Grant Gustin/The CW

The short-lived 1990 Flash series had its charms, but it was definitely a product of its time. I’m not just talking about the day-glo color schemes and general ‘80s hangover aesthetic, although it does look uncomfortably like a Vanilla Ice video at times. Back then, live-action superhero series were still a rare thing, and the budgetary and special effects limitations simply didn’t allow for those shows to realize their comic-book equivalents in any but the most minimal way. You weren’t going to see Doc Sampson or the Abomination show up on The Incredible Hulk; he was more likely to take on a biker gang or some other run-of-the-mill made-for-TV threat. The original Flash did a little bit better than that, introducing at least a few of the classic comic-book rogues, including Mark Hamill as the Trickster.

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Compared to the Flash we know and love, however, the original might as well be in slow-motion. Maybe in 25 years, the current Flash will look just as dated as the ‘90s one does now, but on a night like this, the CW version looks like the best-case scenario of a comic-book adaptation. After turning back the clock last week, “Tricksters” propels the story forward at the speed of light.

The episode pays homage to the 1990 series by bringing back Hamill as the Trickster, or one of them anyway. In this universe, the Trickster did indeed terrorize Central City 20 years earlier, long before there was a Flash. A copycat has arisen in the present day, prompting Joe and Barry to visit the original, James Jesse, in Iron Heights. Hamill plays Jesse as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and the Joker (who Hamill has voiced in countless cartoons and videogames), and the fact that he chews more scenery than this show usually indulges is actually perfect for this man out of time. Hamill is a hoot. (Davon Graye plays the other Trickster, Axel Walker, as a cheap imitation of Jesse, which is the right choice but still a little much at times.)

Jesse’s initial rage that someone is copying his act turns out to be a cover for the fact that he and Walker have been working together since the beginning with an eye toward breaking him out of Iron Heights. Of course, Jesse has to take Henry Allen hostage, if only to briefly reunite Hamill with original Flash John Wesley Shipp. But where the show could have settled for wink-wink homage, it instead uses the opportunity to bring Henry into the STAR Labs fold for a touching meeting with Barry’s friends and the man he now is almost certain is his enemy.

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If “Tricksters” had only dealt with the villains of its title, it would have been a fun hour, but there’s so much more to unpack here, it’s almost dizzying. The episode begins by revisiting the night of Barry’s mother’s death and the battle of speedsters at the scene. Afterward, when the Reverse Flash is attempting to make his escape back to the future, he runs out of gas. The Speed Force has abandoned him and he’s trapped 15 years in our past. But the big revelation comes when he pulls off his mask and…that is not Tom Cavanagh.

Flashbacks reveal that there actually was a Harrison Wells, and he was a scientist planning a cutting-edge research laboratory, and he really was in love with a woman named Tess Morgan who really did die in a car accident. That accident was caused by Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher), the man of the future who killed Barry’s mother. At first I thought it would turn out that Thawne is now an inhabiting presence within Wells, only emerging at certain times to do evil deeds; after all, that would theoretically preserve Wells as a character on the show after Thawne is eventually eradicated. That sure doesn’t seem to be the case, however; Thawne sucks all of Wells’ essence out of his body, leaving only a withered husk.

Last week’s episode concerned me because the way it undid so much of the excitement of the previous hour felt like a copout. “Tricksters” restores my faith that the creative team isn’t shying away from the bold, fleet-footed storytelling that has characterized the best parts of this season. (And yes, I just said “fleet-footed” - no apologies!) Heading into the home stretch, The Flash is picking up momentum like…well, like you know who.

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Stray observations:

  • And then Mark Hamill said “I am your father” and millions of Star Wars fans soiled themselves.
  • Barry can now vibrate through walls, and he knows the Speed Force is a thing, even if he has no clue exactly what that thing is.
  • Oh, hey, Barry told Eddie he’s the Flash, because he really doesn’t seem too concerned about the whole secret identity thing.
  • “It’s my Mona Lisa! My Breaking Bad season five!” Yes, the Trickster had cable in prison.

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