The Flash: "Flash Back" Review
This week’s Flash episode was a slightly bittersweet experience. Make no mistake, “Flash Back” was a wild ride from start to finish, one that played with the pitfalls of time travel in a very effective way. But it’s frustrating to see the show entering a three-week hiatus so soon after the last hiatus. The CW’s scheduling habits aren’t doing the show any favors, but luckily, The Flash doesn’t really need help maintaining its momentum.
“Flash Back” wasn’t the first time Barry has dealt with time travel and experienced past events from his life from a radically new perspective, but it did mark the show’s most ambitious time travel-focused conflict to date. The key difference this time is that Barry’s trip back in time was entirely intentional. He didn’t accidentally run back in time a few days or travel to appease Eobard Thawne. He had a specific goal in mind and found himself dealing with the consequences when his careful plans inevitably went haywire.
It was fun to see Barry travel back a year and revisit the events of the Pied Piper storyline from Season 1. So much about the show was different back then, from Barry’s power levels to his relationship with Wells to the fact that Eddie Thawne was still alive. Eddie didn’t wind up being particularly crucial to the conflict this week, but this episode did offer the character a fitting farewell in the form of his video message to Iris. Rick Cosnett was great in that scene, conveying a sweetness and and charm that reminds you why Iris fell in love with her father’s partner in the first place.
The writers could have taken the easy route with this episode by having Future Barry quietly manipulate the events of “The Sound and the Fury” and re-examine familiar moments from new angles. And that probably would have made for a decent story, but it was just as well that this episode showed more ambition. Almost immediately it became clear that Barry simply doesn’t have the training or the discipline to use his time travel powers responsibly. He couldn’t eliminate his younger self without causing a major scene. He couldn’t avoid telegraphing his actions to Dr. Wells. It was interesting to see how much Barry was truly the villain of his own story and the architect of his own misery this week. He insisted on travelling back despite Wells’ stern advice, and his arrogance attracted the attention of a Time Wraith.
Speaking of which, the wraith made for an unexpected antagonist this week. The first time it appeared I thought for sure the Black Flash was making its TV debut. There’s definitely an element of Black Flash – an aspect of death designed specifically to claim the souls of speedsters – to these ghostly figures who pursue those who abuse the timestream. But overall, the Time Wraith concept seemed a little underwhelming, and for two main reasons. One is that the design was a little too goofy. The fact that Cisco commented on the wraith’s Dementor-like appearance didn’t change the fact that it really, really looked like a Dementor. Maybe it thought Hartley was Harry Potter?
The other problem is that it seemed a little strange to introduce these ghostly time cops when this superhero universe already has a group of characters in place to fill the job. Where do the Time Masters fit in? Why don’t Rip Hunter and his team encounter these wraiths during their travels? Why not introduce one of Rip’s colleagues or task the bounty hunter Kronos with chasing Barry through time? It would have allowed for a neat link between The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow and created less storytelling baggage in the process.
But ultimately, the Time Wraith concept was a means to an end in support of what really mattered in this episode – Barry’s brief reunion with the original Harrison Wells. That scene where Wells/Thawne interrogated Barry in the Time Closet easily ranks among the best of the season. It was fascinating to watch the two characters take stock of each other and Wells throw caution to the wind and reveal himself. All the while, Barry was forced to be cunning and manipulate Wells into giving him what he wanted without revealing too much about his mission or Wells’ doomed future.
Above all, this episode showcased Tom Cavanagh’s versatility as an actor. It highlighted just how differently Cavanagh plays the two versions of Wells. Earth-2 Wells is abrupt and constantly agitated, but ultimately a well-meaning and decent guy. By contrast, Earth-1 Wells is outwardly pleasant and charming and inwardly devious. More than ever, it was as if Cavanagh was playing too entirely and fundamentally different characters.
That scene was easily the high point of “Flash Back,” but the later scene where Caitlin and Cisco discovered the truth about Barry’s mission was nearly as good. That scene served as a reminder that this show can be wildly entertaining and downright hilarious even in its darker periods. Cisco struggling to figure out which Barry was the real one was priceless. And while obviously the two versions of Barry aren’t as fundamentally distinct as the two Wells, Gustin was still very adept at conveying the differences between the two.
It could be argued that the fallout of Barry’s time travel jaunt wasn’t extreme enough given how badly he managed to muck with his own past. The only tangible change after his return is the fact that Hartley is now an unofficial sidekick of sorts to Team Flash. But that’s not really the point of this episode. There’s now a sense of unease springing from the idea that Barry abused his power without a clear grasp of the consequences involved. He may well discover that his world has changed more than he realized before this season is through. Even if he avoided screwing up his timeline, what’s to say there won’t be more drastic fallout from his next time travel adventure? Because it’s not a question of if, but when.
It’s important for any story to keep moving forward and looking ahead, but sometimes there’s a lot to be said for dwelling on the past for a bit. This week’s Flash certainly proved as much, thanks to a gripping storyline that saw Barry travel back in time a year and wreak all sorts of unintended havoc on the timeline. This episode was full of great drama and hilarious moments, but the best part is knowing that the true consequences of his trip have yet to be made clear.