This The Flash review contains spoilers.
The Flash Season 5 Episode 5
I’m worried that I’m starting to sound more like a broken record than usual, but I’m just gonna lay it out here one more time up front. If “All Doll’d Up” is an example of what an “off” week for The Flash season 5 is going to look like, then I think we are going to be just fine this year. This season has so far successfully balanced its necessary metas of the week with its main story (Barry/Iris/Nora) and its secondary story (Sherloque/Cisco/Caitlin), and I have yet to feel shortchanged by any of it. Even the villains of the week, often the bane of this show when not dealing with more recognizable Flash rogues have worked well in the context of the episode, and this week, the Rag Doll is the first this year that I genuinely hope we get to see more of, whether here or on another DC show.
While Rag Doll isn’t really much of a threat to a team that consists of two speedsters and a stretchy guy, he’s a terrific visual (thanks in no small part to actual contortionist Troy James doing the honors, although it’s Phil LaMarr providing his voice) and the icky sound effects that accompany his contortions are a nice touch. This is one of the more faithful visual translations of a DC Comics supervillain we’ve seen on the show in recent times, and his apparent “one and done” status here doesn’t quite hint at why certain fans are probably so excited to see him on screen (but I’ll get to that down in Flash Facts). But the eerie physicality of Tony James helps make up for the fact that Rag Doll is done of those baddies who is just here to give the team something to do while they work out their own problems.
Rag Doll himself gets a note perfect introduction. It’s the kind of thing that would have worked equally well had they chosen to introduce the character on Arrow, where I maintain that had they not decided to go with the expected Enlightenment-fallout/meta powers route with his powers he would have been a perfect fit. It helps that Rag Doll, unlike say, Spin or Block, has enough of a comic book pedigree to make him worthy of an intro like this, but even were that not the case, the horror movie tone of this scene was really terrific.
To that end, “All Doll’d Up” is kind of a slow, talky, relationship-heavy episode. It’s the closest we’ve come to genuine filler in some spots this season (was the slow motion dance at the party really necessary?) but it never meandered long enough to really make me feel like they were spinning their wheels. Lesser shows (or hell, some of these DC CW shows) probably could have tried to get an entire season out of Nora’s ambivalence about Iris, but here it’s resolved thanks to some clever “bait and switch” storytelling by Cecile. Should I have seen it coming? Probably. But given how I haven’t loved Cecile’s general track since she got her powers, her interactions with Nora here were a great reminder of why I love the character.
While Barry/Iris/Nora got their own work done, I was particularly impressed with Caitlin/Cisco/Sherloque. I still maintain that the “quest for Killer Frost” is far less interesting than the “quest for Caitlin’s dad.” I reserve the right to change my mind if they wow me with the former element as they continue to make progress with the latter. But the beauty of all of this is how (despite that diversion for “sad breakup Cisco” in the second episode of the season) it has re-centered how central the Snow/Ramon partnership is. In fact, Cisco’s arc right now is quietly the most compelling thing the show has going, and his struggles, paired with Caitlin’s quest, have really helped bring them back to where I feel they should be. Closing the episode on a quiet moment between the two of them was a really nice touch.
The genuine fun being had with Sherloque and Ralph is a bonus, and it’s nice to see a new pairing of characters emerging organically within the story. Tom Cavanagh and Hartley Sawyer appear to genuinely be having fun with each other, and it makes these scenes work. Similarly welcome is Ralph’s evolution into very much the Elongated Man of the comics. I’m not talking about the costume or even the ambitious (but not entirely convincing) special effects meant to showcase using stretching as a means of travel. I’m talking about Ralph the detective, and finally the Ralph who has shed the most irritating character traits of the previous season. I could have done without him actually swallowing Rag Doll, though.
After a traditional superhero action sequence to open the episode involving motorcycles and Nora’s continued carelessness/inexperience, Barry as Flash is relatively absent from the episode. But Barry as husband and father are front and center. In his first scene, his delivery of “at 10 am? That’s bold,” was the most Joe West line delivery imaginable, and Grant Gustin nailed it. They say we all become our parents, and all it took for Barry to turn into Joe was to discover he had a daughter of his own. I love it.
The rest of the episode doubled down on these more “adult” aspects of Barry’s personality, and I think it was to great effect. Whether it was his calm stoicism while teetering on a chair on the end of a building or his “you’re crazy, thank you, I love you” to Iris, I feel like this is a version of Barry Allen that is roughly one season overdue, and Gustin seems more than up to the challenge.
It’s rare that I find so many things to nitpick in an episode like this, whether it’s the villain of the week formula or the pacing, and still come away feeling especially positive about it. But like I’ve pointed out other times this year, so far, The Flash Season 5 feels balanced. In many ways, “All Doll’d Up” felt like a season one episode. There were no shortage of episodes like this, that made incremental progress on the overall story, and spent time with minor villains rather than the season’s big bad. But there was a novelty there that was lacking by season two, but perhaps because he’s a favorite of mine, or perhaps because he’s such a striking visual, Rag Doll was enough to hold my attention, even as there was never any real illusion that he was important to the bigger elements of the season five story.
My only concern right now is that, once you subtract the upcoming Elseworlds crossover episode, we’re fast approaching the mid-point of the season, and while Cicada has so far been a cool and credible threat, the writers have a real tightrope to walk between not showing us too much and not showing us enough. At some point, we need to get a real idea of what the stakes for this season are for everyone (Cisco’s are pretty clear at the moment), in order to make sure we don’t feel cheated like we were with the Thinker last year. I’m not going to think too hard on that just yet, though. So far, The Flash is doing everything right that I could hope for, and looking at the overall ratio of this show, there have been more good episodes than bad. That’s plenty of reason to give this season a long leash, and they’re earning that more and more with each episode.
Rag Doll himself is a villain dating back to the golden age of comics. Originally a Jay Garrick villain, the character was resurrected as a terrifying cult leader for a JSA flashback issue of James Robinson’s incredible Starman series. But that’s not the Rag Doll of this show.
Instead, this is more like Peter Merkel, Jr., created by Gail Simone and Deal Eaglesham (who get shout outs as the Eaglesham Apartments on Simone Avenue). That Rag Doll was a featured member of their incredible Secret Six book (seriously, go read it, because I can basically guarantee that the CBS TV series will have nothing to do with it whatsoever). Comics Rag Doll certainly isn’t a meta in the way this episode makes him, and TV Rag Doll can do things that comic Rag Doll can’t (sliding through grates, flattening his fingers, etc).
I don’t particularly love how this show uses specific events as meta-engines, but in the case of Rag Doll, it’s not the worst option. In the comics, to be more like his creepy ass father, Peter replaced all of his joints with ball bearings or whatever, and treated his skin with a substance that allowed him to do all of these things without his bones piercing his skin every time he made an unnatural movement. While I would be down to see that kind of origin explained on Arrow, I guess I get why they didn’t go with it here.
– One thing about that Rag Doll intro which is probably coincidental. The bit with the man and his wife and her trying on an impossibly expensive necklace right before a crime is committed reminds me very much of the first page of Batman #401, the second appearance of minor DC Comics baddie Magpie, and a weirdly underrated little gem of a Batman comic that has absolutely no bearing on larger Batman continuity.
– I don’t believe we ever learned the name of Rag Doll’s mother in the comics, so Theresa Merkel is new to me, although the strained relationship with his parents is right on target.
In addition to all that, the show has chilled out on deeper Flash and DC Comics lore in recent episodes, so I’m pleased to report that this one was absolutely packed with them.
– The arrogant architect dude is on the phone with someone named Novick, and I immediately thought of Irv Novick, an artist who worked on The Flash (not to mention a stack of other DC books) during his day.
– What does Iris’ crack about “most girls wanting to grow up to be Supergirl” mean in this reality? Has it ever been established that some characters from other Earths exist in fiction here? Or was she just kind of talking generally?
– Cisco speculates that Caitlin’s dad was trying to make “heavy water.” For a moment I got excited, as “hard water fumes” were the source of Jay Garrick’s powers in the original Flash origin story. I do not think these are meant to be the same thing.
– Cisco names the satellites Hal (after the Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Robbie (after Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet), Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Colossus. I’m pretty sure that Colossus is a deep cut referencing Joseph Sargent’s 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, about a supercomputer meant to prevent nuclear war, but please hit me up if I missed something really obvious.