrating because all of the mystery surrounding Savitar has reduced the threat he poses as a villain. By this point, I want Barry to finally defeat him so we can just move onto season 4’s non-speedster Big Bad. That being said, I did appreciate that the show acknowledged the importance of hope. Hopefully (sorry!) the show doesn’t forget that as it moves forward. Sure, things seem dire, but what makes The Flash great is that he constantly reminds us not to give up.
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