"The Reverse-Flash Returns" could have been a good episode, if it weren't for The Flash's almost-masochistic desire to focus on Barry and Patty's bland "romance."
Oh, you thought Patty's announcement that she's leaving Central City would mean she'd have no screen time this week? Sorry, that just isn't the case. I think it's safe to say that even viewers who like her character — a contingent I'm not a part of — don't want to see Patty take precedence over the Reverse-Flash/Eobard Thawne. The return of Barry's most important villain is the main plot, but Patty takes up a lot more screen time than I expected. It's not just that the romance isn't working, either. The problem is how her role puts a spotlight on the show's most glaring pitfalls and distracts from everything else.
As Eobard Thawne follows Barry, who is trying to distract himself from Patty troubles by throwing himself into his super-heroics, it becomes clear this isn't the Reverse-Flash we knew last season. This Eobard hasn't yet killed Barry's mother, impersonated Harrison Wells, or wormed his way into the lives of Cisco and Caitlin.
Nonetheless, he's still a power-hungry madman: He kidnaps Dr. McGee, forcing her to charge tachyon particles and help him travel back to his own timeline.
So, how will Team Flash catch Eobard before he goes to the future? That's where Cisco and a very reluctant Harry come in. After Cisco realizes that the trigger to tap into his powers is adrenaline, Harry dons the Reverse-Flash costume and sneaks up on Cisco. (He screams like a little girl.) The fright triggers Cisco's vibe, which first alerts the team to the Reverse-Flash's presence.
Things really heat up afterward, once Harry alters Cisco's goggles to induce his abilities. In "full-on vibe mode," Cisco is surrounded by events in different timelines. With Harry's guidance, he hones in on the Reverse-Flash, then watches as he kills Dr. McGee moments before her speed machine hurtles him to the future. Naturally, the team freaks out. But don't worry — Cisco was looking at the future.
For me, the interactions between Tom Cavanagh's Harry and Carlos Valdes's Cisco interact are a highlight of the season. And I'm glad that Cisco's powers are developing; they'll be an invaluable tool for future stories. Despite those gains, though, we still can't fully trust Harry. Will Cisco's powers help him realize that Harry killed the Turtle? Jay and Caitlin discovered his dead body, but haven't really picked up the trail yet.
Thanks to Cisco's vibe, Barry saves Dr. McGee just before she gets murdered, then knocks around the Reverse-Flash for a bit. But that's only half the battle. Back at S.T.A.R. Labs, Harry orders everyone not to talk to Eobard. He still hasn't killed Barry's mother or stolen Harrison Wells's identity, so telling him anything will upset the timeline. Of course, they don't listen to him. When was the last time these people showed any common sense?
Separately, both Cisco and Barry come face-to-face with Eobard — and to make matters worse, they spill a lot of details. (For what it's worth, Barry hides his face in the shadows.) Cisco mentions how Eobard gave him his powers and helped create the holding cell in which he's imprisoned. While cockily leaving the room, he even makes time to say, "Bye, Felicia." Eobard doesn't look scared. More than anything else, he looks intrigued. Barry asks Eobard why he hates him so much and killed his mother. He may as well have revealed his identity. Those shadows are pretty useless, I guess.
So, they basically go through a greatest hits of what Eobard has yet to do. Real smart, guys.
Eobard's hatred of Barry sticks to what we've seen in the comics: In the future, he was obsessed with recreating Barry's accident and wanted to become the Flash. He gets the speedster powers he craves, only to discover that he's destined to be Barry's enemy. The Flash handles all of this time-travel weirdness very well, but Eobard's backstory brings up a lot of questions about fate. Eobard embraces his fate, curdling his admiration for the Flash into an ugly obsession. But what if he chose differently? Is his turn toward villainy a fixed point in time, like the death of Barry's mom, or can it be changed?
Cisco's gloating is short-lived; he goes into a full-blown seizure and starts disappearing as if being erased from time. Capturing Eobard has ruptured the timeline. So, Barry has to help him get back to the future. They run together, and with Barry's help, Eobard gains enough momentum to travel through time. Cisco is saved.
However, these actions have a ripple effect on everyone's lives. Eobard has found out about everyone, and the seed for last season's plan to destroy Barry begins to sprout. "This is his origin story," Harry says.
There are so many good moments in this part of the episode. When Eobard asks Harry who he is, Harry replies, "No one of consequence." As we watch Barry beat the Reverse-Flash down, it becomes clear that the wounds Eobard inflicted may never heal. This is what I'd love The Flash to be. And sometimes, it truly is. The episode has its issues — a jaunt with Eobard doesn't advance the season's main Zoom plotline, and we don't really see how Caitlin and Iris react to his reappearance — but it's such a joy to watch. When this show mixes time travel, humor, heart, and Silver Age weirdness, it practically sings.
And then, it doesn't.
This season, The Flash has a habit of cutting off good narratives. It's most apparent in the handling of Jay Garrick. How can you bring him on the show, strip him of his powers, and routinely sideline him? Terminal sickness and a pallid romance with Caitlin are not the right way to use him.
Caitlin desperately tries to find Jay's Earth-1 doppelgänger, hoping that he'll provide a cure, but she comes up empty. When she tells Jay about her search, he tells her that he tried the same thing — and the plan won't work. His cells mutated when he became a speedster, so getting his powers back is the only way he can heal. None of this is very interesting until Jay decides to show Caitlin his Earth-1 doppelgänger sitting on a park bench. Earth-1 Jay has a different name; he lost his mother and was shuffled through the foster-care system until he was adopted. And his name is … Hunter Zolomon. Wait, what?!
In the comics, Hunter Zolomon is a villain for another Flash, Wally West. And his super-villain name? Zoom. Things just got interesting.
Does this mean The Flash will give Jay a bigger role? Is his Earth-1 doppelgänger actually Zoom? Is he linked to Zoom? He has to be. Otherwise, this is a cruel tease.
Speaking of Wally, the West family is suffering through all sorts of offscreen drama. Sure, there's a lot of development, but we don't see most of it. We learn that Francine is basically on her deathbed, and Joe says good-bye to his ex-wife … offscreen. In a teary scene, we at least get to see Iris say good-bye to her. We also get some bonding between Wally and Iris: She tells him about Eddie's death, convincing him to visit Francine before she's gone. (Poor Eddie, I actually kind of miss him.) At the end of the episode, Wally finally agrees to see Francine despite still feeling angry that she kept Joe and Iris a secret from him. He invites Iris to join him … and again, the farewell happens offscreen. Look, it was a particularly tone-deaf choice to bring Iris's mother back as a former drug addict. But wouldn't it be nice to see the development of Iris, Wally, and Joe onscreen? Maybe I'm asking for too much.
Let's move on to the worst part of the episode: Patty.
Patty spends "The Reverse-Flash Returns" trying to corner Barry, hoping that he'll convince her to stay. It is excruciating to watch. Just before she announced she was leaving town, she pretty much demanded that their relationship get serious. Now she's willing to give up her dreams for a guy she's been dating for a few months. Seriously?
Whenever romance comes into play, Barry can act pretty badly. "Everyone I love always ends up leaving me," he mutters to Patty in an early scene. Except for Joe. And Iris. Oh, and Caitlin and Cisco and … well, you get my point. Things only get worse from there. When Patty realizes that Barry (and Joe) work with S.T.A.R. Labs, she acts rather entitled, wanting to know more about what they're up to. I don't think Barry needs to tell every women he dates that he's the Flash. Eventually, Patty goes through Barry's case files and realizes he's the Flash. She approaches Joe about it, then calls him a terrible liar before peacing-out. After all this buildup, it feels remarkably lackluster. "She's a smart girl," Joe says to Barry, after revealing that Patty knows the truth. Is she, Joe? It gets even worse.
Patty basically begs Barry to tell her that he loves her and that he's the Flash. She's desperate for a reason to stay. Learn to love yourself, Patty! Barry isn't having it. I wouldn't have it either. Her behavior isn't romantic; it just seems kind of creepy.
Apparently, Patty doesn't care enough about Barry to respect his own decisions, so at the end of the episode, she calls him saying someone's on her train with a gun. Of course, he dons his costume and comes to her aid. Surprise! It's a lie. This is such a messed-up, selfish thing to do. It doesn't piss Barry off, though, and they share a tender moment. Sure. Okay. Whatever. If The Flash wants to torpedo this character, then mission accomplished. At least Patty is gone, so we'll get less terrible melodrama and more of the spark seen in Eobard's reemergence.