The Flash: 303 “Magenta” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
There are two different kinds of Flash. There’s the heavily sci-fi version that runs off a barrage of twists involving time paradoxes, alternate realities and other bits of technobabble, and there’s the lower-key version that’s lighter in tone, more focused on characters and generally less interested in the main villain. The Flash has heavily been weighted towards the former ever since the middle of season two, and while it’s had some success, it’s sorely lacked the heart and warmth of its early days when things were a whole lot simpler and more optimistic.
Suffice to say that this week’s episode, Magenta, was the second kind. It’s solid and effective at weaving a simple human story around people grappling with the consequences of their own power, or lack of, and most importantly, it’s an episode that’s pleasingly reminiscent to the show’s heyday back in season one. While Magenta is an episode that’s not particularly revelatory on its own, it’s one that’s important in showing how The Flash really has undergone a significant tonal shift once the Flashpoint angst has been dispensed with, and as such it’s full of promise for the future.
Magenta sought to explore the notion of power in the hands of sons and daughters, influenced by their parents to hold themselves back or to completely lash out, and it’s that notion that’s a touchstone of every major storyline within the episode. It’s a sprawling episode that highlights just how weighty this ensemble is getting, but it still feels cohesive and focused because it’s zeroing in on a couple of very specific ideas that tie everyone’s stories together. The flagship plotline here, and the one that got the highest billing in the promos, was the introduction of our newest speedster, Jesse Quick, who returned from Earth-2 with her concerned father in tow. Her story treads familiar ground in many respects – the Arrowverse is chockfull of parents seeking to control their child’s life in the name of ‘protection’ – but it’s told with enough refreshing simplicity and directness to overcome the fairly derivative nature of the plotline.
In a lot of ways, Jesse’s story is a conscious throwback to Barry’s own hero’s journey in the very early stages of season one, with Wells subbed in for Joe. It’s a story that’s simple but really effective in its construction, bringing in a whole host of character from every other side of the aisle to chip in with their own perspective on Jesse’s powers and what they mean, each broadening out that central theme a little as Jesse’s power is alternately described as something dangerous, something delicate and something aspirational by her confidantes. Eventually, however, it comes to the powerful realisation that all those perspectives are entirely secondary to Jesse’s own, allowing her finally to make her own choice and thus carve out her own role as a speedster who plays just as important a role as Barry in the final confrontation with Magenta. It’s the kind of story that The Flash tells so well, in that it purports to be complicated and sprawling yet essentially boils down to an emotionally resonant message at the end, which is summed up in the excellent final scene with Jesse and Wells where Wells poignantly puts Jesse’s destiny in her own hands with the gift of her super-suit. Jesse’s superhero career got off to a really strong start here, and it’s going to be great to see her fully suited up in next week’s instalment.
Jesse’s story also, naturally, allowed for the return of Tom Cavanagh to the fray, and he’s back to his versatile best. Whether it’s through his unique brand of snarky comedy (his new-found proclivity for ‘Not!’ jokes just reminds us why Wells is always missed), or through Cavanagh’s ability to find something heartfelt and genuine below the gruff exterior, he’s always extremely watchable and provides a vital kind of energy that the first two episodes were arguably lacking. I’ve sung the praises of Tom Cavanagh again and again in these reviews since day one, but it’s worth saying that it’s clearer than ever here that he’s the actor most important to The Flash’s success beside Grant Gustin himself, because his presence provides a spark and ability to break down some of the characters’ self-delusions that streamlines the drama and tamps down the show’s tendency for aimless brooding. The Flash is always just a little better with one Wells or another in it, so I’m hoping that the writers contort themselves to keep Cavanagh around for the rest of the season.
The flipside of Jesse is Wally, a guy who essentially has the same opinion on power, yet without the actual power. It would have been easy to make Wally’s story into a mopey slog, but Keiynan Lonsdale finds the pathos in Wally’s predicament, making his frustration and disappointment at his lack of powers into something that’s sympathetic rather than irritating. It’s a strong parallel to Jesse because it’s easy to see, especially in the light of his Flashpoint outing as Kid Flash, that he could, even should be in exactly the same position as Jesse as an enthusiastic superhero – he’s just held back by an unlucky twist of fate with no explicable logic behind it. Wally’s arc is mostly a strong one, as the inverse of Jesse as he grapples with the idea that flashy powers don’t define someone and comes to appreciate, as Joe says, the heart and optimism that he already has, but I’m not wholly convinced that Magenta stuck the landing here. Everything else points to Wally making that final realisation and accepting his lack of power, but his inspiration at the mention of Doctor Alchemy makes it all too obvious that he’s headed to some murky places in pursuit of that power. While that may lead to a fun destination by turning him permanently into the Kid Flash we briefly knew, it just prolongs his angst for the time being and slightly undermines the thematic point being made by failing to offer the same sense of completeness as the other stories.
The third person grappling with their power, somewhat less successfully, was the villain of the week, the titular Magenta, aka Frankie Kane. Villains of the week are a hit and miss game on this show, but Magenta worked better than most. There’s an innate tragedy to her character that Magenta has a strong handle on from the get-go, illustrating Frankie as an unwilling passenger in all the evil deeds she does – a victim of the impulses that stem from factors way beyond her own control. Joey King’s performance isn’t all that even, and she does drift into caricatured scenery-chewing when the purple eyes begin to glow, but she does manage to get a firm grip on the vulnerability of Frankie herself, making her a fragile and likeable enough presence in her brief scenes as her real self in order to heighten the emotional power of her transformations into her evil alter ego.
Magenta doesn’t delve deep into the social issues it raises of fostering and neglect, but it does find a compelling reason for Magenta’s villainy within her backstory, which is the idea that she’s an unwilling nomad, bounced from home to home with no tether to anything at all. Her lashing out, therefore, seems almost understandable as a way to take control of a life that’s always been meddled with by the faceless foster system. All of these disparate elements came together really nicely in a final confrontation that went in a much more interesting direction than I expected. Barry opting to talk down Magenta by appealing to her true self was something that really spoke to this episode’s refreshed focus on aspirational, selfless heroism, and it felt like the right conclusion for a story that had been stacking up far too many notes of sympathy for its villain to culminate in a generic final showdown. The sight of a repentant Frankie and Barry hugging outside the hospital is the kind of inspiring and compassionate visual that sums up why The Flash acquired its imposing reputation in the first place, and the fact that the writers have returned to that type of storytelling can only be an encouraging sign for the future. There could have been a lot more finesse to Magenta’s characterisation – her split personality is painted in very broad strokes, and a little more sensitivity and nuance in exploring her mental health would have made the compassionate note that Magenta is working towards a little bit sincerer. However, she’s a lot more textured and thematically relevant to the rest of the episode than most villains of the week, so this does point towards a bit of refinement of the weekly villain formula that The Flash has never quite pinned down.
Magenta didn’t feature a whole lot of movement forward on the arc plot front – the stinger traditionally the place for shocking revelations, essentially just went over last week’s ending with a touch more detail, for instance. It did, however, provide absolute clarity that Doctor Alchemy is the puppet-master of this season as the villain who’s responsible for creating all the villains of the week, which is something that’s both interesting and slightly concerning. It’s interesting because it instantly provides a deeper edge to the villains of the week as people who are trying to reclaim something that they feel incomplete without, which is, as I touched on last week, a far more interesting conceit for bad guys than simply being pointed in the Flash’s direction like last year’s Earth-2 metas were. Yet I’m a little concerned that the basic idea of Alchemy as the metahuman controller is bit of a retread of Zoom’s early role last year, which is compounded by the similar creepy, shadowy feeling that both bad guys embody. The Flash had trouble with telling an original overarching story last year as Zoom’s story closely mirrored the Reverse Flash’s, so here’s hoping that this is just the foundation for something entirely different rather than the start of a similar path again.
Finally, there’s the story that takes place either side of the main events of Magenta: Barry and Iris’ date. It’s a plotline that takes until the second half to really click as something that’s of a piece with the rest of the episode, because the opening scene with the couple sitting awkwardly at the table is a pretty contrived way to bring about some tension in their relationship in the bluntest way possible. However, the final scene allows it to snap into focus as a story that’s just as preoccupied with power as the other storylines of the episode, as Barry decides he can’t compartmentalise Barry Allen and the Flash in order to date Iris. The idea that power is part of one’s identity and can’t be avoided acts as a nice conclusive point for the episode’s different explorations of the theme, and it circles back to a facet of Barry’s character that The Flash had slightly lost sight of, which is the fact that Barry Allen wants to be the Flash, and needs to embrace his superhero side to be the best version of himself. After his crisis of confidence that led to Flashpoint, that’s as good a sign that his character, and the show itself, is back on the right track as any.
The first two episodes of season 3 were decried for some by continuing the gloomy and brooding tone of late season 2, but there was always an intent in those episodes to steer back towards the optimism of The Flash’s early days, something that bubbled to the surface around the Jay Garrick scene last episode. Magenta is the first episode to really reap the benefits of all the development that the occasionally frustrating opening salvo of the season brought about, and as such it’s a refreshingly light-hearted episode that tells a handful of interesting, solidly constructed character stories with a reasonably compelling villain of the week to keep the superhero action ticking over. It does stumbles here and there, and ultimately can’t reach greatness due to a lack of real ambition to go beyond what has been done before. However, on the whole, it confirms that the writers are really trying to take The Flash back to what made it work in the first place, while embracing the broader canvas that a later season provides, and that’s absolutely cause for optimism.