Tuesday, October 10, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Flash' - Team Flash Reunites to Break Barry Out of the Speed Force in 'The Flash Reborn'

The CW's The Flash - Episode 4.01 "The Flash Reborn"

With Barry in the speed force, Iris, Kid Flash, Joe and Vibe have taken over protecting Central City. When a powerful armored villain threatens to level the city if The Flash doesn't appear, Cisco makes a risky decision to break Barry out of the speed force. However, the Barry that comes out isn't the same Barry that went in.

The title of "The Flash Reborn" certainly sets up an expectation for the fourth season premiere of The Flash. It's the creative team saying that the return is going to be different than what came before. That's a hopeful message to send especially because of the problems over the past two seasons. The Flash has fallen on difficult and problematic times. The past two seasons were defined by the team making the same mistakes over and over again. There was too much brooding and stupidity going around. No one was acting like a genuine human being anymore who learned from one's past mistakes. Instead, it was a show all defined by plot and needing to keep upping the dramatic stakes with each passing season. Everything that happened with Savitar wasn't all that great in the end because the audience was just so far ahead of the show. They didn't have the story to carry it across 23 episodes. So, the audience got bored because the pattern was just so predictable and expected. It made the ending feel less earned and devastating as a result. It should be a big deal that Barry chose to fill the void in the speed force in order to save Central City even though it meant leaving behind everyone he loves for good. It was mildly effective and emotional too. But the dynamics and plot mechanics were just so labored at that point that it was really hard to care. That's a lingering feeling heading into this premiere as well. Even as the show works to erase that final moment as quickly as possible so that it can reset everything in this world, it's still a lot of plot mechanics that are forcing things to happen without it feeling all that genuine or worthwhile.

Of course, the creative team has been talking at length over the hiatus that they want the fourth season to be a return to basics with a more upbeat and fun sensibility. That would be very much appreciated. The Flash was such a breakout success in its first season because Barry was such an original character. He was a superhero who enjoyed being a superhero. He wasn't dark and broody like Oliver was on Arrow. He didn't need to be that. He could be his own thing. Yes, he had a tragic backstory as well. But he could still be optimistic and enjoy discovering new powers to stop super-powered villains each week. That feeling was broken down over the years. It would be nice to have it back. "The Flash Reborn" really isn't a good indication over whether it will be a consistent trait of this season. At the starts of the second and third seasons, the creative team was also saying that they wanted to maintain this upbeat tone only for it to go away because of a very dramatic and dark impulse in the story. So, there's still the feeling that all of this could return to dark and gloomy in the next episode. The series hasn't put in the work to show that it's returned to the show it once was. The desire is there to want it to be that show again. But only time will tell if it is successful in that endeavor.

So ultimately, "The Flash Reborn" is all about getting Barry out of the speed force. Six months have passed since he left Team Flash. Since then, Iris has taken more of a leadership role amongst the team. That's very much appreciated because it actually gives Candice Patton some exciting and dynamic material to work with. So often, she is reduced to nothing more than Barry's girlfriend who doesn't understand what's going on with all of the science. Plus, she gets taken by the various villains a lot. This is a nice change of pace because she's the one pushing the team for excellence. She's pushing for Kid Flash and Vibe to improve in the field. Right now, they just aren't as good as they were when Barry was leading the team. The opening features the team chasing down Peek-a-Boo (which is a very lame name for her given her abilities). They are ultimately successful with the mission. But it's not graceful or efficient at all. It just shows how this team is struggling to make a difference in Central City during Barry's absence. It's important to set all of this up to show that the team needs Barry. And then, an opportunity presents itself where they need Barry in order to save the city. A super-powered samurai has shown up to fight The Flash. If he doesn't appear in 24 hours, then he will destroy the city. Those stakes are real and genuine. They help give urgency to the narrative even though it's a very clear manipulation to force the team into reuniting.

Apparently, Cisco has been working on a way to get Barry out of the speed force ever since he went in. And simply by convincing Caitlin to rejoin the team after discovering her with her powers under control at a bar, they are able to make the correct modifications to the speed bazooka to bring him back. It's a lot of technological mumbo jumbo that makes the characters sound smart and reasonable while ensuring the inevitable outcome. It was destined that Barry would one day escape the speed force because the previous season was already teasing the new villain for the year. On one hand, it's very convenient that Barry is back on the team halfway through the premiere. On the other hand, it's incredibly easy and takes weight away from just how serious that decision was at the end of last season. The only way his choice still carries consequences is if he has lingering effects to being in the speed force for six months. Caitlin knows that time doesn't move linearly there. So, he could have actually experienced 10,000 years there. The Barry that comes out is remarkably different. And yet, it just feels like a plot construct to keep things uncertain as the clock is counting down to fight the samurai. Barry returns to this world but is speaking in nonsensical phrases and drawing all over the walls. Cisco believes he's trying to communicate with them but he's not. It seems like he's a great mystery that needs to be solved so he can be whole again. That's problematic because it then represents an easy solution that avoids many of the perilous consequences to being in the speed force for so long.

The reason that Barry is able to snap out of this haze is incredibly problematic as well. The show is somewhat aware of how repetitive it is when it comes to Iris getting kidnapped and Barry needing to save her. She's stronger this season because she needed to be in order to cope with what Barry did. And yet, the climax of this episode is Iris putting herself in danger so that Barry can save her. The optics of that moment are just horrible. It's the show once again just going for the cliche as a way to have an easy explanation. Iris does that. Barry can somehow sense that she is in danger and runs to save her. He returns to being The Flash. This is his big moment of waking up and being himself again. He is able to save the day. Afterwards, he's able to interact with all of his friends at STAR Labs once more. He remembers nothing regarding what has happened over the past six months. But he feels a sense of calm and peace over him as well. He's running faster than ever before. So, the show is just using the speed force as a nice plot device to say why Barry is going to be a significantly better character this season. He will no longer carry the grief from his tragic life because of whatever happened in the speed force. Perhaps it doesn't need any grander explanation than it is given here. Perhaps the show should just get the opportunity to be fun again. This whole story didn't need an extended arc to happen. It's nice to have Barry back. But the jury is still out on whether this is a turning point for the show as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Flash Reborn" was directed by Glen Winter with story by Andrew Kreisberg and teleplay by Todd Helbing & Eric Wallace.
  • The show did such a poor job last season in explaining why Caitlin's powers are inherently evil and transform her into a different personality. Here, she is trying to tell her friends that she has rid herself of the powers. She's back to being just Caitlin. Except that's not true at all. In fact, it's now seemingly more of a case of split personality disorder. Killer Frost still comes out on occasion but Caitlin is the one in control right now.
  • Tom Felton is no longer a series regular this season. That's not all that surprising considering Julian never really did find a way to fit in with the rest of Team Flash. He stood out no matter what situation the show tried to put him in. It was an experiment that didn't ultimately work. And now, he's just written off with a casual reference that he's returned to London.
  • No version of Wells appears at all in this hour. And yet, Tom Cavanagh is still a series regular this season. So, it should be fascinating if the show is just going to keep bringing back Harry or if a new Wells from another universe is introduced. It really could go either way.
  • This creative team operates under the assumption that the audience is watching all four of the connected shows on The CW. That's not inherently true but it's the way that they are telling these stories. The actions of one show have the potential to effect the other. Of course, that doesn't seem to mean much here because Cisco just casually drops that Felicity and Curtis have been helping him with the speed force problem even though their fates were up in the air at the end of the last season of Arrow.
  • The season closes with the debut of the new big bad for the year. As was heavily teased throughout last season, it is The Thinker. It's the first time the show isn't featuring a speedster for the big villain for the year. That's very much appreciated. Of course, The Thinker already seems to be a broad character with his introduction here in his high-tech secret lair.