In Barry Allen’s line of work, nothing comes easy. When he’s saving the day as the Flash, he’s taking on typically extraordinary duties like suspending speeding trucks – and elsewhere he’s apprehending super-powered criminals with malicious agendas. Then his personal life takes a hit because his loved ones share a deep connection to him, leaving them in his enemies’ crosshairs. Above all else, Barry constantly has to consider the responsibility, the privilege and the principal necessary for him to maximize his gifts. There’s a whole lot of wrong he could be doing with his super speed, but he’s morally obligated to make the right calls everyday – regardless how hard that may be.
“The Reverse-Flash Returns” is The Flash rebounding from last week’s sluggish “Potential Energy” in a huge way, centering many of the episode’s conflicts around Barry himself. Here, we get to see him fight physical, emotional and moral battles that test his character more than ever. And since the parameters of these battles are firmly rooted in prior viewings, we’re left feeling the same joy in victory that Barry experiences – and the same level of remorse in defeat. This personal take on the main story arc rightfully connects us to Barry on a deeper level, and because he’s such an endearing presence the episode winds up all the more engaging.
Much of said engagement comes in the form of the Reverse-Flash, himself. Eobard Thawne’s return last week opened up a plethora of questions tonight’s installment needed to answer, and we were fed with plenty of exposition without the dialogue doing all of the work. The simple fact that he was trapped between the past (which is the exact moment in the season one finale when he died) and the future (where he relishes his rivalry with Barry) without prior knowledge of the former justified his reasons for immediately seeking a way back to his time – but it also resurrected Barry’s hatred of him. Instead of the show verbally reminding us of the pain our main protagonist had to go through to defeat Thawne the first time, it gives us a brutally righteous re-encounter that illustrates all of Barry’s feelings. The egregious upper hand The Flash had not only proves that he’s more in sync with his powers than before; it caters to the reality that Barry really would’ve killed the man in yellow for good if his integrity wasn’t in play.
But where the episode truly takes off with this renewed animosity is in the conversation afterwards. Locked up in S.T.A.R. Labs following his defeat, Thawne gets a front row seat to the splurging of emotions Barry has on tap. Our Flash makes it crystal clear that he’s the faster, better speed freak for sure – but not before expressing his frustrations surrounding why Thawne terrorized his life in the first place. All of the negativity and pathos that has stuck with Barry his whole life comes from Thawne murdering his mother, and the reality that she’ll never be a part of his life again. Barry has always had a right to be vengeful under these circumstances (especially since Thawne committing this horrible act was the result of him tirelessly striving to become the faster of the two gentlemen), and he finally gets to reveal these emotions to his counterpart, in a wonderfully dark moment accentuated by the likes of Grant Gustin and Matt Letscher.
The whole discord between them is also extremely rewarding; not just because of the terrific acting on display this week (particularly from Letscher), but because it fleshes both characters out so beautifully. We learn that Reverse-Flash will always be lurking around, getting faster purely for sport and perpetually holding off the happiness Barry may never find. Barry has to live his whole life knowing that his mother’s murderer is out there plotting, and his reputation for merit prevents him from practicing methods that would give him the type of closure he thinks he deserves. Psychologically speaking, Barry has to play hero and protect the greater good, even if that means letting Thawne go back to the future (pun intended) so that Cisco’s saved from a potential space-time continuum fuck up of mass proportions. That’s the only way he’ll eventually achieve happiness – but the effects of taking the high road will linger. The tragedy scrunched in the middle of all this is the personal disappointment in sacrifice, which makes Barry’s search for that eventual happiness all the more captivating: we know how much the taking is affecting him, but if he can keep his morals in check long enough to give all he’s capable of, he will find his closure – he just doesn’t know it yet.
This personal struggle is also well-documented in the sudden collapse of his relationship with Patty, even though it still feels overly contrived. Two scenes in particular – one where Barry rejects Patty’s claims of him being the Flash (thank God she finally used her detective skills to figure that out!) and another where they say their official goodbyes – stood out here for embracing the art of our hero’s sacrifice. Barry wants to fall in love with this smart, beautiful woman – but he’ll never forgive himself if that means inviting her into a cause that could potential have her killed. I’m still calling bullshit on the context of it all (again, Barry undoubtedly has feelings for Iris and yet she’s still here, knowing damn well he’s the Flash also), but at least her departing for Capitol City doesn’t leave the same nasty taste in my mouth that it did a week ago.
Wells and Cisco stole the show tonight, linking up for some brilliant humor and collaborating over a trap to stop Zoom. I’ve already glossed over Tom Cavanaugh’s amazing work this season (as well as this whole series thus far), so this time I’ll shout out Carlos Valdes and his fantastic performance here. Whether he was having a moment with Wells, or coming to grips with both the fun and horrors of his “vibing”, Valdes hit his lines out of the park, perpetuating everything we love about Cisco and his eccentricity. In addition, the episode excelled at throwing him into the conflict between Barry and Thawne, as Wells’ new high-tech glasses gave him the chance to use his powers again to prevent another Reverse-Flash execution – and his potential death via the time-based complications of keeping Thawne trapped in the present provided an emotionally gripping, multi-faceted climax. Seeing him libel Reverse-Flash over the irony of his upbringings, coupled with the “Bye, Felicia!” at the end, was icing on the cake.
“The Reverse-Flash Returns” stumbled hard when it focused on the West family drama, and for the second week in a row The Flash has Wally leaving us with mixed impressions. I don’t understand why he thought his car needed more tending to than his dying mother, and the referencing to her mistake of hiding his father and sister from him for decades just wasn’t a good enough excuse for me. Iris forgiving Francine was a surprisingly touching scene all it’s own, but for the most part I was left asking plenty of questions regarding why any of this was even happening right now. I’d get that perhaps the writers felt that sacrifice and letting go of the past could be running themes for all parties, but I never thought the timeliness of Francine’s declining health has had the kind of depth or personal connection necessary for it to capitalize on those particular aspects. Being invested just isn’t in the cards for me because I’ve always felt this subplot was a simple matter of “long-lost wife/mother gets sick, suddenly feels bad for walking out on family and starts revealing crucial family secrets now since it’s convenient to the acknowledgement of her illness helping her gain absolution”.
Apparently, Earth 1 Jay is Hunter Zolomon – who’s universally known as Zoom in the comics – and Caitlin’s efforts to find a cure for him lead us to this startling revelation. There’s a wee bit of intrigue to this story arc now, since we have to wonder if that boring-looking dude at the park with the reading glasses is responsible for enacting terrible fear on Central City a month ago. Better yet is the sensible discovery that simply finding Jay’s doppleganger won’t save him on account of his version of the particle accelerator altering his genes. In a way, it heightens the stakes of defeating Zoom, and there’s at least some possibility that Caitlin’s insistence will somehow lead to chilling (sorry, had to) new developments, like the arrival of Killer Frost – if, of course, Zolomon isn’t as ordinary as we think he is. I could still care less about Jay at this point, but The Flash is certainly trying to give his plight substance, and I commend that.
“The Reverse-Flash Returns” is the season two mid-season premiere we never had. By bringing back Matt Lestcher’s Thawne from the dead (or, in this case, from the center of a space-time push and pull), we get the personal battle we deserve in Barry’s tragic struggle to maintain his morals. Cisco and Wells’ respective connections to Reverse-Flash also lend to some expertly-written character moments, as well as stark reminders of the grand threat the villain was a season ago. This wasn’t a perfect episode, and certain elements would’ve been better left explored in the coming weeks, but I was on the edge of my seat all night long – and that’s way more than what I could say about The Flash seven days ago.
+ Reverse-Flash and the origin story that unfolds
+ Barry’s moral/emotional roller-coaster, featuring a gruesome beatdown of Thawne
+ Cisco slowly making the transition into Vibe
+ Wells, again
– West family drama
– Still not entirely convinced that Patty had to leave Central City