Through the first fifty minutes of tonight’s installment of The Flash, I was thinking it was a middling-to-OK episode of television. Way too much love quadrangle baloney, way too much Joe trying to go alone even though he should know better, way too much of the show starting the slow burn of Cisco figuring out Wells’ true end game.

And then the last ten minutes happened and everything changed.

Well, technically, it’s unclear how much has actually changed. But the show went from first to fourth gear in that final act, as interesting thing after interesting thing happened. Cisco found out about Wells…and died! Barry revealed his identity to Iris…and then went back in time! Things that seemed destined for the penultimate episode just tumbled out like Cisco’s intestines. (I’m sorry, too soon? Really, what IS “too soon” when time travel is involved?)

Here’s the thing: I can joke about Cisco ending up like a victim on The Walking Dead because there’s a less than zero chance that anything of true importance in “Out Of Time” actually sticks. The joy and burden of time travel is that everything is temporary and/or relative when it comes to actual stakes. So while I’d love it from a dramatic perspective if everything remained permanent, I’m guessing that last-minute trip back in time (sans the need for a Doc Brown-engineered DeLorean) provides The Flash the mere illusion of actual change tonight. Now, I don’t want Cisco to be dead henceforth: Not only would the show lose one of its best elements, but it would fundamentally break the show over the long-haul. It would destabilize S.T.A.R. Labs and permanently put Barry and Harrison at odds. That would work fine were this a one-off season, but this is a television series that will last years and years.

In addition, I like Iris knowing about Barry’s identity, since she’s the last major character on the show to not be in on his secret. (At this point, half of Central City and most of Reddit seems to know Barry is The Flash’s alter ego.) It has made her look a little dumb for not realizing the secret, which isn’t the show’s intent but certainly is the show’s effect. She finally confesses her feelings to him before realizing he’s The Flash, and now it’s possible that when Barry goes back in time, he relives the last episode once again only alters both Cisco’s death but also Iris’ knowledge. We’ll be back to Iris/Linda passive-aggressive banter, and who in the world wants THAT?

Thus, any excitement from learning Harrison Wells’ real name (Eobard Thawne, Eddie’s offspring way, way, WAY down the line) and his real purpose (siphoning Barry’s speed to get back to his own time/place) gets lost when time travel is used to erase truly important things from happening. For The Flash, or any show, to use time travel as a get out of jail free card to write itself out of corners or emotionally manipulate the audience feels like a cheap parlor trick rather than a clever narrative maneuver. Once the show goes down this road, it can be hard for viewers to invest any stakes when the reset button can be hit at any time.

But it’s also possible this is a one-time thing meant to demonstrate the frailty of alternate time lines. That won’t totally excuse the show for undoing everything that happened tonight, but it also means that it won’t be commonplace for the show to kill Cisco on a weekly basis like Kenny from South Park. (Although now that I’ve said it, I wouldn’t mind seeing that.) Wells/Thawne is keen on keeping things predictable in order to guarantee his version of future events play out. Deviation from that plan risks him being stuck in the 21st century permanently. What’s past/future is relative, remember: Wells remembers killing Barry’s mother, because that event happened in his past. But it hasn’t happened to Barry yet, which means it’s in his future, even though it happened fifteen years ago.

Who else needs aspirin?

Again, this is an episode that can only truly be judged when seen again, which is what I imagine will happen next week as Barry sees everything unfold again from his new perspective. (Think the last third of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.) It could be a fun, one-time trick meant to rile up viewers in ways meant to ache for them to see the real thing, or it could set the show on a course to render most things dramatically meaningless. I’m leaning towards the latter rather than the former, but there’s a reason why time travel is such a tricky matter. It’s almost impossible to truly crack in a two-hour movie. But over a multi-season television show? Even Barry Allen can’t run fast enough through all those logic holes.

Random observations:

  • I didn’t mention Liam McIntyre as the second Weather Wizard, Mark Mardon, because his character was an unfortunate sidebar in tonight’s hour. I will say that he did the near impossible as the second actor to play the lead in STARZ’s Spartacus, one of my very favorite shows of this century. If you haven’t checked it out, I can’t recommend that show highly enough.
  • Mardon could have used a word other than “avenge” though, right? That word is a little charged in this day and age of Marvel vs. DC.
  • One more thing I hope the show doesn’t undo: The activation of Eddie, who potentially started his slow descent to the dark side, especially if his “distant relative” provides some tutelage in the back half of this season.
  • Carlos Valdes did some outstanding work in that last scene, realizing the futility of even trying to escape and recognizing time was running out.
  • I wrote another version of this recap, but then went back and time and resubmitted it. The other one was much grimmer.