The Flash: 318 “Abra Kadabra” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The future is a place of infinite uncertainty, and it’s been a constant source of woe for Barry ever since season one. It’s the place from which two of his greatest enemies, the Reverse Flash and Savitar, have come, motivated by hatred emanating from actions that Barry hasn’t even committed yet. The newspaper headline in Eobard Thawne’s secret lair reminds us of a crisis to come in 2024 where Barry vanishes amidst red skies. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Barry has been so torn up about what awaits him on the fateful date where Iris has scheduled to die.
To make matters worse, this week’s episode saw another foe from the future come to the present day to menace Barry. Abra Kadabra might come from a more distant point in the future than any other villain Barry has met – it’s difficult to beat the 64th century for futuristic – but he’s intimately connected to the events that catalysed/will catalyse Barry’s suffering at the hands of Savitar in season three. Therefore, Abra Kadabra, despite its fairly traditional villain-of-the-week structure, is much more than just a frivolous one-off as it teases the big questions of the season, advances season three’s exploration of the challenges of heroism, and ends on a gut-punch of a twist that blows up everything going into the final five episodes of the season. It’s only in the former of those three points where Abra Kadabra runs into issues, as its stalling tactics lay bare the central flaw of season three that extends a long way beyond the particular storytelling problems of this episode. In essence, it’s an interesting case study into the current creative state of The Flash, both in a wider sense and in its ability to tell satisfying episodic stories.
It feels like a long time since we’ve had a proper villain of the week instalment in which the villain has been central to what the episode is trying to achieve. The Flash has thrown up a handful of standalone villains this season – Magenta, Mirror Master, the Rival – but it’s become increasingly disinterested in the storytelling format that got the show up and running in the first place. Abra Kadabra, then, is an ideal advertisement for the continuing worth of a meta-of-the-week story. As the episode pivots around his threat, there’s ample screen-time to flesh out the specificities of his threat and to give his powers a thorough showcase. David Dastmalchian, a likeable actor who’s quickly developing a solid career in these kinds of one-off antagonist roles, delivers a great villainous performance that’s equal parts disconcerting in his sinister mind games with both Barry and Joe, and enjoyable in how it freely derives from The Flash’s tradition of villains who enjoy being villains. His powers look great, and are used creatively in some of the best CGI action scenes The Flash has had in some time, delivering fun and unique visuals like the cascading shower of cards that engulfs Barry, or the zippy chase around the city as he attempts to escape back to his future.
Yet Abra Kadabra’s biggest impact on the episode was to provoke Barry, Iris and Joe in their increasingly desperate quest to find a way to prevent the future. This plotline tapped into something which The Flash has never really bothered to explore, which is the fear of the unknown that naturally comes about with villains from the future. It’s a fear that’s been an unexpressed undercurrent in the Savitar storyline that’s hinged on the villain’s foreknowledge of horrible events to come, and Abra Kadabra serves as a personification of that fear as he holds the pivotal information of Savitar’s identity over the heroes to advance his own ends, smug and secure in the knowledge that he’s the only point of access to this information. His ability to get under the skin of the heroes and really probe at their central vulnerabilities makes him a much more vital character, whose principal role isn’t just to fill a vacuum in the centre of an episode like many villains, but instead to spur on character development and further exert the pressure that’s exponentially been piled upon the show’s heroes throughout this season. Abra Kadabra isn’t by any means a revolutionary kind of villain, but he’s a thoroughly engaging one to watch whose villainy has a genuine depth to it beyond the empty rhetoric and thin motivations that are often trotted out when The Flash has bigger things on its mind. The show would do well to bring him back in season four.
The Savitar mystery is best here when it focuses on the more tangibly human aspects – the desperation it provokes within Joe and Barry as they ponder compromising their own values in order to bring themselves level with Savitar. The Flash’s third season has made the interrogation of heroism into a constant through-line, challenging Barry’s steadfast principles at every turn – whether that’s been the exploration of his culpability in creating Flashpoint and altering the lives of his team, or in his choices not to kill in the Gorilla City storyline – and Abra Kadabra’s offer opens up a new take on that central theme. It forces Barry to confront his eternal status as the hero who’s ten steps behind the villain and therefore pushes him into extreme action to rectify that huge gap in knowledge. It’s actually the most interesting, however, that Barry chooses, pretty quickly, to turn away from Abra Kadabra’s offer after a conversation with Iris that exposes and undermines his rash decision-making. Even as season three has turned excessively grim in its tone, The Flash had found a beacon of light in its newfound focus on Barry’s humanity and compassion as an indispensable part of his heroism as the Flash, and Abra Kadabra serves as an ideal summary of the way in which Barry has become accustomed to making tough personal sacrifices to uphold that humanity. It’s also important that this is done with Iris, in conjunction with her own wishes to not become an excuse for Barry’s rule-bending, after a simple and reasonable discussion, illustrating the newfound strength of their relationship after the musical episode and giving Iris a role beyond the passive victim. While it’s frustrating in many ways to see Barry’s desire unfulfilled, the way in which Abra Kadabra really hammers home the pain of his choice to turn away the offer, indicating quite explicitly with Abra’s taunts how Barry has actively encouraged the fate he’s fought so hard to avoid in his decision to put principles above personal attachments.
After a season that’s often been spent on the periphery, it was a pleasant surprise to see Joe’s viewpoint on the situation fleshed out. Contrasting to Barry, whose powers make him intimately involved in the plan to save Iris, especially now he’s taken on the sole responsibility to do so, Joe is functionally powerless in this situation, stuck on the sidelines and unable to genuinely affect anything. His knowledge of Iris’ death keeps him in the loop, but at the cost of a cyclical, endless worry that can’t be solved or alleviated like Barry, who can at least channel his anxieties into new strategies to save her. That sense of impotence comes to boil here as Joe becomes, atypically, the more impulsive decision-maker in his decision to let Abra Kadabra free in a desperate attempt to regain a semblance of control in saving his own daughter. Jesse L Martin, as ever, is excellent – a grounded voice of reason that keeps The Flash tethered to its emotionally realistic roots even as its storylines become more outlandish. Despite all the complicated time travel mechanics of the Iris situation, Joe’s pain, a fatherly fear of what could happen to his daughter, is a universal one that could crop up in any kind of show, which makes it a valuable perspective with a very different role to Barry’s. At its best, the Savitar story has been a way to distil down last year’s convoluted pile-up of sci-fi concepts into something more human, and that translates well in Barry and Joe’s story which illustrate the opportunities for character development that it provides.
Yet there’s still some fundamental problems with the Savitar arc that are exposed by Abra Kadabra’s most frustrating decision – its choice to actively raise the question of Savitar’s identity, yet never reveal it. Abra Kadabra’s taunting serves a purpose; without it, Barry would have no need for next episode’s trip to 2024, so it’s not as if the teasing is wholly superfluous. But the episode really leans into the mystery aspect of Savitar, to the point where we see Abra Kadabra spelling out ‘Savitar… is…’ just slowly enough that he can be interrupted before completing it. It assumes a viewer fascination with the identity of the evil speedster, that the excitement of knowing who he is overrides any potential narrative flaws. And that’s where the episode comes short, because it’s extremely hard to care about Savitar’s identity. We’ve been through this twice already with masked speedsters, and it’s been diminishing returns each time as the tricks and teasing have become tiresome where they were once thrilling. Season three appeared to be taking a different tack with Savitar as a monstrous godlike speedster defined by his incredible power, but it’s soon swerved into the same guessing games as before, only for much longer than before, (Reverse Flash was revealed after 9 episodes, and Zoom after 15) and with much more in-universe acknowledgement of the mystery that’s called attention to the uncertainty when the show would do much better to minimise it in order to focus on other parts of the villain.
It all points to season three’s greatest flaw, which has been its difficulty in telling a compelling and expansive season-long arc. Season two was thoroughly flawed, but the Zoom arc had enough twists and turns in it to remain engaging right up until the endgame (where it crashed entirely, but hey, details), and there was a real sense of growing momentum from episode to episode. Savitar’s story just hasn’t matched up, feeling both undercooked – he’s only appeared in four episodes so far – which undermines the constancy of his threat, and overdone (sorry for all the cooking metaphors!), given the ludicrous amount of convoluted details have been given out about his backstory and motivations. For the most part, The Flash has just been better when Savitar’s not a major presence and it’s free to tell more standalone stories – just look at Killer Frost, or last week’s musical episode, or even the parts of this episode that revolve around Abra Kadabra. Given the energy and excitement a good villain can bring to these shows (Arrow’s recent uptick in form has coincided with Prometheus becoming a full-time presence again), that’s not how it should be, speaking volumes about this season’s struggles to create a compelling overarching villain.
Back to Abra Kadabra specifically, which has a sting in its tale that’s entirely separate from the Savitar hijinks. Caitlin’s injury and Julian’s operation have all the hallmarks of a typically solid character exploration revolving around some mild peril that forces two people closer together. It makes a surprisingly convincing case for Caitlin and Julian as a couple, emphasising their mutual admiration for both the courage and the scientific capabilities of one another, and therefore its purpose seems to be no more than a sweet little side-story that provides a reprieve from the heavier emotions going on elsewhere. It foregrounds what we like most about both characters in their humour and compassion, and leaves their own angst by the wayside for the week. You wouldn’t be wrong to think that there’s no real threat that anything will happen to Caitlin…
… Ah. The stinger, which clocks in at a far longer length than any other post-title scene before, is a brutally abrupt rebuke to that sense of complacency, starting light-heartedly with HR’s re-entrance before the situation deteriorates with a startling quickness as Caitlin begins to flatline. It’s a genuinely well-executed gut-punch that skewers expectations in a way that The Flash rarely does, and it instantly flags up the most questionable aspect of Julian’s growing affection for Caitlin as that affection overpowers Caitlin’s own wishes to die instead of transforming into Killer Frost. We’re left with Caitlin fully transformed into Killer Frost, looming over the team in a way that suggests that the Caitlin we know is buried a long, long way down. It was inevitable that Killer Frost would rear her head again before the season was out, but this was a very effective way to make that mandated plot twist surprising, striking Caitlin down just as it seems she’s on the way to genuine and sustainable happiness.
We’re not left in a good place by the end of Abra Kadabra. Everyone is feeling a little low, Caitlin’s Frosted up, and Iris is still scheduled to die. There’s one glimmer of hope, though – Barry’s decision to travel to 2024 to find the information he needs to deliver Savitar. This is a potentially horrible decision for Barry, and a very exciting decision for us viewers, finally providing a chance for the mysticism of Savitar’s hatred of future Barry to be cleared up. And, right on time, we’ll have to wait to find out on the other end of a month’s hiatus. See you on April 25…
Abra Kadabra is a robust episode in most respects, delivering a compelling and enjoyable villain of the week who sparks some strong personal conflicts between principles and family in Barry and Joe alongside a powerful final twist, though it does suffer from its tedious decision to prolong the Savitar reveal, flagging up the deep flaws that are beginning to define this overarching plotline.