The Flash: 319 “The Once or Future Flash” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Once upon a time, people agreed about The Flash. It was the best-liked superhero show network TV in season one because the show offered hope and a lightness of touch in a genre still infatuated with the gritty tricks that worked well in The Dark Knight and less effectively in every imitator since. In subsequent seasons, though that lightness has by no means gone, The Flash has trended darker and darker, painting its characters in grim situations defined by despair instead of hope where they make poor decisions out of guilt or anger, and that’s sometimes boiled over to a frustrating extent in season three. I’m less willing to diagnose this show as past it than most (season three has still been enjoyable on an episode-to-episode basis), but it was clear that The Flash needed a fresh injection of hope as it draws closer to crunch time with Iris’ death.
The Flash has been off for a month now, but The Once and Future Flash wastes no time in immersing us back into a grim and hopeless situation where Caitlin has transformed, apparently, irreversibly into Killer Frost and no-one is the wiser about Savitar despite the walking identity tease they just fought. The team is embittered, uncommunicative and evidently fraying, and that’s before we hop over to a future where everything is about ten times worse and the only visible colours are grey and dark brown. Within about five minutes, there’s a sense that The Flash is walking close towards a tipping point in terms of its oppressively dark tone, making all the wrong choices at a point in the season where it’s about the last chance to rectify the year’s mistakes.
This is a dark episode, to be sure. Yet it works, because it’s willing to confront the fact that this dark and gloomy atmosphere is all wrong. As it does every now and then, but in a way that seems like a powerful mission statement for the final four episodes of the season, The Flash realises Central City is the sunny one, and Barry Allen is a hero because it’s the right thing to do. The Once and Future Flash walks a delicate tightrope in how it puts total hopelessness as the defining mood for about two thirds of the episode before finally making the switch to sweeping heroism for the final act, and it doesn’t always pull it off. The arc plot developments the trailers enthusiastically promised, meanwhile, are still waiting in the queue in a way that’s not hidden particularly gracefully. Yet as a character story that changes Barry’s state of mind in the mission to save Iris and establishes the emotional stakes of that quest by showing its grim consequences, this really works.
A long time ago, the quality of this show’s performances began to outstrip the quality of writing, so it’s easy to take for granted how talented this cast is at taking reasonable material and making it compelling. Perhaps because it’s directed by series regular and celebrated chameleon Tom Cavanagh, who evidently knows (aka every Wells, ever), this episode feels intended to push the performances to the fore, shining a well-deserved spotlight on their versatility. Grant Gustin, for instance, can often be chained to the same shtick of overwrought guilt and angst, but The Once and Future Flash gives him a much more nuanced and varied emotional range to play. As 2017 Barry, Gustin believably portrays his gradual slide into despair as he sees the extent of the desolation that Iris’ death left, while as the poorly-wigged depression goth of the future, he embodies a palpable brokenness of spirit, a state of mind that’s difficult to portray without slipping into melodrama, with subtlety. Carlos Valdes also gets a handful of new notes to play as the scattered Cisco of 2024, balancing the peppiness of the Cisco we know and love with an underlying sadness, gradually exposing the upbeat demeanour as a hollow façade to keep up appearances. It’s a more pared-down episode than most for the cast, and in particular, the show’s women play a disappointingly peripheral role in an episode all about the importance of the bond between Team Flash, which just serves to frustratingly undermine their importance. Yet Gustin and Valdes are genuinely great in their lead roles, and the expanded time they’re given with this relatively minimalist story allows them to breathe life into characters with both subtle and obvious differences to the ones we know.
Most of The Once and Future Flash was predicated on painting the darkest picture imaginable of Barry’s post-Iris world in order to drive home the emotional stakes of the quest to save her. This is an objective the episode accomplishes skilfully in most places, though there’s a couple of instances of clunking unsubtlety. Joe’s situation as a bereaved father was predictable, but it’s the fact that his heartbreak stems from Barry’s disappearance that really brings the emotional impact to this story, reflecting the vital importance of his children to Joe’s happiness and shining a new light on the father/son relationship between Barry and Joe in a way that’s always to be welcomed. Jesse L Martin isn’t given a lot to do, but he’s terrific in his short screen-time as he slips from embittered grief to cautious optimism.
Cisco was a pleasant surprise, because the character didn’t slip into the bitter despair that we know can be a crutch for him from the Flashpoint storyline. His role as the quietly sad but hopeful mediator who nudges Barry into action is one that foregrounds the character’s most likeable aspects and therefore makes his emotional value in the team besides tech support abundantly clear. Even Julian gets an effective little arc as he’s forced to become the loyal but heartbroken watcher for Killer Frost, reminded everyday of what he could have had if not for poor luck and some strangely arbitrary superpowers that turned Caitlin evil. HR, meanwhile, gets one scene, but his strangely charged book reading with an enthusiastic audience is such a hilarious and unexpected vignette that it accomplishes everything a dramatic arc for the character could (it definitely feels like Tom Cavanagh used his directorial influence for this one, but hey, why else would you take the job?). The only future character whose situation doesn’t really hit home is Wally’s. It’s heart-twisting to see him there, mute and despairing, in a wheelchair that indicates the loss of everything that made him happy, but it’s perhaps too heart-twisting. In an episode that ladles on the dark twists thick, Wally’s situation is the one that embodies an unconscious cruelty that creeps just occasionally into the script here, seeming to revel in the sadness instead of sensitively inspecting it.
The crux of The Once and Future Flash, however, isn’t the despair – it’s the hopeful conclusion the episode comes to in the final act. Barry’s decision to stay in 2024 and help reunite the team is just the twist the episode needed, justifying the detail of the darkness earlier in the episode as it makes its reversal all the more satisfying. It’s a stirring image to see the future Team Flash united again, however tenuously, to help Barry fight, and it suggests a strong understanding of the way that both Barry and his support system work best with Barry as the inspiring leader who coalesces this disparate group of people, and the rest of the team as the ones who back him up as a result of that inspiration. Mirror Master and the Top aren’t particularly interesting villains in their future incarnations, but their souped-up powers make for a final showdown with some real visual panache as buildings bend and swoop like they’re made of rubber. Their presence also allows for the most satisfying part of this final act, which is the brief team-up between the once (2017) and future (2024) Flash. Future Barry’s choice to help the team happens quickly, but that serves as a strong commentary on the way in which his selfless inclination to help is still innate even after all the despair-inducing events he’s experienced. His presence also means a new, futuristic Flash suit, and it looks great. Now that they have the bright red, comics-accurate suit in the costume cupboard, would it hurt to swap out the burgundy leather that Barry’s been sporting for two years?
It’s not as if The Once or Future Flash restores a total optimism and hopelessness to the show. Things are still pretty bleak in 2017, although we spend very little time there. The (I’m sorry) cold open with Killer Frost is the longest present day scene we get, and it’s one that more or less serves to set the table for this more outwardly villainous version of Caitlin who seems to lack the internal conflict of the Killer Frost we met earlier this season. Danielle Panabaker is still really fun as the villain, delivering every line of dialogue with a gleeful self-awareness that she’s playing a character who loves hurting people and causing suffering. It remains to be seen, really, what this means for Caitlin. Killer Frost worked well earlier this season as a way to dramatize Caitlin’s inner conflict for an episode, but it’s not clear whether the character is suited to playing the longer-term role of a villain who seems set to become a lackey of the real Big Bad, and whether that’s conducive to meaningful character development that doesn’t just paint Caitlin as a helpless victim without agency. There’s potential to Killer Frost, but it’s going to be a significant challenge to justify why the character’s recapitulation is a dramatically necessary choice at this pivotal point in the season.
The Once and Future Flash isn’t quite the episode you might have expected. The promo, and interviews beforehand, put emphasis on Savitar’s identity as the driving force of this episode. It is, admittedly, Barry’s driving motivation for travelling to the future, but the short-term need to understand and fix the problems of the future soon takes precedence, and the episode seems to forget about Savitar until the end. Funnily enough, that’s not really a bad thing. This episode works much better as a character/theme story than it would have as the latest chapter in a tepid mystery, and as such the lack of Savitar isn’t a real problem for it.
Here’s the problem, though. The Savitar mystery hasn’t been executed well at all, with The Flash failing to distinguish it from the other two guess-who mysteries of Reverse Flash and Zoom yet placing far more weight on the mystery itself as a dramatic storyline, and it’s been so long that the reveal will feel like a mercy as opposed to a shock. Despite that, out of force of habit, perhaps, I’m still curious who’s behind the mask, and it seems plenty of fans are, too. Last episode already delved into some annoyingly manipulative territory with Abra Kadabra’s refusal to reveal the information, but The Once and Future Flash’s cliffhanger really takes the cake. It’s directed exactly as a reveal would be… except without the actual reveal (we do know the enlightening information that Savitar has two legs, and wears trousers, though!). That’s cheap, and that’s manipulative. We’re going to find out next week anyway, so why drag it out? And why drag it out in such a hackneyed and dramatically inert way?
It’s a bitter note to close a strong episode, but a bitter note nonetheless. This reveal had better be worth it.
The Once and Future Flash is a very good return episode for The Flash, telling a compelling story of despair and hope in a way that celebrates the best aspects of Barry and Team Flash’s heroism and ups the stakes for the save Iris plot at a key moment. It only trips up when it opts for bad habits, either with the excessive grimness that can sometimes permeate the 2024 scenes, or with the irritating bait and switch of the Savitar non-reveal. Nonetheless, the show is in strong stead for the final four episodes, back somewhere close enough to the right track.