The Flash: 218 “Versus Zoom” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
After a recent, heavily chopped-up schedule that’s meant that the season hasn’t been able to string together more than two consecutive weekly episodes since the end of February, The Flash is finally back for the final stretch of the season with no more breaks right up until the season finale next month. And after a great deal of standalone episodes and diversions from the arc plot, this week’s return episode finally kicked the season’s endgame into high gear with a major focus on Zoom…
It’s interesting to note how divisive Versus Zoom has been in some fan circles, and that’s probably 99% down to the episode’s ending. I liked the ending a great deal more than some, but it’s hard not to note that it’s 35 minutes of smooth sailing followed by a contrived cliffhanger that’s effective yet executed in a way that saps all the credibility out of the scene. Still, for the most part this was a very effective way to begin the final stretch of the season, and a lot of the general success here can be attributed towards the intriguing and shocking back-story that we’re given here on the origins of Zoom aka Hunter Zolomon.
As made explicit in the opening moments when Versus Zoom transitions from the familiar sight of Barry’s mother’s murder to Hunter’s childhood on Earth-2, this episode is about the battle between nature and nurture, and how two people experiencing directly opposing circumstances can be shaped into drastically different people even if they began at roughly the same place. That’s the main parallel here made between Barry and Hunter, two men who lost their mother at a young age and were affected by the same kind of accident giving them super-speed but exist as polar opposites due to the sheer difference in the details.
It’s clear from the off that Hunter’s story serves as the twisted, funhouse mirror inversion of Barry’s story, and that idea is explored in surprisingly visceral and shocking detail from the very first scene where Hunter’s father really does kill his mother (instead of being innocent of the crime like Barry’s father) while Hunter is forced to watch. It’s somewhat pitiful and shocking to see Hunter’s path diverge so quickly and extremely from that of Barry’s as he sinks into murderous instincts after a lonely childhood in an orphanage, and I have to give the writers props for not shying away from vividly portraying the sheer misery and isolation that pushes Hunter towards murder, which really enhances the effectiveness of this parallel as the differences between Hunter and Barry are so sharply defined, reflecting the visceral power of circumstances on actions that Versus Zoom is trying to convey. There’s definitely pathos in the way that Hunter becomes an entirely passive figure in his own life, powerless as horrible events occur to him until he takes control of his own life in equally horrific circumstances, but Versus Zoom walks the fine line necessary for a sympathetic villain backstory in which it’s possible to empathise a little with Hunter’s struggle with an understanding of where his evil comes from, but it’s impossible to ever agree with him as the episode never uses his tragic circumstances to actively justify his horrific deeds. It lets him be a genuinely tragic figure while maintaining his unrepentant, sadistic brutality, which takes considerable finesse.
This parallel between Zoom and Barry is great because the idea of Zoom acting as Barry’s polar opposite in both circumstances and character makes the villain far more interesting, but Versus Zoom makes sure that this parallel isn’t too neat by expanding out the theme of nature and nurture to other characters, most pertinently Cisco. The Flash has adopted a slow-burn, background approach to Cisco’s transformation into superhero Vibe, but it’s been a satisfyingly paced arc because Cisco’s new found arc has gradually revealed more and more insights about his hopes, fears and beliefs. Versus Zoom takes good advantage of the brief appearance from Reverb, Cisco’s doppelganger a few episodes back to broadly execute the same kind of parallel that’s done with Barry and Zoom – yet, cleverly, this parallel is mostly constructed by a fearful Cisco who’s afraid that it’s in his nature to follow in Reverb’s footsteps and ‘turn to the dark side’.
Underlining Cisco’s support network of friends and family as the huge difference between him and his doppelganger is a great choice because it illustrates how refreshingly co-dependent the relationships on this series are for the most part. Unlike some other pieces of superhero fiction, heroism on The Flash springs from a healthy connection to supportive family and friends who can bring out the better angels of each other’s nature and help each other out in tough moments, while evil stems from isolated individualism and a lack of a support structure to help correctly process strong emotions like anger and fear. That idea is made sharply clear in Versus Zoom as Cisco’s friends are shown to be vital towards Cisco tapping into his powers for heroism and unselfish good. It’s good, solid character work that builds upon the central themes of family and dependency this show that have made it so brightly watchable amidst a cavalcade of brooding and moody superheroes. These themes have kind of faded to the background in season two, replaced by some of the brooding that the show did so well to avoid in season one as the Zoom storyline has become heavier, so it’s great to see Versus Zoom re-assert the importance of supportive friends and family in superheroics in a way that legitimately progressed ongoing character arcs.
It’s notable that Wally actually factors into this thematic exploration too as he becomes closer and closer to both his father and Barry. Wally still feels a little bit like a handful of character traits in search of a concrete personality and a substantial story arc, but Keiynan Lonsdale is a much more engaging and affable presence when he’s playing a brighter and more cheerful version of Wally, and his growing bond with Joe allows Versus Zoom to explore the importance of a nurturing family on a much more mundane and relatable level than it does with Cisco and Barry. It’s important that Wally is included in this exploration of the power of nurture because it means that this theme is very much grounded in human emotion, and doesn’t get bogged down in some of the confusing nonsense science that governs the powers of Barry, Cisco and their villainous counterparts. The Flash has kept Wally very much away from the superhero side of things, and while that’s most likely been frustrating for people who want to see him transform into his destined Kid Flash persona, it proves to be deeply beneficial here because Wally is completely, for lack of a better word, untainted by the heightened, science-fiction side of the show, residing in the family drama section that’s entirely defined by relationships and character development. The fact that Wally naturally factors into the themes explored with the show’s super-powered characters shows how The Flash is gradually improving at tightly weaving its themes around every aspect of the show, making for cohesive episodes that manage to make genuinely substantial statements by drawing from representatives from both the superhero side of things and the family drama. And, of course, it also helps that we’re conditioned to like Wally and root for him more…
The final 15 minutes is genuinely nail-biting television – an intense confrontation that’s fraught with dread and uncertainty, and a feeling of vague inevitability that Zoom will somehow escape from his predicament despite the cathartic and satisfying sight of seeing Barry pin him down through outrunning him for once. This was Teddy Sears’ first proper outing as the villain, and much like how Brett Dalton’s bland performance was galvanised in Agents of SHIELD by a similar type of reveal, Sears’ relatively standard chiselled-hero act gives way to something far more textured and compelling. He’s not quite as sinister and chilling as Zoom as Tony Todd’s modulated voice would seem to hint, but the choices Sears makes with his performance as Hunter Zolomon are engaging and compelling nonetheless; there’s a sense of volatile changeability in his performance as he shifts from a furious tirade to sinister manipulation to mischievous sadist to a smug, triumphant ruler who revels in the glory of his victory. It’s a kind of chaotic pick-and-mix approach that throws a slightly played-down version of half a dozen different villainous traits into the mix, creating an unusual mix of tics and intonations from Sears that comes out as a genuinely compelling villainous performance, nailing the slightly paradoxical way that Hunter actively enjoys his villainy yet suffers from the knowledge of its painful origins.
And, of course, there’s that cliffhanger. As mentioned, I’m not as frustrated or upset by this final moment where Barry loses, giving his speed to Zoom who speeds away with Caitlin in tow as some, because on one level this is a smart creative choice at this point in the season. It immediately ups the stakes by massively upping Zoom’s power levels and makes it harder than ever to imagine Barry coming out on top, creates an intriguing hook for next week between Zoom and Caitlin’s twisted honeymoon and Barry’s crime-fighting sans speed and generally works as a ‘what the hell just happened?’ moment to leave the episode on a breathless note. But it is worth considering why a lot of people did dislike this, and it more or less comes down to the manifestation of a niggling problem that’s recurred throughout season two. In its second season, The Flash has had a lot of exciting and/or dramatically interesting ideas: take Patty’s arc, or Barry’s trip back in time, or Barry losing faith in his own abilities after Zoom publicly humiliates him. There’s often been a sense, however, that the writers came up with these moments first and worked backwards rather than organically letting big twists come about as a natural product of the story being told. These moments are still effective, but the way The Flash has reached them has often been forced, with the plot having to be railroaded towards that mandated endpoint, necessitating characters to make dumb decisions or behave weirdly harshly towards others.
That’s very much the case with the ending of Versus Zoom. It’s effective on a visceral level and as a good shock, but it’s hard not to take fault with the way that the episode had to bend over backwards to get Barry to lose his speed while everyone stands around passively, failing to think of a contingency plan to nail Zoom while he’s right there. The connective tissue between plot points simply isn’t strong enough, creating the sense that the writers had this cliffhanger but weren’t quite sure how to organically reach it – so they just took a shortcut that undermines the intelligence of these characters, exacerbated by confounding execution which lets Zoom sit around and explain all of the answers to the questions Team Flash have while Barry gives up his powers. It is, unfortunately, a deeply contrived ending that’s not justified by the story as an organic development of the episode’s events, and it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by how Versus Zoom has to tie itself in knots in the final act to justify a cliffhanger that doesn’t really feel in keeping, thematically, with the episode preceding it unlike the first bruising encounter with Zoom which was quite clearly an indictment of Barry’s hubris.
Is The Flash just retreading the same old stories? Has this show disappeared inside of itself with convoluted nonsense such as ‘time remnants’ to explain legitimate mysteries? If the answers to those questions are yes, and there’s a chance that they are, do these things really matter considering how vastly entertaining the Zoom storyline has been nonetheless? Versus Zoom is an encapsulation of season two so far, and it’s telling that it’s gripping and expansive drama with good character work and impressive thematic depth but it, nonetheless, doesn’t hold up to a single moment of scrutiny when the plot is looked at and features some really poor storytelling at the end. I’m still very much enjoying this season, but we’re in a strange place where the show is in finer fettle than ever with its character arcs and emotional stories but seems deeply troubled in terms of plot and basic logic. Let’s just hope that after this week’s wilder ride, we’re on a slightly more even keel for next week’s episode as we speed towards the finale…
Versus Zoom somewhat collapses in on itself with a forced ending that feels more like a shocking swerve than a natural development, but it manages to compellingly flesh out Zoom’s character with a surprising and shocking origin story as well as exploring an intriguing theme of the power of circumstances on character through a tightly-woven set of interlocking character arcs.