The Flash: 307 “Killer Frost” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Season three of The Flash has been an unusual ride so far. It’s been a reasonably rewarding run of episodes that’s returned with success to the lower stakes and character focus of the show’s origins. Yet it’s not been a truly great season thus far, and that’s because the season hadn’t truly figured out what kind of story it was. Episodes have played with themes of power, and the idea of fate versus free will leading off Barry’s decision to change time and create Flashpoint, but with a shifting focus and myriad themes, season three hadn’t quite coalesced into a satisfying whole as of yet in the way the previous two seasons did relatively early on. Thankfully, this week’s episode tied it all together, pulling together all of the season’s scattershot themes and providing one satisfying answer.
Killer Frost is the strongest episode of season three so far by quite some distance, possessing an emotional power and laser focus that the previous episodes had lacked. It contains a little bit of everything that makes this show tick, from legitimate peril to heartfelt optimism to compelling character development, but it does far more than just dip into everything that worked in the past. In fact, this episode works because it tells a story that could only fit into this season, with a renewed focus upon the wider ensemble as a character in of itself alongside satisfying arcs about three members of Team Flash who have been thrust into a new paradigm this season. What is the story of season three of The Flash at its heart? As Killer Frost answers, it’s not just Barry’s story; it’s also Team Flash’s.
Before we dive into the Killer Frost of it all, The Flash had some unfinished business from last week to deal with. Killer Frost dives right back in where last episode left off, allowing us to get acquainted with the new Big Bad, Savitar, in greater detail. While the opening does crib a lot of its imagery, such as the sight of a speedster dragging Barry about like a rag doll to show its dominance, from Zoom’s introduction last season, there are plenty of intriguing divergences from the formula with Savitar from the off. The most interesting is that he’s invisible to everyone but Barry (not just Barry, as it turns out, but more on that later). It’s a neat trick on a visual level, making Savitar a far more disconcerting threat than most as the other powered-up members of Team Flash are put at an immediate disadvantage, but it’s arguably more interesting that this particular aspect serves as a way to isolate Barry in his fight. The creators claimed that Savitar would ‘wage psychological warfare’ on Barry in pre-season interviews, and the way in which Savitar’s abilities render Barry helpless and drained of the help that his support system can normally provide is definitely a worthy spin on the formula.
Beyond that introduction, though, Killer Frost really begins to deepen the Savitar mystery, crafting this new villain into a presence that’s entirely different from anything we’ve previously seen. Savitar’s status as the revered god of a mystical cult, someone so powerful than even Alchemy bends his knee to him (more on him later!) who is spoken of solely in hushed and somewhat awed tones by his followers lends the villain an imposing sense gravitas and mysticism, substantiating Savitar’s boasts as something to take more seriously than just the rantings of a madman. Whereas the previous two villains we’ve had were lone wolves who were fuelled by self-interest, Savitar is inextricably linked to a group, and is gunning for a much grander agenda that goes beyond individual greed. It’s not only an interesting way to differentiate him from the glut of prior speedsters – it also serves as a relevant parallel to this week’s presentation of Team Flash, a splintering group who eventually rally behind a powerful speedster.
The real core of Killer Frost, however, is the presentation of Team Flash, a collective that began to crumble this week under the weight of Barry’s meddling with the timeline. The central embodiment of that fracture is, of course, Caitlin herself, who takes the spotlight here. The Flash already had a Killer Frost to work from with last season’s comics-faithful Earth-2 counterpart, but Killer Frost wisely eschews the exaggerated villainy of that Killer Frost and opts for a more nuanced, emotional approach that fits the overall themes and grounded tone of the episode. Placing Caitlin as the villain of the piece created a difficult balancing act between overplaying her villainy and making her into too much of a victim figure, but Killer Frost walks that tightrope expertly. It’s a far more complex story than ‘Caitlin goes evil’, and it’s all the better for it – in fact, it can be said to ultimately shape up as a story about how Caitlin can’t be a villain, as Killer Frost’s role quickly diverges from the typical villainous story.
Her agenda, for example, has nothing to do with harming innocent people or changing the world or any other typical villainous plan, solely revolving around her quest to remove the power that’s consuming her – a desperate, but ultimately well-intentioned attempt to claim back some control of her fate after playing the role of the tragic victim in past episodes. And whereas Earth-2’s Killer Frost was defined by sadistic glee and enjoyment of her powers, the defining attribute of Killer Frost is anger – at the manifestation of powers that come bound up with an evil personality shift, and at Barry for creating the circumstances where she could become this persona. Arguably what defines a villain is that they have a clear worldview and know exactly what they want to accomplish – and by that definition, Caitlin can’t be said to be a villain here, as her central plan is evidently fuelled by irrational desperation; a desire to do anything to bring back stability and hope to her life. Danielle Panabaker had an imposing role to fill here, yet she admirably stepped up to the plate, seamlessly shifting between the bitterness and increasing vindictiveness of Killer Frost and the terrified innocence of Caitlin while constantly keeping a handle on the vital precept that the real Caitlin and her goodness always lies beyond Killer Frost’s villainous façade.
Another aspect of Killer Frost that worked really well was the fact that her bitterness was essentially justified. Caitlin’s rant to Barry that he broke her life and made her into this villain is absolutely justifiable, getting to the core of the selfishness and destructiveness of Barry’s decision to create Flashpoint in a way this season hadn’t managed to do yet. Killer Frost, ultimately, is the manifestation of Barry’s mistakes, and the episode built upon that elsewhere to show the wider corrosive effect that Barry had upon the lives of his friends by changing the timeline. Killer Frost picked up on a dangling plot thread from the top of the season to further this, which was the change to the timeline that saw Cisco’s brother Dante die in a freak car accident rather than live on as Cisco’s loving brother as he did originally.
As Killer Frost more or less correctly states, that’s the most destructive change that Barry brought about, and it was high time the show confronted that and called Barry out for erasing a crucial part of Cisco’s life. Importantly, though, Killer Frost allowed Barry to truly feel the weight of his decisions in that regard, with Cisco’s response proving more challenging than expected – Carlos Valdes does a great job of communicating Cisco’s shell-shock and unprocessed grief throughout, which really sells just how irrevocably Barry has broken the lives of his friends with his decisions. This was something the show absolutely needed to do, illustrating the tangible consequences in order to move forward – ultimately, as Barry’s pep talk with Iris shows, it’s an important way to lead to substantial character growth and increased maturity as Barry grapples with his ability to change time weighed against the inevitable forces of fate.
At the core of Killer Frost were questions that have been percolating through the entire season: can you fix what’s broken, and should you even try? The episode offers a satisfyingly nuanced answer, refusing to offer a blanket approach to the issue to show the difficulty in placing each character’s conflicts in a neat box. For Caitlin, the answer is that it’s possible to fix what’s broken, because it wasn’t truly broken in the first place. That’s an idea that’s communicated incredibly effectively in the episode’s most riveting scene, which is also one of its simplest: Barry challenging Killer Frost to seal her fate as the villain by stabbing him in the heart. It brings together the key themes and character arcs of the episode into one genuinely tense situation, pushing Caitlin’s evil as far as it goes before, in an affirmation of her innate goodness, her self-control is regained, while Barry’s steadfastness and selflessness in helping her allows him to compensate for that mistake to some extent.
Meanwhile, for Wally, Killer Frost offers its most unabashedly optimistic story – after some difficulties, Joe’s leap of faith in cutting Wally out leads to a happy ending, as Wally gets to become the speedster he’s always dreamed of, gleefully relishing his newfound power in a reminder that some situations can just work out the right way, with a lot of hope and a little bit of luck. However, for Cisco, it’s clear that not everything can be fixed. In an atypically brief scene, his confused psychological state is summed up with a conflicted ‘I don’t know’, illustrating how Cisco is deeply uncertain about his ability to process this situation and move past it. In an episode that details Barry’s messy mistakes coming home to roost in a tangible way, it would have felt too neat, and too easy for Barry, to have every one of his errors completely fixed by the end. It’s also the most realistic that Barry’s change to Cisco’s life, the only true emotional wound of the three, would be the hardest to rectify – after all, it’s almost impossible to get a true handle on grief and hurt, especially arising from a situation as complicated as this.
The conclusion of these three stories, with their differing outcomes and tones, was to that there’s no panacea to fix all your mistakes in one fell swoop: sometimes, life is messy, and you just have to deal with what you’re given and simply do your best to make things right. That’s Barry’s journey here, and it’s a truly satisfying progression from the self-absorbed, unwittingly destructive place he started the season in, one that allows him to figure out what matters and learn from those lessons. Fittingly, then, Barry’s final act in the episode is fuelled by all that he’s realised, in giving up his job at CCPD in order to preserve Caitlin’s identity. It illustrates how he’s grown and matured as a result of his Flashpoint experiences, prizing the livelihood and happiness of his friends and putting his own desires aside for once, understanding once and for all that his own needs have to be weighed up against others. By challenging Barry and working towards a place where he’s not absolved of those decisions, Killer Frost earns that pay-off and earns its assertion of Barry as the selfless hero once more, healing some of the divides that had been implicit in Team Flash since the start of the season and ending up in, for all of the mess that’s left over, a better place than before.
Circling back to our villains, finally – Killer Frost has one last sting in the tale in that regard, as Julian hears a voice in his head that leads him to Savitar… who requests that Julian become his acolyte, Doctor Alchemy once more, with the Alchemy mask in Julian’s office confirming that he’s been the masked foe all along. Okay, no-one was shocked by this reveal. The Flash has conditioned us to expect the new guy with a hazy back-story to be the bad guy, and Julian’s behaviour has been nothing if not suspicious from the start. Once again, the bad guy mystery is summed up by Occam’s razor: the simplest answer was true. And in some respects, that’s a bit disappointing, because the previous two identity reveals, if not stunning, were executed in a way that gave them a little more oomph and shock value. Yet despite the predictability, it’s still a reveal with merit.
The stinger provides us with a catch to Julian’s status as Savitar’s loyal servant, which is that he seems to be reluctant to take up the mantle, intimidated into becoming Alchemy instead of choosing to do so out of free will. Time will tell to see if this plays out as more than just the standard Darth Vader reluctant servant narrative (odds on Julian killing Savitar at the end of the season in redemption?), but it’s an interesting caveat that complicates the reveal a tad. And the reveal, although predictable, at least ensures that we won’t be diving into another long-winded identity mystery where the ‘who is it?’ guessing game takes precedent and leaves no room for characterisation. With Alchemy, the mystery doesn’t seem to be the point, and that’s a little refreshing, showing how The Flash is genuinely trying to subvert its old practices and focus more on character over gimmickry. It’s not a reveal that ticks the shock factor box, but there’s real promise in Julian being Alchemy, and an unpredictability as to just where it’s all going to go next with so many competing agendas in play.
Yet The Flash will have to park Savitar and Alchemy for a week, because there’s some more pressing business to deal with. Next episode, it’s the start of the crossover, with Team Arrow, the Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl heading over to Central City to battle the Dominators in Invasion! This is going to be fun.
Killer Frost is an emotional, thrilling and thoughtful episode of The Flash, with an intimate scope and sophisticated character arcs that bring the season’s disparate themes and journeys into a satisfying whole, alongside propelling the season arc forward with big moments for both Savitar and Alchemy. It’s the best episode of The Flash since the last one Kevin Smith directed.