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Season 1 of The Flash ended with Barry running into the temporal vortex in a potentially futile attempt to reverse its direction and prevent the destruction of his city. But rather than pick up where we left off with “The Man Who Saved Central City,” the show has jumped forward six months, and things are certainly different for our heroes this time around. Caitlin is working for Mercury Labs (distancing herself from even Cisco), Joe is helping set up an Anti-Metahuman Taskforce (with Cisco as his Scientific Officer), and Barry is going all “Lone Wolf McQuade,” having decided that doing everything alone is the best way to protect the people he loves.
The slightly darker tone is not such a jarring transition for the series, as even when Barry stands alone in S.T.A.R. Labs at the beginning of the episode (the opening of him defeating Captain Cold and Heat Wave revealed to be a wishful dream), it doesn’t prevent the plot from moving forward. Given the fact that Ronnie gave his life to destroy the wormhole, the tonal change is completely justified and puts a spotlight on Eddie and Ronnie’s deaths being the first huge losses that Barry has suffered as the Flash. In addition, though a lot of the focus was put on Barry’s guilt, an incredibly powerful moment comes when Caitlin reveals that she felt responsible for Ronnie’s death. It was nice to see the bubble of solitude burst when Barry realized that not everything was on him; that Ronnie also made a choice to protect the people he cared about. The episode does rush to return everything back to normal, but this compensates for how tired “pushing people away to keep them safe” is as a motivation and hopefully means the writing team can move onto exploring new and deeper themes later in the season.
The fact that the episode wasn’t solely focused on Barry was perhaps its biggest strength. Although Iris is only afforded a glance at Eddie’s photo on the wall as a way to let us know that she’s still grieving, she puts Barry in his place by saying that despite them caring for him, they also care about the city. As she was excluded from Team Flash for so much of last season (to annoying results), it felt like the show was getting off on the right foot and fully accepting her into the team. On top of this, though I suspect Martin Stein won’t be a permanent addition to The Flash (he’ll be going off to Legends of Tomorrow fairly soon), Victor Garber brings such a sense of excitement to his performance that it feels so right when he names Atom Smasher and receives a hug from Cisco for fulfilling the role he usually performs.
As far as Atom Smasher himself goes, Martin Stein giving him a name was really the only thing that worked well. The rubbery special effects used to visualize his transformation made him look more spongy than menacing, and him falling for the Flash’s very obvious trap without even trying to escape took away from the threat he posed earlier in the episode. Moreover, much of the premiere felt like a rushed dialogue with audience members who criticized aspects of the previous season. Iris is no longer on the sidelines, Barry imagines taking Captain Cold and Heat Wave out without being beholden to a movie reference, and there is higher security for the lab so it won’t be breached by a metahuman almost every week. Atom Smasher’s demise, however, felt like an questionable response to the moral grey area that the villain pipeline presented. I understand that the writers wanted a reason for him to give up Zoom’s name, but the threat of not being able to go home ever (his motivation for trying to kill Barry) would’ve probably been enough reason for him to talk, especially since the show plays enough with logic that him being completely depowered after his radiation shower wouldn’t have been all that strange.
Tom Cavanagh’s return as Eobard Thawne in a video left to Barry was a welcome addition to the episode, as it illustrated the core elements of what made their relationship so interesting: the balance of hatred for the Flash he knew and admiration for the Flash we know. As Eobard confessed to killing Nora Allen, it also finally ended Barry’s struggle to get his father out of prison. And while Barry’s celebration was cut short by his father saying he won’t become the person he’s meant to be with him there, it was yet another indication of the show moving forward.
Another reassuring sign that The Flash hasn’t forgotten what makes the show so enjoyable is the way it continues to celebrate what makes Flash, and Flash stories, so interesting. He’s in no way the dark, brooding character that Batman is, nor is he a warrior Goddess like Wonder Woman (in Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s run, anyway…). As Oliver Queen said in the pilot episode of The Flash, “[Barry] can inspire people in a way [he] never could,” something prominent in classic comic book story elements like Flash Day.
Flash made its long-awaited return with an episode that reminded me of the reasons I like the show. While Atom Smasher wasn’t a particularly interesting villain, and the fast pace of the premiere undermined the immense loss that the characters experienced, there were a lot of great moments that leave me excited to tune in next week.