The Flash: 216 “Trajectory” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
After a long month’s hiatus with only Daredevil to tide us over in the interim, The Flash has returned. Before heading on its spring break, The Flash had worked up something of a hot streak of impactful, exciting episodes filled with major twists – from the two-part trip to Earth-2 to King Shark and the revelation that Zoom was, or at least looked like, Jay Garrick. Did that momentum evaporate on The Flash’s return, or did it keep up the speed?
The ‘F’ word is a dirty word for many TV fans, and it’s a word that does apply to this week’s episode, Trajectory. I’m talking, of course, about filler – the necessary evil of long broadcast seasons that’s enjoyable in its own right to some, and a complete waste of time to others. This was indeed something of a filler episode, with the only major development in the season’s ongoing arc occurring in the last three minutes. But, much like Fast Lane from a few episodes back (remember Tar Pit, anyone?), I enjoyed Trajectory quite a lot, generally for similar reasons to Fast Lane. Perhaps it’s my fondness for the old school, meat-and-potatoes version of this show in which Barry fights a standalone villain with some kind of moral in a relatively light-hearted and zippy tale, because Trajectory more or less follows that formula to the letter, or perhaps it’s the fact that, lurking beneath that surface adherence to formula, Trajectory is actually a clever set-up for the next stage of Zoom’s storyline.
The villain of the week here was Eliza Harmon aka Trajectory, Central City’s first lady speedster (Cisco’s words, not mine). Perhaps surprisingly considering The Flash’s spotty track record with standalone villains, Trajectory was an effective antagonist due to the way the episode actually delegated a substantial amount of time towards distinctive characterisation. The split personality element of her character is an intriguing one that allows Trajectory to be both an unapologetic, card-carrying villain who can be camp and gleeful in her role as mischief-maker, and a sympathetic and under-appreciated woman who’s hooked on a substance that gives her the gratification she can never get elsewhere, essentially allowing The Flash to have its cake and eat it without contradicting itself. This element isn’t overplayed, however, ensuring that Trajectory’s characterisation isn’t reliant on one personality quirk to the point of gimmickry. A lot of Trajectory’s success as a villain also rests in Allison Paige’s solid performance. The contrasts between the two sides of Eliza are, by necessity, played very broadly and obviously by Paige, but she certainly deserves plaudits for delivering a genuinely fun performance that emphasises Trajectory’s gleeful mischievousness while bringing out the darker and more tragic elements of the character, who is, for all intents and purposes, an addict looking for a fix. Paige ably mixes the neuroticism of an addict with the glee of a card-carrying villain, so it’s down to her, just as much as the script, that Trajectory feels like a fleshed-out and engaging villain after just one episode.
Trajectory also plays into this episode’s central theme of the effects of compromising your principles to get ahead. This theme is, on the whole, decently explored, and it certainly helps that Trajectory’s villain serves to push forward this thematic exploration with her addiction to Velocity-9 that allows her to escape her unrewarding job and sense of inadequacy, ensuring Trajectory serves as a solid core for all of this episode’s character conflicts that orbit around this idea of the quick fix – a thematic anchor of sorts that keeps the episode focused on this theme. Generally, this thematic exploration works best when it’s applied to more emotional conflicts, because, at points, it’s handled with a bruising lack of subtlety.
This lack of subtlety is most apparent in Barry’s story, as he struggles with the idea of taking Velocity-9 in order to level the playing field. There’s some legitimately interesting conflicts within this storyline, and the script does sell the idea that Barry feels walled in and defeated by cleverly playing into the fact that this show has presented a glut of speedsters who are all faster than Barry. Often, this is simply a well-acted, competent character arc for Barry as he learns to stick to his whole principles, but there are certainly several points, particularly in Barry’s final confrontation with Eliza, where Trajectory falls into clunky didacticism. It’s fine to present a theme that’s relatively simple in order to tell broadly drawn character arcs – Supergirl has essentially done that every week for a while now, and it’s been all the better for it – but often Barry’s storyline and the parallel it has with Trajectory suffers from a perennial lack of depth, amounting at points to little more than ‘don’t do drugs, kids’. Trajectory is a little more thoughtful than that more often than not, but every now and then, it’s hard not to feel that the dialogue sounds like it’s been ripped from an infomercial.
It’s Wells’ story where the theme is presented in a more consistently effective manner by exploring an element of this version of Wells’ character that’s been on display plenty of times before, but never really scrutinised; his willingness to do quite literally anything for Jesse. Jesse has been more of a plot device for anything before – a cipher whose only purpose was to give Wells a reason to have a personal vendetta with Zoom – but Trajectory managed to add a little more depth to her character by expanding upon the brief, rushed idea from a couple of episodes ago that Jesse felt that Wells was being too paternalistic and taking away her own personal autonomy. The Flash has never given us a reason to really disapprove of Wells’ behaviour, as it was mostly presented as a sympathetic and tragic last resort of a man under duress, but a sense of overbearing paternalism as well as a instinct to capitulate to Zoom’s demands quickly in Wells’ quest to get Jesse back. Trajectory does a fine job of bringing these underlying ideas to the surface, and every point of contention that Jesse finds with her father is grounded in behaviour we’ve seen in previous episodes – so while Jesse’s anger at Wells consistently selling out his principles to save her might be a little over-played, coming to a conclusion that feels a little extreme and unearned from what we’ve seen, Wells and Jesse’s dispute is a natural and organic progression of their storylines that explores the consequences of decisions that The Flash hasn’t had a lot of time to slow down and scrutinise in recent weeks. Broadly drawn as they may be, there’s legitimate points on either side of the conflict, making for an effective enough slice of character drama that finally lets Jesse make decisions for herself away from her father’s well-intentioned but ultimately destructive paternalism.
Meanwhile, Iris’ storyline at the newspaper continued to simmer away at a comfortable level of adequacy. Her burgeoning romantic storyline with the newspaper’s boss, Scott, isn’t the extraneous bit of melodrama that it looks like on paper – it’s presented just about as well it can be, from the organic way that it stems from Trajectory storyline to the mature behaviour of the characters that forgoes hysterics for simple understanding. It’s fine, and all very inoffensive, but that doesn’t detract from the feeling that it’s not really the most exciting thing The Flash could be doing with Iris. Despite the underlying competency, it’s extremely hard to invest in this storyline because it feels so divorced from the core of the show – it only tangentially plays into the typical Team Flash superhero action and has very little effect on the family drama side of the show, meaning that Iris’ newspaper travails feel like they’re taking place in a bit of a bubble that’s only periodically affected by outside events. That sense of separation also means that the newspaper storylines must stand on their own two feet as compelling bits of drama, and, as Trajectory indicates, Iris and Scott’s romance is more passable than genuinely engrossing.
Though it’s standalone for the most part, Trajectory throws out a major swerve at the end as the team put the pieces together from the clues Trajectory left… to discover that Jay Garrick is Zoom. This is an encouragingly brisk reveal that ensures that the characters are caught up in time for a substantial endgame to the season, but it’s also notable that it links really effectively into this episode’s seemingly standalone storyline. It’s not until the final few minutes that Trajectory reveals its hand, but once it’s done so, it looks like this episode was actually building into this reveal from the start, using Trajectory as a stand-in for Zoom. On an obvious level, it means that Zoom is sick from taking Velocity-9 (strongly hinting that Zoom is the Jay we know and not a doppelganger), but delving further, it’s hard not to wonder if some of Trajectory’s other Velocity-9 side-effects apply to Jay – specifically, the split personality part, which would be a surprisingly viable answer to many of the questions surrounding the multiple Jays. This may all be relatively empty speculation, but the fact that Trajectory invites these kind of questions shows that it’s doing something right, with a reveal that naturally builds out of a standalone storyline and, in the process, reveals that this seeming slice of filler could just be an essential harbinger of things to come.
We’re left with Barry’s despairing discovery, as he lets out his fury at his second betrayal in as many years by a mentor. This seemed to be a bit too melodramatic to some viewers, but it worked for me as a heat of a moment thing – an acknowledgement of the huge weight that this revelation carries as a reminder that Barry’s been fooled again in the same way as before. There’s frustration in that yell as well as despair, and it’s hard not to think that a lot of that frustration is self-directed, which is an intriguing idea that I hope The Flash explores as a way to distinguish this storyline from last year’s similar material with Wells. So, how will Barry deal with that revelation? By the looks of next episode’s trailers, it’ll involve travelling back in time. What could possibly go wrong?
Trajectory is a fun standalone episode with a generally well-explored theme, an entertaining and intriguing central villain and a final twist that’s executed very well indeed. Occasionally didactic writing and a low-tempo Iris subplot weigh it down, but this was a solid and entertaining return as the season enters the home stretch.