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Thanks to Amelia for covering for me last week.
It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. We now know who Savitar is. We know why he exists. We know the monumental challenge he poses to Team Flash, and more importantly, we know what he means to Barry. It’s a huge risk for the show, one with the potential to confuse and even alienate viewers, but one they’ve teased explicitly for about five months now. And you know what? Despite a noticeably bumpy season, with all-timers sandwiched between frustrating nonsense, “I Know Who You Are” manages to hit the bull’s eye on its moving target.
Spoilers to follow.
After having been teased at the end of last week, this episode’s brief things-to-come prologue features Barry confronting Savitar, telling him he knows his identity. It’s the kind of tease that makes you eager to see how the pieces come together, which means it’s also not the kind of thing you normally want to see before an entire hour that is expressly NOT about actively trying to uncover the mystery. And yet, the episode is so thematically sound and so precisely stealthy in its buildup that it feels like a victory lap in retrospect.
“King Shark’s” Hanelle Culpepper returns to direct, finding a sweet-spot between the show’s time-travel propulsion and its central dynamics. Pretty much every character gets their due. Caitlyn is still on the run as Killer Frost, hot on the heels of the scientist that traps Savitar in the future, and her mind & soul hang in the balance amidst the discovery that she’ll soon join forces with Savitar. Cisco and Julian, the two men closest to her right now, bicker over how they should’ve saved her. While Cisco gets to say “I told you so” over Julian removing her power-dampening necklace, Julian breathes down Cisco’s neck over his hesitance to stop her. Every time Frost comes up against the team, our beloved Vibe is one energy blast away from stopping his brainwashed BFF. But he can’t bring himself to do it. What if he can’t control his vibes? What if he hits her too hard? What if he kills her in the process?
Julian’s a bit of a prick at times, but we know his on-edge concern for Caitlyn comes from a place of love. This week, not only is he able to finally see past the fact that he isn’t the only one who cares, but he’s able to use that understanding to help Cisco control his powers. The actual sci-fi mechanics of “love” as a factor in metahuman abilities is a pretty bogus concept, though if we’re being honest, so is the whole idea of metahumans to begin with. In fact, love is the through-line this week. It’s what convinces Cisco he can do what’s necessary to stop his best friend without hurting her.
Caitlyn’s now working for Savitar (the second time we’ve seen a version of Killer Frost do the bidding of a secret speedster; we’ll get to the repetitions in a moment) and her target is one Tracy Brand. Anne Dudek (Mad Men’s Francine) breathes life into the neurotic grad student, the woman who will one day develop the technology necessary to defeat Savitar if she can first best her own big-bad: self doubt. We first meet her as she’s literally torching her work, a waste of resources according to her Uni, and after a surprise attack by “the ice queen” she’s given even more reason to run away. That’s where H.R. finally gets to flex his talent for cultivating, well, talent, and what starts out as an overzealous crush ends up being part of the episode’s heart & soul.
It’s nice to see a zany, pop-culture-referencing woman on the show and not have her immediately be paired up with Cisco, though their exchange is perhaps the funniest of the episode. Upon learning her destiny, she labels herself a Sarah Conner, but to Cisco she’s more of a Miles Dyson. That said, the prospect of learning that her speedster theories aren’t those of a “crackpot” have an unexpected effect on her, sending her running away regardless. The shoes she now has to fill are those of a Nobel prize-winner, and her doubts hit her like an avalanche in the face of the task at hand. If there’s anyone that knows about living in the shadow of greatness though it’s goofy H.R. Wells, who finally steps up to the plate and expresses his genuine belief in Tracy.
The final piece to this week’s love/doubt dichotomy is Papa West himself. His relationship with District Attorney Cecile Horton is about the only “normal” thing left on the show, not to mention the only sense of normalcy in Joe’s increasingly crazy life. Amidst the simple couple stuff – the jogging, the banter, the genuine sense of affection – Cecile lets slip her true feelings for Joe, which sends him into a bit of a tailspin. Not because of your usual juvenile issues of commitment, but because much like Barry, anyone close to Joe is a potential supervillain target.
Barry, much more mature and level-headed than we’ve seen him in seasons past, returns Joe’s advice, convincing him to let Cecile in on their secrets if she’s going to be a part of his life. Disappointingly Joe opts to PULL A GODDAMN BARRY and break up with her for her own protection. But unlike prior iterations of this dynamic (Iris, Patty, a few others I’m probably forgetting), things go awry regardless. Killer Frost shows up at Joe’s doorstep and takes Cecile hostage, and her ransom is Tracy Brand.
Team Flash shows up with Tracy as bait, thinking they can outsmart Frost and ambush her in order to get Cecile back, but they don’t count on the icy villainess being one step ahead of them in an… eerie manner. She knows exactly where Cisco is hiding. She knows the team’s next move, and perhaps most unsettlingly, she knows everything Barry is about to say in order to talk her down. Everything from the small, discomforting moments to the large-scale action was on point this week, and we even got to see Caitlyn go full-Bobby Drake and surf away on an icy bridge! While Savitar manages to recover an unconscious Caitlyn after her big battle with Cisco, the Team still managed to get a vial of her blood and begin working on a cure. All hope isn’t lost yet!
In fact, the episode begins to wrap on a rather positive note. Joe goes back on his dummy decision to alienate Cecile, making her a vital part of his life by telling her about The Flashes. There’s also room for an incredibly sweet moment where he finally takes off his wedding ring, thanking her for not making a big deal out of it! Back at the West household, Wally returns from seeing Jesse on Earth-3 and he, Iris and Barry hang out on the couch as Joe basks in the glow of his renewed romance… and that’s when the bow gets tied a little too neatly for Barry’s comfort. Love was the most important thing this week, and as Joe reflects on his decisions, he wonders out loud: “What would we become without it?”
As Barry finally begins to think on this, he realizes the truth about Savitar and exactly how he knows everything about the team and all of Barry’s next moves. He’s already seen what he becomes in 2024, a broken shell of a man who’s pushed everyone away, and now he finally faces down what he might turn into if he continues down that path: Savitar. “The Future Flash”. An uncaring, unfeeling remnant of Barry, turned into a monstrosity without the warmth and affection that give his life meaning.
Coming to this conclusion himself is a monumentally important step for Barry. It’s massive payoff to a season about the pull & push of his relationships, and something that was even cheekily teased to us all the way back during the first episode. “Now who’s the villain, Flash?” feels much more tongue-in-cheek like now that we know where Barry ends up, but it’s much more than an Easter egg. The reason The Reverse-Flash says it has nothing to do with Savitar, but it has everything to do with the fallout of Barry’s selfish actions in creating the Flashpoint timeline and its subsequent fallout, worlds where all his relationships with Joe, Iris and the rest of the Team are either fractured or non-existant.
Since then, Barry’s had to face down the consequences of his guilt, his fear and his selfishness, finally being driven to realize that he can’t marry Iris just to keep her safe. Love was the big deal this week because it’s always been the show’s big deal. Without it, Barry-esque orphan Hunter Zolomon became the monstrous Zoom, and without it, Barry himself will turn into a megalomaniacal villain with nothing in his heart but malice. While it’s a slight thematic retread (one I’m sure was already familiar to Harry Potter fans in the first place), and perhaps the last time we should ever see this “secret speedster villain” formula play out with a late-season reveal, the direct way in which it forces Barry to confront the worst parts of himself is something we’re only just beginning to see.
With three weeks to go, what hangs in the balance isn’t just Iris’ life or Barry’s inherent goodness. In a metatextual sense, it’s the entire fabric of the show. It’s the idea that these people are who they are, heroes able to overcome self-doubt and adversity, because of the love they share. It’s about bringing Caitlyn back from that icy brink, and perhaps even finding a way to stop Barry from going down a dark and loveless path. A superhero having to face a dark version of themself is hardly a novel idea, but with this sound a thematic buildup, this hard-hitting an execution, and this potentially heart-wrenching a climax, it’s exactly what The Flash needs right now.