The Flash's episode "The Once and Future Flash" followed in that grand tradition of speculative fiction narratives that see a hero travel to the future and find the darkest possible timeline. Sentinels have taken over, or the Federation is being soundly beaten by Klingon Empire (or the Romulans, take your pick). In this case, as is the basic trajectory of The Flash now, Barry (Grant Gustin) found a pretty sad state of affairs in 2024.
And why shouldn't it be sad? If there was one thing that "The Once and Future Flash" did a very good job of showcasing, it was that Iris (Candice Patton) is the rock upon which Team Flash has been built. She keeps the West men and Barry from falling prey to their vices of gung-ho bullheadedness, in Wally's (Keiynan Lonsdale) case, or emotional self-destruction, in Barry's case — the latter of which led to Joe (Jesse L. Martin) spiraling and Cisco (Carlos Valdes) becoming a shell of his former self without his BFF, made all the worse by Killer Frost (Danielle Panabaker) cold blasting off his hands. Julian (Tom Felton), meanwhile, was forever atoning for his sins by watching over Killer Frost in prison.
While things seemed to be going pretty well for H.R. (Tom Cavanagh, who also directed this episode), now a coffee shop owner and scientific romance writer who is just catnip to the ladies, the overall effect was that without Iris, everything just went to hell. Sure, Savitar was eventually tossed into the Speed Force jail, and Future Barry occasionally suited up to stop bad guys when he wasn't busy as the opening act for My Chemical Romance (props TVGuide.com's Nick Campbell for that jab), but, basically, Iris was the glue keeping all these dummies together.
There's something powerful about that, even if the episode didn't make a big enough deal of it. Iris' importance runs through the episode, but it ultimately becomes about these broken men finding their ways back to themselves and each other thanks more to present-day Barry being inspirational (when he wasn't trying to leave them all behind), than remembering, eight years after her death, that Iris wouldn't have wanted any of them to be like this.
So this ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visitation proved the importance of Iris, but it was also a pretty pointless sojourn as well. The show, hopefully, is never going to actually set itself down this particular road by killing Iris, and so when Team Flash does manage to stop Savitar this season, this timeline will be erased (probably; I still don't have a firm grasp on time travel consequences in the Arrowverse, and I've watched every episode of Flash and Legends of Tomorrow), thus canceling all the emotional turmoil. Future Cisco doesn't realize that, hey, if they just help Present/Past Barry stop Savitar in 2017, then this hellish Central City doesn't occur. He'll always have his best buddy instead of trapping a version of him in the future.
And that's what made all of this sort of dull at the same time. The performances, direction and writing kept the episode moving, despite the fact that it would've taken one line of dialog to render the entire nature of it utterly moot. "Hey, no, we don't know who Savitar is. Still. Yeah, crazy, right? But here's this tour of emotional pain for you, anyway!"
Of course, this attitude obscures the actual point of the episode. It wasn't to highlight Iris's importance or make Barry reaffirm his commitment to Team Flash (deciding to go and do this as Killer Frost is loose would seem like a horribly dumb Barry idea, but it's actually perfectly fine because time travel works in his favor this one time), but instead so that present day Team Flash to be made aware of Tracy Brand (Anne Dudek), the woman who built the Speed Force prison that would contain Savitar.
It's a narrative cookie crumb, a reward for an otherwise good but ultimately pointless episode. And while I know this is like saying that I'm getting tired of this whole oxygen thing, I'd like Flash to maybe lay off the time travel for a bit next season. It should focus on the here and now, and all the joy and pain that can provide just as well as the future can.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)