The Flash: 201 “The Man Who Saved Central City” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
We’re back! After five months, last year’s surprise gem The Flash is back after that cliffhanging finale. Season one set an extremely high bar for any future seasons, skilfully combining top-notch superhero action with an unashamed pride in its comic book roots and excellent, frequently touching human drama, so it’s fair to say that season two hasn’t exactly been handed the easiest of challenges. Did the season two premiere get The Flash’s sophomore season off to a speedy start?
The Man Who Saved Central City served as a pretty accurate encapsulation of just how great The Flash can be, along with a pointed reminder of the flaws it’s yet to iron out. Undoubtedly, though, this was a solid start, and a reassuring reminder that the writers have laid some emotional groundwork before delving into the crazy sci-fi stuff next week. Generally speaking, The Man Who Saved Central City hit all the right character notes (apart from one, which we’ll get to later), handling the fallout of the singularity above Central City with touching aplomb. Barry’s idyllic daydream and subsequent reminder of his new, miserable status quo was an effectively jarring way to begin the episode, cleverly subverting expectations by delivering a typically sunny and upbeat slice of action (complete with overly cheesy Captain Cold and Heat Wave) only to swiftly yank it away to reveal something far harsher. It’s a storytelling move that communicates the isolation and regret that colours Barry’s new life boldly and effectively right from the get go, and it allows the subsequent scenes that really delve into Barry’s feelings post-singularity to have a greater kick knowing the depths of his misery.
As for the singularity itself? As it turned out, it was only closed with a sacrifice from Ronnie Raymond, ensuring that the Wells fiasco required two sacrifices to fix (truly, it was a bad day for generally handsome white men in their 20s). It’s a bold and unusually sombre move for The Flash to kill off two major characters in the space of two episodes, but Ronnie’s death feels entirely justified story-wise – it ensures that the closing of the singularity came at a major cost, giving a sense of genuine consequences that often aren’t felt in resolutions of end-of-season cliffhangers, and it ensures that Barry’s guilt doesn’t feel like entirely misplaced, turgid moping, as he really was partially responsible for Ronnie’s death. Okay, Ronnie’s also dead because Robbie Amell was probably too expensive for Legends of Tomorrow (the fact that it was Ronnie and not the infinitely more interesting Martin Stein certainly didn’t hurt) but this was far from a gratuitous death done only for shock value and press coverage, making sound and clear storytelling sense as a way to power Barry’s guilt throughout this episode.
Where The Man Who Saved Central City really soared was in its affirmation of what really does make The Flash stand out from other superhero shows – Barry’s wide network of friends and family who show nothing but support for his actions. Here, Barry’s support network was utilised to essentially tear apart Barry’s flimsy rationale for working alone, dismissing a cliché that felt derivative even by The Flash’s standards and putting a swift stop to Barry’s lone ranger crusade, re-asserting the familial and co-operative status quo that’s worked so well as of yet. Predictably, Jesse L Martin continued to exude fatherly warmth as Joe attempted to talk Barry into letting people help him (the fact that The Flash can do Barry/Joe heart-to-hearts in its sleep now doesn’t diminish their effectiveness, thankfully), but it’s actually Iris who proves to be a surprisingly positive figure. The character showed a distinct upswing in depth and likeability at the end of season one, and thankfully that’s continuing here, with Iris in the role of grounded and understanding muse that worked so well in the last couple of episodes in season one – and despite the fact that Iris is clearly still mourning Eddie, The Flash appears to be thankfully averting the ‘mourning death spiral’ that Laurel’s character underwent in Arrow after Tommy’s death, with Iris continuing to be a genuinely warm and positive rather than self-destructive influence here. There’ll be time in future episodes to focus on Iris’ coping with Eddie’s death, but The Flash wisely keeps that at arm’s length for now, preventing a crushing pile-up of drama in this already packed season première.
Intriguingly, one of the strongest scenes of the episode was also the one I genuinely never expected would happen, despite the idea of Wells making a will seeming quite obvious in retrospect. It’s one final chance for Tom Cavanagh to play the alarming mix of fatherly warmth and sinister villainy that he excelled at last year, serving as a satisfying and unexpectedly touching epilogue to the Eobard Thawne arc – and providing one of the happiest twists I can remember in any show; Wells confessing to killing Nora. Grant Gustin’s astonished performance here really sells the moment, providing extra wallop to an emotional pay-off an entire 24 episodes in the making and somehow turning a moment with so much build-up into something that really did live up to expectations. While Henry wasn’t dealt with as successfully after, it’s hard to fault this terrific little moment of closure that puts a firm full-stop on the events of season one and provides a genuine shake-up to the status quo, all the while tugging at the heart-strings like never before. It’s telling, though, that even this moment is freedom is laced with the insidious influence of Thawne, indicating that Barry is still far from escaping from under the thumb of a man who has quite literally been erased from existence; a creepy, slightly unsettling thought.
With all that said about the strong character work, it’s worth noting an egregious misstep at the end of the episode. Henry’s departure from Central City is logical to an extent – Barry already has an arguably more interesting father figure who is more involved with the main storylines, and Henry had served his purpose as the main motive for Barry’s quest against Thawne. Now Thawne’s gone, it makes sense that Henry would too – but there must have been a better way to go about that than Henry abruptly leaving town after one scene outside the prison. It undercuts the emotional impact of Henry’s release entirely as Henry remains just as far away from Barry as he was before, and Henry’s stated reasons are a fudged, hazy amalgamation of all the speeches he made to Barry last year that make very little sense when stitched together into a single motivation. Henry’s reasons are jumbled and confused, giving the idea that the writers wanted Henry out as quickly as possible and somewhat lost a sense of coherency in the process. There’s time to redeem this mistake in future episodes, but it’s a slightly bitter moment of clearly artificial cast shuffling (you can almost see the gears turning in this scene as the writers carefully place Henry back into a ‘guest star’ role for future episodes) that, despite John Wesley Shipp giving his all in his final scene, undoes some of the great work The Man Who Saved Central City did earlier on.
There’s so much going on character-wise here that it’s easy to forget the other major element of this episode: the bad guy. The metahuman of the week was Al Rothstein aka Atom Smasher – and, unfortunately Atom Smasher indicated that The Flash’s continuous problems with creating and dispatching an engaging and complex villain in one episode has carried over between seasons. The Atom Smasher plot felt humdrum and by-the-numbers in every way, covering the same beats and well-worn story structure The Flash has already covered several times over (the villain escapes, Barry confronts him and gets beaten up, Barry then works out a way to defeat the villain). Despite the lazy and uninspired plotting behind Atom Smasher, he did for all intents and purposes serve his dual purpose of bringing the team together and opening up the big arc of season two effectively enough. It’s the latter that’s really intriguing here – there’s a fun thread of mystery throughout the episode about Atom Smasher possessing the same face as a recently killed worker, and it all dovetails into Atom Smasher’s simple yet shocking motivation; he was sent by someone to kill the Flash in order to ensure his return ‘home’. That someone goes by the moniker of Zoom, and those who’ve been staying up to date with the pre-publicity (and have read the comics, though Zoom seems to be more of an in-name-only adaptation here) will know just how much trouble Barry’s now in. It’s actually quite surprising to have the Big Bad named and gunning for Barry in the premiere considering that Harrison Wells only went after Barry in last year’s mid-season finale, but it’s an example of the enjoyably breakneck plotting of this show – there’s absolutely no dragging feet here, as The Flash appears to be delving right into the meat of this year’s arc.
It’s the final scene, however, that really kicks things off as a mysterious figure strolls into STAR Labs (note: the timing of his entrance after the boasts of STAR Labs about their improved security, coupled with Cisco’s incredulous ‘for real?’ made me laugh louder than I should have). ‘My name is Jay Garrick, and your world is in danger’, he says ominously in a cliffhanger that doubtless had some comic fans pinching themselves. The Golden Age Flash has entered the building, and with him, it appears that we’re jumping right into the idea of alternate worlds…
The Man Who Saved Central City excels as a character piece and as a study of the ramifications of the singularity, and sets up the key pawns for the season two arc nicely, but it stumbles with a painfully contrived twist regarding Henry Allen and a typically uninspired metahuman of the week plot.
Scene of the Episode: The Crimson Comet – Not many people thought at the start of the show that The Flash would be dealing with Earth-2 at all – but here we are, with the alternate Flash entering with a stern warning in this episode’s thrilling cliffhanger.