The Flash: 305 “Monster” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Central City found itself beset by all kinds of monsters on this week’s The Flash, yet as it turned out, none of them were actually real. We had the continuing tragic descent of Caitlin Snow into evil Killer Frost mode helped along when it should have been averted, Julian finally opening up to Barry about his inner demons… oh, and the 50-foot kaiju creature that turned out to be a hologram controlled by a 15-year-old boy struggling with monsters of his own. With risk of stating the obvious, it’s safe to say that Monster earned its title.
Monster is pretty typical for a standalone episode of The Flash in its construction, aside for the obvious twist that there’s no actual villain of the week to speak of, yet there’s a distinctly different feel to the episode than usual. That’s arguably down to the unusual way in which just about every plotline here comes to an unconventional conclusion, riffing on viewer expectations or twisting the expected pay-off to reveal something a lot less grandiose than the episode appeared to be building to. For the most part, that’s a heartening twist on the formula that works well, and the atypical plotting works to create some satisfying, unpredictable character development that feels vibrant and interesting on the journey, instead of simply concentrating on the destination. In a season of The Flash that’s cut away a lot of the bloat and convoluted mythology that defined the latter half of last year, Monster feels especially lean and streamlined in its near-total focus on character above spectacle, and keenly aware of the optimistic heart that defines this show. Yet despite all the strengths on display here, Monster trips up sometimes in its attempt to tell a handful of genuinely substantial character-focused stories at once, and one plotline in particular lacks the breathing room to fully accomplish its goals.
Perhaps the most immediately intriguing plotline, and certainly the one that’s most pertinent to future events, is Caitlin’s continuing journey towards her destiny as Killer Frost. It’s an old trick from the superhero TV playbook to introduce an estranged parent of a supporting character just when a particularly important conflict pops up for that character, and Caitlin’s mother is mostly indistinguishable from the crowd of icy, aloof paternal figures who have populated similar shows over the years. Yet as an enabler for Caitlin’s continuing development, Susan fits the bill and her evolving attitudes towards her daughter’s Killer Frost powers offer the new perspective on Caitlin’s transformation that her arc so desperately needed to feel like a tangible conflict. There’s a strong link made here between Caitlin’s manifesting powers and the people around her who simply bring out all the resentment and repressed fury that fuels her powers in the first place. The scenes in the lab do a strong job of illustrating that the cold, clinical environment that Caitlin goes to as her first port of call only exacerbates the problem, offering only the scientific, numbers-based perspective on her emotional turmoil instead of the compassion that Caitlin could have been offered if she had instead gone to Star Labs.
Caitlin’s mother, in this respect, works as an embodiment of Caitlin’s treatment as an object of scientific interest that only feeds into her continuing descent into Killer Frost – aptly, Caitlin’s ice powers are being encouraged by… a lack of warmth shown towards her. Therefore, it’s fitting that the inevitable reconciliation is only tentative, failing to patch up all of their differences. Indeed, as we see in the final stinger, there’s still a huge gulf that exists between their attitudes due to Susan’s continuing, fundamental misinterpretation of what Caitlin’s powers mean, and that feels like the realistic conclusion to come to given the extent of their animosity as sketched out here. Susan is more of a plot device than anything here, but as a plot device she’s utilised strongly to further Caitlin’s inevitable spiral downwards, making for a strong story that neatly establishes the tragedy of her situation and the emotional stakes for what’s to come.
Also struggling with ‘monsters’ is Julian, whose role is bumped way up from sneering background figure to a fully-fledged supporting character. Julian arc is arguably Monster’s most commendable achievement because it so efficiently redefines the character into something far more interesting as a continuing presence while providing a convincing justification for the near-cartoonish bitterness that previously served as his only real characteristic. Monster is quick to establish a justifiable basis for Julian’s constant spikiness and inability to ever feel satisfied with his surroundings, grounding it in ideas that have always been percolating through stories but have never been directly explored. Julian’s frustration, in particular, at the fact that the majority of meta-humans have become criminals who have attacked the city rather than seeking to help it rings true because it directly ties in with The Flash’s heavy focus on metahumans as villain-of-the-week fodder for Barry to defeat.
Likewise, it’s true to say that Barry has actually been depicted as a terrible employee all along with his constant walk-outs and usage of his lab as a meeting location for basically anyone who wants to stroll in. What Monster does so well is to place Julian as the guy who picks up on all the things that The Flash, thanks to its predisposition to show events through Barry’s perspective, hasn’t really acknowledged, showing an isolated and angry perspective from someone trapped out of the loop on the radical changes that have enveloped Central City since the particle accelerator exploded. The placing of Julian as the character left behind by everything that the audience has been able to follow along with is a smart one to add pathos and sympathy to the character, and it’s helped by an affecting performance by Tom Felton that taps into the loneliness and regret that his previous experiences saw him shield below his usually acerbic façade.
As this is The Flash, though, the real high point came with the conclusion and Julian’s turnaround. Though Julian’s character arc has its basis in perhaps the shakiest story that Monster offers up, it’s still a thoroughly convincing one because it doesn’t necessarily feel like Julian has transformed as a person. His experiences, including nearly shooting a 15 year old boy, have simply allowed him to let down his shields and reveal who he really was all along, which helps make his acknowledgement of the Flash and moment of humility seem genuinely convincing. Barry offering to take Julian for a drink as an extension of an offer of mutual, respectful partnership is one of those quietly affecting moments of compassion that The Flash does so well, and it serves as an important pointer about the direction of Julian’s character. His antagonistic introduction led most fans and reviewers to speculate that he was really Doctor Alchemy as it wasn’t much of a leap to see his attitude towards Barry verging on the murderous with no context, but now that we have a much clearer insight into Julian’s psyche, it seems much more likely that Julian is set to fill the police-department ally role that Eddie and Patty filled in the past. That’s a much better path to take the character because it’s fresher ground for The Flash, and doesn’t rehash the same ‘villain in plain sight’ formula that’s already been done twice with diminishing returns – there’s a lot of potential for Julian to enter the STAR Labs circle and become involved with Barry’s crime-fighting given what we know, so it’s good to see Monster pivot in that direction.
Somewhat less serious than the rest of the plotlines, but certainly the most enjoyable, was the story of HR Wells, our Earth-19 counterpart who, like Julian and Caitlin, found the ‘monster’ of his true self exposed for all to see. HR proves, at least for the time being, to be a worthy addition to the curiously large roster of Harrison Wells lookalikes, and a large amount of that success is due to Tom Cavanagh who is evidently having heaps of fun establishing this peppy and unnervingly cooperative new take on Wells who drops one bizarre alternate-Earth pop culture reference after another (“Murder on the Titanic! “Who did it? Who cares? We’re all drowning!”) and cooks up team-building exercises for the crew. There’s a natural scepticism now with any new Wells about the skeletons that may be hiding in their closet, and Monster playfully evokes that predisposition to mistrust him before coming out with a reveal that’s so audaciously stupid that it just about works. Purely in terms of entertainment, it’s kind of hilarious in a bathetic way to discover that Wells’ isn’t actually a scientist (he’s just repeating what everyone else says but in a different way!), but instead an intrepid novelist chronicling his time on Earth-1 because it’s such a deliberately trivial lie, lowering the stakes from assumed evil deception to slightly devious fib. There’s actually a valid dramatic function for this, though, besides the funny trick played on our expectations here – by making Wells, the designated ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ for STAR Labs as the pure ideas man instead of a scientist, it’s actually a surprisingly smart way to shake up the dynamics of Team Flash, drawing a much clearer distinction than we’ve had before between the roles of Cisco and Wells.
The final major storyline in Monster is the one that deals most directly with the title, and it’s unfortunately the least engaging of the lot, and the least robust in its construction. There’s a visual novelty to the sight of a 50 foot monster rampaging about that the episode can run off for its first set-piece, but as the novelty value fades, the monster plotline loses its drive and becomes somewhat shapeless. Unusually for the action-focused story, it feels like it’s stuffed into spare sections of the episode rather than serving as the story from which all others derive, lending it an inconsistency to its pace and a lack of ability to truly build to a conclusion. The conclusion itself then bears the brunt of that intermittent pacing, because the reveal that the monster is a hologram created by a bullied 15-year-old boy is one that doesn’t quite land when it comes in isolation as something that the episode doesn’t focus on much.
It’s an audacious twist for The Flash’s standards because it’s such a divergence from the usual template, but it essentially comes out of nowhere with only oblique hints beforehand to the true nature of the monster’s controller, so it doesn’t feel like something that the episode really builds to. Just a few lines of dialogue or shots of a computer station would have laid enough groundwork to this into a genuine twist rather than a swerve. There’s definitely some emotional power in the kid’s confession that he just wanted to exercise some power that he’d lost in his vulnerable and cruel life at school, but the attempts to reflect the experiences of the other characters are perhaps a little too cutesy and aggressively on-theme, hammered home by some slightly clunky dialogue. This plotline isn’t a total bust – there’s some fun to the disappearing monster mystery, and I like how such a seemingly sweeping and expansive story boiled down to something so simple in theory. Unfortunately, the execution is a little too slapdash, and the monster plotline comes across as a slight missed opportunity to join everything together.
It’s clear that not everyone is enjoying this season of The Flash, and that’s understandable when compared to the previous two seasons. Season three’s opening salvo hasn’t had the novelty of season one, or the propulsive narrative of season two’s very serialised opening stretch, and it’s arguable that the season as a whole hasn’t fully taken shape yet. Yet this has been an admirable start in many ways, and Monster illustrates exactly why. It’s a character-based episode with a laser focus on tangible, interesting growth that hasn’t been seen in quite a while, and experiments with construction and tone with mostly successful results with the unashamedly comedic Wells plotline and Caitlin’s unfolding nightmare. Season three might still be finding its own groove and working out just how it’s going to pan out in the long run, but the return to the simpler, more standalone early days of season three with dialled-back stakes and a more intimate scope is clearly yielding some real benefits as The Flash continues to get back on track.
Unfortunately, The Flash takes a week off next week thanks to the presidential election (let’s just hope that the break is worth it), but it’s back on the 15th with an episode that looks set to dive back into the season arc with Wally rediscovering his powers alongside the return of Doctor Alchemy…