The Flash: 306 “Shade” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Flash, by nature, is always going to be the story of Barry Allen. Indeed, the beginning of season three focused to the extent of tunnel vision on Barry’s emotional journey as he grappled with the repercussions of creating Flashpoint. Yet since the Flashpoint arc was directly wrapped up, season three has turned out to be more of an ensemble piece than ever – a version of The Flash where Barry himself often takes a backseat to the emotional struggles of the supporting characters.
Returning after a week off for the presidential election (the less said about that, the better), this week’s episode, Shade, exemplifies this subtle shift on The Flash’s part towards becoming a true ensemble piece. We may end with Barry in the hands of a villain who only he can deal with, but Shade isn’t Barry Allen’s story – it’s Wally’s, and Caitlin’s. For the first time, Barry Allen is a supporting character in his own show, and that works out surprisingly well. The tighter focus on the inner lives and conflicts of these two characters who are grappling with powers that come with an imposing destiny pre-packaged allows for some really significant strides forward in arcs that had been burning slowly in the background since their introduction.
Shade’s exploration of Wally and Caitlin works because it keeps a tight handle on an intriguingly inverse parallel between the two characters – they’re both going through the same basic experience of having visions of a future where they have powers, yet the circumstances and attitudes for each couldn’t be more different. They’re diametric opposites (some might say they’re the reverse) in a very focused sense as Shade ensures that it’s exploring the same conflicts from two valuable perspectives, and the interesting contrast really allows The Flash to express the vague themes of power and identity that it’s been pondering in recent weeks in more concrete terms.
In a dichotomy that Shade keeps a careful eye on throughout, Wally dreams of heroism while Caitlin dreams of becoming a monster – yet their arcs prove to be a lot more complicated than the basic push-and-pull you might expect. Wally’s arc is given the lion’s share of focus, and it’s a story that takes a little while to heat up. Initially, it does appear that we’re in for another bout of Wally’s whininess that’s weighed down the character periodically, but Shade quickly finds a believable motivation for Wally’s feelings of optimism and ensuing disappointment at Joe’s reaction. It’s been well established that Wally wants nothing more to be a hero, and he’s even had a potential future dangled in front of his face with Jesse, so it’s entirely understandable that, when presented with a sunny wish fulfilment fantasy where he’s the sole hero of Central City, Wally leaps at the opportunity with enthusiasm. The same is true for Joe’s imbalanced treatment of Wally and Barry, despite all of Barry’s mistakes, so his frustration at Joe’s paternalistic attitude quickly becomes understandable when the biases he’s faced with become clear.
With that sympathetic foundation established, Shade begins to walk a more complex path with Wally. As viewers, we’re conditioned to want Wally to fulfil his dreams and become Kid Flash, but the reality is that those powers come from the deeply untrustworthy source of Doctor Alchemy and his Pied-Piper temptations, posing intriguing questions about just where heroism needs to come from. Does it need to be pure, unquestionable and ‘deserved’ luck like Barry and his traditional origins? Or can good, altruistic power come from something evil? Those aren’t questions that Shade fully answers, as Wally’s fate is left uncertain by the end of the episode, but it serves as surprisingly thoughtful set-up for Wally’s presumed origin story as the genuine Kid Flash. It means that the moment where Wally takes the plunge, grabbing Alchemy’s Philosopher’s Stone, all the more fascinating because it’s entirely ambiguous as to whether this is a moment to celebrate as the awakening of Wally’s heroism or a darker turn for the character as Wally succumbs to temptation. It’s a much more nuanced approach to the story than I expected, putting Wally’s innate goodness and selflessness at the fore as he uses himself as bait and essentially setting him up to ‘earn’ his powers as an extension of his existing heroism, yet swerving at the last minute into intriguing, uncharted territory.
Caitlin’s story is subtler, but no less compelling. Inversely to Wally, Caitlin knows the score about Killer Frost from the get-go, yet the destined persona that her powers promise is so terrifying that Caitlin is ready to abandon the entire team in order to seclude herself. Caitlin’s story places her friendship with Cisco as a key priority as the main source of conflict, and it’s a richly rewarding choice to take a more detailed look at one of The Flash’s most enduring pairs. As shown by Caitlin’s decision to go to Cisco and her near-immediate understanding of Cisco’s lies, Cisco is the most important confidante in her life and the most trustworthy person to understand and empathise with her turmoil (as the only other person to have gained powers post-accelerator), and this importance is shown with an increased focus on the warm, lived-in rapport between Carlos Valdes and Danielle Panabaker.
It’s nice for Caitlin to be involved in a powerful relationship that’s entirely platonic, allowing for her own psyche and inner conflict to be brought to the fore defined solely by herself, with Cisco merely serving as a way to tease Caitlin’s turmoil to the surface. Yet Shade brings more nuance to the table than that, using the parallel of Cisco and Caitlin as people who grew into their destined identities later in the game and exposing the sheer differences between them. As someone who received pretty benevolent, useful powers and learned to cope with them easily with no destiny to worry about, Cisco blurts out Caitlin’s secret to STAR Labs, thus exposing his misunderstanding of the vastly different circumstances Caitlin is experiencing. Cisco means well, but one of the most interesting parts of his portrayal here was his simplistic understanding of the situation, and assumption that her powers can be solved like his were. His textbook approach to Caitlin’s conflict doesn’t grasp the immediacy of the problem, and it’s easy seeing that negligence backfiring soon once Caitlin’s Killer Frost side truly emerges. Indeed, Cisco seems to fail to spot what kind of story Caitlin’s origin really is.
In previous episodes, Caitlin’s shift into Killer Frost has had the feel of a classic tragedy – a downfall in which every attempt to break the cycle just accelerated the inevitable, and there’s a real sense of that beginning to reach its boiling point here. With the vibe of Caitlin fully suited up and battling Cisco, Shade provides a sense of urgency and inevitability to Caitlin’s story that keeps a propulsive sense of momentum throughout, and there’s the distinct sense that just about everyone has lost control of this situation. Danielle Panabaker does some of her strongest and most affecting work as a Caitlin who’s gradually feeling like she’s trapped within a mind that contains some worrisome possibilities, and the rising panic and fear tangible in her performance heightens the feeling that this isn’t a typical Flash story where things are solved by a bit of hand-waving and a healthy dose of compassion. I would have liked the story to reach more of a concrete conclusion within this episode as it doesn’t cut off at a particularly satisfying end-point, but it’s clear that The Flash is holding a lot of its cards back until next week’s fully Killer Frost-centric instalment. In the respect that it needs to tee up that pivotal change for the character and establish the inevitability crucial to the gradual emergence of Caitlin’s nefarious alter ego, Shade aces the task with flying colours, putting an important friendship under a welcome amount of focus while always keeping its eye firmly on Caitlin’s conflict first and foremost.
If there’s one element of Shade that really misses the mark, then it’s the titular villain. The freak of the week format isn’t exactly conducive to complex characters, as we’ve seen time and time again, but The Flash has established a respectable base-line of clearly establishing the villain’s motivation (however thin), which has allowed its bad guys to mostly fulfil their purpose. While Shade does stray from the template in that he’s not the underpinning foe of the episode, the fact that he fails even the low bar that The Flash set is kind of pitiful. Admittedly, he’s a distraction – his role is blunter than most. Yet it’s still a huge wasted opportunity of a theoretically interesting set of powers – Shade has legitimately no character depth at all, despite an introduction that sets him up in the classical villain of the week mould with an establishment of his powers. We don’t even know his name, let alone his reasons for drinking Alchemy’s Kool Aid, and he gets about five lines of dialogue in one short scene. As much as circumstances grant Shade a freer pass than normal – there are more pressing villains to attend to, after all – surely The Flash could have clipped a minute off HR’s admittedly amusing antics to provide even the tiniest inch of depth for the character. As is, we have an episode named after a character who is a silhouette in every sense of the word.
Thankfully, Shade is not lacking elsewhere for villains. There’s the return of Doctor Alchemy after a few weeks off, and we’re re-introduced to the elements that made him a creepy, if not terrifying presence in his introduction – the strangely formal vocabulary, the cult that perpetually sounds him. Alchemy serves a very clear purpose in this episode, which doesn’t centre much around character development – while it would have been nice to see a few leaps forward in his identity mystery (and, no, Flash, I’m not buying that Julian red herring) or a couple of hints about his plan for the world, it’s just about enough to have Alchemy as we know him in the context of the much higher stakes that Wally’s involvement provides. Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that Alchemy isn’t the only Big Bad to appear here.
Shade concludes with the dramatic entrance of none other than our second Big Bad of the year, Savitar – or, as he introduces himself, the God of Speed. Like just about every viewer, I had my reservations about more speedster villains – after all, Zoom’s story ended up as an uninspired retread of season one’s ideas. And as we learned with Zoom, memorable introductions are only one part of the jigsaw. Yet it’s hard not to sit up and take notice of Savitar, who makes one hell of an impression in the final minutes of the episode. As expected, he’s as fast as hell, so fast that he appears to Barry in much the same way as Barry appears to everyone else. Yet it’s more exciting to note the specific choices made to distinguish Savitar from the increasingly bloated crop of speedster foes. For one, there’s his design; a disconcertingly monstrous suit of souped-up armour that ensures that Savitar barely resembles a human. There’s the heavy emphasis on physicality, as Savitar is a towering foe who grips Barry like a rag-doll. And there’s that telling introductory line of ‘the God of Speed’ – given all the hints that this final scene stacks up of his inhumanity and inability to be seen by non-speedsters, who’s to say that Savitar isn’t telling the truth? It’s a really striking introduction, and while time will tell as to whether Savitar becomes a compelling foe in the long run, it’s hard not to be excited by the new possibilities.
Shade is a solid episode that wisely places the spotlight on the dichotomy of Wally and Caitlin as they grapple with their superpowered destinies before kicking the arc plot back into high gear with the memorable introduction of a new villain. The episode’s meta-of-the-week is woefully underdeveloped and the episode occasionally feels a little bloated, but it’s a strong continuation nonetheless as we work up to the one-two punch of the crossover and winter finale.