This week, The Flash aired its 100th episode – still a tremendous achievement for any television show today. As such, the episode, titled “What’s Past is Prologue,” was more an excuse to look back to the past. To remind the audience of what has transpired before and how far the characters have come. To that end, the episode was largely successful. However, as enjoyable as it was, I do think some opportunities were missed.
Blast to the Past
The conceit of the episode was that Nora comes up with a plan to stop Cicada. This plan required Barry to collect artifacts from three different periods from his past. This essentially necessitated that we revisit three villains from the past – Thawne, Zoom, and Savitar.
There is certainly nostalgia value in visiting the highs and lows of the Big Bads of the past. And Barry’s face-offs against Zoom and Thawne were some of the highlights of the episode. Wells is undoubtedly the most solid handling of a villain that the show has done. He is a reminder of how smart this show can be when it’s in top form. And in true Reverse Flash fashion, Thawne dropped some intriguing tidbits. He assumeed Nora’s name is “Dawn,” which leads to several intriguing possibilities. It is possible Nora is lying to everyone (for neither the first nor last time) and her name is Dawn Nora West-Allen. It is also possible that her trip to the past will lead to further unintended consequences – like the creation of a sibling she originally didn’t have.
He also took the opportunity to twist the knife a little with the comment, “At least you still have one.” This seemed to be a reference to Barry’s mother – a reminder that Thawne took the other Nora from his arch enemy. However, many fans wondered if this wasn’t also an oblique reference to the future twins. With Thawne, anything is possible.
The visit to Zoom was also satisfying – more satisfying, in fact, than his story turned out to be by the end of the second season. Zoom is perhaps the show’s most disappointing to date, in that the payoff was so far from the promise originally given. As manipulative and clever as Thawne was in the first season, Zoom took the award for just plain terrifying. When he broke Barry’s spine and dragged him across town, it was the first time that I felt that the hero might be outmatched. That he might not be able to win against this villain.
It is often true that the unknown is more terrifying than the known. With that in mind, perhaps characters like Zoom and the Joker should not be explained – to tell where they come from or who they are is to remove the primal fear that is born in mystery. It was certainly true that revealing Zoom’s identity diminished the character. The actor did the best with it that he could, but the terrifying villain was weakened by conflicting, nonsensical motivations and an obsession that was ultimately pointless.
But Zoom in this episode was a reminder of what he could be. When he faced off against Barry and Nora in the lab, one couldn’t help but remember a shadow of that feeling we got when he utterly broke our hero. Although we know that the heroes will always win in the end in these kinds of shows, there is something about Zoom that whispers in our ear, “Maybe not this time.”
Along with these new face-offs against Zoom and Thawne, the audience got to see a tender moment between Barry and Iris. This was obviously a scene that was cut from the original airing of the episode – and re-filmed for this one – but it was touching nonetheless. Although their relationship was not yet romantic, the love Barry and Iris have shared for most of their lives still shone through. Once again, even before either really realized it, Iris was Barry’s lightning rod. Their love has always been both the heart and the foundation of the series.
Yet this scene also highlighted one opportunity the show missed in its trip to the past. The best scenes this episode were the scenes where we got to see something new – something that deepened the season’s mysteries, or just something didn’t get to see before. But the Westallen moment, Barry’s face-off against Thawne, or Zoom chasing Barry and Nora through the city were really the only moments where the episode took advantage of this opportunity.
A lot of the episode utilized old footage. Perhaps, with the crossover next week, they decided this would be the easiest way to get the episode done so they could focus on other things. But, to me, there was something a little unsatisfying about relying so heavily on past footage. We know those moments; we saw them before.
Granted, Nora hasn’t, and she was very clearly the audience stand-in this episode. Her awe at seeing Iris stop Savitar is a reflection of our awe. Her fear of Zoom and of Thawne, her grief of what being a hero has cost Barry, is our fear and grief. And, of course, when she falls in love with Westallen all over again, it’s a mirror of what we do every week.
But while this is new to Nora, it isn’t new to the audience. As someone who’s watched from the beginning, I would have liked to see things I hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t enough time to fill all the plot holes of the past, of course. But not giving depth to those villains by showing us something we hadn’t seen before was a misstep.
And while it was nice to see Nora’s reaction to what has come before, I wish that the lesson had been about the characters we’ve known since the beginning. Not a lesson for the one we just met. Too often, the aftermath and its impact has been forgotten on our favorite characters (at least, ones not named Barry Allen). Seeing Thawne again, I’m reminded of Caitlin’s strongest character moment in the entire first season – when she confessed that Wells being Reverse Flash would mean the entire last year of her life was a lie.
As insight into Caitlin’s character, it was an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. Which made it all the more disappointing that we never got any resolution to it. Once Caitlin discovered the truth, she never got her moment to confront Wells for his betrayal of her. She never got to reconcile the fact that the past year of her life had been a lie. As solid as the first season was, there were other moments like that, opportunities that were missed.
So I wish that the episode had taken the opportunity to reflect on how these events have changed the characters we’ve watched from the start. How these experiences changed them. How has Cisco reconciled working with so many men who bear the face of the man who both loved him and betrayed him? Has Caitlin’s loss of Ronnie and subsequent experience with Hunter made her wary of falling in love again? Although Iris did what she had to do in order to save Barry’s life, how did it impact her to have to kill someone who wore the face of the man she loves?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this episode. Watching Nora see these things for the first time was a reminder of when we saw them for the first time – which was undoubtedly the point. But with a series that has pushed the envelope so often in the past (and changed the concept of how superhero has to be done in the first season), I cannot help but feel that this landmark episode could have done something a bit more.
Still, these are perhaps more in the line of “wishful thinking” than tremendous flaws. But this episode did have one misstep that was unforgivable: For an episode that was so focused on remembering the past, it lost track of a lot of its heart. Most notably in the absence of Joe West. His relationship with Barry was such an important part of the first season that his character’s fate was entirely changed to explore it. I even suspect Henry Allen was written off when he was in favor of it. That relationship has been a cornerstone of the series from the beginning. Yet Jesse L. Martin had no part in this monumental episode. (For that matter, Wally West was also absent.) I know that Martin is out on medical leave. But in an episode that already reused so much footage, they couldn’t find a clip to use with Joe West?
Shame on you, Flash writers and editors. Shame on you. That was bad form.
Other Points of Interest
Correct me if I’m wrong. But did they add Cisco screaming her name when Caitlin was kidnapped by Zoom? I’m putting this down on my “romance or character death” tally. It’s intriguing as a moment that was added to an otherwise recycled scene. Is this to reiterate how much Caitlin means to Cisco? We’ve had a number of these that this season. In fact, these moments have been comparatively disproportionate to the number of times we’ve seen how much Cisco means to Caitlin. Add in the sense that the utilization of Caitlin and Killer Frost feels like something of a swan song…things aren’t looking good for her to survive the season, by my estimation.
The episode accomplished its mission statement was to take fans on a trip down memory lane. It served as a solid reminder of our most terrifying villains. And yet, this show has broken the bar so many times before. It has shown what superhero shows on television can and should be. I can’t help but feel like they didn’t quite manage to do so here, and they really could have.
(New) Questions of the Hour
• Nora’s alliance of sorts with Reverse Flash may not have been a surprise for those paying close attention. Still, we have to wonder…what is going to come of it?
• Is Nora’s name really Nora, or is she Dawn? Is her trip to the past going to create her twin, Don? Change her name? What does Reverse Flash know?
• The time wraiths took Zoom out of the speed force, saving Barry and Nora’s lives. But if the wraiths stopped Zoom before he was originally defeated, what does this mean for the future (or, more accurately, the past)? Did Flashpoint never happen? Is Henry still alive?
• If Caitlin can still use her powers around Cicada because she has no dark matter, how did the power dampening cuffs and necklace work in prior seasons? I know, I know. Another retcon.
Tune in to The Flash next Sunday, December 9 at 8/7c on The CW for the crossover event.