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 11, “Beat the Clock”
Originally aired: January 31, 1991
The Flash sets out to prove the innocence of Julio’s close friend, a musician convicted of killing his songstress wife, but less than an hour remains before his execution.
It’s easy to go too dark with a show. People too often associate tragedy, horror, and angst with good drama or storytelling, and while that can certainly be the case, sometimes there are points when shows go too far and just suck enjoyment out of the whole ordeal.
“Beat the Clock” teeters very close to that at times, but it ultimately doesn’t cross the line. Even even still, this is an impeccably dark episode of The Flash, perhaps the darkest yet. But the way it handles the chilling, uncomfortable undertones is a triumph, and this is probably the most artful episode we’ve gotten. I just referred to as “Ghost in the Machine” as the best episode thus far, and perhaps that episode is more representative of the best t this show has to offer. But “Beat the Clock” is just a damn good story in general, a tour de force of incredible performances, intelligent and emotional musings on the justice system and the nature of evil, and a twisty mystery that manages to retain plausibility even while being quite convoluted.
The biggest strength lies in Jay Arlen Jones and Thomas Mikal Ford as Wayne and Elliot Contrell, respectively, with and on-screen relationship and performances that are leaps and bounds beyond the typical one-off guest stints. The tragic story of these two brothers is Shakespearean, almost too much so, but it works because of the strength of these actors. Wayne has calmly accepted his fate in the episode, but Jones makes sure he is not short on abject terror when facing his actual execution. Seeing him strapped to an electric chair, particularly with the rather archaic ways everything is hooked up, is the second most chilling bit in an episode that really heavily sells the tension. But the bit that tops it comes right before, in perhaps the best scene of the episode: Wayne apologizes to Elliot for all their childhood troubles, not knowing he’s apologizing to the brother who has caused all this. This is where Ford shines, as he has Elliot genuinely respond to Wayne’s outpour of emotion…but still sinks back into seething hatred for his brother. This is what’s so Shakespearean about their story; Elliot finds grains of truth to justify his villainous actions, in that Wayne may not have been the best big brother, and Elliot did get the short end of the stick in some way. But his jealousy and anger utterly consumes him until he’s a sociopathic monster who still thinks he can walk away from this at the end.
Evidence of him being a sociopath other than framing his brother? Well, there’s his murder of Suzy Storm, who is really only involved by chance so Elliot could kick off his convoluted revenge plot. Suzy’s painfully unnoticed disappearance is a small part of a larger, but very underplayed, commentary on the failures of Central City’s justice system; this isn’t just a innocent man on death row, but one sentenced for a murder that didn’t even happen. Even worse, there’s Elliot’s literal kept woman, Linda Lake, who he has been drugging for months and only allowing to be lucid when he forces her to sing. There’s no clear indication that Elliot took advantage of her sexually in this state, but the horror of this situation still evokes a similar uncomfortable feeling, just because of the vulnerable state Linda has been in for such a long time. Oh, and by the way, Linda Lake is played by Angela freakin’ Bassett, and man does Bassett have a phenomenal voice. All the music we hear of Linda’s totally lives up to the way people talk about her as something of a jazz goddess.
The music, and really, entire jazz motif as a whole, is a huge reason why this darker material isn’t a slog to get through. The melancholy throughout the episode feels like jazz itself, if that makes sense. Coupled with The Flash‘s typical darker lighting and heavier shadows, this episode just feels very dreamy and unreal, which covers up the fact that it’s pretty much a nightmare for everyone involved. The other piece that works are the main players; this is still a Flash story after all, and the episode never shies away from its central characters. Barry gets to fight a noir/comic book fusion villain in Whisper, whose scar and tragic “singer gets his throat slashed” origin would work well in either genre. But Alex Desert steals the show as Julio, turning the comic relief character into one with serious determination, anger, and pathos. It never feels false to see Julio at odds with Barry, and part of that has to do with some light finally shed on his backstory. Julio is officially a full-fledged character with this episode, and it’s just another piece that works in an impeccably tense, engaging, and thrilling hour that resonates, even if it’s a bit emotionally exhausting.
Episode 12, “The Trickster”
Originally aired: February 7, 1991
A crazed killer, who fancies himself a sort of evil magician called the Trickster, vows to defeat the Flash so he can have the Flash’s new girlfriend.
There’s a bit of whiplash jumping from “Beat the Clock” into “The Trickster.” My minuscule knowledge of the show going into this was that it wasn’t until after the midpoint that it got “good,” at least for comic book fans. This happened as it started using Flash’s comic book rogues gallery, presumably in an effort to bring in more ratings, and that all started with The Trickster. It’s been surprising seeing how comic book-y and weird (but good!) The Flash has been up until now without the rogues gallery, since many of the villains seem like down-to-Earth adaptations of comic book characters. While that’s made this show a bit more entertaining for me because of it, that also lessened some of my interest going into “The Trickster.” We all love Mark Hamill as The Joker, so it’s no doubt that he’d live up to the hype in live action, but could this episode really be the turning point it was teased as?
Well, yes and no. Tonally, this actually isn’t the weirdest and wackiest the show has gotten–that merit still belongs to “Child’s Play.” But this episode hinges on the idea of The Trickster as the first costumed villain, in that he puts on colorful tights and a mask to match his gimmick. The implication that the characters consider is if this only happens because The Flash did it first. There’s a common theme in superhero media, where the hero accidentally creates the villain, and “The Trickster” plays with it rather cleverly. There is no doubt that James Jesse is a total loon, but does that excuse the idea that he only becomes this dangerous gimmick to match The Flash? It’s part of his psychosis, as evidenced by the end of the episode where he claims he’s The Flash, that he picks up and exaggerates the traits of the people he obsesses over. So he would have done this with anyone…but even then, that The Flash is a brightly-costumed superpowered vigilante is still a fact we can’t overlook. In the end, Megan posits that it doesn’t matter how responsible for The Trickster Barry is, because James Jesse was crazy and homicidal to begin with. What matters is that Barry received superpowers so he could stop men like Jesse, and the rest of the facts are moot.
The characters are really what make “The Trickster” work, because there isn’t much of a plot. A crazy person “falls in love”–or rather, becomes obsessed with probably murdering–Megan Lockhart, then gets mad when The Flash saves her, swears he is his nemesis, and shenanigans ensue. Mark Hamill is as expected here; he’s sort of a proto-Joker, with a less devious and maniacal voice, a loonier twang, and extremely grandiose gestures and movements. Hamill totally revels in the camp, but somehow miraculously doesn’t seem to be chewing the scenery much of the time. James Jesse just seems really, legitimately crazy, even if it’s a very TV kind of crazy that let’s him also be kind of disturbingly whimsical. The interesting differentiation between this version of The Trickster and Hamill’s very similar animated performance of The Joker is that Joker always has a menacing slant to every joke and gag. Everything Joker does in Hamill’s iteration is rooted in evil, somehow, and even the lightest bits with him are at least a little bit scary. Trickster is different in that he legitimately doesn’t see what he’s doing as wrong, it’s just a profoundly twisted and cartoonish way he views the world. That makes him even more menacing at points, because he’s utterly unpredictable. He murders that terrified novelty store clerk in cold blood, and Megan is visibly shaken throughout this entire ordeal, but…he also says “To the Trickster mobile!” and does it totally earnestly. It makes him more fun to watch, but the episode doesn’t lose sight that he’s the most psychopathic criminal on the show yet. It’s also worth noting that Hamill is great in Trickster’s disguises; I honestly wouldn’t figured out it was him as the FBI agent for a while if it weren’t for the awful fake teeth. But the actual performance is spot-on.
Megan Lockhart is still really awesome, and Joyce Hyser has great chemistry with Barry. She gets tons of snappy one-liners (see many of them in Odds & Ends) and gets loads of moments to be worthy of her unofficial “Flashette” sidekick role. In addition to some fabulous continuity (including references to old villains Barry faced), there’s also wonderful character work in the love triangle between Barry, Tina, and Megan. The Flash has done a decent job with its love triangles so far, with the initial Barry/Iris/Tina triangle not that intrusive before slinking away, and this one actually toying with some known character traits. So far, it’s been hard to pin down Barry and Tina’s relationship; “Out of Control” sort of jumpstarted the will they/won’t they, but since then, we honestly haven’t gotten much of it. There are little glances and lines here and there, but Tina has primarily only been with Barry as support for his heroics. “The Trickster” calls this into question, in that both Barry and Tina are somewhat aware of the mutual attraction, but refuse to acknowledge it for the sake of the other.
In this case, it makes Barry out to be kind of an idiot and a dick for not picking up on the myriad of ways he totally screws over Tina, but it’s not totally out of character, either. These two have spent months as partners and friends, and as Barry’s superspeed tossing and turning and heavy breathing suggests, he’s still been hankerin’ for some lovin’ whether Tina is around or not. So Megan offers a feasible option to get what he wants without wrecking the friendship with Tina, but he doesn’t realize how much he’s putting Tina out. And Tina tries really hard to be an adult about it–even offering to forgo the costume dance so Barry can go with Megan–until Barry just reaches critical mass with the oblivious dickishness. Amanda Pays’s stern acting works out really well in this situation, because even in scenes where she’s upset, she never gets pouty about it. That makes it even more of a gut punch when we realize Tina is upset, like when she leaves without her croissants or throws out sarcastic remarks. This isn’t a matter of Barry trying to juggle or choose between two women, this is a matter of Barry just giving in to his desires, Tina’s struggle to not be too hurt by it, and Megan’s question of commitment. It’s a whole lot of relationship stuff to cram in an hour that also introduces a primary villain, but it fits in as a foil to The Trickster’s demented view of “love.”
There’s just a lot to talk about in “The Trickster,” and it’s fantastic. While previously The Flash has succeeded by playing with different genres and larger themes, this is the first instance of taking established characters and creating a narrative around them. Everyone is well-defined and plays an important role, and everyone comes out just a little bit different at the end. At the midpoint of the show, that’s exactly where it should be. But it’s also sad to think now that there’s less than half a season left, because this show really is developing nicely.
Next Week: Tina (finally) gets a real spotlight in “Tina, Is That You?”, followed by “Be My Baby.”
Odds & Ends
- So, do executions ever actually happen at the stroke of midnight?
- Why does Barry wait so long listening to a man get strangled over the phone before he superspeeds away?
- I’m sorry, but when I hear the name of Linda Lake, I’ll never not think of Tori Spelling’s campiest ever stint on Smallville.
- Appreciate that Barry very nearly reveals his identity to Julio in a moment of crisis, especially given the frustrations of “Shroud of Death.”
- Noted problems in “Shroud of Death” aside, is it just me, or does The Flash use its female characters better than a lot of shows nowadays? Tina is seldom ever the damsel and has only just now started to actually act marginally like a love interest, after spending half a season as Barry’s primary confidante and superhero partner. Megan is just a badass constantly, and that she gets to be the one to leave Barry for her own issues completely unrelated to his is fantastic.
- On a less socially observant note, Amanda Pays’s hair game is on point in “The Trickster.”
- Love the bits about Barry running so far (150 miles) that he uses up a ton of energy and risks blackouts and muscle fatigue. The potential physical toll is something this show has done really well, while the current Flash series hasn’t done much of anything with the concept.
- There was already a lot to talk about in “The Trickster,” but it’s worth touching on: the entire subplot with Bellows suspecting Murphy to be The Flash is adorable and perfect. Also, Murphy singing is always a good thing.
- Nice attention to detail that few people have seen The Flash up close, so people wanting to do a Flash costume would get it all wrong (and they do.) It results in some really creative designs.
- Hamill has some solid Rocky & Bullwinkle imitations, but I wonder if doing the cartoon voices is taking the shenanigans a bit too far.
- “Did you see his eyes? They were like tiny black holes.”
- “Every loon in the three-mile radius has got to have a case for costume envy.”
- “Don’t blame yourself, blame society. Welcome to postmodern America.” – What the hell is she taking about?!
- “Okay what about the statue angle?”
- “At least you’re not sublimating your sex drive with food anymore.”
- “It was a joke, sir.”
“I have no sense of humor tonight.”
- “I’m sick of this cartoon crap!”
- “This harlequin bondage stuff does not suit me.” – Did The Flash writers predict the creation of Harley Quinn?