Welcome to TV Flashback Reviews, a new part of our TV Flashback series, where we’ll be doing more in-depth, episodic looks at shows from the past! With CW’s The Flash now airing, we’ll be looking back at the 1990 iteration of Barry Allen from beginning to end every Flashback Friday.
Episode 4, “Honor Among Thieves”
Originally aired: October 25, 1990
Guarding a priceless exhibit has the police stretched thin, a situation which a criminal mastermind exploits citywide with several thefts.
It’s surprising that “Honor Among Thieves” wasn’t the first episode back from the pilot. Like most second episodes, it feels like it’s experimenting with the dynamics; it balances a grounded A-plot, features some creative side-effects of Barry’s powers, deals with The Flash’s immediate impact as an urban legend (and addresses his official name!), and integrates its core three cast members exceptionally well, particularly providing a good character story for Barry.
That said, it’s also akin to a typical second episode in that this it’s rather forgettable–quite literally, as I’m struggling to remember many plot details outside of the broad strokes. So much work is put into making the the dynamics clear that the actual plot isn’t terribly ambitious. But even though it’s nothing more than a standard heist plot–though admittedly with a somewhat inspired but still predictable “double fake”–it’s at least solid, with no real weak link. That might not sound like much of a compliment, but the plot and themes unfold better than “Out of Control,” and it doesn’t have any of the tonal inconsistency of the pilot. It’s clear that everyone involved in the show is already fairly comfortable, which means more room to stretch in the future.
While the heist plot doesn’t particularly stick to memory, the episode’s nature as a character study on Barry is the major linchpin. This storyline–which features Barry reuniting with an old father figure who abandoned him–is a bit of a mixed bag. In the broadest sense, Barry has a history of feeling inferior and wanting to live up to other people. We got tidbits of this in the pilot, but once he became imbued with powers, Barry’s confidence shot way up and and the issue was never explored. So “Honor Among Thieves” is an admirable attempt to flesh out that character nugget, in that sense. Barry is visibly shaken throughout the hour, with both funny and sad moments of his powers going haywire because he can’t stop thinking about his traumatic shut-out by Preminger (played by a very competent Paul Linke.) These all feel very real, and work to build up the tension and importance of the relationship. By the end, Barry finally gets to show someone that he did grow up to be a good, strong man (by getting stabbed and arresting a guy, in this case) and in fact that’s who he was all along.
Where this gets muddled is the set-up, which first includes the curious decision to claim Henry Allen wasn’t much of a father, after all. That doesn’t add up to the father we saw in the pilot, who seemed to genuinely care about both his sons and gave Barry fatherly advice. In fact, the most noticeable attribute about both of Barry’s parents was how much they worried about Barry. This already turns Preminger into something of an interloper in Barry’s story, not helped by a convenient and forced “Barry was almost an archaeologist” backstory. It’s not a bad idea in and of itself–I mean, sure, why wouldn’t college Barry be interested in it?–and there’s a clever tidbit about crime lab being part cop/part archaeologist. But we never get a sense of why his old professor Preminger did shut him out for not immediately becoming an archaeologist, unless there was a rivalry between cops and archaeologists in the 90s I never heard about. Apparently Preminger was just that petty that Barry’s choice to go in another career direction made him disown his charge, so it’s hard to feel validated when Barry finally “impresses” him, or whatever.
The thing is, this isn’t an unheard of thing in life; there are times when we seek validation from a parental figure even when it’s utterly unwarranted, and sometimes the strongest relationships are shattered by the stupidest of spats. If anything, we just feel worse for Barry for trying so hard; there’s a question hanging of what other reason Preminger could have had to shut Barry out, and instead it’s exactly what it says on the tin. As a result, Preminger’s just kind of a jerk, so it isn’t very satisfying to see Barry get his approval. A better ending, perhaps, would have seen Barry finding a way to affirm himself in the face of Preminger’s impossible expectations. And at that, Barry only gets his affirmation by…arresting the bad guy in front of Preminger? Presumably Preminger is impressed that Barry got stabbed trying to protect an artifact, but it’s a story that seems to explore the wrong sides of Barry’s dilemma. As a result, “Honor Among Thieves” is admirable for presenting a character study of otherwise forgotten traits, but forces a fairly weak part of Barry’s history to do it.
Episode 5, “Double Vision”
Originally aired: November 1, 1990
A mad scientist implants a device in the Flash’s brain and gains remote control of his powers in order to stop a witness from testifying against a drug lord the scientist is working for.
On a completely different note, “Double Vision” does scarce little with any of its characters, instead focusing wholly on world building and a more standard comic book plot. As a result, it’s far more consistent than “Honor Among Thieves,” but that’s only because it isn’t really doing much of anything, either.
Without much knowledge of Hispanic culture, I can’t speak to whether or not this episode is true to life or too much a caricature in its setting. The episode definitely focuses on the more superstitious and religious aspects, all while Day of the Dead is apparently going on, which makes the entire episode teeter back and forth from feeling respectful to at least a little offensive. In its defense, Barry’s condescending attitude towards superstition is treated as ignorance, and Julio’s responses make it clear that we’re not supposed to really agree with him. The mildly blasphemous material plays both sides, too; I adored Murphy and Bellows singing while carrying a giant Jesus statue because I love Murphy and Bellows, but it’d totally be understandable to get a little offended by the sight. So the episode, conversely, makes sure any jokes against religion and superstition come from oblivious or ignorant characters rather than humor at the expense of those beliefs, and other characters (usually Julio) are quick to comment on that ignorance. And the most overtly superstitious character–the creepy owner of the shop who’s convinced Flash is a god–ends up being a helpful final piece of the puzzle to allow Barry to save the day.
It is, at least, admirable that The Flash has tried to explore the many cultures and subcultures of Central City, for better or worse. It’d be easy to keep this a show about typical white families and scientists and cops, as most shows are wont to do. But we’ve seen stories with the homeless and in Hispanic culture now, which lets the world of the show feel that much richer and bigger, even if they don’t necessarily handle them well. It’s always interesting seeing things like this explored in the 90s, because there seemed to be a genuine interest in widening diversity, even when the people behind it were kind of ignorant about it. Not that integrating diversity is much better on TV these days (and in some cases, arguably worse.)
Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard witness protection story buried underneath a VR lovefest. It’s not Virtual Reality exactly, but the pixelated visuals the villain sees when looking through Barry’s eyes and those freakin’ glasses are very much in line with typical 90s VR stuff on TV. I discussed much of the 90s obsession with VR technology in a post from my mostly defunct Gargoyles retrospective blog, and The Flash definitely plays into that “VR technology can do anything” trope. Silly as the designs and concepts may be, though, The Flash takes a surprisingly dark turn with it. Barry’s blackouts become increasingly frightening for him, and his shaken unraveling in the middle section of the episode is well-played by John Wesley Shipp. The episode does a nice job detailing the toll mind control would have on the controlee, then makes it even worse by revealing that the diode in Barry’s head will explode. This is an example of the show doing a great job at giving Barry problems that his powers can’t solve, and further supports how important Tina’s character is as his doctor in this context. The episode really only falters towards the end, where Barry–knowing his head could explode at any minute–suddenly becomes calm and collected again. It ruins much of the tension of the episode, even undercutting the striking and daring climax of a mind-controlled girl pulling a gun on her father.
For the most part, it’s all fine, but the issue with “Double Vision” is that it also isn’t really about anything. There are some bits about grappling with faith and spirituality. There are bits with Barry’s fears of losing himself. But neither coalesces into a real story; there’s a solid, coherent plot, but is it trying to say anything? If the show had been serialized or more plot-oriented thus far, it’d be more forgivable, but The Flash has excelled because every episodic story has had a point. Whether it’s some underlying message or theme, or it’s an exploration of its main character, even weaker installments like “Out of Control” asked us to consider another point of view about an issue, and “Honor Among Thieves” explored and resolved a specific aspect of Barry. “Double Vision” has bad guy make Flash almost get hit by a truck. Not much else to it.
Next Week: We’re gonna break for some Halloween Flashback fun, and then return on November 7 for a triple header: “Sins of the Father,” “Child’s Play,” and “Shroud of Death.”
Odds & Ends
- “Honor Among Thieves” has a character named Celia Wayne. That has to be a major faux pas to throw out the Wayne surname on a non-Batman DC show without it being a reference. Unless it’s supposed to be a very subtle, indirect Catwoman reference, as Celia is sorta kinda a jewel thief? …Nah.
- Julio talks a lot about dating and girlfriends and whatnot in these two episodes. I was half-expecting Celia to be a double fake-out and she turn out to be Julio’s girlfriend or something.
- At one point in “Honor Among Thieves,” Barry steals a bed spread from someone and throws it on top of a car to stop them. It’s the dumbest stunt this show has done.
- There’s a reference to “4th and Garrick,” showing that even in the 90s these things liked to throw out quick, cheeky comic book references.
- Seeing Flash finish off a bad guy with a bow and arrow is very funny considering where the current Flash series was spun-off from.
- The end of “Honor Among Thieves” humorously acknowledges how much damage fighting in a museum would be (Barry admits to “punching holes in a 500-year-old tapestry.”) This is extra funny/sad in light of what’s become kind of a controversy in the level of destruction porn superhero movies have nowadays.
- Lots more jokes in “Double Vision” about Barry’s eating habits than usual, for some reason.
- Okay, Tina refers to giving Barry a CAT scan, but I hope they’re not referring to that ultra-90s flashing-light multi-hula-hoop machine in S.T.A.R. Labs. Because that thing is the opposite of a CAT scan.
- Barry does (I think) his first bullet catch in “Double Vision.” Since this isn’t my forte, I’ll ask scientists on the internet: does this make sense that he could so easily catch the bullet without he himself being bulletproof? I presume the idea is that since he’s moving faster than the bullet, for him, there’s no force pushing against his hand, so would be just like grabbing something floating midair. But I also remember in Smallville, when Clark tried to superspeed catch a Kryptonite bullet, only for it to pass through his hand in full force. Is the assumption that Clark in that scene is simply not moving as fast as Flash (and maybe the Kryptonite slowed him down more?) The Flash has been surprisingly good about keeping the superspeed stuff relatively grounded, for the most part, so the bullet catch just seemed like a stretch on first viewing.
- “Will you can it?! …Just, cornbeef sandwiches, you know.”
- “I have to work on that backdraft thing. It’s hell with doors.”
- “Like voodoo?”
“…Yeah, but with a Spanish accent.”
- “You don’t press charges against the gods!”
“What does he mean?”
“He means you don’t press charges against the gods.”
- “Pinocchio’s a real boy now.” Oh…oh my god.