“Paradox” is stronger than last week’s premiere, but it still leaves me with questions about this season. Will The Flash learn from the mistakes it made last year? Will it continue to rely on dourness to find depth despite its incompatibility with the overall tone of the series? When will Barry grow up already? What is the central theme at the heart of this season? It’s that last question I’m most worried about.
This episode is split between two story lines: Barry’s attempts to fix the changes in this even newer timeline and the slow buildup to introduce the new villains. Neither is especially successful, but more than the dull villainy of Doctor Alchemy and the Rival, I’m bothered by the series’ inability to have Barry Allen mature.
In that specific way, The Flash finds itself trapped in an uneasy state. Since season one, the show has been at its best when embracing the Silver Age zaniness of its titular character. It can still create moments of greatness by highlighting the emotional vulnerability of its male character. (Has there been a superhero as willing to cry as Grant Gustin’s Barry?) But the show seems to struggle with compelling its lead character to grow, not unlike many other superhero adaptations, particularly those from DC Comics.
Let’s start with this: Barry should know that lying to his core group of friends and family will cause more problems than it solves.
The opening of “Paradox” introduces a framing device in which Barry rushes over to Felicity for advice. While giving us a handy recap of everything that went down recently, Barry’s voice-over explains why he made the decision to go back in time to save his mother. Basically, he was overwhelmed after losing his father and defeating Zoom. He wanted to start over and live the life he felt he was meant to — free of the worries that come with being a superhero and the villains who target his family.
This reasoning feels pretty hollow, considering how much of season two was about helping him process his grief and move on. After all that, it’s hard to believe this is why Barry would choose save his mother. I suppose what bothers me most is how his decisions betray a selfishness; it seems like he doesn’t want to be the Flash. Can we have less narratives of heroes desiring normalcy and more heroes enjoying their powers? At least we do get moments of that, like when Barry takes down a diamond thief with a cocky charm at the beginning of the episode.
Back to Felicity. Barry recounts all the changes he’s found in this new timeline, but it isn’t just everyone he knows in Central City dealing with a different life. One important change has happened on Team Arrow: Diggle has a son, not a daughter. Which means Barry has wiped a baby out of existence. Good job, Barry. Is this the biggest change we’re going to see for the Arrow cast? Although Flashpoint opens up so many narrative avenues for the Flash and the interconnected DC Universe of shows, such a small difference suggests they will play it safe.
I get that Barry and Felicity are friends, but she seems shoehorned into this episode. And the framing device used in the opening — in which their conversation tells us what’s been happening with Barry — is quickly dropped, making her inclusion even odder. Barry’s choice to go to Felicity doesn’t bother me too much, but why does he think lying to his friends is a good idea? Instead of being honest with them, he tries to manipulate their actions and fix his misdeeds, which they notice pretty quickly. At this point, Barry needs to grow up just a little bit. I’m not asking for perfection. I’m just asking for a character arc that makes sense. Like Eobard wondered in the premiere, how will the Barry we’re seeing today become the smarter, more mature hero of the future?
The changes in this timeline aren’t as dramatic as the one in the premiere, but they are instrumental. Iris still wants to give romance a try with Barry even though his time travel wiped their kiss out of existence again. Barry now shares his lab with Julian Albert (Tom Felton), the metahuman CSI specialist. Julian is an odd addition to the cast since it’s hard to imagine him interacting with anyone else, even though Cisco casually mentions how he’s “the best.” Really, Cisco? Julian is condescending and undercuts Barry’s knowledge on a regular basis. He’s so rude to Barry, you’d think they had some deep history. Guess again. At the end of the episode, Julian reveals he just doesn’t trust Barry. I won’t get too harsh on this point since this is his first appearance. Let’s just hope the character improves.
Worse yet is what everyone else must dealing with. Cisco’s brother, Dante, died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. He’s angry that Barry won’t go back in time to save Dante. (On the plus side, though, he has a better handle on his powers, which leads him to save Barry from the Rival.) The rift between Joe and Iris is deeper than expected; they grew apart when Iris learned her mother was alive, a secret Joe kept from her. Caitlin seems to be her usual self until the episode’s end, when we see her hand go icy. Her Killer Frost powers are back! Judging from the scared look on her face, that isn’t a good thing. And just like Barry, she doesn’t tell anyone the truth.
Meanwhile, Barry tries to force his friends to exist like they did in a timeline they don’t even remember. He orchestrates dinners and crosses boundaries. All of these efforts fail, of course. But they do raise fascinating questions about the human factor in superhero stories.
We don’t often focus too directly on the emotional landscapes of the characters around any titular hero. In this episode and others, The Flash leans into this blind spot, giving us a chance to see how people reckon with the dramatic upheaval in their lives when one of their closest friends happens to be the fastest man alive. Cisco’s depression and the rifts elsewhere don’t quite work, but these are valuable ideas to dig into. What happens to the people around heroes like Barry when they feel they have no control over their lives anymore? When Barry finally tells them the truth, they all decide they don’t want to know anything about the previous timelines.
You’d think that Barry’s tearful honesty would be what brings these characters together, but it isn’t. Yet again, Iris’s emotional maturity is the glue that holds the group intact. She’s the only adult in the room. What Barry did was wrong, she says, but he’s still their friend.
Although Iris is invaluable asset for Team Flash, she isn’t the MVP of “Paradox.” That title goes to Jay Garrick — the Garrick who happens to be Henry Allen’s doppelgänger. After Iris confronts Barry, he decides that instead of facing his consequences, he should ignore them altogether by traveling through time again. Garrick yanks him out of the speed force for a sit-down dinner in 1998. (If all the flannel doesn’t give away the time period, Dawson’s Creek playing on the TV most certainly does.) It’s Garrick advice that forces Barry to come to terms with the fact that time travel has consequences. He must accept that there is no way to fix the timeline. “The question you need to ask yourself is what kind of hero are you going to be?” Garrick asks. “Are you just going to take a do-over every time you make a mistake or are you going to live with them and move forward?”
It’s an important question. Barry’s answer will not only shape his emotional development, but the future success of the show itself. Garrick gives me hope for the future of season three, even though it got dashed anytime Doctor Alchemy or the Rival appeared onscreen. Doctor Alchemy gives the Rival back his powers after he’s haunted by memories of a previous timeline. But who cares about this villain? He’s cocky and boring, which is a pretty terrible mix. His rants about Barry ruining his life feel weightless, considering how the timeline he wants back wasn’t even the original in the first place. Doctor Alchemy isn’t much better. He sounds like he needs an inhaler. And his character motivation is awfully murky. He wants to grant people abilities … because they had powers in a previous timeline? Maybe that’s how Wally will become Kid Flash again.
Clearly, The Flash needs to improve these villains. They don’t add compelling mystery or an sense of danger to the story. Still, if The Flash can extrapolate the wonder and emotional honesty found in this episode’s Jay Garrick scene, there may be hope for this season after all.