On paper, an episode titled “The Runaway Dinosaur” directed by Kevin Smith suggests The Flash has gone completely off the rails, but in practice, it’s far from the worst case scenario. There’s no actual dinosaur rampaging through Central City, just a metaphorical one in a children’s book that helps Barry finally come to terms with his formative trauma. The episode doesn’t exactly advance the Zoom storyline, given that he doesn’t appear until the last two minutes, and that could have been a big problem given that there are only two hours left after this one. Instead, The Flash takes a page from the Sopranos playbook by delving into its main character’s psyche as prelude to the fireworks presumably to come.
That’s not to say The Flash achieves anything close to the kind of layered, abstracted deep dives into the subconscious Tony Soprano used to take, but if the net effect is to pull Barry (and by extension, the rest of the show) out of the moody doldrums of recent weeks, this is a worthwhile existential trip. The writing is corny and on-the-nose, but Grant Gustin’s acting sells it anyway; his reciting of memorizes passages from The Runaway Dinosaur in the presence of the being that isn’t really his mother (except maybe a little bit?) couldn’t have left many dry eyes in the house.
“The Runaway Dinosaur” also works as an expansion of the Flash mythology, at least as far as the television series is concerned. We’ve learned little about the Speed Force to this point, but after tonight’s episode it’s clear that it’s a lot more than simply a turbo-charge for the chosen ones. It has a consciousness and an ability to present itself in any form it chooses. This is a sci-fi trope (a Star Trek standby, in particular), but it’s an effective one, and as with the first Earth-2 episode earlier this year, it’s fun to see the regular cast try on different personas. In this case, they’re all playing variations on the same persona, that of the omniscient but (seemingly, at least) benevolent being guiding a hero to his true path. Still, this being cycles through the guises of Barry’s loved ones for a purpose, drawing out the emotions Barry associates with each one of them and thereby bringing him closer to his goal.
A whole episode of this sort of thing would have been a bit much, so it’s a good things the STAR Labs crew has its hands full with one crisis after another. While Wally wakes up right away following the accelerator blast and seems to have suffered no speed-related effects (RIP Joe’s coffee cup), Jesse is a coma. While searching the morgue for information on how Wells treated Barry during his coma, Cisco and Iris learn that Girder (Barry’s former high school bully Tony, you may recall from season one) has been zombified by the explosion. It’s a nice change of pace to see Cisco and Iris working together to try to defeat a metahuman when Barry isn’t around to help, so it’s kind of a shame that their efforts boil down to hiding behind a big door until the Flash gets back.
Which he does, with an assist from Iris. Once Barry has come to terms with both his mother’s death and the fact that he let her die again when he had the chance to save her, Cisco vibes into the Speed Force with Iris as a tagalong. It is she who takes his hand and pulls him back to reality. (Where his physical body has been all this time is one of those things that probably doesn’t bear close examination, although I’m sure someone with a Ph.D. in the comics can explain it.) In their final scene together at Nora Allen’s grave, the Barry/Iris relationship takes at least a tentative step toward feeling real and not something imposed on the show by decades of comic book mythology.
As for Kevin Smith’s direction, it’s never much of an issue one way or another. This is not an auteur who was hired for his legendary visual verve and action chops. This is the guy who hosted that godawful TV special previewing the DC Universe movies. He’s a DC nerd and he’s a name, but aside from giving Jason Mewes a cameo as a dude whose mother’s Humvee gets destroyed by Girder, it’s not as if he imposed his signature style on the show. The Kevin Smith touch, whatever you think of it, comes from his writing, and he didn’t write this. The humor in the STAR Labs scenes comes off broader than usual, but other than that, he delivers a Flash episode that feels more or less like a Flash episode. After a few dreary weeks, that’s accomplishment enough.