The Flash: 302 “Paradox” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“What kind of hero are you going to be? Are you just going to take a do-over every time you make a mistake, or will you live with them and move forward?’
Barry Allen screwed up.
To his credit, he had realised that to some extent at the end of last week, once he returned to find that the timeline wasn’t quite as it once was, even if he didn’t grasp the full impact of his mistakes on others. This week’s episode, Paradox, was about the second half of that equation: Barry seeing the impact his blunder had, and living with his mistakes. Paradox tells the story with Barry that viewers have been waiting for episodes on end to see, and for the most part it tells it very effectively indeed, even if some of the execution, just like last week, rushes forward to reach a defined end-point too quickly. Last week’s premiere was a more obvious reboot for the show with its alternative reality, but Paradox retooled The Flash in a way that feels permanent, and by its end, it’s very clear that the show will be going to some drastically different, arguably more satisfying places this year.
After episodes playing with fire in an increasingly selfish manner, it was somewhat refreshing to see Barry faced with the full force of the damages he’s wrought here, with Grant Gustin playing his guilty, flailing panic at having ripped up his friends’ lives again with a precise amount of sympathy that allows us to understand Barry’s point of view, but also to understand that it’s completely irrational. Flashpoint went some way towards illustrating Barry’s destructive attitude and self-absorption, but there’s far greater emotional stakes in what Paradox does with Barry because it’s an arc all about consequence – about confronting the inescapable truth that Barry has been doing more harm than good. It’s a point that’s encapsulated in the episode’s best scene, which is the brief appearance of Jay Garrick to offer some wise and incisive advice to put Barry back on the right track. John Wesley Shipp is always a terrifically watchable actor, and his warm but weary take on Jay really hits the idea of ‘Barry plus 25 years’ that Shipp has talked about in interviews – it genuinely feels like Jay is drawing on years of painful first-hand experience of his own mistakes when chastising Barry, which adds nicely to the scene’s poignant exploration of the need to keep looking back and push forward.
The scene as a whole comes across as a very direct mission statement for this season’s themes, and it captures the kind of inspiring, bold optimism that fuelled season one – The Flash is often at its best when it’s simply focusing on characters helping each other to make the courageous, heroic choice, and that’s absolutely the case here. Using this scene as the core of Barry’s journey, Paradox constructs a strong arc for Barry that accelerates hard into the half-measures and bad decisions that have marked some of the weaker parts of this show’s more recent episodes before coming out the other end with lessons that have been genuinely learned. There’s a lot of catharsis in Barry simply accepting his mistakes and taking the burden of the damage he’s caused on his shoulders without it weighing him down, and by the end, Paradox shows The Flash itself moving forward to better, brighter things just as Barry himself is. If the show really commits to the lessons Barry learned here and continues to illustrate Barry’s meddling with time as a cautionary tale rather than justified action, then it’ll be able to recapture what made Barry a likeable and endearing character on a continuing basis.
The revelation that Joe and Iris were not on speaking terms was evidently just the tip of the iceberg in terms of changes to the timeline, and Paradox ticks off its tweaks to the characters’ lives and relationships with a neat framing device involving Felicity that allows the episode to race out of the blocks instead of slowly, dutifully doing the rounds to see what’s different. The timeline changes are somewhat downbeat with almost everyone’s life changing a little for the worse, but they’re genuinely interesting ways to open up new stories and status quos for characters who are all very firmly established by now. Cisco probably received the worst of it with the death of his brother, but it’s actually a twist that looks to be a success in the long run because it offers a little emotional grounding for a character who has the least fleshed-out personal life of STAR Labs. Carlos Valdes does some strong, pathos-laden work as a morose, subdued take on Cisco, and it’s genuinely affecting to see such a typically likeable character completely diminished by Barry’s actions.
Paradox isn’t afraid to condemn Barry’s mistakes in a way this show has always been a bit reticent to do, and picking a character who was precision-engineered to be a fan favourite to bear the brunt of Barry’s mistakes is smart storytelling that makes Barry’s realisation all the more powerful. Cisco also gets an excellent pay-off at the end with his rescue of Barry from the Rival in his Vibe get-up, a moment that satisfyingly brings their simmering tensions to a reasonable, if most likely temporary conclusion in a way that’s just really, really cool. Now that we have so many comics characters powering up and reaching their destiny, season three is already delivering some really great team-up moments; and the Flash and Vibe’s dual takedown of the Rival is just as thrilling as last week’s Flash/Kid Flash fight. As for Caitlin, it seems that it’s all smooth sailing in her world, but a late-game twist completely throws that assumption into upheaval as her powers are evidently beginning to manifest. Season 2 had some fun with the Killer Frost persona, but a proper arc of Caitlin coming to terms with her destined powers and villainous identity has been long overdue, and Paradox picks a prime opportunity to finally put that story into action. We don’t get much of a hint into Caitlin’s feelings about her developing powers., but I’m really excited nonetheless to see where this goes.
A less effective character change is Iris and Joe’s familial rift. It was understandable that last week’s premiere chose that revelation as the one to open up the possibility of further changes due to the West family’s vital importance to the show’s themes, but Paradox doesn’t do a whole lot with the change to this crucial relationship. Admittedly, it’s really fun to see Barry as the bumbling peacemaker zipping between workplaces to manipulate them into having a conversation, but there’s sparing exploration of how their frosty relationship affects the wider show as a whole, apart from a few intriguing, but ultimately too brief glimpses into a tenser Team Flash dynamic where everyone treads on eggshells to avoid sensitive topics. Furthermore, the motivation behind it links to a particularly shaky bit of storytelling. Last season’s Francine arc was a weak and poorly-defined story for Iris and Joe, and as such it doesn’t really work for it to be used here as a key changing point for Iris and Joe’s relationship. Their rift is brought to an end so quickly that all we get is the skeletal outline of their feud, which feels like a missed opportunity at this point.
That speaks to a flaw that weighs down Paradox a little, which is that it’s so keen to return to a classical, more familiar dynamic that it doesn’t quite put the time into fully justifying the reversions back to normal. Iris and Joe reconciling is satisfying and cathartic because these are likeable characters who are meant to be together, but it’s also slightly confounding, as if a scene or two establishing their mending relationship was cut out. I like the direction The Flash is heading this season, but it needs to be careful to concentrate on the journey just as much as the destination, as the storytelling is sometimes too accelerated to fully register – it’s less of a problem here than last week, but it’s still something that needs to be ironed out if the show is return to its best.
Another consequence of Barry’s clumsy messing about with the timeline was a whole new co-worker in the CSI department, Julian Albert. There was a huge amount of hype about the casting of Draco Malfoy himself, Tom Felton as Julian, and Felton certainly lives up to expectations with a performance that’s just plain fun. Felton gets to tap into a lot of what made Draco work with Julian’s entertainingly abrasive attitude towards Barry, setting up an intriguing dynamic that feels somewhat ambiguous right now. His performance precisely splits the difference between outright venom and friendliness, so it’s hard to tell just whether Julian is another bad guy or a well-intentioned, if harsh co-worker who has cottoned onto Barry’s duplicity and flakiness. It’s a new dynamic that breathes a bit of life into an area of the show that always felt curiously untapped since early season 1, and the numerous interpretations of Julian offered up here mean that their rivalry could go in a whole host of different places from here.
Paradox doesn’t skimp on villains, with two distinct bad guys here who play very different roles. The showier addition is Big Bad number one, Doctor Alchemy, who makes his first proper appearance here after last week’s teasing stinger. Truth be told, it’s a relief that we’re getting a main villain who’s not just another shadowy speedster (Savitar is on the way, but the fact that Alchemy has come first indicates that he’s of more pressing importance to the season’s arc), but Paradox finds a few interesting ways to make Alchemy an engaging villain in his own right. The design for Alchemy is fittingly disconcerting, and Tobin Bell delivers a vocal performance that’s just the right kind of sinister in its creepy, raspy tones, creating the sense that is a villain who can’t quite be pinned down – everything about him seems oblique now, including his seeming membership of a weird cult at which Clariss tracks him down. His plan is, obviously, extremely vague at this point, but his memories of the Flashpoint timeline is an interesting wrinkle that mysteriously links him to the timeline shenanigans in a way that once again heightens the impact of Barry’s actions by serving as a constant reminder of the great mistake he made. I’m sure there will be some kind of ‘who is it?’ identity mystery, but Paradox seems to indicate that The Flash is much more interested in the why of Alchemy than the who, and that’s a far more interesting angle to approach the character.
As for villain number two, he’s a familiar face. I was very critical of the Rival last week where he seemed like a boilerplate villain-of-the-week, and in many ways, Paradox doesn’t make Clariss much more interesting as a character – he’s still mostly defined by his curious obsession with the word ‘rival’, and his costume is still a bad off-brand Halloween outfit. However, Paradox does use the Rival as a starter point for something altogether more interesting, which is the through-line this season seems to be setting up of the relationship between circumstances and personality. Clariss wasn’t the Rival in this timeline until Alchemy came along, but as he intriguingly states, he was instantly attracted to recreating his Flashpoint life because that was what he was meant to be all along. By creating a contrast between these two timelines and the rises to villainy that occur in both, and questioning whether the desire to do wrong is innate or created by influence, The Flash promises to play with the age-old question of nature versus nature in a whole new way with its weekly meta-humans, which seems to be a great way to spice up what can be a pretty staid format after a while. And while it doesn’t get to those thematic heights with Clariss, a definitively flat character, it’s definitely encouraging to see The Flash head in that direction nonetheless.
And speaking of Clariss, the brief stinger of Paradox seems to put an end to his story. It’s not quite as exciting a future tease as last week’s was, and doesn’t reveal much new, but there’s still a fair amount to unpack within this final scene. For one, it illustrates just how Alchemy treats his subordinates as disposable, needed only to kill the Flash and then unnecessary if that task was failed. But what’s arguably most intriguing in this stinger is what grabs Clariss at the very end. It’s easy to assume that it’s just Alchemy back to finish the job, but from the brief glimpse, it doesn’t look like Alchemy. Therefore, if we’re looking at another bad guy in cahoots with Doctor Alchemy, maybe it’s reasonable to assume that it’s our other Big Bad, Savitar, who we know sports an armoured look and certainly has the speed to make it in and out of a jail cell seamlessly? Either way, it’s a nicely creepy ending, and promises that we’re just scratching the surface of what’s going on with Alchemy’s plotting this season.
In some respects, by putting time travel, something this show has always handled a bit messily, front and centre, The Flash was playing with fire. And in a couple of respects, Paradox gets burnt as it quickly tries to reset things to how they originally were without truly exploring the consequences of this new timeline. However, for the most part, it takes that messiness and makes it into a compelling and satisfying story that retools everything we knew about The Flash into a new, interesting configuration to play with this year. Paradox is a real turnaround from the concerning direction that the show appeared to be heading in at the end of the last season, challenging and eventually changing Barry’s outlook and arriving at an end destination that feels bright, optimistic and exciting in a way that feels encouragingly reminiscent of season 1. The journey could do with some work, but The Flash is really going somewhere interesting this season, and it’s going to be exciting to see just how it gets there.