That this week’s episode of The Flash is entitled “The Reverse-Flash Returns” aptly represents the convoluted time travel dynamics the prompt the main story. Mostly in that it’s a paradox – the titular character “returns” to the audience and the characters in 2016, but from Thawne’s perspective, this is “Reverse-Flash Begins.”
It’s a clever switcheroo, even if the time dynamics are something of a cheat — the simplest way to explain (that I can tell) is that since this Thawne from the future is still from his past, he still had to exist to travel back to our past make the first season of The Flash happen, leading to the events that erased Wells-Thawne in the first season finale. He’s a “timeline remnant,” as Harry says, walking paradox to ensure that the timeline remains the same — as apparently the show operates on Doctor Who‘s “fixed point” rules, where some events are utterly unmalleable. Barry’s mom’s death being a fixed point does make a certain amount of sense, since so many threads in the past, present, and future spring from that single moment. What doesn’t make sense is why locking Thawne up in a cell suddenly starts making Cisco (and only Cisco?) fade into the ether rather than creating another singularity, or adjusting to the apparently-not-fluid timeline. The show at least tries to make a basic explanation for it all, but we’ve already mixed up the rules of fixed points vs. rewritten timelines vs. time is a flat circle with every instance of time travel in the show that it’s beyond explanation. Maybe the Speed Force allows time to fit whatever best suits the Speedster doing it. Let’s leave it at that?
Because if the contradictory rules of time travel are ignored, it’s much easier to enjoy this story. This is an early Thawne, with much more Matt Letscher playing a jittery, arrogant fanboy-gone-mad. This isn’t Tom Cavanaugh’s nuanced Harrison Wells/Eobard Thawne, one who had 15 years to bide his time while watching Barry grow up. Letscher’s more straightfoward portrayal actually works here, because he’s supposed to be a simpler version of the character. He’s never met The Flash and doesn’t know his secret identity – he doesn’t even know what time period he’s from until he apparently accidentally stumbles into this one – and the result is an experienced Flash battling a younger Reverse-Flash, sparking the events that started the entire series in the first place. We even have the twisted irony that Barry himself implanted the idea of Thawne murdering his mother (stupid for Barry to mention on his part, but not unforgiveable given the complicated circumstances.) It potentially sets up return appearances from Thawne, as he may sporadically pop up to learn more and more about Flash throughout the timeline. He could be sort of an evil River Song, perhaps, appearing out of order. We could even see an earlier version of Thawne, experimenting with time travel before his obsession with The Flash sends him off the deep end.
That even the Flash-obsessed Thawne doesn’t know what time period Barry came from opens up a wide array of possibilities, too. Perhaps Thawne is from a future where we lost a chunk of historical records, or that Barry’s time travel adventures (remember that future newspaper that says he “disappeared” after a crisis?) has left history confused as to what his home timeline is. In any case, it’s a wildly clever concept, and while this version of Thawne is loads less interesting than last season’s, it’s entertaining to see the mastermind-to-be put everyone on-edge. This is, for all intents and purposes the prequel to the entire series — an explanation of Reverse-Flash’s motives and the set-up for what became the plot of the first season.
That’s huge, but it doesn’t quite make the impact it intends thanks to the episode being packed with just about every other possible plotline. But that’s the major criticism with “The Reverse-Flash Returns,” not unlike “Running to Stand Still”: there’s good nuggets of plot within, but packed so tight with so many others that it’s hard to get a grasp of any single one. There’s a big story here regarding Eobard Thawne’s origin story, which ties nicely into Barry’s dark spiral and even Cisco tapping into his powers. But factor in a wallop of a West subplot, an extension on the Patty/Barry rollercoaster, and Jay’s doppelganger, the episode quickly topples under its own weight. And it’s a shame, because there the base material we have here is often very good.
Take that West subplot, for example. We have closure on the most prominent storyline for Iris all season, as she forgives her mother and wishes they could have been a family sooner. Wally, on the other hand, is still angry about basically everything, and Iris isn’t able to bring him around. There’s loads of potential for drama brewing underneath these characters, and this entire plot — soap operatic as it may be — has actually been competently handled, with strong performances and generally realistic reactions. But it’s hard to latch onto what should be an emotional catharsis when these scenes are so quickly spliced in with the bigger sci-fi trappings of the episode. Admittedly, there are themes of dealing with loss and lack of closure that connects them — Barry losing Patty without telling each other how they feel mirrors Francine and her family; Barry’s newfound pent-up anger issues are strikingly close to Wally’s. But it’s otherwise such outlier in the episode that it’s unfairly distracting, even though it should feel imperative for these characters.
On the Patty and Barry front, things are frustrating, to say the least — sometimes worse than even last week’s fiasco in “Potential Energy,” but it does at least come to a satisfying conclusion. The greatest problem still stems from the wrongheaded idea that Barry not telling Patty his secret will “protect” her. And even worse, now he’s really, really bitter about it, to the point that he’s just being an outright dick to his now-ex-girlfriend. The thing is, it makes sense for Barry to not be in great spirits — not just because of Patty, but because of Zoom and Reverse-Flash, and a season-long theme of Barry losing any opportunity for happiness. So, sure, he can’t be faulted for being in a bad mood at first. But that Patty spells out that she knows his secret identity right in front of his face, and Barry still denies it, and even acts like she’s a problem…well, it seems more like she’s better off without him.
Whatever misgivings there may be about Barry and Patty’s relationship, Patty is notable for working far better as a character than she should have. It will be sad to see Shantel Vansanten go, as she imbued a level of nuance and emotion to a character that could have been far too annoyingly spunky or flat in a lesser actor’s hand. She was a solid addition to the show as a character, even if she had to be mostly wasted by the end as a romantic diversion. The upside to her arc, and one that even almost justifies many of the problems with her relationship with Barry, is that it ends on an extremely high note.
For all the times she showed herself to be a brilliant detective — and to the show’s credit, she was proven as such — she gets to figure out Barry’s identity by good old-fashioned investigation. It’s nice when characters don’t find out by accident or have forced “eureka” moments, and instead just put the pieces together naturally. It’s even better that Patty has the guts to get her own closure, even if it involves tricking Barry into thinking there was a hold-up on her train. Was that a little low, and maybe even kind of dangerous? Sure. Did Barry deserve it for being really dumb about their whole relationship? He sure did. And it led to an extremely memorable, maybe even iconic moment for the show, as she proves her theory before declaring that they’re “good” and departing for the beginning of her dream career. It’s a nice send-off for a character that wasn’t treated nearly as well as she should have been.
What “The Reverse-Flash Returns” exposes is the pitfalls of this season’s apparent character arc for Barry. The entire impetus of The Flash — that it’s an optimistic, emotionally-driven breather from other media — seems to be at odds with its own titular character, who’s traveling a dark thread of loneliness and the fear of ultimate despair. That’s completely fine in theory; one of the best episodes of the series, “The Trap,” was all about Barry going to darker places to win. The season 2 opener used a closed-out, angst-ridden Barry as a primary character arc and transition, and the season has since flirted with the emotional scars all his personal battles are leaving. His character has always been grounded in the idea that he’s a decent guy who loves being a superhero, with his prime conflicts stemming from his own emotional hang-ups to overcome. So his fears of never filling a void and never finding true happiness — given he lost the way to save his mom, his father left for stupid reasons, he hasn’t kept a relationship, and he’s likely still guilty about Eddie, Ronnie, and not actually saving the day in last season’s finale — make sense.
But it’s a touchy line to tread, which Barry in “The Reverse-Flash Returns” (and the previous episode) trips over a bit. Hardening Barry, as is done here, gets him closer to early Oliver Queen, and in a way that borders unlikeable. It’s necessary to give the show the benefit of the doubt, as there’s hopefully an endgame in mind — it’s likely we’ll Barry losing his heroic optimism and spunk because of his spiral before triumphantly building it back up in the season’s conclusion. That would also give meaning to his failed relationship with Patty — the relationship wasn’t what we needed to focus on, it was how Barry handled the break-up.
The flipside is that it’s still early in the season, and we can only take so much of “unhappy angry angsty Barry” before it irreparably hurts the show. It’s especially dangerous when it’s already so packed to the brim with storylines that it’s often on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. Introspective, emotional journeys need a lot more room to breathe to make the oomph that they need, and like we’ve seen with the West subplot, the constant rush from scene-to-scene can hurt moments that otherwise should have worked. “The Reverse-Flash Returns” has its share of fun and heart in its multiple threads, but it’s also a testament to how dense The Flash has become, and how it’s having trouble retaining that beating heart as a result.
Odds & Ends
- So, it turns out that Jay’s double on Earth-1 is Hunter Zolomon, which could either be a clue to Zoom’s identity based on Zolomon’s comic book counterpart, or could be a red herring to fool viewers familiar with the source material.
- Cisco gets further mastery of his Vibe powers, plus comics-appropriate sunglasses, and now he sort of has the ability to see the future. We also get a quiet resolution to Cisco’s fear of his powers established in the first season finale: he uses the abilities future-Thawne gave him to ultimately capture past-Thawne, which grants a full-circle feel, and hopefully lets Cisco appreciate and enjoy his powers rather than fear them.
- Always nice to see Amanda Pays back as Christina McGee, even if she keeps getting the thankless role of “seeing the bad guy run away with things” and exposition.
- On that note: this episode is very heavy on the exposition, for better or worse. There are lots of quick, unnatural monologues to cover the bases (Thawne expounding on his motivations, the Q&A on time travel and addressing Barry’s mother’s murder, etc.) It’s not necessarily good or bad, but definitely noticeable.
- Despite all the problems with Barry and Patty’s break-up, I did appreciate how Barry acknowledged that Patty was leaving to pursue her dream, which their relationship would be standing in the way of.
- Cisco just really wants to know how Reverse-Flash fits that suit in his ring.
- Absolutely adore Harry rolling his eyes at the sappiness after Cisco wakes up. Tom Cavanaugh is a dream.
- Man, those people on the train really didn’t care that The Flash was standing in front of them, did they?