One of my past editorials for the #DCTV Couch Club was called “My Name is Barry Allen and I’m Addicted to Changing the Timeline.” It’s a decent joke that fans of The Flash will understand immediately, particularly in the wake of Flashpoint, but it would have stood on its own two legs inside a red leather costume long before that. Our favorite television speedster has returned in a blaze of glory and run back to the future …again!
The title of tonight’s episode, “The Once and Future Flash,” is not only a nice allusion to one of the greatest pieces of Arthurian legend literature ever written, but it carries a lot of weight where the plot of the episode is concerned. Like the first time we got a chance to visit Earth-2 along with Barry Allen, the bulk of the episode takes place in one possible future and the Flash no longer exists. Not only does he not exist in the way that we traditionally think of him—he doesn’t exist at all!
The framing device of contemporary Barry having to confront future Barry and set him back on the path of the righteous definitely has a couple of psychological implications that are potentially very revealing about him as a character. Let’s begin with the less good one, shall we? If we start with the bad news then we can end on a high note before this piece is over!
Future Barry with the emo kid hair has suffered through the reality of Iris West’s death. Not only has it destroyed his life, it has destroyed the lives of Joe and Wally in unique, but equally impactful ways as well. As if that weren’t enough suffering to go around for the West-Allen blended family, Future Barry has seemingly abandoned Wally—even as Kid Flash finds himself in an invalid state requiring constant care in the wake of a traumatic event—and let his relationship with Joe go by the wayside. It is almost inconceivable to Contemporary Barry (and to the fans!) that he would have broken so completely from the Wests in the wake of Iris’ death. The uncomfortable implication of Future Barry’s action seems to be that Barry’s connection is only to Iris and that his bonds with Joe and Wally are fairweather and fleeting at the very best.
Luckily, this is only a possible future and Contemporary Barry has no problem meddling in the timeline. He takes a lot of brazen steps to ensure that, at least this part of the future does not come to pass. By stepping in and reminding his longer-haired self that he owes so much of the goodness in him—and the inspiration behind the Flash’s motivation—to the man who raised him, Barry is able to put this exact strong moral center on display. The scene is a wonderful small act of heroism that confirms to both Future Barry and all of us watching at home that he really is the hero this world deserves …and the hero that we want him to be.
Sidebar: I will give Future Flash mad props for having a really cool costume with sweet yellow piping that I look forward to hopefully seeing more of on The Flash in the future!
The second thing that “The Once and Future Flash” implies about Barry Allen’s psychological health has to do with his willingness to run to the future at a moment’s notice. I started this piece by making a joke about this habit and by admitting that it’s not the first time I had done so as my way of putting my bias out there. Changing the timeline and traveling in time is something that is very unique to a speedster and it’s a storytelling device that sets The Flash apart from all of the other #DCTV shows. Alternate timelines existed in Flash comics on the Flash TV show long before DC’s Legends of Tomorrow premiered. Doing this displays Barry’s willingness to take any step necessary in order to protect the people he loves. Playing with time can be—and has been—disastrous. The Flash’s use of it should illustrate to fans that he doesn’t take it lightly.
The people he is willing to do something like this for matter more than anything else in the world (past, present or future) to him. Through this lens, it makes complete sense that Barry would take a quick dash to the future in order to try and suss out the identity of Savitar and halt Iris’s certain death.
There’s a lot to be gleaned about Barry Allen and his identity as the Flash in “The Once and Future Flash” beyond the fact that his taste in hairstyles is about to drop dramatically over the next few years. (Maybe he took up with the same stylist Oliver Queen was using during his five years in hell?) This episode speaks to all the best aspects of his personality and, perhaps, reflects some of his shortcomings as well in the way that all the best stories ought to.
Ashley V. Robinson covers The Flash as a part of the #DCTV Couch Club. You can find her on Twitter at @AshleyVRobinson and on the Jawiin YouTube channel. The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST) on The CW.