The Flash, Season 2, Episode 11, “The Reverse-Flash Returns”
Written by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing
Directed by Michael Allowitz
Airs Tuesdays at 8pm (ET) on The CW
When Barry Allen narrates the themes of episodes in their openings, I always expect the poignancy to of those episodes to come up short. After all, narration is so difficult to execute well in film and television that the writing is almost always didactic—the epitome of getting “show, don’t tell” completely wrong. But then the episode moves along, and it’s still emotional gut punch after emotional gut punch. “The Reverse-Flash Returns” is no exception, beginning with Barry talking about how we (the audience, humankind) are always running to avoid what’s right in front of us, and the episode serves up incredible examples of characters coming to these realizations and having to deal with conflict.
Barry, of course, is front and center here. The return of Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher) brings immediate and significant weight to Barry’s shoulders and thoughts. Although we’ve seen Barry forgive Harrison Wells, he still carries so much pain regarding the death of his mother with him. Throughout these two seasons, he’s become better at managing it; but it’s still there. Thawne becomes a conduit for that pain in “The Reverse-Flash Returns,” which is much less concerned with providing a villain-of-the-week than it is with tackling Barry’s grief head-on. In an alternate timeline, this episode would feature a huge action set-piece, and the season could have just as easily built up Thawne as the Big Bad as it has done with Zoom, but Thawne’s here to be another step along the way to Barry become the best version of himself.
By putting his past in check (and, importantly, not behind him; The Flash smartly refuses to believe that Barry can just overcome that pain eventually), Barry not only helps save Cisco’s life in this timeline, but reaches the next level in emotional self-control. He pummels Thawne in their fight, but he doesn’t kill him. He confronts Thawne in his cell to figure out why he hates Barry so much, but he still sacrifices the satisfaction of having beaten and contained Thawne in the end. It’s certainly a bit cute to say that Thawne is a visual metaphor for Barry’s grief, but when the point ends up being to let Thawne go free and not keep him locked up inside Star Labs, that metaphor simply works too well.
The West children are also asked to deal with the conflict that’s right in front of them, but which they continue to run from. Iris’ scene with Francine is downright cruel in how well it resolves that issue, but it’s necessary not just for Iris to move to but to bridge the gap with Wally (for both Iris and for The Flash). Of all the people in this universe, Iris is—possibly—the purest of heart, or at least the character whose inner-demons get in the way of personal morality least often. So, whether or not she would forgive Francine was never in question. The power from that exchange, then, comes from the everyday—the thing that was right in front of Iris the entire time growing up, but that she had to suppress—which was the question of wondering what it would have been like to share her life with a mother. That’s something worth running from, even if it’s something always felt, if just to maintain sanity as a child susceptible to abandonment issues (which don’t require an active choice to have been made to exist). And that’s why the moment is overwhelmingly difficult for Iris, to the point where she has to leave the room. It’s stunning that The Flash handles all that as, not even a definitive B-story, but even a C-story.
But then the episode takes it a step further by letting Iris being the wise older sister to Wally, speaking from the experience of not being given the chance to say the things she should have said to Eddie before he died. Wally has been running just as much as anyone in these first two episodes of 2016, and Iris is so at peace with her own battles that she’s able to hone in on a way of getting through to Wally. Being left behind hurts. But not getting that chance to release anger or any other kind of feeling while there’s still time makes the hurt so much worse, and is the kind of stuff that lingers—that makes running from pain a habit, not a one-time decision. Wally West is obviously a huge presence for fans, whether or not he’s as huge of a presence in the events of The Flash as they are happening right now. The writing team has found a smart way of integrating him through the character who has, historically, had the fewest meaningful things to do in the series. That is definitively not running from the problem right in front of you.
- If this entire review could have been “OH MY GOD, CISCO JUST SAID “Bye, Felicia” TO THAWNE, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD,” it would have been. It should have been. That was a thing that happened in this episode. That was a thing that happened on you television screens. Your move, 2016.
- This probably doesn’t get said enough: Joe rocks that beanie.
- Honest is policy: those special effects with the truck nearly crashing were shockingly terrible.
- If Iris’ scene with Francine didn’t make you cry, maybe all the Barry-Patty stuff did? To avoid belaboring the points from last week’s review, she’s absent above. But, to be sure, all that running to avoid what’s in front of you absolutely applies to Barry’s issues with relationships. At the end of the day, it’s nice for both characters to know that it doesn’t take very long for Barry to make a long distance visit. But good lord, VanSanten can do pain so well in those scenes.
- The most interesting part of the steps taking towards controlling Cisco’s vibing is that fear is the key. What an awful-but-wonderful source of power. Also, more Harry-Cisco scenes. Harry-Cisco all the time. Harry-Cisco spin-off.
- Also, “Bye, Felicia.”
- The Case for Cisco Being the Best Character on TV, Part II: slurping after Harry specifically said not to. Also, “Bye, Felicia.”
- “Bye, Felicia.” I CAN’T EVEN.