The Flash is back, and it's finally unburdened of Legends of Tomorrow. Does that means the show has returned to its peak form? Not quite, not yet.
Before the midseason break, The Flash laid some groundwork for what to expect going forward: We caught brief glimpses of Earth-2, Harry agreed to collaborate with Zoom to save his daughter's life, and a cliffhanger introduced Wally West, one of DC Comics' greatest characters. These are all fascinating story lines, and any one of them could have been the focus of this episode. Instead, "Potential Energy" is about the season's weakest dynamic — the relationship between Barry and Patty.
I've had a lot of issues with this pairing. The actors lack any sort of chemistry, and to make matters worse, the writing is so terribly forced. Does anyone in The Flash's writing room know how people talk when they date? Why can't any CW show seem to escape this problem?
"Potential Energy" opens with Barry speeding to his date with Patty. He tells her how lucky he is, but he speaks too soon — Zoom shows up to interrupt their romantic moment. Zoom dangles Patty from the ledge of a building, and as Barry watches, she plummets to the street. It's all okay, though; Barry is just having a nightmare. Unfortunately, Patty isn't actually dead. (Okay, okay. I'm kidding. I don't like her, but Barry doesn't need more generic man-pain.)
Barry has been having a lot of nightmares lately. He's been acting very distant to Patty, too — an odd choice since the episode hinges on us buying their relationship. Even if you like Patty, you have to admit her character feels poorly written. We still haven't seen why Barry and Patty make a good couple. Awkward flirting and shared geekiness isn't the basis of a solid relationship. It's simply hard to feel invested in them as a couple. Which, again, makes me wonder: Why are they the centerpiece of the show's first episode after the mid-season break?
Patty goes to an unlikely source for help with her relationship drama: Iris. She gives her good advice, which basically amounts to "make Barry feel comfortable enough to share whatever's on his mind." What sticks out to me, though, is how the scene starts with Patty saying something to the effect of "I know Barry is practically your brother … " This is the second time in the episode that someone refers to Barry and Iris as siblings. (Wally says it, too.) This isn't weird on its own, but it makes me wonder if The Flash will ever bring Iris and Barry together romantically.
Barry's relationship drama also crosses paths with the meta-human-of-the-week. We don't have any hot, low-level criminals, or a thief with a surprising way of words — man, this episode could really use Captain Cold's energy — but instead, Barry faces off against a meta-human Cisco has been tracking offscreen. He calls him the Turtle, since he slows down the speed of things around him by sapping kinetic energy. ("The Turtle" is Cisco's worst meta-human name, right? He even has the gall to say "turtle time.")
Cisco sees the Turtle as an opportunity to solve their Zoom problem. Rather than make Barry faster, maybe they can zap away Zoom's speed. The Turtle holds the key, which makes the ever prickly Harry suddenly interested. Of course, things won't be that easy.
At first, the Turtle seems like another thief emboldened by his meta-human abilities, nabbing pricey items without punishment. He steals an expensive diamond ring at a press conference, then easily eludes Barry. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when everyone at STAR Labs tries to catch him a second time, figuring he'll target a famous painting at a museum gala.
Their plan goes south for a silly reason. After talking to Iris, Barry decides to tell Patty that he's the Flash … at the museum gala. Why didn't he just reschedule their date? When it comes to romance, I guess superheroes don't have common sense. (Cisco knows what I'm talking about: "Do you think when you're fighting crime it's a good idea to bring a date?")
While Cisco and Harry stay in the surveillance van, the rest of STAR Labs is dressed to the nines inside the museum. Moments after Patty thinks Barry ditched her, the Turtle grabs the painting. Patty draws her gun on the meta-human, then things just tailspin. The Turtle gets away, but not before shooting down a chandelier that hangs above Patty. Barry has to save her, which makes the Turtle a bit too interested in Patty.
Later, Barry tries to explain things to Patty. It doesn't go well. "I've been a really, really cool girlfriend," she contends. Sure, whatever, okay. I know her teary-eyed speech is supposed to be an emotional moment, but I just can't buy their relationship. It's all happened too fast. (Funnily enough, several characters mention how quickly they became an item. How self-aware!)
Before Barry has an opportunity to reveal his secret identity to Patty, the Turtle kidnaps her. And this is where things get weird. The Turtle isn't just a thief; apparently, he's a complete sociopath. He kidnaps Patty because she's precious to the Flash. He wants to keep her on display in a creepy glass booth, right next to his poor, lifeless wife. The Flash does zany well, but whenever it trips into weighty ideas — like formerly drug addicted ex-wives who were thought to be dead, or creepy sociopaths who display women like art exhibits — the show reveals its limitations. The Silver Age–inspired foundation of The Flash just doesn't mix with darker stories.
Team Flash figures out that the Turtle is in the abandoned library, where his wife once worked. Inside, he's keeping the spoils of his thievery on display. ("The way a serial killer keeps trophies," Harry says.) Barry has absolutely no plan when he gets there, so his first attempt to save Patty doesn't work — he only gets punched in the face for his efforts. The second time, he comes in faster and maneuvers through the Turtle's abilities. He saves the girl, but it's too late to save his relationship. The next day, as he tries to reveal his secret identity to Patty, she cuts him off to say she's leaving. Now that her dad has been avenged, she doesn't need to stay in Central City anymore. She's going to chase her dream; she's becoming a crime-scene investigator. Finally.
Patty may have annoyed me, but she's a case study for the weird predicaments that superheroes' girlfriends suffer for the sake of stories. Ultimately, she didn't add anything to the show. It should be perfectly okay for Barry to be single — or to just date casually — until the writers of The Flash decide to get him together with Iris. (I hope.)
The rest of "Potential Energy" features threads that should have been explored more. For starters, Jay Garrick is back from whatever attic he's been hiding in. (I still can't believe how he's been squandered.) Apparently, Jay and Caitlin are in a relationship now … and he has a fatal disease, which can only be cured if he gets his powers back. Wait, did I miss a few episodes? Also, Caitlin has a terribly selfish reaction to Jay's illness. She makes it all about herself, wondering why he would let her get close after learning how she lost her husband. Again: The Flash doesn't do romance well.
Harry and Cisco interact a lot, but their relationship still remains somewhat underdeveloped. Hopefully, we'll see more of them together as the season progresses. Harry may be different from the Wells we remember, but he seems to share his doppelganger's ruthlessness. He blithely kills the Turtle in his holding cell to collect DNA samples, which he'll hopefully use to synthesize a formula to steal Zoom's speed and save his daughter. Or will he use it on Barry?
Wally West doesn't figure into much of this episode either. Maybe that's to be expected, but it's still a shame. We see Joe trying to be a good dad — maybe even forcing a father/son dynamic that Wally isn't ready to adopt. Things take an odd turn when it's revealed that Wally is a drag racer, and he uses the money he wins to pay for mom's medical bills. The joy of winning his latest race is short-lived, though, when Wally sees Joe glaring at him from the sidelines. Joe is understandably pissed; Wally bailed on the family dinner. West Family 2.0 isn't off to a good start, as Iris says.
Still, Wally doesn't back down. "Guess I didn't have my dad to teach me anything, huh?" he scoffs. On the one hand, I get this kid's anger. On the other, Joe didn't abandon him — he didn't even know Wally existed. Eventually, Joe and Wally patch things up over Chinese takeout. It's a cute moment, but I'm waiting for The Flash to write Wally in a way that lives up to the character's greatness in the comics (or on Justice League Unlimited). What happened to Wally's humor and his geeky exuberance? I know he won't be exactly like that, if only because of the character's new origin, but I'd appreciate a little bit of levity. Also, when is Wally going to get his powers? If the show plans to keep bringing in speedsters — especially ones who carry the Flash mantle in the comics — it'd be nice if they actually had superpowers.
"Potential Energy" isn't bad, but it is forgettable. And like many prior episodes, it ends with the promise of greater things to come. We see Reverse-Flash speed down a suburban street. He takes off his mask to reveal Eobard Thawne, who somehow wasn't wiped out of existence at the end of last season. I'm used to seeing (and loving) the Eobard who pretended to be Harrison Wells. How different will this incarnation be? We've barely seen Matt Letscher's take on the character. Will he live up to Tom Cavanagh's excellence? And will The Flash escape its many half-measures, lackluster meta-humans, and narrative pitfalls? We'll find out soon.