The Flash: 304 “The New Rogues” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Almost exactly two years ago, The Flash kicked off the introduction of the most famous team of villains in the Flash canon, the Rogues, with the first appearance of Captain Cold – and throughout the first season, the show seemed to be building up to a proper collection of Rogues with the introductions of other members like Heatwave, Golden Glider and Weather Wizard alongside Cold. However, a little show called Legends of Tomorrow came along and put a cork in those plans by sweeping up the main two Rogues for their own adventures, leaving this huge part of the Flash canon mostly on the page. This week, however, The Flash finally swung back around to the Rogues to introduce two of the most famous criminals on the team: Mirror Master and the Top, The New Rogues of the title. How did their long-overdue introduction fare?
Surprisingly enough, the titular villains are only a minor part of The New Rogues, an episode with an awful lot on its plate even for this increasingly sprawling season, and it would be hard to chalk up their introductions as classic villains when they mainly conform to the typical villain of the week template. However, despite the thin characterisation of the bad guys, The New Rogues carries itself with enough charm and light-heartedness to still qualify as a thoroughly enjoyable episode of The Flash that successfully continued the show’s pivot back to its original tone.
One of the fun surprises here was the semi-return of Captain Cold, whose presence as a villain has been missed since Wentworth Miller signed up to Legends full-time. However, the perks of his new contract (allowing him to star on all of the CW shows) pay off nicely here, and Miller instantly brings the kind of languid, strangely engaging energy to his few scenes as a flashback and then hologram that really heightens the classic feeling of the episode. It’s a nice segue into the introduction of the new generation of Rogues, and paves the way for a fuller return in time (after all, we’re in a changed timeline). His unique performance does throw a light, however, on how prosaic the villains presented here are by comparison in their characterisation and performances.
Mirror Master and the Top, to their credit, are portrayed really well on a visual level, with the building chase acting as one of the best uses of the slow-mo speedster effect that The Flash has pulled off. Likewise, the final confrontation in the amusement park is a genuinely inventive one with the hopping in and out of mirrors, allowing for a villain defeat that’s a little more focused on Barry outwitting the bad guy to use his powers against him than merely punching him into submission. However, visuals aside, Mirror Master and the Top as characters are deeply generic. The search for Snart, a relatively interesting conceit, is dispensed with pretty quickly and we’re left with two more villains who just want to use their powers to rob banks and exercise their dominance over the city, a colourless and bland motivation that’s not befitting of the complexity of their comic counterparts.
Likewise, the performances by Grey Damon and Ashley Rickards lean on the typical mix of hammy overacting and knowing one-liners that seem like the default setting for villains of the week on this show, so they don’t manage to elevate the material particularly. There’s room for expansion in future stories – this is really just an origin story that leaves them open for who have been so hyped up are, visuals aside, pretty indistinguishable from the dozens of other characters that have been served up in the past.
Thankfully, The New Rogues fares much better with its character work. There’s a renewed focus on Barry and Iris’ relationship here, which would seem to be tedious on paper but works well in execution. It’s mainly because Barry’s character conflict here isn’t rooted in brooding angst and circuitous arguments like some of his recent arcs have been – it’s simply a heartfelt look at his self-doubt which is overcome with the help of others. For one, I’m glad the show tackled the Barry/Iris foster sister weirdness head-on, because that strange subtext of siblings in a romantic relationship always weighed down their romance by giving each one of their scenes a slightly gross double meaning. The New Rogues acknowledges, with The Flash’s trademark lightness of touch, that their relationship is weird when those undertones are ignored, but it instead uses that self-awareness to pivot into a more compelling and meaty conflict for Barry.
Barry’s ended up being one of the most controversial characters on his own show lately thanks to the Flashpoint mess, but The New Rogues takes a worthwhile step away from bad decision-making to instead probe the psychological state that leads to those kind of decisions. His statement that he has everything he wants, yet is terrified of failing essentially gets to the core of Barry’s self-sabotage and constant doubts with an incisiveness that punctures what could have been weeks of dragged-out angst and allows for its quick, believable solution by the end of the episode. The Flash always works best when it handles its character arcs with a brevity and sincerity that prevents them from becoming frustrating but still allows the emotion of the situation to be fully explored, and it’s fantastic to see that the writers have gotten back to that ability that wasn’t always on display in the broodier stretches of season two.
On the other end of the scale, we had Jesse’s own struggle against her fear of change and self-doubt, in essence completing her origin story as a superhero. The New Rogues offers the sheer fun of having Barry and Jesse fully suited up and taking down villains together, but it also delves a little deeper into the complications that have arisen from Jesse’s quick dive into crime-fighting after getting her powers. There’s very much a sense that Jesse is Barry minus two seasons, with all of the power but none of the experience and awareness that Barry has accrued, and her journey towards accepting herself and learning to outsmart bad guys in the field is pleasingly reminiscent of those early episodes where Barry was learning the same thing. In an episode that feels almost teleported from season one in concept, Jesse’s story of a mentee learning to become a hero in her own right feels the most back-to-basics and efficient, freed of all the baggage and time travel confusion that Barry’s stories are tied up in. Her romance with Wally even works reasonably well – both Violett Beane and Keiynan Lonsdale have had a relaxed chemistry to their scenes for a while that makes their attraction seem like a believable development of what came before, and it’s wisely held back to just a couple of scenes to establish Wally’s own doubts and then move past them, ensuring that The New Rogues still feels streamlined despite the sheer mass of plot here.
Perhaps less seriously, but no less enjoyable, was one of the barmiest subplots this show has cooked up in quite some time in the form of the search for a new Harrison Wells. It’s always been weirdly enjoyable to see Tom Cavanagh slip into so many different personas in his time on the show, from disguised Eobard to the real Wells to the Wells of Earth-2. What’s so fun here about the Wells subplot is that it’s in on the joke – it knows it’s ridiculous that we’re up to seven or eight versions of Wells by this point, and plays off that ridiculousness for some genuinely hilarious scenes that allow Tom Cavanagh to show off his unique, chameleonic acting skills with some… interesting personas. We get a redneck Wells, British nerd Wells, French mime Wells before eventually landing on the hipster-ish Wells of Earth-19 (Earth-19 is now a thing in live-action, remember this day), and it’s all so committed to its gleeful nonsensicalness that it somehow works as a genuine subplot. The Flash’s early days were always marked by a willingness to tackle even the weirdest aspects of DC canon, and The New Rogues gets back to that freewheeling sensibility of trying anything with a wink and a nod. Beyond the comedic antics of his introduction, I’m curious to see how this new Wells will work out as a long-term addition to the team. The Earth-2 version worked so well bouncing off characters, especially in his rapport with Cisco that gets a fantastic send-off this episode, and it’s hard to see how he can be topped in that regard – let’s hope that The Flash makes a strong case for this Wells as a worthy successor, and not just a rehash whose introduction merely ends up being a gimmick.
Finally, there’s also a fascinating conflict brewing below the surface of The New Rogues, bubbling to the top in just a couple of moments, which is Caitlin’s gradual transformation into Killer Frost. This is still a conflict that’s yet to show all its cards, but Caitlin’s actions here regarding her powers offer some really intriguing insights into how she’s processing this transformation, from the surreptitious, almost guilty usage of her powers to free Barry to her cliff-hanger discovery that, when looking in the mirror, she looks an awful lot like the evil doppelganger she saw in Earth-2. Of all the main characters, Caitlin’s been the most starved of a real character arc in recent episodes beyond tired romance subplots, and her shift towards the persona that’s marked out by destiny as that of a villain is therefore one of the most promising things going on in The Flash right now because there’s so many ways it could take this, all of them offering something new for the character. Thankfully, it looks like we’re done with her transformation taking place in brief interjections between scenes, with the final scene offering a really exciting launching pad for the first properly Caitlin-centric story in a while next week.
The New Rogues is not an episode that will linger long in the memory – it’s light and frothy entertainment that’s not all too concerned with tackling weighty social issues or dramatic character arcs. In short, it’s comfort zone entertainment for The Flash, excelling at all the things that this show has made its trademark from heartfelt character arcs to a purely fun dive into the wackier aspects of the DC comics canon, while keeping things conservative with the introduction of bad guys who, unfortunately, come straight out of the villain-of-the-week playbook despite their significant status in the comics. It didn’t break any ground, but it proved that last week’s classic-style episode wasn’t (ahem) a flash in the pan – this is what The Flash is again, and it’s great to see.