And “speed force bubble” for the win.
If you’ve been confused this entire season why absolutely nothing had changed after Eobard Thawne was erased from existence in last year’s season finale of The Flash it’s because, um, he must have been shielded by a speed force bubble which prevented him from truly disappearing. He’s definitely dead, but the speed force offered him just enough protection to ensure that his timeline would remain intact. So when Barry meets Eobard Thawne in “The Reverse-Flash Returns” it’s really a bit of Doctor Who, River Song-esque timey wimey stuff where two time travelers are going in the opposite direction. Barry has already seen Thawne’s end, but this version of Thawne is just starting his own story, so much so that he’s clearly years away from ever traveling back in time and killing Barry’s mom. As Harry explains to Barry and Joe in oddly comic book-y terms, they are witnessing Thawne’s “origin story.”
This is when Thawne first discovers what time period the Flash is originally from. Stop questioning that right now because if you actually think about it for longer than a second you’ll find examples of how this doesn’t actually line up with what we learned about Thawne in the first season. Easier to take is the idea that Thawne’s unavoidable face-to-face encounter with Harry in this episode is probably what inadvertently set the ball in motion for him to eventually dispose of Earth-1’s Dr. Wells.
This is not, however, Thawne’s complete “origin story.” He already comes to this encounter with a deep hatred for the Flash, explaining that in his own time period he used to idolize Flash before realizing he never could be as good as him. So, for every person Flash saves the Reverse-Flash will…ah, you get it. He’s evil, so evil that you have to pronounce it eeeeeeev-el (than you So I Married An Axe Murderer).
As I wrote about at length in my review of the season finale and as Hitfix summed it up in its review of “The Reverse-Flash Returns,” the logical ramifications of actually erasing Thawne from existence would have been so massive as to necessitate a complete re-set of the show, “If Eddie’s suicide had completely rewritten the timeline, the real (Earth-1) Harrison Wells would still be around, Barry wouldn’t be the Flash yet, Central City wouldn’t be filled with metahuman criminals, and the new season would have to pause constantly for characters to meet again for the first time.” So it’s not surprising that they completely backed down from that, but it is nice to get an explanation of some kind, even if its one which is better left blindly accepted than questioned in any way.
However, if you read the various interviews Andrew Kreisberg granted after this episode aired it doesn’t really seem like Reverse-Flash’s return was meant to provide any kind of closure. It was more about giving us a jolt at mid-season, and getting to work again with an actor, Matt Letscher, who hadn’t really had a chance to play Thawne for a full episode. As Kreisberg told THR:
We really wanted to have Matt back because we loved him so much last season. We wanted to do something special. It’s very easy around this time of year to tread water and have episodes that don’t really have any import until things get going again, and we didn’t really want to do that. Having Barry’s mortal enemy back would be fodder for an amazing episode
But bringing back the prior season’s big bad for essentially a one-off episode is always a tricky proposition simply because reducing someone who you spent an entire season building up to a glorified villain-of-the-week somewhat cheapens them. You mostly bring them back to help prop up your new big bad (in his ongoing fight against Zoom, Barry does seem to be getting faster thus his ability to now outrun the Reverse Flash), but by virtue of the time you already spent with them they inherently pull focus and demand respect.
That’s partially why the other elements in this episode – Caitlin looking for Jay’s Earth-1 counterpart, Iris convincing her brother to say goodbye to their dying mother, Barry coldly cutting ties with Patty even after she independently figures out he’s the Flash, Cisco fine-tuning his vibe powers with Harry’s help – weren’t quite as compelling as they otherwise could have been.
It is nice to see Caitlin getting something to do. The internet has lost its head over the reveal that Jay’s Earth-1 counterpart is named Hunter Zolomon, aka, Professor Zoom’s non-supervillain name in the comics. However, it was the worst kind of easter egg in that it means something huge for comic book fans but just kind of hangs there in the air, sucking up space, for the non-diehard crowd. It is actually an awkwardly handled conclusion to that part of this episode. Caitlin and Barry, turning to various facial recognition software programs, can’t find any trace of Jay’s Earth-1 doppleganger, but Jay takes Caitlin to a park to spy on his Earth-1 self, explaining that the guy was adopted and had his name changed which is why there is technically no Jay Garrick on that Earth. Huh. But why wasn’t he on any facial recognition programs? Plus, the way Jay cues up the reveal seems to be leading to something dramatic, like “He died tragically,” when in fact it’s more a case of waving his hand to the right and announcing, “There he is, right over there. Nice guy, can’t help us though. Still need to defeat Zoom to do that.”
Iris reaching closure with her mother was another nice example of Candice Patton’s powers of emoting, but the notion that Wally would be angry at his mom was new, somewhat abrupt information. It was certainly understandable, just odd after Wally spend all of last week identifying with his mother over Joe and Iris. However, it was a perfectly nice step toward Wally and Iris growing closer together.
Barry’s cold post-break-up conversations with Patty at least related to the Reverse Flash. It sure seemed like Barry was ready to tell Patty his big secret before she broke up with him last week, but the return of his mortal enemy would certainly lead him back into “pushing the girl away to protect her” mode, even as Patty begs him to merely acknowledge what she already suspects, namely that he’s the Flash. Joe’s speech to Barry about his need to make sacrifices, i.e., letting Patty go, probably wasn’t one of his better efforts, and Patty’s ruse on the train to trick Barry into proving her theory about him being the Flash was either a sweet ending for that couple or a serious violation of trust and abuse of police powers. It’s all meant to tie into the season long arc about Barry’s quest to find happiness in defiance of that video left for him by the Dr. Wells version of Thawne, but I honestly sometimes forget that was ever even a thing.
As I monitored Twitter while watching the episode, I noticed a seemingly 50/50 split between those who were dancing for joy to see Patty gone (largely because this opens things up for a Barry/Iris union) and those who were going to miss her.
I fall into the “will miss her” camp. They’ll always have that first date in whatever gorgeous Vancouver location the show used:
This was an episode with, as per usual, a lot going on, but if you could simply accept the illogical time travel shenanigans it was often an exhilarating hour of television, particularly Barry, Cisco and Harry’s seperate confrontations with Reverse-Flash. Any episode which has as much Cisco-Harry bickering and working together as “The Reverse-Flash Returns” does will not lack for enjoyable material. They would have been wiser not to cram quite as much in here and let the Reverse-Flash material play out with more screen time. But, hey, that’s The Flash. Making up its own time travel rules as it goes along, always trying to find something for everyone to do, frequently failing at that, and knocking us off our feet with its action scenes and Grant Gustin/Jesse L. Martin tears.