Barry’s Choice: Ethics of Time Travel in the Flash Season Finale

When I first watched “Fast Enough,” the Flash Season One finale, I was relieved that they weren’t jumping into Flashpoint, and that they weren’t wiping out an entire season’s worth of stories (not to mention elements of Arrow). There’s only so far you can take a reset button without removing tension or basically creating a new show.

But as the summer has gone on, the storytelling logic feels less important, and I’ve looked at the characters’ actions from an in-universe perspective (spoilers ahead):

  1. Barry Allen turned down a chance to save his mother’s life out of fear of the unknown.
  2. The Flash backed away from repairing history.

(And of course there’s that other storytelling logic where Nora Allen’s been killed for the sole purpose of motivating/punishing Barry.)

Changing the Past…or the Future?

There’s always an ethical dilemma to changing the past: Could you make things worse? Sure…but then we’re always changing the future with every action, unable to know for sure whether the consequences will be good or bad. In a sense, it’s Barry’s perspective coming from the future that makes the choice suspect.

Imagine: someone travels 16 years forward in time, then returns home and decides to prevent that future from happening. I think most of us would agree that the ethics are a lot simpler. We see this story all the time and nobody bats an eye. They’re not altering history, they’re changing the future…just like Eddie Thawne did in 2015.

Ever wonder what else Eddie changed by removing an entire family line from the next few centuries?

Arguably, Eddie preventing Eobard Thawne from being born should restore the original timeline anyway, unless you take the premise that changes only move forward from the altered moment, and don’t loop back around.

Oh yeah, did I mention the original timeline? That’s important.

Quantum Mechanic

Nora did not die in the original timeline. Rescuing her isn’t changing history so much as repairing it. Incompletely, but there’s still a window to catch Eobard before he kills Wells and Morgan and takes over Wells’ life.

Let’s say Barry repairs the damage. His mom stays alive, his dad stays out of jail, and no doubt Dr. Henry Allen saves a bunch of lives over the course of 15 years. Harrison Wells and Tess Morgan build the particle accelerator more slowly, but collaborate more with the greater scientific community, leading to related discoveries. All the deaths, injuries and property damage from the particle accelerator explosion don’t happen. Real Wells is probably also a lot less chummy with Eiling before their falling out, so Grodd gets treated more humanely. (Also, metahumans don’t come into existence for another five years.)

There are going to be unexpected consequences, but there always are with any decision. There are a lot of definite pluses, not just for Barry personally…and again, we’re talking about restoring history, not creating a new one.

(Consider Back to the Future. Marty McFly isn’t trying to change history to improve his parents’ lives, he’s trying to fix the damage he did accidentally.  The fact that he makes things so much better for his family feels like a karmic reward, not the result of improper use of a time machine. Compare Biff’s use of the sports almanac in part two.)

So there’s a strong case that Barry should have gone through with it, that he wouldn’t have simply been acting selfishly or recklessly. Even though from a storytelling perspective it might have left the audience feeling cheated.

Butterfly Effect

But what about Flashpoint? In the comics, the actual mechanism by which we get to the nightmare reality is a bit fuzzy, but it comes down to precision: Thawne is able to use time travel like a scalpel, but Barry’s lack of expertise manages to damage the structure of time. This leads to crazy things like Frankenstein killing Hitler a half-century earlier.

It also leaves open the possibility of an older, more experienced Barry Allen finally putting right what once went wrong.

Sure, Barry could screw things up by trying to fix the past, but it’s far from certain, and it’s much safer to put history back on its original course than to try charting a new one that he thinks will be better.

5 thoughts on “Barry’s Choice: Ethics of Time Travel in the Flash Season Finale

  1. Lia

    Interesting piece, and I agree that Barry wouldn’t be changing history so much as fixing it. But remember what future Barry did; he signalled to his past self not to do it. Now, it’s entirely possible that nothing will come of this and it’s something the series will never get into (in other words, a dropped plot)…but it’s also possible that there’s a reason for it. Maybe future Barry knows that saving Nora will end badly because he’s seen a Flashpointesque scenario play out, or maybe he’s just really conservative and thinks people shouldn’t muck around with time. But past-Barry didn’t make the decision entirely on his own, and he did get input from someone who’s presumably more experienced with time travel.

    I just hope we get some resolution for this and it doesn’t end up an unresolved plot point. And it doesn’t address issues of audience satisfaction and whatnot, just Barry’s reasons for the decision.

    Reply
    1. Kelson Post author

      Yeah, the head shake goes a long way toward supporting the decision he made. And I hope they follow up on that at some point (Just not as a season end cliffhanger). I no longer trust the comics to do so, but the show has been pretty good at follow through so far.

      Reply
  2. Mathew

    I have to be honest. When I was watching the finale and it got to that point I had to pause and walk away. I swore creatively for ten minutes then came back and loved the rest. I lost my mom ten years ago and honestly if I could bring her back just like that the space-time continuum can go hang. But I got over it because it’s a comic book TV show and after all space-time is important. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Golddragon71

    actually if think of Barry’s original timeline being the 1956-1985 run that is a very true statement (after all the headline refers to the crisis.) During THAT timeline of the Flash both Henry and Nora lived out their lives together without incident and died (according to references made by “Barry” Jay and later Wally) of presumably natural causes sometime between The Return of Barry Allen and Chain Lightning. The Reverse Flash killing Nora and Henry going to prison for it are strictly new plot elements created by the current regime at DC under the mandate that no Super Hero shall start a career without first enduring a great tragedy ala Batman. (a mandate i refuse to support! Barry’s CLASSIC origin made him a hero without having to lose anything. he was a fan (well into adulthood) of comic adventures of the Golden Age Flash (be it on a combined Earth or Earth2 take your choice) As a child he was gifted in chemistry and science and his two interests merged when he grew up and joined the Central City Police Department’s Crime Lab. It was just fate that led him to be struck by the lightning that gave him is speed (actually it could be said that he chose to give it to himself as he would actually die in the crisis by becoming the lightning bolt that gave him his speed) Not a whole lot of tragedy here. or there were some dark times here and there but they weren’t the cause of Barry’s career they were merely things that happened along the way. (and they were eventually undone anyway!)

    Reply

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