Synopsis of 3×15: As Wally pushes himself to faster speeds, he begins to hallucinate encounters with Savitar. Barry’s manipulation of the team becomes public and he ultimately pushes Wally into falling into the enemy’s trap.
In the mid 2000s, both DC and Marvel simultaneously, as it occasionally seems to happen, both struck upon the same device to power a host of stories: what if each company’s most respected, beloved, powerful heroes, all held terrible secrets, all were hiding transgressions they’ve hidden since their earliest days? It was a device that powered some of the decade’s worst stories, namely Identity Crisis and Civil War, as well as one of the best stories ever, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s The Winter Soldier and a singularly transformative work which has defined DC since its release, Green Lantern: Rebirth.
Inarguably, there’s something compelling about adding shades of grey to the simple, linear golden and silver age stories the newer works were referencing. In the case of The Winter Soldier, Brubaker’s script complicated the man Steve Rogers would become, acknowledging his status as a man who realized the cost of a war and the sacrifices that are made to protect the most vulnerable. However, the weakest stories to come from the trend, Identity Crisis first among them, transformed the characters from those classic stories into twisted, no longer heroic figures, people who didn’t fight for what was right or for those who needed protection. Their motives became suspect, their every actions subject to a fresh, critical reading.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those comics for the entirety of this season of The Flash, which has been characterized by fans, if nothing else, for the rise of Barry as a misguided, selfish hero. He’s made a host of decisions, since Season 2’s finale, motivated solely by his own desires, his fears and anger, all at the expense of the people around him. He’s considered killing his enemies, lying to his friends and putting the entire planet in danger in service of own happiness.The show’s played somewhat coy with the depths of Barry’s selfishness, never quite acknowledging how motivated by fear he’s been, how self-centered he’s acted but this week’s episode “The Wrath of Savitar,” deals with his actions head-on.
As Barry pushes Wally further and further to save Iris from Savitar, he begins exploiting everyone around him, with Joe bristling under the way Barry proposed to his daughter, how he forces Julian to commune with the God of Speed, and demanding obedience from the entire team. It’s the move that finally causes the whole group to splinter, with Wally and Cisco vining into the future and ultimately revealing how Barry has manipulated his engagement in another attempt to save Iris.
One thing I’ve had a problem with this season is how much the show has worked to justify each one of Barry’s attempts to save Iris. So far, he’d always been proven right, or at least, been able to make a case for his decisions but “The Wrath of Savitar” ultimately hangs him out to dry by episode’s end.
Every one of his decisions comes back to haunt him as Wally is dragged into the Speed Force, his relationship collapses, Julian is pushed to his breaking point, and Caitlyn’s betrayal is laid bare. The conclusion of the episode is one of those great twists of the knife that ultimately makes the episodes that came before it work better, make Barry’s comeuppance feel even more deserved, even if we don’t really want to see our hero backed this far into the corner.
While I think it works in the moment, I still wish this episode didn’t feel quite so loaded with characters finally accusing Barry of being the bastard he’s been all year. I think a slower build up of the team bristling under him would ultimately make the final moments feel a little more earned. While Barry accepts responsibility for what happens here, he’s also still able to blame everything on his fear, not on his actions and I think having other characters hold him responsible would make his fall feel more human and relatable.
“The Wrath of Savitar” does an admirable job finally judging Barry’s actions this season as, at least inadvertently, destructive. Yes, it does so at least partially with a few tonal retcons but it feels earned, feels like a natural extension of the plot and ultimately still feels like a surprise. It’s arguably the darkest episode of Season 3 and, also, probably the best, a smart deconstruction of how Barry’s loyalty and love for those close to him can be twisted, corrupted and exploited by a canny villain. It’s the first time all year where I’ve been excited to see what The Flash has to show next.