The Flash: 317 “Duet” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“Everything’s better in song.”
Barry Allen and Kara Danvers haven’t been having the best time in terms of their relationships recently. Romances with Iris and Mon-El that seemed simple and fulfilling have become complicated and tainted by urgent disaster or secret-keeping, placing Barry and Kara into turmoil that seemed impossible to reconcile. This all left things a little gloomy, unusually for heroes who are known for their sunnier dispositions. Thankfully, it wasn’t anything a quick movie musical couldn’t solve.
Duet is the musical episode that you’ve either been eagerly anticipating or dreading, depending on your attitude to musicals, and it shamelessly adopts the sentimentality and earnestness that’s typical of the genre. While some fans will have hated the unabashed schmaltz of it all, I found that this episode, and the tonal change it provided, was the joyful burst of fresh air that The Flash needed after its troubling descent into gloom last week. It hits the same spot as last year’s initial Flash/Supergirl crossover in how it brings the adorable and optimistic sides of Barry and Kara to the fore, only with the delightful added benefit of a playlist of songs that acts as a terrific showcase for the prowess of a cast crammed to the rafters with musical talent. While the mechanics of the plot might not stand up to scrutiny, Duet recaptures the adage that fuelled The Flash at its high-point – with enough charm and creativity, a few plot holes needn’t damage the experience.
The central conceit of Duet was admittedly a hard one to swallow. The episode has to jump through a lot of hoops in the first act to establish the Music Meister’s threat and to flesh out the specifics of the fantasy musical situation, and the result is a lot of self-consciously thin excuses being thrown out all at once to justify the premise. Thankfully, the episode moves at a rapid enough clip that it doesn’t have time to explore the various logical complexities of such a plan, and the ensuing musical is so enjoyable that the convolution required to get there feels justified in the end.
Duet is actually quite restrained with the amount of music it throws in, ensuring that each song plays a specific purpose and hits a different kind of theme that’s being explored within the Music Meister’s script. All five songs range from pretty good to excellent, as they’re in the hands of a universally talented cast of singers. It was fun to see the range of musical genres explored, from the bombastic show-stopping number Put a Little Love in Your Heart that spotlighted the impressive vocals of Jeremy Jordan and John Barrowman, two actors steeped in musical theatre, to the more intimate feel of More I Cannot Wish You that placed its trust in the powerful performances of ‘dads’ Jesse L Martin and Victor Garber as they profess their trust and love for their daughter (but, declare war on the other gang two minutes later anyway, because the Music Meister doesn’t have time for internal consistency). Duet leans hard on classic Broadway for a lot of its music and plot, but the two original numbers we do get are genuinely great and add their own character-driven meaning as opposed to the covers, which serve mainly just as showcases for the talents of the Arrowverse’s extended cast.
The tap duet Super Friend has the irreverent mark of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom (the song’s co-writer) all over it in its naturalistic tone, written to seem as if Barry and Kara are composing the lyrics on the spot (complete with a healthy amount of lame puns) and winking references to the canon with the jokes about Flashpoint and Superman, making it the episode’s most purely fun track. The emotional crux of Duet is given over to the closing number, Runnin’ Home To You, in which Barry affirms his love for Iris and redoes his proposal. While the lyrics, crafted by La La Land’s Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Paul and Aaron Pasek, touch on familiar notes for a ballad, the unfettered sincerity of the song coupled with Grant Gustin’s powerhouse solo ensures that it’s a heart-warming way to cap off the episode. The choice to set the final song outside of the musical fantasy is a shrewd one, because it allows Duet to utilise its music to execute a significant plot development in a meaningful and original way. Barry’s choice to communicate his proposal through song, though undoubtedly one of the episode’s cheesier points, is a great way of illustrating the way in which Barry has become more honest and genuine in his intentions towards Iris, baring his heart instead of concealing the truth as he did last time.
While it all comes back to the music, Duet does take advantage of its musical setting to poke fun at the foibles of the genre. One of the episode’s best running gags is the convenient and contrived nature of the story in which everything lands quite easily into Barry and Kara’s lap until the mandated shootout ending in which the two gangs go to war. Given the way in which both shows have recently been susceptible to creating conflict through characters who elect to make situations difficult for no logical reason, Duet’s cheerful self-awareness of its own contrivances was a welcome acknowledgement. The actual plot that the Music Meister cooks up is evidently just window-dressing to pack in the cast members and to have some fun with the genre, but there’s also a nice thematic through-line running through the episode that justifies the premise as more than just a ‘what if?’ experiment for the showrunners.
As mentioned, Barry and Kara have been going through some relationship rough patches lately, and Duet is ultimately a story of how those troubles are rectified. Duet carefully sets up a scenario to force Barry and Kara confront their relationship troubles from the other perspective as their own emotional turmoil is reflected back at them. The Mon-El/Iris couple within the fantasy was a good way of doing that, as their secret romance is a conflict that rests upon secret-keeping as a fearful instinct to protect against a furious reaction (as with Mon-El and his lies about Daxam), and which could, theoretically, provoke a catastrophic situation (like Iris’ future death by Savitar). This is not an episode that anyone will praise for its tight plotting, but it has an excellent handle on character (Barry and Kara are the most likeable they’ve been in weeks here), and Duet meaningfully portrays Barry and Kara forging the understanding necessary to solve their own problems before they even realise how it relates to them. It’s undoubtedly a cheesy idea that the solution was inside them all along, but Duet is that kind of episode, and the strong characterisation that quickly exposes Barry and Kara’s grievances as a façade that runs skin-deep allows them to make that leap in understanding in a way that’s true to their own previous feelings.
Duet’s conclusion that love is allowing yourself to be saved might have been the moment that the episode broke down for some, but for me, it exemplified the tangible and well-executed character development that this episode brings about in both heroes that has far more relevance than just to their relationships. After all, Barry’s recent bouts of angst have often been caused by his tendency to take the weight of the world onto his shoulders, and Duet provides a solution to that more general problem, too, through the lens of the relationship drama. It’s also satisfying that it requires both sides of the relationships to hold a hand out in order to come to a resolution, whether it’s physical help or empathy, painting an emotionally complex picture of two flawed relationships that are made powerful enough only by the shared nature of their feelings. Happiness takes effort, Duet suggests, but it also indicates that the rewards of that effort are more than worth it.
At the centre of all of this is the Music Meister, the quasi-villain of Duet. Alongside his role in the musical, he also allows for the more traditional villain-of-the-week structure to unfold as he’s pitted against a brief but enjoyable Kid Flash, Vibe and Martian Manhunter team-up, which gives the episode a greater sense of propulsion in the early stages as Barry and Kara struggle to decipher their situation. The most important part of his character, though, comes with the twist that he’s not a villain; he’s actually a cheerleader for the heroes who has a very elaborate way of providing relationship counselling. In most episodes, this kind of reveal would be a cheesy and ill-advised mistake that would drain all the tension away. Yet Duet dutifully lays the groundwork for the reveal with the growing sense that the musical scenario serves a greater purpose than just a bit of light-hearted fun, and by its creation of an unashamedly fantastical tone in which everything works out as it should do.
The Music Meister’s role as the author of sorts, worriedly looking after his creations from an elevated perspective and ensuring that they learn a lesson about themselves to push them further in their quest to become the best heroes and partners possible, is perfectly in keeping with the rest of Duet’s commentary on the power of storytelling for emotional resolution. Darren Criss is great fun as the Meister, directing events with a skip in his step and exuding a weird kind of mysticism and unknowability that’s similar in many ways to the fifth-dimensional imp, Mr Mxyzptlk, who caused trouble on Supergirl a few weeks back. Admittedly, some of the Music Meister’s actions don’t make a great deal of sense. The hero team-up to stop him is fun, and it does lead to Wally gaining a burst of confidence in his own abilities that, in the light of the later revelation about the Meister’s role as the emotional repair-man, doesn’t seem coincidental. Yet it’s unclear as to why the Meister even bothers provoking that fight in the first place by stealing Barry and Kara’s powers and robbing a bank given the implication that his intentions were supposed to have been pure all along. Granted, it can be hand-waved away to a certain extent by the legitimate excuse that the Meister is evidently having a lot of fun in the process of his agenda, but it’s perhaps one scenario where the ‘just go with it’ adage doesn’t hold up all that well.
It might not craft the most original or the most watertight storyline on which to hang the musical premise, but Duet is exactly what The Flash needed right now. It reverses the damage done by last week’s overly downbeat instalment by teaching a powerful and substantial lesson to Barry about his relationship with Iris, which puts the season on a far more positive track as it heads into the final stretch. Furthermore, its commentary on the theme of love contains some much-needed self-awareness on the roots of some of this season’s problems with Barry’s own character journey in which he’s turned into more of a lone wolf figure by allowing him to be saved by others for once.
Most of all, though, it’s just a delight to watch. The Flash is almost invariably strongest when it wears its heart on its sleeve and maintains a fundamental lightness of tone as it does here, and the novelty of the classic musical setting seems to invigorate the cast whose performances contain a palpable sense of joy, especially Gustin and Benoist, whose super-friendship is endlessly charming to watch. Duet is a very good musical episode with songs that run the gamut from cheerfully self-aware to heartfelt and that reflect the considerable pedigree of a cast that seems to solely consist of either musical theatre or Glee alums, but its greatest contribution is to find what The Flash, even with this season’s strengths, has been missing for some time. Everything’s better in song, indeed.