The Flash – The Wrath of Savitar Review
"A serious stumble on the fun path"
In my review from last week, I praised The Flash showrunners for finding a fun, fast pace after a season largely spent lagging behind. Funny how quickly things change. This week’s episode, “The Wrath of Savitar,” represents a serious stumble in the series' path toward greatness—or if not greatness, then at least storytelling competence. As a regular Flash viewer, you start to wonder when or if its characters, Barry in particular, will ever stop repeating the same dumb mistakes or act in ways that the plot’s mechanics demand they should. Moreover, the showrunners themselves seem to be stuck in this recursive loop that demands heaping huge helpings of misery and guilt on everything. There seems to be this false impression that this is the only way to give gravitas to a series featuring a speeding man in a bright red costume. What ends up happening instead is that it just makes the audience watching it feel miserable instead.
“The Wrath of Savitar” begins promisingly enough with the three speedsters training together so that Wally can get up to speed (pun intended) in defeating Savitar. Wally starts seeing visions of Savitar after encountering the CGI-generated villain at the end of last episode, which leads him to suffer from a crisis of confidence. To better prepare himself for the upcoming conflict, Wally asks Cisco to “vibe” him to the moment of Iris’s death. (Side note: Not an episode of The Flash can go by these days without the showrunners using Cisco’s powers as a deus ex machina enabling Team Flash to see and know things they otherwise wouldn’t.) It’s at the scene of his sister’s death that Wally notices Iris isn’t wearing an engagement ring—this is significant because earlier in the episode Barry and Iris officially announced their engagement. Somehow Wally is able to glean from this that Barry proposed to Iris in order to cause a divergence in the timeline so that Iris won’t be murdered. But here’s the kicker: rather than immediately scoff at Wally’s wild accusation, as a reasonable person might, Barry does something even more remarkable. He admits that it’s true.
As a viewer, this was the point of the episode where I was left incredulous—unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last (more on that in a bit). Didn’t Barry already learn his lesson from Flashpoint earlier this season that changing events often leads to unintended consequences to the timestream? Hell, has Barry even seen time travel films like the Back to the Future series or read any literature dealing with the subject? We’re now deep into a third season of The Flash, which in practical terms means that Barry has had his speed powers for quite a while now. And yet his understanding of those powers often leads one to believe that he just got them last week. Or maybe that he suffered a brain injury so massive that he continuously (not to mention conveniently) forgets how to use his powers. Apparently Barry’s brain is an Etch A Sketch that gets shaken up and forgets the things it previously saw or thought. Naturally, Iris is upset that Barry’s proposal was motivated by fear and we in the audience are offended by Barry’s simplistic perspective on time travel dynamics. What’s more, it doesn’t have the intended effect, as Barry later sees Iris isn’t wearing her engagement ring just like in Wally’s vision.
And speaking of poor Wally, the showrunners seem to have an obsession with screwing him over for no real good reason. First, he loses his speed powers thanks to Barry’s Flashpointing things up, then he regains his powers after being trapped in a cocoon by the Philosopher's Stone. Even when Wally emerges with his powers, he’s still kept on the sidelines for longer than is necessary (it’s odd that he wasn’t part of the “Invasion!” event, for instance) and made to go through a rigorous mentorship period with Barry. It’s only been recently in the last couple of episodes that Wally has gotten his props as Kid Flash—but as “The Wrath of Savitar” reveals, it was all a lie. It turns out that Savitar allowed Wally to regain his powers in order to use him as a pawn in the speed god’s plot to escape the Speed Force.
The plot mechanics that follow are a bit convoluted and somewhat less than convincing: at one point, Wally sees a vision of his dead mother that Savitar implanted in his head to shake his confidence in his abilities. Yet later, Savitar brags to Barry that it was his plan all along to have Wally develop his powers to the point where he could break through to the Speed Force. These two points seem to be at cross purposes and further muddles things. The upshot of it all is that Wally gets sucked into the Speed Force—while Barry just stands there and gawks, I might add—and Savitar and Barry have another one of their fruitless encounters in which Savitar obliquely hints at his motivations and runs away before he can be unmasked. Oh, and Barry threatens to kill Savitar, which is the umpteenth time this season that the supposedly “good and noble” Flash states that he’ll kill his enemy without actually doing it. Remember what I said earlier about the Etch A Sketch brain?
So the episode ends with Wally trapped in a “fate worse than death,” according to Cisco, which seems like a gratuitously cruel way to treat a beloved character; with Barry and Joe grief stricken over the loss of Wally; and with Caitlin feeling guilty over the role she played in Wally’s disappearance because of the Philosopher’s Stone fragment she held onto to keep control of her powers. (As much as The Flash showrunners allow Cisco to enjoy and even revel in his powers at times, they weigh down Caitlin with the constant burden of becoming Killer Frost. The storyline had long become tiresome before seemingly resolving it several episodes back; its recurrence in this episode is just another example of the show retracing its steps.) The show even ends with separate shots of tear-eyed Barry and Caitlin blaming themselves.
In short, everyone is miserable and no one is happy, the audience included. Of course, the hallmark of good drama (at least as superheroes is concerned) is keeping the characters in a constant state of danger, to continually raise the stakes. The hallmark of many seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to cite one example, often saw things looking incredibly bleak and practically hopeless for the Scooby Gang before they rallied and found a way to save the day. But this? This just feels like wallowing in misery for its own sake. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, then The Flash is definitely not doing OK mentally. Will it stop repeating its mistakes again and again before it’s too late?