The Flash has always done a commendable job straddling the line between camp and drama, thanks to a self-awareness that many comic book shows lack, or don’t utilize often enough. The CW super-drama doesn’t lack exuberance. It has that in droves, but manages to stay grounded with well-executed sequences of serious emotion. That important balance was on full display in the midseason finale, “Running to Stand Still,” an hour of television that included a legion of subplots, yet remained tightly focused.
The season’s ninth episode saw the return of Mark Hamill’s Trickster, a Joker-esque villain that made his small-screen debut in the ‘90s iteration of the Scarlet Speedster television show. His return late in season one served as a tongue-in-cheek connection to the original series (whose star, John Wesley Shipp, plays Barry’s father in the current run), and Hamill gives life to the character much the same way he did two decades ago. That is to say broad, and far more so than the usual antagonists that hassle Central City in 2015.
It works because Hamill is a dynamite performer in the role, which he’s perfected over the years as both the Trickster and in voiceover work as Batman’s arch-nemesis. But even I was afraid when he teamed-up with Mark Mardon (Weather Wizard) and Leonard Snart (Captain Cold). Add those egos into a holiday episode that, at times, appeared to have had one too many glasses of eggnog, and the possibility of it melting like a snowman in March became a sincere concern.
To counteract the bold villains, who became a duo when Snart decided (in yet another set-up for Legends of Tomorrow) not to aid his colleagues in crime, the show included a hefty dose of raw emotion.
Family has always been the driving force of the The Flash’s more serious moments, and season two has doubled down on that fact. Nearly every storyline outside Zoom has surrounded the idea of family, and what these characters are willing to do to keep their loved ones safe. Harry (Earth 2 Harrison Wells) is helping the team in the hopes of saving his daughter from Zoom. Patty joined the force and, specifically, the metahuman task force to avenge her father’s death. Iris, in her most memorable story threads of the first half, discovered her mother, Francine, was alive, then dying, and had concealed a son she had shortly after leaving Iris and Joe. Barry has been apprehensive of Harry because he is, physically, the same man that killed his mother and jailed his father. And on it goes.
The impressive feat isn’t how the writers managed to pull so many interesting story beats from a singular theme, though it’s nothing to sneeze at, but how they managed to hit on each of them in a single episode. The heart of “Running to Stand Still” was Iris finally cracking and telling Joe about his hidden son. Joe’s role as a father to Iris and Barry is the heart of the show, and watching his children reveal a truth they knew would break his heart was agonizing. Jesse L. Martin’s warmth is colossal in the effect it has on the show as a whole, and he knocked this scene out of the park. The multilayered response, all of which came in just a few seconds, mirrored the real life pain, confusion, bewilderment and joy that most people would experience in a similar situation.
Now that Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale) is officially in the picture, I can’t wait to see how the writers will use him. There is a definite comic history to keep in mind, which could bring exciting prospects in the show’s future seasons, but the more pressing story to watch is Joe as a father to a young man who just learned he has a family after the death of his mother.
Patty Spivot has become a favorite, but recent weeks have not been kind to her, story wise. Not a ghostlike figure akin to Iris, but after bursting on the scene early this season, Patty hasn’t had a meaty storyline since. That changed last night when she was forced to confront her father’s killer, Weather Wizard. We’ve known since the beginning Patty is out for revenge against Mardon, but the unwavering commitment to that end hadn’t been clear. In a moment of exasperation, she blurted to The Flash (whom she still doesn’t know is actually Barry, but will find out once the show returns in January) that every second of her life has been constructed to around the idea of killing Mardon. Though she would do the proper thing come the hour’s end, the admission reframes Patty as a wildcard of sorts, a character that may put her personal desires above the greater good, causing a severe dilemma for Barry.
Despite the preceding paragraphs, “Running to Stand Still” was not devoid of customary superhero bustle. In fact, it contained some of the best action of the season with a superb chase sequence between Flash and Weather Wizard. The final fight was once again centered on a clever scientific solution, one that did not involve Barry’s powers at all, but this time around the work by Cisco, Harry and Jay was smart enough to draw a pass. I am still desperately hopeful for a monumental showdown, though that should come in the second half courtesy of Zoom.
?For a midseason finale, last night’s entry of The Flash did not contain any shocking revelations. Zoom’s plan became more clear, as did Harry’s intentions. I’m disappointed at the prospect of Tom Cavanagh retreading villainy, but perhaps the writers can find new juice in a character seemingly squeezed to death by portraying him as a double agent. Beyond that, “Running to Stand Still” gave little reason for jaws to drop. Still, the mere size of the story gave the episode a different feel than those previous (disregarding last week’s crossover hour, for obvious reasons), one with a needed sense of finality to cap off a strong first half. Few shows, comic or otherwise, are as brave as The Flash. The storylines it has attempted in a season and-a-half are astonishing and, to the credit of its talented writing staff, all have worked tremendously. With a sharp villain in place, a connected cast and continued strong writing, expect The Flash not to lose a step in 2016.
Eric Walters is the Assistant Tech Editor for Paste and a regular contributor to the TV section. For more of his thoughts on comic book television, listen to his podcast.