[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for The Flash Season 2, Episode 11.]
Even with less than two full seasons under its belt, fans of The CW's take on The Flash have now learned what DC Comics readers have known for years: that when a story puts the Reverse-Flash in the spotlight, it's going to be worth the price of admission. And by taking an unconventional approach to an origin tale - even if it is a bit familiar - the series establishes another pillar of its larger mythology... which makes some odd choices elsewhere a bit easier to forget.
In "The Reverse-Flash Returns", directed by Michael Allowitz and written by Aaron and Todd Helbing, Barry (Grant Gustin) learns that time travel can get even stranger than he thought, as the Reverse-Flash (Matt Letscher) returns... for the first time, playing out his origin story with surprising consequences. Elsewhere, Patty (Shantel VanSanten) uncovers Barry's secret, and Iris (Candice Patton) and Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) start to bridge the gap between their two families. Not to mention the appearance of another famous DC Comics supervillain speedster...
Villains Have Origin Stories, Too
As the star antagonist of what feels like a dozen other episodes, at least, critics of The Flash were tempted to argue that the show's writers were going 'back to the well' by advertising the return of the Reverse-Flash a.k.a. Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher). In a different week, that might have been a tough claim to dispute. But this week, Thawne rears his hideous head not again, but for the first time - to him, at least.
The time travel and timestream theory already being bandied about by The Flash's cast of characters has risen to a new level of complexity (a blessing or a curse, depending on the audience's tastes). But put simply, Barry and the S.T.A.R. Labs team must watch as Eobard Thawne makes his first trip back to the 21st Century: learning the key players, and gaining the first clue that will eventually lead him to uncover Barry Allen's identity, murder his mother, then be stranded in time... until he's written out of existence months earlier.
Even for viewers paying close attention to the science fiction, it's clear the writers are relying on the 'theory' crutch fairly heavily. If Thawne exists, and will return to the future to later kill Barry's mother, then he was right to claim Barry would never defeat him. It's a clever bit of storytelling, but also raises the obvious question: have the characters already had their fates decided, forced to play out the exact same imprisonment and escape that they had in the previous Thawne's past?
It's enough to give any fan a strong enough nosebleed to match even Cisco Ramon's, and the writers probably give the conflict less time under the microscope than they could have. But it's an easy wave of the hand to forgive, since any opportunity to bring Matt Letscher's Eobard Thawne back into the mix is a welcome one. After being revealed as the real Eobard Thawne in The Flash's first season, it was obvious the producers had found the perfect villain, able to convey madness, obsession, humor, and all-around menace without speaking a line.
Letscher continues to deliver, doing the impossible in the process: making a single man with a name and a face somehow more unsettling than the faceless 'Man in Yellow' that stalked Barry throughout his debut season. His conviction - that he'll uncover Barry's secrets and take what he holds most dear - carries weight because the audience knows he will do just that. Or, already has.
The writers leave some of those cards on the table, perhaps realizing the risk of descending farther into the truly unsettling or solemn than they'd like. In the end, seeing Barry shrouded in darkness, facing the man he knows will one day take away what he loves most in the world was probably gloomy enough.
This is an ensemble adventure, though, which means Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) shouldn't be left out of the action. Thankfully, they both have a part to play in the main plot, with each given a moment staring down The Flash's greatest villain that no one present will forget. Not to mention using Cisco's 'vibe-ing' powers as a plot device in more than one way; first catching, then necessitating the release of Thawne. For one week, at least, the S.T.A.R. Labs team got to do what they do best, each taking a step forward down their individual paths, while pushing Barry ahead of them along the way.
It may be the biggest compliment to say that the writers made the first chapter of the Flash/Reverse-Flash conflict an entertaining one. Even more impressive since they have already read the conclusion. Although "The Reverse-Flash Returns" lacks the mystery, suspense, or scale of the villain's previous appearances, the man himself is just as memorable.
Knowing just how much of the spotlight Eobard Thawne tends to take up, leaves room for little else. The only real way of working in subplots for Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), Iris, Patty, Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) and Jay Garrick (Teddy Sears) is to keep them completely isolated. It's clearly too much to tackle alongside The Flash's arch-nemesis's origin, but the writers attempt it anyway.
The result: the dying Garrick is back where he started, after a throwaway mention of 'Hunter Zolomon' (more on that later). Iris is more or less where Joe was with Wally at the previous episode's close, and the Barry/Patty break-up is sealed, raising more questions than answers. After being set to reveal his secret identity (only stopped when Patty announced she was leaving town because of that very secret), Patty uncovers the truth herself... forcing Barry to lie to her face, insisting she leave.
With memories of Barry's father inexplicably leaving town still fresh in our minds, the writers' decision to do the same with Patty may seem like a less obvious plot contrivance. Still, many, if not most viewers will watch the episode's closing scene, and struggle to understand why Barry and Patty still part ways (the 'I can't risk the people I love' excuse loses steam when a full dozen friends and minor acquaintances are all in on the secret, Barry).
We would have preferred a more rational, relatable exit for one of the best characters the show has seen, but if the writers painted themselves into this corner, then perhaps it was best to drop the scene into an episode that will be remembered for the Reverse-Flash's origin, instead. The citizens of Central City may not agree, but for us, the Reverse-Flash can't return soon enough.
The Flash returns next Tuesday with "Fast Lane" @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: