The Flash: 316 “Into the Speed Force” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
In the final stages of season two, Barry Allen was cast into the Speed Force as a result of a failed attempt to give him back his powers. His trip was ultimately an uplifting one of emotional recovery as he learned to truly put the grief of his mother’s death behind him, and Barry left the Speed Force a wiser hero. Except, two episodes later, he went back in time and prevented his mother’s death from ever happening. He’s grown since then, but it’s pretty clear that Barry has a few more lessons to learn from the ethereal source of his powers. And with Wally cast into the Speed Force last week, what better time for a return trip?
The Runaway Dinosaur was a series highlight that nailed a portrayal of an exceptionally confusing part of the Flash mythology by maintaining its mystique while granting it human faces in the form of Barry’s family and friends. It set a bar that, perhaps inevitably, this quasi-sequel can’t reach. Into the Speed Force adds some fascinating layers onto the Speed Force mythology by giving it a darker spin wherein it becomes something of an antagonist to Barry. There’s also some solid drama to be found outside the Speed Force with Jesse Quick’s heroic journey that progresses the ongoing story arc in a way The Runaway Dinosaur didn’t manage. Yet The Runaway Dinosaur really took lift in its emotionally stirring conclusion that depicted a poignant goodbye between mother and son and an empathic resumption of Barry’s heroism as the Flash, and that’s where the gulf in quality with Into the Speed Force, which fails to stick the landing with two plot twists that just don’t make any coherent sense, are exposed. Going back to the Speed Force was a valid and interesting story idea, but Into the Speed Force struggles when it has to progress past its conceit as a sequel episode and craft a truly original lesson for Barry.
The main selling point in the trailers for this episode was the return of some familiar faces as the Speed Force’s apparitions, and they prove to be a worthy addition. Besides the simple pleasures of seeing old faces slip back into characters who’ve long since faded into the past – especially Wentworth Miller, whose drawling performance has been missed as a regular presence in the DC shows (he’ll be back on next week’s Legends, however) – each character plays a valid role in contributing to Into the Speed Force’s overall message. Eddie and Ronnie represent unfulfilled potential for a family life with their loved ones who have now moved on, while Snart represents a consequence of Barry’s inspirational heroism as someone who took responsibility for others despite everything in his nature urging him to do otherwise. There’s also another couple of minutes of Black Flash to enjoy, whose warped appearance and supernatural powers makes him into a fascinatingly intangible presence. Comic book shows of this kind can accrue a complicated history in very little time, and often it’s worth slowing down and taking stock of what it all meant, and what it could mean for the future. Into the Speed Force does that well, drawing lines of connectivity between the past and the present in a way that makes the show feel a little richer, and a little less tightly wound around the current STAR Labs group than it has been lately.
In the early going, the Speed Force’s lectures about the sacrifices Barry has made for others make sense in the light of season three’s interrogation of the collateral damage caused by Flashpoint. His plan to sacrifice himself, while obviously never likely to be executed, makes logical sense for his emotional state as it’s established at the top of the episode. It’s because of this that, for the first two acts, Into the Speed Force feels like a worthy sequel in how it tweaks the formula while keeping the inspirational spirit of trying to make Barry a better and wiser hero front and centre. Its darker tone as Barry is accused and indicted for his actions is justified given the way in which his own mistakes have piled up recently, and the episode’s willingness to go grim is put to good use with the depiction of Wally’s punishment within the Speed Force where he’s forced to relive the pain of his mother’s death on an infinite loop. It’s chilling without being ostentatious, suggesting the horrors of the Speed Force with a pleasing subtlety.
The problem comes when the episode has to deliver a satisfying pay-off that forces Barry to take responsibility. Instead of Barry humbly repenting for his sins and making some kind of tangible sacrifice, even just an emotional one like in The Runaway Dinosaur, Into the Speed Force swerves in a way that’s baffling with the sudden introduction of Jay Garrick as Barry and Wally’s saviour. It’s always good to see John Wesley Shipp, but Jay’s inclusion is defined by some of the weakest storytelling The Flash has delivered in some time. His entrance lacks any kind of foreshadowing, which makes his rescue of Barry an absurd contrivance that requires a heap of unconvincing explanation about a bunch of exciting things that happened entirely off-screen. The eventual sacrifice makes even less sense because it doesn’t jar with Into the Speed Force’s previous through-line of Barry taking individual responsibility – instead of taking things onto himself, Barry is able to add another person who made a sacrifice for him onto the list; he’s not even able to dig himself out of a punishment that exists because of his tendency to lean too much on others. There’s an attempt to explain it away as Barry’s individual responsibility to save Iris, necessitating Jay spurring him on, but it’s too little, too late for a contradictory twist that mars an otherwise robust character arc for Barry.
Outside the Speed Force, the main story belonged to Jesse in her quest to track down Savitar and avenge Wally. Initially, her impulsive need to rush into battle suggests something tedious to come. The Flash is almost three seasons old, and it’s hard not to become very familiar with its favourite kinds of stories, one of which is the tale of the impulsive hero who becomes clouded by emotions and flew too close to the sun, facing extreme harm as a result. Jesse’s story, in some ways, confers to that template, but it deviates where it really counts to create a character arc with a surprisingly original point to be made. More specifically, it allows Jesse to follow through with her plans and actually succeed as she escapes from the encounter alive having learned a vital lesson about Savitar’s vulnerability – that he’s just a man beneath the souped-up armour. Given the focus on her force of will driving her forward as everyone else tries to discourage her, the result is an engaging affirmation of her single-minded, slightly insane brand of heroism. The Flash rarely defined Jesse on her own, so an arc that’s solely driven by her is a pleasant surprise, and a reminder of what she can bring to the table as the most obscure speedster in the current, expansive gallery on the show.
Her relationship with HR is also developed well here. Into the Speed Force plays with the paternal undercurrents of this relationship as it had to, with the ever-enthusiastic HR (Tom Cavanagh’s bubbly performance is a bright spot in even the dourest episodes) keen to fulfil her father’s paternalistic role, but it ultimately seeks to portray something more complicated and interesting. Jesse comes to respect HR as a mentor figure, but she never assumes the emotional closeness typical of a father-daughter relationship; the two simply realise that they have more to offer as a partnership of minds and work together to great success, without ever deeply bonding in the way HR seems to want. The final development of Jesse’s arc, wherein she heads off to Earth-3 in the wake of Savitar’s sinister warnings, can’t help but feel contrived. Characters arbitrarily skipping town/Earth is a staple trope of the DC/CW shows, and Jesse’s relatively rapid exit fits into that awkward tradition – why doesn’t she go back to Earth-2? Yet it does make a surprising amount of emotional sense for the conclusion of a story that’s all about portraying Jesse’s capability on her own as she fills Jay’s impressive boots, so there are far worse ways of parking her before the inevitable speedster team-up in or near to the season finale.
The other major twist here that concludes Into the Speed Force is Barry’s decision to separate from Iris for a while. Like with Jay, this takes some solid emotional groundwork and channels it into something baffling. For one, it’s a frustratingly gloomy turn for an episode that initially seems intent on pivoting the show back in a more inspiring and heroic direction once more, promising more brooding Barry in his desire to cut himself off from emotional support and face Savitar as a lone wolf. But more importantly, it just doesn’t make sense. The episode never articulates why Barry has come to this conclusion given the lessons he learns about responsibility, none of which would point to the need to cut himself off from Iris. There’s some vague emotional logic in the continuation of the idea that Barry ‘tainted’ their relationship through his overly possessive behaviour that reduced Iris to a damsel in distress requiring rescue, and if it paves the way for a healthier and more co-dependent relationship when it’s inevitably patched up, that’s all to the good. But considering that Barry’s decision robs Iris further of her own autonomy in their relationship, even that idea has its logical limits. In essence, this was an ill-advised twist that indulges The Flash’s worst instincts for contrived drama about glum characters who refuse to share their problems and remove themselves from people who could help them. Not a good idea.
Those final twists loom large over Into the Speed Force, but this wasn’t the failure that those missteps would indicate. For the most part, this was actually an enjoyable walk down memory lane that continued last week’s engaging interrogation of Barry’s mistakes in order to clear the way for a kind of redemption. Jesse’s arc is a surprisingly compelling and well-rounded subplot that builds up her character where it could so easily have been knocked down, and there’s enough humour and camaraderie within the STAR Labs team that the dark tone never collapses into dourness. The moments where Into the Speed Force dropped the ball by cutting corners, contradicting itself or simply breaking what didn’t need to be broken are frustrating, and undermine a lot of what came before, however, and they point The Flash in a dispiriting direction going forward. Thankfully, there’s the ideal palate cleanser on the way next week in the form of the musical crossover with Supergirl. This could be an ill-advised nightmare, or a complete delight, but it’s certainly going to be a taste of something entirely different. Either way, that’s exactly what The Flash needs right now.