The Flash: 311 “Dead or Alive” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Barry Allen’s monologue at the start of every episode has changed time and time again to acknowledge the new threats and situations he faces each season, whether that’s the Reverse Flash, Zoom, Flashpoint or Savitar. What’s always remained the same, though, from the very first time the monologue was used, is the opening boast: “I’m the fastest man alive”. For one, that hasn’t been true for a while – he’s top ten material, but not a lot higher. But more importantly, it suggests a version of the show where Barry is always at the centre – the primary hero who will always take out the villain of the week and learn the most important lesson of the episode. That hasn’t been true for a while, either.
In Dead or Alive, Barry Allen is a supporting character in his own story, and the show is all the better for it. The broadening of scope to allow stories that focus more acutely on the wider ensemble has been one of season three’s main strengths, and that’s made clear by the way in which the episode offers compelling development for Cisco, Iris and HR that make the best uses of their characters all season, while keeping Barry firmly as a catalyst for each character’s journeys. It’s not an episode that will live long in the memory as a classic, but it’s a zippy, well-constructed bit of fun that maintains a strong grip on the lightness of tone in which this show flourishes and continues The Flash’s track down a far more interesting path than the reskinned arc season two offered.
Cisco was the hero of the hour here with the most substantial story in his trial by combat, and it’s a convincing rehabilitation of a character arc that’s floundered in his glum reaction to Dante’s Flashpoint death. Dead or Alive locks onto the appeal of the character in his joyfully flippant outlook on life, and plays it for the engaging comedy you’d expect – the throughline of Cisco hitting on Gypsy in life and death situations is one of the best running gags this show has done in a while, but also finds a meaty dramatic story in the gulf between his typical outlook and the mindset needed for a hero. In a lot of ways, this is a much better take on what Supergirl is doing with Guardian where a deskbound character is thrust into a heroic position and put into peril they can’t always cope with, because it focuses on teamwork as opposed to secretive lone-wolf antics. The idea of STAR Labs as a support unit has always been one that’s vital to Barry’s heroic journey, and it translates well to Cisco’s own story in which Dead or Alive stresses that truly accepting the help of others is half the story in becoming a hero. That links nicely into Julian’s newfound presence in the episode as the abrasive science guy, as he offers up the crucial bit of information Cisco needs to take Gypsy out – despite their ostensible differences, both men inspire one another to the actions needed to solve their situation.
Cisco’s story might not carry a great deal of weight due to the somewhat easy path it takes out with the trial by combat ending in a routine villain of the week defeat, and despite Carlos Valdes’ sterling work in showing Cisco’s increasing panic as the gravity of his situation becomes clear, there’s never really a sense of peril for Cisco. We know that he’ll make it out of the trial alive, which somewhat hurts the substantiality of what should be a significant transformation for him as he finally assumes the heroic Vibe mantle. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and a focus on Cisco, especially the enjoyable aspects of his character, is always welcome – it’s just indicative of the episode’s wider struggle to bring stakes to what is transparently a standalone story.
As it is, we get a fun ‘hero for a day’ story in which Cisco experiences a rapidly compressed version of Barry’s arc that affirms the vitality of the STAR Labs team even as it swells further in size, and establishes that Cisco has the capacity to become a fully paid-up hero who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Flash and Kid Flash.
Cisco’s opposite number, Gypsy, is a successful villain, and a reminder that The Flash can craft a strong metahuman of the week foe if it manages to break out from the constrictive formula. Jessica Camacho does a fine job of playing up the humorous chemistry with Carlos Valdes, balancing delicately between teasing and something deeper that complicates the emotional dynamics of the episode well, but Gypsy also works because she isn’t evil in any way. She’s just an interdimensional cop (you know, the usual) who’s very good at her job and who cares strictly about the rules that she’s employed to enforce, and Dead or Alive never tries to muddy the waters by showing her to be vindictive or exploitative of that role in any way. And, in a way, that’s a nice change of pace from the run-of-the-mill moustache twirlers who act murderously in a way that’s never substantiated by thoughtful characterisation. It allows The Flash to cheat: because Gypsy isn’t villainous in the traditional sense, there isn’t a need for a back-story to explain her actions, just the brief strapline of her role that HR gives. Gypsy’s presence also allows for another fun departure from the formula of the ‘Barry versus X’ final battle in the form of the trial by combat. It lacks intensity or peril, and ends in a somewhat underwhelming manner, but it’s difficult to criticise a fight that hops between Earths and features a brief Supergirl crossover in the CatCo office too much. It’s the kind of creative, freewheeling set-piece The Flash needs more of that takes great advantage of the unique opportunity to present a different kind of powers to the usual super-speed. The Flash can’t wheel out anti-villains every week, but Gypsy worked well within her role as a foil for Cisco who sparked a bit of fun romantic tension and who acted as an example of the power he could wield if he fully leaned into his capabilities.
Meanwhile, in the land of the B plot, Iris received her biggest individual plotline in quite some time. Iris receives a lot of flak from certain quarters of the audience, but when The Flash focuses on her individuality as an intrepid reporter with her own distinctive ideas that can run contrary to those of Barry and Joe, it often finds room for a refreshingly different kind of story. That’s the case here, and Dead or Alive takes the opportunity to explore Iris’ surprising reaction to the news of her own death, which is to ensure that she makes as big as mark as possible on the world before the time comes for her to shuffle off her mortal coil in May… if Barry doesn’t have anything to say about that. It’s a reaction that’s poignantly linked to the wider themes of the episode in Iris’ final scene with Barry where she decries the limited worldview that there can only be a couple of designated heroes and sets out her objective to complement Barry and Wally’s work with the skills she excels in. The Flash can so often forget about Iris’ own inner life with her journalistic career, and the ease in which it dovetails with Wally’s arc shows the ways in which Iris can become immediately relevant to the narrative on her own terms.
The resumption of the brother-sister crime fighting team from Flashpoint is a fun one, even if Wally’s role in the plotline ultimately turns out to be a wash, and it’s a nice way to mirror Cisco’s story as she places confidence in those around her to complete her heroic efforts in a recognition of the impossibility of being a lone wolf. Candice Patton’s performance flourishes when she gets to play up the confident, determined side of Iris in scenes such as her confrontation with the crook. It’s just enough of an evolution from her usual turn as Iris to illustrate the vital impact of her impending death upon her worldview, which indicates just how The Flash is taking a plot point that could easily have been mined for frustrating angst and instead using it to galvanise the characters into the most interesting versions of themselves who find a new urgency in their aim to define themselves.
The other spotlight character in Dead or Alive is HR, who receives an upgrade from comically dispensing useless advice and sipping innumerable cappuccinos with a greater exploration of what makes him tick. Tom Cavanagh has made this version of Wells into such an idiosyncratic and engaging character that it’s easy to forget he is somewhat two-dimensional on the page, but Dead or Alive rectified that by delving into the vulnerabilities behind the clownish mask. HR’s simple, sad motivation as a guy who realised that his life didn’t count for anything is a strong and affecting one because it’s a rare moment of blunt honesty from a character who mainly deals in euphemisms and glib humour to lighten up serious subjects. Likewise, Cisco’s explanation of his reasons behind helping HR is a touching way to clarify not only HR’s role in the team, but his role in the relation to the other characters Cavanagh has played, who would seem to outstrip him entirely in terms of plain, cold-hearted utility. It’s an example of the beating heart that The Flash has below its best stories, wherein HR’s lack of immediate utility doesn’t preclude his importance to the team – he has the potential for something great, and that’s enough for Cisco and Team Flash as a whole to place their faith in him.
Dead or Alive almost seems to settle down for the long haul with HR, giving him enough depth and an understandable function on the team in direct contrast to the other recent arrival, Julian, who seems to fill the role of the old Wells’ as the genius scientist with no social skills, so it’s intriguing to see that he has been cut off from his home Earth as of the episode’s end. There’s plenty of stories to be told as HR begins to reconstruct his own identity on a place that’s become his home, (it’s a nice touch that HR moves from hyperbolically fictionalising his time on Earth-1 for the public to writing what seems to be his own personal journal at the end of the episode) but it’s intriguing in particular that there’s not an easy ‘out’ for him at the end of the season in the way there was for Earth-2 Wells. While HR’s story might not have transformed our perception of the character, it’s an invaluable insight into a character whose true motivations had been a little inscrutable beforehand. The Flash made an investment in HR when he entered the show earlier in the season, and dramatically, it seems as if it’s paying off – HR sticking around for the foreseeable future now seems like a pretty amenable prospect.
Fittingly for an episode that extols the virtues of collectivism as characters lean upon each other to save the day, Barry’s own character journey is recognising that he no longer needs to be the fastest man alive. Wally as Kid Flash has been an unabashed success for The Flash since his introduction with his infectiously joyful outlook on crime-fighting, and it’s encouraging to see the show recognise his importance and place him at the centre of the main arc to come. It’s an almost meta moment where Barry realises that, as with the past two villains, more speed is necessary to defeat Savitar, but that it’s not him who needs to get faster, as if The Flash is consciously repudiating the same old formula of the first two seasons and heading down a new route defined by this larger ensemble of diverse heroes that this season has set up. Training Wally up as Kid Flash to save Iris is a storyline that’s ripe with potential, from the chance to delve into a full heroic story arc with Wally to the interesting family dynamics that the story of a brother saving his sister sets up, which should bring some further emotional change to this quest (if only Joe wasn’t in the dark still). Most of all, it’s an acknowledgement that’s hinted at throughout this episode and stated explicitly here: Central City isn’t just a one-hero city anymore.
Dead or Alive is the ideal midseason stopgap: breezy and tightly paced with two engaging storylines that complement each other with their explorations of teamwork and heroism, with the confidence to nudge at the boundaries of the typical formula by benching Barry from any major action. It’s low on tangible stakes and devoid of peril, which somewhat blunts the impact of a storyline that’s predicated on the threat of death or abduction of a major character, and it doesn’t do a whole lot new, but it’s a reminder that season three remains on firmer ground than the previous season. Fingers crossed it stays the course.