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Oh, to be a fly on the wall in this writers’ room.
Last week’s “The Wrath of Savitar” was among the series’ best entries. A metatextual mea culpa that seemed to push this meandering third season along a more concrete trajectory whilst setting up the biggest possible challenge for Barry, i.e. facing the worst parts of himself. Unfortunately, its success is also what makes “Into The Speed Force” all the more disappointing, an episode that gives in to both Barry’s and the show’s worst tendencies. Not only does it fail to live up to its predecessor by an enormous margin, it also ranks amongst the series’ worst, most mind-boggling and most downright frustrating episodes to date. It may even be on par with the dreadful season two finale, and for similar reasons too. This is not a label one ascribes lightly.
This week’s chapter borrows from the show’s seldom used yet arguably most powerful plot device, sending Barry back into the Speed Force to rescue Wally and to face the universe itself, appearing before him in the form of people from his past and present. In “The Runaway Dinosaur,” the Speed force primarily took the form of Barry’s late mother, in a story centered around coming to terms with loss. Barry went back on this vital growth of course, and the Speed Force seems to have a bone to pick thanks to this decision and its timeline ramifications, but what seems like another case of necessary course-correction soon reveals itself to be a poorly though out mess.
There’s little doubt to what the Speed Force is showing him in the form of Ronnie, Eddie and Snart, people who sacrificed themselves for the greater good. These heroes were eventually inspired by The Flash, though before Barry rescues Wally from his own personal hell (in which he’s condemned to re-live his mother’s death over and over), he must first outrun both a Time Wraith and The Black Flash in a construct that takes the form of Central City PD. These contorted remnants of speedsters chase him down for the way he selfishly toyed with time, the in-universe course corrections once again seeming to align with external considerations of what he ought not to have done, and they don’t stop trying to turn him into one of them until he destroys Cisco’s universal tether keeping him connected to the outside world. A sacrifice in the presence of those who sacrificed for him, a fitting thematic development that falls perfectly in line with a Speed Force story, but one that ultimately takes a nosedive because of how it’s resolved.
Back in the real world, the team tries to figure out how to use Savitar’s metal shard to locate the evil Speed God, with little actually happening by way of story for anyone except Jesse Quick. Finally, Team Flash’s lady speedster gets to grapple with her perceived inadequacies, going beyond the call of duty and against the team’s wishes in order to track down Savitar herself. Once she does, she exposes his physical weakness amidst an off-hand mention of his future plans for her, a throwaway line no different from any other of his prophecies during this monumental development. Savitar has finally been proven human and vulnerable, all thanks to the Earth-2 Flash who no one believed in. Then the show went and squandered this too.
The only real development Jesse was afforded in season two was coming to terms with being trapped on Earth-1, having left her life and her friends behind. A few weeks ago, she made the confounding decision to move back across the walls of the universe to be with a guy she barely knows. Okay. Sure. A nonsensical development that at least had the upside of bringing a lady speedster on to the team, and after she showcased her powers and her gusto this week, it seemed like a worthwhile payoff. But then the resolution to her story in “Into The Speed Force” was to leave Earth-1 all over again in order to be The Flash on Earth-3 because Savitar mentioned having plans for her, making her exit from the show once more.
That’s not all, the reason Earth-3 now needs protecting is equally confounding. See, during his chat with the embodiment of Snart, Barry’s forced to face down his failure to step up and be the hero everyone believes him to be, and once Snart starts firing at him to stop him from saving Wally, Jay Garrick shows up for the first time in months with a flimsy explanation. He seems like yet another embodiment of the Speed Force, explaining away his arrival with something about Cisco hopping over to his Earth for help, a development we never actually see. It would then follow that his offer to sacrifice himself and stay behind in the Speed Force in Barry’s stead is yet another test of heroism. The transactionary nature of the Speed Force, where one speedster must always remain trapped, coupled with Barry having to sacrifice his connection to the outside world in order to reach Wally sets this up perfectly, but the episode seemed written into a corner from the start, with Barry’s non-stop insistence on sacrificing himself from the moment he entered the construct.
When it turns out there’s no rug-pull and that actually is Jay, doing the heroic thing and sacrificing himself so Barry can go and be the hero, is when the episode begins to crumble. Like the last time we were in the Speed Force, Barry’s heroic self-discovery has now taken center stage, only now it takes the form of him taking an even bigger step back, realizing that standing aside and letting Wally be the one to save Iris in the future was actually the wrong choice. And sure, Barry reclaiming this heroic mantle and being the one to save Iris is a direction the show was always likely to take, but here it comes at the cost of every development he’s made as a character this season. Again.
In this situation, Barry “being the hero” involves acts of heroism in the most literal and superficial sense. Poor Jay is left behind until Barry can finally rescue him, and while the idea of Barry learning to step up and be a hero again makes sense, especially in light of all those who died so that he could, it’s almost audaciously idiotic to have this come about through Barry learning not to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Why does his Speed Force lesson take this form? What purpose does this serve but to make him seem selfish all over again?
In order to wheel-spin further and set up its final episodes, Barry even decides he and Iris need distance if he’s to save her in the future, a decision that would neither help the situation, nor one that Iris has any real say in... What the fuck? Sorry, but “What the fuck?” is all I have at the moment, because this too is contextualized as selflessness when it’s utterly unfeeling and selfish. Where “The Wrath of Savitar” promised to make Barry face the worst parts of himself head on, “Into The Speed Force” lets him off the hook entirely, deifying him for being the selfish asswipe he devolved into in the season 2 finale.
This is bad storytelling.
But hey, at least next week’s musical crossover with Supergirl will wash the taste out of our mouths, I guess. If The Flash bounces back from this, it’s going to be one hell of a creative miracle.