Greetings, Flash fans! Your regular recapper Carla Day is actually on the set of The Flash this week getting some scoops for us, so I’m taking over recap duties. (And I’m excited to dust off this hat for this show in particular).
“Monster” was on the surface one of The Flash’s lighter episodes, and felt very much like Season 1. But even though we had a villain of the week and some H.R.-related hijinks, it wasn’t filler, with the core group all learning some important lessons about dealing with difficult people. Julian and Barry worked through their hostilities at work, while H.R. and Cisco had a confrontation, and Caitlin reached out to her mother for support regarding her icy changes. Each of these stories mirrored the monster seemingly terrorizing Central City — it was about hidden depths, and things being more than they seem. The monster wasn’t a killer, it was a hologram created by a kid looking to feel like he had some power. It represents the anxieties of H.R., Julian, and Caitlin, all of whom have created facades to conceal their fears.
Let’s get into the particulars. Not everyone is happy with The Flash going back to a villain of the week format, but with 22 episodes a year it’s not necessarily a choice. Zoom was a fantastic villain for the first half of Season 2, but he was stretched too thin and forced to carry too much of the narrative load in the second half the season, which made him lose his efficacy both as a villain and as a narrative device. As great as The Flash can be, it has trouble when its scope becomes too grand. Introducing something like Flashpoint was complicated and needed time to take root, but instead of giving it several episodes to itself (like the Earth-2 episodes of Season 2), it was packed into one exceptionally over-stuffed hour. And since we had no attachment to it, the repercussions so far this season have felt hollow.
And this is why — though we didn’t see him this week — the creation of Alchemy was a smart move. He’s been functioning as a kind of Moriarty figure in that he oversees a network of criminals. But he doesn’t just breed chaos — he has a clear plan for what he wants these newly-formed villains to be doing, and if they fail, he kills them (rather Zoom-like, in that way). Julian brings up an interesting point in “Monster” about metas and how they are wasting their talents with petty crime. Alchemy seems to agree. Isn’t it interesting that almost all of the metas we meet on The Flash have been villains until this season? The Flash hasn’t really commented on power bringing out the worst in people, but it certainly seems to be an unspoken theme (unless you’re Barry, of course).
And that, of course, brings us to Caitlin. Thank God Caitlin finally has a storyline all to herself that isn’t about another dead fiancee. Of all of the S.T.A.R. labs crew, Caitlin has always been given the least to do (even in Flashpoint!) Until “Monster,” we knew nothing about her family or much about her past (including her decision to work with Wells 1.0 in the first place). We are three seasons into this show, and this is a main character. And yet, she is usually relegated to standing around the lab running tests, and occasionally being kidnapped.
The Earth-2 storylines — which, again, have played out in a much more organic way with the story overall than Flashpoint has — teased Cisco’s transformation into Vibe, and Caitlin’s alter-ego Killer Frost. But Cisco was able to use his Vibe-ing without being transformed by it, Caitlin’s icy abilities are fundamentally changing her in a way that she seems, for now, unable to control. This is one of the only instances on The Flash where we see a meta at the point of struggling not just with how to use their powers, but how to use those powers for good. Before this it’s all been very black and white — Cisco and Jesse Quick were instantly heroes, while the countless villains of the week have all turned bad. It’s been a little bland, and Caitlin’s story could change that.
Another thing that makes an episode like “Monster” so great is how even with its superhero-fueled storylines (battling the monster, discovering powers), it manages to find time for plenty of quieter one-on-one moments, which goes back to my comment on scope. The Flash is the best written show within the Arrowverse, especially regarding how the characters interact with each other, and it excels in those small moments. Barry and Iris talking about Joe’s love life over Big Belly Burgers, or Barry and Cisco’s new roommate routine are two examples of the show smartly allowing its characters to also just be people.
H.R., for all of his nuttiness, has brought this out more than most, although his mania is starting to wear thin. I did like that the show has circled back to Cisco’s relationship with Wells in each incarnation, because it has been (as H.R. pointed out in meta fashion) a compelling C-plot. Cisco was the one most betrayed by Wells 1.0 actually being the skin suit for Eobard Thawne, as the two had come to have a real rapport. And while it took some time, he developed a bond with Wells 2.0 as well, though it was never as strong — Cisco was always wary, and Wells 2.0 was more sardonic and less fatherly (to those other than his actual daughter, anyway) than his predecessor. Wells 3.0 shifts the power dynamic in a new way; Cisco is no longer the student and son, but he’s now the teacher and in the role of something like an exasperated older brother. And that is another thing The Flash always does well: it uses its changes in time to reinvent its characters by changing their dynamics in ways that challenge them within the show’s world, as well as in our perception of them as viewers.
Back to our episode’s theme: in the final confrontation of the episode, Julian opened up to Barry in a way he swore he wouldn’t earlier in the hour. No, a meta didn’t kill his parents. But he did leave home and strike out on his own to follow what he loved, and now everything has changed. It’s a direct parallel to Caitlin and H.R.’s story in “Monster;” each made a name for themselves and now they feel like frauds. H.R. was outed as being merely the face of his company on Earth-19, while Julian feels like this new meta-inhabited world puts him out of his depth as a student of the natural world. Caitlin is supposed to be the most grounded and rational one of the group, always monitoring everyone else’s abilities, but now that she has her own, she doesn’t know how to handle it. Who will be her Caitlin?
“Monster” was a strange episode tonally speaking, but it connected thematically in a way that The Flash rarely gives itself enough time to do. Mainly this was because the focus shifted off of Barry, and yet, it never felt like Barry was sidelined. Even when he doesn’t have as much to do as in a regular episode, Grant Gustin owns the show and every scene (and seeing Barry interact with a character like Julian has been one of this seasons highlights so far), which should give the show’s writers more confidence to allow these other, non-Barry storylines to flourish.
But ultimately, “Monster” was about anxiety over a newly discovered destiny, about a frustration with the uncertainty of a new world, and about feeling powerless. These are all things that Barry has had to confront and deal with over and over, and it was nice to see it addressed by other characters as well. It is a team, after all.
Rating: ★★★ Good
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Remember when Barry changed the timeline in Season 2 and Pied Piper became an ally for the S.T.A.R. labs team? Is that still a thing in this timeline? I would actually love to see him return to help them out sometime.
— “Barry! Sometimes a man just wants to butter his own bread” – Cisco
— “Joe Knowledge” – Barry. I love how Joe went all Dad Cop on the kid who had been operating the monster, too.
— Didn’t Julian’s backstory remind you a bit of Draco Malfoy?
— H.R. calling Cisco “San Francisco” the first time was funny. Don’t drive it into the ground, writers. We’re already on thin ice with H.R.’s antics to begin with.
— Nigel’s heel turn came out of nowhere, and for a minute I was scared Caitlin was – after all of this! – going to just be kidnapped and in peril again. Although she does have that kidnapped app on her phone now.
— Good or weird moment when Caitlin and her mom bonded over dead husbands? (Great casting though)
— “Maybe there is a brain in there after all, Allen” – I doubt Julian and Barry will be best friends now, but regardless, I hope he remains sarcastic with him because it really is the best.
— After catching up with Legends of Tomorrow, I can see that The CW clearly spends all of its SFX budget on The Flash and not LoT. Priorities, priorities.
— “Sumptuous day!” – H.R.