After The Flash's sweet crossover with Supergirl and the controversial reaction to Batman v Superman, it seems like a good time to discuss the superhero genre. It has become a rote behemoth of sorts, churning out the same lurid, repetitive stories over and over again. Meanwhile, over the course of two seasons, The Flash has crafted a mythology and a tenderhearted sense of masculinity that make the show stand out from a crowded market. When every other superhero adaptation zigs, The Flash zags.
"Flash Back" doesn't advance the narrative all that much — if anything, it feels like an aside that could have been condensed into a more compelling episode — but nevertheless, it is incredibly fun to watch. The episode reaffirms how sweet Barry Allen can be. It also adds a bit more texture to the show's depiction of time travel with the introduction of a Time Wraith, a low-rent Dementor-type figure that targets speedsters who mess with time.
As the episode begins, Barry travels back in time about a year before Eddie died, before the truth about Eobard Thawne came out, and before the singularity appeared. His plan is straightforward enough: Wells will train him, giving him the advice he needs to get faster and beat Zoom. Harry finds the plan "asinine" and warns him of the dangerous consequences. Barry may have the knowledge of the future on his side, but Wells studied him for 15 years. The potential fallout could be devastating. Caitlin and Cisco support his decision anyway, and help out by giving him pointers on when to arrive and what to do, as well as brushing him up on the details of their lives back then. Thanks to the Time Wraith's interference, however, he arrives a bit too early and witnesses his first fight with the Pied Piper, a.k.a. Hartley Rathaway (Andy Mientus).
Barry's time in the past is fun, yet somewhat wistful. In his old life, things were momentarily easier; he felt he could fully trust the people around him. "Flash Back" lays a lot of parallels between Wells/Thawne and Jay Garrick/Zoom. The problem, though, is that Jay has felt weightless in season two. Compare him to Wells, a powerhouse character whom the show carefully developed. Jay has disappeared and been forgotten too often, so his betrayal doesn't carry the significance that Wells's had last season.
Thankfully, the episode has quite a few standout moments — like when Barry faces off against his past self. It's a great idea, even as it's undercut by bad CGI, which somewhat dulls the coolness of seeing two Barrys chase each other. (Also, future-Barry tranquilizing past-Barry and leaving him in an alley in broad daylight seems a bit dumb, no? What happens if someone comes across him? Barry can work out complex scientific equations, but he still lacks common sense.)
Barry has to juggle a lot to pull off his mission: Don't spoil anyone on future events, keep the timeline as much intact as possible, don't stay for too long, don't get killed by the Time Wraith, and somehow convince Harry to help make him faster without tipping him off that he's from the future.
Of course, that last part doesn't go according to plan. Wells ends up knocking Barry out and handcuffing him to his wheelchair in that secret time room/lair. How'd he figure out Barry was from the future? The Time Wraith terrorizing Central City is a big hint, along with Barry's unfailing insistence to learn more about his speed.
Seeing Barry get another chance to face off with Wells provides the most thrilling moment of the episode. He may be handcuffed, but he isn't backing down. Barry first tries to keep up the ruse, but when that doesn't work, he venomously refers to him as Thawne. The two push and pull, and just when it seems like Wells has the upper hand, Barry outsmarts him. He lies about the future, claiming that Wells wins and returns to his own time. If anything happens to Barry, though, the past-Barry will find out. (He's left a letter for him.) The trick works. Wells is quietly seething, but he agrees to help Barry rather than kill him. It's a delight to watch Tom Cavanagh play this version of his character again, even though the weird Christian Bale/Batman voice he uses with Earth-2 Harry filters through a bit.
Past-Barry doesn't stay unconscious for long, and soon finds himself facing his future self in S.T.A.R. Labs. A couple of Wrath of Khan references later — as Cisco tries to figure out who is "really" Barry — and the truth comes out, pretty much nixing any drama. The moment Barry sees his future self is surprisingly downplayed, too. Past-Barry hasn't learned to time-travel yet and has no knowledge of Earth-2. Why downplay such a potentially significant meeting? Instead, the episode quickly progresses to Barry's return to the future with a flash drive that contains the speed equation from Wells. If anything, "Flash Back" suffers from too few plot points being stretched thin. Considering everything Barry does in the past — including how he pulls Cisco aside to reveal that Hartley knows where Ronnie is — you'd think he'd come back to a dramatically different future.
When he returns with the Time Wraith a half-step behind him, the only major difference appears to be the person who saves him. Apparently, Hartlet is now a good guy on Team Flash, which better aligns with the character's arc in the comics. I wish we weren't robbed of whatever led him down this path, though. Why did he become a good guy? How did he reconnect with his parents? These oversights epitomize the episode at large, which cuts corners at every turn.
At least "Flash Back" gives some great moments between Iris and Barry. The Flash seems to finally have realized how Iris provides the show with a lot of its heart. We get a few tender moments between her and Barry — and this time, he's the one giving her advice. Apparently, Iris is afraid to date Scott because she isn't ready to move on from Eddie. (A better reason to not date him? He's her boss.) Barry advises that she needs to remain open to the possibility of loving someone else.
Knowing that Eddie is doomed to die, Barry is understandably tense around him in the past. That's why it's so incredible to see what he does for Iris: He asks Eddie to record a message for her, under the guise that it's for her birthday. Barry undoubtedly loves Iris. Scenes like this one make clear it's a very selfless love. As she watches the video of Eddie, Iris is touched. A range of emotions play across Candice Patton's face — sadness, longing, hope, love — and that makes the moment truly stand out. It isn't enough to entirely save this episode, but it highlights the emotional intelligence of the show, proving yet again why The Flash is the most engaging superhero adaptation in recent memory.