Secret identities are as much a staple in superhero stories as they are archaic. They were around in the earliest of days of the earliest heroes as an easy means to provide drama (or for Superman to be a dick to Lois Lane for no reason.) And it is easy to squeeze lots of drama out of a secret life — every relationship we form, personally and professionally, is based on a level of trust, and it hurts when trust is broken. That superheroes have to keep secrets for the good of the world, but with the pesky side-effect of hurting the people close to them, is one of the great philosophical questions in superhero media. At a certain point, is the secret identity worth it if the very people you’re trying to protect still get hurt?
The problem arises when the storytellers are desperate to keep that trope in place — again, it’s easy drama and fundamental to superhero narratives, so it makes sense why they would. The fear that a loved one won’t “understand” and reject us is a relatable, even powerful fear we all possess in some capacity. But once the loved one has proven themselves — or better yet, proven that they love the alter-ego as much as the person — it just doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t be let in. With Patty here on The Flash, she’s proven that she thinks both Barry and The Flash are awesome, and she’s able to defend herself pretty well (sans the two or three times she’s been kidnapped.) And, oh yeah, literally everyone else Barry is close to knows his identity, including his ex-girlfriend.
Barry sort of uses the excuse early in the episode, which Iris thankfully shoots down. But then a far worse one plagues the rest of the hour, when Harry inserts the idea into Barry’s head that he shouldn’t tell his girlfriend he’s The Flash because it will “put her in more danger.” Now, Harry’s suggestion here actually makes sense in context — he’s racked with guilt about his daughter, and we see later in the episode that his view of Zoom is significantly more maudlin and pessimistic because of his experiences. Harry’s answer is rooted in desperation and frustration, and it’s more about Barry having a girlfriend at all (and bringing her into their trap!) that he’s commenting on. Harry doesn’t think Patty should be at more than arm’s length, or Barry’s nightmare will come true. This is one of the better parts of the episode, in fact; Harry has become isolated, and we see by episode’s end that “love” has pushed him closer and closer to the dark side.
But Barry doesn’t take it this way. Instead, he falls into the tried-and-terrible superhero excuse that somehow Patty not knowing Barry is The Flash, but still dating him, would protect her. Now, to be clear, it’s not as though it’s an impossible story to work; Peter Parker stories tend to work best when his secret identity of Spider-Man wreaks havoc on his life, because his “Parker Luck” is integral to the character. Many superhero films use the trope for comic relief, and Smallville used “Clark’s secret” as the primary driving force for plot and character motivation for the majority of the show. It can get grating when the characters stretch the excuses to not tell loved ones the truth about them, but there are times when the ends justify the means. It’s persisted as a trope because it can work.
But The Flash has just never been a series where the trope worked at all. The general protection of Barry’s identity to the public makes sense, but characters have clicked into place best after learning Barry was The Flash. Or, more accurately, characters who were in the dark (Iris and even Eddie in the first season) were the worse for it. What’s odd is that this is even acknowledged in the episode — Iris voices, for the second time, that honesty is the best policy for Barry. This time she’s more straightforward about how much it sucked being the last to know he was The Flash and how much she could have helped if she did know, which she addressed back when she first learned the secret. In the episode’s defense, we do get the counterpoint in The Turtle — he recognizes that The Flash loves Patty without any of the secret identity business, which proves loved ones are in danger either way. So Barry sort of learns a lesson, but it’s a variation of one he should have learned a year ago. And it still ends up not mattering, because Patty dips out anyway.
There’s just a lot about “Potential Energy” that doesn’t make the characters, mostly Barry, seem very smart. Team Flash plans a trap for The Turtle at the art show, but devised no way to stop being slowed down when they found him. Barry decides to bring Patty along on a “date” to that trap, but somehow doesn’t expect it to go wrong considering he’ll inevitably have to spring the trap. And he goes back and forth too many times on whether or not to tell Patty, having ample opportunities throughout the episode that he never takes. The ending is supposed to be devastating for Barry, that he was too indecisive or just missed his window to tell her. But it just falls flat, because Barry’s indecisiveness and terrible ideas are so uncharacteristically dumb. These kinds of things can be overlooked for the sake of fun sometimes, but not when they happen at every pivotal moment.
Worse than that, it’s a cop-out. It’s possible that things will change for Patty next week, but if this is the end of her story, it’s been a waste of time. Patty had an arc, and she’s been a fun character for the most part, but her presence still has to mean something in the scope of the show. Regardless of how we wanted the story to turn out — whether they stayed together, or Barry ran to Iris, or Felicity busted in and took him back — any relationship should still have an impact on the larger story of the show. Patty shot down some bad guys and provided some comic relief, but once the romance took off, she just filled the typical “worried girlfriend” space. So far, Barry hasn’t learned anything from their relationship that he didn’t already learn from Iris — that keeping secrets are bad, and…nothing else, really.
The same problem came from Linda in the first season, for the most part, though her relationship with Barry at least forced him to confront that he was too madly in love with Iris. So if this is it, then he’s back to where he started. Linda is a notable character in that her return this season had a massive effect on the ongoing story — introducing the concept of a parallel double — so perhaps Patty will find her own relevance in a future return appearance. But that still leaves her relationship with Barry — and commitment to the meta-human task force, which she’s abandoning now that she completed her own personal goal — as something of a time-killer. If all Patty was supposed to be was a diversion, then it’s very unfortunate.
With all this time spent on the disintegration of the Barry/Patty relationship, the episode’s other plots are rather rushed. The Turtle is a unique villain with a very cool, well-rended superpower, and Aaron Douglas (one of those actors that seems to appear in every Vancouver-based genre TV show ever) fits the bill as a schlubby average joe-turned-crazy-thief. It’s also nice that we’re getting metahumans of different body types besides “skinny white guy.” But Turtle gets some weird late-in-the-game quirks thrown in — that he’s a “collector,” putting both objects and corpses on display cases — and it’s too late in the episode to make any impact, besides some shoehorned-in horror. Oh, and so Barry could say “Now you are our most prized possession,” which is an awful, awful line.
Similarly, our full introduction to Wally West is a bit rushed. As much as Jesse L. Martin has the the most sympathetic and earnest cry-face on TV, Wally warms up to the guy way too quickly. But the tidbits we get about Wally and his motivations set the stage for an interesting coming of age tale. He has a poignant perspective on the West family situation — as much as we, Joe and Iris see Francine as a monster who kept secrets and ran out on her family, Wally sees her as his sick, single mother who made bad choices but also noble sacrifices for her son. For Wally, Joe is the absent father who lived a privileged life with his daughter and a different adopted son, while the his wife and other son had to suffer. That, of course, was Joe’s worst nightmare when he found out about Wally, and it’s even worse that his son had to turn to illegal activities (street racing, as all rebellious teens on TV shows do) to survive. Keiynan Lonsdale doesn’t get much to play aside from suppressed anger and teen apathy, which doesn’t make Wally terribly likeable in this outing, but it makes perfect sense for the character at this stage. It will be interesting to see Joe’s signature warmth slowly break down and lighten up Wally’s cold exterior.
There are plenty of good moments in “Potential Energy,” especially in Cisco’s hunt for his “White Whale” (and that doesn’t mean it’s half-whale/half-turtle.) And it’s at least more cohesive that the first season’s worst installments. As per usual with The Flash, it’s still fun — there’s never once been an episode of this show that wasn’t fun, or didn’t at least have awesome superhero moments or laugh-out-loud one-liners. But it’s frustrating seeing a show that’s essentially perfected the superhero TV formula seem to regress a bit and fall into old traps. “Potential Energy” is consistent with what’s come before, and it’s an enjoyable episode to watch for the most part. But like most flimsy excuses to keep a secret identity, it falls apart as soon as you think about it.
Odds & Ends
- So, Reverse-Flash (in his Matt Lescher form) is back! As much as this confrontation ought to be pretty cool — I assume Zoom will try to steal his speed or something, pitting the two villains against each other — I’m more on the edge of my seat just to see how the heck they explain his return.
- It’s barely touched on in the episode, but it turns out that Jay is dying, apparently. He’s disappointingly just kind of existed for most of the season, acting as a sad wet blanket since his introduction, so hopefully this will open up new avenues for he and Caitlin.
- The Wests called Barry “The White Shadow,” which is hilarious.
- Jay is 6’4″?!?!
- I like that it’s basically become a character trait for Patty to always have her gun on her — even when she’s at a formal event or just sitting around at home — and that she always immediately unloads an entire clip when she fires.
- Are we to assume that Flash is still always blurring his face and voice in public like he did in season one, and we as the audience just don’t see the effect anymore?
- Given we last saw Wally show up at the West house for Christmas, and then jumped to this episode where he clearly holds a grudge against Joe, I have to wonder what that first meeting was like. Wally wouldn’t have come over if he was already mad at Joe, so was it seeing Joe’s wonderful life with all his happy family and friends what sparked Wally’s frustration?