Mark Hamill, John Wesley Shipp/The CW

“The Present” is both a gift and a state of being, the latter meaning the here-and-now, which is where Barry Allen should be spending his time. Instead, he’s spent far too much of that mucking around in the past, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, now he’s messing with the future. We can’t really blame him for that, as his visit to five months from now (conveniently timed to season three’s endpoint) is an accidental by-product of a heroic act: tossing the Philosopher’s Stone into the Speed Force in hopes of trapping Savitar permanently. The fact that he almost immediately finds out that it won’t work by watching as his future self fails to save yet another loved one (in this case Iris) from yet another evil speedster who has been wronged by future-Flash (the aforementioned Savitar) suggests that Barry is not so much a hapless hero as a victim of a cosmic joke, doomed to relive the same fate over and over again.

That would be a bummer because, as this very episode clearly demonstrates, The Flash is at its best when the angst and heaviness are at a minimum. Consider the all-too-brief Earth-3 sequence in which Barry drops in on Jay just as he’s doing battle with his universe’s version of the Trickster (played again by Mark Hamill, this time in completely different costume and makeup). The scene is a cartoonish delight that recalls both the Silver Age comics and the 1990 TV series on which Hamill first clashed with John Wesley Shipp’s Flash, and it left me wanting an entire episode set in the zippy world of Earth-3, with a full alternate rogue’s gallery of Flash foes. I wouldn’t want the show to be this goofy all the time, but it was nice to see the pendulum swing back that way after spending much of the season down in the dumps.

This being the “mid-season finale” (still a ridiculous concept, but one that’s not going away), however, there’s not much time to dwell on the lighthearted hijinks. There’s major arc business to attend to, and it begins with a weird Indiana Jones-ish prologue set four years ago in India, where Julian leads an expedition to find the long-hidden Philosopher’s Stone. He does so, becoming Alchemy in the process, although he isn’t aware of it. As Barry learns once he’s discovered Julian’s secret and locked him up in the pipeline, his erstwhile crime lab partner has been blacking out every time Alchemy appears. In fact, Alchemy is barely a real villain, just a puppet for Savitar, who can only manifest himself when the stone is out of its protective box.

Speaking through Julian, Savitar reveals his plan of vengeance on Flash for what his future self has done…er, will do, I guess. “One shall betray. One shall fall. One will suffer a fate worse than death.” Barry gets a pretty good idea of what at least a couple of those prophecies mean when he arrives in the future in time to see Savitar killing Iris. As Jay explains, however, the future is not yet written and everything is still possible. While going back and changing the past results in disaster, there’s nothing to prevent you from stopping something that hasn’t happened yet.

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Still, the “Iris is doomed” seed that’s planted here is a big red flag, because of course Barry doesn’t tell her what he saw, so of course this is yet another big secret that’s going to come out eventually anyway and cause a lot more hurt feelings and…I’m sure you’re already picturing how this plays out. Because we’ve seen it over and over. “The Present” may be the here-and-now but the past is never past. There are some things The Flash can’t let go, and others it takes too long to resolve: for instance, this week we get even more of the West family squabbling over Wally and his speed powers, with HR now pulled into the mix as collateral damage. We can hope that’s now at an end given the present of the Kid Flash uniform at the end, but this is another conflict-for-conflict’s-sake that took too long to play out.

Fortunately, the Christmas party at the end is another reminder of what The Flash does well. Conflict is inevitable, but at the core these are characters who care about each other, and that’s why we care about them. The comparison of grandmothers’ eggnog recipes, HR stumbling around drunk in an ugly sweater, Caitlin using her frost powers to give the carolers some snow…all of this made me wish the show could find room for a little more downtime for Team Flash to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. Saving the world doesn’t always have to be a grim chore, does it?

Stray observations

  • Regular Flash viewers who don’t follow the other Berlantiverse shows may not know this, but the Cisco/Barry feud was essentially resolved on last week’s Legends Of Tomorrow. Which strikes me as kind of a storytelling blunder even if it did work for the crossover. (If you missed it, Cisco went on a time-traveling mission that convinced him Barry didn’t mean to screw up the timeline. Shit happens.)
  • “Caroling in the rain. That sucks.” HR was killing it this week. Savitar describing him as “the fake Wells” did give me pause, though. Yes, he’s a phony in a way, but as far as we know, he really is a Harrison Wells. Unless that face-changer is a clue after all.
  • Infantino Street is another tip of the hat to one of the guiding lights of the Silver Age Flash comics.
  • “Our grandmothers are alcoholics.” Joe has met his match.
  • Winter break commences. Let’s meet back here on January 24.

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