The Flash: 321 “Cause and Effect” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
There’s been plenty of discussion online about the way in which The Flash’s tone has gradually become darker over time, but comparatively little about exactly why that is. There are quite a few reasons, from villains who are a little more twisted and disturbing in nature to a natural evolution of the themes of heroism this show has been developing since the start, but perhaps the best and most succinct answer as to why The Flash has become darker is that Barry Allen has. Back in season one, he was the upbeat hero who defined the show’s tone – a rare example of a hero with a tragic backstory who refused to be defined by that. The Flash has become darker, arguably, because it’s slowly piled up Barry’s trauma without ever justifying that on a storytelling level.
Given that we just found out that Savitar is a dark, future version of Barry, it was no surprise that Cause and Effect tackles that question of Barry’s growing darkness head-on. It does so by taking one hard left turn from the intense and gritty build-up to the Savitar reveal into something very different indeed. Whether Cause and Effect’s gamble paid off gets to the core of what any viewer wants from The Flash. If you’re primarily in this for the intense and involving arc plots, then such a pivot from the Savitar story most likely seems like an irritatingly unnecessary detour. But as a thoughtful throwback to the show’s early days that counterbalances the brooding darkness with something far more light and playful, this was a surprising success, and a reminder of The Flash’s ability to cleverly wrong-foot its audience when it manages to step outside of its comfort zone.
Cause and Effect lays the foundations for its exploration of Barry’s character by picking up directly from last week. It’s the straightforward Q & A with Savitar that we’ve been anticipating for some time… and it’s anything less than straightforward. Truth be told, I’m not wholly sure Savitar’s origin story stacks up in terms of pure plot logic. Time remnants have always been one of The Flash’s sillier concepts, and while the idea of Savitar existing in a causal loop where he inspires himself and creates himself is a neat one, there’s something a bit hazy about the specifics of it all. On a dramatic level, however, Savitar’s back-story is much more solid. It strikes a delicate balance between differentiating Savitar from the Barry we know by explicitly making him an alternate version, rather than someone who exists on exactly the same track, but still underlining the way in which he shares the hopes, dreams and memories of Barry in a way that can’t be escaped. They’re fundamentally the same person who took different tracks out of changing circumstances – while Barry was embraced by the team and given the support he needs to go forward, Savitar was cast out without a single check on his worst instincts to become embittered and cruel. In that respect, the Savitar reveal is basically in keeping with The Flash’s well-worn track record of using time travel well as a catalyst for character development, but also concurrently showing a complete cluelessness about how it actually works.
Savitar himself is at once less important, and more important to the episode than that opening scene would indicate. On a basic level, he hardly appears after the title card, but Cause and Effect’s conceit of stripping Barry of his memories is one that directly stems from those early revelations. If Savitar represents Barry who’s capitulated to all of his worst incts, and Barry as we know him exists somewhere in the middle as someone affected by loss but not crushed by it, then the Barry that we see throughout this episode exists as Savitar’s complete opposite as someone who’s not even conscious of any loss or trauma at all. It’s an exercise in stark contrasts, tracking just how drastically circumstances can warp the same soul into something unrecognisably different. A lot of this rests on Grant Gustin’s ability to portray three very different incarnations of the same character that are all recognisably the same person at heart, and he excels at the task. As ‘Bart’, he’s able to show off the bumbling comic timing that he hasn’t really been able to display since early season two – a stark change from the bitterness of Savitar, who has crafted his simmering rage into a defining aspect of his character that he wears proudly. All of this is different, too, from the morose Barry of 2024 we met a couple of weeks back. Gustin is proving himself to be a chameleonic actor as The Flash is throwing tougher and more varied challenges at him.
The return of light and sunny Barry is Cause and Effect’s biggest surprise, because I assumed that this carefree version of the character was confined to the show’s much simpler past. Indeed, we’re allowed to spend time with ‘Bart’ as he slowly comes to grips with his identity once more in a subplot that seems ripped wholesale from early season one (minus the amnesia part) about a criminal named Heat Monger in the way it deals with a low-stakes problem that has to be solved by both Barry Allen CSI and the Flash and forces Barry to conceal a secret about his identity with comedic results. It’s a welcome change to have the humour and joy front and centre of this show as opposed to sequestered off in a subplot featuring supporting characters, and a jolting reminder of how far the show, and Barry, has transformed since those simple, early days. Admittedly, however, this all comes at the expense of some tonal awkwardness. Cause and Effect justifies its pivot into light-heartedness, but it’s still occurring in the middle of an arc that’s been pretty dark in tone up to now. It’s a good short-term choice for the episode to go for a lighter tone, but it makes this Savitar arc feel a little less cohesive as a result, especially as the stakes of Barry’s story with Heat Monger and the overarching fight against Savitar are so drastically different.
The crux of Barry’s amnesia story, however, is for The Flash to finally have a conversation with itself. A lot of the problems of this show have stemmed from it lacking a self-awareness about what doesn’t work – secret-keeping amongst characters is a frustratingly recurring element, for instance, that just keeps coming up no matter how often it leads to uninvolving drama. That makes Cause and Effect’s willingness to interrogate how this show has changed, and whether that change is for the better, so refreshing. Iris is taken with the amnesiac Barry because he seems so carefree and light-hearted in a grim environment and wants him to stay that way, and it’s hard not to see some of the fan and critical complaints that have been made in her arguments. The Flash explicitly recognising the reason why it was so initially successful, and acknowledging how that’s changed, feels like a big step forward for it. That’s not a sign of a show hurtling down an error-strewn path without checking – that’s a sign of a show that’s been planning something somewhat more careful and deliberate for a good reason.
Barry’s eventual conclusion also has a significantly meta element to it, too, as it essentially marks The Flash’s justification for taking a character who works at his most light-hearted into such dark territory on a consistent basis. The concept of why that is – because heroes are defined by adversity, and Barry Allen is defined by being a hero with a capital H – is a fundamentally sound one that has echoes in The Flash’s initial explorations of Barry’s character in season one, showing a strong understanding of the core of the character, and it raises confidence that this journey of darkness for Barry this season is heading to a more hopeful conclusion. Trauma as something valuable and intrinsic that comes parcelled up with the good things in life is something The Flash has been trying to articulate all year with Barry’s character, but it’s never quite managed to do so. Barry left Flashpoint for much shallower and more immediate reasons than that realisation, and there was never much dramatic weight in his decision to allow his life’s greatest trauma to unveil as it should have done once more. Cause and Effect finds a much more effective way of getting to that conclusion than Flashpoint, and as such, it feels like a moment of realisation for a season that’s had some great ideas percolating throughout that it’s never quite caught hold of. There’s a caveat, though – it’s one thing for The Flash to say something, and another thing for it to actually do it. Last season’s episode 21 featured a similar breakthrough to Barry as he overcame his mother’s death, only for him to unlearn that lesson and make further mistakes in the very next episode. So while Cause and Effect’s exploration of Barry’s character is dramatically satisfying and suggestive of a long-term plan for this show, that won’t mean anything if The Flash refuses to put that self-knowledge into action.
Memory is a key theme of Cause and Effect, and it also reflects in the brief but compelling return of Killer Frost as a terse ally to STAR Labs. Teaming Killer Frost up with Cisco and Julian, the two people who care for her the most and who treasure the memories they’ve shared with her, creates an interesting dramatic tension wherein it’s hard to quite tell where the line is being drawn between Killer Frost and Caitlin. The episode coaxes us into believing that Caitlin’s innately good nature and the fond memories that she has of companionship with Cisco and Julian are enough to push her through, but it’s here where Cause and Effect wrongfoots us again, albeit more predictably than in Barry’s story. Killer Frost’s story is very dark, notably so in comparison to an A-plot that affirms the heroism and resilience of Barry in the face of trauma, and as such it serves as an interesting counter-point to the Savitar arc, pointing out the same rules that work for Barry don’t always work for everyone else. The Flash is slowly teasing out the realisation that Caitlin’s predicament is far less easy to fix than Barry’s, with every attempt to find her better side seemingly only entrenching her transformation into Killer Frost, and it’s proving to be interesting to see just how far it’ll push her before it has to decide whether to head over the edge or walk it back.
Cause and Effect, like The Runaway Dinosaur last year, is a palate cleanser that also allows The Flash to get in touch with the stories and themes that define it. It’s a satisfying follow-up to a good reveal with Savitar, using its implications about Barry’s capacity for evil and cruelty to interrogate the nature of Barry’s heroism and whether a sense of optimism or a consciousness of loss is a better fuel for his heroics, coming to a conclusion somewhere in the middle. Pacing-wise, it’s not the most smoothly-executed episode as the trip into far more playful and light-hearted territory takes the show away from the imminent threat of Savitar at a key point in the season – it doesn’t help, too, that there’s a sub-plot between Tracy and HR that doubles down on the whimsical humour in an episode that’s not exactly lacking for it with relatively little to add to the plot. Yet this is another encouraging step forward for The Flash, and a sign that it has a greater awareness of where it’s gone wrong, and where it may go to rectify those mistakes in the future. Next, then, it’s a heist – the mission, steal Dominator tech from a vault guarded by King Shark. Somehow, this is also going to involve the assistance of Captain Cold. This show isn’t going to become more straightforward any time soon, clearly.