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After last week’s stellar reveal, the kind that works even if (or especially if) you managed to follow the trail of breadcrumbs, “Cause and Effect” finds an interesting way to propel the Savitar situation forward without really advancing the plot. Instead it focuses on our lovable heroes, providing a fun yet meaningful romp of an episode akin to the show’s early entries whilst justifying its darker elements. At its core, once again, is Barry Allen; his joy and his love and inherent light, but also the tragic darkness that makes him who he is.
This season has done a lot to address the gripes many of us had with the last year’s wrap up. It began by tackling Barry’s selfishness and all his time-travel meddling (manifesting as the world known as “Flashpoint”), and now it feels like it’s come full circle. One thing that stuck out like a sore thumb during the season two finale was the sacrifice of Barry’s time remnant to defeat the villainous Zoom. For all intents and purposes, this was very much the real Barry Allen, just from a fraction of a second in the past or future, but his death felt utterly meaningless. Not to us of course, or at least those of us who managed to follow the show’s own internal logic. No, the death of Barry Allen landing with a thud came in the form no character on the show really caring. They had “their” Barry right in front of them, so to these non-speedsters who could only think in linear terms, the death of any other “Barry” wasn’t worth discussing.
“Cause and Effect” addresses that major slip-up head on. Savitar-Barry with his scars and smarm reveals that in the future, Barry will one day create many time remnants in order to fight Savitar (as the future Barry from 2024 confirmed a few weeks ago), but not all of them will die like he was led to believe. One survives, or is allowed to survive, and is seen as some distant aberration by the Team. This might be kind of a case of an unreliable narrator – we know Barry distances himself from his family in the future, and they’re not quite the heartless types Savitar makes them out to be – but the perspective here, while warped, could easily make sense in Savitar’s head. The death of Iris, the refusal to let Joe and everyone else in, his own horrific injury and his status as a “time remnant” (as opposed to the “real” Barry) are all things that factor in to him being driven over the edge and into the past, where he created his own mythology.
Even in the context of the show, the difference between a time remnant and the real thing is only a technical one. They’re both very much the real Barry Allen, and it’s this week the Team finally comes to this realization. There may be two Barrys in the future, but they both come from the same source. They have the same memories, the same hopes and dreams, and the same sense of loss; one just wasn’t loved the same way. And since Savitar still stems from Barry in 2017, he’s able to draw on his memories to stay one step ahead. The solution? Well, this is The Flash after all, so Cisco comes up with a plan to electromagnetically halt Barry’s ability to create new memories, but his Memento plan goes awry. Barry awakens from the procedure with no memories at all!
It seems like a comedic departure at first, a late-in-the-season swerve to avoid jumping headfirst into dour territory as things begin to wrap up. While it certainly allows Grant Gustin to flex his comedic chops (he essentially delivers three noteworthy performances this week), the memory plot soon reveals itself as something far more elemental. It’s a look at who Barry is without twenty eight years of experience. He spends the episode piecing together his life, not to mention engaging in a hilarious subplot about testifying against a dangerous felon with the help of Julian and some snazzy text-messaging spectacles, but a handful of things stand out about him to Iris, the person who knows him best.
One, Barry is as bright and happy as he’s ever been. She recalls their first meeting as children, when she realized what a ray of sunshine he was (prior to his mother’s murder), and she even comments on how good it is to see him smile this much without the weight of the world on his shoulders. She’s right. Two, Barry wants to help. That’s just who he is. Even when he essentially has no training, no skills, and no real reason to trust these people beyond what they’ve told him, he’s eager to jump in and save people. And three, when Barry fails, he takes that failure seriously. He’s apologetic, even when things aren’t quite his fault, and he tries his best to do better.
These are the basics that make up Barry Allen at his core. This goodness is what drives him. It feels like a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in Savitar, an un-empathetic brute born out of loss and lovelessness, but what’s scariest to Iris is that loss also makes up the Barry she knows. He isn’t a full person without his memories. He’s a concept. A set of characteristics untouched by life and human experience, and he doesn’t become Barry Allen the person, the character, until he’s had those years of loving and losing, and most importantly, learning. He’s made up of good memories and bad ones, but so long as the good in him outweighs the bad, he will continue to be Barry Allen. Fighting Savitar is ultimately what sets “time remnant” Barry on the path to becoming Savitar – in a thematic sense, facing the worst parts of himself and losing, with no one to help him remember the good. So long as he has love to remind him who he is, that’s what will truly make him the Flash that we know.
The ripple effect of Barry’s memory wipe is instantaneous. Savitar no longer remembers who he is, and since he’s the villain who eventually travels to the past and gives Wally his powers (so Wally can in turn free him from the Speed Force; Savitar is an infinite loop of self-creation at the moment – a chicken & egg scenario), Wally is no longer a speedster. However like Barry, the removal of this fundamental part of Wally doesn’t impede him from wanting to be a hero.
Caitlyn also returns to the fold this week, working alongside her old team in order to solve another Barry problem, albeit so Savitar can regain his memories. It’s an uncanny twist on the classic paradigm, a reminder of things that once were as Cisco tries to jump-start his best friend’s cold heart with some stories of the good old days. Caitlyn remembers, and even chimes in on occasion, revealing that the nature of Killer Frost isn’t so much “heartless murderer” as it is someone with a full life of love and experiences having put up emotional walls. It’s no wonder that she works well alongside Savitar.
While I’m certain Caitlyn will have Cisco’s reminders get through to her eventually, this week’s emotional breakthrough needed to be centered around Barry – more specifically, around Iris as the audience POV character, coming to terms with the fact that while a bright, sunny Barry Allen may work for a period, it’s when that brightness exists in contrast to his tragic past that it manages to shine brightest, making him complete. She reminds him of the nature of the love in his life, one that exists not instead of tragedy, but in addition to it, fighting it at every turn. This jump-starts his memory, allowing him to save people from a burning building with the help of his team, just like early in the show’s first season.
The Flash may have hinged on “too dark” of late, but where it’s at right now feels like a necessary retrospective on both the recent darkness as well as the show’s initial whimsical nature. Barry is in the unfortunate position of being the bright center to the dynamic as well as the tragic core that propels it, with reflections of his darkness each season compelling him and his team to fight in order to return to those initial days. To a time when things seemed so much easier. Despite having time travel at their disposal, they may never be able to return to that feeling.
“Cause and Effect” makes the case for this from a character standpoint. It posits the struggle to return to happiness despite pain and loss as the show’s new status quo, three years on. While that might not be for everyone – lord knows the show has lost fans along the way – it works for many including yours truly in a time where everything feels like it’s teetering on that very same edge of darkness. Things being bright and happy might be a worthwhile escape, but right now, being pulled back from the brink just as things get bad feels like the ultimate victory.
If The Flash continues on this trajectory, I have a feeling defeating Savitar may not be a matter of faster, or stronger, or even smarter like it was in previous seasons. It may not even be a matter of “defeating” him at all – but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.