I remember the first time I learned about the “speed force.” It wasn’t in The Flash’s “Tricksters,” which has Harrison Wells talking Barry through the process of tapping into the “speed force” like an alcoholic describing his first drink. It was actually last summer when I leaned on the kindness of my local library to make my way through the entirety of the New 52 version of Flash in the comics, all to prepare for the TV show. I already knew The Flash through Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen on Arrow, the Michael Rosenbaum-voiced Wally West on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and Kid Flash on Young Justice. To me, The Flash was mostly the story of a mild-mannered scientist who runs really, really fast in a snazzy red suit, fighting a parade of kind of likable villains who have no real shot against him since most of them don’t have any powers. I found out that time travel is a huge deal in the Flash comics as is the “speed force,” an extra-dimensional energy which actually grants speedsters their power meaning that when they run fast they are not simply responding to some kind of lab-induced mutation but instead tapping into a dimension accessible only by them. It’s also kind of two-way street where the more speedsters there are the stronger the overall speed force (I think).
“Tricksters” was the show’s most direct exploration of the “speed force” to date, and I wonder how the non-comic book readers are reacting. When I first read about it over the summer I honestly thought it sounded really stupid. Sure, there is an external element which is constantly granting Superman his powers, i.e., Earth’s yellow sun, but that is part and parcel of his creation story. Barry Allen gained his powers through a lab accident (although that’s been retconned), a tried and true comic book trope that seems fairly straight-forward (it seems like at least half of Spider-Man’s villains come from a lab). Adding anything on top of that seems overly complicated. I assumed the TV series would skip over it much in the way the Thor movies have ignored how the Thor of the comics actually shares a body with a human named Dr. Donald Blake. However, the “speed force” proved surprisingly crucial to most of the New 52 stories; at one point, it even grants Iris superspeed. I adjusted to it, but it was my least favorite element of the comics, causing me to roll my eyes a bit when (for example) the original Flash Jay Garrick shows up at one point because he could sense via the speed force that Barry was using his powers.
Now that the show has plunged headlong into speed force land I still don’t really like it. However, if you were to ask me what other ideas I had for how you should tell stories about a super fast guy chasing after colorful villains I’d probably quickly fall into freaks-of-the-week territory with no real overarching mythology. The “speed force” turns The Flash into a commodity, a potential energy source to be exploited, and that dramatic concept can not only prolong the creative life of the character on the page but also give us the prolonged greatness that has been Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells. If I understand the “Trickster” flashbacks correctly then Wells, or actually Eobard “Reverse Flash” Thawne from the future, used up all of his power to travel back in time and kill Barry Allen’s mom. How is it even possible to lose his powers? Because by traveling back in time to when Barry Allen was not yet The Flash he cut himself off from the “speed force,” and everything he has done since then has been about kickstarting history to create The Flash, train him, and watch as his super speed helps generate more force which can be tapped into. That’s the only way he’ll be able to travel in time again and make it back home.
So, why did we have to learn all of that (or infer some of it) in an episode primarily featuring Mark Hamill seriously hamming it up as his character from the 90s Flash TV show, joined in crime by someone who looked like a truly sad, low-budget combination of The Comedian from Watchmen and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s The Motherfucker from Kick-Ass 2? Basic plot: An apparent copycat killer to Central City’s version of Hannibal Lector, the nowhere-near-as ominously named Trickster, turns out to actually be a protégé engineering his master’s prison escape. Barry was fooled because his new “I hate Harrison Wells so much!” attitude blinded him to Wells’ logical conclusion, “These guys chose the nickname ‘Trickster.’ Ergo, if they make a bomb threat isn’t it probably some kind of trick?” Of course, the Tricksters kidnap Henry Allen on the way out, mostly as an excuse for John Wesley Shipp and Mark Hamill to share the screen together for the first time since 1990. Really, in general, everything involving the Trickster seemed like it was probably an absolute dream for anyone who ever watched that one season of Shipp’s Flash show, or for anyone who knows Hamill’s voice-acting work as The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and as The Trickster on Justice League Unlimited. Frankly, the voice he used was similar enough to his iconic Joker that you did expect him to drop in a Joker laugh every now and then, though he never did.
The thing is that I love Batman: The Animated Series, and I have more memories of Hamill’s voice-acting than I do of his time as Luke Skywalker. Yet, “Tricksters” felt like it was trying to make so many little silly homages that the actual Trickster part of the plot came off as something from a different show, just on the wrong side of campy for The Flash’s usual tastes. It was hard for any of it to feel particularly important when the episode unexpectedly opened with a jaw-dropping depiction of The Flash fighting the Reverse Flash the night Barry Allen’s mom died before revealing that the man in the yellow suit didn’t look anything like Harrison Wells. That fight scene is something I did not think we would get until the season finale, and here it was serving as the cold open for “Tricksters,” setting us up for a series of flashbacks that served as a partial origin story for Eobard Thawne, who turns out to have actually used future technology to kill the real Harrison Wells and rebuild his own DNA to assume his place in history.
While all of that was playing out for us we kept having to pull away from it to watch a crime-of-the-week with a special guest star, Hamill, who wasted around a minute of screen time with a pained Empire Strikes Back montage in which he told his protégé that he was his father, a proclamation accented by the show’s best approximation of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme. The punchline was so obvious that the funnier route would have been for Hamill to immediately retract his statement that his protégé was actually his son with some kind of, “Tricked you! You’re not my son. I just picked you because you’re insane, an undervalued quality in a person if you ask me.” However, it seemed like this episode could never quite get away from the “Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, OMG, That’s Mark Hamill!” of it all, made tolerable by Hamill’s very game and at-times undeniably enjoyable performance.
My patience for the Trickster stuff was admittedly thin, though, because it seemed of a totally different tone and simply not as important as everything with Harrison Wells. Even there, while we know that he is right Barry’s sudden “Screw you, Harrison Wells!” attitude seemed slightly jarring, as he has gone from adoring to despising the man overnight despite no real concrete evidence, although the reporter going missing is obviously eyebrow raising. This did give us yet another reminder of just how lucky this show is that it cast Tom Cavanagh, whose “I know what you’re thinking” one-on-one moment with Barry during the crime investigation was beautifully tense. In general, everything with Wells/Thawne in “Tricksters” was unbelievably compelling, if maybe a bit confusing given how much you already knew about The Reverse Flash from the comics. Now that Eddie has been pulled into Barry and Joe’s crusade against Dr. Wells the show is nicely set up for an insane final batch of episodes, hinting that Barry’s going to need both the Arrow and Firestorm to have any shot at defeating Reverse Flash.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There were two shows with differing tones co-existing in “Tricksters,” the campy and kind of silly one with Mark Hamill and son and the timey-wimey, twisted, and, as it turns out, deadly partial origin story of Eobard Thawne. The serious trumped the silly in terms of potency and effectiveness, yet the episode still managed to at least entertain as a whole despite its mismatched tones.
1. It’s so weird to think this, but that opening scene was both a flashback and a flashforward, right? It’s a flashback to Barry’s childhood as well as to Eobard Thawne’s life before he assumed the Harrison Wells identity, but it’s also a flashforward to a time in the adult Barry Allen’s life when he will travel back in time and fight The Reverse Flash.
2. Thank you for just showing us the old pictures of Mark Hamill in the Trickster costume in 1990 instead of making us see him wear some new version.
3. If journalists go missing it’s not a big deal to cops because they think that’s the kind of thing journalists do all the time? Couldn’t they simply ask the Editor of the paper if he knew whether or not the journalist was truly on a secret assignment somewhere?
4. It seems like forever ago that The Flash and Iris had a chat at Jitters, which she just happens to have keys to even though she doesn’t work there anymore.
5. Maybe the don’t have the budget to have Barry use superspeed to disguise his face anymore because all Iris needed to do was take two steps forward to clearly see that the guy using her laptop at Jitters was Barry.
6. The Trickster is historically just a Joker-knock-off, but he only had a couple of Joker-esque lines, the one that made me laugh being his accurate observation about the unsanitary nature of The Flash using one single device and needle to inoculate a room full of poisoned individuals.
7. How had no one ever come across the Trickster’s secret lair in the two decades since he’d been in prison? No maintenance worker ever accidentally happened upon it?
8. It does Iris no favors as a character for Barry and Joe to again keep her in the dark, this time about Harrison Wells. That feels like the show revisiting its lowlights. However, I am encouraged by the inclusion of Eddie in this group now. I think he’s going to call them on it.
AVClub – They gave it an A: “Last week’s episode concerned me because the way it undid so much of the excitement of the previous hour felt like a copout. “Tricksters” restores my faith that the creative team isn’t shying away from the bold, fleet-footed storytelling that has characterized the best parts of this season.”
TV.com – “”Tricksters” was a busy episode, but still a pretty fun one. At times, the episode’s impulses of hamming it up and paying homage to the 1990 The Flash series clashed with Barry’s concerns about Harrison being involved with Nora’s murder and the FLASHbacks regarding the…origins, I guess, of “Harrison Wells,” which ended up giving us a lot of tricksters in an episode with two already bearing the moniker. It made for an occasionally discordant episode, but it also had really solid pacing thanks to Andrew Kreisberg’s script and Ralph Hemecker’s direction (he also directed “The Man in the Yellow Suit”) that the episode moved at a nice enough clip that I didn’t mind the tonal mishmash too much.”
Check out Andrew Kreisberg’s Collider interview about this episode. He hints we haven’t seen the last of the actor playing the pre-Harrison Wells Eobard Thawne, and not as much of the timeline from “Out of Time”/”Rogue Time” time travel two-parter has been erased as we thought.