The Flash Recap: The Tougher Thing Is to Feel

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Grant Gustin as Barry Allen/The Flash. Photo: Cate Cameron/CW
The Flash
Show
The Flash
Episode Title
The Man Who Saved Central City
Season
2
Episode
1
Editor’s Rating
3/5

The Flash excels at two things: bringing the zaniness of Silver Age comics to the modern age, while keeping a strong and kindhearted emotional core. The premiere proves itself in the latter category. But it’s surprisingly timid in how it sets up the Multiverse. If you’re going to introduce a comics concept like the Multiverse, you’ve got to be bold about it. Yet the season-two premiere is so sweet, so fun, and hits all the right emotional points, I’m sold for whatever the writers have to offer anyway.

When season one ended, there was a gargantuan wormhole/singularity over Central City that our beloved Scarlet Speedster valiantly raced into in order to save the day. Instead of beginning there, The Flash season-two premiere hurtles forward six months, and a lot has changed. The Flash is beloved by Central City, Cisco is working with Joe West as the scientific coordinator for the metahuman unit, and there have been major shifts in Team Flash: There isn’t one anymore. It’s that last point that provides the major thrust of the premiere.

The second season opens on a fight between the Flash and Heatwave and Captain Cold. Wentworth Miller’s appearance as Captain Cold is brief, but he still leaves a big impression. That man can chew scenery like the ghost of Bette Davis herself. Firestorm offers some help before Barry speeds his way back to S.T.A.R. Labs. His entire crew showers him with overly kind words, including some from people we know to no longer be alive. It feels too pat, too sweet. That’s because it isn’t real. Then we see what is real — Barry alone in a deserted S.T.A.R. Labs. It’s a more somber moment than you’d expect from this show.

It quickly becomes apparent that Barry has decided to do that thing that a lot of superheroes love to do: alienate his closest allies to protect them. Spoiler alert: That never works. But his reasons why are understandable, especially after seeing a flashback reveal that Ronnie died while helping him stop the singularity.

I get the depression Barry is dealing with. The expectations of an entire city and the death of close friends he feels responsible for is a lot for anyone to deal with, superpowers or not. Instead of processing anything, he’s been cleaning up the wreckage left behind and tending to S.T.A.R. Labs, which Harrison Wells left for him in his will (along with a flash drive containing a video message he’s afraid to watch).

At the police station, Iris, Joe, and Cisco discuss Barry’s desire not to receive the key to the city at a celebration in his honor. They all agree he should. Joe suggests that Barry needs his best friend to get through to him. And Cisco assumes it’s himself. But Joe corrects him. If anyone is his best friend, it’s Iris.

Wait a minute. Is The Flash finally treating Iris like an important character and not just some princess in the castle needing to be kept in the dark? Yes, finally.

Going into season two, the one thing I was worried about more than anything else was Iris. Iris West is not the problem. The problem has always been the narrow ways superhero love interests are written less as people and more as something needing to be protected, or so idealized that they don’t feel real. This usually results in boring romantic narratives and lots of uncomfortable gaslighting. Thankfully, the premiere goes a long way to correct that.

It’s Iris who provides the impetus to get Team Flash back together. Seeing Iris’s chemistry with everyone else, her warmth and humor add a lot to the show. She feels as important to the world of The Flash as she has in the comics. And it’s about time.

The metahuman of the week is Atom Smasher (who is surprisingly named by Professor Stein, not Cisco), who completely ruins Barry getting the key to the city. He’s not all that interesting on his own, but more for what he’s setting up. When Atom Smasher reveals the face under his mask, we see he’s the dead guy whose crime scene Barry and Joe were at earlier.

We also get a hint of Cisco’s growing metahuman abilities when he briefly witnesses another universe when seeing Atom Smasher.

Later, when Barry gets a notification of trespassers at S.T.A.R. Labs, he finds the team back together ready and willing to help him with Atom Smasher. Barry, of course, is initially stubborn, deciding to race off and handle Atom Smasher on his own which, surprise! It does not go well.

While beating up Barry with the same vigor and malice I once brought down on my Raggedy Ann doll as a child, Atom Smasher mentions something curious: “He said you were some kind of big hero. But you’re not worthy of him or this city!” This doesn’t register with Barry, since he’s getting pummeled.

Cisco is thankfully able to tap into the security feed of the compound and activate the alarms to distract Atom Smasher long enough for Barry to escape.

Of course, the gang eventually gets back together. Barry processes enough of his anguish to be okay with receiving help, and they all find a way to kill Atom Smasher.

Iris’s intel that X-ray machines went dark around the time Atom Smasher worked his mojo leads them to figure out his abilities to deal with radiation. Again, the metahuman plot is pretty weak here. He isn’t all that interesting until we find answers as to who the hell he was talking about when tossing Barry around, after being doused with more radiation than he can handle.

Just before Atom Smasher dies, Barry is able to get some information. He was promised to be taken home if he’d kill Barry. When Barry asks who he made that promise with, Atom Smasher whispers one name: “Zoom.” In the comics, Zoom, a.k.a. Hunter Zolomon, is a super-speedster villain more closely tied to the third Flash, Wally West. Considering the way The Flash has played loose with its overwhelming canon, the writers can go in a lot of directions with this.

The episode goes out of its way to give everyone a great moment. For Caitlin, it comes when she gets a visit from Barry at Mercury Labs. We know the gang is going to get back together, so it’s the other more emotional subplots that are worth focusing on. Caitlin blames herself for Ronnie’s death, recalling when she turned down his idea to leave everything behind and build a normal life elsewhere.

When the flash drive falls between them, Barry admits it’s a video from Wells he’s afraid to watch. So Caitlin suggests they watch it together. The video is a major development. Wells admits to killing Barry’s mother. This confession leads to Henry Allen getting exonerated after being in prison for 15 years.

He even gets a welcome-home party from Team Flash where Professor Stein makes a heartfelt toast that amounts to really one word: “Forward.” This is all sweet, but a bit cloying, too. That’s until Henry and Barry have an aside. Henry reveals he’s leaving Central City so he won’t get in the way of Barry’s development as a superhero. It’s the same line of thinking that the rest of the episode spends time undercutting in Barry, so I don’t understand why the writers think that we’ll buy it here.

Henry has been separated from his son for 15 years, and before the sun sets on his first day of freedom, he drops the bomb that he’s leaving so he won’t get in the way? It’s a pretty leaden moment in a show that lives or dies on its light touch.

The episode ends with lots of camaraderie, an updated Flash suit, and a discussion of how they upped the labs’ security (took them long enough). As if on cue, a shadowy figure emerges from the hall. (Cisco saying, “For real?” is pretty hilarious.) Everyone’s on high alert (except for the actual security system). Joe draws his gun. Barry demands to know the man’s identity. He steps into the light introducing himself as Jay Garrick.

If you don’t read the comics, Jay Garrick is the first Flash. His introduction (and ominous warning about Barry’s world being in peril) sets up the main focus for this season: the Multiverse.

The Multiverse has a long, deep history that even I find confusing, and I’ve been reading DC Comics for over 15 years. But just think of it like this: Multiple earths with their own sets of heroes and differences and timelines. That means there will be dopplegängers, alternate selves, and even crazier imaginings coming from Earth-2 (which explains how Wells can appear this season beyond flashbacks and conveniently taped wills).

The Flash has been showing hints of this for a while. Even the marketing plays this up. A promo poster for this season references the September 1961 The Flash No. 123 cover with the first Flash (Jay Garrick) unknowingly racing alongside the second Flash (Barry Allen) to rescue the same person in need. It’s the sort of bold, pure comic-book weirdness that The Flash serves up with a smile at its best. Which is why I’m surprised the show just didn’t jump into it more deeply. Ultimately, the premiere of season two feels more like an extended teaser for what’s to come. It’s lots of setup with fun references (like that Flash signal, recalling Batman), lots of humor (Cisco and Professor Stein being standouts) and great character moments (everyone gets a moment to shine). I get why the writers decided to make this episode a tentative step. I just don’t think it wholly works.

The moments that stick with me from this premiere are shared between Joe and Barry. There’s the flashback to a young Barry, who just joined the West household. He’s rightfully angry over his circumstances. And Joe gives him great advice: “The tougher thing is to feel.” (There’s an essay to be written about how The Flash portrays masculinity. These are men not afraid to cry or display the full breadth of their emotional landscapes.) The speech he gives here and after Barry gets his ass handed to him by Atom Smasher best encapsulates the show’s own philosophy. It also reminded me of the speech Buffy gives Dawn in the season=five finale. Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its fifth season balanced an expansion on its own mythology in startling directions, truly great character development, and a lot of heart. Buffy is more audacious. But for The Flash to succeed going forward, it needs to strike a similar balance.