It's time for "The Flash" to become something else

Before going on their latest break, The Flash Season 5 had some significant forward momentum with their latest episode, “Time Bomb”. The things that happened this episode: season villain Orlin Dwyer AKA Cicada was definitively dispatched to make way for his niece from the future to assume the villain role for the remainder of the season (one that showed how deadly she is in the past two episodes). Also, Barry and Iris’ daughter Nora West Allen's secret of working with villain Eobard Thawne (which has been percolating since the reveal in the show’s 100th episode) was finally brought to light. Suddenly, things kicked into gear to (hopefully) deliver a strong final third for the season.

Therein lies the problem.

Ever since the third season back in 2016, for a series that features the fastest man alive, the show has been consistently plagued with a case of sluggish pacing that’s become a little harder to ignore these days. For a show that made itself known for its forward momentum back in the glory days of the first two seasons, it’s been unfortunate to see the show fall into a habit of dragging its feet for so long into a season, only to let things kick into gear by the time the final third rolls around.

The Flash Season 3 AKA the rare case of late episodes reshaping the quality of an entire season

While holding back on so much was one of the things that hurt the show back in Season 3, that season in particular pulled a weird sleight of hand where the revelations and developments in its later episodes helped make the early slow parts of the season be more purposeful and deliberate. Coupled with the strong ending episodes, it made the season better in hindsight. But this kind of sleight of hand is the equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle, made so clear with the execution of Seasons 4 and 5.

Me trying to stay engaged with The Flash Season 4

Before I move forward, I just have to preface that I think so far, Season 5 is an improvement over Season 4. The Flash’s fourth season is the hardest time I ever had enjoying the show in its entire run. The continuous lack of stakes. The wildly inconsistent tone that took things too far into Goofy land. The extended string of mediocre episodes that made getting a good or great one feel like a miracle. An overarching story that felt like it had more episodes than story to tell. A great villain completely wasted on cheap storytelling gimmicks. The weakest season finale yet. It all came together to deliver the show’s worst season and tied Arrow Season 4 as the worst season in the Arrowverse to date.

At the very least, The Flash Season 4 gave us the great "Enter Flashtime"

At least as a reaction to some of the criticisms of the previous season, Season 5 has definitely improved on some things. The tone was reigned in to match something closer to the balance of light and dark from the first two seasons, and there have been less of a string of mediocre episodes like the season before it. At the same time, The Flash Season 5 also exists in a world where, when facing serious backlash at how bad the quality had declined, Arrow pulled all stops with their fifth season to deliver the show’s arguably second-best season ever. In comparison, The Flash hasn’t taken as big a leap in quality to overturn perceptions, especially considering the things that have still plagued Season 5.

Heading into Season 5, the producers came forward and said Season 5 was going to experiment with a different structure. Specifically, executive producer Todd Helbing mentioned the season would be divided with three distinct story arcs to help space out the season. Mentioning the three-arc structure sort of brings to mind what Marvel’s Agents of Shield did with their fourth season, as they were able to crack the code on how to deliver a traditional 22-episode season without ever devolving into filler. Considering one of The Flash Season 4’s biggest failures was not having an overarching story arc that had enough meat in the bone to sustain it for 23 episodes, this was a promising sign. 

The Flash Season 5 had the strongest start to a season yet

It also helped explain why, in the early part of Season 5, The Flash had considerable forward momentum again, starting off with a pretty special premiere episode with the introduction of Nora West Allen that carried through a couple episodes of the first half. Coupled with some early forward momentum with new villain Cicada, who was introduced very early and carried enough mystery to be interesting, and Season 5 felt like it was benefiting from this newer approach. Yes, the first half still had some duds, like the underwhelming debut of Ragdoll in "All Doll'd Up" and the pretty terrible Killer Frost-centric episode “The Icicle Cometh” that just underlined the bad direction they took with the character since they eliminated stakes in Season 4. But for the most part, the show was carried through with aplomb it had not seen since Season 2.

The less said about this episode, the better

Then came the pivotal episode “What’s Past is Prologue”, the show’s very important 100th episode milestone. Serving as what would be the ending to the first “arc” of the season before the big “Elseworlds” crossover and also a celebration of the show’s existence, there was a lot riding on this episode to cap off what had been a generally well-made first arc. Which breaks my heart to admit the results were mixed at best. On the one hand, the celebratory look was a welcome visit to some of the show’s best moments in Seasons 1 through 3 (very telling Season 4 was glossed over other than paid lip-service), and the episode featured some of the better acted moments of the series (the ending with Barry and Nora is a beautiful understated conclusion to the episode). 

"What's Past is Prologue" captured some of the show's most electrifying scenes

At the same time, the episode was framed as the ultimate “pulling out all the stops” to stop Cicada in the present (a villain that had all his backstory and motivations laid out in front of us with the previous episode). So, by the time the final fight came out, the show delivered one of the worst fights in Arrowverse history, something so underwhelming and so inconclusive with the villain flying away to lick his wounds, it just ended making the entire episode’s effort seem entirely worthless. Things did pick up afterwards with the cool reveal Barry’s daughter had been working with arch nemesis Eobard Thawne (which was subtly seeded in some of the time travel scenes within the episode). But the failure to deliver a true conclusion to the first arc of the season left an unfortunate stench in what should have been one of the very best episodes of the series and made me question whether the producers really understood what they meant when they went to promote this season as one with "distinct arcs".

Cool and imposing at first, Cicada way overstayed its welcome after the 100th episode

The failure to wrap up the Cicada story in the 100th episode could have been waived if the show had been able to justify in later episodes why they were keeping the villain around when something more exciting was already lurking in the background with the Nora/Thawne reveal. Unfortunately, despite the relative strong run of episodes in 2018, once the 2019 batch started, the episodes that followed delivered some of the worsr wheel-spinning in series history where episodes would rinse and repeat itself with Team Flash battling Cicada and the villain always escaping to lick his wounds. And remember, all this was supposed to be “arc two” per the producers. At no point did they make the case for why Cicada had to remain in play past the 100th episode.

God bless The Flash producers for giving us this fight on a tight budget and looking mighty impressive

While there was still some moments of note like a mind trip, a Groundhog Day parody and a visually stunning (for TV standards) King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd battle, there was a sense of sluggishness plaguing the series throughout the 2019 run, which made me realize Season 5 in a way still hadn’t fully fixed Season 4’s problems of having an overarching story that had enough meat to sustain an entire season.

Grace AKA Cicada II is the kick to high gear the Cicada conflict needed

Things didn’t really change until the introduction of Cicada II in episode 16, “Failure is an Orphan”, a villain much deadlier than anything the original one ever did. But instead of serving as a catalyst that could help reshape the season the same way Season 3 did in its later episodes, what the Cicada II twist did was just underline what a waste of time the episodes following the crossover were. They were not enhanced by this twist. Why this didn't happen 3 to 4 episodes before it did is anyone's guess. This just brought to life the fact the show has lost its ability to deliver stories in a traditional 22/23-episode format. For all intents and purposes, despite the Cicada to Cicada II switcheroo, it is still an entire season framed around the “big bad” just like the previous seasons, and once again it’s another season that only kicked into gear in its final third. Certainly a case of "the law of diminishing returns". 

After the airing of episode 16, it was announced executive producer Todd Helbing would be departing the series at the end of the year. They can do all sorts of PR speak on how he’s just stepping down to go into development with WBTV. The truth of the matter is, he oversaw The Flash during its weakest period (even though he took over after the ousting of former executive producer Andrew Kreisberg), and despite some of the things that improved in Season 5, many of the show’s mistakes can be traced to the failed promises done by him before the season began. With the show being taken over by co-executive producer Eric Wallace, the hope will be that Season 6 finally understands that it has to 100% change its seasonal format, because what the show has been toying with in the past three years is not sustainable anymore. You either go all in on doing distinct arcs, or you cut the episode count per season. Simple as that.

Really hoping The Flash Season 5 pays off whatever endgame they have planned with Eobard Thawne

Whereas Arrowverse siblings Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have done a good job on making good use of their space by either dividing their arcs or doing more fulfilling stand-alone episodes, The Flash is stuck in this “big bad” loop it has to break away from. Even though I still like the show, to quote Arrow, it reached the point where it has to become “something else”. The only hope for Season 5 is that the last batch of episodes are able to stick the landing on whatever they’re doing with Cicada II and also whatever the endgame is for bringing back Eobard Thawne in the first place, especially if its tied to the upcoming "Crisis on Infinite Earths" crossover for next year. 

After Season 4 failed to deliver a strong conclusion in its final batch of episodes, I’ll remain skeptical until Season 5 proves me otherwise.


Written by Alejandro Segovia

All opinions are exclusive to the author and don't represent the rest of Stat X Media.

All pictures provided by The CW


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