In contrast with something like Marvel’s new Daredevil series, The Flash comes across a little schmaltzy—like the guy who is pretending to like hardcore rock, but who gets freaked out at a real mosh pit. In truth, I am always that guy in real life, so I like The Flash more than Daredevil even though I’d have to admit Daredevil is “better.” But The Flash is great at what it does: it’s a paradoxical throwback that’s more satisfying than maybe it should be.
Spoilers for the first season of The Flash.
When the 1990 show as on the air, both my parents used to talk about how good it was, which really speaks directly to the adorableness of my parents. Yes, it had a killer theme song, and yes Amanda Pays and John Wesley Shipp gave serviceable performances, but was it “good?” No way. But it was probably “good” relative to other stuff they could watch with their kids in the ’90s—everybody remember Super Force? Time Trax? The point is, The Flash was slightly more hardcore than other science fiction or superhero fare on television, but was still basically a safe show that pretended to be tough. And the new Flash is exactly the same.
The ultimate season-long reveal of this new Flash is that it’s kind of an alternate universe sequel to various old versions of the Flash, and not just the 90s one. (It’s like everyone on the writing staff took a cue from J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek.) We briefly see the silver hat of the golden age Flash—Jay Garrick—skitter across the floor during the wormhole shenanigans of the season finale. Captain Cold messes with everyone in Central City numerous times, while the midseason finale saw a full-on crossover with Arrow. Mark Hamill’s Trickster even “returned” last month, which allowed Mark Hamill to laugh maniacally like the Joker, but in the full flesh. (Sidenote: In the pantheon of Hamill cackling like a psycho, his 1990 performance as The Trickster on The Flash actually predates his voice-over work on Batman: The Animated Series.)
And then of course there’s the fact that John Wesley Shipp (90’s Flash) plays our current Barry Allen’s dad. In this version, the Flash’s dad is in prison, convicted for the murder of Barry’s mother when Barry was only a child. Right from the beginning of the show, we’re told this is going to be the main thing to care about: what the hell happened the night Barry’s mother died? What were those flashing lights shooting around her, and can Barry somehow exonerate this father?
Funnily however, the “secret” of what happened that night would probably only be mysterious to a young kid, or someone totally unfamiliar with superhero or science fiction narratives. From practically the first second, most of the audience were like “oh, I bet that’s future-time-traveling-Barry fighting the Reverse-Flash.” This wasn’t too hard to figure out, as we’re told almost immediately that the leader of S.T.A.R. Labs—Dr. Wells—is really from the future and hiding a secret. That secret becomes a little more complex when we learn that not only is he is the Reverse-Flash, but he’s also not “really” Dr. Wells. He’s actually a guy named Eobard Thawne, a bigtime asshole from the future who stole the body of the “real” Dr. Wells when he lost his time-traveling mojo.
Over numerous episodes, the show sets up a slow reveal that Thawne/Wells/Reverse-Flash travels back in time because he wants to kill Harry Potter Flash/Barry Allen as a child. His plan backfires of course, because future-Flash stops him to save his younger self. In response, Thawne decides to kill Barry’s mother, because the untimely death of someone’s parent would never cause them to want to be a superhero… (Also because I guess he felt like he had time?)
Despite being from the future, Eobard Thawne has apparently never read any comic books. How many superheroes grow up with perfect households? Hmmmm? But the moronic and bizarre plan of Thawne doesn’t end there! Because he can’t time travel anymore (he lost the “speed force.” Just deal with it.) Thwane decides he needs Barry to become the Flash after all, so he can harness the “speed force” again and go back to his own time. It’s not that this doesn’t make sense in a plot-hole kind of way, it just doesn’t make sense in a silly kind of way.
Of course we all know that once you create an alternate universe/timeline, you can only travel along that timeline. Thawne/Reverse-Flash is like a really incompetent (but somehow patient) version of Nero from Star Trek 2009, with a little Voldemort thrown in there too. And in the ultimate time-travel paradox WTF twist, we find out that Thawne is actually the descendant of a good present-day cop named Eddie Thawne. And in a true-season end shocker, Eddie shoots himself Looper-style to retroactively prevent Eobard Thawne from being born. Everybody following this? Whoo-ah somebody’s coming!
The season finale of The Flash concludes with Barry keeping the current timeline intact by letting his mother, once again, die at the hands of Eobard Thawne. He does this not for sort of keeping the space-time continuum clean reasons, but instead because he loves his adopted father and in general likes his life the way it is, even though it’s a little screwed up. But because Eddie kills himself and Eobard Thawne ceases to exist, a giant “singularity” emerges which threatens to destroy the spacetime continuum. It looks mostly like a giant storm cloud, but maybe this was what Doc was worried about if Marty messed up things in Back to the Future.
Anyway, the silliness of all of this is really great, actually. All the events occur in season one of The Flash stem from everything Eobard Thawne does—he starts S.T.A.R. Labs, he trains Barry as the Flash, he kills Barry’s mother, he makes bad jokes. Now that he’s been erased from history, does that mean the first season of The Flash never happened? It might seem like a mistake, but because this show’s origins are so mixed to begin with—what with its reliance on perceived nostalgia for old Flash—I found this ending totally on point with what the show was going for. We don’t know why the Flash exists—either in his universe or in ours.
But you know what? I’m glad he’s around. Bring it on. Run, Barry! Run away from reasonable explanations, plotlines that make any sense, and those nostalgia paradoxes that are trying to eat you. Keep running! Because as long as you do, people like me will always, always follow.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, forthcoming from Plume Books on November 24th. His writing has appeared with The New York Times, The Awl, Electric Literature, VICE and elsewhere. He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and lives in New York City.