Barry Allen meets the strangest speedster of all.
Warning: This review contains full spoilers for The Flash Season 5, episode 1, titled “Nora.” For more on The CW’s superhero shows, check out our spoiler-filled interview with Black Lightning star Cress Williams and the first look at Ruby Rose as Batwoman.
The Flash had its most uneven year to date last season, with a promising new pair of villains undone by an overall muddled overall storyline and some extremely frustrating character changes. If ever the show needed a fresh start, it’s right now. So it’s unfortunate that Season 5 breaks The Flash’s usual trend by picking up exactly where Season 4 left off. So far, Season 5 doesn’t look to be a huge departure for the series, and that’s cause for concern.
To be fair, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to introduce Jessica Parker Kennedy’s Nora West-Allen in the finale and then immediately jump forward in time three months. This episode is very much about the immediate fallout of that reveal and the awkwardness that comes from Barry and Iris meeting an adult version of a daughter they haven’t even conceived yet. It’s sort of a Catch-22 situation in that there’s no perfect way to move forward from the Season 4 finale.
The good news is that Nora’s debut is one element that does seem to be working in the show’s favor at this early stage. It was hard to get a strong sense of what Kennedy could bring to the mix in Season 4, given how sporadically and briefly her character appeared. But this episode shows that she has the right energy and personality to hold her own alongside the core Team Flash cast – displaying an engaging blend of awkwardness and charm in her performance.
Better still, the premiere is successful in establishing a bond between father and daughter. Less so when it comes to the pained, uncomfortable dynamic between Nora and Iris, but that’s clearly intentional. We see early on that Nora idolizes her father, but it’s only late in the game that we come to understand why. She’s spent her whole life trying to live up to the example of a father she never really knew. This is both her chance to make up for lost time and to possibly rewrite the future so she never has to grow up missing a parent. Honestly, if a speedster mucking with time is going to be one of the show’s big plot catalysts again, at least someone other than Barry is the culprit for a change.
I have a lot of concerns about the writers adding another speedster to the mix, especially with certain existing characters continuing to be so poorly served (more on that in a bit). But I am feeling somewhat more optimistic about Nora’s role in the series thanks to this episode. More than anything, it’s great to see the callbacks to Season 1. Barry borrowing Eobard Thawne’s own words to help coach Nora through her first phasing attempt made for a great moment in the final climax. And it’s also nice to see the “Flash Missing: Vanishes in Crisis” headline coming back into play. It’s hard to say right now whether this season is building to that Crisis or if that’s more a long-term goal for the series, but it’s an intriguing plot development regardless.
So in a lot of ways, things do seem to be looking up for The Flash. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other reminders that the series has chronic difficulties in juggling its ensemble cast. For one thing, it’s clear that the Killer Frost storyline will be soldiering on in the same direction this year, which is most definitely not a good thing. The series has really struggled to push Caitlin forward following her fall from grace in Season 3, which thus far has involved pulling a complete 180 and transforming Killer Frost into Caitlin’s disembodied BFF. Dragging Ralph into that story doesn’t seem like the best move for either character. One of the early goals for the series this year needs to be finding a clear place for Ralph and establishing why he needs to remain a regular part of Team Flash.
Then there’s poor Wally. He fared worse than any character in Season 4, as the writers couldn’t seem to find a place for him at all. It was a relief when Keiynan Lonsdale made the jump to Legends of Tomorrow, but apparently it was too much to hope for that to become a permanent arrangement. Now Wally is back in Central City and just as adrift as ever. No matter how much the writers lean on characters like Joe to justify Wally’s need to leave Central City and “find himself,” it always rings hollow. Lonsdale and his character both deserve much, much more than this series has given them. And for that reason, it’s hard not to resent Nora’s presence on some level.
On the villain front, “Nora” doesn’t break any new ground with Daniel Cudmore’s Gridlock. This is actually Cudmore third go-round as an Arrowverse villain (having played Jackhammer on Arrow and done some motion capture work as Gorilla Grodd in Legends of Tomorrow). Unfortunately, his character proves to be the standard season premiere plot catalyst. You almost have to wonder why this episode includes a villain at all. Given how much the climax hinges on that epic plane rescue, wouldn’t it have been just as easy to have Team Flash respond to a simple crashing jetliner?
The only real purpose Gridlock serves is to set the stage for Season 5’s main villain, Cicada. It’s tough to judge Flash’s latest arch-nemesis much based on that lone scene. For now, Cicada seems like a pretty standard remix of familiar Arrowverse tropes – the full-body costume, the disguised voice, and the personal vendetta fueling his killing spree. It’s good to see the series avoiding a speedster villain for another season, but hopefully there’s a lot more to Cicada than meets the eye so far.
Finally, it’s probably worth touching on the revamped Flash costume introduced this week. The Season 4 suit seemed like a step down from previous versions, mainly because of its plastic-y texture. The new suit feels like a return to Season 1 and 2-era design sensibilities while still embracing the generally more goofy and comic book-faithful tone of the current Arrowverse. It’s not quite a “best of both worlds” situation. The mask in particular seems a little wonky. But hopefully it’s a design that’ll grow on me over the next few weeks. At the very least, seeing the Flash ring finally make its debut is a huge plus.