The Flash: 323 “Finish Line” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Flash hasn’t had the smoothest of years. In a season where it’s had to contest its former spot as the best superhero show around with 3 other shows on the network alone (especially a greatly improved Legends of Tomorrow and a resurgent Arrow), it’s doubled down on some of the flaws that sank the last part of the second season, such as drawn-out arc plots, excessive angst and an overreliance on techno-babble nonsense to fuel stories. Yet, for all the flack this season has received, it’s done a lot right. Thematically, and in terms of its scope, this has easily been the most ambitious season yet, ditching the staid format that season two repeated for something more unusual and hard-hitting as Barry faced off against his literal dark mirror image in Savitar. All season long, it’s been struggling its way back to that optimism and lightness that distinguished season one, but that effort was going to be for naught without a satisfying season finale to bring it all together.
Last year’s finale set a low bar with a cliffhanger ending with Flashpoint, that, having seen the resolution, was about as ill-advised a choice as the show could make at the time, sacrificing Barry’s character journey for an arc that lasted an episode in season three. Finish Line doesn’t make that same mistake. It bookends the season with a cliffhanger that inverts the Flashpoint mistake that ended season two, and in doing so, concludes Barry’s journey of redemption this year satisfyingly. Despite that improvement, however, Finish Line ends up falling into many of the same traps that season two’s ender did, making for another uneven and messy conclusion that gets a lot of the character work and emotion right while losing sight entirely of the basic mechanics of logical storytelling.
Though it’s soon snowed under by all of the other big events in what ends up being a ludicrously eventful episode, Finish Line’s main twist comes right at the start. Iris West seemed to have fallen at the end of last episode, but, as the internet tends to do, a clear way out was offered by fans in the shape of a switcheroo involving HR and his face-changing tech. It made too much sense not to happen, and indeed, it’s not even a minute into the episode when HR’s drumsticks slam to the floor and the trick is revealed to us. There was an element of lose-lose to a fake-out like this – stretching it out for too long would have felt cheap and manipulative, so the quickness of the reveal at least gets the audience up to speed with events as fast as possible. HR’s own death scene is also a nice one that succinctly and affectingly wraps up the many connections he made across the course of the season – with Tracy, as their brief affair seems to have become an origin story for STAR Labs’ newest member, with Barry, and as it’s later revealed, with Cisco, as he inspires yet another Wells to action (what is it about Cisco?).
And on a purely indulgent level, it’s neat that this show can kill off Tom Cavanagh while keeping Tom Cavanagh around (in the form of Earth-2 Wells, who seems to be our resident Wells for the time being until the team finds a new one from Earth-182 or something in season four). But on the other hand, the earliness of the reveal means that the genuine air of tragedy built up at the end of last episode dissipates almost immediately, because HR’s death in no way equates to the impact Iris’ would have if she had genuinely died here. Equally, it means that HR has to be forgotten about quite frequently so that the heroes can go about their business, and therefore, for a time during the episode’s second act, it feels like The Flash used its get-out-of-jail-free card by killing someone who has only been around for less than a season and had relatively few real connections with others. Eventually, with the funeral at the end, the show remembers that HR exists and gives him a good send-off, but the ease in which his death can be forgotten indicates the lack of dramatic weight given to an otherwise satisfying conclusion to a fun supporting character and the minefield of putting such a big twist right at the top of the episode.
Finish Line, after clearing up the Iris loose ends, soon transitions into two finales at once: one that’s unconventional and focuses on character and theme above all, and one that follows the usual motions of the heroes versus a cackling bad guy with a nonsensical plan to destroy/rule the universe. This is quite a disorientating experience, and it’s indicative of the messy intent of this finale – it’s pulled in two directions that it never really reconciles, and sometimes this means the episode can outright contradict itself from scene to scene, or give short shrift to ideas that deserved more space to breathe. It’s the unconventional parts of Finish Line that are the most compelling, in which Barry decides to opt for the diplomatic solution with Savitar. The parts in which Barry and Iris try to rehabilitate Savitar are the first real times that Savitar’s status as a version of Barry who shares his hoped and fears and dreams is acknowledged and utilised by The Flash, and as such, there’s a really interesting, unstable dynamic to them. We know this guy is dangerous – he just killed an important character – but Grant Gustin is so good at bringing Savitar’s vulnerabilities to the surface and dramatizing the villain’s internal conflict between the compassion of Barry and Iris and the easy, cathartic vengeance that seems to be his first inclination for action that it’s believable, for a short amount of time at least, that Savitar could be redeemed.
This part of the episode also allows the best parts of Barry’s character to be foregrounded – the selfless and empathetic hero who sees the good in others and meets their violent methods with something thoughtful and compassionate. The Flash, almost always, is a show that thrives when it heads off the beaten track and does something unusual and emotionally powerful. It did it all the time in season one, and it does so here, knowingly wrong-footing the audience expectation for a big punch-up finale with something that feels truer to Barry’s journey towards a purer form of heroism this year. It feels telling that the best parts of a supposedly pivotal and explosive episode are quiet dialogue scenes between three characters with no ticking clock or immediate stakes other than the redemption of one man.
But just when that story seems to be coming to fruition, the other part of Finish Line comes in. The other part is what you’d expect from a season finale of The Flash, with an all-star CGI pile-up of a finale and a big evil plan at its centre. That’s not inherently a bad thing – season one’s finale used lots of those traditional, crowd-pleasing elements, and that’s still the high point of the show as a whole. But that formula has to fit the episode, and it really doesn’t fit Finish Line. The moment where that becomes clear is Savitar’s betrayal and the explosion in STAR Labs, when the finale pivots into the propulsive final act. It’s a fine storytelling choice on paper, but it’s entirely at odds with the nuanced characterisation of the villain required for the STAR Labs scenes. Suddenly, that sympathetic and conflicted villain instantly disappears and is replaced by a smug, irredeemable version of Savitar who barely remarks upon Barry and Iris’ attempts to redeem him after. Was he faking all along, or did he snap and make a decision to return to Plan A? It doesn’t matter, because Finish Line doesn’t care – it just needs Savitar to be evil again for the final act to have some stakes. It’s what happened with Zoom last year, but on fast-forward, in which a villain’s potential for complexity is squashed by the constrictive needs of a season finale. Savitar is killed unceremoniously by Iris in a reversal that’s kind of neat as a surface-level bit of irony, but it represents conclusively the wasted potential of the character – Iris, fittingly, is the character who pushes hardest for Savitar to be redeemed, showing how little the Savitar redemption arc actually means for the episode as a whole.
A season finale means that the show’s meagre CGI budget is upped just a little for a customary end-of-year bit of spectacle, and, sure enough, Finish Line pulls out all the stops by bringing back Gypsy and Jay Garrick alongside Barry, Wally, Cisco and eventually Killer Frost for a final fight against Savitar. It’s always fun to see these CGI melees play out, and the sheer number of players on the board means there’s a greater scope to the action than the usual one-on-one fights that are The Flash’s bread and butter. Problematically, though, none of the story around it makes any damn sense. The final act throws so many confusing, headscratching developments in that it briefly feels like the script was written during a game of darts in the writer’s room. Suddenly, Savitar cooks up a magical thingy that will somehow allow him to live in every time across history, like Clara in Doctor Who, but with a god complex. Suddenly, Gypsy returns, because she and Cisco are ‘connected’ across the multiverse. Suddenly, Jay Garrick returns, because Cisco converted Savitar’s thingy into another thingy in secret. Suddenly (although this at least has the benefit of being a great visual) Barry can hop into the Savitar suit by phasing. The final act is all one big ‘suddenly’, and barely any of it makes conceivable sense. It’s an unerring repetition of the mistakes of last season finale’s race, which pulled out time remnants and Time Wraiths and a multiverse-destroying device out of its pocket just so the effects budget could be used up. The Flash has made its name on making absurd comic-book ideas palatable and fun, but this final fight represented all of its worst indulgences strung together without a regard for coherence. It’s a bummer to see a thematically interesting season come to such a crude conclusion.
Like Supergirl’s finale before it, Finish Line had plenty to go after the last CGI-fuelled punches were thrown, and it’s here where the episode gets back on track, at least to some extent. HR’s funeral is a fitting farewell that refocuses the finale on the emotional stakes it can so easily forget, and it makes for a good central setting to many of Finish Line’s moments of conclusion. Caitlin, for instance, is brought to a really interesting place for the end of the season. Her journey towards redemption as Killer Frost is cathartic, but follows the expected track for her character – it’s in her refusal to cure herself and return to being Caitlin where Finish Line executes a rare moment of genuine unpredictability. There’s much more potential for this development than returning Caitlin to normal would have brought, opening up the space for an entirely new, ambiguous iteration of the character to be created for season four. The choice to conclude the Savitar story early and pivot back into character stories is the best one this finale could have made considering the cards it was dealt, finding some of the thematic focus and purpose that the rushed Savitar story sorely lacks.
As ever, though, nothing can stay calm and sedate in Central City for a summer, and right on time, there’s a ‘Speed Force storm’ (you do you, Finish Line) that spurs Barry into action. I’m not wholly convinced this was a choice this episode was really building to, but Barry’s decision to head into the Speed Force as penance for creating Flashpoint was a nice bit of circularity, and one that definitively changes him as a hero after a season that’s flirted with pushing him forward before backing off quite a few times. It’s also a good cliffhanger because it’s malleable, unlike the Flashpoint tease last year that bottle-necked the show into an ambitious story arc that it wasn’t equipped to handle. It leaves characters the opportunity to consider who they are without Barry – especially Wally, who takes up the mantle of the Flash proper in Barry’s stead, and it means that Barry can return in season four as a genuinely changed man, regardless of what those changes actually are (it’s notable that the episode makes it ambiguous as to whether Barry will be heading into ‘hell’ given his guide is the incarnation of Nora from The Runaway Dinosaur). And while I doubt The Flash will take up this opportunity, there’s also the potential here for a significant amount of time to be spent without Barry at all, because there’s no expiration date on his imprisonment. Convention suggests he’ll probably be back in the premiere, but this is one point where rolling the dice would make for more interesting results – it’d be fascinating to see a version of The Flash where Wally is the main hero for a time, like in the very start of the Rebirth comics. The Flash needed a clean slate for season four after the missteps of this finale, and the cliffhanger delivers in that regard, opening up the potential for a course-correction when the show returns.
One of the reasons why I’ve continued to positively review The Flash this year is that, for all of its long-term flaws, it’s been good at crafting a solid through-line for each episode in terms of themes and character arcs and sticking to it. Finish Line is the first episode I can recall this year that doesn’t have that strength – it’s a mess because it doesn’t know what it wants to be about, whether it’s the redemption of a villain or a final physical test for Barry. There are lots of things to commend about the episode still, such as HR’s sacrifice, or the scenes between Barry, Iris and Savitar, and a cliffhanger that satisfyingly closes off this stage of Barry’s hero’s journey, but they’re flashes of a more cogent episode that has to share space with a hyperactive mess of half-baked sci-fi tropes and abrupt character returns. It’s ultimately a disappointing, if redeemable, conclusion to a season that never quite articulated its considerable ambition in the way it could have done, even if the solid set-up for the future means that The Flash doesn’t have as much to clear up as it did last year; the flaws are more to do with the plotting here and now. Nonetheless, this finale was a reminder of what The Flash really needs to fix in order to become the show it was in season one, and showed signs of in this season and the last. Arrow’s resurgence this year shows that it’s never too late for a retool that gets the show back to the core of its premise, and The Flash would do well to follow its lead. There’s no reason why Barry Allen can’t reclaim his spot as one of TV’s best superheroes, but The Flash is going to have to work to prove that next season.