The Flash: 301 “Flashpoint” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Flash is back! Season two left us on a particularly uncertain note, with Barry’s grief leading him to go back in time to save his mother from the Reverse Flash. That twist marked the end of a tumultuous run that remained entertaining, but began to get tangled up in a mess of convoluted storytelling and selfish decision-making on Barry’s part, losing some of the simple, bright peppiness that made The Flash so great in its first run. So, with a new timeline and a chance to make a clean break from its bad habits, how did the season three opener fare, aptly titled Flashpoint?
Flashpoint is not without its own storytelling problems, and I’m sure the timeline reset at the end will have frustrated many comics fans hoping for a lengthier and more faithful adaptation of the Flashpoint Paradox. Yet I found this to be a strong premiere that, for the most part, leaned upon the things this show does best – simple stories fuelled by emotional and funny character interplay, with all the timeline machinations distilled to fulfil a similarly character-based purpose. It’s a long way from a true adaptation of Flashpoint – in many respects, this episode was to the Flashpoint story as Captain America: Civil War was to the Civil War comic, in that it took the basic concept from the comics and shrank the scope from a sweeping, universe-wide crossover to a more intimate character-based story. By the end of the episode, the Flashpoint timeline never happened, (not that the Flashpoint Paradox is over, but more on that later) but despite the quick overwrite it’s still a valuable and entertaining way to shed light upon the way Barry and his corner of the universe ticks – what factors remain constant when something is changed, and what is always in flux.
The core story here revolved around Barry finding his perfect life, and eventually coming to realise that his creation of ‘a Reverse It’s a Wonderful Life’ was a selfish and destructive decision that needs to be sacrificed for things to be put right. In a lot of ways, this character arc felt like a breath of fresh air for Barry, a character who has been problematically selfish and just a little bit too dumb for quite a while now. For one, the opening half of the episode gives Barry a chance to, essentially, be his old self, smiling and cracking jokes and generally feeling like the cheerful and enthusiastic superhero we all got to know and love. More importantly, though, Flashpoint didn’t ditch Barry’s return to his optimistic disposition once events became sufficiently intense.
The story acts as a way to funnel Barry into a fundamental self-realisation of the fugue state he’s been in that has blinded him to the needs and wants of others, and there’s a cleverness in how our understanding of his world mirrors Barry’s. It starts off at the surface, taking in all the aspects that seem great and exciting at first glance, but as the episode goes on, it drills deeper into the tragedy and dysfunction that underlies this new world, slowly revealing the extent of the personal damage Barry has inflicted. Barry’s decision isn’t a development that wholly works, for reasons I’ll get into below, but Flashpoint accomplishes something that was fundamentally necessary for this show to right the ship – it naturally and effectively begins a permanent, major recalibration of Barry’s character, which is perhaps summed up by his comment right at the end that ‘he feels closer to his parents than ever’. The Flash struggled throughout the second season, to its detriment, to balance self-awareness with optimism in Barry – for instance, his brief spurt of optimism at the end of season two came with ludicrous overconfidence, a development that undercut the character. Flashpoint gets that balance nicely by allowing Barry to realise the consequences of his actions and the trauma he’s faced without being crushed by it, so that’s an encouraging step going forward.
Crucial to Barry’s story is, of course, his opposite number, the Reverse Flash. Playing the part of the Hannibal-esque caged animal here, Eobard Thawne was one of Flashpoint’s aces in the hole. Thawne functioned brilliantly as a means to puncture Barry’s self-deception. It’s fascinating how he plays a vital role in Barry doing the right thing by exposing the true consequences of Barry’s timeline changes and even explaining his memory losses and the means with which he lost them. In his own cruel and sadistic way, Thawne is the real hero of Flashpoint as the only one who’s truly aware of events and the eventual guy who makes things right, and he certainly knows it. With that intriguing role reversal in mind, Flashpoint still captured the core of the hero versus arch-enemy feud that forms the bedrock of the Flash mythology better than ever – there’s a sharp, powerful focus on the men who simultaneously despise and need each other. Like any of the best heroes and villains, there’s a curiously symbiotic relationship between the two men that defies any kind of rational logic – the two men should have killed each other long ago, but they simply can’t. It’s this show’s own unique spin upon the iconic Batman/Joker dynamic, and there’s a real, palpable history of decades of bitter, deadlocked conflict in their scenes that ensures every moment that Barry and Eobard share is electric television.
Kudos have to go to Matt Letscher, who has doggedly worked since season 1 to escape the shadow of Tom Cavanagh’s performance in his guest performances as the true Eobard Thawne, and finally reaps the benefits of his fine work here. Letscher is better than ever as an Eobard who acts almost as the intermediary to the audience, bitterly spitting scathing criticisms of Barry’s actions that have filled up fan forums since the cliffhanger while gleefully pointing out the crushing inevitability of Barry coming to his cage to ask Eobard to kill his mother. Eobard is an absolute stone-hearted bastard here, but Letscher’s performance ensures that he’s utterly charismatic in his villainy, too – he makes you want to believe Eobard’s taunts, which makes Barry’s refusal to believe them all the more tragic. I’m glad that Letscher will have a chance to regularly hone his portrayal of Thawne over on Legends of Tomorrow as part of the Legion of Doom, because he really has the acting chops to make this iconic role his own.
A key part of Flashpoint was to cast new light on the show’s relationships by portraying new versions of our familiar characters with a changed status quo, and Flashpoint mostly does very well in that regard. The main point of focus, and the biggest success story, is Iris. The Iris/Barry romance has been a slow-burner, but its patient build-up has lent it a believability that Arrow’s comics-mandated romance lacked, and it came on leaps and bounds in the last few episodes of season 2. Flashpoint takes those developments and runs with them, smartly using the alternate timeline to tell a story that affirms their coupling in a way that only this type of plotline could. Importantly, the episode puts the work in to make Iris’ arc convincing right from the start, and it’s an emotional through-line that the episode keeps a keen focus on throughout. In essence, it’s an ultra-distilled run-through of their entire two seasons of ups and downs in the main timeline, which is very much the point – we begin, nostalgically, with Barry nervously waiting to ask her out in a way that evokes his shy, unrequited crush of early season 1 and end on a romantic moment that mirrors their porch conversation in the season 2 finale. There’s a feeling that it all seems a little too unbelievable to work at first – it’s hard to reasonably imagine Iris responding well to someone she didn’t know in that context, but Flashpoint takes that feeling and makes it vital to the characters’ own psychology.
It’s a plotline that is, by design, on rails, in a way that convincingly illustrates how Barry and Iris are pathologically drawn to each other by forces that are just a little bit beyond their control. Superhero romances can get a bad rap, but with some strong writing and performances, they can provide a vital sense of heart and tenderness to counterbalance the plot mechanics of the action. That’s absolutely the case here, with a story that pushes Barry and Iris’ romance forward in a way that has an almost meta-awareness of itself – just as Barry and Iris are together on the show because that’s how it’s meant to be for a Barry Allen story, they come together in Flashpoint despite the gulf between them because that’s how it’s meant to be for these interpretations of the characters. Suffice to say, Candice Patton and Grant Gustin are doing excellent work here, with their palpable chemistry contributing to an instantly lived-in feel that tips us off to the idea that even in a different timeline, Barry and Iris are comfortable and relaxed in each other’s presence.
As for the other characters, they’re used to make a more general point. Wally is a lot of fun as Kid Flash, and Keiynan Lonsdale, appropriately, feels more confident and versatile than he ever was in season 2 – while it’s admittedly brief, the sight of the Flash and Kid Flash teaming up was a superb bit of fanservice that provided an appropriately iconic, defining image for this timeline. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see something similar before the end of the season, because both the writers and Lonsdale are encouragingly sure-footed in their handling of Wally despite his rocky start last year. Equally, there are some great laughs with the petulant billionaire Cisco. It’s evident that Carlos Valdes is having heaps of fun playing a comically exaggerated playboy who fritters away dozens of millions without blinking an eye, but Valdes always keeps a handle upon the underlying humanity of a character whose façade becomes ever more obvious as it slips and the familiar Cisco persona returns during the episode’s third act.
Flashpoint Joe doesn’t get an awful lot of screen-time, but there’s a surprisingly strong little emotional story told with him that fittingly links thematically to Cisco’s own. Joe may seem alienating and unfamiliar as a dishevelled drunkard at the start, but when duty calls, he steps up to the plate and assumes the courageous heroism that we’re familiar with – in the best of the episode’s circular callbacks to the pilot that tells us a great deal, Joe’s Flashpoint self takes down the Rival to save Barry in the exact manner that he took down the Weather Wizard to save Barry in the pilot. Caitlin, meanwhile, feels the most obviously underused, because she doesn’t play a clear thematic purpose and comes into the episode very late. Still, the gag that she’s a chirpy eye doctor in this timeline is great (and her innocent, almost embarrassed enquiry: ‘have I been kidnapped?’ provides the episode’s biggest laugh), and there’s still something to be said about the way, like Iris, that she subconsciously slots all too easily into a role with which she should be totally unfamiliar at STAR Labs. These characters are used to varying degrees, but they all contribute to the overall thematic point that Flashpoint weaves throughout: that no matter how different the situation, or how complex the façade, these characters are always the same at their core. When we see most of them alienated, disillusioned or hurt at the end, then, that stings – these aren’t different characters, as the episode makes clear, so Flashpoint ensures that there is no disconnect between the viewer and these characters just because they seem unfamiliar on the surface.
There are definitely problems to be raised with this episode. One of them is the Rival, who slots into the villain of the week role as the principle menace of the Flashpoint timeline. Aside from the moment where he matter-of-factly unmasks in front of Wally and Barry and reveals his name as a sign of his lack of fear, the Rival is a particularly flat villain, whose weak characterisation isn’t exactly helped by a cripplingly obvious suit design that seems to scream ‘See! This is evil!’. Considering the importance and status the Rival seems to have as a public menace in this timeline, he feels curiously disconnected from everything else in the episode, only appearing exactly when the plot demands it (there is never a mention of any off-screen activities during the episode), which dulls his threat and clumsily highlights his status as a plot device rather than a character. His presence at the very least leads to a fun fight at the end, with some of the better hand-to-hand choreography this show has seen, and as we see in the very final scene, it’s likely that the Rival will get another turn at bat in the original timeline, creating potential for a slightly more complex characterisation next time. Still, within the context of Flashpoint, the Rival is as disposable as any of this show’s weakest villains of the week – and considering how The Flash has always ascribed extra importance to its villainous speedsters, that’s a little disappointing.
The crux of this episode, of course, is Barry’s final choice to revert to the original timeline and rewrite his wrongs. It’s a development that’s justifiable, but falls victim to the episode’s frantic pace in its execution. The actual moments just before and after the reset are great – the Reverse Flash’s assertion that ‘today, I’m going to be the hero’ is a terrifically chilling extension of the episode’s role reversal of hero and villain. Likewise, Barry’s goodbye to his parents taps into the powerful emotion that fuels the best of The Flash’s moist-eyed dramatic scenes, acting as a fitting and satisfying close-off to Barry’s obsession with holding onto his childhood life with his parents. Yet the actual decision process itself is garbled, and rests on a pretty shaky foundation. I can see the intent in having Wally’s injury act as the straw that broke the camel’s back for Barry as a reminder of the damage he has personally brought about, but it’s simply too minor an event to be the centre of this enormous decision. Part of Barry’s arc here, pulled off well elsewhere, is to consider his decisions more and think carefully about the impact he has on others – yet his decision is cast as a freakout after one possibly non-fatal injury, which makes his decision to reverse Flashpoint just as impulsive as his decision to cause it in the first place. Flashpoint tells a great story with Barry throughout the episode, but this rushed plotting which speeds past clearly established motivations in favour of a quick shortcut blunts the impact of the emotional arc by preventing Barry from experiencing the full extent of the development that the episode’s script hints at.
With that in mind, I’m definitely intrigued by what came next, with a brace of cliffhangers that teed up a fascinating post-Flashpoint status quo. The twist that, in this new timeline, Joe and Iris are no longer on speaking terms of interesting in of itself, given that Barry has just ruptured one of this show’s most enduring relationships, but it’s more what the twist indicates that makes it exciting. Essentially, it’s a good way to assuage some doubts that The Flash has just completely walked back Flashpoint, by showing that while Flashpoint the timeline is over, the Flashpoint Paradox caused by Barry’s actions isn’t – there are still major consequences reverberating for Barry as a direct effect of his decisions. That’s a really interesting idea that gives the show licence to tweak some of its core elements without ostentatiously providing a whole new scenario as it did here, while allowing Barry’s mistakes to have further-reaching consequences than merely causing problems for one episode. It’s a great basis on which to start the season, and it recalibrates Flashpoint as very much of a kind with the season to come – a set up for a run of TV all about Barry’s quest to atone for his selfish mistakes and fix what’s broken. That’s the hope, anyway, and the twist, with Barry’s horrified reaction, certainly points to that.
And while it’s slightly less game-changing, the final stinger certainly has a lot to love in it, too, with the official introduction of Doctor Alchemy as a sinisterly-voiced creepster whispering in the ears of this timeline’s Edward Clariss to wake up before etching his name on the mirror. It’s an appropriately spooky, discombobulating introduction to our first Big Bad, and certainly indicates that The Flash is ready to keep up the pace by going full speed ahead into the main arc of the season next week. Let’s just hope Doctor Alchemy’s actual portrayal follows through, and doesn’t follow the same ‘villain overlord’ path that Zoom took in early season two.
Flashpoint, on the whole, was always going to be a divisive prospect – it’s too well known and beloved a concept not to be hotly debated when adapted in any form. Yet taken apart from its comics inspiration, there’s a lot to like about this season premiere, even if it’s held back from being an all-time classic by a rushed conclusion to Barry’s character arc that skips a few beats just to wrap up Flashpoint in an episode. It’s a strong premiere, however, and one that indicates that The Flash is ready to get back to what it does best: zippy, fun superhero drama with a strong grasp on its engaging characters and a beating heart worn on its sleeve. If season three can take those core elements and work them into an engaging narrative that pays off all the timeline-breaking set-up found within this premiere, then there’s absolutely no reason why The Flash can’t return to its best this season.