In its first season, “The Flash” was an outstanding show. The tale of a man who, in a freak accident, becomes the fastest man alive, embraced its campy, comic book source material. There was a breezy, light-hearted tone to the show, which kept things entertaining, even during the weaker episodes. Its ensemble cast was extremely charismatic, elevating their somewhat flat characters; their chemistry, too, kept even the duller scenes engaging. Most impressive of all was its narrative structure, mixing villains of the week with a compelling, overarching storyline involving a mysterious, time-traveling big bad.
To unpack the success of this overarching narrative requires a lot of heavy-lifting, so apologies for having to devote so much space to merely describing the plot. The pilot episode begins with Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), recalling the death of his mother, Nora. According to police, she was stabbed by Allen’s father, who was promptly imprisoned; in Barry’s memory, Nora was not killed by his father, but a supernatural, yellow blur, which ensnared her before her death. Flash forward to years later, the now adult Barry is granted superhuman speed when he’s struck by lightning, which originated from a particle accelerator exploding. He then takes up the mantle of being The Flash, fighting against the other people who gained powers from the particle accelerator, but used them for nefarious purposes. Harrison Wells (the excellent Tom Cavanagh), the scientist behind the failed accelerator, decides to take Barry under his wing and mentor him, helping him with his new-found powers.
Unfortunately for Barry, Wells is not who he claims to be: He is actually Eobard Thawne, a speedster from the future. Thawne, under the alter-ego Reverse-Flash, is Barry’s nemesis in the 22nd century. It was Thawne who killed Nora, when he and Barry had traveled back in time. Seeing an opportunity, Thawne travels back in time to kill Barry but is stranded in the 21st century. Knowing that, in the time that he is trapped in, Barry has yet to acquire his powers, Thawne kills the real Harrison Wells and steals his identity. By mentoring Barry while remaining disguised as Wells, Thawne can train Barry to run fast enough to time travel and return Thawne to the future.
If this all sounds extraordinarily elaborate and hard to follow, that’s because, on paper, it is. It’s a testament to the show’s writing that this dense narrative unfolds with clarity across 23 episodes.
The Reverse-Flash’s plan comes into fruition in the season one finale, a deft mix of moral dilemmas and emotional devastation. Thawne makes Barry an offer he can’t refuse: if he creates a wormhole, allowing Thawne to travel back to his time, Barry can travel back in time to save his mother from death. It’s not a particularly easy decision for Barry to make: he had previously experienced the unpredictable, potentially deadly consequences of altering the events of the past. Still, the death of his mother remains the most traumatic moment of his life; how could he possibly refuse a chance to save her?
Upon arriving at his childhood home, on that faithful day, he spots his future self, battling the Reverse-Flash, who solemnly warns him not to intervene in their mother’s death. Barry reluctantly agrees; Nora Allen is stabbed by Eobard Thawne; Barry’s father is sent to jail; the timeline remains unchanged. It’s a devastating moment, watching Barry do what he knows is right, despite the fact that it means choosing to watch his mother die once again.
But that doesn’t mean that he can’t do anything. In a profoundly moving scene, Barry consoles his dying mother. Barry, speaking through tears, tells his mother that her husband and son are safe. He tells her about his future; that one day, he’ll receive a second chance to return to the past, to tell her that he’ll be safe; and she says goodbye to her son for the last time. Everything in the scene, from the touching score to Gustin’s poignant performance, add up to a deeply affecting scene. It is nigh impossible not to tear up watching it all unfold.
Since then, the show has been in absolute free fall. It has never come anywhere close to reaching the monumental peaks of that scene, and it will certainly never come close again. “The Flash,” as it exists now, in its fifth season, has not only lost sight of the qualities that made it great; it has erased them from existence.
When its second season stumbled a bit from episode to episode, it was forgivable. Countless great shows have undergone a “sophomore slump,” in which a terrific first season is followed up by a temporary decline in quality, followed by a return to form in the third season. Even if it was sloppier than what came before it, there was still fun to be had. The show introduced a multiverse, with doppelgängers across various versions of Earth; an undeniably fun idea that the show ran with. Yet, the tone had become increasingly grim, not a good fit for a show that thrived on silliness. The main villain, Zoom, suffered from similarities to Reverse-Flash. He too was a speedster with a grudge against the Flash, who is also faster than Barry, and also tries to help Barry become faster. That the actor behind Zoom’s mask, Teddy Sears, was wildly miscast, didn’t help matters either.
But all of these missteps could have been forgiven right up until the disastrous season two finale. After (unsurprisingly) defeating Zoom, Barry inexplicably decides to travel back in time and prevent the Reverse-Flash from murdering his mother. Given that Zoom had just murdered his father, there is some shred of logic to Barry’s actions. The real reason behind his decision, though, is very clearly the writers’ desire to tease the plot of the next season. Regardless of intent, the scene is unforgivable.
Barry was a hero throughout season one, and his heroics reached their peak with his decision not to save his mother. Undoing that literally undoes his heroism. No matter the emotional burden of having two parents killed, it is not heroic to save them if the consequence of doing so is potential disaster for those around him. Barry acted selfishly in a situation with profound consequences, and consequently, it became difficult to root for him. The third season botched its opportunity to grapple with Barry’s actions. He changed the timeline, largely to the disservice of those around him, meaning that he suffered negative consequences for his actions. Still, he was presented as a hero, not as a man in need of redemption. The show’s writers did not understand the gravity of what they did. They destroyed Barry’s best quality and didn’t properly work to restore him.
“The Flash” has continued to tell elaborate stories about super-villains with plans spanning the past, present, and future; it has continued to show off the heroics of Barry Allen; but it has stopped producing anything worth watching. The big bads are increasingly rote and unimaginative, either lazy variations on Reverse-Flash or comically underwritten antagonists. The tone of the show became increasingly dark, moving away from the optimism and fun of the early episodes. But its worst crime continues to be Barry Allen’s decision to put himself before the rest of the world. There is no reason to be invested in his story. Its current season, and its upcoming sixth season, will continue to spin its wheels. But unlike its titular protagonist, “The Flash” cannot travel through time and undo what it has done.
Henry Spiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JudgeyMcJudge.