One of the hardest things for a TV series to do over the long run is to remain consistently inventive and exciting. Particularly in the American network model of television where most series are turning out upwards of twenty episodes every season it’s exceedingly difficult not to exhaust creative avenues before too long. The Flash hasn’t really come up against this issue yet, this week’s episode is only the fifth ever so it would be pretty damning if things had already started to stagnate, but despite the fact that it’s early yet “Plastique” still manages to take important steps to demonstrating that the folks behind the series are aware of how to vary their storytelling and to tap into situations that exploit the material they’re working with to create new, and compelling plots.
On a basic level “Plastique” manages to alter things by allowing the metahuman to play a more sympathetic part. Unlike the first four episodes, this week’s metahuman isn’t an out and out villain. Bette/Plastique is a tragic figure whose past as bomb specialist comes back to haunt her when she’s exposed to the S.T.A.R. Labs explosion, activating shrapnel left in her body from her time overseas and causing her to turn anything she touches into an explosive. Unlike Barry, whose powers are mostly positive, Bette’s powers are debilitating. Cutting off any hope of human contact and turning her into a living weapon. Before long Bette’s been brought into S.T.A.R. and is cooperating with the team in the hopes that her abilities can be better understood, and potentially cured.
It’s a significant shift from the structures of the previous episodes which have pretty plainly built themselves around chasing a villain with nefarious motives and ultimately thwarting them and their plans. To make up for the lack of a villainous metahuman the episode tosses in another character, General Eiling, who has a past with Dr. Wells. Eiling’s intent on tracking down Bette and studying her abilities to further his own, presumably not so noble, causes. Ably played by Clancy Brown, Eiling pushes the episode’s plot along while Bette’s non-combative meeting with the core team allows the episode to focus on more character focused concerns about what it means to be a metahuman and how both Barry and everyone else who was caught in the blast have been changed.
Not only is the episode’s structure shifted, but the actual plot mechanics of “Plastique” break new ground for the series. In previous weeks there have been tags which have showcased Dr. Wells and his shrouded motives and knowledge of the future. They’ve been mildly intriguing, mostly because they’ve shown a side of Dr. Wells that doesn’t really come out in most of the series. For the majority of each episode’s runtime Dr. Wells is a light, cheery presence with just a hint of the stern father emerging whenever necessary. But for a few minutes at the end of each episode Dr. Wells shifts to a darker figure, murdering a threat to Barry or musing over an ominous newspaper from the future.
It’s an intriguing concept, but it had already begun to grow stale by the end of the fourth episode, mostly because we weren’t learning anything new with each new tag, just having what we’d already discovered reiterated. Dr. Wells isn’t what he seems, and his motives may be darker than we suspect. The actual content of the tags may have changed, but what they told the viewer remained the same. In “Plastique” though, the darker side of Dr. Wells emerges within the episode proper. After the S.T.A.R. Labs team has told Barry that they can’t help Bette or bring her on to the team, Dr. Wells meets with Bette alone and encourages her to kill General Eiling. It’s a smart way to deploy Dr. Wells’ dark side as it actually does something to motivate the plot and move things forward rather than just hint at future developments.
“Plastique” does more than just change up the formula of the story this week though. It’s an episode that seems wholeheartedly focused on finding new ways for Barry to utilize his powers. Whether it’s in the early moments of the episode as Barry rushes up the side of a building to save a dangling window washer or later on when Barry modulates his vocal chords to mask his voice while talking with Iris, just about everything in this week’s episode is intent on breaking new ground and discovering new ways for Barry to interact with the people in his life.
It all culminates in Barry having to save Central City by trying something he’s never done before, running on water. Barry’s forced to do so when General Eiling fatally shoots Bette and her dying body begins to show signs of an oncoming explosion. Barry can think of no other solution than rushing her outside of the city to the surrounding body of water, and he manages to do just that, discovering a new use for his super speed in the process. It’s a strong sequence, and it’s made even stronger by the fact that it’s simply something we haven’t seen on the show up to this point. It’s an unknown for both the viewer and Barry, which makes it all the more exciting.
What this week’s installment of The Flash manages to prove is that there are a myriad of ways to present stories in this world and also a whole lot of new avenues for exploration when it comes to Barry and how he utilizes his powers. It’s the kind of thing that’s heartening to see precisely because it’s this kind of invention and subtle shifting of plot and structure which allows a TV series to remain fresh and vital as it continues to air. Sure, things are still early yet, but “Plastique” proves that the folks working on this show are adept at figuring out how to keep things new and exciting rather than just running in circles, repeating the same basic beats week in and week out.