The Flash: 209 “Running to Stand Still” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The festive period is a time for goodwill, rest and relaxation – a time to slow down a little and focus on the good things in your life. For characters on The Flash, however, Christmas is probably the second worst time of the year after mid-May (never a good time in this universe). In this universe, as established by last year’s barnstormer of a mid-season finale, Christmas means major revelations, changes to their lives and homicidal villains on the rampage. Did this year’s winter finale tick those festive boxes?
Running to Stand Still ticked most of those boxes, delivering plenty of excitement and emotion despite lacking the huge revelations of last year. This episode actually felt more like a Flash Christmas Special than a mid-season finale, and treated as such this is another strong instalment. The entrance of Zoom a few weeks back left the season as a whole on a slightly uneven keel – it’d have been too early for a rematch just three episodes later, so The Flash was in the slightly awkward position of not having its Big Bad as the main villain here as is the tradition for shows of this ilk. The solution it found, however, was a pretty great one – just add Rogues. Yep, Running to Stand Still wasn’t lacking in the villain count, with the Trickster, Weather Wizard and Captain Cold all pulling villain duties while Zoom popped in for a couple of book-ending appearances.
I’m a sucker for a villain team-up, but this one did work very nicely on the whole. Aside from the disappointment of only having a few minutes of Wentworth Miller this episode, Cold ducking out and tipping off Barry felt like a fitting and logical thing for the current incarnation of Cold – a character who has been very firmly nudged out of straightforward villain status. It was a nice touch to include him briefly in the team-up, but Running to Stand Still acknowledges that it would be inconsistent for Cold to suddenly develop a murderous grudge against Barry (alongside Wentworth Miller’s Legends of Tomorrow filming schedule) – as fun as it would have been, there wasn’t a place for Cold in this union of unstable psychos.
Weather Wizard and the Trickster are two of the better one-off villains The Flash served up in season one, and they play off each other well here. Running to Stand Still manages to fully justify their team-up, too, by clearly showing a combination of their abilities in the plan – there’s a sense that they do genuinely need each other’s powers/smarts to pull off the plan, ensuring that the team up doesn’t feel gratuitous. There’s a sense throughout the episode that their pooled talents represent a genuine threat to Barry’s life, and it’s great, considering how high the bar The Flash set a couple weeks back with Zoom that it can still make considerable threats out of two lower-level bad guys teaming up. Of the two separate villains, it’s the Trickster who really does steal the show – just about to return to the big screen in some indie movie, Mark Hamill is as delightfully psychotic as before, ravenously chewing scenery and infusing terrifically over-the-top lines (‘Nothing says togetherness like mass graves’) with a genuine sense of enjoyment and excitement. Sure, this Trickster is still a live-action version of Hamill’s animated Joker in all but name, but Hamill is relentlessly engaging and frequently hilarious as a Trickster who seems to really love Christmas despite potentially missing the meaning (maybe not about mass murder?). And hey, the Trickster didn’t die, so round three’s always on the cards for later on.
The Weather Wizard has been a slightly odd character for The Flash – Mark Mardon is a legacy character of a dull starter villain whose imposing first appearance was erased from the timeline, meaning that in continuity the Weather Wizard has actually done very little of note. He’s pretty decent here, though less engaging than the scene-stealing Hamill – helped by a performance by Liam McIntyre that’s hammier and less tethered to the grounded but generic motivation of revenge for his brother’s death that this character was launched with. It’s a more heightened, obviously evil version of the character than we’ve previously seen, but this new characterisation fits well as a companion to the utterly insane Trickster, helping to underline the innately wacky nature of this proto-Rogues team-up.
Weather Wizard’s tale also pivoted nicely into Running to Stand Still’s increased focus on Patty. The previous few episodes’ insistence on focusing on Patty only in relation to Barry brought the frustration of a secret identity plot to the fore – but this episode managed to give Patty a more substantial plot that dulled some of those niggles. There’s some solid, if broadly drawn parallels between Patty and Barry as two people whose parents were killed by super-villains, underlined in a great scene between both of them that uses Barry’s secret identity in a surprisingly effective manner, and it’s just refreshing to see a different, more driven version of Patty who’s not the likeable but thinly drawn girlfriend of previous weeks. Patty doesn’t instantly become a complex, three-dimensional character here, but Running to Stand Still certainly takes steps in that direction by introducing a flicker of inner darkness to Patty that could play out in very interesting ways in the season’s second half. The secret identity problems are still there, but Running to Stand Still undoubtedly takes Patty and Barry’s relationship to a place where it’s precipitously close to that major shift arriving.
And over in the West family, Christmas proved to be a complicated time. After the hectic events of the past few weeks, The Flash finally returned to the plotline of Joe’s missing son, none other than Wally West, which was a pretty important part of this mid-season finale. This is unashamed melodrama, which is generally fine, although the Wally drama does become a little too melodramatic with overly cheesy dialogue and the wearying repetitions of Wally’s name in dramatic fashion every now and then. Despite that, this material was in the hands of talented actors, with Jesse L Martin really stepping up to the mark by nailing the entire spectrum of Joe’s muddled emotions – from emotional shock to giddy excitement at the end. Martin’s a reliable performer, however, so it was a nice surprise to see Candice Patton deliver a solidly emotional performance. Season two hasn’t quite worked out what to do with Iris, so this is her most dramatically substantial material in weeks – and if Patton’s performance this episode is any indication, the Wally plotline, in which Iris will presumably play a pivotal role, is in safe hands. All this solid emotional cabling pays off nicely at episode’s end with the ‘surprise’ (read: predictable) appearance of Wally at the West’s house, which has an added emotional kick with the patient build-up beforehand to his arrival. There’s an awful lot the show can do with Wally even discarding all the Kid Flash stuff (probably not coming this season), so I can only hope that the season’s second half gives Wally his just desserts in terms of substantial screen-time with a wide range of characters.
With all of that good stuff preceding it, it’s a minor shame that Running to Stand Still delivers a fairly weak and slightly questionable cliffhanger. Zoom is still a threatening presence, but the reveal of his plan is a slightly damp squib – I praised The Flash a few weeks back for going for very different territory to the Reverse Flash story, but Zoom’s plot to steal the Flash’s speed does seem like awfully familiar waters. Coupled with the fact that Wells has been co-opted, and there are a few legitimate concerns here to be had about potential retreading last year’s successful story when there’s plenty of other avenues to explore. Is it too early to pass judgement? Perhaps, and the ending still counts as a relatively exciting twist that changes up the group dynamics, but it’s not the most confidence-inspiring launchpad for the season’s second half. If this plays out differently, I’m happy to eat my words, but this was an unfortunately lame cliffhanger that slightly undercut the previous originality of Zoom.
Running to Stand Still, then, perhaps won’t go down in history as a game-changing episode as last year’s did, and could have delivered a more effective cliffhanger. Despite that, it wraps up this year’s first run of episodes neatly, and leaves things open for a thrilling second half of the season when the show returns in 2016. After all, Zoom’s out there with an ally now, gradually strengthening Barry before waiting to strike. How long can Barry really evade Zoom?
A solid rather than spectacular mid-season finale, Running to Stand Still delivers a fun villain team-up and some great character drama alongside a hearty dose of Christmas cheer to leave the show until January.