This week, The Flash ushered in its sixth season with “Into the Void,” a low-key (despite what is technically a major threat) episode that shifts between a light-hearted and somber tone in the wake of last year’s tragedy. It also establishes what is likely the season’s central theme, introduces several subplots that will presumably return down the line, gets the main villain up and running, and plants some seeds for the looming “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” It’s all setup, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.
Black holes appear across Central City as Barry and Iris cope with losing Nora. Bits of Killer Frost emerge at inconvenient times for Caitlin. Cisco works on a machine that will enhance Barry’s powers. A friend of Caitlin’s asks her for a favor. Cisco enjoys life away from superpowers as much as he can. A series of decoys befuddles the team. Ralph investigates a missing girl.
“Into the Void” begins on the night of Nora’s death with a mysterious power surge in the Time Vault that eliminates her final message to her parents. It then jumps ahead several months to a high-speed chase, with the Flash in pursuit of Godspeed… or so he thinks. When Barry finally catches the enemy speedster, he’s revealed to be a decoy that emits a piercing tone from his mouth, which Cisco likens to a dial-up modem. Apparently, these Godspeed imposters have been showing up all summer, this being the fourth one to bedevil the team. The faux Godspeeds are never mentioned again, which seems like an odd narrative choice. I understand the impulse to start the season with an action beat, and obviously this will come up again in the future, but it feels off to begin the episode with something that not only isn’t resolved but will have no bearing on the rest of the plot, or even come back in a quick line or two of dialogue. It serves its intended purpose, however, and it’s a neat way to re-acclimate us to Barry’s powers.
There’s more to establish, however, and “Into the Void” lets us catch up with Barry and friends at a fun West family barbecue (where Joe does the grilling like a good patriarch). What’s striking about it is how fine everyone seems. Barry and Iris appear to have made peace with Nora’s death and console themselves in the knowledge that they’ll see her again one day and can stop her from her doomed trip through time. Cisco is happy to relax with girlfriend Kamilla and enjoy not having to go into action as Vibe. Caitlin is Caitlin; sweet, easygoing, mixing margaritas. Nobody would guess the traumas they’ve been through recently. Normally, this would be the calm before the big supervillain storm, but “Into the Void” goes in a different direction; none of these people are actually fine.
Barry and Iris seem to be dealing with their loss by not dealing with it. They assure everyone they’ve had their cries and have come to terms with it, but they’re just suppressing their emotions. Barry is losing himself in work by fighting crime in overdrive, with Cecile noting that the district attorney’s office can’t keep pace with him. He’s also lighting a fire under Cisco’s feet to develop something called the MAC, a device that will allow Barry to tap into the Speed Force and supercharge his brain so he can predict multiple outcomes to different scenarios and catch more villains quicker (no way this goes horribly wrong). Iris, meanwhile, is building up her burgeoning alternative news source, The Citizen, but she’s level-headed about it, letting Joe dream big for her. In place of work, Iris is finding herself attached to symbols – anything left that can remind her of Nora, like the XS jacket Joe accidentally discards and Iris hunts down at the junkyard. While Barry tells himself they’ll see Nora again, Iris knows in her heart that it won’t be the same Nora, and she’s got to cling to the one they knew any way she can.
Neither of these grieving methods is particularly healthy. Barry won’t allow himself to accept yet another loss, and Iris won’t trust herself to remember Nora. This results in Barry using every potential victim he encounters as a substitute for Nora and Iris almost being sucked into a literal black hole. “Into the Void” argues that a big part of why is because they’re not grieving together, instead trying to fix their pain on their own. But their pain isn’t their own; it’s shared between them, and it’s something only they can know because only they were Nora’s parents. And it’s as a couple that they face their grief properly. Iris gets Barry to admit that the Nora they knew and grew to love is gone and won’t be coming back, even if they’ll see another Nora again, and Barry shows Iris that, while symbols are fine, Nora’s memory is carried in their hearts, not in the objects to which they assign significance. Once more, the importance of Barry and Iris relying on each other is reinforced; losing Nora is another way for them to mature, and their growth in each other is heartening after watching their misery upon losing their daughter. Grant Gustin and Candice Patton are both spectacular, showing every ounce of humanity Barry and Iris have, even when they’re trying to mask it.
Caitlin is also dealing with loss, having watched her father die last season and attending a funeral for a friend’s mother in “Into the Void.” Now, she’s finding that Killer Frost comes out in what she calls “Frost Outs,” such as accidentally freezing keyboards. But when she tries to let Killer Frost out, her alter ego refuses to emerge. Her first assumption is that Killer Frost is afraid to die, but with Ralph’s help, she figures out that she’s getting the cold shoulder (you’re welcome) because Killer Frost is afraid to live, and is getting complacent with her dormancy because she feels all of the pain Caitlin has experienced. Just as she protects Caitlin from physical danger, Killer Frost wants to shield herself from experiencing loss and feeling as hurt as Caitlin does. She’s come a long way since being a villain, but the drawback of having a heart is getting it broken, and the next step in her evolution is learning to accept that. (There are definite shades of the Hulk/Banner divide from Avengers: Infinity War, though, fortunately, the resolution is much more satisfying this time.)
This puts them all in company with the villain “Into the Void” introduces, Dr. Ramsey Rosso. Ramsey is experiencing grief as well, having just lost his mother to cancer. He gives a eulogy that praises her for her grace in the face of death, but secretly Ramsey resents her for what he sees as surrender to the inevitable. Like Barry, Caitlin, and Cisco, Ramsey is a scientist, and he believes there is always a way out – just as Barry does. Ramsey thinks he has discovered a cure for cancer, but the lynchpin is Dark Matter, and when he asks Caitlin to get him some, she declines. Ramsey won’t accept that, of course, and, upon revealing that he has cancer as well, uses himself as the guinea pig and injects himself with his miracle cure, powered by some shadily-procured Dark Matter. And it works! But we leave him as he’s becoming a metahuman, the consequence of his will to live at any cost. Sendhil Ramamurthy is excellent as Ramsey, conveying his anger, pain, and arrogance with equal sincerity.
What makes this theme even more fascinating is that each of the characters represents one of the first four stages of grief. Barry is denial (“We’re gonna have kids someday, and then we’ll have another Nora”), Iris is depression (“I just miss her so much; every day, every minute”), Caitlin is bargaining (“Frost, you have always been there for me, protecting me; now I get to do something for you”), and Ramsey is anger (“She should’ve gone down fighting; instead, she ran away”). The goal for all of them is to get to acceptance, which Barry, Iris, and Caitlin all do. Ramsey, on the other hand, is too consumed with his anger to get past it, and if the ending of “Into the Void” is any indication, it’s about to turn him into a monster. (“I will never accept death. Not like you did.”) Further complicating matters is that the three good guys are all able to achieve acceptance because of others; Barry and Iris find the strength to move on in each other, and Ralph helps Caitlin and Killer Frost. But Ramsey has no one to help him; he reaches out to Caitlin but is denied. Will Caitlin feel responsible for whatever evil Ramsey is about to unleash because she refused to be the tether he needed?
That’s something I found confounding about “Into the Void.” Why is Caitlin so adamant about denying the world a cure for cancer because of the Dark Matter? She says people would be turned into metahumans against their wills, but why is that necessarily the case? As with the cure, why not tell everyone about the side effects up front and let them decide for themselves? It’s infuriating, but it leads to an interesting wrinkle: the bad guy is mostly right. Ramsey gives no indication that he wouldn’t let people know what to expect. When Caitlin enumerates the virtues of the metahuman cure versus the cancer cure, Ramsey quite accurately asks, “What about the rest of us?” Caitlin is being very unreasonable, and, barring unforeseen circumstances (which could be figured out through testing, which Ramsey wants to conduct), dooming people to die unnecessarily. There are a lot of ways this can be explored, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the now-regular-human Cisco has a different view than his best friend; perhaps he’ll feel like he’s being left behind now that he’s no longer a meta. While I think the setup is a bit shaky, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
The action sequences in “Into the Void” are not particularly noteworthy; there’ve been better and worse on The Flash. The final one, where Barry has to close the black holes while saving their source – an oblivious vlogger named Chester P. Runk – is made memorable not through the action, but the accompanying music, perfectly selected by a delighted Cisco. This is why I’m glad Cisco is no longer Vibe; he’s the audience surrogate, a superfan who reacts to the goings -on as we would. Making him a metahuman dampens that, and I’d rather have him doing stuff like this than assisting in battle. I do wish he was tied into the grief theme somehow, but the rest of it is done well enough that it’s difficult to carp. Barry’s determination not to sacrifice Chester to save the world brings back the Deontological ethics versus utilitarianism theme that has been with the show from the beginning; once more, Barry will not sacrifice the immediate good for the greater, and once more he’s right. I imagine Ramsey will have a different view as the season marches on, and that should be a fun battle of wits. One thing that’s bothered me for a while, though, is that those ethical arguments seem to stop at Cecile. When she gained the ability to read minds, it was immediately accepted as a good thing. No one has brought up the morality of invading people’s privacy in their most private of spaces. Cecile isn’t much of a character in general, and I find Danielle Nicolet hammy (in a genre that isn’t known for its subtlety), but if she’s sticking around, at least do something interesting with her. On the plus side, Tom Cavanagh is still in the opening credits, though he sits out “Into the Void,” as he’s done in premieres past. Finally, the stinger at the end portends doom for “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” making the wait for that mega-crossover all the more unbearable. There’s plenty to look forward to this season.
“Into the Void” is a strong opener for season 6 of The Flash, setting up what’s to come and reminding us of what the show is about at heart. Some of the plot points are a bit questionable, and Cecile drags things down a bit, but Grant Gustin and the rest of the cast are in top form, the villain holds much promise, and the hints at “Crisis on Infinite Earths” are tantalizing.