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Being The Flash isn’t about punching the hardest or running the fastest. Leonard Snart reminded the Scarlet Speedster of this by telling him he should stay a hero during last week’s “Infantino Street,” and this week Barry puts it into words. He’s speaking to Iris, but it’s more a reminder to himself and to the audience about what makes him who he is. It’s too bad then that “Finish Line” falls victim to yet another series of poor narrative choices that go back on a whole season’s worth of story and growth. As someone who writes about the show weekly, it’s mildly annoying. As someone who loves these characters and their mythology deeply, it’s downright frustrating.
We open where we left off last week, with a fast-forward answer to the hanging question of whether Iris had really died or if she’d been replaced by H.R. The latter is revealed to us, but in a sadly truncated flashback. It’s a fitting thematic bookend for a lovable character who, much like Eddie Thawne in season one, found a heroic purpose by the very end. That it’s the exact same purpose is a tad irritating, dying so that Iris can live, but that’s hardly a major problem in a series where plot repetition with differing thematic focus is the order of the day. As expected, it does undercut the “death” of Iris West by not actually allowing Barry time to deal with the fallout. Her recording message last week, while powerful, was for naught. “There’s no Flash without Iris West” is a sentiment echoed through Savitar’s existence, but the rushed resolution robs us of even thirty seconds worth of struggle for Barry in a post-Iris world. Her fake-out death window-dressing at the cost of character exploration, as well as the decision-making process and final good deed of a whole entire character.
With Cisco toiling away on the Speed Force Bazooka at Savitar’s workshop (under threat of him killing Caitlyn no less), Team Flash is down a few members as they try to figure out a new plan to stop the Speed God. The Flash has always played fast & loose with the rules of time travel. So long as it’s been for dramatic effect, it’s never really been a problem. It certainly isn’t one here, allowing for a more intimate middle portion where Barry talks to Savitar, confronting his darkest self and reminding him of who he is underneath before bringing him back to the fold at STAR Labs. If they say killing Iris at this stage will no longer help Savitar’s cause, believing otherwise would amount to a nitpick. It allows a direct and personal confrontation the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the likes of which proves once and for all why Barry is a hero.
Or at least it would have, had the episode followed through on it.
Savitar, some version of Barry from the future, lost and alone, returns home to the people who once loved him. They treat him with fear and resentment over the things that he’s done, the very ostracization that first set him adrift, but Barry and Iris show him kindness. If he doesn’t figure out a plan soon, time will catch up with him and he’ll be erased from existence. Proving once and for all that Barry and Iris are truly heroes, they decide to help him. They have no concrete plan just yet, but the love they show him despite all that he is and all that he’s done is genuinely affecting. It’s a beautiful and borderline audacious direction for a superhero finale, yet one that’s perfectly in line with the entire season. Love is what keeps these people together. Love is what makes them good… which is why it’s all the more frustrating that this trajectory is immediately canceled out (and then some) by the ensuing decisions.
Not only does the team use Harry from Earth-2, doppelganger to the recently departed H.R., to emotionally manipulate Tracy into helping the man who killed him, this plot thread also has no outcome. Savitar turns on the team not a minute later. On top of that, Barry’s talk of The Flash not being about punching the hardest or running the fastest eventually comes down to him punching Savitar really hard. And sure, Savitar’s plan is a threatening one, using the Speed Force Bazooka to unhinge himself from time so he exists in all moments simultaneously (thus truly ascending to Godhood) and within the logic of the given events, Barry & co. don’t have any other choice but to kill him. That logic is flawed to the point of detriment.
We get a few minutes of cool speedster action with Barry, Wally and Jay teaming up in a forest, but that cool is at the cost of catharsis. Love is shoved aside in favour of physical feats. Even in a thematically poignant moment of Barry taking over Savitar’s suit and almost killing him, thus placing Barry on the literal and emotional precipice of becoming Savitar, the weight of his decision to not let his hate overrun him is undercut by the next few moments. Punching Savitar in the face makes sense in the given context, but in an episode where it’s explicitly stated that The Flash is a hero not because of punching (rather, because of his connection to other people), it’s a poor story choice. Where was the Barry from ten minutes prior, who’d go to any length to remind this lost soul that he could still be loved? Rather than having him or Iris continue to try and get through to him, the story unfolds such that Iris… shoots Savitar dead?
Why? What thematic purpose does this serve? What do either of these decisions do for the main characters? Why focus an entire season on the centricity of love as a positive force if the resolution comes down to the use of actual lethal force? Why begin moving the show in a unique direction wherein the villain could be “defeated” through kindness and understanding, only to return to the prior two seasons’ resolutions of kicking the villain’s ass? Regardless of what the characters say, The Flash does not stand apart in this sense. In this moment he’s very much every other boring superhero, and it’s frustrating given how close The Flash comes to making him so much more.
It’s nice that Cisco gives Caitlyn a choice as to whether or not she wants to use the cure. It’s nice that we’ll see her become her own person and figure out who she is. It’s nice that Gypsy comes around to her feelings for Cisco, showing up to save the day while calling him a jackass. It’s nice that Julian and Tracy will stick around. There are nice moments for the side characters. It’s all very nice in that regard, but where it’s ultimately maddening is the fact that it goes back on all its central themes for two straight season finales. There is no real attempt at continuing to show Savitar love. It’s traded in for a story where that’s no longer necessary, and way too quickly at that. There is no fallout to that love failing. There is no real reason for the episode to even go in that direction in the first place if it’s going to return to square one without anything being lost or gained. It is an utter and total flubbing of a potentially functional season apotheosis. Instead all we’re left with is the same old noise.
Sure, in the closing moments of the episode, Barry is given the opportunity to self-sacrifice. The Speed Force Prison that Jay was freed from needs a new captor to keep it stable, and Barry is the obvious candidate. The Flash sacrificing himself for others makes sense in and of itself, and it’s probably the only ostensibly correct story choice they follow through with in “Finish Line.” But it’s also not the point of the episode. It comes at a stage when the cracks are too deep. While the idea of love and kindness transcending traditional superheroics would’ve been narrative course-correction in a thematic sense (as they’ve been setting up for six months now!), the course-correction here is thuddingly literal. Flashpoint was his fault so Barry has to go away now, that too amidst a strangely tone-deaf scene where lightning is raining down all around them, even striking people just down the street, and he takes his sweet time saying goodbye.
There is no sense of urgency to this decision. Only a last-minute inevitability. Has there ever been any doubt that Barry would self-sacrifice to this degree? Has he not essentially been doing it since the season one finale, where he flies upward into a wormhole to save existence? It is penance for selfish actions, but it’s a penance that would’ve had the same outcome had the need arisen one episode into the season. Rather than paying for his sins through any actual change, something the episode was very much on the verge of, Barry simply fucks off into the Speed Force for yet another un-earned ending. Big whoop.
The Flash returns this fall, I guess. We’re back to square one yet again.