Barry Allen has had a very busy week. Not only did he accidentally travel to another universe to help Kara Danvers save National City on Supergirl, but he purposefully traveled back in time to kindly ask Harrison Wells (a.k.a. the villainous Eobard Thawne) for the speed force formula on The Flash. One of these missions involved ice cream cones. The other one involved the scariest dementors this side of Azkaban. Moral of the story: it’s way more fun being a sidekick on someone else’s show than it is being the hero of your own superhero drama.
“Flash Back” was another placeholder episode for The Flash, eschewing the larger serialized narrative of Zoom and Earth-2, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a lot of fun. The Flash doesn’t always do a good job explaining why Barry needs to go to such extreme measures to solve his problems; it’s too excited to explore the repercussions of crazy, creative ideas. Barry’s scheme of traveling back in time to ask Harrison Wells for advice was a half-baked one with potentially terrible consequences, but I am willing to forgive the absurdity of this “plan” for the amount of narrative fun it created.
That being said, every time The Flash allows Barry to travel back in time (or travel across universes) without serious consequences, it lowers the stakes of this world. Sure, the time wraith was super scary, but it was also a consequence seemingly contained to this episode. Team Flash vanquished it (with the help of Hartley) and, though Barry altered the timeline, seemingly the only change was that Hartley has a better relationship with both Team Flash and his parents — i.e. barely no consequence at all. Every time The Flash uses time travel as a narrative device, it further cements the logic of how it operates in this narrative universe — of what kind of time travel it will be — and I’m not sure how I feel about the relative lack of effect Barry’s presence had in tonight’s episode …
As a story structure, “Flash Back” served to remind both Barry and us viewers just how much has changed for Team Flash in the past year: Ronnie has been found and lost again; Eobard Thawne has been exposed, and then vanquished; Eddie has sacrificed himself for the good of humanity; and that’s all without even getting into the Earth-2 / Zoom shenanigans. The Flash is a show that churns through plot in efficient, yet emotionally effective ways, but it’s not afraid to be reflective, either. Every time Barry uses his powers to travel in time or cross over into another world, it is an ethical choice that is really made up of a millions smaller ethical choices: Should he warn Team Flash about Wells? Should he try to save Eddie? Is he making a selfish choice by prioritizing his timeline as the one most important to sustain? The Flash has dipped its toe into asking these questions, most notably with Season 1’s finale, but it largely avoids them here and when Barry crosses over to Earth-2. I enjoyed this episode, but I couldn’t help but feel there were some questions Barry — and this show — could have been asking that would have made it even more thematically-rich.
The best part of Barry’s foray back to visit Season 1’s Team Flash? Harrison Wells. With Zoom such an overwhelming presence in Season 2, it’s easy to forget how charmingly terrifying Eobard Thawne’s Wells truly was. When he thinks he doesn’t need Future Barry, he gleefully informs him that he can murder him without ruining his plan — i.e. the only consequence Wells cares about. If Barry had any doubts about Wells’ priorities, this certainly cements his understanding of the villain. Moral of the story: He’s not worth your angst, Barry.
“Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to revisit the thing in your past that was holding you back,” Barry voiceovers at the end of the episode. While The Flash may have eschewed the exploration of some larger ethical themes in “Flash Back,” it did highlight how both Barry and Iris have been held back by the events of the past year. For Barry, he still seems to believe that he will never be happy — as Wells told him in his video message in the Season 2 premiere. For Iris, she is understandably having a hard time moving on romantically after Eddie’s death.
Though Barry may have (somehow) gotten Wells to give him the speed formula he was looking for, the greater treasure was found in a video message Barry recorded of Eddie while he was back in time. It says a lot about how much Barry loves Iris that — even in the midst of trying to navigate the perils of time travel, time wraiths, and Harrison Wells — he took the time to attempt to give Iris the closure she is so desperately looking for. The flash drive with Wells’ speed formula had all the grace of a MacGuffin, but Eddie’s message of love to Iris was grounded by Iris’ own journey and the viewer’s own joy at seeing Eddie as a character on The Flash once again. It was the worst kind of dramatic irony — which is to say the best kind of dramatic irony.
Hartley was a good one-off villain to bring in for a return to Season 1 metahumans-of-the-week. He had a prior relationship with Team Flash (save for Barry) and, like our Barry, he has been betrayed by Wells. For an entire commercial break, I thought he had been retroactively added to Team Flash in a Cousin Oliver or Dawn Summers maneuver — and I didn’t hate it, perhaps mostly because it took me by such surprise. Sadly, Hartley will seemingly not be joining Team Flash full-time… At least for now.
Rating: ★★★ Good
“Well, it’s giving me day-mares.” Cisco is not cool with Jay’s helmet just lurking around S.T.A.R. Labs, making him Vibe.
“Dad, mittens!” We don’t get nearly enough West-Allen domestic shenanigans. Isn’t it time for another game night already?
“You might miss out on something great.” I am so starved for #WestAllen development that, though their dinner table discussion may have included them discussing her awkward date with her boss, it still felt like progress.
Wally/Barry update: Barry is still being kind of a distracted jerk to Wally.
“What do you guys think?” “Your plan is asinine.” Wells’ reaction to Barry’s crazy time travel plan is so incredibly on point, but he just doesn’t have the energy to argue with Barry, Cisco, and Caitlin.
“He’s not Well. I’m Wells!” Wells is also so over them calling Eobard Thawne Harrison Wells. Fair enough.
“Barry’s pretty good at impersonating himself. You should have seen him over there on Earth-2. I was like, ‘Somebody get this guy an Oscar.” Bless you, Cisco.
“So, we’ll see you in, like, two seconds. Time travel’s so weird.”
“No, they’re gonna hear you get your ass kicked,” Future Barry mouths along gleefully with Past Barry. I love how enchanted with his own banter game he is here.
OK, the Flash v. Flash scene was beautifully-rendered and just so cool to watch.
Did anyone else think it was kind of dangerous to leave the Past Barry just lying unconscious in a random alley? The guy does have a secret identity to protect.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reading in my down time.” Barry’s explanation to Wells for how he came up with a partial speed formula. It was so in-character that Wells figured out almost immediately that Barry was not who he claimed to be.
Barry can’t help but roll his eyes at Wells’ “Run, Barry,” but it made me pretty nostalgic for Season 1.
The Central City P.D. just shoots at the dementor. How have they survived this long?
“It’s not like I have ESP or something. I can’t just magically sense where things are.” Cisco to the rest of Team Flash. I love my dramatic irony, Flash, but this might have been too much for even me.
“There’s just one thing that occurs to me: I don’t need you, do I? Not this you, certainly. Oops.” Wells is so incredibly scary.
“You kill me, Barry, this Barry, he learns it all.” Do we think Barry really had a plan in place or was he just B.S.-ing Wells here?
“Holy Harry Potter!” But can we please keep Hartley?
“You don’t know how to stop a time wraiths?!” “We don’t know. That’s why we usually avoid them.” Wells is so annoyed at Barry’s amateur time travel game.
“And every time, you turn to me at the end and say, ‘I have been and always shall be my friend.’” Guys, Barry and Cisco have watched The Wrath of Khan together five times.
After giving Barry about three attempts to explain himself, Wells speeds up the process: “I think what he’s trying to say is he’s from the future.”
“Have you ever seen The Frighteners? It’s kind of like that, but scarier and faster and it’s chasing you.”
“Did you figure out how to stop it?” Cisco fires gun; it doesn’t work. “Damn, we thought so.” None of them have perfected their patronuses yet.
Nice!Hartley to Barry: “Oh, hey Barry. How was your trip?”
“It turns out it’s easier to find a two-ton gorilla on this Earth than a teenage daughter.” Sad Wells makes me sad, but he is also makes me nervous. Because Sad Wells is unpredictable.
“You don’t need me. You can handle anything on your own because you’re fearless and independent and loving and kind. You are, without question, the best decision I ever made, Iris West. And I’ve never thanked you for choosing to be with me because every day with you is a gift.” Eddie Thawne truly was a precious cinnamon roll.
Barry doesn’t tell Iris the true story of how he came to get Eddie’s video message. On the one hand, this seems like a selfless act. It was pretty sweet that he went out of his way to get the video message at all. On the other hand, could he be worried that Iris might get mad that he didn’t try to save Eddie? This is where those ethical questions of time travel come in again…
Barry to Jay’s helmet: “I’m coming for you.” He probably means Jay, although the helmet is a much more achievable goal.