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The shift between what The Flash was when it first began and what it became in subsequent seasons was kind of hard to pin down. While there was an expected change in tone towards darker, more dour territory, that wasn’t quite the change that kneecapped much of season two. No, where The Flash faltered was straying from the central tenets that made it great, i.e. the show’s ensemble nature and its laser focus on emotional harmony, wherein vulnerability wasn’t just a state of personal being, but an inter-personal currency by which characters could take on each other’s problems, solving them hand-in-hand. Then again, being fun and whimsical certainly aids that process, and it’s for all these reasons that “Untouchable” feels like a definitive return to form. What’s more, it opens with some classic Flash imagery: a race.
Iris’ death in the future hangs over the back half of this season, and the episode itself features a metahuman able to turn anyone into a corpse with a touch, but “Untouchable” begins with a respite from all this morbidity. The two Flashes do what they do best. They run. As the rest of the team places their bets – Joe remains diplomatic, unable and unwilling to choose between his sons, while H.R. puts money on Wally without fully understanding the concept of gambling since it’s outlawed on Earth-19, thanks to… Vice President Al Capone?! – the speedsters zip through Central City, neck-and-neck until the very end. Who’s the faster of the two Flashes? Hard to say, but Barry wins their bout by phasing his way directly to the finish line while Wally has to run over a building to get there.
It’s a season one episode through and through, beginning by setting up a speedster feat that needs to be overcome in order to beat the week’s villain, while also preparing the team to solve the season’s macro problem, the Speedster God Savitar. The major difference is Wally is the one plagued with self-doubt, a hero thrust on a journey outside his control, while Barry is tasked with stepping in to the role of mentor. He’s not the best of teachers, simply expecting Wally to follow his lead as he demonstrates his ability, but his arc is just as vital to saving Iris in the long run. After being inspired and motivated to grow as a hero, he now needs to learn to be the one to inspire.
The monster of the week is yet another Alchemy creation, a man imbued with his memories (and abilities) from the Flashpoint timeline, now targeting all the cops who brought him down in that universe regardless of their profession in this one. While two-dimensional himself, the villain Clive Yorkin serves as the perfect nexus for the episode’s various threads. He’s out for blood, be it Joe’s or anyone close to him, and he’s also one of the metas brought into being by Team Flash newcomer Julian Albert, back when he was under Savitar’s influence. Not only that, Yorkin’s first victim is a chef at Luigi’s, a restaurant mentioned in one of the future headlines Barry envisioned, and this may very well be the incident that leads to that reality. What’s more, the antidote to Yorkin’s powers – some pseudo science about his blood attacking cells and breaking them down rapidly – happens to be the blood of speedsters, known for their rapid healing. In effect, the answer to this walking avatar of death and rot is heroes imbued with the Speed Force, but to achieve this thematic speedster-as-life solution, the team is first put through the wringer.
A side note, before elaborating on how “Untouchable” balances its spinning plates. Another future headline happens to be “Joe West honored at City Hall,” and one would think the team might mention something so ominous when a killer metahuman begins targeting him. The Flash has made an odd habit out of ignoring major details, beginning with its season two finale in which Barry’s time remnant (i.e. Barry from just a few seconds in the past or future) sacrificed himself to save everyone. A monumental character moment because this was Barry Allen, but something we’re literally told to forget about the very next scene. That’s not to bring up an issue of a prior season and hold it against this one, but rather to highlight a continued problem. It even extends to Joe getting Iris, Wally and Barry to meet his girlfriend’s daughter, a young black girl who seems to have a thing for Kid Flash. The scene revolves around which of the two Flashes she likes better, and there’s nothing that really differentiates them in the public eye… except for the idea of Central City finally having a black superhero. Even with five black characters at the table, the show ignores what the racial reality of that scene might be in favour of a “race blind” scenario. It doesn’t even cross anyone’s mind. An odd choice, to say the least, and exemplary of The Flash simply ignoring what’s right in front of us, but certainly not something that brings the episode down entirely.
Even though no one thinks to mention the Joe headline, Iris makes the decision to tell him about her dying in the future. No more secrets, even justifiable ones, appears to be this week’s motto, and bringing everyone in on the information one by one ensures the whole team functions optimally. The one hitch they seem to experience however is Tom Felton’s Julian, a brilliant but abrasive scientist whose work take precedence above all else, placed alongside the sweet and sensitive Caitlyn. A perfect pairing regardless of potential romantic prospects, not just because of their clashing personalities, but because of their differing approaches to guilt and trauma. Julian blames himself entirely for the actions he performed as Alchemy, and his view of culpability appears to extend to Caitlyn’s Killer Frost persona.
Once Yorkin evades Wally and gets his hands on Iris, his touch causes decay to spread up her arm, sure to kill her slowly unless the team can temporarily freeze it. Caitlyn’s ice powers come into play even at the cost of losing control, first with Iris’ emotional support, then through Julian having to talk her Frost persona down from taking over, as he finally realizes her strength lies not in self-loathing, but in letting her kindness win. He sees her for who she is, a loving, forgiving person (the opposite of the alter ego threatening to take over), and rather than beating her down, he encourages her. It’s a small gesture, made tangible through the lightest of comforting touches, but it’s monumental for the both of them.
That same kind of encouragement takes place concurrently in very next room, as Wally beats himself up over not being good enough to save Iris. It’s here that Barry realizes the one advantage he had was teachers who encouraged him, and like a true hero, he vows to do the same. When Joe tracks down Yorkin’s next victim (after Cisco “vibes” a timeline that no longer exists!), the train they’re on is put in immediate danger as Yorkin drops a bridge on the tracks… and so begins the episode’s double Flash feat, an exciting conclusion to an already exciting hour of superhero television.
Without enough time to get everyone off the train individually, Barry performs what might be his most insane feat yet. He boards the moving train and vibrates the whole thing, cars, passengers and all, at the necessary frequency for THE ENTIRE TRAIN to phase through the blockade! This herculean task helps Wally believe in himself enough to perform the impossible too, cutting himself so he bleeds and running right through Yorkin so his blood neutralizes his powers!
The reason Flash feats are exciting was never just because of the visuals, or what their were conceptually/pseudo-scientifically. The always meant something more for the characters. Belief in others. Belief in themselves. Belief in their collective empathetic dynamic, where emotional togetherness was the impetus for all their solutions. If this episode is any indication, The Flash feels back on that track, with the Barry-Wally dynamic being one of its fun new additions. It isn’t just the big stuff like phasing that matters, but the subtle gestures that add flavour to their relationship, like Barry nodding at Wally for him to take the lead and save everyone at Jitters, or the sly circular movement of his hands to instruct Wally to create cyclones to fend off Yorkin. That’s just good visual storytelling!
Oh, and the episode tag felt like the perfect combination of satisfying conclusion and exciting tease. Wally, now much more confident in his abilities, is finally able to phase his hand through Cisco’s wall, but just as one task his complete, another one comes a-knocking. Jesse Quick hops over from Earth-2 to ask for his help. Her dad, the second Harrison Wells, has been captured… by Gorilla Grodd. In Gorilla City.
It’s going to be a long wait for next week's episode. The first of a two-part story!