The Flash: 211 “The Reverse-Flash Returns” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Barry’s found himself a pretty threatening new enemy this year in the form of sinister Earth-2 speedster Zoom, but it’s safe to say that the title of arch-nemesis still resides with his mother’s murderer, the Reverse-Flash. Except the Reverse-Flash no longer exists, having been erased from existence when Eddie killed himself in the season one finale… so how was Eobard Thawne alive and well at the end of last week’s episode?
This week’s episode, The Reverse-Flash Returns, was thankfully a step up from last week’s disappointing mid-season premiere. It’s not vintage Flash, thanks to a surplus of subplots and more clunky Barry/Patty drama, but it’s refreshing to see the show return to the mind-bending narrative audacity it tends to excel at after last week’s reasonably conservative episode. This was certainly a packed episode, so it’s worth starting at the most obvious place – the Reverse-Flash’s impossible return to Central City.
The Flash was always going to have to tie itself in knots to explain the Reverse-Flash’s return, so the convoluted, flimsy gobbledegook about ‘time remnants’ and whatnot wasn’t a surprise – but, despite that ludicrous explanation, The Reverse-Flash Returns managed to make both the central villain and use of time travel work on a visual and thematic level. Matt Letscher, whose memorably creepy turn in a flashback in late season one was his only significant turn as Eobard Thawne to date, neatly channels the sinister megalomania that Tom Cavanagh nailed last season, delivering a performance that’s inspired by, but doesn’t copy Cavanagh’s iconic performance as Thawne.
What really worked here was the use of time travel mechanics to tell an origin story of sorts for the Reverse-Flash. Not only did this give Barry a chance to finally take down the Reverse-Flash in a fight (having presumably not quite worked his way up to the speed he was at in season one), but it also provided the thought-provoking final idea of Barry having to release Thawne to save Cisco, thus enabling the horrible series of actions that we saw last season to unfold. It’s a great take on the trope of attempting to prevent an event and instead causing it, and provides a thematic anchor of sorts for this crowded episode that percolated through most of the subplots. In particular, Barry’s enablement of his mother’s and Eddie’s deaths provides a decent level of justification for his actions with Patty – though his decision-making remains flimsy, it’s easier to understand his talk of ‘hard choices’ when his decision to release the Reverse-Flash is taken into account. In an episode where the A plot was nearly entirely unconnected from the serialised Zoom arc, The Reverse-Flash Returns pleasingly used its titular villain to link heavily into Barry’s character journey of finding happiness, pushing forward this season’s character development in a surprising way.
The Reverse-Flash conflict also dovetailed nicely with this episode’s development of Cisco, which pushed him further than ever to becoming the superhero Vibe. Cisco gets his usual mix of quotable lines and funny moments here (highlight: his shriek at seeing Wells in the Reverse-Flash suit), but The Reverse-Flash Returns adds a little more substance to his character, considerably advancing the scope of his abilities alongside a gloating monologue to Thawne that neatly acts as the opposite to the season one finale’s revelation of his powers. Cisco has always been a very likeable character (when he’s put in danger at episode’s end, it induces the kind of tension you’d only get from a small subset of regular characters), but it’s good to see The Flash flesh him out a little as a character in his own right rather than just as the quippy sidekick and inventor of nicknames.
Alongside the superhero action, The Reverse-Flash Returns also packed in two major emotional plotlines; one considerably more effective than the other. Despite the distinct lack of screen-time for her in the season’s first half, Iris has come on leaps and bounds in terms of likeability since she found out about Barry’s powers, and it says something about the scale of her character’s improvement that the plotline that places her at the centre is undoubtedly the stronger of the two emotional plotlines. It takes the convoluted, soapy story with Iris’ mother from the start of the season and distils it into a simple yet effective tale of a daughter saying goodbye to a mother she barely knew, with Candice Patton displaying an improved depth of emotion that parallels her own character’s surge in depth and likeability, nailing the scene with Iris and her dying mother at the hospital. It’s the brand of simple, primary-colour emotion that The Flash has made its signature, and it’s notable that it’s this relatively tangential plotline that’s only afforded a handful of scenes still works as a solid emotional continuation of the West family drama.. With Wally now around on a permanent basis to provide conflict, hopefully The Flash can continue to give Iris her own fleshed-out, independent plotlines, because at the moment she’s possibly the show’s most interesting female character.
And then there’s Patty and Barry, a plotline which I disparaged a fair bit last week. The Reverse-Flash Returns does get a few things right with Patty and Barry – the fact that Patty deduces Barry’s identity is a respectful development that at least gives Patty a little more agency and independence in a plotline that’s all about a decision being made for her, and on the whole this is a slightly more satisfying ending for the character than last week’s would have been, mainly due to the effective unspoken moment of understanding between the two characters on the train at the very end. But this is still, ultimately, a frustrating plotline, and its weaknesses seem even starker when the rest of the episode is comparatively stronger.
TV is an inherently contrived, with plotlines that follow an explicit plan to reach a certain destination and with lines of dialogue that have been laid out to allow that path from A to Z, and there’s no getting away from that. But plot developments should always feel at least fairly organic, and that’s what the Patty/Barry conflict fails at. It’s a story written on rails, with an end destination that doesn’t quite mesh with our knowledge of what these characters would do. So we get Barry at his least sympathetic and most bull-headed, palming off any attempts at reconciliation without thinking of any compromises, Joe as an unsupportive partner who shuts Patty out of the loop entirely, and Patty stuck in the middle as someone who’s basically being pushed into a change in her life that she’s not that on board with. The writer’s intention is understandable, but getting Patty out of the way involves far too many contrivances, out-of-character moments and generally frustrating moments for this plotline to work. Thankfully, it’s definitively over now, and I can only hope that the show chooses to move on from secret identity drama from now on, because this was actively a major drag on an otherwise stellar episode.
The Reverse-Flash Returns, despite a general lack of progression on the Zoom front, did drop one hell of a bombshell towards the end. The search for Jay’s Earth-1 counterpart mostly ticked away under the radar this episode, earning the ignominy of being an E-plot, but it ended with a terrific curveball that could shake up everything we know about Zoom’s identity. The revelation that Jay’s Earth-1 counterpart is called Hunter Zolomon, the civilian identity of Zoom in the comics, is undoubtedly tailored to those with knowledge of the comics and therefore might not elicit much of a reaction from casual viewers, but it’s still a really intriguing twist that subtly shakes the mystery of Zoom’s identity up completely. It could just be a red herring, in which case it’s a fun nod to the comics and little else, but it’s hard to imagine that The Flash would build up to this revelation and then do little with it.
But if we’re taking this revelation as an important one, then that means (probably) two things. The obvious one is that Earth-1 Jay Garrick is Zoom, having been hopping between Earths for a while and battling his Earth-2 counterpart in a bid to become the only guy with Teddy Sears’ face in the multiverse (or something like that). But if Jay Garrick’s Earth-1 counterpart has a different name, then it stands to reason that a main Earth-1 character’s Earth-2 counterpart could have a different name… Hunter Zolomon, perhaps? And if this all speculation sounds relentlessly confusing and tangled, then that’s the multiverse for you, and it looks like we’ll be getting plenty more of that in the coming weeks…
The Reverse-Flash Returns is a busy episode, but it packs in a solid origin story for season one’s villain, a great Iris subplot and some fun advancement for Cisco-as-Vibe. Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by the messy Patty subplot, which brings what could have been an A-grade episode to merely solid territory.