Superhero stories are so often built on tragedy: orphaned children who harden in the face of loss, loved ones killed by villains, friendships that wither in the face of one apocalyptic event too many. The Flash isn’t breaking new ground with this terrain, but the nature of Barry’s powers mean his sorrow carries a different weight. With the power to travel through time, Barry can rewrite mistakes or learn about them before they happen — and as Flashpoint has shown, such a decision can have unintended consequences. If you had the ability to see your own future, would you? Or is the possibility of such knowledge too dangerous? Barry has never traveled to the future. Until now.
On its own, this mid-season finale isn’t a great episode, despite its great moments. I especially liked the celebratory dance H.R. and Wally do when they realize he’s faster than Barry was at the same point in his training. Uncovered truths don’t feel that revelatory. The action sequences aren’t as thrilling as they should be. A major problem is that “The Present” is splintered. We’re bouncing around a few plotlines when only half of them seem to work. What was up with that weird, vaguely Orientalist opening sequence showing Julian four years prior finding the elusive philosopher’s stone in India that we learn is the same one Dr. Alchemy wields?
“The Present” may lack cohesion, but it does illuminate how the nature of time and our desire to move beyond its constraints shape us. Most of the episode concerns Barry dealing with the threat of Dr. Alchemy and Savitar by learning more about them. Of course, getting this information isn’t easy. Barry often makes pretty myopic decisions fueled by overall good intentions, but he’s smart enough to know when he really needs to ask for help. This time he needs to go to another Earth to get it, Earth-3 to be exact.
Can I just say how much I am loving seeing the real Jay Garrick played by John Wesley Shipp? He has the right blend of fatherly wisdom and humor that I loved in the DC Comics version of the character. He perfectly encapsulates the Golden Age Flash; he’s been around the block a couple of times and has the hard-won wisdom to prove it. The brief foray into Earth-3 is the episode’s most memorable moment because it highlights what The Flash does best: Silver Age zaniness that leans into the theatrical nature of this story. Too often this season, Barry has instead replicated other superhero stories by choosing grittiness as a shortcut to pathos. Compare that to Barry dropping in on Garrick as he fights the Trickster (played by Mark Hamill, with malevolent delight and a creepy new look), which is just plain fun. It also suggests a better version of this season than we’re getting — one in which The Flash is a bit jauntier, looser, and adventurous in its storytelling. I also bet Iris actually does her job as a journalist in Earth-3 instead of just being Barry’s emotional support. But I digress.
Watching Garrick tussle with Savitar as Barry faced off with Dr. Alchemy almost seemed like a waste of their dynamic. More moments of Barry asking things like, “I’m your sidekick?” and less pontificating about the rote motivation of villains like Savitar, please. It isn’t surprising when Barry takes off Dr. Alchemy’s mask to reveal Julian, and it isn’t even all that shocking when Barry takes off his own mask to get Julian to trust him after he’s locked in the pipeline. (Barry, it is called a secret identity for a reason!) “The Present” just doesn’t seem all that interested in surprising us. It’s only laying down the groundwork for the rest of the season.
For starters, Julian doesn’t even know he’s Dr. Alchemy. Since discovering the philosopher’s stone, he’s been having strange blackouts. Apparently, that’s how Savitar works. He’s trapped whenever the box is closed, so he uses a conduit to gain him followers and do his bidding. No amount of tests or research helps Cisco understand the nature of the box itself. Actually, the tests show nothing at all, as if the box doesn’t even exist.
With Julian in the pipeline, Savitar needs to lure another lackey. So he uses Cisco’s grief against him by appearing in the form of Dante. Cisco tries to dismiss these visions of Dante as his own imagination. He’s saddened by having to experience his first Christmas without his brother. He’s in a vulnerable place, But those visions turn out to be Savitar, who convinces him to open the box. Bad idea.
Cisco hasn’t had a strong enough story line this season, so in a small way, the Flash makes up for lost time by tying his grief into the episode’s main plot. It’s heartbreaking, too, since clearly Cisco embodies the overwhelming desire to change the past. He goes so far to raise his hand to Caitlin as if he’s going to use her power against her. That’s how much he wants his brother back. But much like he saved Caitlin from going full Killer Frost, she helps stop him from siding with Savitar to bring back Dante. That’s quite a good thing: If he didn’t close that box, Barry and Wally (who jumps in the fray since Garrick is still bruised from the last time facing Savitar) would have been beaten to a pulp.
Since Team Flash needs more answers, they decide to hook Julian up to the box so Savitar can speak through him. Thanks to Garrick, they already know Savitar was the first mortal connected to the speed force. Like all evil speedsters, he’s power hungry and considers Barry a threat. Over time he developed a god complex and fashioned himself to look like a reject Power Ranger crossed with a Transformer for reasons that we’ll probably never know.
Savitar makes unsettling threats highlighting just how grand his god complex is. (“To be a god you just have to make people believe you are.”) But he also reveals the reason why he hates Barry so much. In the future, Barry is the one who traps Savitar in the box. Damn, future Barry has to be pretty smart and powerful to pull that off! Can we start seeing present Barry develop a bit more in that direction?
Savitar’s knowledge of the future also means he knows a lot about the people who surround Barry, leading him to drop a prophecy that strikes everyone with fear. “One shall betray you. One shall fall. One will suffer a fate worse than death,” he says.
I’m guessing Savitar is not in the holiday spirit. Nevertheless, Team Flash shouldn’t forget is that the future is malleable, a lesson Garrick tries to teach Barry. After throwing the philosopher’s stone and Savitar’s box into the speed force, Barry accidentally travels five months into the future. He sees something that no amount of platitudes or advice from Garrick will stop him obsessing over: Savitar brutally killing Iris. “What you saw was one possibility […] You have to focus on the here and now,” Garrick warns. But will Barry listen? We know how prone to brooding he is.
Iris’s potential death casts a shadow over Joe’s heartwarming holiday party at the end of the episode. Yes, Barry has his job back, Wally gets his Kid Flash uniform (a.k.a. the best Christmas present ever), and H.R. is a hilarious drunk. Even Julian is finally warming up to Barry. It’s a sweet party that underscores the show’s ability to be joyful and emotionally realized at the same time. But as I watched Barry and Iris embrace after he surprised her with their new apartment, I couldn’t help but start to obsess over their possible future. Sorry, Jay.