[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for The Flash Season 2, Episode 23.]
Compared to its first season ender, the season 2 finale of The Flash had a lot to cover. Not only was the villain's plan still a total mystery, but Barry's involvement in it was just as unclear. That alone might have given the writers enough to deal with in a single hour of television, but they somehow found the time to work in a betrayal of sorts among the S.T.A.R. Labs team, a miniature intervention, a collective caper, a hero/villain showdown, and what could prove to be the show's most daring leap yet in its final moments.
In "The Race of His Life", directed by Antonio Negret and written by Aaron and Todd Helbing, Barry (Grant Gustin) is out for revenge after seeing his father killed at the hands of Zoom (Teddy Sears) - but it's his friends who he'll have to fight first. And when the villain's plan to destroy the entire Multiverse of Earths requires the hero think outside the box, the victors (and the audience) learn that even the most brilliant victories can feel like defeat - urging Barry to do something that could change the lives of everyone he's ever known...
The Flash's Last Race?
In hindsight, it's staggering to think of just how little motivation was imbued into Zoom when compared to the Reverse-Flash, the villain of the debut season. Where Eobard Thawne was fueled by revenge, anger, obsession, and genuine paternal affection, Hunter Zolomon seemed to become more and more crazy as the episodes marched on. It isn't necessarily a bad thing - simple villains don't have to be boring ones - and Zoom's true plan for Barry is much more complicated than "a race" (although most of the episode is forced to use those terms for the final fight).
As fond as we've been of The Flash's emphasis of character moments over action or spectacle, it's impossible to recall Zoom's greatest moments - breaking Barry's spine, murdering Henry Allen, etc. - and not feel a little disappointed that, in the end, his showdown with Barry really was just a foot race. There were stakes, sure: Zoom wanted to blow up infinite worlds... why? That's a hard question to answer (that's what he meant when he said he longed to "conquer" them?). And to be more accurate, Barry doesn't actually defeat him, or in any way address the actual tensions or ideological differences between them (Barry's need to save innocents instead of fighting the villain is dropped completely); he simply calls the authorities to take him in, rendering his superior speed pointless.
To make matters worse, the season finale - whether due to powerful dialogue that wound up sounding cheesy/macho/cliche in delivery, or simply odd direction - contains some of the strangest, most distracting or oddly maniacal banter that we've ever heard on the show. It may be fair for Zoom to refer to his former friends as Barry's "fan club," but it's certainly not as interesting as the pride he took in revealing his plan in episodes previous.
We may be alone in failing to track how the warm, affectionate, and deeply manipulative Jay/Hunter was reduced to a single-minded nutjob delivering snarky threats, but luckily, it's the other aspects of the episode that pick up the slack.
The Fans Demanded It
The showrunners may have known that that Zoom climax didn't shape up the way one would imagine, considering just how much of the story takes place after it. The mystery of the man in the mask is partly revealed by Hunter in a monologue fans were aching for, confirming that the figure was the true Jay Garrick. And to the writers' credit, the fact that Jay being revealed as Henry Allen's (John Wesley Shipp) doppelganger is treated as a somber moment, not a rousing, fan-pleasing exclamation kept the tone consistent. It shouldn't be a happy moment, and it wasn't. It, too, may have been different in look or feel than comic fans had pictured the long-awaited arrival of the Golden Age Flash, but by then, all eyes were on Barry... and the real reason that his inner turmoil could no longer be contained.
The Road to Flashpoint
The final scenes make a case for Zoom as simply the catalyst for Barry's desperation: Barry had always regretted the pain and suffering he had seen in his life, and only needed a push to do the unthinkable. Seeing Barry give in to defeat and anger - literally erasing the beautiful moment of acceptance and maturity that had marked the first season's finale - isn't easy to watch, and the ramifications his actions will have on everyone in the show's universe could be massive. But that's not a complaint, merely an acknowledgement that the show's leadership is after more than a plucky hero.
And if leaving his friends behind to make his own life better makes him selfish, or defeated, then season 3 of the show is already challenging him to rise to the heroic heights that his audience knows he can. But as yet another reminder that this is no ordinary comic book story, it's Barry who failed - not The Flash. So once he learns to be careful what you wish for, it's only the hero who can get him out of it - not the super.
The Flash continues with its third season on The CW in Fall 2016.