During the particle accelerator explosion, a football player named Jefferson “Jax” Jackson is on his way to becoming a pro-athlete with a scholarship to a top-rate college. However, the explosion occurs, and though Jax heroically saves his teammates, he’s injured in the process. In the present, Stein’s health is deteriorating, so the team scours the city for people who were affected by the particle accelerator and would be candidates for a second fusion to save his life. They find Henry Hewitt, a renowned scientist, and he’s excited to be a part of something big. Unfortunately, the fusion doesn’t work, which makes Henry explode in rage before leaving. Barry and Stein visit their other option, Jax, who is now working as an auto mechanic, but he refuses, not believing he’s meant for anything beyond where is now. With Stein’s health getting worse, the team decides to try again on Hewitt, but discovers that the fusion attempt gave him residual nuclear powers, and he has a sealed record of violence and anger issues. Jax does come to STAR Labs after some convincing, but he again refuses, which Caitlin absolutely derides him for. Hewitt goes on a rampage and attacks The Flash, and Caitlin laments that she pushed Jax away. However, Jax returns, and realizing that he does want to play for the team and be a superhero. The fusion works, and they face Hewitt together, taking him down. Afterwards, Stein and Jax go to Pittsburg to visit a colleague.
Meanwhile, Iris meets her mom, Francine, but tells her she has no interest in having her in her life. However, Francine reveals that she’s dying in less than a year, the real reason she returned when she did. Iris does sleuthing to determine if she’s telling the truth, and discovers that Francine had another secret son. She decides not to tell Joe so he doesn’t have to feel guilty for a child being out there that he couldn’t raise. Joe investigates a report from Dr. McGee, who claims to have seen Harrison Wells stealing a weapon from Mercury Labs, though he doesn’t want to worry Barry. He does tell Barry that he notices the flirtation between he and Patty and makes Barry acknowledge it, and the ordeal with Firestorm and Caitlin convinces Barry to be open to new possibilities with Patty. Before he can do anything, he’s attacked by King Shark from Earth-2, who is then shot down with the stolen weapon by none other than Harrison Wells.
Not even a season-and-a-half in, and it seems we’ve already gotten to the common hero trope where we nave new characters taking up a previous hero’s mantle. (Even Arrow didn’t have Canary 2.0 until season 3.) Firestorm was always a character that was very cool on the show but never exactly integral, so it’s not a surprise that we’re getting a new-and-maybe-improved version of him now. I’ll be up front that I wasn’t terribly into the first season’s Firestorm two-parter as a whole – they were very well put-together episodes, but didn’t have much oomph outside of part one’s cliffhanger and Victor Garber being Victor Garber. Part of that is because Ronnie Raymond was never a terribly complex character, even if he was was relatively likeable, but it made it hard to necessarily latch on to his journey. If anything, the triumph of the initial Firestorm arc was that it gave Caitlin weightier material, and of course gave us Martin Stein, who’s become more entertaining without being partnered with Ronnie.
The Firestorm mythos on the show have been well-handled in the sense that they fit into the universe, even as bizarre as the powerset is, and fans of a previously C-list hero have surely enjoyed that part. But Firestorm always seemed like a diversion from the show’s narrative rather than something intrinsically part of its DNA. That’s a bit hypocritical, admittedly, considering the beloved Rogues and their last episode was technically a diversion from season 2’s main plot, too. But while the Rogues characters are constantly evolving within the narrative of The Flash, Firestorm’s appearances tend to feel like set-up for a spin-off (even back before we were getting a spin-off.) The character(s) would disappear and then reappear with no apparent arc outside of being fodder for a spin-off, and to occasionally give Caitlin something extra to do, emotionally. The Ronnie iteration inexplicably jetted off after his two-parter to parts unknown, for example, and the Jax iteration is now doing the same – though at least this time we know they’re going to end up in Legends of Tomorrow.
The macro of the episode’s place — that it just feels like a diversion and spin-off set-up — is probably its biggest problem. In the bubble of the single episode, it functions better, but it’s still unfortunately a bit clunky. There’s no illusion of choice whatsoever between the two Firestorm options; the episode clearly paints Jax as the right and obvious choice from the get-go, so it seems all-the-more artificial when it hinges on characters’ doubts and questions. Everything that happens and will happen is clearly spelled out for us, especially as the characters outright state the themes and parallels without letting us infer them, and it’s just is more overwritten and unsubtle than is usual on The Flash
That said, it’s not as if the episode is a complete loss — we do end up with a totally new Firestorm pairing, for what that’s worth, and there’s potential for the character to be more interesting than the initial iteration. Stein has been and continues to be an immensely fun character this season, especially in how well he’s clicked with the main cast, so it’s a shame that we’re losing him to another show. But there’s a solid odd-couple set-up between Stein and the new Firestorm partner in Jefferson “Jax” Jackson – Ronnie still had a science background and was mostly a generic hero guy, while Jax is the opposite of Stein in terms of experience, athleticism, self-confidence, and even general tastes. We don’t see much of that outside of Stein snidely criticizing Jax’s type of music, but Garber tends to bring out the best in his co-performers, so it ought to be fun seeing the two interact and even clash.
Franz Drameh is kind of a mixed bag as Jax. On the plus side, Jax immediately feels more like a character than Ronnie did, as Ronnie tended to be little more than a plot device rather than a fleshed-out character. Jax’s story generally works, even if “football star loses scholarship and loses faith in himself” has been done to death. But it’s not a story this show has told, at the very least, and it lends to a more earthy, grounded worldview that few characters on a show as wacky as The Flash have anymore. Drameh, however, is very stilted when Jax exposits about his tragic past. Any exposition is hard, in all fairness, but he doesn’t seem to have a great handle on the complicated and somewhat darker material. He fits more comfortably in scenes where he’s just being a hero and a team player – his calm and confident, leader-style demeanor in the final fight does a much better job of selling the character. While Jax’s backstory is more interesting than Ronnie’s was, Drameh has about the same level of charisma and delivery as Robbie Amell had – which, while not bad, there’s definitely room for improvement. Hopefully we’ll get that in Legends of Tomorrow, though it may have been nice to see more of the new Firestorm on The Flash just to make him feel more vital and less of that cursed spin-off set-up.
The final battle between Firestorm 2.0 and Henry Hewitt/Tokamak is mostly well-handled, in that the Firestorm effects are gorgeous and look better than ever. The downside is that the climax is basically Hewitt standing in the middle of a field while he gets beat up, so next time we’ll hopefully get better choreography with those top-notch effects. Hewitt’s rise as a villain is also fairly well-handled, with some decently telegraphed hints of anger issues before his turn to the darkside. Denmore Barnes plays up the pompousness and rage, which is basically his entire character, but does well to not go over-the-top with it. Firestorm has a full-fledged nemesis now, and it will be interesting to see the characters face-off in the future now that the origins are out of the way.
Caitlin, like Stein, has shown much more color post-Ronnie, free to explore more intense and raw emotions – grief in the premiere and outright anger this time around. To be clear, she’s absolutely out-of-line when she tears down Jax, and she’s unsympathetically pompous about the entire situation, too. But, frankly, it suits the character’s background; she’s a fairly privileged, highly-educated scientist who’s definitely shown some signs of being just the teensiest bit stuck-up because of that. We never saw much of that in the first season, because between the main crises and all the Ronnie drama, there really wasn’t time for it. But in the absence of Ronnie and Harrison Wells, we’ve seen Caitlin a little more free to explore who she is without a tether, whether she wants to or not, and she’s coming together as a more complex, rounded, even flawed character as a result. In this case, the episode very clearly sides against her, but only so she can learn how to be a little more humble and open-minded. As such, that off-putting pompousness doesn’t really diminish her likeability, given she recognizes her mistakes and grows from them.
It’s a more organic case of a character learning to open to new possibilities – this episode’s all-too-obvious overarching theme – than what’s very unsubtly hammered into Barry. The flirtation between Barry and Patty has become a rather conflicting part of this season, because the way it’s being written and performed doesn’t totally line-up. Patty is a very likeable and charming character, thanks to Shantel VanSanten nailing the geekiness without getting over-the-top at all. And there’s definitely a spark between the two, but it’s been played all season as a rather one-sided infatuation. But then this episode breaks the cardinal show-don’t-tell rule badly by having Joe directly talk about how Barry’s been clearly smitten with Patty the whole time. The trouble is, Grant Gustin hasn’t been playing up that flirtation at all – in fact, last week he played Barry as definitively oblivious to Patty’s assumptions until it was awkward for them both.
It seems like a disconnect between this episode and those preceding, and that’s likely attributed to what feels like the show getting automatically defensive about giving Barry a new love interest without providing any closure for he and Iris. That’s a little weird, because we haven’t directly touched on where Barry and Iris are at now — this week Iris is referred to Barry’s first love and that they’re now friends, but otherwise they’ve barely interacted this season thanks to all the craziness. That could be leading to something, and it’s good that romance between the two hasn’t been shoehorned in when there’s clearly more going on for them both individually. But it’s also okay for characters to explore other avenues during relationship downtime. For example, I was a major fan of Arrow letting Oliver have a non-melodramatic relationship with McKenna in season one, and even that fling with Isabel in season 2, because it’s human and healthy to explore other options in both romantic love and/or sexual pleasure. The operatic nature of superhero stories often lends to “destined-forever-love” types of romances, which can work as many times as they don’t, but aren’t necessary all the time. So even if West-Allen is literally written on a future newspaper, there’s no reason the characters can’t explore other avenues, growing and bettering themselves as people, and even end up back together later on. So all that’s to say: yes, Barry and Patty can be a thing, and there’s more chemistry there than between Barry and Linda, but the show just doesn’t seem to have any idea how to deal with it.
The upside to Iris not being saddled in a romance storyline, though, is that she’s vastly improved as a character. She has a different kind of problem in the “opening up to new possibilities” theme – should she open up to letting her mom in her life? – and it’s a much darker spin on it all. What’s really great about Iris is that she doesn’t treat this situation like a TV character. So often are long-lost parents the ultimate gift to the heroes, but like what Barry had to learn in “Fast Enough,” Iris already has the family she wants, and an ex-drug addict who ditched them doesn’t deserve to be in it. Blood relations don’t immediately mean the person has to be in our lives, and with that viewpoint in mind, Iris has a very mature approach to the situation. She does respectfully tell her mother to basically GTFO in person and has a solid reasoning for it, allowing there to be closure for her while cutting that rotten piece out, and doesn’t make her father the bad guy to boot. Then, as soon as Francine turns around and says she’s dying, Iris’ journalistic skeptism kicks in – something shows with journalist characters tend to forget about, for some reason – and she investigates the heck out of it. That’s all lead-up to a very good reveal that she has a brother (a character we know as her nephew in the comics) and it’s a shocking, satisfying capper to this week’s story.
This set-up for Wally West is miles better than the Jay Garrick arrival, which relied on the audience knowing comic book knowledge to be “shocked.” Instead, a key character in the Flash mythos is already rooted in a heavily emotional payoff from a longer story. That means that people who aren’t familiar with the character will still be excited when he shows up, and that’s a great way to do it. It also means we’re likely to see a proactive Iris seeking out her lost brother, and there’s lots of meaty potential for that relationship even before we’ve met Wally. The only hiccup here is Iris’ choice to keep it a secret from her father, which seems a bit forced for drama. But it’s also a funny contrast to last season, where literally every character was keeping a secret from Iris, so it’s kind of earned in a meta way.
The West reveal is a highlight of the hour, but its really the unbelievable surprise ending that we’re going to remember, which includes an impeccably rendered King Shark before Earth-2 Harrison Wells shoots him down. Not to explain the joke too much here, but these superhero shows have long made jokey references about characters we’d never, ever be able to see (the 1990s The Flash referencing Grodd, for example), and Patty mentioning a man-shark in such a cheeky way basically ensured we wouldn’t see King Shark. Of course, that’s underestimating the show that did figure out how to get Grodd on screen and make it work, so we shouldn’t be surprised. The only downside is the potential that Wells dealt a fatal blow — which he better not have, because we absolutely need to see more King Shark, even if only in occasional one-off appearances. What an insanely cool development!
It’s not that we should have gotten a King Shark episode instead of this Firestorm endeavor — though a King Shark episode would be great — but it’s telling when the best parts of the episode are the series of shockers at the end that have nothing to do with the episode’s plot. “The Fury of Firestorm” introduces a character that will hopefully be more interesting later, and it’s fun as The Flash often is. But it tells the story in the bluntest way since episode three, with themes and observations hammered in repeatedly in an episode that was already leaning too heavy on the predictable side to begin with.
Odds & Ends
- Webmaster Craig totally predicted that Wally was Iris’ brother, in addition to predicting that we’d see Iris’ mom, back in our summer roundtable.
- Apparently King Shark (or a variation of him, assuming this one is coming from Earth-2 since he mentioned Zoom) was featured in the Flash: Season Zero comics, which I’ve shamefully not read.
- It’s always nice to see Amanda Pays back. It would be interesting to see her as sort of an unintentional antagonist given that she’s not a fan of Wells, and if Earth-2 Wells is a good guy like we all expect, she might cause big problems for him since she knows he’s around.
- We get an on-the-nose but very funny reference to Victor Garber’s role in Titanic. “Would you prefer Celine Dion instead? I have the Titanic soundtrack in the back.”
- Great, now I have “My Heart Will Go On” stuck in my head.
- Cisco’s adorable excitement about two Professor Steins is one big reason I don’t want Stein to leave, given we’re losing more screentime for that relationship.
- “He said no to being a superhero, who does that?” – This is basically the entire impetus of the show.
- “What kind of treadmill is that?”
- “Put your hands…fins in the air!”