The Flash: 310 “Borrowing Problems from the Future” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
We left Barry Allen in 2016 in the middle of a conundrum. Faced with a vision of Iris West being murdered by Savitar a few months into the future, Barry was forced to confront that age-old question that no-one can agree on – is the future truly set? Do we have free will to craft the future how we see fit, or do all of our attempts just form part of a set path to an inevitable destination?
The midseason premiere, Borrowing Problems from the Future, made it clear that that aforementioned question of whether the future can be changed is at the front of The Flash’s mind now, and will remain so for the end of the season. We’re done, at least for the time being, with Flashpoint and all of the preoccupations with fixing the past that Barry’s timeline snafu brought up – there was even a new monologue at the start of the episode to cement the pivot towards Iris’ death as the driving plot point for the rest of the season. And as the title suggests, this meant that The Flash’s first episode of 2017 was principally focused with foreshadowing and laying the groundwork for the fireworks to come, laying out a definitive roadmap for the rest of the season until the fateful day of May 23 (which lines up neatly with the probable season finale date, because the CW knows scheduling). However, Borrowing Problems is by no means an unsatisfying episode. It’s a solid return for the series that accomplishes a lot of legwork that will pay dividends later on down the line, with a handful of satisfying and impactful dramatic moments that ensure that the episode packs enough punch in its own right. However, it does walk some familiar and frustrating paths sometimes, with a couple of slightly undercooked storylines that fall by the wayside while the main storylines are busy borrowing problems from the future.
It’s widely acknowledged that The Flash at its worst involves all the characters brooding and keeping secrets from one another so that artificial drama can be stoked up from behaviour that makes no logical sense. With that in mind, the first fifteen-odd minutes of Borrowing Problems from the Future would seem to raise plenty of alarm bells. We resume with Barry having disregarded Jay’s sage wisdom from last episode, wracked with nightmares and prone to inexplicable bouts of abrasiveness that alienates everyone around him. It’s, at the start, the very worst path the show could have walked with Barry’s vision of Iris’ death. And in that sense, it’s reminiscent of one of last season’s biggest missteps that happened around midseason too, which was Barry’s break-up with Patty over his refusal to reveal his secret identity. Both storylines, at their starting point, present a version of Barry Allen who goes against everything that made the character popular in the first place, and who seems to learn absolutely nothing from the endless stream of wisdom that’s available to him. It’s a worrying start, even if the episode’s subplots are ticking over nicely in the background from the get-go.
Thankfully, that’s where the similarities with the Patty misstep end. That start soon gives way to a much more satisfying series of developments that shows a real, encouraging desire on The Flash’s past to move past the vicious cycles of frustrating storytelling it can sometimes fall into, and to forge something newer and more satisfying. Patty’s storyline was frustrating not just because it began with Barry brooding over a secret he refuses to reveal, but because it doggedly stuck to that presentation of Barry the entire way to the conclusion of Patty’s time on the show and demonstrated no self-awareness that the entire thing was making Barry look like an idiot. On the flipside, Borrowing Problems wrings as much drama as it can from Barry’s brooding secrecy – which, arguably, is still too much given how ill-fitting angst is as a driving emotion in this show – and then pulls the trigger midway through on revealing the secret first to Iris, and then to almost the entire team. Barry telling Iris, in particular, is a deeply relieving development. It maintains Barry’s likeability by demonstrating a willingness to listen to advice and acknowledge his mistakes, given that it comes after a brief pep talk by Caitlin about working together, and grants Iris far more agency in her own story than Patty had by allowing her to process the information on her own terms and then swiftly to define this upcoming event how she sees fit, instead of Barry patronisingly making all of these decisions on her behalf. Iris’ reaction is also well-judged – it realistically acknowledges the horror that news of this kind would elicit in anyone, but still maintains Iris’ emotional maturity and optimism in her gradual shift towards a more sanguine approach influenced by Barry’s more hopeful outlook by the end of the episode.
Likewise, swiftly telling the whole team is a smart move away from the pervasive focus on secret-keeping that has almost never made for satisfying drama on this show. The Flash is at its best when it focuses on a group of talented and empathetic people working together to solve problems, and Borrowing Problems from the Future takes a major step towards refocusing on that ideal principally with the swift way in which almost everyone finds out about Iris’ death, and then immediately sets to work on figuring out a way to prevent it. It enables the show to set about this season’s new driving storyline with an admirable efficiency instead of frustratingly dawdling at the start line, and the benefits of motoring ahead with the story in a way that’s reminiscent of season one’s satisfyingly streamlined storytelling are on display with the intriguing reveal of the newspaper headlines from the future that foreshadow a lot of what’s to come in the back half of the season.
The headlines tick off a lot of what we already know about the coming episodes from publicity, from the gorilla attack on Central City (episodes 13 & 14) to the appearance of Music Meister (as part of March’s musical crossover extravaganza with Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow), so it’s quite clearly an explicit roadmap for all of the big events leading up to the season finale, where we’ll presumably deal with Iris’ death, or, hopefully, the avoidance of it. It’s a smart move for the season on a handful of levels – it grants urgency to even tangential standalone episodes as they now have a wider relevance in proving or disproving Barry’s convictions, and for the hints that are more oblique, such as the return of Killer Frost and a ceremony for Joe at City Hall, there’s now an engaging undercurrent of mystery about the context of those events that could blow up at any time. Borrowing Problems doesn’t set out a path for absolutely every episode to follow, but it’s a development that presages an exciting back half of episodes by layering on a handful of ticking time bombs to be anticipated before the big event of Iris’ death.
The only mark against Borrowing Problems in this department is that it doesn’t wholly commit to the open communication and teamwork that runs throughout the second half of the episode. In essence, this comes down to the decision on Team Flash’s part to keep Iris’ impending death a secret from Joe. The justification uses such familiar and clichéd language for The Flash (the ‘it would break him’ rationale always comes across as an excuse instead of a reason), and it does slightly undermine the central message that everyone will need to work together to change the future. Most of all, though, it sets an inevitable outburst of drama when Joe finds out that seems predictable even from this early point in the story arc, meaning that there’s still one barrier to going full steam ahead with the quest to save Iris. The Flash learns a lot of lessons from its past in Borrowing Problems from the Future, but the Joe decision is a disappointing exception from that rule that sees the show continue to indulge some of its worst habits.
Spinning out from the central Iris story, there’s a lot to enjoy in the margins of Borrowing Problems from the Future. A definite success here was the first full appearance of Wally as Kid Flash in this timeline, which hit all the right notes as the first part of his own, extended path towards becoming an experienced hero on Barry’s level. Given how Barry has become a more serious character as The Flash has progressed, Wally’s unabashed joy in his heroism is a breath of fresh air that nostalgically harkens back to the show’s early days when Barry was much the same, with Keiynan Lonsdale ably slipping into the role of Kid Flash by retaining the youthful earnestness that’s marked Wally’s major improvement as a character this season. While Wally has often ended up as a slightly whiny character who obstructs the story, Borrowing Problems is careful to keep the image of Wally as someone who just wants to do good and is confused by the strange barriers that Barry is placing to his progress – it’s accepted by just about every character that Wally has earned the right to be Kid Flash, and it is only Barry’s Iris-related objection to training him in this specific circumstance that’s the problem.
It’s a good way to build on the last few episodes’ long build-up to Wally taking on the mantle, and it’s equally as forward-looking as Iris’ story with Wally cemented as Barry’s partner by episode’s end with his satisfying hero moment in capturing Plunder. That, and it’s also a thrill to see the Flash and Kid Flash speeding through Central City and kicking ass on a regular basis. Speaking of Plunder, the villain of the week is unsurprisingly one of the more thinly-written additions to the Flash rogues’ gallery, defined solely by some fancy tech and an uncontrollable obsession with robbing banks. Plunder’s characterisation is obviously lacking, but given how the episode’s main focus lies elsewhere, and how transparent Plunder’s role is as a test dummy for Barry and Wally in their quest to change the future, it’s not a huge problem for the episode. Borrowing Problems’ main villain isn’t Plunder, but Savitar, with his future actions driving the main plot forward, so it doesn’t need a complex villain of the week in the way many other episodes do.
Another plotline that takes the developments of the first half of the season and runs with them is Julian’s, which effectively interrogates the state of his character now that he’s free of Savitar’s influence and offers up a new role for him in STAR Labs that’s reflective of the more sympathetic light that the revelations of the midseason finale put him in. His arc is relatively predictable, moving from abrasive denial of any trauma to a sincere recognition of his need to seek help, but it’s galvanised by the choice to pair him up with Caitlin, who makes for a natural foil to him with her own struggles to move on from her rampage as Killer Frost and to suppress the powers that have begun rearing their head again. It’s another example of Borrowing Problems’ presentation of characters giving one another a helping hand out of their struggles, as Julian’s practical assistance to Caitlin is contrasted with her compassion that leads her to offer him a place in a team to which he can belong. In the long term, it’s not entirely clear just how Julian will slot into STAR Labs given how sizeable Team Flash has become, but it makes sense to keep Tom Felton in a significant role with how quickly he’s found a place in the show’s ensemble, and there’s a lot to be explored further in Julian’s character now that the mystery that shrouded his character in the first half of the season has been cleared up.
The final subplot of Borrowing Problems is also its most inconsequential, which is HR’s attempt to prove his worth by getting the STAR Labs Museum off the ground. This does allow for some vital humanisation of HR on a level deeper than just goofy antics (as fun as Tom Cavanagh is as the jester figure of STAR Labs, HR’s shtick only has so much mileage), indicating his feelings of inadequacy as the outsider in a team of geniuses with defined roles while making the case for his own importance to the team as the inventor and ideas guy. It also allows for the funniest moments of the episode in the malfunctioning Cisco hologram that HR cooks up, injecting some lightness of heart into an opening act that could easily have sunk into dourness. Yet, curiously, Borrowing Problems seems to lose interest in the plotline as events heat up elsewhere, leading to a rushed resolution of HR’s personal conflict that lacks any substantiation in the script and a hand-waved reason for the STAR Labs Museum to stay open despite how much focus is placed on its emptiness at the beginning of the episode (poor HR, who finds out almost simultaneously that it’ll shut in a few months anyway). Borrowing Problems is a relatively cleanly structured episode that lacks the clutter many big episodes of The Flash can accrue, but HR’s plotline is a clear casualty of the fact that there’s simply things of more pressing importance going on elsewhere, and the episode doesn’t quite ever make the case for us to care about the storyline beyond the first act.
It’s important that the main takeaway from this episode is one of hope. The episode finishes on a more optimistic note than The Flash has done in quite some time, especially in the light of all the portentous events that lie ahead in the future, with all of the characters committed to the idea that a better future for the one laid out for them could exist. That’s not only encouraging for The Flash as it heads into the halfway point this season, sticking to the optimism that defined it from the start where it could have been easy for it to keep indulging its bad habits of angst and secret-keeping, it’s also one that feels timely, perhaps more so than the writers intended at the time when it was written last year. We’re in a time in history where we need superheroes, so it’s a comfort that The Flash is in a place where it can offer heroes in the Flash and Kid Flash who can step up to the plate and represent something more optimistic than we have right now. The future’s not set yet.
Borrowing Problems from the Future is a confident midseason premiere that indicates a clarity of direction for the rest of the season with the detailed roadmap it offers, while consciously diverging from past mistakes for storytelling that’s punchier and more emotionally mature. It struggles to make all of its subplots relevant, and falls into bad habits every now and then, but it’s an encouraging sign that The Flash has hung onto the form it built up by the end of last year.