After Firestorm entity attacks a former physicist friend of Martin Stein, Dr. Quentin Quail, The team realizes they must capture him once and for all. They deduce the best way to track Ronnie is to find something connecting to Dr. Martin Stein, who Barry met on the train before the particle accelerator exploded. Stein was working on F.I.R.E.S.T.O.R.M. and had the device with him when the accelerator exploded, and it caused him to be fused with Ronnie — Ronnie’s body, Stein’s mind. After finding Stein’s wife, they have a stakeout and discover that Firestorm still visited his wife; they try to take him to STAR Labs, but unfortunately fail. They are eventually able to use Stein’s wife to help bring Firestorm to his senses, and after giving him a dose of anti-psychotic medication, Stein gains full control. However, they discover that his body is unstable, and could result in a nuclear explosion in two hours.
Meanwhile, Barry struggles to balance his duties as The Flash and his relationship with Linda Park, fearing for his own sexual impulses in light of his superspeed, as well as having be constantly called into duty. Linda breaks it off after Barry has to run out on her to get Firestorm, and when he tries to repair it, Iris accidentally lets it slip that Barry still has feelings for her. Barry convinces Linda to go on one more date with him by eating a ghost pepper in front of her. Joe enlists Cisco’s help to reinvestigate the murder of Nora Allen at the old house, where Cisco is able to use sodium nitrate on the back of a mirror to create a holographic photoset of the night. They also discover a spatter of blood; Joe asks Cisco to check it against Wells’ DNA, to Cisco’s anger. However, when Cisco checks it, he discovers the blood matches Barry’s DNA as an adult. Wells converts a piece of the tachyon device into a quantum slicer, which Barry and Caitlin bring to Firestorm (who has gone to the outskirts of town to prevent people from dying in the explosion.) Caitlin activates the device, but it appears to fail, and Barry and Caitlin run away to escape the nuclear blast. General Eiling detects the explosion and tasks his team to obtain Firestorm.
While perhaps not the most shocking ending of an episode in the grand scheme of things, there’s something to be said about anything that ends with our characters running from a full-on nuclear blast before a cut-to-black. Throw in that the nuclear blast stems from two characters spliced together at the quantum level, and it’s clear how quickly this show has plunged head first into the colorful world of comic book sci-fi. That’s not even counting the holographic mirror-photo thing and time travel reveal in the subplot, either.
The ending of “The Nuclear Man” is nothing if not abrupt, but it signifies how The Flash has been able to carry the weight of its wackier concepts without collapsing under its own lunacy. There have been plenty of shows with bad science or stupid concepts that make them more akin to b-movie rip-offs. Explaining what happens on The Flash is impossible without sounding cheesy, even to people familiar with the abject buffoonery comics can lead to.
“A flaming flying man with a different brain in his body because of a science experiment explosion lifts a super fast guy in a red leather suit into the air and then drops him on a van! Also that red leather guy went back in time to when his mom was killed by a yellow leather guy that’s the reverse of him but also his mentor in the present, and they’re figuring it out because the back of a mirror can be used like a photograph to create holographic images, because science.” …Yeah.
Some of the best science fiction is grounded in and known for…well…the science. Star Trek is the pinnacle of this, perhaps, being a show which is successful because of its world-building, ingenuity, and scientific foresight first, and characters second. The characters and emotional stories still play a huge role — it still has to be a story, after all — but you could view the sci-fi and the characters each seperately, on their own, and it would still hold up. And then there’s science fiction that has the characters and the high emotion irrecovably tied into its own sci-fi concepts, something like Fringe became as it went along. They wouldn’t work seperately, because the science fiction is solely the canvas for which these emotional stories are told, and in fact work to heighten the emotion farther beyond the typical human experience. You have to be willing to forgive much of the underdeveloped science — of course a piece of a tachyon device could be converted into a quantum splicer, right? — because it lends itself to telling a story that resonates in a completely visceral way.
So going back to the ending of “The Nuclear Man,” the focus isn’t so much on the plight of the fused Ronnie Raymond/Martin Stein Firestorm entity exploding. It’s on the beautiful shot of Caitlin’s face as she races away from her exploding fiance in Barry’s arms, having lost Ronnie twice at the cost of STAR Labs’ experiments. The Flash has been able to perform magic on the old superhero sci-fi concepts by consisently grounding them in some kind of character plight. It makes that apparent with all the discussions of love pertaining to Firestorm, with the women in the fused Firestorm’s life what ultimately brings him out of his psychosis to get help (well, with a few anti-psychotics thrown in, of course.) That’s how an ending like this can resonate; not because The Flash detonated a nuclear bomb, but because, damn, this is so horrible for Caitlin. That’s helped by Danielle Panabaker rocking it at every turn this week, turning out series best performances. It’s a wallop of an ending, partially because it’s such a quick blackout, but mostly because we know how much this hurts.
Robbie Amell has a tough job as the Firestorm entity, now that he gets significantly more screentime. Amell clearly gives it his all, but the performance isn’t perfect, unfortunately. When he gets it right, he gets it really right; with a little help from well-written Jack Bristow-like dialogue, Amell captures Victor Garber’s vocal patterns and pauses seamlessly in his infirmery scene with Caitlin. That’s probably the only time he does, though, and it’s likely because other scenes have to be more exposition-heavy. He just sounds like regular Robbie Amell in his scene talking about his love life with Barry, for example. And Amell seems to be doing more of a Dark Knight impression early on (though with him being unhinged, that one makes some sense.) So, Amell is certainly inconsistent with playing Stein-in-Ronnie, but he doesn’t turn out a bad performance per se. Just one with some untapped opportunities, given how distinct Garber’s performances are. If Amell has another go at it later on, assuming the splicing doesn’t work/comes undone, hopefully he’ll have worked out the kinks.
Cisco and Joe get to be the week’s odd couple, investigating the longterm murder of Barry’s mother. Again, the best part of this story is what it’s rooted in, beyond that it’s Barry’s mother that was murdered. Joe and Cisco have high emotional stakes in this as it unfolds; Joe is, of course, extremely protective of Barry (and Jesse L. Martin makes every scene he ever does rife with emotion just by being there.) Carlos Valdes continues to get progressively better material as he inches a bit on the dark side again, now confronting Joe’s suspicions about Dr. Wells. With the loyalty of STAR Labs as a family such a linchpin of this show, it’s easy to pull tension out of this conflict, especially given that we know Joe is kind of right, at least to some extent. (The blood didn’t run back as Dr. Wells as far as we can tell, so either another yellow speedster travelled back, or he manipulated his blood…or something. But we know he’s involved.) But in any case, the last thing anyone wants to do is uproot the stability in everyone’s otherwise chaotic lives, and the eventual reveal will do just that. It’s not very clear how Joe made the connection between Wells and Reverse-Flash outside of “Wells is creepy and has secrets,” but props to him for pursuing it in a smart, unintrusive way.
Using some clever and particially grounded but totally-not-really-possible science concepts (pretty much The Flash in a nutshell), Cisco creates photos of the murder for new proof and, in a startling development, that adult Barry was present at the event. Anyone with slight knowledge of recent Flash lore probably predicted this a while back, but even with that in mind, the timing of this is the real surprise. It hasn’t been clear if the murder of Nora Allen would be a season-length or series-length plotline, and either way, exposing the truth of time travel is huge. If the reveal of Dr. Wells as Reverse-Flash and then confirming his speed were big emotional reveals, the existence of time travel is a world-shaking one. Even in a new universe of crazy science and superpowers, there’s something much more cosmic about time travel, especially in a case that ties right into Barry’s origin. It’s going to be potentially traumatic for Barry to learn this, and coupled with references to the Speed Force we recently got, it really seems as though The Flash is gearing up to be such a bigger show by next season. It took Arrow a couple of seasons before it could gradually make its way to the slight heightened reality it’s at now, but The Flash is ripping off bandaids midseason. It may make it harder if it needs to tone it back later on, which is a legitimate worry whenever a show goes too big too fast. But at this stage, it’s only making things more surprising.
On a completely different tier is the romantic drama between Barry and Linda, which ends up being hit-or-miss. Where “Crazy for You” beats “The Nuclear Man” is that, even with all of that episode’s lack of structure, everything was benign and about on the same level. “The Nuclear Man” has to contrast the heavier concepts of Firestorm and time travel with some rather trite love triangle stuff, which is par the course, but creates some tonal whiplash. That said, it can’t be faulted for being solid comic relief, because good lord, some of the interactions are hilarious. Grant Gustin’s comedic chops are on point tonight, better than they’ve ever been, with a complete understanding and embracing of the ticks a distracted and underexperienced young guy would have during those sexual exploits. They even address the possibility that being the fastest man alive means, well…you know, though the fun stops before Barry has a chance to fully feel it all out. It all balances the right amount of charming, funny, and uncomfortable in a way The Flash is very good at.
The other half is where things get a bit iffy. A love triangle between Barry, Linda, and Iris was totally expected; Iris’ presence screws up the relationship, unintentionally but definitely with subconscious intent, Linda rejects Barry because of the past drama, Barry gets her back. Granted, it’s interesting that we’ve already moved on to switching positions for the piner and the pinee in Barry and Iris. We’re all probably putting money down on Barry lying through his teeth when he says he doesn’t have feelings for Iris, but he is consciously trying to move on, and doing a decent job of it.
The good part of the Barry/Iris stuff very much has to do with their strange sibling relationship, and turning it from a creepy element to a nice twist on these stories. I’ve mentioned it before, but the very friendly relationship the two have gives all their interactions a different layer, where unlike the Clarks and Lanas of the past, they can have natural conversations without any intent to provide longing glances or almost-kisses and whatnot. There doesn’t have to be the underscore of sexual tension all the time, so when there is, it actually gives it some oomph, because it’s hard to tell when it’s coming. Iris doesn’t come off like some manipulative vixen when she talks to Linda, because she honestly doesn’t think of “I could sabotage Barry’s relationship” as an option. So even though her earnestness kind of clearly screws things up, it’s forgivable for her, because she was just helping out her best friend, after all.
The ghost pepper conclusion teeters a bit too much on the creepy side, unfortunately. Sure, we know Barry is a good guy. But “guy gives an ultimatum in public for the girl to date him” is one of those conventions that somehow found life on television and film as “romantic,” despite being more of a stalker action in real life. In this case, there was at least some set-up for the hot pepper, and Malese Jow presents Linda as one of the few people who might actually think it’s too pathetically funny and weird to not pursue. But it’s still a weird place for the episode to go.
Like “Crazy for You,” “The Nuclear Man” is a whole lot of set-up and natural, slow movement for the season’s arcs. Lots of stuff is going on, and none of it has reached a full conclusion just yet. But unlike last week’s messy endeavor, it all pivots around a heavy and clear point — Firestorm — creating more uniformity throughout. It’s a much easier watch, essentially, despite that much of this episode deals with uncomfortable truths that aren’t the utter joy of last week. It also helps that things in general are much ballsier, showing that this series is not afraid of stepping up its game just because it can.
Odds & Ends
- Really dug the cute outfit montage with Barry and Joe to “Uptown Funk.” You’ll never see something like that on Arrow or Gotham.
- I can’t be the only one who was getting full-on Heroes season one flashbacks, right?
- Yay, Clancy Brown!
- I hope Sherry turns out to be some kind of Reverse-Flash mole or sleeper agent or something. Props to Joe for maybe possibly hooking up with a very attractive woman later on (not that he isn’t quite the looker himself, anyway) but that story point is otherwise just kind of obnoxious and too bad sitcom-y.
- Of the myriad body-switch stories out there, have any of them every acknowledged that a body’s taste buds would be different? Because, obvious as it is, that’s not something I’d ever thought of until Martin-in-Ronnie mentioned it. That brings up some interesting implications for how much of our own tastes (not just literal taste, but anything aesthetically pleasing) stems from our physical bodies and how much from our minds. Would your palate change if you had a different mouth, or would your brain still trick you into liking what it thinks you’re supposed to like despite what your new mouth says?
- The snowy field setting for the final confrontation between Barry, Caitlin, and Ronnie is totally gorgeous, a wonderful change of pace from the show’s normal environments.
- How much of Wells’ “wanting to go home” speech could be a hint to his true origins?
- Shout out to the costuming this week. While we pay a lot of attention to Cisco’s shirts and the superhero costumes, all these outfits are really on point sometimes. Candace Patton is rocking the more professional attire, for example. If I could rock that pink shirt/leather skirt/black blazer combo as well as she does, I’d never take it off.
- The score is noticeably good this week, especially as it amps up the tempo to match the ticking time bomb, around the time Caitlin says, “You’ve got a couple of hours. Use them.”
- Much as I didn’t like the Sherry stuff, I dug Cisco’s “I will not judge you” line and delivery.