It’s better than the pilot. That’s what hit me halfway through The Flash‘s second episode “Fastest Man Alive”, in which the newly-powered Barry Allen learns of his limitations, the value of his team at S.T.A.R. Labs, and the importance of his surrogate father, police detective Joe West. If all that sounds like fertile ground for way too much moralizing, than the biggest accomplishment of Flash 1.2 is that it handles its load with wit and grace, while allowing room for the Scarlet Speedster to confront his second super-powered foe in as many episodes.
Picking up where the show’s premiere episode left off, “Fastest” cuts – as Barry’s opening narration explains – “to the good stuff.” The good stuff is Barry using his powers, to the chagrin of S.T.A.R.’s Caitlin Snow and the delight of her colleague Cisco Ramon, to help the people of Central City when their lives are threatened by things other than metahumans like last week’s Weather Wizard. In this case, there’s an apartment building on fire and folks in need of rescue. The ways in which the show illustrates how Barry is still learning to use his powers are wonderful, such as having him overshoot the fire by six blocks on his first attempt to reach it.
A larger impediment is introduced in the form of Barry’s dizzy spells, which Caitlin and company soon learn are due to his low glucose levels and a need to ingest much more food than the average person in order to maintain his metabolism. (This bit of Flash lore was introduced in the comics decades ago, and a part of the 1990s Flash TV show.) In order to test Barry, the team puts him on a kind of super-treadmill, immediately prompting the fanboys among us to wonder if this device could someday be modified into the “cosmic treadmill” that Barry has used to travel through time since the early ’60s. Particularly since the element of time travel could account for the eerie final scene in last week’s pilot episode.
This week’s villain – dubbed “Multiplex” by Cisco (the first Flash foe he names) – is Danton Black, a former employee of Stagg Industries, run by Metamorpho comics character Simon Stagg (played here by veteran character actor William Sadler). Black (Michael Christopher Smith) was a cloning researcher let go by his employer before he could grow a replacement heart for his dying wife. Now he’s using clones of himself (generated by Dr. Wells’ particle accelerator explosion) to exact revenge upon Stagg. Though his motivation, introduced late in the episode, may strike some as shoehorned, I appreciate the show’s effort to make him something more than a physical threat against which Barry questions his ability to be a crimefighter.
But what a physical threat! The scenes of Black’s many clones battling the speedster are not only an improvement (and better use) of a visual introduced in Matrix Reloaded, but, as with last week’s climactic fight against Weather Wizard’s tornado, they allow the show to depict the kind of imaginative superhero battles that made the Silver Age Flash comic such a classic. One could argue Black’s fate, like that of the Weather Wizard, wastes a villain that could be reused in the show, but it’s clear the producers have bigger things in mind for our crimson comet, with another final scene in which Wells reveals a secret sinister side. Besides, if he returns, he won’t be the first super-villain to cheat death.
The emotional core of this week’s story comes from Detective Joe West’s concern that Barry, while indeed the fastest man alive, is unprepared for the life-threatening dangers of fighting crime. Jesse Martin delivers the episode’s best performance, perfectly conveying West’s internal struggle with finding his role as Barry’s guardian upended overnight by forces far beyond his understanding. The way in Barry and Joe come to define that role — and their relationship — allows the show to generate its first genuine lumps in the throats of viewers.
Another emotional note – the true resonance of which is easy to miss – is struck when Black, explaining his failed opportunity to save his wife, cries to Barry, “I got to bury my best friend!” For, as we learned in the pilot, Joe’s daughter Iris is Barry’s best friend, as well as his crush object. And the moment this week in which he reveals his secret to her at super-speed, so she can’t actually hear it but we can, is a great example of what this show does best: using a comic-book superhero’s unique power to simultaneously thrill, amuse, and invest viewers, all while showing them something they can’t see on any other TV series.
At the end of “The Fastest Man Alive” a goofy thought entered my head – “If, God forbid, The Flash inexplicably turns to crap after just two episodes, I’ll always have these ninety minutes. A satisfying feature-length movie!” That’s how good this show is.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).