Grant Gustin and Peyton List in The CW’s “The Flash.”
To borrow a well-worn time traveler’s phrase: Oh, boy. And we don’t mean that in a good way.
For The Flash’s first foray (of presumably many) into the realms of time travel, this episode was, in a lot of ways, a huge disappointment. Last week’s dizzying episode can be counted among the show’s best, which means it’s possible we’re feeling let down because anything less than a perfect followup was going to be a let down. Not that it’s an unfair comparison, since the first 15 minutes of this episode were literally a re-do of last week’s story – or more accurately, fifteen minutes of narrative take-backsies. And to be honest, we don’t know how we feel about that.
All time travel stories have to hang on a set of rules, since time travel isn’t a real thing, but as a narrative device has enormous consequences. Like magic, once you open that box, it means virtually any option is open to the characters and the story. That sounds like a good thing – and in the right hands and right story, it can be. But for the most part, an audience wants some sort of structure in their story. If a talking aardvark character was introduced on, say, Scandal with no explanation, the audience would revolt – or at the very least, be outrageously confused.
Even so, it’s sometimes very difficult in time travel stories to make any set of rules work consistently. Fifty years of Doctor Who has resulted in fifty years of highly contradictory notions about time travel. It’s practically built into the conceit that it’s going to spawn contradictions, if not outright nonsense at times. So we don’t know what annoyed us more, that all the major developments of the last episode were undone so handily or that the show posited some sort of goofy the-universe-finds-a-way backlash to those changes. Cisco is alive but Iris’ colleague is dead in his place. Iris doesn’t know Barry’s secret but Captain Cold does. Iris isn’t inspired by a near-death experience to tell Barry her true feelings. Instead, she pities him and thinks he’s suffering from mental illness. Captain Singh doesn’t get crippled but Cisco’s brother gets tortured. Weather Wizard doesn’t attack the city, but Captain Cold, Heatwave, and the new Golden Glider go on a crime spree. It’s … one way to go with time travel stories, but we’ll just say it’s never been our favorite because there’s something very non-sci-fi about the idea. It sounds more like mysticism than technobabble. Like an Old Testament version of God meting out punishment for violating the natural order.
And look, no one loves goofy comicbook science more than us, but a gun that shoots liquid gold? First off, why would anyone even conceptualize such a thing as a weapon? A heat gun and a cold gun make a certain amount of sense. But a … gold gun? What’s the point? Does it require lots of gold to operate or does it just transmute other elements into gold? Because if it’s the latter, Cisco, you idiot. How long have you been sitting on a King Midas gun design and why? Also: why would any criminal need to … well, commit crime if they have a gun that turns everything into gold?
But okay, let’s take all the goofy science and mysticism and just call it a given. It’s a superhero world, after all. We may not like the way most of it was used, but we have no problem that the show wants to go broad on what it can do. One of The Flash‘s greatest strengths is its willingness to embrace all the wild craziness of the superhero genre. But that doesn’t explain or excuse that utterly moronic conversation between Barry and Cold. To be honest, we can’t even make any sense of it – Cold knows his identity but isn’t going to do a thing with the information because … something something. But we do seem to recall Barry at one point suggesting that Cold simply go commit crime someplace else and then essentially lets him go – after several people have died due to his actions. The hell? After 15 episodes establishing him as the ultimate of good guy heroes, Barry first tries to make Cold some other city’s problem and then just lets him walk after a series of violent and dangerous crimes?
In addition, there was something very off-putting about seeing Weather Wizard at the end of last episode on the verge of committing mass murder on a huge scale suddenly switched to a scenario where he’s caught by surprise (in bed, no less) and incarcerated in literally the blink of an eye. That’s a weird way to yank your audience around. It’s like the writers got so caught up in the excitement of explaining how time travel works in this world that they forgot they were literally in the middle of telling a pretty great story. Worse, they’ve sort of established a precedent that time travel takes good, fun stories and replaces them with gloomy ones where people get tortured and our hero gets humiliated.
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