[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for The Flash Season 2, Episode 9]
After taking a week off from regular scheduled programming to introduce the remaining cast members of DC's Legends of Tomorrow (with some help from Arrow), The Flash, wastes no time in picking things up right where they left off. Fortunately for fans, the task of concocting a fitting midseason finale to hold fans over until the show's return is carried off surprisingly well. It may not leave things on a suspenseful cliffhanger, but cashes in several developing subplots to leave viewers sure: this is still The CW's most reliable superhero series on the air.
In "Running to Stand Still", written by showrunner Andrew Kreisberg, Barry (Grant Gustin) is forced to deal with some returning Rogues - but it's not their plan that proves most punishing. Instead, it's his girlfriend Patty's (Shantel VanSanten) desire for revenge that sends Barry to the brink, while Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) finally learns that he has a son he's never met. A realization driven home when Wally West comes home for the holidays.
It becomes fairly obvious early on that the diabolical plan hatched by Mark Mardon (Liam McIntyre) is more of a means to an end than a heavyweight series development. Still, it gives the faithful viewers another dose of comic book fan service, and one more opportunity for actor Mark Hamill to give a slightly less manic/even more hammier version of his classic Joker in the guise of James Jesse a.k.a. The Trickster. Even so, a hat tip to Kreisberg for coming up with a solid evil plan that leaves Barry with no real solution (a growing rarity in superhero stories) - even if the actual solution makes next to no sense and is brushed aside in moments.
The real winner of this subplot is the unexpected humor, and the added depth to Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller). Viewers experiencing deja vu in real time as Barry and Cisco (Carlos Valdes) hatch the exact same plan undone by Barry's time travel is a clever and inspired beat, no matter how satisfying the ensuing action turns out to be. But with The CW knowing that Captain Cold will need to make a convincing turn towards the heroic for Legends, seeing him pop in (and out) to give Barry a heads-up is a wise call. Miller's arche tone might still seem at odds with the rest of the show's more grounded texture, but it's still the kind of supervillainy fans will be used to.
The Prodigal Son Returns
As stated above, it isn't the superheroics of the midseason finale that make the episode feel like a satisfying one to leave fans with for the holiday break. Instead, and most impressively, it's Joe West's discovery that he has a son, a revelation deliver by his daughter, Iris (Candice Patton). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plot is carried off expertly by Martin, Gustin and Patton, in a rare moment of the comic book/superhero flair - and CW's penchant for angst and melodrama - being completely ignored in favor of relatable family drama. It's a sudden twist that could feel like a plot contrivance on any other show (and quite honestly, it still is here), but since it's based on the themes of family, fatherhood, and regret that formed the heart of The Flash from the start, it feels like the show has always been headed here.
The chemistry between Martin and Gustin is a given at this point, so credit is due to the Patton (and the writers) for making good on her promise that Iris really would become a more important figure in the story (note: it still seems to have come completely at the cost of Caitlin Snow's significance, but we'll save that for another day).
The story reaches a head when this mystery son - Wallace West (Keiynan Lonsdale) - arrives on Joe's doorstep. It's hard to give any real evaluation of Lonsdale's performance, or Wally's coming role in the show at this point, but we can say this: knowing how challenging it will be for a young actor to match the existing chemistry of Martin, Patton and Gustin, we would expect the showrunners to cast accordingly. The fact that Kreisberg introduced Wally in such a subdued, honest, and... human way is encouraging for comic fans and viewers alike. Rather than hyping up Wally's superhero history in the comics, the moment landed on its - and the show's - own terms. Hopefully, that light a touch is a sign of things to come.
Where The Heart Is
The episode did come with a cliffhanger of sorts, opening with Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) being threatened by Zoom, and ending with him demanding that Wells continue to serve him. It was Wells who realized that Zoom is sending villains to fight The Flash in order to make him stronger - not out of some quest to create a superhero as before, but simply to "fatten him up like a Christmas goose." But more than anything, this 'reveal' shows just how slowly the Zoom plot has been developing without serious updates or insights.
So instead of leaving fans hotly discussing the villain's motives, or Wells' role in his plan, they'll be left remembering Wally West's arrival, and what it could mean for the rest of Season 2. It doesn't pack the same punch as the 'Man in Yellow' reveal and Firestorm debut of last season's counterpart, but The Flash doesn't need to convince fans any longer. A reminder of what kind of subjects and drama the show can deliver with style may be just as effective.
The Flash will return on Tuesday, January 19, 2015.