The Flash: 312 “Untouchable” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Superhero fiction loves pitting hero (or anti-hero) against hero. It’s an irresistible premise to have two do-gooders who work for the same goal to lock horns – last year’s two biggest superhero blockbusters were predicated on typical allies becoming enemies and doing battle. The Flash has even indulged in the trope itself in the crossover episodes that have pitted the CW’s DC heroes against each other. Multiple heroes in the same scene just breeds the question – who’s better?
The latest episode, Untouchable, tackled that question head-on right from the beginning, acknowledging the inevitable inter-Flash rivalry with a Flash versus Kid Flash footrace. It’s a really fun sequence – a peppy bit of wish-fulfilment that establishes the jovial opposition of their partnership and Joe’s place as the newly conflicted parent who can’t choose, and one that answers the ‘who would win?’ question so you don’t have to in a way that succinctly sets out Barry and Wally’s arcs for the episode as trainer and trainee. But most importantly, the stories it sets up have nothing to do with rivalry. The Flash isn’t interested in pitting Barry and Wally against each other for any sustained period of time. Their character arcs are all about co-operation and learning to become better heroes from each other – and while their concluding heroic feats differ in size, with Barry’s phasing of the train as evidently the most impressive of the two, they don’t differ in value. Untouchable doesn’t scale unprecedented heights in any way, but it captures the most important part of this show in Barry and Wally’s, above all the posturing and convoluted sci-fi plots: heart.
It’s impressive to see how far The Flash’s unapologetic earnestness will carry it. Untouchable doesn’t quite have the light-heartedness and tightness of structure of last week, but it feels of a part with that breezier episode because it always picks the most optimistic option in its stories, and casts an eye on the simple fact that this show is made up of characters who like and support one another. Looping back to Wally and Barry, their story is consciously an echo of the days in season one where an oblivious Barry was trained by the very first Harrison Wells. Wally is that same earnest hero Barry was – eager to please to the point of becoming destructively headstrong, and self-aggrandising when that emotional approach to heroics leads to failure. There’s been some criticism that Wally’s arc is a retread of Barry’s, but I think that similarity is proving to be a real benefit, because it crafts Wally’s story into one of failed expectations – unlike Barry in those days, Wally has a shadow to outrun. His frustrations are more powerful than Barry’s, in a way, because he’s following a path that should work yet doesn’t, and therefore his path towards finding his own individuality as a hero as opposed to replicating Barry feels like an impactful and original character arc that’s adding another compelling layer to this season’s ruminations on heroism.
Barry’s arc runs on a satisfying parallel in many ways – he’s also trying to replicate a standard set well before him, except it’s that of a trainer instead of a trainee. The dichotomy between the kind of exploitation practiced by sheep-in-wolves-clothing like Wells and Zolomon to train up Barry and the more emotionally involved mentorship Barry needs to fuel Wally is a simple one, and it would have helped to have the differences in these kinds of mentoring explored in greater detail. Nonetheless, it’s a strong source of drama, and it leads to the kind of emotional breakthrough that Barry quite rarely receives. In realising that he was unequivocally wrong and taking the full responsibility to change, Barry shows a refreshing maturity of character that indicates that the messy Flashpoint arc perhaps amounted to some real growth, and it proves that this ‘student becomes the teacher arc’ is the right place to take his character – it’s a story that forces him to grapple with his own power and how it was shaped, taking advantage of The Flash’s growing history while pushing it forward past the rehashes of old mistakes.
Another important leap forward comes with Joe, who has been slightly left behind this season even as the focus on his children has increased. Untouchable rectifies Season 3B’s most frustrating mistake, finally, as Joe finds out about Iris’ death, and it’s a great relief to have him looped in on the situation, which punctures the irritating veil of secrecy that threatened to derail the arc’s momentum. His response is the kind of heightened, intense drama that the DC show so often shy away from, with Jesse L Martin tapping into his roiling confusion, fear and anger to give the moment a genuine sense of emotional heft that, if not justifying the veil of secrecy, then at least makes a good case for the reveal to be staggered out so it could be given time to breathe. While the rest of the episode doesn’t follow up on his volatile mix of emotions to the extent it perhaps should have, depriving The Flash of a chance to tackle some punchy and powerful drama that would have given this episode a greater relation to the main series arc, it does re-establish Joe in his fitting place in the show’s pecking order: as the voice of reason, who shuts down rather than encouraging secrets. The fact that he was brought back to that role, which brought his character to fan favourite status in season one, in a genuinely convincing way that linked to his growing inner life with Cecile (an arc that, if lacking in substance, gives Joe something else to do outside his family matters), is a pleasing statement of The Flash’s increasingly strong handle on the individual strengths that lie within its ensemble cast.
Playing out adjacent to these main stories was Caitlin and Julian’s contrasting efforts to process the difficult relationship between themselves and their actions, and whether they were culpable for actions they didn’t participate in. It’s a pairing that works nicely as the characters are natural foils to one another – Caitlin as the optimistic but more outwardly vulnerable one, with Julian as the ruder and gruffer one hiding his pain deeper below – and their stories allow for The Flash to pick up some threads that had been dropped at midseason with Killer Frost and Alchemy. The brief re-emergence of Killer Frost is an (ahem) chilling reminder of the danger that lurks just an inch beneath the surface in STAR Labs, potently establishing Caitlin’s precipitous state to set up the inevitable fall to come, and it’s a small arc that links well into the main Yorkin story as it’s Iris’ near-death experience that sparks Caitlin’s latest struggle, lending the subplot an important additional relevance.
Julian’s own story is simultaneously slighter, in that it receives less of a focus and a less clear conclusion, but also more interesting given the Alchemy issue is one that the show has only briefly addressed since the mid-season break, so Julian’s guilt allows for the character’s insecurities and fears to be explored further as his gradual humanisation continues. The gradual approach towards Julian ensures that he still feels like the character we met in episode two, simply with greater reasoning for his actions. However, Julian never really reckons with Yorkin as a threat despite his clearly established role in his origin, and their lack of connection is a curiously missed opportunity given how much it would have added. Likewise, I’m not certain about the burgeoning romantic relationship between Julian and Caitlin, as it seems to be unfolding. Their dynamic is a dramatically interesting one and the actors have chemistry, but it feels as if Caitlin is being boxed into the same kind of arc she always receives where she’s defined by a doomed romance, when a more platonic, supportive friendship between the two would arguably be a more interesting and original path to follow There’s room for it to work, as Untouchable shows with their entertaining scenes together, but truth be told, it’s not a particularly necessary story.
Meanwhile, the meta of the week was Clive Yorkin, and, well… he does his job. Untouchable continues The Flash’s trend of using its metahuman villains for a clearly defined character purpose as opposed to their threat being the point, and Yorkin’s role as a catalyst for each of the characters to consider their own issues is effective – every conflict in the episode can be traced back to him, which ensures a greater coherence to everything even as it becomes seemingly disparate. Still, it’s a shame to see powers that are genuinely interesting on a visual level, and a concept that has the potential to become sinister as it does in the brief scene where Yorkin invades Iris and Barry’s house, are used on a blank slate of a character. Thinly-written villains of the week are nothing new for comic book TV – I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve raised the complaint in these reviews. And Yorkin is certainly better than some, given that he also has a defined motivation with his pursuit of the cops that took him down in Flashpoint (quite why he’s bothered about what happened to an alternate version of himself is unclear, but hey, he’s a villain). It’s just a shame to see that, while the character work continues to be thoughtfully written and engaging, there’s a part of this show that seems to be written entirely on rails. The Flash is doing fine in this regard, but it’s shown that it can do much better.
Untouchable may be a quiet midseason episode, but for the first time in as many weeks, it finishes on a proper cliffhanger to rocket the show into the next instalment. And what a cliffhanger it is. We can nitpick and say it comes out of nowhere, or that the information imparted will mean nothing to the regular viewer at home. Or we can acknowledge that Jesse Quick dashing through an interdimensional portal to tell Kid Flash that her father is being held captive by Grodd in Gorilla City is the best, silliest cliffhanger that The Flash has had in ages. As premises go, this one’s pretty irresistible, and it’s fun to see the show be so completely unapologetic about how crazy it is, revelling in the audacity as opposed to making excuses for it. See you next week, then, for the first of what promises to be a truly bananas two-parter set in the planet city of the apes…
Untouchable breaks little new ground and shies away from some potentially exciting and challenging material to pick easier options, but it’s nonetheless a solid episode that tells a handful of engaging stories about characters grappling with power and heroism in all of its forms, with a nifty special-effects finale with some of the strongest visuals in quite some time.