‘The Flash’ Review: “Fastest Man Alive”
Second episodes of television shows are hard. They might be the hardest one a show ever has to pull off, since it has to establish the template by which the show moves from pilot to actual series. Gone is the burden of having to set up a world, but present is the burden of having to build it out on a weekly basis. A show has to plan for the future but stay entertaining in the present. “Fastest Man Alive” represents 'The Flash' experiencing a few growing pains as it makes its shift into weekly entertainment, but it’s by no means a bad episode. The good far outweighs the bad, and much of the bad can be easily fixed over time.
What “Fastest Man Alive” has going for it more than anything is the excellent chemistry between Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin, and the show chooses this episode early on to establish the relationship between these two as the true emotional center of the show. In terms of its “father/adopted son” storyline, there’s a whole lot of Clark and Jonathan Kent in this episode. And know what? That’s totally great! Part of what makes Gustin work so well thus far is his total commitment to Barry Allen’s earnestness. 80 percent of what Barry says is totally corny. But listening to Barry praise Joe West for putting clothes on his back while his biological father rotted away behind bars was genuinely affecting. On the other side of things, Martin lends this show the type of gravitas it desperately needs lest it fly off the handle faster than 352 miles per hour. (You know … on a slow day.) The contrast works like gangbusters, and seeing Joe break down upon hearing Barry’s praise at the end is the type of moment on which an episode can hang its hat.
In terms of overall episodic structure, flashbacks to Barry’s youth interplay with present-day activity as he and Joe both struggle with the new world order in Central City. They are two of the only people that recognize the existence of metahumans, but both have very different ways of viewing Barry’s part in this world. For his part, Barry wants to do good based on sheer moral imperative. For his part, Joe wants Barry safe since he’s super fast but also super vulnerable under the proper conditions. Indeed, once this week’s villain Danton Black (“Multiplex” in the comics, and by the end here) slows Barry down via dozens of clones, being the world’s fastest man doesn’t do a lick of good. Sure, Barry’s cells regenerate at a rapid pace, but he’s no Wolverine: A bullet to the head would kill him on the spot.
Barry’s limitations are important for the show to highlight, especially for those of us that don’t exactly know the “rules” of The Flash as a character. Aside from his super speed (and super metabolism, which lets him eat 850 tacos and still stay super thin), Barry Allen is fairly ordinary in terms of physiology. 'The Flash' may not have the same level of realism as 'Arrow,' a show in which Oliver Queens’s wounded knee affected him for several episodes at one point in season 2. But in-the-moment battles are still plenty hazardous, especially since Barry doesn’t have the years of physical training that Oliver does. That provides instant stakes to any battle in which he’s placed, and provides an enormous challenge for writers to keep producing conflicts that aren’t solved with a 40-yard dash. It also provides opportunities for Barry to use his mind in combat as well as in the lab, making him more of a thinking man’s fighter than a brutal battle tank.
Weak parts of the pilot didn’t necessarily get any better this time out. The show seems determined to fuse Iris West into a combination of Lana Lang and Chloe Sullivan from 'Smallville,' given her romantic inaccessibility, employment in a coffee shop, and obsession over freakish events in her town. Her boyfriend, Eddie Thawne, seems genetically designed in a lab to be a jerk, and while that’s kind of the point, it works almost TOO well at this point. And while Cisco and Caitlin will hopefully grow into more fleshed-out characters as the season moves on, they are currently defined as “Angry Girl” and “Overly Nerdy Guy.” Their dialogue is almost entirely expositional, leaving little if any room for us to know them as people. (Also, if Caitlin’s fiancée is REALLY dead, I’ll eat my shorts.)
This week’s episode ends with another small tease about Wells’ glimpse into the future, with him murdering a scientific rival in order to keep Barry “safe” for the future. Now, it’s definitely possible that Wells is somehow “The Lightning Man” that murdered Barry’s mother. (“The Lightning Man” has a name in the comics, but that name is something of a spoiler, and may not actually be what the show will ultimately call him. ) It’s also possible that Wells is just a determinist who thinks Barry’s sacrifice in the future actually will save the world. I don’t much care either way, because I enjoy Tom Cavanagh’s approach to Wells in general at this point. Cavanagh, much like Matthew Lillard, has grown into his face over the years, with his now hollow cheeks chiseling his features into something less baby-faced and far more interesting. More than anything, we see Wells thinking all the time, constantly calculating and recalculating in the moment to account for variables as they arise.
Barry is smart, but he’s nowhere near as smart as Wells. That makes Joe’s presence all the more important as the series goes on. “Fastest Man Alive” establishes a clear-cut week-to-week set of marching orders: Barry Allen is a man trapped between two father figures while trying to free his true father trapped behind bars. Everything else is window dressing at this point. But man, it’s a mighty fine window into this superhero world all the same at this point.
A few bullets about tonight’s episode…
- Barry’s sheepish “Heeeey Caitlin!” at the outset of the episode was incredibly winning. I just like this guy, which goes a long way towards mucking through some of the program’s less elegant moments.
- I know that with great power comes great responsibility. But with great power also comes 850 tacos. So it might be a wash in the end.
- Two gorgeous comic-book moments during The Flash/Multiplex fight: Barry literally punching two new versions of Dalton into existence, and the final 'Matrix'-inspired run through the army of clones.
- While the “I can’t tell the woman I love my secret” storyline is overplayed, I did enjoy Barry explaining everything to Iris in the time it took her to pour sugar into her coffee.
- “For once in your life, do what I tell you to do: Go stop him.” OK, that line from Joe to Barry gave me chills.
- “We were all struck by that lightning.” OK, that line from Barry to his team gave me anti-chills.