The Flash: 219 “Back to Normal” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
After last week’s pivotal episode where Barry went up against Zoom and suffered one hell of a loss as he was drained of his speed, The Flash slowed down (the show and the character) a great deal this week as the season geared up for the final straight. Back to Normal was mostly a standalone episode focusing on a villain-of-the-week threat alongside some connective tissue over on Earth-2 to keep the Zoom arc ticking over – and coming this late in the season, an episode that does very little to push the arc plot forward gives the impression that The Flash was marking time a bit here. As low-key standalone episodes go, this was somewhat middle-of-the-road – entertaining as ever with some really strong character development, but disappointingly conservative in some of its plotting; coming after last week’s bold, risky ending, this was The Flash mostly playing it safe and sticking to what’s worked before with good if not inspiring results.
The way Back to Normal handles Barry’s loss of speed is perhaps emblematic of the episode’s attitude towards plotting as a whole. It’s hard not to shake the feeling that we’ve been here before, and the basic thematic point of Barry’s character arc here has mostly been covered in the previous episodes where he loses his speed; it’s a heartfelt message, but we already know that Barry is a hero out of the suit, and Back to Normal does very little to put a familiar spin on this old idea. Despite the familiarity of the character insights that Barry’s loss of speed provides, there’s a few elements of his arc that really do cover new ground and manage to make Barry’s arc a fresher and more original take on this well-trodden idea than it may first appear. The opening scene, for instance, provides a poignant and effective insight into the impact of Barry’s loss of speed on even the most mundane aspects of his life, with banal actions like taking the bus or dropping a cup of coffee serving as bitter reminders of the way his life has been slowed down. It’s a smart, insightful look into how reliant Barry’s become on his speed as an integral part of his existence – so while the point that Barry’s identity isn’t based on his speed is a familiar one, it’s supplanted by new and original ways to back up that point, ensuring that Barry’s arc doesn’t feel like a complete rehash of old ideas without adding anything new. I’m also pleased that Barry’s loss of speed is being treated as a crucial part of the story arc rather than the momentary handicap that’s cleared up with a pep talk that it’s been before – it’s somewhat refreshing to see Barry and co rely completely on their wits and tactics in the final battle without any hope of Barry’s speed returning in the midst of the fight. The way Barry’s speed was taken was undoubtedly contrived and forced, but Back to Normal goes a long way towards justifying the usage of this old trope as something more substantial and important than simply a beat-for-beat rehash to keep Barry out of commission for one episode.
Back to Normal’s real trump card, and the storyline that elevates it above a merely humdrum episode with flashes of inspiration, is Wells’ character arc here. Wells’ guilt over his actions, both with the particle accelerator and with Jesse, has been a vague undercurrent within a smattering of episodes in the season’s back half, but it hasn’t been explored a great deal ever since Wells gave up his plan to steal Barry’s speed. Back to Normal rectifies that, and it does so through the clever means of forcing Wells to pay for the crimes of a man who just happens to be his doppelganger. A slightly lesser show might have Wells’ arc focus around his attempts to convince Grey that he’s not the real Wells and that he’s not guilty, but Back to Normal makes the much more rewarding choice to have Wells lean into Grey’s false accusations, taking on all the blame for crimes he never committed in an attempt to punish himself for his own unrelated wrongdoing. As ever, Tom Cavanagh remains a consummate performer here, giving weight and gravitas to every line and imbuing his performance with a tangible sense of rueful guilt that’s visible even through his snappy and abrasive replies to Grey’s questioning. It’s quietly impactful to see Wells finally stop justifying his actions and embrace the regret for his mistakes that’s necessary to move forward, and it’s another example of how Earth-2 Wells, who could have just been a token, crow-barred in attempt to keep Tom Cavanagh around after Thawne’s death, has grown and developed into a fascinating individual who’s informed but certainly not defined by the actions of the previous character Cavanagh played.
What’s slightly less strong is the Jesse side of Wells’ story, partially because Jesse suffers from a familiar problem of being a character who never feels like she exists off-screen – a list of characteristics rather than a living, breathing person. The idea of Jesse finally having to come to terms with the desperation felt by Wells that brought him to commit those seemingly horrible actions is a perfectly good one and the father and daughter reconciliation is effectively emotional thanks to strong, emotionally honest performances from both Cavanagh and Violett Beane. The problem here, however, is that Jesse’s slight lack of definition means that the heartfelt conclusion, although emotional, doesn’t feel all that earned – Jesse is a very malleable character whose actions seem mostly in service of Wells’ character arc, and her conflict with Wells plays as something of a tick box of necessary plot points. Jesse’s move from hating her father to reconciling with him feels a little bit contrived; a mandated development that forces Jesse’s very significant grievances to be quickly played down in a way that doesn’t feel particularly natural. Nothing is particularly egregious here and it’s all serviceable drama, but the conflict between Jesse and Wells and its resolution feels a bit too neat and cleanly tied-up considering how fraught their relationship was beforehand.
Meanwhile, over on Earth-2, progress was similarly slow though not unrewarding. The big headline here, of course, was the return of Killer Frost alongside her familiar doppelganger, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from this storyline. It’s a lot of fun to see the two vastly different women play off of each other and that sense of fun is reflected in Danielle Panabaker’s entertainingly cocksure, hammy performance as Killer Frost. Unfortunately, while it’s undoubtedly intriguing to hear a few morsels regarding the circumstances that shaped both women into the people they are, Back to Normal fails to truly provide any incisive development for either character. It’s a whole lot of surface facts that are interesting for a few passing moments but aren’t really conducive to a genuine reconsideration of Caitlin or Killer Frost, and this surface-level development becomes problematic when we’re forced to become invested in their alliance at the end. Killer Frost’s betrayal feels like a particularly rote moment, a terminally unsurprising rendition of the ages-old ‘uneasy allies’ plotline – and while her demise is livened up by the admittedly impressive sight of Zoom literally phasing through Caitlin to catch Killer Frost’s attack, the conclusion to her story feels disappointingly flat. Despite the great potential shown in the Earth-2 episodes, Back to Normal doesn’t add an awful lot onto those foundations, so Killer Frost’s betrayal really doesn’t sting nearly as much as intended. Thus, Killer Frost’s story becomes another plotline that’s decently entertaining thanks to the considerable fun of the Caitlin/Killer Frost pairing but pretty unoriginal and familiarly plotted.
Back to Normal doesn’t spend much time with Zoom, but the face-time afforded to the villain is certainly memorable and serves to tee up Zoom’s final plan in tantalising style. Now that we know his origins, it’s fascinating to see how his skewed past experiences have influenced Hunter’s current take on the world – his affection for Caitlin is evidently real, but it’s clear that Hunter’s version of love is completely seen from the perspective of a serial killer. Hunter Zolomon lives in a world in which human affection has become inextricably linked to brutality; where bringing someone home to take over their entire planet is a grand romantic gesture. Teddy Sears continues to excel with this entirely new persona, with a performance that’s thoroughly disconcerting in how well it conveys Zoom’s complete detachment from humanity and the social norms he purports to understand, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how Sears develops the character as Zoom’s megalomaniacal ambitions grow and grow.
And as a confirmation that next week’s episode is able to take things up to a much higher gear once more, Back to Normal leaves us with a doozy of a premise next week; to get Barry’s speed back, the STAR Labs team are going to have to recreate the particle accelerator explosion that gave everyone powers in the first place. What could possibly go wrong?
Back to Normal is a decent stopgap between last week’s craziness and the final four episodes, with some great character development for Wells alongside a fun Caitlin/Killer Frost dynamic and a handful of compelling and insightful Zoom scenes. It’s unlikely to be an episode worthy of several rewatches and it doesn’t do a whole lot new, but it offers a solid enough foundation from which the final four episodes can launch nonetheless.