As I watched “Attack on Central City,” I came to the sobering conclusion that The Flash will likely never reach, let alone surpass, the glory of its first season. The most obvious barrier, of course, is the show’s insistence on re-creating an evil speedster villain, which leads to increasingly diminishing returns and repetitive narratives. The show may still be zany and joyful, but it’s not the risk-taker it once was. This week’s episode unfortunately confirms that.
You’d think having an army of telepathic, genius gorillas poised to destroy Central City would liven this season up. Instead, “Attack on Central City” continues a run of episodes that are lackluster despite occasional flashes of charm. After Cisco complains to Caitlin about the lack of romance in his life, Gypsy appears through a breach as if on cue. But she isn’t coming to assuage Cisco’s fears of being permanently friend zoned by every woman he falls for. She’s in battle mode. Thanks to Harry, who blessedly remains on Earth-1 after the events of last week’s jaunt to Gorilla City, Gypsy is subdued. It becomes pretty clear to the team that Grodd is somehow involved. He used Gypsy against her will to bring his army over to Central City. Grodd’s presence brings up a host of problems — namely, how are they going to stop him this time?
“He’s evolving. I keep trying to fight him the same way,” a chagrined Barry admits to the team. However, “Attack on Central City” doesn’t use this as an opportunity to have Barry challenge his current skill set as a speedster or rethink how Team Flash works. Instead, he considers the dramatic route: killing Grodd. In the world of superheroes, killing villains is a line that’s not meant to be crossed. It’s what effectively separates heroes from the madmen they battle. That sort of moral dynamic is a bit simplistic, but it at least gives Barry something to do in an episode in which he feels especially reactive.
“Oliver’s killed. He’s still considered a hero,” Barry says to Iris. (Oh, Barry. Oliver isn’t a good example.) Harry puts it best, telling him, “Saving one life doesn’t justify taking another.” From here on out, watching Barry and the rest of the team face off with Grodd is the episode’s least engaging plotline. Barry is able to stop missiles Grodd uses to target Central City by punching in hundreds of possible codes really fast. When Grodd and his army come charging into downtown, Barry finds a way to work around his moral quandaries — by bringing Solivar from Earth-2. What follows is a battle to the death between apes. Barry stops Solivar from making the final blow, naturally. Grodd may be alive, but he’s now stuck on Earth-1 under the watchful eye of ARGUS.
To be honest, Barry doesn’t do much in this episode, leaving what could have been a great return of an important villain quite forgettable. It’s a problem that the most interesting aspect of “Attack on Central City” turns out to be Gypsy and her dilemma with helping Cisco. Cisco’s trip to Earth-19 to meet her gives us a peek at a new speedster, Accelerated Man (Sean Pogue) — yes, yet another speedster — which nevertheless is far more fun than Barry watching Grodd and Solivar fight from the sidelines.
“Attack on Central City” is framed as a Valentine’s Day episode, which also doesn’t help because all the subplots revolve around The Flash’s greatest weakness: how it handles romance. Cisco continues to be full of one-liners, but little emotional development. After learning how much further his powers can go thanks to Gypsy, why haven’t we seen him training on his own? His fledgling romance with Gypsy is bolstered by great chemistry. She’s sharp-tongued and defiant, he’s kind and a bit out of his depth. After Cisco suggests that Gypsy decided to help because she has feelings for him, she boldly kisses him. “Even if I was, you couldn’t handle me,” she says with a smirk before leaving Earth-1. It’s the biggest story line Cisco has gotten in a while, which is a major problem.
Meanwhile, Wally and Jesse hit a bit of a speed bump after they confess their plans to Harry. He doesn’t explode in anger about Jesse’s decision to stay on Earth-1 for Wally. Instead, he gets downright manipulative by alluding to some terminally sickness. That leads Wally to tell Jesse it may not be a good idea for her to leave Earth-2. Of course, she sees through Harry’s act pretty quickly. “Your happiness is what matters to me,” Harry says at one point to Jesse. I’m sure that’s true. And I get that Jesse is an adult who can make her own decisions. But when those decisions involve uprooting your entire life to move to another universe, maybe you need to get some common sense slapped into you. That everyone thinks this is a great idea demonstrates how The Flash has a child’s conception of love in which it consumes everything in its path, logic be damned. The best thing about this newly minted couple is learning Wally’s favorite film is Casablanca. Good taste, kid.
The standout moments in this week’s episode arrive when Harry rips into HR. He’s cruel to his doppelgänger, but I can’t blame him. HR’s off-the-wall energy is seemingly heightened to better contrast him from Harry, but it only adds to my desire to see Harry return to the show permanently. With Jesse deciding to stay on Earth-1, why doesn’t Harry come over too? I was pretty sad to see him leave at the end of the episode. If he were to stay on Earth-1, perhaps it would lessen the blow of watching this elementary construction of romance play out between Wally and Jesse.
One of the biggest mistakes that can be seen across nearly all superhero adaptations is an inability to see these heroes in their downtime. Outside of their romantic entanglements, the lives of the team remain murkily defined as best. Who are these characters as people? What do they do during their free time? Do they have other friends? Hobbies? The reason why major comic-book characters like Barry Allen endure isn’t because audiences are obsessed with their powers. It comes down to how well writers and artists construct their humanity. It’s hard to care about a series beyond its nifty visuals if the characters have no weight. During “Attack on Central City,” my mind couldn’t help but wonder about what happens offscreen. What does Cisco do when he’s not at the lab? Is he training to get a better grip on his powers? How does the fear of becoming Killer Frost affect Caitlin when she’s out in the world? Who is Iris beyond being Barry’s girlfriend, Wally’s sister, and Joe’s daughter?
Sure, you can rattle off a few facts about Iris. She’s a dedicated journalist, for starters. But the fact that she’s barely been seen doing her job this season speaks volumes about The Flash as a whole. Iris needs a life outside of the men around her. Does she have any other friends? What are her professional goals, beyond the broad strokes that were previously mentioned? Seeing Iris and Barry together is indeed adorable. I’m happy that Barry proposed, with his great-grandmother’s ring no less. But both Iris, as a character, and Candice Patton, who has a great presence as an actress, deserve better than this.
Despite its overly saccharine qualities, “Attack on Central City” doesn’t end on a heartwarming note. When Wally runs to get some Big Belly Burger at Jesse’s request, he turns to see Savitar on the street. It was only a matter of time until The Flash began to focus on the season’s main evil speedster again. That I’ve been dreading Savitar’s return puts into stark relief that The Flash has more problems than its surface-level rendition of romance and lack of character development. Forget the glorious heights of season one: Without a strong big bad, The Flash may go from a bit lackluster to a complete wreck.