Grant Gustin, Keiynan Lonsdale/The CW

When last we saw the Fastest Man Alive, we were yelling at our televisions as Barry once again traveled back in time to prevent his mother’s murder. He didn’t go through with it in the first season finale, “Fast Enough,” and that heartrending decision delivered an emotional charge to cap a strong freshman outing for The Flash. Last year’s sophomore slump found an increasingly impulsive and reckless Barry Allen navigating a convoluted narrative burdened by spinoff duties and rife with repetitive emotional beats. This trend reached its nadir in the finale, “The Race Of His Life,” in which Barry, grief-stricken over his father’s murder at the hands of Zoom, forgets everything he’s learned about messing with the timeline and saves his mother after all.

The aftermath plays out in “Flashpoint,” which shares its title and inciting incident with one of those franchise-spanning DC Comics epics designed to reboot the tangled continuity. Even a casual familiarity with that storyline is enough to deduce that the CW version will be a scaled-down adaptation, as we know most of the Justice League A-listers are off the table. Still, the Berlanti-verse has expanded enough over the past couple of years to allow for a cross-series approximation of the source material. Whether that was the original plan or not, what we get in “Flashpoint” feels like a rush job, as if the writers decided early in the planning of the season that this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The argument against an extended take on the Flashpoint comics is easy to make. Any ongoing massive changes to the timeline would have to be reflected in the other CW shows (with the exception of Supergirl, which takes place on a parallel Earth) just as they’re kicking off their new seasons. While a crossover like this might work later in the year, Arrow and DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow have enough on their plates without having to do double-duty in service of another show’s twist (although I wouldn’t rule out a few ripple effects here and there). Still, it’s surprising just how truncated and perfunctory this “Flashpoint” turns out to be; while it isn’t entirely resolved within the season’s first hour, the alternate timeline introduced by Barry’s actions is barely introduced before it’s wiped out by another change of heart.

As the episode begins, Barry is the only one who remembers the preexisting timeline. He’s now several months into a carefree new existence where both his parents are still alive, and although he still has his powers, his Flash duties have been taken over by Wally West. (As usual, it’s best not to devote much thought to the time-travel logistics; for instance, shouldn’t there have been a young Barry who witnessed the Flash saving his mother? And if so, where is that Barry in this reconfigured present?) Iris doesn’t know him, only vaguely recalling him from grade school, but soon enough she feels a connection to him because their love transcends all space, time, and dimension. Not all is well, however: Joe is a drunk with no fatherly connection to Barry, there’s another evil speedster called the Rival on the loose, and every time Barry uses his powers, he loses a few more memories from the previous version of his life. As the Reverse-Flash (now Barry’s prisoner in a power-dampening cell) warns him, once his memories are gone, the new reality becomes permanent. (For reasons! Don’t question it!)

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There’s some fun to be had with this scenario, even if it’s a little too reminiscent of last season’s Earth-2 adventures at times. Cisco is a tech billionaire who has turned the former STAR Labs into his Trumpian headquarters. (What has become of Harrison Wells in this timeline is a question that goes unasked and unanswered.) Caitlin is a pediatric eye doctor for some reason, and her appearance here is almost completely superfluous aside from the opportunity to see Danielle Panabaker deliver an even nerdier take on her character. The climactic showdown with the Rival becomes a callback to the pilot episode as the villain whips up a pair of twisters (“like a Weather Wizard,” Cisco—a master of nicknames in any timeline—notes) and Barry blasts them apart, but not before Wally is critically injured.

This full-circle effect is fitting, given that Barry comes to the same realization he already had the first time he traveled back to the moment of his mother’s death. His actions have been selfish and he needs to set the timeline right again by bringing Reverse-Flash back to finish what he started. (Cruelly, Thawne makes Barry ask him to kill his mother.) Once it’s done, however, and Barry is back in what appears to be the original timeline, it soon becomes clear that the post-Flashpoint reality still isn’t quite right. The cause and extent of the damage (beyond a broken relationship between Iris and Joe) remains to be seen, but here’s hoping the Barry Allen who deals with it is closer to the spirited optimist of the first season than the mopey maker of bad decisions from last year. If that happens, maybe this ill-advised side trip will have been worth it after all.

Stray observations

  • The Rival dates back to 1949 in the comics, but here he just comes off as a sad retread in a store-bought Zoom Halloween costume. I’m hoping that’s intentional, since the last thing this show needs is another speedster Big Bad.
  • Poor Wally, instantly demoted to Kid Flash once Barry reveals himself. Presumably this is not the only appearance of Kid Flash, but how he’ll fit into this reconfigured reality is a mystery for another time.
  • The writing on Edward Clariss’ bathroom mirror is a pretty strong hint that some version of Dr. Alchemy is coming soon.

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