[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for The Flash Season 1, Episode 15]
The producers of The Flash promised to tackle some of the DC Comics superhero’s most iconic powers and villains before long, and this week’s episode didn’t disappoint. It was no secret that Episode 15, “Out of Time” would take strides to establish Barry Allen’s special link to time and space, but rather than tip-toeing into the fiction, viewers were thrown into the deep end (alongside multiple season finale-worthy twists).
Needless to say, time travel tends to bring confusion and hard questions with it, so we thought it wise to offer a bit of comic book science and theory behind Barry’s unique form of time travel, and what the writers may be building toward as part of Harrison Wells’ mysterious “endgame.” Be warned: major SPOILERS for episodes both past (and possibly future) lie ahead.
Eobard Thawne Revealed
By this point, anyone curious about the Reverse-Flash has done enough digging to know that the first man famed in the role was Eobard Thawne of the 25th Century. Though the villain’s story has changed over the years, he’s generally seen as a brilliant scientist and fan of legendary hero Barry Allen, whose adoration drives him to replicate Barry’s powers and suit, and travel back in time to shape Barry’s legacy through… extreme means.
Seeing as Harrison Wells shared a similar moral flexibility when it came to helping Barry become more of a hero (and his knowledge of the future), many have suspected Wells was actually Thawne in hiding. That notion was proven accurate over the first half of the season, with “Out of Time” finally including Wells’ confession that he is Thawne, removed from his own time and place (presumably the future, though not explicitly stated).
The rest of the comic canon seems largely intact: it was comic writer Geoff Johns’ “Flash: Rebirth” event which tweaked Barry’s origin to include his mother’s death at the hands of Thawne (an effort to “make Barry a better hero”). As we previously speculated, Thawne has similarly sought to build a better hero, pushing Barry to unlock the full power of the Speed Force so that he can manipulate it for his own purposes. Thawne confirms as much to Cisco Ramon, once his hoax is uncovered.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT: The Cisco/Wells scene also hints at several key changes to Thawne’s motives and methods. For starters, he claims he traveled to the Allen household to kill Barry, not Nora. But it’s worth noting that Thawne doesn’t clarify which Barry he was hoping to kill fifteen years prior: the boy, or The Flash (or what happened to cause him to kill Nora).
Since Thawne uses the term ‘Speed Mirage’ more than once in the episode (to describe two very different phenomena), it’s worth explaining just what he’s demonstrated for Cisco. Claiming to ‘be in two places at once’ isn’t quite accurate, since speedsters are capable of being just about anywhere at any time. Instead, this seems to be the same ability Barry used in the comics to keep his civilian identity beyond suspicion.
By standing in street clothes, then changing into his uniform and standing elsewhere – endlessly repeated (what fun!) – onlookers were fooled into seeing both men at once. Despite Thawne referring to his double as “an after image” (presumably a false title, since neither is the ‘true’ Thawne), the flickering between the two seems to imply the same ability is being put to use here.
Thawne’s technique in dispatching Cisco without a mess – vibrating the molecules of his arm into those of his colleague’s heart – is also a comic book nod. It may seem a vile superpower, but it’s also confirmation that Barry may, at some point in the future, learn to vibrate his own molecules at a high enough frequency to phase through solid objects.
It’s just as important to point out which powers Thawne doesn’t have compared to Barry. And in order to understand just what happens to Barry at the episode’s close, the real source of those powers must be clarified (easier said than done). For now, take Thawne’s words at face value: Barry’s speed and connection to its direct source are far superior to Thawne’s flawed substitutes.
But as Eobard Thawne’s powers are apparently fading, Barry’s powers are growing exponentially.
What Happened To Barry?
Explaining the science here isn’t easy, so for the time being, we’ll outline what took place, and explain the comic book fiction and fictional physics as we get to them. The time travel begins easily enough, though: Barry, running at high speed, witnessing a ghostly vision of himself, before it disappears, leaving him to regain his bearings. Only when Barry is forced to run faster than he ever thought possible, with thousands of lives on the line, is the meaning revealed, as he moves fast enough to tear a hole through time itself, exiting a day earlier.
The science here is sketchy enough as it is, but since Barry already discussed this possibility with Professor Martin Stein, we’ll offer a brief refresher:
Obviously, Barry succeeded in Professor Stein’s theoretical mission to punch a hole into the “superhighway” that us normal humans can’t even observe. For all intents and purposes, Barry’s connection to the extra-dimensional ‘Speed Force’ is the on-ramp in question; in fact, it may be more accurate to call it the superhighway itself, going by the amount of power it carries in the DC Universe.
The show provides a faithful depiction of how the Speed Force works, as it relates to time travel: Barry runs until drawing a sufficient amount energy, at which point he tears out of the observable world, and is free to travel backward – not necessarily through some instantaneous wormhole, but on the Speed Force “highway” spanning all of time.
In this case, that meant Barry pushed beyond his limits, resulting in a rift torn open into Central City a day earlier, through which Barry emerged. Fans should pay attention to the fact that he ’emerged’ into a quieter world, where his speed was maintained without so great an effort. If the implication is being made that Barry was still transitioning back into the timestream (“taking an off-ramp”), then it makes sense why he appeared as a ghostly apparition to the first Barry.
Are There TWO Versions of Barry?
Here’s where things get complicated. And though decades of “Flash” writers have led to some unique additions to the mythology, coming up with one explanation is nearly impossible. First, let’s begin with the evidence offered in the episode itself. Viewers may have overlooked the details present when Barry first glimpses his ghostly doppelganger, mainly that the other Barry simply dissolves.
When Barry later runs back to this moment, it is the initial version of Barry that can now be seen as a foggy reflection, before it dissolves (with a hushed sound effect, no less). The question of whether there are now two Barry Allen’s in Central City is answered in that moment, as Barry slides to a stop without a running mate.
It’s impossible to guess what the writers have in mind, but we’ll again emphasize the evidence: viewers aren’t meant to assume that two real, tangible, identical versions of Barry Allen were running side by side. All “Flash” writers seem to agree that travelling through the Speed Force allows speedsters to observe the timestream outside, but breaching it is something different (though it’s believable that Barry could catch a glimpse into the Speed Force from outside).
The Flash mythology is as steeped in mysticism as it is science, so it wouldn’t be out of character to simply say that the future version of Barry dissolved because its time hadn’t yet come. When it did, it was the past version of Barry that gave way instead. The intrigue of the visuals alone grants the writers some leeway, so for the time being, it’s probably best to consider the Speed Force as all-encompassing; boundless. There is only one Speed Force, it is bonded with one Barry Allen, and it can’t be ‘copied.’
Early previews of upcoming episodes show what looks to be Barry fighting himself, but until an explanation is given for that outcome, fans should try to accept that The Flash‘s notion of time is more fluid than usual. It’s also possible that alternate universes or timelines are spawned by Barry’s travel, but not much is impossible when time itself bends to his will.
The notion that all of history and time is predestined can be both confusing and comforting. In “Flash” comics, the belief that time is both set and free-flowing are both explored – and the show already seems to be doing the same. Thus far, a number of self-fulfilling time loops seem to be in play – namely Thawne’s attempt to kill The Flash instead creating him. In the original comics, Thawne was only driven mad with rage when he learned that he would one day become the Reverse-Flash.
But where Thawne’s malice may or may not have been fated, he seems to have accepted that killing Nora Allen was destiny, not a mistake. But Barry Allen’s power over time has already been hinted at.
Pictured above is a frame from before and after Barry’s trip through time. The larger points – dogs barking, woman shouting at a cab – are meant to imply Barry will relive the same day over again, but these images reveal the early evidence that time can be changed in completely unpredictable, seemingly meaningless ways. As fans watched Cisco being killed, Joe tortured, and yes, the Barry/Iris kiss, the ending twist implied Barry would now have the chance to prevent the tragedies – while possibly also sacrificing his big moment with Iris.
So, do these changes mean we’re witnessing Barry’s arrival in an alternate universe? Or does a mere entry/exit on the “superhighway” cause ripples in the actual world? We can’t say just yet, but we do know Barry’s time tripping can change the past and the future. A notion which leads to something much, much, bigger…
If Barry really is determined to save his mother’s life when fate brings him back to that night, then seeing the side effects of time travel beforehand is wise. When Barry managed to accomplish the feat in the pages of DC Comics, it led to a war that threatened to destroy the world – so even if the TV version is somewhat smaller, the point is made, all the same.
For those who missed out on “Flashpoint,” it began with Barry’s decision to throw caution to the wind and save his mother from Thawne – but soon came a high price to pay. Without her death, Barry was never struck by the lightning bolt that would make him The Flash, and the change rippled out into the Justice League and a host of other DC characters, leading Wonder Woman’s Amazons and Aquaman’s Atlanteans into an apocalyptic war.
And it was all Barry’s fault.
Where writer Geoff Johns had brought Barry back to life after vanishing decades earlier (in the same crisis glimpsed in Wells’ future newspaper), “Flashpoint” turned him into one of its worst, if unwitting, villains. It also provided Thawne with his greatest victory: Barry so damaged the timestream by changing his fate, that Thawne was shaken loose from it, no longer relying on Barry’s unlocking of the Speed Force for his own powers.
In the end, Barry was willing to sacrifice his mother to return things to normal (an attempt that resulted in a new continuity, known as DC’s ‘New 52’ relaunch). That’s a massive comic storyline to adapt for The Flash TV show, but the writers have shown they’re more interested in telling fantastic stories than drip-feeding fans for no real reason.
Few twists could top “Out of Time” for a season finale, but having Barry’s mother survive, and the world fall to pieces because of it? That would do the trick.
We hope that clears up some of the mind-bending physics and time travel paradoxes witnessed in recent episodes of The Flash. If you have any questions or theories on where the show’s headed, be sure to add them in the comments.
The Flash returns next Tuesday @8pm with “Rogue Time”. Check out a preview of the episode below: