This season, Barry Allen has traveled to different Earths, different time periods, even different planes of existence. He's been struck by lightning, loved, lost and loved again. He's been through more funerals and triumphs in two years than anyone should in one lifetime. And technically has died himself on more than one occasion.
Yet, for all that growth, all that change, and all that time, the Fastest Man Alive has honestly been standing still. Trapped in the same room, watching the same life-shattering moment occur again and again and again.
Until last night.
The second season of "The Flash" has been near pitch-perfect from wire-to-wire, somehow keeping a convoluted story involving time-travel and parallel universes grounded. No matter how entwined the tangle of paradoxes, time wraiths and various crises on infinite Earths (rimshot!) became, all that mattered was how they affected the core characters of the show.
The audience doesn't need to understand the mechanics behind Cisco's opening and closing the breaches between various Earths. Despite the complicated and impressive feat happening around him, we're more interested in learning how Cisco managed to recover from the abandonment issues he suffered in Season 1 and forge a meaningful mentor/mentee relationship with the new and improved Harrison Wells.
The same goes for the ever-evolving lunacy of Zoom's plot, a 68-step mouse trap that ultimately boils down to destroy/conquer the Earth because … ya know, bad guy. The madness of Hunter Zolomon doesn't matter as much as the effect it had on anti-hero Wells, Caitlin and especially, Barry.
There's a certain level of comic book craziness you have to accept to enjoy "The Flash." But it's easier to get past characters talking about metahumans or the difference between "Earth-1" and "Earth-2," when the folks in the writers room are this familiar with the core of their character roster. Without the deep understanding "The Flash" cast and crew have of the heart of their series, the final moments of the finale in "The Race of His Life" would have left many deeply confused by the lunacy of it all, or worse, empty. It's not everyday that a series ends in a good old-fashioned foot race (whilst the hero secretly makes a time remnant copy of himself that he will later sacrifice to save the world), and that's not even the crazy twist.
No, the big twist in the finale was when Barry heads back to his past, again, this time to save his mother. By going back in time and saving his mother's life, Barry has changed both the rules of the series and the television universe it inhabits. In reality, this is the obvious setup for a version of the "Flashpoint" story arc that will allow CW to bring its disparate universes (namely the timelines/worlds occupied by "Supergirl" and "Legends of Tomorrow") into line.
It's not certain how much of the current timeline this action will alter, but let's assume the writers won't use this to do a hard reset of the entire series and larger universe (which was the point of the DC Comics version of this storyline in 2011).
It's a smart move for a hero whose rogues' gallery has a deep bench, but very few villains capable of carrying a new season. Outside of Reverse-Flash and Zoom variants, who else can really serve as a year-long antagonist? Grodd? A more sadistic take on Captain Cold? (Which doesn't seem to be the direction taken with the role currently occupied by Wentworth Miller.) This seems to open more avenues to address a problem that has plagued "Flash's" sister series, which ran out of "Arrow" big bads and had to start borrowing other baddies.
As for the show itself, it closed the door on a two-year arc that saw Barry come full circle, completing his quest for personal peace while possibly unraveling all the good he's done as a hero at the same time.
That final shot of Barry's former self, the iteration of him as costumed hero at the end of Season 1 watching Nora's death again, smiling as he fades out of existence is an absolute gut punch. As a viewer, you're screaming at Barry and oddly happy for him at the same time. The Barry Allen we know has been trapped in the moment of his mother's death for his entire life. He's defined by it, cursed by it. And powerless to stop it on two different levels: physically powerless as a child, and then just as paralyzed when imbued with god-like abilities due to the shackles of his own hero status that prevent him from altering the past. Barry knows a world without Nora's death possibly leads to a world without Flash, and at the very least, he knows better than to go messing around with timelines. No doubt he'll have to answer for this dramatic time tampering, but that's for Season 3. But, can you blame Barry for thinking only of himself, just this once?
There's something innately lovable about the way Grant Gustin plays Allen, something charming and warm that makes it easier to root for him as a hero. He doesn't have the edge that Stephen Amell brings to the "Arrow" role, or the swagger possessed by some of the movie stars filling out the "Avengers" roster these days, but he doesn't need it. Barry Allen is a guy you want to see good things happen too. Despite bearing the lightest tone of CW's three superhero offerings, Gustin's performance on "Flash" can carry a surprising emotional weight that can overpower some of the heavier scenes on "Arrow" or "Legends of Tomorrow."
Even when Barry is presented with a bright future, in this case finally landing that kiss with Iris, the final twist of this conclusion rips away the slow burn of the Barry-Iris romance. Do they even know one another in this new future?
Tuesday night wasn't about a great finale, it was about the finishing touches to a great season of a show that gets itself, that understands how to balance character growth with sci-fi wackiness and frenetic action scenes in a way that would have tripped up other series.
"Flash" is no longer simply a great comic book adaptation. It's great television, that just happens to involve people in spandex.
Lingering Lightning Bolts:
- For everything great about this season, it did feel like the Zoom plot stumbled a little toward the end. The villain was terrifying through the entire first half of the year, but lost a little of the magic once the mask came off. This interpretation of Zolomon worked for the most part, but stripping him down to a simple sociopath toward the end lost some of the luster. The Zolomon of the comics, who is trying to make Wally West’s Flash a better hero by making him face personal loss, is somewhat preferable than the speed vampire/homicidal maniac.
- Very, very glad the man in the mask wound up being Jay Garrick. The character needed to exist as more than an alias. That’s one of those source material things you can’t just sidestep.
- Wells’ season-long development has been underrated. His abrasive tutelage of Caitlin, Barry, Jesse and, especially, Cisco was a nice spin on the old sage archetype. Sure, he’s still got some Master Yoda-ness too him, but the prick-ish edge brought by Cavanaugh was a nice and necessary force of nature to act against the “goooo team!” vibe of the rest of the "Flash and Friends" clan.
- Unrelated hilarious moment of the season: Tom Cavanagh can ball. For those of you who aren’t NBA fans, he played for Team Canada at the NBA All-Star Celebrity game and eviscerated a good chunk of Team U.S.A. Which means, in real life, the Reverse Flash did kind of take over the world.