The mark of a successful long running television show is the way it can reinvigorate an old formula. TV is a medium that thrives on repetition, particularly in the American network model of broadcast. When a show is putting out 23 episodes a year like The Flash or Arrow they’re bound to fall into patterns, and hopefully those patterns are compelling enough to make tuning in on a weekly basis enjoyable. There’s a certain level of comfort to be found in returning to a show and having an idea of what you’ll be getting, but problems arise when a show can’t figure out how to make the usual feel, well, unusual. Even if it’s only a slight shift or change, making the expected feel new and exciting is the kind of trick that shows need to master if they’re going to have a long, creatively satisfying run.
“The Nuclear Man” isn’t a genre busting, wildly inventive installment of The Flash, but it does showcase some of the ways that the series is already pushing against the tropes and story beats that have been established by the series at the halfway point of its first season. Things start out in just this fashion, rather than a cold open with a simple bit of superheroics to get things started, the episode begins with Barry’s first date with Linda Park. During the date Barry is, predictably, called away by Cisco to help avert crises around the city. It’s not something entirely new, but it still mashes together two of the series’ storytelling engines, action fueled superheroics and melodrama powered relationship material, to comedic effect. It’s a way to subtly shift the tone of each type of scene while keeping things feeling of a piece with the series as a whole.
This kind of subtle shifting appears elsewhere in the episode as well. The bulk of the story deals with the team tracking down Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein, and while the episode at first seems like it will treat Ronnie/Martin more like a standard villain of the week, Dr. Wells even warns Caitlin that she needs to be on the same page as the rest of the team when it comes to stopping her increasingly dangerous fiancée, it shifts into a different form after an obligatory action sequence. Using Martin’s wife Clarissa the team is able to talk Martin/Ronnie into coming to S.T.A.R. Labs and working with them to try and sort out the situation he’s found himself in. It’s the kind of deviation that can’t occur too often, it’s hard to routinely mine drama out of villains who aren’t actively confrontational with the leads, but it’s a good shift of pace to let the team slow down for a bit and deal with a problem that can’t be solved with Barry’s fists.
Despite the shift in structure, there still does need to be some sort of climax for the episode, which comes from the revelation that Ronnie and Martin’s fused atoms are becoming unstable and threatening to explode with the force of a nuclear bomb. All of which leads to a scene well outside the city where Ronnie/Martin has gone to commit suicide in an attempt to prevent the damage his destabilized fusion will cause. The team works up a different plan that will attempt to split the two men apart from one another, a plan that ultimately seems to fail. Caitlin and Barry are forced to run, and in the best shot of the episode, we see Caitlin gazing back over Barry’s shoulder at the man who was her fiancée. It’s a shot that hits like a sledgehammer, in part because it repurposes one of the go to images of the series, the shot that depicts Barry running at speed via a stylized use of CGI effects, from that of excitement to sorrow. Danielle Panabaker’s heartbreak and the sadness that emerges from a shot that usually elicits the opposite emotion, makes the moment hit all that much harder.
It’s this kind of subtle reworking of standard elements of the series that lends the best portions of “The Nuclear Man” their strength. In fact, the portions of the episode that ultimately fall flat are mostly the same ones that The Flash has had issues getting to work all along; namely, just about any scene dealing with Barry and Iris’ relationship. Now that Barry’s seeing Linda it seems that Iris may be starting to develop some feelings for him, and that’s a storytelling avenue that continues to yield no dramatic dividends. Without some way to make this part of the episode feel new or exciting, Iris’ contributions continue to disappoint.
Luckily that kind of issue is in the minority here. The vast bulk of this installment is exciting, dramatic, and well handled. Tweaking the formula that The Flash has already established for itself just enough to tell a story that’s within the series’ wheelhouse while also allowing the episode to feel slightly different than other hours of the show. There are still elements of the series that The Flash is struggling to bring to life, but the creators of the series are managing enough things well that it’s increasingly easy to overlook the problems that persist. So long as the core of the series remains strong and periodically refreshed with smart twists to the formula, it should be easy to keep coming back to this show week in and week out for a good long while to come.