The Flash: 221 “The Runaway Dinosaur” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Runaway Dinosaur is an episode that’s been anticipated and hyped up for far longer than your average Flash episode – and while its placing right in the middle of the season’s endgame instantly lends it significance, it’s the hiring of famous comic-book fan and director Kevin Smith to helm this episode. I’m not personally familiar with Smith’s catalogue of films and shows, but he’s been so outspoken about his unabashed love for The Flash and his enthusiasm in directing this particular episode that it’s been hard not to become swept up in the excitement for this one. Did Smith’s episode live up to the hype?
Instead of putting his own individual directorial stamp upon this episode and turning it into the clear work of an auteur, Smith smartly went in the other direction, leaning into the central principles of heart, humour and spectacle that have made The Flash such a breakout hit to deliver an episode that’s laser-focused on character development with a healthy serving of fun. One of the key achievements that The Runaway Dinosaur made was taking the labyrinthine mythology of the Speed Force, the source of Barry’s powers, and boiling it down to its core in order to fuel Barry’s character journey. Sure, the Speed Force requires plenty of suspension of disbelief to take seriously given how mystical and nebulous an idea it is, but The Runaway Dinosaur skirts over the dull minutiae of this mythology in order to present a very simple yet powerful idea of a benevolent force that ‘chose’ Barry to become a speedster who is pushing him towards the realisation he needs to make in order to truly move forward. The Flash has done terrific work in introducing alternate universes and time travel while utilising these ideas for character growth, and the presentation of the Speed Force is no different – but perhaps even more impressive given how deftly The Runaway Dinosaur circumvents almost all any of the nitty-gritty that would detract from Barry’s journey of realisation and therefore bog down the episode in dull exposition, ensuring that the scenes within the Speed Force after that brief, dense (and ultimately necessary) initial info-dump feel efficient and streamlined.
Barry’s journey forms the backbone of this episode, and it’s a story that builds patiently into something genuinely moving and revelatory. With the action and quips quota catered for elsewhere, The Runaway Dinosaur is able to build slowly but rewardingly in Barry’s interactions with the Speed Force. Each encounter feels like a distinctive step in Barry’s journey that’s a natural progression from his previous psychological state, allowing for a satisfying sense of momentum to build as Barry’s journey heads towards his eventual acceptance. These encounters are also densely packed with insights about Barry’s character journey and the circumstances that have moulded him about a hero – one of the best aspects about The Runaway Dinosaur is that the viewer gains a firmer understanding of what makes Barry tick as Barry himself begins to acknowledge and comprehend himself better, and the satisfying density of these scenes ensures that the episode is able to accomplish this growing understanding in relatively little time while still feeling adequately paced enough for each emotional moment to have a genuine impact on both the viewer and Barry.
It’s also important to note the clever usage of the shadow that Barry can’t quite catch as a recurring motif as the factor that takes Barry away from each of his first three encounters. Admittedly, it’s not the most subtle metaphor for Barry’s struggle, but the way it foreshadows the method that Barry will regain his powers while showing the way in which he is fundamentally misunderstanding what he needs to do (running to the shadow, as opposed to letting to it come) is emblematic of The Runaway Dinosaur’s atypically tight script and direction that puts considerable emphasis upon foreshadowing and visual storytelling in a way that substantially pays off at the end. Part and parcel of the rapid production of broadcast shows is that scripts can often be a little sloppy and vague in places, failing to really build and coalesce to a final pay-off, but The Runaway Dinosaur manages to avoid those problems with aplomb in an illustration of the effectiveness of bringing in a writer and director who are entirely new to the show and can therefore focus on making the individual episode as satisfying and whole an experience as possible.
The real highpoint of The Runaway Dinosaur comes at the culmination of Barry’s journey in his mother’s house. Last season finale showed how Grant Gustin’s typically great performance becomes truly excellent in the nakedly emotional, sentimental scenes with his mother, and The Runaway Dinosaur allows for an extended exchange between Barry and his mother that allows Gustin to truly shine in his best performance all season. He’s terrific all episode, but it’s in this final scene with his mom that Gustin’s considerable talents are on full display – the emotionally nuanced, multi-faceted script poses Gustin a considerable challenge, yet he manages to truly nail the volatile cocktail of emotions shown by Barry as he struggles between recognising the falsity of the figure purporting to his mother and reverting to a childlike state of simply wanting to listen to her voice again. It’s because of this compellingly conflicted performance that Barry’s moment of simple emotional revelation as he admits he misses his mother is such a moving, stirring turning point for his character – it’s a moment of sheer catharsis that breaks down the self-deception and evasiveness that characterised Barry’s actions up to this point in favour of basic honesty, and it’s particularly heartening to see that this moment of honesty and catharsis is an acceptance of the fact that Barry misses his mother rather than a casting off of any emotional ties to her. That’s a creative choice that’s not only true to Barry’s character in how it takes into account how influenced he’s been by his mother’s premature death, but also constitutes a respectful and thoughtful take on grief that recognises the nuances of the loss of important people and the ways in which it’s far too simplistic to expect Barry to forget about such a pivotal moment in his life.
Instead, Barry’s big turning point is acceptance – moving forward with an understanding that his mother’s death was a moment that he simply couldn’t control and an increased desire to embrace all of the good things in his life that happened both before and after. His graveyard scene with Iris at the end constitutes the ‘after’ of that equation, but it’s perhaps the ‘before’ that’s most impactful here, portrayed in the scene where Barry and his mother read a book from his childhood. It’s the kind of scene that could have been deeply silly and tangential or simply overly saccharine to the point of undermining Barry’s revelation with a weaker script and director, but the firm hands of Smith and Stentz ensure that Barry reading a children’s book called ‘The Runaway Dinosaur’ instead becomes a heart-warming, insightful encapsulation of the importance of mothers in allowing their children to grow emotionally through support and help. On one level, this is an impressively emotional moment for Barry that entrenches his newfound decision to respect how the past has shaped him, leaning into The Flash’s renowned knack for uncomplicated, broadly drawn emotion set to slow piano music to great results, but it’s also great to see how The Runaway Dinosaur uses Barry’s specific situation to make several very applicable thematic points. As well as focusing deeply on its characters, this is a really thematically rich episode that gives genuine attention to complicated themes of grieving, the inevitability of fate and motherhood, sensitively addressing each of these issues in a way that complements Barry’s specific story rather than slowing its progress with preachy soapboxing, and it’s partially for that reason why I feel this was one of the best episodes of The Flash hands down.
Back on Earth, The Runaway Dinosaur kept things considerably lighter with a fun monster of the week story involving a reanimated Girder, now lacking his higher brain functions and mindlessly searching for Iris. The Girder story is relatively dispensable, though it’s handled with enough verve and humour to become entertaining filler amidst the meatier Barry scenes – and it’s perhaps most notable that it lends a considerable amount of screen-time to Iris, who gets one of her best showings yet here. The episode’s treatment of Iris goes a considerably way to alleviating my concerns about The Flash treating her as a passive participant in Barry’s story, as she’s front and centre driving events and planning ways to trap Girder here, showcasing the likeable qualities that she’s displayed in bursts but has never truly been allowed to show off on a permanent basis. And it’s this treatment of Iris that feeds really nicely into the final scene, which equally manages to make the Barry/Iris romance a credible and engaging idea that feels true to the characters – with the emphasis upon Iris as Barry’s conduit to the real world and his means of escape from the Speed Force, the platitudes about how much they mean to one another now have a great deal of weight and are actually substantiated elsewhere, which means that The Flash has, at least partially, fixed a major long-term issue.
The Runaway Dinosaur tops things off with a very intriguing stinger for next week in which Zoom reveals that he’s recruited an army of metahumans to take over the city, thus pushing the show forward into what should be an action-packed last two episodes of the season. It’s a great reveal, packing the impressive visual of a colourful assortment of bad guys as well as providing one hell of a threat for a newly invigorated Barry to deal with next week, reasserting the Zoom storyline in exciting style. And one of those metahumans, by the look of next week’s trailer? That’d be Laurel’s Earth-2 doppelganger…
The Runaway Dinosaur is an excellent episode of substantial, impactful character development with some terrifically emotional scenes from Grant Gustin alongside an enjoyable subplot that gave Iris a lot more to do than usual. My only real concern here was that the episode didn’t allow Barry’s return to really have the impact it could have due to the way it briskly segued into his takedown of Girder, but this was a truly impressive episode nonetheless.