One of the most surprisingly canny aspects of The Flash is how it’s not the first television series to bear that name. It was a mildly unexpected decision to cast John Wesley Shipp, the actor who previously portrayed Barry Allen, as Barry’s father, but it’s a decision that has paid dividends. Both in that Shipp’s a fine father figure and in how it has allowed The Flash to get away with more and more recasting of actors who appeared on the previous series. “Tricksters” is the boldest example of this strategy yet, going so far as to steal an actor, character, and even images from that original series for use in the modern series.
Mark Hamill reprises his role as James Jesse, aka The Trickster, and highlights how this new series’ decision to not shy away from its televisual forbear has lent the series a wonderful sense of history to go along with its already dense web of comic book connections. The Flash is doing a surprisingly good job of mimicking the reference laden source material it is cribbing from, and it’s doing so in a variety of ways; the obvious, in that it’s a spinoff of Arrow, and the less obvious, by bouncing off prior representations of these characters in the medium of television. It’s clever work that has lent this young series a surprising sense of history that feels akin to the packed worlds of DC and Marvel comics despite having far less material to draw from.
This sense of history is exactly what makes the episode so compelling. Every plot line utilizes some sort of material that traces lineages, whether it’s the father-son dynamic of Barry and Henry, the new Trickster taking the identity of the older villain, or the backstory for exactly how Eobard Thawne became Dr. Wells. Everything is built around the assumption that this is a universe that didn’t simply begin with the creation of The Flash. It manages the trick wonderfully, simultaneously expanding the world while remaining focused on Barry’s journey forward.
The key is that the episode is rooted in Barry’s growing mistrust of Wells. After the last episode he’s certain that Wells is lying to him, and by episode’s end he’s similarly certain that Dr. Wells is the Reverse-Flash. Barry’s right, and by building the episode around this growing schism it finds fertile material, both in the disintegrating relationship between the two key players and in the ways it bounces this disintegrating relationship off the strong father-son dynamics that emerge between both the heroes and villains.
The episode manages a particularly deft feat when it comes to The Tricksters of the title, at first Hamill’s wonderfully camp performance sells James Jesse’s utter anguish over being usurped, only to reveal that it’s a ruse and that the younger Trickster is working at the behest of Jesse, and that, even more unexpectedly, he was selected as The Trickster’s protégé because he’s Jesse’s son. The material isn’t overplayed, but that’s because it doesn’t need to be overelaborated upon. The important kernel of the plot is the bond between these men in contrast to the betrayal that Barry feels from Dr. Wells. Featuring Henry as prominently as the episode does only serves to heighten the bonds of family and allow for more moments fraught with tension once Henry meets Dr. Wells and winds up lauding him for his work with Barry.
It’s a moment that lands so well because the episode has both generated enough thematic heft to carry it forward while also managing to fill in Wells’ backstory in such a way that both reinforces Thawne’s evil nature and gives Wells history a tragic tinge. It turns out that Thawne isn’t just hiding behind a fake name, he killed and assumed Dr. Wells’ life fifteen years ago. The crash that killed Dr. Wells’ wife was also the moment when Dr. Wells died as Thawne took his appearance and his life in an effort to speed up his development of the particle accelerator, which was originally completed years later in 2020. It’s a crushing moment, partially because the effects used to represent Dr. Wells’ demise are particularly gruesome but also because it represents the final confirmation that despite Dr. Wells’ seemingly possessing at least some small measure of good, he truly is not the man the viewer hopes him to be. He is Eobard Thawne and his only concern is to return to home, and he’ll do anything to accomplish his goal.
“Tricksters” nails just about everything it does; building a solid, entertaining main story, layering in impressive thematic beats, and filling in the blanks of the show’s past. All the while showcasing the series’ signature action sequences, the cold open giving us a better view of Barry and Thawne’s fight on the night of Nora’s death is a visual knockout, its wonderfully over the top villains, and the series’ sense of how much fun these kinds of stories can be. It’s an episode that moves beautifully, hitting just about every beat one could hope for as the first season of this show heads confidently towards its end point. It’s a mild wonder that we’re only seventeen episodes into this series; it feels like a show that’s been around for much longer.