This week’s episode of ‘The Flash’ races head-on straight into all the areas that usually trip up this series: time travel, causality, alternate timelines, and paradoxes. Somehow, it comes out kind of mostly making some sort of sense. At least, it feels like it could make sense, which is a big improvement over the stuff we got in Season 2.
Since his attempt to restore the timeline by letting Reverse-Flash kill his mother again, Barry is increasingly bothered by all the things in his life that are still wrong. He moans that he somehow made things even worse and races to Star City to beg his friend Felicity for help. The first section of the episode is very heavy with explain-y exposition as Barry describes the details that have changed. Cisco is depressed and can’t make up meta-human nicknames. Iris and her dad are having a fight and won’t talk to each other. Barry never kissed Iris. At work, a “Meta-Human CSI Specialist” named Julian Albert (Tom Felton from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies) works in Barry’s lab and doesn’t like him very much. The timeline ripples even extend to Star City, where one of Barry’s friends now has a daughter instead of a son – or maybe it’s the other way around, I forget. (Will this be reflected on ‘Arrow’, and how will that show address it?)
Trying to get to the root of some of these issues, Barry finds out that Cisco’s brother Dante died in a car accident and Cisco is mad at Barry for refusing to go back in time to save him. Of course, this Barry has no memory of that happening. Iris is pissed at her dad about not telling her that her mother was still alive. Unlike in the original timeline, she never got over it and forgave him. Barry tries to patch things up by holding a big group dinner where everyone can talk through their grievances, but it doesn’t help much. Everybody’s still upset. If anything, they’re even more annoyed at Barry for picking at these open wounds.
Meanwhile, Edward Clariss, the man who was a speedster villain called The Rival in the Flashpoint timeline, hears voices in his head that draw him to a mysterious masked and cloaked figure calling himself “Alchemy.” Somehow, this Alchemy person can see across multiple timelines. He gives Clariss back both his speedster powers and memories of his other life. Now The Rival once again, Clariss announces himself to The Flash and races him through the city, until Barry loses him at the docks.
Feeling desperate to put things back the way they were, Barry opens a portal to the Speed Force to run back in time again. However, he’s knocked out of it and lands in 1998, where Jay Garrick (the real Jay Garrick, the one who’s a doppelganger of his father) stands over him disapprovingly. Jay makes Barry dress up in appropriate 1998 attire (i.e. a flannel shirt) and brings him to a diner, where an episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ is playing on a TV in the background (which is of course hilarious because John Wesley Shipp played Dawson’s dad in that show). He sits Barry down to have a conversation about consequences, and explains that he’ll never be able to put the timeline back together again exactly the way it was before. Every time he tries to fix something, he’ll just break something else. He has to learn to live with his mistakes and move forward, not constantly rely on do-overs.
Barry returns to the present day, gathers all of his friends in S.T.A.R. Labs, and confesses everything. He tells them about his time travel, about Flashpoint, and about how things in the current timeline differ from the original. He apologizes for lying to them and for not being able to fix everything. Cisco is still upset. Why was Barry willing to go back in time to save his own mother but wouldn’t do the same for Cisco’s brother? Barry’s argument about how he screwed everything up doesn’t land for Cisco.
Barry gets drawn into another fight with The Rival, who brings Alchemy along with him this time. The two of them overwhelm Barry and beat the hell out of him. Monitoring from the lab, Iris rallies the others to forgive Barry. Even Cisco runs to the scene of the fight to tag-team with Barry, and uses his Vibe powers to ward off The Rival and Alchemy.
Returning to the lab, Barry says that he has no idea who this Alchemy guy could be. Cisco dubs the new villain “Doctor Alchemy.” OK, that’s probably not his most clever nickname, but at least Cisco seems to be feeling a little more like his old self again. Everyone on the team is getting along just like old times. However, when the others are out of sight, we learn that Caitlin’s hand is icy cold. She may have a little Killer Frost in her.
Barry brings Iris back to the house and kisses her for the first time… again. Somehow, it’s even more magical this time.
The episode ends with Clariss in Iron Heights Prison, hearing Alchemy’s voice berating him for his failure. Alchemy then zaps into the cell and kills him.
Is it completely obvious to everyone else that Alchemy is almost certainly Julian, Barry’s grumpy new CSI partner? You don’t bring Draco Malfoy onto your show and have him not be evil. Maybe I’ll eat my words on that later, but it sure looks that way to me now.
It’s far too early to cast any judgments yet, but the first couple episodes of ‘The Flash’ this season have made a concerted effort to clean up the mess that last season made of the show’s narrative. That’s both needed and appreciated, and I think this one does a pretty good job. Nevertheless, I still fear how quickly and easily things could fall apart again if the show-runners aren’t careful.