On the surface, an episode about Barry traveling to the future in hopes of solving the mystery around Savitar’s identity is exactly what The Flash needs to liven up a season that has only been intermittently thrilling. “The Once and Future Flash” flirts with some intriguing ideas — including the necessity of family and what happens when superheroes can no longer keep up the fight — but there is a lack of nuance in the writing and an overreliance on grimness that feels miscalculated.
It’s not unusual for genre television to use episodes like this one, depicting futures that will never come to pass or alternate universes to go into interesting directions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season episode “The Wish” is a great example of this. Such episodes allow the show to push the plot forward and get inventive. When the future being depicted isn’t going to happen since Barry will almost definitely find a way to save Iris, why not go a bit bonkers? But what has undone The Flash is its reticence to get weird in ways that truly reflect the mythos of the character. By playing it so safe, the opportunity to truly push the show forward is lost. This doesn’t mean seeing Barry travel to the future is a wholly tepid excursion, of course. There are enough enjoyable moments in “The Once and Future Flash” to make it work — most of which are thanks to Caitlin, who has newly transformed into Killer Frost.
“The Once and Future Flash” opens mere moments after the previous episode ended. Caitlin has fully embraced her Killer Frost identity and is wreaking havoc on S.T.A.R. Labs. HR and Cisco are cowering, but Julian actually thinks he can get through to her. Before Caitlin is able to lay an icy kiss on him — a kiss that would most definitely send him to the morgue — Cisco comes to rescue with his powers. Why he didn’t use his powers before isn’t explained. Barry gets an alert about the metahuman attack at S.T.A.R. Labs and saves the rest of the team from becoming Caitlin’s victims. (The brief battle highlighted a nagging question I’ve had for some time: Will this show ever be consistent with Cisco’s powers?)
Instead of dealing with Caitlin’s turn to the dark side, Barry announces to the rest of the team his plan to travel to 2024. He wants to ask his future self about Savitar’s identity. Joe and Iris aren’t so keen on this idea. But Barry promises that he’ll make sure to return in a way that it seems he was only gone for seconds. With Wally’s help, Barry is able to create a portal and travel to the future. But his quest for information about Savitar isn’t as easy as he hoped.
Moments after landing in 2024, Barry is greeted by two foes he’s faced before: Mirror Master and Top. The couple have made Central City their playground, which brings up a lot of questions about what happened to Team Flash after Iris died. Apparently, Iris is so important that her death has a profound effect on the lives of those who loved her — and on Central City itself.
Future Cisco finds Barry at the apartment he once shared with Iris, which at this point is an abandoned wreck. In many ways, Cisco acts as Barry’s guide, explaining all the ways things fell apart. Cisco lost his hands in a fight with Caitlin; no hands means no powers. Wally is a shell of his former self after he tried taking on Savitar solo. HR, who is doing remarkably well for himself, peddles smutty romance novels and owns Jitters. (I don’t understand how he’s been able to go public unless he’s always using that holographic device to present a different face to the world, but the less said about HR, the better.)
Meanwhile, Future Barry apparently swiped a wig from the set of Arrow. He’s a hopeless mess of a man who stares forlornly at pictures of Iris in the Time Vault. He’s also no help to Barry, since he doesn’t know who Savitar really is, even though he trapped him in the Speed Force. Considering his future self is no help, Barry decides to return to 2017. The only problem is … he can’t. Cisco isn’t eager to see him leave, considering how empty his life feels without his friends, powers, or purpose. That makes it obvious Cisco is the culprit for Barry’s inability to travel back in time long before it’s revealed. But this episode has more issues than just predictability.
The future Central City seems downright dystopian. It’s gloomy in a rather laughable way. All the characters wear dark colors and look unkempt. The dialogue veers into heavy-handed territory. At times, it feels like a child’s imagining of sorrow. On the other hand, this does lend a bit more pathos to the overarching plot involving Iris’s murder. The actors also lend some touching notes to their characters, bringing a rich emotional landscape to a story that would otherwise be forgettable. Jesse L. Martin and Carlos Valdes are particular standouts.
When Cisco takes Barry to visit future Julian, a crucial bit of information comes to the surface. It isn’t thanks to Julian, of course. He’s still mired in his knight-in-shining-armor routine. He’s captured Caitlin, but hasn’t figured out any cure for her Killer Frost dilemma. Anyway, it isn’t like Caitlin wants to be cured — she enjoys tossing off one-liners and chewing scenery far too much to want to be a good girl again. (Killer Frost may not be a permanent fixture on The Flash, but let’s hope that she’s on for as long as possible. Caitlin is never more interesting than when she’s this selfish ice queen.) Caitlin has no interest in helping Barry, so his pleading is worthless. But she does reveal she teamed up with Savitar and knows his identity. “I’ll never tell,” she taunts.
Barry continues to follow Cisco as he discovers the increasingly depressing fates of the people he loves in the wake of Iris’s death and his future self’s abandonment. Eventually, it dawns on him that Cisco has to be the one responsible for his inability to travel back to the past. Cisco reveals the gadget causing this issue, but begs for Barry to stay to help fix this mess of a future. Barry at first refuses, but is won over by Cisco’s earnest words. The episode shifts into a family reunion of sorts as Barry brings the gang back together to help clean up Central City, starting with Mirror Master and Top.
Having Joe, Julian, and even HR joining Cisco at S.T.A.R. Labs brings a much-needed smile to his face — something he deserves, considering his best friend is a murderous metahuman who destroyed his hands and his other friend is too busy brooding to care about the chaos around him. Unfortunately, Mirror Master and Top have learned a new trick. They use their powers in tandem to overwhelm Barry. Cisco figures out a way to use tech to counteract their abilities and allow Barry to manipulate Mirror Master’s portals, but there’s no way to get it to him in time before Mirror Master and Top finish him off. Thankfully, Future Barry decides that his younger self is right. He puts on his suit and saves Barry from getting completely beaten.
(Brief aside: I really loved the new suit Future Barry wears. The cowl could use some adjusting, but I love that it is a bit brighter and incorporates more gold. Hopefully this is the suit Barry will wear next season.)
With the help of his future self, Barry is able to bring hope back to Central City and the people he loves. Before he travels back to 2017, Future Barry admits something I didn’t expect: He had help creating the prison for Savitar. Apparently, a physicist was crucial in aiding Savitar’s capture, but the research that led to this happened four years after Iris’s death. Nonetheless, Future Barry gives his younger self a parting gift of the physicist’s research and information. Barry still doesn’t know Savitar’s identity, but this lead could be crucial to saving Iris.
The most noteworthy aspect of the end of the episode isn’t Barry’s kindness toward Joe or the camaraderie among the team, but witnessing the moment when Caitlin learns Savitar’s identity. Savitar says he can give Caitlin “salvation.” He wants her to remain Killer Frost. “Why should I trust you?” she asks. Instead of listing reasons why, Savitar opens his intricate suit to reveal the man he truly is underneath. Caitlin’s wide-eyed response and immediate trust can only mean one thing: She already knows Savitar. While a future version of Barry is still a possibility, the only person I can imagine Caitlin responding to that way is Ronnie. Honestly, Savitar’s identity isn’t a mystery I’m all that curious about. What’s more fascinating is how this secret and Caitlin’s villainy will cause ripple effects for a team that prides itself on upholding family above all else.