The Flash: 223 “The Race of His Life” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Well, then. The Flash certainly had a lot to accomplish going into its second season finale with the teased destruction of Earth-2 linking into Zoom’s mysterious endgame, alongside the reveal of the Man in the Iron Mask and the fallout from last week’s shock death of Barry’s dad. Compared to last year, which went into its finale with a clear and simple goal that it admirably completed, it’s perhaps safe to say that The Race of His Life had an uphill battle to fight to reach the same satisfying pay-offs and emotional resonance of that finale. Sure enough, this wasn’t a match for that excellent season capper last year, but this was certainly just as memorable, in ways that are good, bad, and everything in-between.
It’d be rather easy to box The Race of His Life as a solid but unspectacular season finale without those final two minutes. There’s ups and downs along the way, but what we get for 40 minutes roughly resembles Legends of Tomorrow’s own finale; good, solid character pay-offs mixed in with a muddled, convoluted villainous endgame, with a general sense of conservatism that indicates that the biggest twists had already occurred with Henry’s death. Then, quite literally, absolutely everything is upended with that huge cliffhanger, and this becomes a harder instalment to pin down because it’s undoubtedly leading to Barry’s decision as its end-point; a storytelling decision that’s paradoxically rage-inducing and massively exciting at the same time. If nothing else, this was a finale that really swung for the fences in a way I certainly didn’t expect, and it’s worth at least commending the writers for refusing to rest on their laurels storytelling-wise by setting up a more traditional and typical outlook for season three. I’m leaving this season utterly at a loss as to what will happen next for the most part, and in amidst the conflicted feelings sparked by that final twist, that’s at least some metric of success.
Before delving into that ending and that it entails, it’s noteworthy that The Race of His Life crafts a solid character arc for Barry to funnel him into that decision. Angry, angsty Barry may not always be particularly entertaining viewing but that really did feel necessary here in light of Henry’s death, and this anger was utilised well to provide an emotionally complex story that intriguingly deviated from the traditional template usually wheeled out for Barry’s stories. What’s most interesting here is that neither the characters nor the episode itself gives us any real reason to agree with Barry’s actions – when he’s locked up in the Pipeline by STAR Labs, it’s hard not to feel that it’s a justified action given his behaviour beforehand. A lot of this is down to Grant Gustin’s powerful performance here, viscerally selling Barry’s inability to process his grief as it devolves into irrational, scattershot and ultimately aimless rage, greatly adding credence to the central idea that Barry has gone off the rails. That’s an idea that The Race of His Life very much commits to throughout, ensuring that Barry’s grief and shock doesn’t feel downplayed or compartmentalised, consistently informing every action he takes including his outwardly heroic defeat of Zoom without killing him. It’s a well-handled arc, giving familiar story beats vitality and intrigue through Gustin’s excellent performance and subtly avoiding angst-ridden hero clichés by heavily factoring Barry’s support network of friends and family into the equation to rein him in, preventing the tedious lone-wolf tendencies of these kinds of stories while retaining the emotional meat of someone failing to grapple with his own grief.
Unfortunately, Barry’s villainous counterpart doesn’t fare so well here. Zoom’s endgame, involving a classic nonsense-science creation called the Magnetar that can apparently destroy all universes, is basically fine in a means-to-an-end sense. There’s not really a particular sense of threat conveyed by the creation, unsurprisingly, given how difficult the threatened disintegration of the multiverse would be to portray, but it does what it says on the tin as a thinly veiled excuse for the race of the title, and it’s certainly consistent with the other slightly dumb devices and MacGuffins that this superhero universe has cooked up. It’s less that, therefore, and more Zoom himself, who fizzles as a truly compelling villain when he’s needed the most. Zoom started the season as a really memorable villain with a terrific introduction that underlined just how frightening he was as a demonic villain with all context behind his actions removed, but he’s ultimately lost his lustre with the need to flesh out his motivations and villainous endgame at the end, and throughout this episode he’s rather identikit in his portrayal. Teddy Sears does his best right up until the end, but the distinctive volatility and nebulousness that made Zoom so great originally have faded here, leaving a relatively standard bad guy who sneers at the heroes and ultimately dies because of his hubris as thousands of villains have before him. There are flickers of a more interesting villain here and there – his gleefully stupid proposition of a race is a nice reference back to his first appearance, and the idea that he became the fake (yep, we can call him the ‘fake’ now) Jay Garrick just for kicks is appropriately disturbing. However, he just feels a bit hollow and lacking as a distinctive presence here, almost coming across as surplus to requirements in certain scenes, which means the imposing and terrifying threat that should have been lurking at the centre of the finale is a bit limp and forgettable in his final portrayal. In fairness, there’s an enjoyable sense of catharsis in his appropriately punishing send-off, and the sight of his face corroding and suit warping as he’s turned into a creature looking suspiciously like the comics’ Black Flash is a great visual to leave things on. Nonetheless, Zoom went out with a whimper rather than a bang here, exemplifying the Arrowverse’s current difficulty with sustaining villains for long broadcast TV seasons while keeping them fresh; it certainly felt like Zoom had stagnated here, with the intriguing proposition of a descent into madness proposed by recent episodes falling by the wayside in favour of something far simpler.
The final race sequence may have lacked the compelling hero-villain dynamic of last year’s Flash vs. Reverse Flash final showdown, but it certainly wasn’t lacking on a visual level. These speedster fight scenes have always been a fun highlight, and The Race of His Life managed to build upon previous scenes with an enjoyable commitment to escalation and the ramping up of the complexity of the fight, in this case with the introduction of Barry’s time remnant to split up the battle. Accepting that the time remnants represent The Flash’s very worst instincts regarding time travel given how nonsensical they are, their usage here actually serves a great dual purpose; firstly, the aforementioned expansion of the fight scenes, culminating in the evocative sight of the time remnant disintegrating as he runs, a la Crisis on Infinite Earths. There’s also a nice thematic purpose to his sacrifice, too, given how he represents Barry’s intense devotion and protective instinct to his family in an episode that heavily explores that family’s attempt to buoy Barry in a tough period; a reciprocal and co-dependent relationship that would perhaps represent a more wholly heartwarming sentiment without those final scenes.
The mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask finally got resolved here, and while I wasn’t clamouring for the resolution like others due to the way it scarcely seemed like a mystery (the Iron Mask only had any real impact on the story in one episode), the answer to that question was a real slam-dunk. The concept of a real Jay Garrick had widely been guessed, partially because it’s a no-brainer given what The Flash has done with the character’s name elsewhere – allowing the show to have its cake and eat it, upholding its lauded fidelity to the comic characters while not undermining the Zoom story. It’s particularly great, though, to see Jay Garrick portrayed by John Wesley Shipp as a doppelganger of Henry. It’s fantastic that the original 1990 Flash has been given a second chance to suit up as the Flash once more twenty-six years later, and the visual of Shipp suited up in the bright-red Flash suit with helmet is a genuinely iconic visual that can’t help but raise a smile. It’s also a reveal that factors well into Barry’s own arc – ironically, it’s the arrival of this unashamedly heroic figure that finally sends Barry on the destructive path he takes, with Grant Gustin’s performance expertly portraying the way the scraps of optimism and hope post-Zoom defeat are stripped away at the sight of another man looking exactly like his dad. This is a really fun reveal that I’m excited to see play out in more depth in season 3 (Shipp confirmed he’ll be back), but it also worked on a more substantial level in becoming a pivotal part of Barry’s final regression.
Before getting onto the final scenes of the episode, it was nice to see Wells’ story wrapped up satisfyingly here. Earth-2 Wells has been an unreserved success this season, quickly becoming an integral part of the team’s dynamics, and it’s certainly sad to see him leave, but his exit is a satisfying culmination of themes and conflicts that had been percolating throughout his journey this year. His choice to go back to Earth-2 with Jesse is a real illustration of the genuine growth he’s undergone, transforming from a controlling patriarchal figure unwilling to give his daughter any level of control for fear of losing her to someone who’s ultimately respectful and understanding of her wishes. Compared to Barry’s muddled character arc this year, Wells’ has been a solid, incremental trajectory of a move into selflessness and increased empathy explicitly linked to the positive influence of those around him, and The Race of His Life certainly stuck the landing in that regard. If this Wells is really gone for good, then let’s hope that Tom Cavanagh is given another Wells to tackle in season 3 – perhaps the original Earth-1 Wells, brought back to life by Barry’s timeline changes. There’d be something enjoyably absurd in every season of The Flash featuring a different character for Tom Cavanagh to tackle, and I kind of hope that’s the route the show ends up going down.
The final Barry/Iris scene is absolutely pivotal to seeing how The Race of His Life builds to that final, decisive choice, and it’s certainly pretty effective at setting up Barry’s fractured, hollow emotional state, underlining his disjointed feeling in a sea of otherwise contented people in a way that does allow us to understand Barry’s headspace to some degree at this point. The send-off Iris gives is also a good way of justifying that later decision, playing as unconscious permission for Barry’s actions that leaves the ideas of an eventual erasure open with the talk of returns and resuming their dynamic. It’s great to see the Barry-Iris romance used as a pivot point for the season’s story and actually working in that respect – it’s come a long way in terms of building credibility and pathos in the last few episodes alone, and there’s a tangible bond and sense of connection in that final scene that gives their romance the crucial weight needed to work. The choice to make their romance a bit more slow-burn than normal is ultimately the right call, most likely – Arrow rushed its own comics-mandated romance and burned out that storyline in a season, so a more patient and complex journey towards that ‘endgame’ coupling will likely make the eventual pay-off more satisfying and sustainable with more groundwork laid.
Finally, then, that cliffhanger. Quite frankly, this was a hard one to even wrap my head around, given how far out of left-field it was as an initial proposition, and my feelings are still very conflicted about this. The choice to have Barry go back and save his mother is that it’s a great and terrible decision at once, working and failing in two very different ways. Truth be told, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of frustration at this choice, for the reason many other critics have suggested – it negates Barry’s character development as it’s happened. To be more specific, it doesn’t necessarily negate last season’s finale as a worthy addition to his arc, because there’s dramatic weight in the idea of a dark parallel between finales, laid bare by that chilling shot of season one Barry vanishing, but it definitely heavily undermines a more recent instalment, The Runaway Dinosaur. In retrospect, the idea of having Barry get over his mother only for him to forget all he’s learned two episodes later is… odd. There’s justification for this, but that only goes so far – the facts remain that The Flash’s season two endgame involved a full episode of emotional resolution that ultimately went nowhere at all thanks to interim events. It’s frustrating, because it means The Flash has ultimately been staking all of its chips in a character journey of regression and ignorance of lessons learned, prioritising selfish impulse above the mature processing of grief espoused in that episode. That’s actively contradictory of the show’s very nature, and while experimentation is always welcome, if The Flash has building to this all along, then there’s a very legitimate claim to be had that it’s lost sight of itself.
These are real, very significant concerns on a macro level… but, somewhat strangely, there’s also a lot to love about this cliffhanger. It’s both irritating regression and a bold, thrilling leap into the future – going back to a familiar vice to the show while utterly casting off everything we thought we knew about the status quo. This development has basis in the comics, and going off that storyline there’s some major alternate timeline shenanigans on the way, even if they probably will be confined to this show, crossover possibly excepted, which means a completely upended situation that’ll bring about a drastically different world for the show going into season three. That’s really, really exciting, illustrating a bold divergence from the template that gives season three instant impetus to speed right out of the blocks with a unique opportunity to tell completely fresh and new stories. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate this bonkers cliffhanger is that it’s a lousy, frustrating wrap up to season two yet one of the best set-ups for the next season that could be accomplished. Considering that wrapping up and setting up are equally important tenets of a season finale, that leaves The Race of His Life with a paradox at its centre.
Ultimately, this was a solid season finale for the most part – disappointing in its handling of Zoom, but satisfying elsewhere with consummately great visuals in the final fight and character arcs that are constructed efficiently and effectively. It’s thrown for a loop at the very end with a twist so confounding it’s hard to quantify, but this was a mostly satisfying capper on a season that’s been mostly entertaining and frequently fun, if diminished in terms of quality from season one, especially in terms of the season-long arc which felt weaker and frequently intermittent in its pacing. It was a quality decline, but by no means a sophomore slump, and the cliffhanger certainly indicates a desire on the part of the writers to really, substantially change things up in season three. If those changes include a return to the brighter and more confident Barry from season one, then perhaps The Flash will have a sporting chance of recapturing lightning in a bottle. For now, we have to wait until October – and who knows what’ll be there when the show returns?