In the world where men can run fast enough to travel to the future and scientists cross universes in their downtime, what does it mean to be a hero? Is it about sacrificing your happiness for the greater good? Is it about boldly facing danger even when the chance of survival is slim? Is it about recognizing your mistakes well enough to not only become stronger, but more empathetic? These questions are at the heart of “Into the Speed Force,” an episode of The Flash that reminds us why Barry hasn’t felt like much of a hero lately.
Barry decides early on he’s going to return to the Speed Force to save Wally. He has no idea how the prison his future self designed for Savitar works, but he can’t just let Wally suffer. So, Cisco fashions a tether to protect him: If Barry’s vitals get alarming, they can pull him out.
However, the Speed Force isn’t as welcoming as it proved to be in the season two episode “The Runaway Dinosaur” — and for good reason. Barry going back in time to save his mother right after the Speed Force helped him get over her death went against what he promised. Considering the Speed Force is the source of his power, it never seems wise to go against it. But Barry doesn’t always display the wisdom you’d think he would have gained by stopping so many doomsday scenarios. Thankfully, the Speed Force (which basically seems sentient at this point) is more than happy to take Barry to task and remind him that he desperately needs to grow up if he wants to beat Savitar by taking the form of people whose lives have been touched by his efforts as a hero. The first blast from the past acting as the Speed Force spokesperson is Eddie Thawne.
“Iris was about to be his wife. Joe was about to be his father-in-law,” the Speed Force says, masquerading as the fallen detective himself. Remember, Eddie’s death did what Barry couldn’t: He defeated Eobard Thawne by wiping him from the timeline. He’s just one of many people who have sacrificed themselves to save the world, which highlights the aspects of Barry’s selfishness that the Flashpoint episodes made undeniable earlier this season. Most of “Into the Speed Force” focuses on Barry’s struggle to own up to his failures and save Wally. The only other story of consequence is Jesse grappling with feeling powerless. HR isn’t much of a help, considering he responds to one of Jesse’s truly misguided ideas by suggesting they should wait until “the real Flash gets back.”
I’d be more on Jesse’s side if she weren’t written so out of character this week. Her story line highlights the two modes of development that exist for female characters on The Flash: She must fall in love or display an alarming degree of stupidity that’s meant to come off as bravery while pushing the plot forward. (Barry often exhibits the latter, too, but he gets the week off in that regard.)
First, Jesse wants to join Barry in his trip into the Speed Force. Then Jesse decides to track down Savitar using the piece of armor he stabbed Barry with. If Barry routinely gets a beatdown facing Savitar, why would Jesse think it would be a good idea for her to confront him solo? Of all people, HR ends up being the voice of reason. “It’s just going to get you killed,” he warns. He may drink more caffeine than seems humanly possible, but he has a point. Although Jesse has faced some nasty criminals as the resident speedster on Earth-2, they’re obviously nowhere in the ballpark of what Barry has faced especially when it comes to Savitar. If they were, why would she be so comfortable leaving Earth-2 to fend without her?
Of course, Jesse doesn’t listen to reason and goes against the advice of Team Flash to deal with Savitar on her own. Oddly, she still needs HR to give her advice on what to do when the time comes. Doesn’t she have several degrees? Wasn’t she touted as a genius when first introduced? Why does she need HR to tell her to attack Savitar where he’s vulnerable without armor? Jesse’s run-in with Savitar leads to the team realizing he’s mortal after all and weak under all that armor. Considering the point of armor is to protect someone’s weak points, it’s surprising that this revelation is just now being made apparent.
While Jesse’s story line leaves much to be desired, I enjoyed Barry’s painful trip back to the Speed Force. The Speed Force looks like many of Barry’s frequent haunts — the police station, STAR Labs — by way of a horror movie. Lights flicker. The mood is eerie. Everything is underlit and heavy with shadow. Watching Barry have to outrun and even fight wraiths only heightens the tension of his quest. Wally is in his own version of hell, too. He’s trapped in a temporal loop reliving his worst moment: witnessing his mother die in the hospital.
I like that the Speed Force didn’t mince words with Barry’s mistakes. This isn’t the first time it’s had to help him see things clearly. Will he heed the Speed Force’s advice or make another devastating mistake like Flashpoint? It’s interesting that Eddie pointedly asks if Wally is the only reason Barry comes to the Speed Force and how Savitar mentioned to Jesse how he knows everything that has happened since he’s already lived it. More fuel for my theory that Savitar is an evil future-Barry. Anyway, after talking to Eddie and outrunning a wraith, Barry makes his way to the Speed Force’s version of STAR Labs. Awaiting him is Caitlin holding a baby. But that’s not all he has to face. The Speed Force has taken the form of Ronnie.
“Another life that could have been but never was,” Ronnie says. The Speed Force isn’t content to just verbally berate Barry. It stands idly by while Hunter Zolomon in decayed-wraith form tries to kill Barry. He’s only able to narrowly escape death using Cisco’s tether to hurt Zolomon. That nixes the escape route from Barry and Wally.
I would’ve been happy if “Into the Speed Force” only brought back Eddie and Ronnie. But the episode outdoes itself by bringing back a personal favorite of mine: Leonard Snart, a.k.a. Captain Cold. Has an actor on The Flash ever relished a line like Wentworth Miller does? Seeing him return as Snart (or, the Speed Force version of him) was delightful, although it highlights that no villain in the past two seasons has lived up to Snart’s sheer watchability. By the time the Speed Force takes on his form, it isn’t content to stand by while wraiths attack Barry. The Speed Force seems a bit pissed now. “Not learning your lesson, Barry,” Snart intones.
As Snart’s freeze gun puts Barry in his place, does he find a way to save himself? No, Jay Garrick comes to save the day. Although Barry does help a bit by using Garrick’s helmet as a shield from the blast of the freeze gun. You can thank Cisco for passing on a message that Barry needed help after the tether could no longer be used. Garrick isn’t only here to protect Barry, though: He decides to take Wally’s place. “Every marathon has a finish line. Do what you do best. Be the Flash,” Garrick tells Barry. Having Garrick be the true hero amongst heroes seems to undercut a lot of the lessons Barry is supposed to learn. How is he supposed to grow if so many characters often pick up his slack?
The weird contradictions don’t stop there. Jesse decides to move to Earth-3 to be the Flash in that world until Garrick can pick up his mantle again. Did anyone notify Harry? Also, why not just return to her home in Earth-2? Doesn’t that Earth need a speedster too? Also, Iris and Barry break up, which isn’t too surprising — but the reason why is certainly interesting. It’s obvious they’ll get back together once Savitar is beaten, so this decision doesn’t have much dramatic weight.
The scenes between Iris and Barry only highlight what a disservice The Flash is doing her character. While she briefly showed development after learning about her own death earlier this season, Iris often feels like a supporting character in her own life. That she isn’t investigating Savitar or taking an active role in preventing her own death is bad writing that simply has no excuse at this point. Meanwhile, actress Candice Patton has said that Iris will perhaps get to do more next season. How many times have we heard that? The failures of Iris’s characterization only highlight the limited ways The Flash presents heroism, which in turn limits the show’s ability to evolve.