“I made a big mistake.”
At least Barry admits it right off the bat, although he might well be speaking for a creative team attempting to course-correct for a narrative loophole intrinsic to the Flash mythos. The problem is simple: if the Flash can travel back in time and change the past, as he’s already done several times throughout the course of the series, why wouldn’t he simply do that every time something goes wrong? “Paradox” exists to solve that problem, and it does so well enough, but that doesn’t stop the episode from being a real drag most of the time.
One of the major issues this week is the need to explain the mechanics of time travel as they apply to Barry’s dilemma. Hardcore comic book and science fiction fans have long since absorbed these tropes, but more casual viewers may still be experiencing vertigo over the events of “Flashpoint,” so Barry pays a visit to Felicity for one of those “let me get this straight” scenes designed to spoon-feed the essential information. (If that’s not quite enough, we later get visual demonstrations with a whiteboard and also a broken coffee cup.)
In a nutshell: When Barry went back and allowed the Reverse-Flash to kill his mother, he didn’t restore the original timeline exactly as it was. He created yet a third timeline, with a few depressing differences. We already know from last week that Joe and Iris aren’t talking (because he didn’t tell her about her mother still being alive), but now we find out that Cisco’s brother Dante is dead, leaving us with something no Flash viewer ever asked for: Emo Cisco. (Barry knows something is very wrong when he asks Cisco to nickname a captured criminal and the best he can come up with is “Thief.”) In addition, Barry is saddled with a new officemate at work: Metahuman specialist Julian Albert (Tom Felton), who doesn’t like him much.
Barry decides he’s got to go back in time and set things right yet again, although it’s not clear how he intends to do this. After all, he already allowed his mother to be killed, so what’s he supposed to do? Go back and let her be killed some more? We’ll never know, since he’s intercepted in the Speed Force by Earth-2 Flash, who pulls him out into 1998, where they surely do untold damage to the space-time continuum by sitting at a diner table and never ordering anything. The elder speedster convinces Barry that he can’t keep resetting the timeline without screwing things up even more each time.
It’s a necessary lesson in terms of the story going forward, because otherwise nothing that happens can ever carry any real weight. (Yes, I am aware that there is an entire other CW superhero show devoted to romping around the timeline, doing who knows what damage, but that’s someone else’s problem.) I doubt this is an end to time-travel on the show, since that will always be a part of Barry’s arsenal, but at least it’s a tapping of the brakes. It’s very clear now that there are drastic consequences to such tampering, and with any luck that will have a positive effect on the rash, self-absorbed Barry we’ve seen of late.
For now, though…it’s still kind of hard not be mad at Barry. Just look at Cisco: he went from billionaire playboy last week to mopey mumblecore character this week. It’s entirely Barry’s fault that Dante is dead (well, okay, the drunk driver had something to do with it too, but on a more cosmic scale, it’s all on Barry), and yet the best he can offer Cisco is a “do as I say, not as I do” lecture. By episode’s end, things are starting to creep back toward normal (even if adding “Dr.” to Alchemy isn’t Cisco’s most inspired moment), but for most of the hour we’re stuck in a glum, joyless version of The Flash too reminiscent of last season’s low points.
There’s reason for optimism, however, and not just because Harry shows up in the previews for next week’s episode. Barry’s mission this week was to get the group back together, working in harmony like the old days. If he’s finally ready to leave the past where it belongs, I have hope that the show can find its footing and recapture the exhilarating Silver Age feeling from the first season. That’s the timeline I’d like to see restored.
- The Rival never amounted to much more than a dull knockoff speedster, but I did appreciate his point-of-view on Barry’s reckless time-altering shenanigans. Finding out you were super-powerful and it all got taken away because of someone’s else bad decisions…yeah, that’s gotta sting.
- More questionable judgment by Barry: If Dr. Alchemy is bringing back all the Flashpoint metahumans, shouldn’t he at least mention to Wally that he’s going to end up being a speedster?
- I’ll withhold judgment on CSI Agent Draco Malfoy for now. Something tells me there’s more to him than meets the eye!
- The Barry/Iris relationship is still being handled weirdly. They’re still talking in terms of “doing this thing” and “taking this step” as if it’s a business merger. Tonight ended with another chaste kiss. Maybe you two don’t really want this?
- I like John Wesley Shipp’s Jay Garrick, at least based on his brief appearance tonight. He’s still a father figure of sorts, but a little rougher around the edges than Henry Allen. A speedster who’s already made a lot of the big mistakes is someone Barry definitely should know.
- For those of us wondering if the timeline change would affect Arrow: Diggle’s daughter is now a son. Uh…great.