The Flash ends a mediocre fourth season on a high note in ‘We Are The Flash’

Spoiler Alert: The Following contains spoilers for season 4 of The Flash, including last night’s season finale. Read ahead at your own risk!


 

I’ve been growing wary of the formula on The Flash as of late. The overarching story has followed roughly the same path in each of the show’s four seasons. Team Flash is introduced to a new Big Bad that purports itself to be stronger and smarter than our hero, Barry Allen. Chasing various MacGuffin, the team proceeds to lose the lion’s share of its battles against said Big Bad over the course of the next 20+ episodes, pausing intermittently for filler episodes that range in quality, before scoring one final Ultimate MacGuffin in the finale, as they finally manage to best the villain once and for all, right before some crazy, long-teased twist sets up what will happen in the next season.

To be honest, I’ve largely been okay with this formula because The Flash still manages to be a decent enough show working within the confines of this formula. It’s generally well-written, it’s funny, I care about almost all the characters (who have great chemistry with one another), and the show is good about introducing new interesting characters and compelling guest stars along the way. The world of The Flash is rich and filled with great Easter Eggs for fans of the comics, and there’s always something interesting lurking around the corner, even if the show tends to operate mostly in a sort of dulling mediocrity.

With that in mind, season 4 had a lot of both the good and the bad. As it pertains to said formula, the writers made a conscious effort to break the cycle, notably by making this season’s Big Bad something other than a Speedster for once. After Reverse-Flash, Professor Zoom and Savitar, not only was the new villain (Clifford DeVoe, AKA The Thinker) not a speedster, but it was actually a plot point that he was was completely disinterested in The Flash’s speed, even though much of his arc was about absorbing other metahuman powers. The way the show explains why in the finale is even pretty clever. DeVoe is a good character and the show sets him up and a real threat to The Flash regardless of his lack of speed. It’s a refreshing workaround to the usual archetype of Barry’s nemeses. But it sort of feels like a half-measure, especially after the way he was disposed of in the season finale. Lack of speed and future knowledge aside, DeVoe is pretty much the same villain The Flash always faces; he’s super smart, he’s planned for every contingency and he’s always ahead of his opposition, until the plot requires him not to be.

Still, the season shines in other areas, notably in additions it made to its cast. The standout is easily Hartley Sawyer as Ralph Dibney, the schlubby private eye who gets a second chance when he’s gifted with the power of elasticity and goes on to become Elongated Man. The character and the actor portraying him easily fit into the strong chemistry the cast already has, which is rare to see in the fourth season of a show. He’s quick-witted, funny and has a compelling arc of redemption. The show even manages to kill him and bring him back in a way that doesn’t feel cheep, and that still has emotional stakes for the team, especially Barry, who feels responsible for losing the life of one of his teammates.

The show also added Danielle Nicolet as Cecille, a prosecutor who goes on to marry Joe and have his child. Cecille grew on me as the season went on, especially her late-season arc, which manages to uproot most of the tropes involved with pregnancy on a show like this. She develops gestational metapowers that become the key to defeating DeVoe in the finale, all while she goes into labour. Having a kid in the middle of a crisis is a trope that most would agree has overstayed its welcome on television, but doing it in the middle of a world-ending calamity is a nice twist.

Beyond Ralph and Cecile, season 4 also introduced us, among others, to Amunet Black (Katee Sakhoff doing a wonderfully ridiculous cockney accent, Hazard (Sugar Lyn Beard), Breacher (Danny Trejo) and Big Sir (Bill Goldberg), among others. We also got to see Tom Cavanagh try his hand at some really ridiculous versions of Harrison Wells through the Council of Wells, a pool from which the show might have to draw on in season 5 as the show bid farewell to this version of Harry, who winds up suffering the irreversible effects of DeVoe’s plan to lobotomize humanity and decides to leave Team Flash to spend more time with his daughter.

 

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Season 4 also gave us “Enter Flashtime”, an episode that takes place almost entirely in the slowed-down version of time that Barry can experience, as he works to stop a nuclear bomb from destroying the city after it’s already detonated. It’s an awesome episode that immediately enters the show’s pantheon of classics, and even in a season that’s filled with a lot of mediocrity, it proves that The Flash is still capable of doing great things. It’s an episode that was really needed in a season that included “Girls Night Out”, where Felicity comes to town to celebrate Iris’ bachelorette, and “Run Iris Run”, the one where Iris acquires Barry’s powers. Some internet perusal suggests that some may disagree, but I thought last night’s finale was pretty good too. In “We Are The Flash”, Barry enters DeVoe’s mind with the help of Cecille’s powers and DeVoe’s his estranged wife Margaet to stop him, where he finds Ralph’s consciousness still kicking despite DeVoe being in control of his body. Together, they find an army of Mind DeVoes in order to take back control of Ralph’s body and put an end to the Thinker’s plan to lobotomize the entire planet. Sure it’s nonsense, but it’s the good sort of nonsense.

As a whole, I have to wonder whether this season of The Flash holds up. In retrospect, it feels so telegraphed. Barry and the team fail almost every episode at DeVoe’s hands before conveniently and neatly beating him in the finale. The legitimately great episodes are few and far between although, to be fair, there aren’t that many episodes that I’d qualify as abjectly bad either. This season has existed in this space where I’m more than glad to enjoy the show as it airs weekly, but that seems to have fallen a few steps from where I originally thought a Flash show would be able to go at this point in its run. But season 4 leaves us with another cliffhanger and more big promises as the girl who has been subtly meddling with the team’s affairs reveals herself to be Barry and Iris’ future daughter (a twist that, let us be serious, we all saw coming ever since she first appeared all the way back in the Nazi crossover), back from the future to ask for their help fixing what she claims to be a mistake of Gob-like proportions.

I’m certainly not going to be dropping The Flash ahead of season 5, it’s enjoyable even if it tends to fall into the traps of its own formula more often then it’s capable of being subversive. But I’m definitely going to have to be more cautious. We’ve already been through this with Arrow, a show I finally managed to drop after the snoozefest that was the first half of this past season. Supergirl isn’t making a great case for itself either as it bogs itself down with relationship drama every chance it gets. The Flash is at least fun as it goes off the rails, but the writers need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do something new and different for season five, and not just shallow changes that amount to a slightly more detailed reskinning of the main villain. Although I won’t speculate on what they might have planned for next year.

Season 4 of The Flash was a step backwards for the show, despite efforts from its writers to switch things up. But its ability to remain entertaining and introducing compelling new elements every so often allowed it to rise above the lower end of the CW DC dramas. I’m comfortable giving it a decent 6.5 out of 10 bus metas, while last night’s season finale, We Are The Flash, gets 7.5 time travelling daughters out of 10.

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With Its Penultimate Episode, HBO’s “Barry” Proves To Be One Of TV’s Best New Shows

There are plenty of reasons to love Barry. The HBO sitcom has really surprised in its freshman season, starting off by pitching itself as a quirky dark sitcom about a hitman who has an existential crisis and decides to try his hand at acting and, well, going places thereafter, over the course of the seven episodes we’ve seen so far. But as we approach this week’s season finale, and coming off of a handful of rousing episodes after the show picked up steam and culminating in the penultimate “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, And Keep Going” this past Sunday, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what makes this show tick, and how it’s managed to surprise us by elevating itself to a level I didn’t think possible, even with the pedigree of all the people involved.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s what been happening on “Barry” so far (and be forewarned, this will contain some spoilers: While on a hit in Los Angeles for the Chechen mob, Barry (Bill Hader, who also co-created the show), a former marine and current hitman, gets roped into attending an acting class alongside his target, Ryan. Barry becomes interested in the class as well as one of the aspiring actresses in it, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), so he decides to start attending. He’s a terrible actor, but his real-life story is so absurd and unbelievable that the teacher, Gene Cousineau (portrayed by the incomparable Henry Winkler), thinks he’s improvising and lets him into the class.

Meanwhile, the Chechens think Barry is screwing them, so they send their own hitman after Barry. Things get messy and Ryan and some Chechens wind up dead, attracting the attention of the (mostly incompetent) police but also roping Barry and his handler Fuches (another incredible character actor in Stephen Root) into Chechen affairs. Fuches and the Chechens convince Barry to stick around and do more jobs for them, but things only get messier when (a) a fellow marine that Barry meets insists on doing these jobs with him and (b) the Bolivians that Barry goes after wind up being much more competent than the Chechens had anticipated.

So, long story short, as the events of the seventh episode unfold, Barry has inadvertently started a gang war and gotten his army buddies killed, all while the police is slowly starting to catch up to him. “Loud, Fast and Keep Going” is a particularly phenomenal episode, because it feels like shit is finally starting to get real for Barry. We’ve seen glimpses of him break through his monotonous exterior in the past, like in that first episode when he admits to Gene that he’s a hitman, and when his fellow actors question his time at war and his PTSD kind of snaps through. In this episode, after the army guy Taylor winds up dead in a failed bum-rushing of the Bolivian drug lord, Barry is forced to kill the other guy that was along for the ride, his buddy Chris. Chris had no idea what he was getting into and did not heed Barry’s call to get out of the car as they were on the way to do the job. In fact, prior to getting the drop on one of the Bolivian hitmen, Chris had never even killed anyone. So when he laments to Barry and tells him that he’d rather serve time and come clean to the police than deal with it on his own, Barry has no choice but to kill his friend.

All of this coincides with the big play that the class is putting on. Sally, who Barry is still enamored with even though he previously pushed her away with his antics and lack of demeanor, has brazenly taken on the role of Macbeth. She has everything riding on this as an agent is there to see her. She needs Barry to deliver a line for her. The whole thing is ridiculous because why does any of this matter, and why would Barry delivering one meaningless line make or break her performance? Barry is fucked up because he can’t get the image of Chris’ wife getting the call that she’s now a widow. He’s never had to kill someone he knew before, and even struggled killing Taylor, the crazy army go who finagled himself into Barry and Fuches’ business and caused this mess in the first place. So Barry channels that into his one line about how the queen is dead, and pushes Sally into giving the performance of her life and earning the agent’s card.

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Considering a lot of the show is about gang wars and a hitman realizing that what he’s doing is crazy and fucked, the fact that the emotional crux of the episode is in a bad student rendition of McBeth for the lowest stakes possible is kind of amazing. The show manages to make you care the most about a mediocre actress getting a business card from a low-end Hollywood agent. And they do it by treating this plot more seriously than it has any right to be treated, more seriously than all the other crazy stuff happening on the show.

Because while the stakes may be low, they’re real. If Sally doesn’t get that card, her career is probably over. She’s put everything into the idea of becoming an actress, to the point where we don’t know who that character is without that identity. Getting that card is paramount for her, and the show has managed to set up a conceit where it all hinges on Barry, even though that’s sort of laughable. And Barry is able to pull it off because he’s finally starting to feel something as it pertains to the things that he’s doing, to the lives that he’s ruining. His job is finally starting to hit close to home, he’s finally starting to realize that there are consequences to his actions. He’s falling apart emotionally because he had to kill Chris and because the job went south. So that line delivery, that pressure on him to deliver a line is merely a vessel for what he’s feeling.

I think that the show insists on us clinging to Sally and her journey because, while the stakes are higher for Barry’s hitman business, we know he’s going to come out on top. Maybe some Chechens die, maybe even Fuches days could be numbered, but there’s no “Barry” without Barry. He’s going to survive and get the job done, even if it breaks him. Sally is probably not at risk at being killed, but she may not “survive” in that acting is her only means of survival, so Barry coming through for her is a big fucking deal.

The fact that the show is able to make us feel invested in all of this is a testament to the people behind it. Bill Hader is proving his brilliance behind the scenes (after proving it on screen for years at Saturday Night Live), and he’s doing it with the help of co-creator Alec Berg (one of the best working comedy writer/directors). The directing is top notch too, not only from Berg and Hader but also from two-episode stints from Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai (who is currently having a hell of a moment between this show and his contributions with Donald Glover). This group of directors has contributed to one of the show’s core strengths; the way the show handles its action. The action on “Barry” is on par with some of the best hour-long dramas, and the way it crafts action sequences is something you wouldn’t expect from a sitcom, similarly to how you wouldn’t expect it to deal with the psyche of a hitman and former marine the way that it has.

But it’s also really good at balancing this out with truly funny moments. There’s a perfect dichotomy between the serious stuff in “Barry” and the gut-busting funny stuff. Not only because that funny stuff is really funny, but because of the source as well. Despite being one of the funniest men on the planet, Hader mostly plays Barry straight. As do most of the aspiring actors in his class, including the aforementioned Sarah Goldberg and others like The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden. They’re just as serious about acting as Hader is about killing. That isn’t to say that they haven’t had room to be funny on the show, but in comparison, those around them are downright quirky. Henry Winkler plays Gene Cousineau like he would Barry Zuckercorn on Arrested Development. Stephen Root has tapped into something hilarious by like eating something in every scene he’s in. The incompetent police characters are great. And, bar none, the two main Chechens on the show, played by Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan are the most hilarious part of the show. Carrigan’s NoHo Hank in particular is a standout and maybe my favourite new character on TV this year.

And that’s really the key. Hader can tap into dramatic chops hidden under the surface of the guy known for breaking character on SNL and he can delight up in that sense, but he still knows that the format needs to be funny, and that’s where Stephen Root stuffing his face with complementary hotel breakfast or NoHo Hank sending Barry sad Bitmojis comes in. Or, situationally, we can laugh at how the low stakes McBeth play hinges on a dude having a breakdown delivering one meaningless line. That’s hilarious, even if it’s fucked up, and I’m invested in seeing what happens.

All of this makes “Barry” a special show. It’s hilarious, but it can be serious, and it’s certainly complex. The people behind and in front of the camera are phenomenal, and the plot is compelling. With the season finale airing at the end of this week, I highly encourage everyone to catch up on what’s one of the best new shows of 2018.