‘The Flash’ Review: ‘Rogue Air’ Sets Up One Hell of a Finale
In some ways, tonight’s episode of The Flash functions as a true season finale. If my instincts about next week are right, next week is really meant to set up next season rather than put a capper on this one. I’m not sure “Rogue Air” was actually a particularly great episode of The Flash in total, even if the last five minutes featured some pretty spectacular superhero action. The rush those minutes provided, capped by the seeming victory over Barry’s arch-nemesis, might lead one to feel more positive about the episode as a whole. But whether or not you enjoyed this episode or not, one thing seems certain: Eobard Thawne had to be stopped tonight so things can truly go to hell next week.
But I’ll get to that prediction in time. For now, let’s deal with the present, which really had very, very little to do with Thawne for the majority of the episode’s running time and had a lot to do with the other villains that have accumulated over the course of the season. The idea of S.T.A.R. Labs as a metahuman gulag has always been something of a moral oddity inside the clear-cut ethics of The Flash, but introducing its problematic nature this late in the game feels like convenience rather than earned payoff. Don’t get me wrong: Joe articulating that he’s always had a problem with the set-up makes sense. What doesn’t makes sense is that he has seemed pretty chill about it until the plot needed him to feel uneasy about it.
Likewise, Barry’s whole “turn to the dark side” didn’t really feel like that at all. Joe insists that Barry’s losing his moral center by agreeing to pair up with Leonard Snart to transport the prisoners before the particle accelerator goes live. But really, it feels like a good character making the least possible awful chance given the circumstances afforded him. Shows like The 100 make their home in that grey area, and it’s not the worst thing in the world for the normally black-and-white choices of The Flash to gain some complexity. But one compromised deal does not a tortured hero make. Barry doesn’t go from Walter White directly to Heisenberg in that moment. He just makes a bad tactical mistake, one understandably forced by Eobard’s machinations. (Eobard knows that Barry can do as much, if not more, damage on his own.)
As for Snart’s return: The CW absolutely LOVES this character, and has plans to use Wentworth Miller in next season’s DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow spinoff. So maybe The Flash overused him a little this season, but so what? He always brings a welcome charisma to the screen, and his bizarre code (he doesn’t mind lying to Barry, but won’t tell his sister the identity of The Flash) makes him unpredictable yet oddly likeable. Much like Barry’s decision to employ Snart, Snart himself occupies that badly needed middle ground between do-gooder and straight-up psychopath. “Rogue Air” saw Snart shore up his future resources, but also saw him get one over on Barry in a believable fashion. It also set up an entire second season of Barry re-catching all these criminals, which has to be a great relief for a writers’ room already stretching the limits of The Flash’s gallery of enemies.
The mind games Leonard and Lisa employ are ultimately more fun that The Amell Brothers Power Hour finale, even if the latter is certainly flashier. While exciting, things were just a little too rushed and frantic when it came down to a three-on-one smackdown. Budget limitations undoubtedly had something to do with it, but there were also some continuity concerns that had me thinking, “Wait, didn’t Oliver just all but kill his friends? Wasn’t he getting married? Isn’t R’as Al Ghul wondering where Oliver is?” Maybe these episodes are airing slightly out of order, but even so, it’s weird seeing Oliver in Heir To The Demon mode taking some time out of his assassin schedule to drop in and help Barry out.
The fact that these three even win surprised me, until I realized that winning most likely wasn’t Eobard’s point. And here we get to my prediction for the finale: This will almost undoubtedly be wrong, but where I see things heading. The particle accelerator wasn’t activated so Eobard could go back to the future, but so Barry could go back to the past. My theory suggests that Eobard wants him to go back, because that is a way to both undo The Flash’s legacy and ensure that the Thawne line succeeds in the future. Rather than have The Flash appear on a newspaper in the future, his disappearance won’t even merit mention. It’s a super convoluted way to go about things, but the nature of the butterfly effect in this show’s universe (seen in small part during “Out Of Time”/”Rogue Time”) not only helps put Thawne on top, it perhaps more importantly allows The Flash to reset its entire narrative structure.
And that scares the hell out of me.
Here’s what I mean: Barry successfully saving his mother, if that happens, ostensibly sets off a chain reaction of events that ultimately balance out in terms of good and bad repercussions. And some of those repercussions might involve the radical rewriting of characters we currently know and love. Let’s break this down the way The Simpsons would break down cursed frozen yogurt. Suddenly, Harrison Wells might never have to die. That’s good! But maybe Caitlin and/or Cisco don’t work at S.T.A.R. Labs anymore. That’s bad! Well, maybe they still do work there. That’s good! But now THEY are evil, even though Wells is now good. That’s bad!
This type of reboot absolutely killed the final two seasons of Fringe, which rewrote its core cast of characters and essentially wiped out three years worth of audience investment. And while I understand Caitlin and Cisco have the potential to develop more into their comic book antecedents, I’d much rather see these two current versions transform organically rather than be reset not unlike an Etch-A-Sketch. The Flash can’t vigorously shake and erase the characters through timey-wimey machinations and expect the audience to buy into it. As a semi-temporary measure, maybe it would be palatable. But a show in which the very nature of reality is a pliable thing is a show in which very little can be truly invested. Constantly resetting “reality” is too clever by half at best, and downright disrespectful at worst. Part of the power of television comes from the sustained engagement with characters over the course of years. Severing that connection through constant restarts is a sure-fire way to get viewers to scatter.
It just feels too convenient, and rather unsatisfactory, to have Oliver ultimate deal the final blow to Eobard. There’s no symmetry or poetry to that act. Maybe Eobard didn’t anticipate the team-up, but I can’t think he went to S.T.A.R. Labs to enter the accelerator. He’s simply too smart to be that direct, and he’s shown all season how easily he can manipulate Barry through anger and fear. The greatest trick Eobard could pull is letting Barry hoist himself with his own petard. And next week, I assume that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Whether that opens up the show to new narrative possibilities or prevents a good show from making the leap to greatness is something we’ll just have to wait and see.