“Magenta” isn’t a great episode, but it marks the first time this season truly feels fun. Season three is settling into its groove, covering territory The Flash has always taken an interest in: destiny versus free will, along with the nature of heroism itself. With Harrison “Harry” Wells and the newly minted speedster Jesse Quick coming back from Earth-2, the show gets a much-needed jolt of energy. But even as I delighted in seeing Jesse realize the extent of her abilities and felt sadness for Wally (who wants to be a speedster more than anything), I couldn’t ignore the deeply ingrained issues that The Flash has yet to reckon with. For all its wonder, the show lacks imagination when it comes to its villains.
After killing off the Eobard Thawne in season one, the series has struggled to recreate a similarly compelling dynamic. It’s understandable. Season one is still the show’s most well-structured and spellbinding, at least when it comes to its main villain. Hunter Zolomon was a terrible rehash of the fatherly mentor gone wrong in season two. This season, Doctor Alchemy thankfully isn’t another speedster. (Although knowing The Flash, we’ll get another evil speedster or somehow The Rival will return before we even get to the season’s midpoint.) Even though he’s gaining a body count, Doctor Alchemy doesn’t come across as all that threatening. He’s comical when he should seem dangerous, nonsensical in motivation when he should be mysterious. Julian’s ongoing, misguided, and petty dislike of Barry seems to be a red herring. He’s too obvious a choice to be Doctor Alchemy’s secret identity. The show wouldn’t be that obvious, right?
The fact that The Flash creates more than 20 episodes per season is a double-edged sword. It gives the series a lot of room to potentially explore side narratives and subplots, but The Flash doesn’t experiment enough. Instead, it jumps directly into the overarching Big Bad story line rather than fleshing out this brave new post-Flashpoint world, which means we’re guaranteed quite a bit of filler episodes in the near future. There are still so many questions about the changes to this timeline and how they affect not only Barry’s immediate circle but the world around him. The season would feel a bit stronger if it focused on that while laying down hints about the Big Bad. The metahuman-of-the-week structure also has put a stranglehold on the narrative, since those weaker antagonists tend to be in league with the main villain. Mirror Master, set to debut next week, is one of the strongest characters in the hero’s mythos. Shouldn’t he be a main villain in his own season? Yet we’re supposed to think Doctor Alchemy is interesting enough to be the focus? I may seem a bit too hard on the show, but it’s out of love. It comes so close to greatness, but skips back to safer territory whenever a narrative risk emerges. The Flash has yet to take advantage of all its great antagonists. From Gorilla Grodd to King Shark, none of them have come close to their potential.
But there’s another far more troubling problem: The Flash often makes the mistake of confusing melodramatic darkness with pathos in order to juxtapose its villains against the typically sunny and family-oriented Barry Allen. “Magenta” deals with the teenaged Frankie Kane, who has the ability to control metal. When she uses her powers against her abusive foster father, but doesn’t remember doing so, we can tell something isn’t quite right. After she tried to kill Julian at CCPD and told Barry, “Frankie’s gone, my name is Magenta,” it dawned on me where this was headed. She has a so-called split personality. When Harry outright described her as “dissociative,” I groaned.
Let’s keep this simple: The Flash is just not the kind of show that can do justice to such subject matter. By the end of the episode, when Barry pep-talks his way out of fighting Magenta and Caitlin somehow finds her a loving foster family in Keystone City, Frankie’s mental-health issues are totally glossed over. It’s uncomfortable to watch such a simplistic rendition of an important issue that is essentially brought up to make the villain seem more interesting. It’s a poorly constructed character detail that the show obviously doesn’t know how to handle. It also complicates the morality of the series in unexpected ways. After all, it’s easy to blame Frankie’s actions on Magenta as if nothing happened. The Flash has been uneven in this regard since season two — the heroes are far better constructed than the villains. Thankfully, the show goes a long way in “Magenta” to flesh out the different emotional landscapes for those heroes.
I think it’s great Barry has another speedster to turn to in times of need. Jesse knows right away she wants to follow in Barry’s footsteps, but Harry is not having it. He tries a variety of tactics to get her to change her mind. Eventually, it takes Caitlin calling him out to help Harry get over his issues. By the end of “Magenta,” they patch things up and Jesse has her very own Flash costume. It’s interesting listening to Caitlin talk to Jesse about becoming a speedster. Her advice is obviously a reflection of her own inability to embrace the fact that she’s gained Killer Frost’s abilities. Things may be even worse for Wally, who feels inadequate and even jealous about Jesse’s new role.
Every time Barry looks at Wally, he feels a pang of guilt because Flashpoint took away the one thing Wally truly wants: to be a speedster. Although that dream is noble, Wally’s desire to be a superhero and help others is veering into dangerous territory. How else can you describe his decision to stand in front of a speeding car, hoping to recreate the moment when Jesse realized her powers? The fact that Wally mentions having dreams about being a speedster may hint toward him eventually getting his abilities back. Perhaps Doctor Alchemy will play a role, though I really hope that isn’t the case. I want to see Wally as Kid Flash, but I don’t want a villain to occupy that part of his origin story.
At least the rest of the West family is doing great. Joe jokingly describes being “Dad Cop” as his method of talking to Wally. Barry and Iris seem fully committed to dating each other, even though their first date is remarkably boring. (That’s how Iris describes it, not me!) As the season progresses, I’m curious how the dynamics of this ragtag family will change with so many of its members becoming metahumans. Will Caitlin embrace her abilities or will she continue denying them until this lie causes a rift in her personal life? How will Wally react when he finds out he was Kid Flash in the Flashpoint timeline? Will Barry develop a greater understanding of his own relationship to the Speed Force? I’m eager to learn the answers to these questions, but The Flash can’t continue on like this forever. At a certain point, the writers really need to revamp their approach to Barry’s rogues gallery. For the show to succeed, its villains must be as compelling as its heroes.