The Flash: 309 “The Present” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Fittingly for a season that began in an alternate timeline created by Barry changing the pivotal moment of his childhood, season three of The Flash has been all about the past, and the need to move forward from events that would seem to define these characters as they are today in order to carve out their own identity in the present. Barry has accepted the need to move on from his parents, Cisco has struggled to process the grief from his dead brother, while Caitlin and Wally have struggled to reconcile past incarnations of Killer Frost and Kid Flash with their current selves as their powers have developed.
The midseason finale, The Present indicated just how The Flash will move on from those themes in the coming episodes. If the first run of season three was all about the past and the necessity in not allowing past events to overrule the present, then the second half looks like it will explore the future, as we head into the winter break with an ominous prophecy and a concerning glimpse of coming events hanging over the characters. In a sense, then, it’s a transitionary episode, but The Present hands over the baton from the Flashpoint arc to the next arc with a consummate focus on character and theme above all, powerfully concluding this first half of season three while offering plenty of revelations to add intrigue to the arc plot with Savitar. It’s an intimate midseason finale, with swathes of the story set inside STAR Labs away from the typical city locales, but the intimacy allows the episode to really clarify this idea of season three as a deeply personal story that dials back the multiverse-ending scope of the Zoom story.
Barry’s story was at the core of The Present’s transition towards a focus on the future, so it’s no surprise that it’s a bit of a tough week for everyone’s favourite problematic hero. There’s no better cure for a tough week than a sage mentor who can provide some useful words of wisdom, and The Present ticked that box by bringing back John Wesley Shipp’s Jay Garrick for his most substantial appearance yet. As a passing note, one of the greatest things about this episode is that it chooses to introduce Jay in the midst of a battle against none other than the Trickster of Earth-3. It’s a fantastic little scene that gives us a tiny extra morsel of Mark Hamill’s gleefully committed insanity, alongside the shameless fanservice of seeing the Flash and Trickster of the 1990 show reunited, over twenty-five years on, still battling each other to the death. The Trickster cameo is of no real consequence to the plot, but it’s such a memorable vignette that it certainly warrants a mention, even in this packed-out midseason finale.
Onto Jay, then. Season three has already allowed Barry to team up with fellow speedsters Kid Flash and Jesse Quick, so it was about time that the Golden and Silver Age Flash joined forces. Initially, their partnership is used for thrills in a brief but punchy fight scene in which we jump between Barry’s curb-stomp defeat of Doctor Alchemy and Jay Garrick’s ferocious beatdown at the hands of Savitar, a sequence that compensates for its weightless special effects with an ambitiously cruel sense of brutality as Jay is slammed into walls and thrown off buildings. As with everything in The Present, however, the Jay-Barry team-up serves a character-based purpose first and foremost.
For the first time since the real Jay’s entrance, The Flash has time to shade in just who jay Garrick is, and how he relates to Barry’s travails as a speedster, and The Present creates an engaging dynamic that’s just a little bit offbeat, a couple of steps outside definitive categories. It’s a classic mentor-mentee relationship in a certain sense, as Jay is placed as the wiser and more knowledgeable of the two, educating Barry from experience of his own mistakes, but there’s an undercurrent of confusion there, a dissonance in understanding between the two men of what they actually mean to each other. It’s the fact that Jay wears the face of Barry’s dead father that makes this new partnership so deeply weird at its core, and in a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue, it’s made clear that Barry finds this a little disconcerting too. Therefore, it’s almost, but not quite, a father-son relationship, with Jay’s resemblance to Henry representing yet another echo of the past to Barry that he must push through and define on its own terms in the present day. It’s an interestingly nuanced relationship that’s too harsh and too subtextually unusual to qualify as a father-son relationship, but too personal to qualify as a typical mentor-mentee relationship. Either way, one thing is clear: John Wesley Shipp is great as Jay Garrick, mixing in the warmth of Henry Allen with a gruffness and slight emotional distance that reminds us this is someone Barry barely knows. It was a shrewd move to make Shipp the Flash again, and I’m looking forward to see Jay’s story continue to play out in the season’s back half.
Moving briefly away from Barry, though, and there’s plenty more to chew on in terms of the wider ensemble. Undoubtedly one of the most interesting plotlines here was Julian’s, as The Present took a deep dive into the revelation that he is Alchemy. The wrinkle that Julian is the man behind the helmet, but isn’t aware of his actions as he’s being possessed by Savitar is just good storytelling sense, especially in an arc that threatens to fall into repetition elsewhere. It differentiates Julian instantly from the conniving and deceitful ‘enemies within’ of Reverse Flash and Zoom, and The Present builds upon that individually by providing compelling reasons to feel sympathy for Julian because of his predicament. As we discover, he’s just as hamstrung by the pull of redefining the past as the main characters, driven to explore this legend of the Philosopher’s Stone (I’m assuming this was the sole reason for Tom Felton’s casting, not that I’m complaining) by the promise of reuniting with his dead sister, and the similarity of his situation to that of Cisco’s, for example, makes it far easier to understand his suffering and feel sorry for him despite his actions as Alchemy.
The exact nature of his status as Alchemy, too, as someone who has been crafted into the tangible image of someone else as Savitar’s agent on Earth, sapped of all his individuality as well as his own self-control, heightens this tragic image of Julian as a passenger in his own life who has become reactive to outside events for the most part, even justifying his abrasive and controlling nature to Barry to some extent. This newly sympathetic characterisation requires a strong performance to really sell it as an extension of the character we already know, and Tom Felton proves adept at the challenge, conveying genuine and incontrovertible panic and fear at the discovery of his actions that naturally flows from his typically cruel and dismissive attitude. Julian’s new status as a semi-member of Team Flash who’s aware of Barry’s identity and seems well on the way to ingratiating himself into the inner circle is a really interesting new turn for his character, and there’s a lot of potential for conflict between his friends and his controller when Savitar resurfaces.
Another story that was primarily concerned with the past was Cisco’s, which felt like a definitive conclusion to his story of grappling with the grief from Dante’s Flashpoint-inflicted death this half-season. It’s a story that’s very simple in its structure, offering the age-old idea of temptation followed by consequences followed by sacrifice, but the simplicity works, paring away a lot of Cisco’s dislikeable characteristics to just focus on his difficulty in leaving his grief behind, a particular take on his conflict that’s clearly on-theme for this episode. Carlos Valdes does some great work here, believably depicting Cisco’s stunned confusion and tentative joy at seeing his brother back and then bringing power and significance to the moment where Cisco moves on from the grief by shutting the box. His story also dovetails nicely with the Savitar storyline – it’s a clear statement of intent that the villain is temporarily defeated not by a physical beatdown, but by an emotional decision on Cisco’s part to move forward and not let the past define him.
As mentioned, this is an episode that transitions between the Flashpoint-influenced exploration of the past to an exploration of the future, so it’s fitting that The Present begins to dabble in these themes outside of Barry’s direct confrontations with his own future. Wally’s storyline is particularly forward-looking, dealing directly with his potential as Kid Flash, and it’s another plot that benefits from a stripped-down feel, boiling down to Wally showing his potential, HR recognising that potential and eventually Joe being persuaded that he shouldn’t hold back Wally’s future any longer. Each step on the line is impactful and justified by the characters’ particular viewpoints (Joe as the patiarch who wants what’s best for Wally, and HR as the ‘people person’ who can spot potential a mile off), and The Present makes sure to keep moving forward fast, which means we don’t linger long on plot points like Joe’s protectiveness of Wally that have become tired from overuse. Wally’s story also culminates with a really great turning point for the character as he opens up a present to find his Kid Flash suit, thus unlocking his potential and allowing him the future he’s always wanted as a heroic speedster. Keiynan Lonsdale’s performance has been galvanised by the opportunity to play into the familiar characterisation of Kid Flash as the hero with childlike enthusiasm at his powers, and he’s so likeable in his scenes where he embraces his powers that it’s easy to forget how frustrating the character was just a few episodes ago.
Ultimately, for all its explorations of how past and future relate to Team Flash, The Present is primarily concerned with Barry and Savitar. Thankfully, with Savitar, The Present begins to clear away some of the mysticism of his introduction and offers some specificity to the threat he poses to Barry, even if these specifics don’t wholly hit the mark. What’s most interesting about Savitar is his seemingly intimate understanding of the future and ability to see the trajectory of all these characters, which is encapsulated in the prophecy that will likely become a driving force of the latter parts of this season: that ‘one shall betray the others, one shall fall and one shall suffer a fate worse than death’. It’s here where Savitar is at both his most intimidating and most distinct as a villain, as someone who knows how events will pan out and can effortlessly facilitate their coming to pass. That’s a legitimately imposing threat, and one that’s appropriate for season three’s explorations of control, as Barry/Team Flash’s lack of control is contrasted with Savitar’s status as the puppet-master, someone who can look down upon his enemies with foreknowledge. What gives me a little pause, however, is the idea that Savitar wants to take revenge on Barry for trapping him in the future. It’s not a ‘bad’ motivation per se, but it’s very similar to the Reverse Flash’s story of having been wronged by a future Barry, and the idea that a version of Barry we haven’t met is responsible for Savitar’s rampage is a little flat dramatically, sapping this current Barry of any accountability in creating this threat, which feels like a missed opportunity in a season full of problems that Barry himself created. Savitar becomes a more interesting and threatening villain here, but there’s a concern here that he’ll slip into tired tropes in the future – let’s hope that The Flash keeps going with the more original characteristics here above all.
And then there’s the question of that future flashforward to five months ahead, in which Barry witnesses a freed Savitar kill Iris. It’s difficult not to be reminded of season four of Arrow with the malleable promise of a death on the way by the time of the season finale, but there’s a lot more rhyme and reason to this particular development from the off than the grave mystery, which was chaotic by those creators’ admission. For one, it introduces some intriguing new ideas into the equation for the second half of the season to play with, relating to fate and destiny versus free will. These are classic sci-fi ideas, but with good reason – they’re open to interpretation so there’s infinite ways to put an original spin on them, and they speak naturally to questions of control that The Flash explored with the Flashpoint story, but instead focusing on to what extent we can control what we know is coming. It’s a potentially fascinating conflict to open up for Barry that acts as the flipside of his journey in the second half of the season, and it provides urgency and stakes to the season with the ticking clock of Iris’ death ensuring that there’s now a real, underlying tension to events now, even with innocuous scenes of Barry and Iris together. And secondly, there’s more reason to have faith in this development because The Flash follows on from it with an optimistic and hopeful approach, rather than retreating further into angst, coming up with a powerful reason for Barry to appreciate what he has and live life day by day. Barry’s instincts here aren’t to retreat into cold distance from Iris with fear of what will happen to her, but instead are to strengthen that relationship in the present day to make the most of what he has, and that’s an important statement of intent coming off the back of a development that could have (and still might, admittedly) driven The Flash further into gloominess.
The Present isn’t lacking for peril and angst, so it’s surprising, and refreshing, that the episode culminates not with an ominous cliffhanger as with past years, but instead with an extended sequence where the characters just hang out and enjoy each other’s company while celebrating Christmas. It’s a really effective way to convey the strength of the friendships that Barry now has in the present, as each character at the party makes some progress against their own conflicts such as Caitlin using her frost powers to create snow for the carollers, or even Julian admitting his loneliness and showing up at the household to spend time with people. Moreover, it works as a way for The Flash to end 2016 on a clear note of conclusiveness and happiness, putting focus upon the sheer likeability of these characters and their ability to help one another out of their individual struggles by working together. How long this will last remains to be seen. But as this episode makes clear, the fact that this happiness exists at all is good enough. There’s no reason to fear what’s to come… right?
The Present is a gripping, emotional midseason finale where the characters are visited by the ghosts of Christmas past and future (it took me a while to come up with that one), bringing the season’s themes thus far to a satisfying midpoint while adding some urgency and specificity to the threat of Savitar. Despite a rocky start, The Flash is going into 2017 at full speed.