Six months after the singularity, Barry has separated himself from his friends and family, working alone as The Flash and rebuilding small businesses around the city. In flashback, we learn that it was Firestorm who managed to contain the singularity by merging the event horizons, but at the cost of Ronnie’s life — Barry was only able to save Stein. Caitlin has gone to work alone at Mercury Labs, while Cisco is working with Joe on the Anti-Metahuman Task Force. Central City is still under the impression that The Flash saved the city from the singularity, so Mayor Bellows honors him with a celebration and key to the city. At Iris’ request, The Flash does make an appearance, but the festivities are interrupted by Atom Smasher. After failing to take him down, Barry recognizes the man behind the mask, Al Rothstein, as a murder victim they found at a Nuclear Power Plant the night prior. Realizing how strong Atom Smasher is and that The Flash shouldn’t face him along, Iris tries to convince Barry to get the team back together, but he refuses.
Barry receives a video will from Harrison Wells — he’d also been given full ownership of STAR Labs — but he’s too afraid to watch it. They decide to work with Barry whether he likes it or not, though, and after Cisco convinces Caitlin to return to STAR Labs and help, they research and team-up to learn that Atom Smasher (whom Stein names) absorbs radiation to grow in size. Barry, however, leaves his comm device so he can still fight alone, but is nearly killed. Upon waking up in STAR Labs, Joe tells Barry that he can’t run away from his emotions, and sometimes it takes strength to be sad, flashing back to Barry’s childhood six months after his mother was killed, when Barry reacted the same way. Barry decides to accept his grief and become open to his friends again, and together they work out a plan to trap Atom Smasher in a nuclear reactor, overloading him with power. The plan works, and when Barry goes to talk to him and apologize that they had to take such drastic measures, Atom Smasher reveals he was told to kill The Flash so he could “go home.” The name of who told him this — Zoom.
Barry goes to see Caitlin to apologize for Ronnie’s death, and she reveals she felt guilty, since she stayed in Central City instead of leaving with Ronnie to have a normal life the year prior. They both bond over their shared guilt, and Caitlin encourages Barry to watch the video will, on which Wells notes that he did care for Barry after all, and gives his full confession to the death of Nora Allen. They are able to use the confession to free Henry, and the entire group has a party at the West house. However, the party is dampened by Henry’s announcement that he will be leaving Central City, because he believes the city needs The Flash more than it needs the son of Henry Allen, and he doesn’t want to be in the way. Later, the team reunites at STAR Labs, only to have a man named Jay Garrick walk through the doors and warn them that their world is in danger.
That’s the sentiment “The Man Who Saved Central City” explicitly hammers in as it’s theme. It’s also a necessary sentiment for keeping a momentum-driven show like The Flash moving, especially as it opens a new season. And especially especially if it’s succeeding such a universally-acclaimed and highly successful first season.
Most season premieres typically reset the status quo, to an extent, but there has to be a tinge of difference marking a new season dynamic. The reason is twofold: don’t alienate everyone returning to the show by revamping everything, but establish anything new about the season while cleaning up what’s left over from the previous one. It’s a careful balance that TV shows can’t always do, especially when the previous season ended on such a huge cliffhanger, and the worst premieres can feel like nothing more than a hangover from the previous season rather than a new beginning. The Flash‘s second season opener isn’t a complete home run of an episode, but as a premiere, it hits all those right notes.
As clean-up for the stellar first season, this is inevitably more of a downer than most installments. It’s telling when an episode opens with a rather cruel (but brilliant) fantasy fake-out opening, only to jump into a reveal of Barry’s lone wolf path and a jaded version of the “My Name is Barry Allen” opening. But this is still The Flash, so even as things are at their darkest, it’s all softened by a slew of amusing interactions and heartwarming moments. That’s the main reason the episode’s first half doesn’t feel like the depressing slog these stories often do. Barry’s forcibly solo run as a hero is outlined with late-night trips to rebuild local businesses and a citywide celebration in honor of The Flash, both things that put a positive spin on the episode’s events. That’s then undercut by revealing Barry’s guilt about both those things — that his fighting back against Wells caused Eddie’s death and the destructive singularity he’s rebuilding from, and that he wasn’t the man who saved Central City, Firestorm (and Ronnie’s fatal sacrifice) was. It’s unsurprisingly an emotionally confusing time for Barry, and the episode’s tonal mismash of grief and joy nails the feeling of that inner conflict.
Even the biggest tragedy of the episode — Ronnie’s heroic sacrifice — is smartly lessened of its punch a bit. We all probably saw something like this coming, given Robbie Amell’s conspicuous absence from Legends of Tomorrow, but the way it plays is a surprise nonetheless. It’s quite gutsy to have such an integral and generally likeable character unceremoniously killed in flashback, but it’s not without the heavy implications. With months in-between witnessing Eddie’s tragic sacrifice and Ronnie’s, it’s not as soul-crushing for us to watch, even as we understand why it’s so important for the characters. And with the six month time jump in-universe, we can skirt past the immediate grief, something that could be addressed — like it was in one of Arrow’s strongest episodes last season — but wouldn’t be right for an episode like this. Instead, we have the basis for Barry and Caitlin’s main arcs, mixed with small moments like Iris noticing a memorium photo of Eddie and lamenting. This isn’t an episode about those tragic deaths, but they’re certainly the impetus to keep moving forward.
Harrison Wells/Eobard Thawne continues to be a major culprit of Barry’s aforementioned emotional confusion, but even he becomes another champion of moving forward. His video will is convenience incarnate, a wholly-constructed plot point to keep the STAR Labs set and give Barry’s father resolution, carrying on part of the old status quo while completely upending another part. This doesn’t feel like a cheat because, frankly, all of this stuff is earned and in-character. We know Thawne had a kind of creepy father/son (or perhaps god/creation) complex with Barry, and that while he hated Barry’s future self, he cared for the younger version in a twisted way. So the whole video will conceit — and the mind game involved in making Barry watch it — makes sense. That Thawne gives Barry exactly what he’s always wanted is perfectly in-line with that conflicting likeability that made up the entire Harrison Wells arc, and it’s a perfect capper to the character if we never see this version of him again.
Of course, that leads to the perplexing decision to release Henry, only to have him abruptly leave for rather contrived reasons. Henry’s rationale is that he has to get out of his son’s way so Barry can worry about his other family and the city that needs The Flash, which makes some sense on a base level. It’s a fairly common type of hero worship we see in basically any superhero media, which makes this development trite but not totally unprecedented. And the fact that Henry is Barry’s father rather than a love interest, for example, certainly adds color to it; Barry has spent his whole life hellbent on solving his mother’s murder to get his father out of prison, something we heard in his voiceover in every single episode of the first season. Like the rest of the episode, this is about moving forward, and Henry, like the show, wants Barry and The Flash to move along to a storyline that isn’t all about his parents.
Concluding and moving away from that plot is necessary, but shuffling Henry off so quickly isn’t, especially since he desperately needed to be developed more as a character rather than a plot point. John Wesley Shipp certainly sells the hell out of his brief scene, as he always does, and carries some of the best father-son chemistry with Grant Gustin. Henry telling Barry “I need you tell tell me it’s okay” is both heartwarming and heartwrenching, and there’s a real feeling of passing-the-torch from one father to another, carrying the theme from the finale that Barry already has the family he wants. But at the very least, we ought to have gotten a bit more time with him before hastily writing him out in the first episode.
The fun character combinations keep the solemn first half afloat, particularly the pairing of Joe and Cisco in the police department. Making Cisco an integral player in the Anti-Metahuman Task Force is a brilliant move, and a way to better merge the police world with the sci-fi world. Jesse L Martin and Carlos Valdes play off each other impeccably, and much of their banter when attempting to use The Boot to catch Atom Smasher is hilarious (not to mention the sight of Joe holding that BFG.) Cisco and Stein get some remarkable little moments, and that’s mostly thanks to Stein’s increasingly well-written wit. The snarky comebacks work thanks to the affection and charm Victor Garber emanates, which tempers some of Stein’s inherent pompousness so he never seems condescending. Stein is a great addition to the team, and this makes it even more exciting to see him in Legends of Tomorrow.
This is a good episode for Barry and Caitlin, too, who have some of the weightiest material. Gustin and Danielle Panabaker have always shared sparks of chemistry — friendly, romantic or otherwise — but tended to be too wrapped up in their own stories to get more than a few spare moments of bonding. So it’s touching to see the two share the most profound emotions of the hour, both feeling guilt over Ronnie’s death and both dealing with it by running away from their friends. That makes it all-the-more fitting when they both view the Wells will together, as it’s sort of the episode’s representation of moving past the trials of old and going forward. It also makes sense that they’d share this particular moment, considering both of them were most emotionally crushed and conflicted by Wells’ betrayal out of everyone. The close-up on Gustin after he views the video is a great shot and beautiful bit of acting from Gustin.
For Barry and Iris, their romance is conspicuously absent throughout the hour, though for good reason. Where they’re going next will surely be on the table to talk about later, but right now they both focus on all the right things — the safety of the city and Barry’s mental health are at the forefront. It’s a smart move for the show to put a hold on the primary romance until the ducks are all in a row, and makes the characters feel much more mature and level-headed than what we’ve seen from other TV romances. Iris’ main goal in the episode is to get the team back together for The Flash’s (and Central City’s) sake, and she’s ultimately the one to actively take action and make it happen, even if the plan ultimately comes to “Show up and do stuff whether Barry likes it or not.” But even still, it’s promising for a character who’d grown far too passive last season. She’s still sort of a wild card in terms of the team dynamic, but she works as the emotional constant between Barry Allen and The Flash, as she did in “Grodd Lives.”
Joe and Barry get what’s become a signature of The Flash: a beautiful father/son bonding that has both of them crying. Martin is a champion when it comes to teary-eyed emotional talks, and the way Barry has always been the most emotionally honest and open with Joe keeps these scenes from going too overboard with the sap — a line this notably sappy show treads constantly, but always makes it work. Barry’s journey in the episode is about confronting the things he can’t outrun — grief — and using that to move forward, and Joe encapsulates that journey in their scene succinctly. Conversely, the flashback between the two is a bit superfluous and on-the-nose (Barry’s journey is exactly the same, even down to the six-months from a tragedy), but it’s an admirable way to ground an oft-tread superhero trope. Smallville opened season 9 with Clark similarly going full-time hero and disconnected from family and friends, and Arrow has had Oliver go solo about a dozen times. The Flash doesn’t do anything new with the concept, so having that flashback does at least establish that it’s not an uncommon character trait for Barry.
The humor in this episode is top-notch, with tons of running gags and one-liners. The “Flash Signal” (“Flash Light?”) gag is a weird one, though — the actual use of the light is chuckle-worthy, but Cisco hamming up “I think I read it in a comic book” may be a wink and a nudge too far. Of course, we also have the hilarious self-awareness in calling out STAR Labs’ constant security problems last season. And even when that seems to be going too far in the last scene, Jay Garrick’s appearance and Carlos Valdes’ fantasic “For real?!” make it the best joke of the episode.
Though, that big dramatic reveal of Jay Garrick is rather unearned. This might be more related to tastes, but I’m not a fan of comic book shows and movies making a cliffhanger moment out of naming a character you’d have to know lore to be excited about, as the episode does with Jay. Sure, he also has a “your world is in danger” warning tacked on, but that’s not what the episode expects us to be excited about. While the Flash Signal joke is too much on the “Ehh? Get it?” side, the Jay bit is the opposite; comic book shows ought to be careful to not alienate the viewers who are only mildly knowledgeable on the character. Geek culture has permeated the mainstream and we have access to Google, but there’s a line between Easter Eggs or prompting people to want to learn more about a character, versus making people go “huh?” and Google after the fact. Rule of thumb: If the name would mean nothing to any characters in the show (which in this case, it wouldn’t) then the dramatic swell probably isn’t organic enough.
None of that’s even touching on the macro story, which involves a radiation-absorbing, size-changing metahuman from a parallel universe who only tries to kill The Flash because a mysterious enemy known as Zoom promised to take him home. That the characters are what stand out among a story like that speaks to how well the show has built its emotional stakes, which is a treat. But that’s also because the Atom Smasher storyline is very much an initial breadcrumb, not even an appetizer. Atom Smasher is a fairly silly villain on screen, mostly thanks to the growth-effects having kind of a Mr. Fantastic stretch feel rather than a hulking, energy-absorbing monster. But Adam Copeland is a definite standout from most other metahumans on this show in terms of style and appearance (he reminds me of a much younger Clancy Brown.) Coupled with that very cool helmet, he’s one of the more memorable one-off villains.
We still have plenty of lingering questions and new pieces we haven’t even touched on yet, so there’s little room in this premiere to get a true sense of the kinds of stories we’ll see. That’s not a bad thing, because the episode turns its attention to all the right parts. Barry and the entirety of Team Flash have to confront the things that hurt them the worst in order to move forward, and while “The Man Who Saved Central City” isn’t an hour of perfection, it definitely excels at moving forward to a season we really want to see.
Odds & Ends
- I’ve said this before, but The Flash must be a joy to work on, because it seems to have no trouble getting anyone it wants to back — see Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, and Rick Cosnett all appearing for what amounts to seconds of screentime. Sure, Miller and Purcell are probably filming Legends of Tomorrow at the same time, but Cosnett has moved on to other non-WB-produced projects, so he’s a great get. And, yes, they’re all getting paid, but that doesn’t stop actors for turning down appearances if they’re not worth the effort or they didn’t like the environment.
- The special effects on the black hole sequence are pretty good…except when it comes to actual people. This is a very effects-heavy episode, so it’s fair that not all of them will be completely up-to-par, but the CGI faces and the Flash catching Stein are…not the best, let’s just say that.
- Always good to see Victor D’Ambrosio back.
- Cisco is continuing to have flashes of another universe, which is going to make him integral to this season’s storyline. Really cool way to set all these pieces up.
- Barry leaving his comm device behind is played as way overdramatic. Of course he’d do that. It seemed played up only because it was an act break.
- The look on Joe’s face when he gives Barry the key to the city is great. Jesse L. Martin is a national treasure.
- Danielle Panabaker’s hair in the last scene at the West house is fabulous.
- Henry’s decision to leave is strikingly similar to Giles’ character arc in the last few seasons of Buffy, to the point that his solo in the musical episode as all about it. A big difference between that and Henry’s is the lengthy amount of time Giles’ arc was spread out in addition to the many shades that character had, while Henry Allen…just doesn’t have much of a character outside of being Barry’s dad.
- This isn’t a big deal to me, personally, but many online have noted that Al Rothstein was name-dropped as deceased from the particle accelerator explosion back in “Power Outage,” only to be alive on both Earths now (well, until they’re both dead by episode’s end, of course.) I don’t doubt that it’s a continuity error, but it’s easily explained away — another guy with the same name, something about messing with the timeline, Wells was lying back in that episode, etc. It’s not really a big deal, at the end of the day.
- “Fear the beard!” – Yes, Cisco, Captain Singh does look on-point with a beard. Keep it.
- “Cops are always excepting trouble. In this city, I’m expecting flying evil monster.”
- “He’s not going down.”
“He went up…”
- “You carry a handkerchief now? What are you, 80?”
“Believe me, we’re all alarmed.”