That’s it? After all that build-up, after so much time spent exploring Earth-2, after all of those emotional moments … this is the big secret about Zoom?
The Flash has had some rocky episodes this season, especially when it was stuck setting up Legends of Tomorrow, but “Versus Zoom” is a particularly disappointing low point. This episode squanders potential, contradicts its own world building, and leads several characters to make incredibly stupid decisions.
“Versus Zoom” fails on many levels, so let’s get the most important reveal out of the way: Hunter Zolomon is Jay Garrick is Zoom. We basically knew this already, but we didn’t know that “Jay Garrick” was simply an invention of Earth-2’s Hunter Zolomon and created to play with people’s emotions because he’s an emotionally stunted jerk. (I’ll be referring to him as Hunter Zolomon going forward now that we know the Jay Garrick identity was a complete fiction.) Playing the hero was a fun game for him, especially whenever he could rip hope away from people. We also learn that, in order to keep up this façade and become a part of Team Flash, Zolomon got a version of himself from another moment in time (called a Time Remnant) to pretend to be him when necessary. And apparently, this Time Remnant version of himself agreed to be murdered because the plan was just that good. He’s the one who was killed. Sure, fine.
I’m not usually a purist when it comes to adapting major comic-book characters. As more and more of these heroes and villains are brought into shows and films, it’s necessary to mess around with the established canon. However, the complete disregard for the uplifting, hopeful Jay Garrick of the comics is not only insulting, it breaks the show’s own internal logic. The Flash has always been a show that borders on utopian. Sure, Central City is threatened by monsters and mayhem, but those threats exist within within a playful Silver Age tone. Even when story lines lead to heartbreak, The Flash is guided by an essential empathy.
That’s not the case in this episode. Zolomon/Zoom could have come from a third version of Earth, or he could have been a twin, or pretty much anything else. Having Zoom pretend to be Jay Garrick feels disrespectful of the role he played in the comics; without Garrick, the Silver Age wouldn’t exist. To make matters worse, Zolomon’s backstory has both considerable plot holes and the same sort of empty grittiness that has hampered DC Comics’ film adaptations.
“Versus Zoom” opens by showing how an 11-year-old Zolomon witnessed his father abuse and kill his mother. He’s shuttled off to a dour-looking orphanage, where things only get worse. Two things about this: Does The Flash really need another dead mother? And why would Zolomon’s father’s uniform inspire how he would dress as Jay/Earth-2 Flash? What a thematically muddled backstory. Given this information, we can probably bet that there’s no version of a real, kind Jay Garrick that exists on any Earth. The Flash likes to play around with its comic-book source material, sometimes adapting things rather loosely, but the show has reliably stuck to the heart of the matter. This reveal, which pretty much obliterates Jay’s character, really undercuts some of what the show does best. Worse, his backstory is rote and ridiculous. Oh, it gets worse.
The moment Harry overhears Caitlin mention that Jay’s supposed Earth-2 doppelgänger is named Hunter Zolomon is when we learn the truth about how all of Zoom’s identities are linked. According to Harry, Zolomon was a serial killer on Earth-2, convicted of 23 counts of murder. He became a press sensation because serial killers are rare on his world. He was committed to a mental asylum that looks like a torture chamber, where was given electroshock therapy — including on the night the particle accelerator exploded, which is how he got his powers. Let’s back up for a moment. How the hell did no one recognize “Jay Garrick” as Zolomon if his crimes were so widely covered? They didn’t have any pictures of him without a beard on Earth-2? Even with the beard, he’s pretty recognizable. That makes no sense. How didn’t Harry know about this? The way the reveal is played off, he doesn’t even seem all that surprised. Also, given how enlightened Earth-2 is supposed to be, what’s up with the grim, retrograde depiction of a mental hospital?
Thanks to the tachyon enhancement technology, Barry’s power now exceeds Zolomon’s. This fact isn’t all that important, though, because the writers found a way to make everyone act incredibly stupid (again). Nevertheless, Cisco learns how to better use his powers, and with Barry’s enhanced speed, Team Flash is able to open a breach and lure Zolomon to S.T.A.R. Labs. The chase between Barry and Zolomon is fun to watch, at least. They capture Zolomon by distracting him with … cardboard cutouts of his dead parents? (Where did they get those made?) Once I noticed that only one of his legs was held in the contraption that nailed him to the ground, I knew this wouldn’t last long.
Zolomon’s backstory is contrived, messy, and somewhat boring, but it does lead to some good scenes. The conversation Barry has with Zolomon, for instance, illustrates why he’s such a great hero. Zolomon sees family as a hindrance, while Barry sees it as a great motivator — perhaps even his reason for living. Also, actor Teddy Sears is a lot more interesting now that everything about Zolomon is out in the open. (He’s still no match for Tony Todd’s great voice work, though.)
After all that, Zolomon escapes the paltry contraption holding him in place. Why didn’t they bolt down both legs or put him in a cell or somehow try to neutralize his powers? Zolomon kidnaps Wally, then lays out his terms to Barry: If he wants Wally to survive, he must give up his powers. The team can’t think of a way to double-cross him, so Barry agrees.
After using a retrofitted version of the device Harry originally created to steal Barry’s powers, Zolomon doesn’t kill a now-powerless Barry … because of a heartwarming speech from Caitlin? Whom he kidnaps at the very end of the episode? Right. It’s one stupid plot contrivance after another. The actors are all more than game, but their enthusiasm can’t distract from the sheer stupidity of it all. I don’t necessarily watch a show like The Flash for its narrative complexity, but it seems reasonable to expect some intelligence and thought put into things. And we still don’t know the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask! He better be as interesting as this drawn-out mystery has made him out to be. If not, that will be infuriating.
There are brief, shining moments to distract from the outright disaster of the main plot. Seeing Iris and Caitlin interact is nice, although the fact that their conversation ends up being about Barry is annoying. On the plus side, at least Iris realizes she has romantic feelings for Barry, so we can expect their relationship dynamics to change soon. That’s something I’ll definitely be happy to see. Cisco’s expanded abilities provide some pretty cool visuals when he opens up a breach — and his fear of becoming like his Earth-2 counterpart, Reverb, gives us a touching moment between him and Barry. That said, there’s no way that a Star Wars fan like him would acknowledge the prequels and midichlorians.
Look, I love The Flash. At its best, it marries cast chemistry, lots of heart, a refreshingly vulnerable take on superheroes, and the odd mythos that typifies the comic-book version of the Flash. That’s why I’m so disappointed by “Versus Zoom.” It puts a spotlight on the worst aspects of the show, then creates new ones in the process. It’s great to see some movement on the Iris-Barry romance and Wally’s development. I’m glad that the truth behind Zoom is out, even if it is remarkably misguided. But the nature of Zolomon’s backstory and the disregard for Jay Garrick feel misguided at best. At worst, it directly contradicts the show’s empathetic instincts. Hopefully, the remaining episodes will lead The Flash back to what it does best.