Amanda Pays, Matt Letscher/The CW

Having watched the frantic first hour of DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow last week, I had to wonder if that show’s editing team had taken over The Flash tonight. “The Reverse-Flash Returns” tries to service so many storylines, including one with complicated and at times incoherent time-travel logic, that it often plays like a bad cut-and-paste job of a multi-episode arc. Add a notable humor deficiency and our hero at his least likable, and you have what might be the worst episode of the season so far.

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In conception, the Reverse-Flash’s return is solid enough. This is not the Eobard Thawne of Earth-2, as I theorized last week, but a Thawne from a “timeline remnant” left over from last season’s events. Wells-2 goes to the chalkboard to explain it, but as usual it all boils down to “this is the way time-travel works this week because it’s convenient for this particular story.” (For instance, at one point Harry says that Barry’s mother’s death is a fixed point in the timeline and that nothing can change it. It sure would have saved a lot of time last season if someone had mentioned that.)

In any case, this version of Thawne has left the future in search of the Flash at a point in his life before everything we saw last year, meaning he has not taken over the identity of Harrison Wells and thus is played by Matt Letscher instead of Tom Cavanagh. Maybe it’s because Letscher isn’t given much to work with here (his motivation for pursuing the Flash through the ages feels thinner than ever), but he doesn’t come close to capturing Cavangh’s charisma in the role. Of course it doesn’t help Letscher’s cause that Cavanagh is still right here on the show, especially when he dons the costume briefly to scare Cisco into activating his Vibe powers. It also doesn’t help that his arrival at Mercury Labs and first encounter with the Flash is so rushed and choppy, it almost plays like a dream sequence.

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The “time is a flat circle” resolution to the story is clever enough, with Barry forced to send Thawne back to the future so that everything can play out as we’ve seen it and Cisco can be fully restored to the timeline, but it could have had more impact if the episode weren’t so busy rushing off in a half-dozen different directions. There’s Cisco’s struggle to master his Vibe powers; Caitlin trying to find Jay’s Earth-1 doppelganger in hopes of reversing his illness; the West family drama involving Francine’s deteriorating health; and most unfortunately, the continuing tale of Barry’s deteriorating relationship with Patty.

Of all of these strands, the stuff with Joe, Iris, and Wally dealing with Francine’s impending demise worked best. Candice Patton’s role has been drastically reduced for much of the season, but she did some nice work tonight in the scene where Iris tells her mother she’s not angry anymore, and again when Iris convinces Wally to see Francine before it’s too late. As for Caitlin and Jay, theirs was an ultimately fruitless quest that led right back to where we were last week: Jay will die unless he gets his speed back, which means they have to catch Zoom.

But Barry and Patty…yikes. What an unfortunate turn this relationship took in the past couple of weeks. I already devoted enough time in last week’s review to the reasons I think the whole idea of Barry keeping his secret to protect Patty is bogus, but it’s even more infuriating in this episode because Barry is just such a dick about it. He even makes it worse by mansplaining to her that he’s being distant and weird for her benefit, so she won’t have any regrets later. What a hero! I did like the fact that Patty figured out on her own that Barry is the Flash, what with being a detective and all, but even then he continues to lie until she resorts to tricking him by pretending to be a damsel in distress. It’s all so hokey and unnecessary except to saddle Barry with another golden-oldie superhero burden.

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I don’t expect The Flash to be entirely angst-free or anything, but what made it stand out in its first season was its embrace of the fun of being a superhero, straight out of the Silver Age comics. Sure, there was darkness as well, but it was rarely as glum and morose as this. (Even reliable comic relief Cisco couldn’t do any better than “Bye, Felicia” this week.) I really did like Patty and what Shantel VanSanten did with the part, but frankly, it’s a relief that she’s gone. Maybe now the Flash can lighten up a little.

Stray observations

  • How long did it take the STAR Labs gang to realize the Turtle was dead? How often do they check on those prisoners, anyway?
  • Harry to Cisco: “You know, to me this is Earth-2.” I’m glad someone finally mentioned it.
  • Barry to Thawne: “That’s why you killed my mother.” But…he hasn’t done that yet? So maybe you just gave him that idea? Ugh, time travel mechanics.
  • “Don’t slurp.” OK, so there was one laugh anyway.

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