Tuesday, December 6, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Flash' - Barry and Jay Join Forces to Battle Alchemy and Savitar in 'The Present'

The CW's The Flash - Episode 3.09 "The Present"

With Alchemy and Savitar still looming threats, Barry is unable to focus on the Christmas holiday, and especially his relationship with Iris. Determined to stop Savitar, Barry goes to Earth-3 to get advice from Jay Garrick. Wally reveals that he's been training with H.R., which doesn't go over well with Barry. As Cisco faces his first Christmas without his brother Dante, old wounds are reopened.

The Flash is falling into dangerous and predictable territory with its main narrative this season. The introduction of Savitar as the true big bad of the season reveals that the creative team only has one way of telling season-long stories. It was already becoming frustrating last season. And now, it seems like the show is once again destined to repeat the same mistakes. No reason is really given as to why this still needs to be the case. And yet, it's what's happening nevertheless. The main story of the season sees Barry facing off against a new speedster who just so happens to be faster than him. First came the Reverse Flash, then Zoom, and now Savitar. It's the same old pattern. Speedsters are clearly the big villains the show is setting up as Barry's biggest adversaries. But there is just too much familiarity to it all for it to be just as exciting now as it was back in the first season. "The Present" reveals that another person Barry loves is destined to be killed off by the end of the season. It also teases that someone poising to be his friend is actually his greatest enemy. Again, this is all stuff the show has done before. So, that does take the weight out of the moments when they occur here. It just goes to prove that grim and serious just really isn't a sustainable tone for this show.

This season has been off to an interesting start too. Barry has been messing around with the past which has greatly affected the present. He's had to deal with those consequences. Plus, he has needed to be seen as less than a hero by his closest friends because of this massive mistake in the timeline. And now, he's accepted that he just needs to live in the present and handle the threats as they come at him. Those threats right now include Alchemy and Savitar. The stakes have been raised because Savitar is faster than any previous speedster while Alchemy is still using Flashpoint against Barry. The introduction of Alchemy was an exciting time for the show because it showed a willingness to tell a different kind of story. He wasn't a speedster but he was still a serious threat that Barry needed to be worried about. But now, he is overshadowed by the debut of Savitor. Alchemy is nothing. No, he is literally nothing. The reveal that Alchemy was Julian wasn't that great because it was an expected reveal. And now, this episode shows that it's not even Julian. He is simply the body through which Savitar communicates. Alchemy is just an extension of Savitar. That ultimately lessens his role as a villain. It puts all of the attention and stakes on stopping Savitar. It was cool when the two of them were working as a team. It gave Barry different options to fight against them. But now, it's all about Savitar and no other villain can be just as important because he's a god.

"The Present" also sees Barry revealing his secret identity to Julian. It was something he has clearly wanted to do for some time now. The two of them have had an interesting dynamic so far. It's filled with tension because they just don't like each other. But underneath all of that is a desire to be friends with someone who understands what they are going through. The Flash isn't able to inspire Julian into sharing what he knows about Alchemy. Only Barry can do that. It's an effective scene because it just drops all of the secrets and lets two characters talk things out. It's the next logical step in their relationship for the season. It's because Barry drops the mask that he is able to learn that Julian blacks out whenever he is Alchemy. It all just connects back to Savitar and the Philosopher's Stone that is key to his appearance. This episode opens with a weird Indiana Jones-looking adventure with Julian unearthing the stone. That was the moment he became Alchemy for Savitar. And now, Barry has gotten powerful enough for Savitar to reveal himself. It's a lot of information the show just throws out to the audience during this episode. It plays as plot setup while not always having a ton of fun or amusement out of it. It's just a little too serious without being deserving of those high stakes.

All of that stands in stark contrast to the brief glimpse of Earth-3. Barry travels there to get Jay's assistance in this conflict with Savitar. It's an amusing sequence because it is so playful and colorful. It's the Flash facing off with his own version of The Trickster - once again played by Mark Hamill. Isn't it great (though a little weird) that Hamill is just willing to appear in a minute-long scene on a show on The CW? It's all worth it for seeing Hamill and John Wesley Shipp in these roles and scenarios again. Again, it's just a brief moment. But it shows just how fun this show is still capable of being when it wants to be. Afterwards, Jay is running back to Barry's Earth to help him understand this new threat. The two of them face off with Savitar and notice that the Philosopher's Stone is the key to keeping him away from this world. Of course, the box that holds the stone is special. It once again calls on Cisco's feelings of betrayal over the death of his brother. Those emotions felt like they were resolved between Cisco and Barry during the Legends of Tomorrow portion of the crossover. But here, they are once again causing problems. Cisco opens the box which almost leads to Savitar killing Barry and Wally.

Of course, that doesn't happen. Caitlin is able to reason with Cisco. The box is closed and Savitar disappears once more. The team uses Julian to act as a vessel for Savitar once more to learn more about why he's doing all of this. It's basically just an ominous moment filled with teases for the future. He declares that within the team "one will betray them, one will fall and one will suffer a fate worse than death." Again, this all feels like stories the show has done so many times already. So, it no longer feels special when it's coming from Savitar. And then, Barry and Jay decide to get rid of the box by throwing it into the speed force. They do so hoping that it will never reappear and allow Savitar to rise once more. Almost immediately, it's shown that that's not true. The speed force takes Barry to five months into the future to see Savitar killing Iris. It's played as this huge moment. Their relationship is an important story this season. And now, it's on a tragic path where she will die because Barry kept this from her. It's moving when he surprises her with a new apartment and wants to move in together. But he can't un-see what he saw in the future. That will motivate him into action. Actions that may lead to the rise of that perilous future. Barry messed with the past and it ruined everything for the team. And now, this glimpse of the future puts a dark and damper note for the next half of the season. Death isn't the only way to raise stakes and tension in a story. And yet, it continues to be the only way for The Flash. The concluding moments where the entire team gathers to simply celebrate Christmas is wonderful. It's a moment where they are just able to accept happiness in their lives. But all of it becomes clouded by the show seemingly repeating the patterns of its past instead of learning and growing from them.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Present" was directed by Rachel Talalay with story by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing and teleplay by Lauren Certo.
  • The tension within the West family over Wally using his powers is pure conflict for conflict's sake. Neither Joe nor Iris can articulate a good reason why they don't want Wally to run into danger. They just have to disapprove in order to generate story. Hopefully, that is all over with now with the debut of his Kid Flash outfit.
  • Savitar as Julian refers to H.R. as "Fake Wells" which will probably only add to the speculation that he is not all that he appears to be. Perhaps there is more to that face changing technology. Or perhaps there's absolutely nothing to any of it.
  • Joe and his new love interest finally kiss. Both Iris and Wally immediately comment on it. This relationship should mean something. And yet, this woman is basically just a one-note character. Seriously, what is her name?
  • Barry and Jay's relationship is pretty great. Even though John Wesley Shipp is no longer playing Barry's father, he still serves as an important mentor figure to Barry. Now, he just gets to be a superhero as well. One who is more experienced than Barry and can warn him about the path he is on.
  • Cisco answered Savitar's call because the thought of Dante was used against him. If it was that easy, what are the odds that Cisco may be taking a turn to the dark side? What if that battle between Vibe and Killer Frost wasn't like how it appeared in that moment?
  • Seriously though, that Christmas party was great and so sentimental with H.R. getting drunk, Joe and his love interest realizing their grandmas are alcoholics, and Caitlin making sure there was snow.