[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for The Flash Season 2, Episode 12.]
As the mythology (and complexity) of The Flash has exploded in its second season, shifting from time travel to parallel worlds, 'vibing' the future and past, and dealing with doppelgängers of everyone from villains to friends, even loyal fans may have been feeling a little lost in the swell. Thankfully, the writers have responded by returning to a more familiar structure, while uniting the central cast on a new mission which may carry them through the rest of the season.
In "Fast Lane", directed by Rachel Talalay and written by Brooke Eikmeier, Kai Yu Wu & Joe Peracchio, Barry (Grant Gustin) can't help but feel off his game as his speed seems to be slipping, putting Iris (Candice Patton) in harm's way. The reasons are revealed as Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) admits he's been working with Zoom to keep his daughter alive, forcing the S.T.A.R. Labs team to decide if he's lost their trust for good. Elsewhere, a tar monster out for revenge heats things up.
Fool Me Twice...
It was with much skepticism that we saw the return of Harrison Wells (or, his actual debut, depending on how you look at it). Not because Tom Cavanagh's performance was lacking, or his mentoring of Barry unconvincing; quite the opposite, in fact. It was a fear that, having seen how well the mentor/villain-in-hiding formula worked, the show's writers were simply pulling the same trick over again. A new Wells, sure, but one with just as big a secret.
In fairness, the show has gone back to that well from time to time. A sinister gaze from Cavanagh as the rest of the cast laugh happily, or a stinger at an episode's end showing his villainous plan at work has been commonplace. Luckily, that time seems to have come to an end in the best way possible. Harrison Wells isn't outed, caught in a lie, or simply forced into admitting he's working for the bad guy - he simply realizes he can't go on doing it, knowing confession means sacrificing his life and that of his daughter.
It's an unexpected twist, cementing his character more firmly in heroic territory than any other plot twist could have (while being as somber as the decision warrants). And by the time he fesses up, Gustin and Cavanagh had made sure to condense a half-season's worth of loyalty, father/son teamwork, and moral struggle into their handful of scenes. In another show, Barry's unwavering optimism and dedication to putting his betrayal by the last 'Wells' could have been used to exploit the audience's emotion. But with Gustin, it lands exactly as intended.
What's more, the reveal is used like so many in The Flash's first season: to not just advance the larger story along, but pull developing subplots along with it. Harry's betrayal costs Barry his speed, which makes him too slow to save Iris from an injury, which forces Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) to express his anger - and love - for Wally, which sets Wally on a path of joining the Wests more fully, and so on, and so on...
And after weeks (months?) of seeing Barry struggle with uncertainty, insecurity, old wounds, and the like, constantly requiring his friends to remind him that he's a superhero, it's him who gives them all a reality check. As the rest of the S.T.A.R. Labs crew is consumed by anger at being sabotaged, Barry is the voice of reason - sweeping away any idea of a sinister Wells, betrayal, or continued suspicion.
Wells did what he had to for his daughter, confessed, and wishes only to go fight Zoom by himself. But considering this is a TV show about a superhero - and in need of a change to the status quo as Zoom has faded from viewer memory - Barry isn't going to let him go alone.
As the saying goes, 'absence makes the heart grow fonder'; which is probably all the explanation needed for why this week's rise of a tar-pit-monster created by the particle accelerator explosion is a breath of fresh air. As previous villains or monsters-of-the-week had been either forgettable or rooted in an alternate universe as one of Zoom's minions, a return to the show's old formula was all that was needed: a villain who is, above all else, cool to look at.
As The Flash looks to break new ground with its Earth-2 storyline, the cast seems, for the first time in weeks, truly united. Again, the fact that fans don't have any idea of exactly how they're going to fight Zoom is a concern... but since that seems the first question to be discussed in the next episode, momentum could - could - be building to something truly special.
The Flash returns next Tuesday with "Welcome to Earth-2" @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below: