Tonight's season 3 finale of The Flash, titled "Finish Line," is the show's most important episode to date, and it has a lot more riding on it than just the life of Iris West.
The Flash, the higest-rated and best-reviewed of The CW's DC superhero shows, has taken a little bit of a hit this season: fans have grumbled about "yet another" speedster as the season-long big bad, and while the shift in focus at midseason helped derail some of the fan narrative that the title hero was causing time-travel problems through carelessness and selfishness, that progress was erased when it was revealed that a future version of Barry actually is Savitar, the villain Team Flash has been fighting all year.
It threw fuel on the fires of internet memes and thinkpieces that claimed, joking or not, that Barry was doing more harm than good, and raised questions about the character's direction.
In spite of our own tongue-in-cheek look at the phenomenon, though, Barry Allen isn't really "the worst," and he's going to prove it tonight.
The death of Iris West is the ultimate test for Barry as a hero, and as we saw in the season 3 episode "Once and Future Flash," history says he will fail that test.
Barry's failure, and the subsequent, desperate quest for power that transforms him into Savitar, is at the very heart of Savitar's plan -- and the thing that Barry must come to realize in tonight's episode is that the only way he can defeat Savitar is by embracing his inner hero and making sure that he never falls that far from grace.
In last week's episode, Captain Cold said something potentially very important: he said that Barry had to make sure not to lose himself trying to beat Savitar, and to be the hero.
The trailer for tonight's finale similarly asks whether a hero can survive when hope is lost -- and the whole premise for Savitar in the last few episodes is that the only way he could come to pass was it Barry became so hopeless and despondent that he literally stopped being the hero.
So "losing yourself" and "be the hero" in this scenario are actually much more literal than those phrases usually might be.
There are a few things to unpack there: first of all, there's the odd paradox that if Barry could somehow prevent himself from ever becoming Emo Barry from 2024, it's possible Savitar would never come to be, the time remnant would never be created, and he wouldn't go back in time to kill Iris. By simply embracing hope and finding his inner strength, Barry could stop Savitar from ever coming to pass.
As crushing as the loss of Iris will be to Barry and Team Flash, one has to assume that having seen the future, and what comes from him failing to stand by Wally and Joe, Barry is too much of a hero to consciously choose to allow that to happen.
Could that save Iris's life? It's hard to say: certainly by now, between this show and Legends of Tomorrow, we've seen a wide variety of different time-travel scenarios. This might be the first time anyone had pulled a Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure-style maneuver, where simply willing something to happen in the future caused it to happen in the past, but the logic holds up -- and it would be an interesting way to "reset" the season at the end of the finale. Where the season started with a huge mistake -- Barry creating Flashpoint by actively traveling to the past to change it -- ending it on a note where he managed to change the future by doing the right thing, and was in turn rewarded by the cosmos, would be a nice parallel.
Even if it didn't save Iris, though (somehow), there would be something really satisfying about Barry, having surrendered to despair at the end of season 2 and spent most of this season wallowing in self-pity and desperation, defeating his greatest enemy by simply standing firm and saying that he's had enough. There could also be a really interesting commentary on the nature of heroism to come out of the fact that it was Leonard Snart, of all people, who gave Barry the final push in the right direction.
As much as they're occasionally poo-poohed by the fans, this seems like a perfect scenario for one of those big emotional speeches that people like Supergirl, Oliver Queen, and Joe West like to make to rally the troops and remind everyone what the stakes are and what they're fighting for. It's ultimately hope, optimism, and heroism that will win the day for Barry; if he surrenders to darkness and mourning, all is lost.
Ultimately, though, this whole season has been about people who lose themselves in power and rage: it happened to Julian, and he bounced back. It happened to Caitlin, and that's a fight she's still fighting. And in order to make Savitar a reality, it has to happen to Barry.
And when and if he comes through, what's the reward, if Iris is gone anyway?
Well, most fans are expecting there to be some kind of misdirection there: a life-model decoy, another member of Team Flash somehow standing in for her...something. Obviously, Barry cannot know or else Savitar would know. If they were able to make the change without attracting Barry's attention, though, Iris's salvation could actually underline the importance of the themes we've been discussing.
Telling Barry about Iris's survival would be a huge boon to his morale, of course, and might put him in a better position to combat Savitar. The fact that Savitar would learn immediately is a complication -- and one that gives the writers an opportunity to address something potentially important: the idea that even after everything -- even after Savitar -- they inherently trust Barry.
It's the death of Iris that sends him on a spiral into darkness, but after having seen what comes from that darkness, it's difficult as an audience member to imagine him allowing himself to go down that path now that he's seen where it goes. He promised Iris that he would take care of her father if she died -- and then he saw a future in which he failed to do that and it cost him his relationship with Joe, and broke his surrogate father's heart. He promised himself -- and his older self, and Joe -- that he wouldn't make that mistake again if he lost Iris on Infantino Street, and it's necessary to his hero's journey that he's as good as that word.
Not telling Barry that they managed to find a way to rescue Iris, then, is a strategic move made by Team Flash to keep Savitar in the dark because they trust Barry.
They know that he's a hero, that he isn't the kind of guy The Dominators and Savitar and whoever else believe him to be, and it's that heroism that they know will ultimately come through and overcome the loss of Iris if they give him a chance to do so.
With nothing left to lose, Barry (Grant Gustin) takes on Savitar (also Grant Gustin) in an epic conclusion to season three.
David McWhirter directed the episode written by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing. It will air on May 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
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