Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Flash 3x09 Review: "The Present" (You Will Be Haunted By Three Spirits) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]

“The Present”
Original Airdate: December 6, 2016

This week on The Flash, it’s Christmas! And in the spirit of the season, the episode is fashioned as a very loose echo of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. Because what’s a more perfect holiday story for The Flash to emulate than the one about the past, present, and future?

“The Present” reflects on a lot of Past and a frightening Future before settling on the comfort of the Present, of course. Live in the now, as they say.


The episode opens, fittingly, in the past. Somewhere in the Indus Valley four years ago, Julian Albert was pretending to be the most British Indiana Jones ever (he has a hat and everything!) while searching for a mysterious artifact. One of Julian’s research partners tells him that they’ve found something, and we later learn that this thing is the Philosopher’s Stone (because of course they made Tom Felton mention the Philosopher’s Stone). Julian’s flashback ends with a scream, a bright flash of light, and everyone but Julian dead.

And in the more present representation of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a specter of Dante is hanging around Cisco. When Cisco mentions this fact to Caitlin after the second or third Dante sighting, she brushes it off as Cisco mourning his brother around the holidays and that is just baffling to me. I’m not sure why characters on TV shows assume that real, seemingly solid ghosts manifesting in their day-to-day lives are just a sign of grieving but, uh. No?

Regardless, this Ghost of Cisco’s ties in with Julian’s story, as Julian’s trip to India four years ago was prompted by a visit from his dead sister’s ghost. Julian did something stupid out of mourning (seeking out the Philosopher’s Stone) and, since the same ghostly visitation is happening to Cisco, he’s also destined to do something stupid (freeing Savitar). And the fact that Barry’s Flashpoint mistake and Julian/Cisco’s re-awakening of Savitar are all terrible decisions made out of grief is not lost on me.


Fear shadows S.T.A.R Lab’s Christmas festivities, since the threat of Savitar is still hanging over everyone. Although Barry and Iris are trying to enjoy their first Christmas together as a couple, Barry can’t escape his responsibilities as a hero and much of his time is spent trying to figure out the Savitar situation. This includes speed-reading through Hindu mythology books and seeking advice from Jay Garrick of Earth-3.

They do manage to unmask Alchemy, though, and, surprise! It’s Julian, who gets locked up in one of those glass prisons at S.T.A.R. Labs. Julian has no recollection of being Alchemy and is very hostile toward the Flash. Thinking it to be the best way to earn Julian’s trust and get the truth out of him, Barry does some unmasking of his own and reveals his secret identity.

Once all that’s done, Julian admits to having blackouts — but there was a scene a couple episodes ago in which he very clearly recognized Savitar’s voice and the Alchemy mask, so... not buying it, buddy. You’ve either fallen into a lie or a plot hole, and I like to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s the former rather than the latter until they prove me wrong. I think you’re being sneaky. Ten points to Slytherin!

To his credit, Julian agrees to help Team Flash out in their mission to find Savitar. After Julian tells the story of how he followed the advice of his dead sister’s ghost and found the Philosopher’s Stone, only to be rewarded with a bunch of dead scientists and periodic blackouts for his troubles, the team devises a plan to use Julian as a way to channel Savitar. The scene is creepy sprinkled in with some funny, since everyone spends the whole thing not exactly understanding what’s going on.

Once Savitar has control of his Julian puppet, he makes it very clear that he’s displeased with Barry and, you know, wants him destroyed or whatever. Barry sure angers a lot of powerful entities, huh? Who woulda thought that a labradoodle puppy with speed powers could make so many people so mad.

Through Julian, Savitar informs Barry that several things will come to pass: someone will die, someone will betray him, and someone will suffer a fate worse than death. Or maybe they’ll mix and match those futures, who knows!


While Barry and Jay Garrick are getting rid of the Philosopher’s Stone by throwing it into the Speed Force, Barry gets knocked into the future. Even though getting rid of the Philosopher’s Stone should have also gotten rid of Savitar, he’s still around, and he’s got Iris. Barry watches as Iris tearfully tells Future Barry that she loves him before Savitar kills her, and there’s nothing either Barry can do.

Jay Garrick pulls Barry back from the future and yells at him for traveling forward, even though it wasn’t really Barry’s fault this time, so chill? Barry is understandably upset by the future death of Iris, but Jay Garrick tells him that there’s no point in being upset at the moment. The future can be changed by anything, and nothing a time traveler sees in the future can be certain. Apparently Jay Garrick doesn’t believe in fate and neither do The Flash's writers, which is an interesting stance to take on this sort of thing.

Jay explains to Barry that the reason why traveling to the future is even more frowned upon than traveling to the past is because the future is an uncertainty, and it’s a maddening uncertainty. Flashpoint proves that the littlest adjustments in a timeline’s past can knock everything askew. What, then, can be said about the future? Things could come to pass exactly as Barry saw them or he could meet up with Iris at a restaurant instead of their coffee place one morning and that tiny change could mean her living instead of dying at Savitar’s hands.

By further establishing the timelines of The Flash’s universe as delicate, mercurial things, the writers have reinforced the theme of this season: Barry's actions have incredible consequences. His desire to control things has consequences. His inability to put the bigger picture before his own feelings and fears has consequences.

As sad as I am at the prospect of Iris’s death, it makes sense for her to be the “one will die” of Savitar’s prophecy. Iris is the only person in Barry’s life whose death could genuinely tempt him into changing fate in a way similar to his decision to save his mother in last season’s finale. While the deaths of the rest of the team would hurt Barry deeply, the lesson he learned from Flashpoint would be too significant for him to contemplate doing anything as drastic as changing the timeline ever again. Iris, however — her death would actually send Barry to that same desperate place he was in when his father was killed by Zoom. Iris is, without a doubt, the most important person in Barry’s life at the moment.

And after seeing a terrible future in which the most important person in Barry’s life dies, Barry is given an opportunity to use what he learned from the past, face the problem thoughtfully, and do what he can without damaging the timeline or losing Iris or going mad with his vision of the future.

But, like, of course he's going to do the stupid thing, right? He's Barry and we gotta make sure those time travel breadcrumbs about the foiled bank robbery Barry overheard on the news report come back into play. I'm just saying, thematically, this has been an interesting development and I really hope I'm not giving the writers too much credit.

Other Things:
  • I like Wally a lot and I think Joe and Iris are more than a little overprotective, but he really does not seem mature enough to handle being a superhero right now. He’s a bit too excited about the thought of fighting powerful speed deities.
  • “One thing I’ve learned since coming to this Earth is you do not trifle with the West household.” Damn straight, H.R.
  • Haha, Savitar calling H.R. “The Fake Wells.”
  • “I’m gonna go have a mint tea and a coffee and a lay down.” I kinda really love H.R.
  • Wait, does Central City have freaking TV screens in their bus stops? What was that thing?
  • Iris dies “five months from now” — sounds like prime season finale time, if you ask me!
  • Bless H.R. getting drunk off eggnog: “The police!” Barry: “It’s not the police, we’re the police.”
  • My biggest laugh was Wally going “No, but really it’s about tiiiime” to Joe and Cecile, though.
  • Caitlin’s going to get involved with Julian and Julian’s going to turn evil and Caitlin. Never. Wins.
  • “I got you a wallet.” “I’m sure I’ll love it.” There was something so charming about both those line deliveries.
  • Barry and Iris are going to live together now, yay! How the heck did Barry get that lease when he had no job at the time he signed it, though?


  1. Flash has demonstrated over and over that events can be changed fairly easily whether Barry wants to or not. Ever since he discovered he could travel through time Barry has been changing events. Some changes don't seem to be a problem (saving Central City from a tidal wave for example). Some have major ramifications. I don't understand the difference and this leads me to believe that the Speedsters have no way of knowing ahead of time whether its okay to change things or not.

    Reverse Flash/Wells/Thawne certainly made multiple changes to his past but he always kept checking the future newspaper and talking to Gideon to get some idea of the repercussions of his decisions. He seemed very canny and knowledgeable about the whole process.

    With all of this Barry should be fairly certain that, like in Terminator, there is no fate. The future is not set but it is also completely unpredictable. No wonder thinking about or seeing the future too much drives people mad. Surely seeing all the ramifications but not being able to control all the knock-on effects of actions would make you so paranoid that you would second or third guess yourself constantly. I might be frozen into inaction through fear. That kind of future knowledge sounds super dangerous. But if Barry doesn't try to prevent bad things happening to people then what kind of hero is he? He can't look at every crisis in his present and wonder what will happen if he helps people.

    It seems that something have to happen a certain way and some are okay to change (very reminiscent of Doctor Who). And this makes sense (especially when you extend it out to a show like Legends of Tomorrow). If your hero can't take any action to change things but can only be a passive witness then you loose any agency and progression in your plot and your hero and that would be super boring to watch. If time travelling characters never DO anything then what is the point of watching them?

    1. A lot of media with time travel like to use the "fate" model of time travel, which is why I was impressed by The Flash going, "Nope! Literally anything could change the future you saw."

      I think others use fate because it's a good way to add in some angst and mess with the audience's minds. Like I said in the review, "time travel breadcrumbs" are an element writers love playing with: things like snippets of conversation, a person falling off a ladder, dropped coffee, or, as in this episode, that news report, that all come back (sometimes over and over) during the time loop, skip, jump, what-have-you. Those are usually critical to time travel plots and, by their nature as incredibly specific things that never change, feed into the fate model, even unintentionally.

      I think the fact that the show is really doubling down on its fateless timelines is why I'm starting to like this plot as much as I am. You're right in saying that they've been pretty consistent in the changeable nature of time, but I don't think it's been a main topic before and I don't think Barry's ever had to look at time the way he'll have to look at it now. I just hope the show doesn't mess it up by caving and having events play out exactly as we saw them in the episode.

      If they truly want to show the fickle nature of their universe's timelines, they should present Barry with a completely different -- but still exciting/dangerous/dramatic -- ending scenario than the one he's expecting. That, I think, would also be a good path to follow if they want Barry to actually learn to stop trying to force his will on the world around him.