Tuesday, May 24, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Flash' - Barry Races Zoom to Stop Him From Destroying the Multiverse in 'The Race of His Life'

The CW's The Flash - Episode 2.23 "The Race of His Life"

After Zoom reveals his true plan, Barry vows to do whatever it takes to stop him.

This has been a very problematic season of The Flash. On multiple occasions, I have talked about the many issues with Zoom as the big villain. The show definitely embraced some darker qualities in the main narrative. That wasn't always a good thing. A brooding Barry Allen is not all that fascinating of a character arc. He's the superhero excited to have his powers. Sure, he has this tragic backstory of losing his mother - which is amplified here with the death of his father. But he has always been an upbeat and optimistic personality. No matter how difficult the challenge is, he knows he'll be able to beat it because of the team fighting by his side. He relies on them in so many rewarding ways. So it's just so frustrating to see Barry become such an isolating presence in this finale. Yes, the show is called The Flash. The story is about Barry Allen as the fastest man alive. But the teamwork and camaraderie of the group at STAR Labs has defined his two years as a superhero. That's something he willingly embraces when things get too tough. And yet, this finale does the opposite in order to keep things as tense as possible. None if it makes much sense at all. It has its clear plot destinations and will maneuver around character beats to make sure they work.

It's so frustrating that the creative team behind the four DC Comics shows on The CW right now think that killing a character off near the end of the season is the only way to raise the stakes and tension heading into a finale. It's something that has been done numerous times on Arrow over the years. It happened in this first season of Legends of Tomorrow. And now, it has happened on The Flash with Zoom killing Barry's father. It was a surprising moment tacked on at the end of last week's episode in order to put Barry into a really dark headspace for this finale. Again, that's not a good look on him at all. Confident and cocky - like he was last week - isn't a whole lot better. But it's an ever worse character moment because the story around it is just so lackluster. The whole Zoom plot has been so perfunctory and unoriginal. The show raised the stakes by introducing the multiverse. So now, Barry is fighting to protect all of these parallel worlds and not just his own. But again, Zoom's ultimate plan has been so cryptic all season long. And now, it's revealed to just be some one-note scheme to end all of the worlds for no reason whatsoever.

"The Race of His Life" also suffers from trying to cram too much plot into it. Barry is willing to kill Zoom for what he has done. He's in a dark place. That forces the rest of the team to lock him up in the STAR Labs jail just like so many previous meta-humans. They do that with confidence because they've concocted their own plan to defeat Zoom. Zoom wants to race Barry so that the energy they create can destroy the multiverse. None of them are willing to let that happen. But Harry's plan doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Essentially the team uses Caitlin as bait to lure Zoom into a trap where Joe will hit him with a tranquilizer while Cisco opens a breach to Earth-2 and Harry will knock him back into his former world. It's good that the team doesn't willingly put Caitlin in harm's way for this plan. The hologram technology is a cool callback to previous events from the season. And yet, the plan still goes awry because Joe's gun jams so he needs to get closer and accidentally gets pulled into the breach as well. That happens solely for the team to experience another loss after they've agreed to never open the breeches again. But that doesn't make any sense. They know that Zoom can travel between worlds. What's stopping him from returning to this Earth? And also, Jesse told her father that she wanted to return home after all of this was done. And yet, she agreed to this plan knowing that it would trap her here? That's just problematic writing that happens to serve the episode's needs but not the plan the team has in this moment.

So of course, the plan fails and Barry has to go through with the race against Zoom. It's weird that all of this story is just building up to a race between these two to determine who is the fastest person alive. It also gets complicated by the show embracing time remnants once again. The explanation behind those things was way too confusing earlier this season. And now, the entire finale hinges around it. So Barry is in this race with Zoom. He travels back in time a few minutes to get his former self to agree to die in order to stop Zoom from destroying the multiverse. That's the basic explanation for what happens. It's smart of the show to once again offer an explanation for how all of this works - though that largely just leaves Wally confused just like Joe is all of the time. But it's still a complication that is added on top of a story that really isn't engaging at this point. It should be. It's the finale! But it's not because the Zoom just didn't work out in the end.

And then, there is the matter of unmasking the Man in the Iron Mask. The show established that mystery when Barry traveled to Earth-2 to stop Zoom. And now, he can finally fulfill his promise to rescue this man from Zoom's prison. Early in the hour, Zoom tells Joe that the man is the real Jay Garrick from another earth altogether. Zoom took on that name in order to fight crime as a superhero in Earth-2 Central City. But it's a more meaningful twist when it's revealed that John Wesley Shipp is playing this version of Jay Garrick. It's a new twist on the old Flash now playing the Flash again. But it also felt like the only reveal that made sense. As soon as Henry mentioned his mother's maiden name was Garrick, it felt like an inevitable conclusion. And then, when Henry died, it felt like the only way to ensure that Shipp could still appear on the show moving forward. It's an effective storytelling moment. It's one filled with emotion. This man is not Barry's father but he has the same face. That's what fuels Barry's decision at the end of the episode. However, it's such a rushed moment as well. The whole reveal happens in a matter of minutes. And then, Jay, Harry and Jesse go through the breech to Earth-2 to find a way to return Jay to his world. Why can't they go that on Earth-1?

The episode-ending twist is really the only exciting thing the show does to set up an interesting third season. Barry is victorious in battle and saves the Man in the Iron Mask. And yet, he's still struggling with the fact that both of his parents have been taken from him. He decides to carry that on his own. So instead of relying on the support of his friends, he decides to travel back in time to the night of his mother's murder once more. But this time he actually saves her life. That sets up a radically different third season for the show. One where the future is much more complicated. The world the audience has come to know over two seasons will no longer exist. It's all in service of Barry being happy with his family once again - even though he just came to peace with letting his mother die while in the speed force just a few episodes ago. It's a twist that works in the moment but starts to fall apart the more one thinks about it. How long is it realistically going to last next season? Every time Barry has taken a big mission to the past, things go horribly awry for him. The first time he went to the night of his mother's murder, he opened his world to Earth-2 and brought the threat of Zoom to him. And things have only grown more complicated with time travel since then. And now, he's changing his entire world. Who knows what kind of effects that will have for the future? But more importantly, how is this going to affect the continuity the show has with the other DC series on The CW's lineup? Will they all change as well because of this massive rewrite Barry is doing? Or will they simply not mention Barry and their Central City friends for a little bit until things get back to normal? Either way it seems inevitable that things will get back to normal with Barry learning a lesson about the dangers of time travel yet again. But knowing that right now already sucks so much of the fun and intrigue out of the twist.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Race of His Life" was written by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing and directed by Antonio Negret.
  • On top of all of the important plotting, the finale also has to deal with Wally realizing that Barry is the Flash. It's another rushed plot detail that needs to be addressed but really doesn't add a whole lot to the overall story. It's just good that he finally knows.
  • Also, the show really did nothing with Wally and Jesse being hit by the speed force when the team was trying to give Barry his powers back. What was its purpose then? Is it setting up them becoming speedsters next season? If so, why couldn't they have become them now to help Barry with this final battle?
  • Even though Jay, Harry and Jesse have returned to Earth-2, it seems like a fair assumption to make that they'll continue to be important next season. However, this will be the end for Hunter Zolomon as he is taken by the time wraiths after Barry beats him - plus Teddy Sears has a new gig on FOX's 24: Legacy.
  • The third season will likely produce a new performance from Tom Cavanagh as well. Because Barry changes the future, he'll be playing the Dr. Wells from Earth-1 who wasn't murdered by Eobard Thawne. That could be fun.
  • It should also be interesting to see Shipp play superhero again. An older version of the Flash could really add a refreshing dynamic to the proceedings. But it will also be awkward in the early going because Barry will be projecting so many feelings about Henry onto Jay.
  • The Barry-Iris coupling has always been awkwardly handled. The motivation behind it has been very forced. It felt meaningful when he was trapped in the speed force and she was reaching out to him. But the two kissing as he says goodbye to deal with his emotions didn't really work at all.