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The Flash - Mixed Signals - Review: "Let That Sync In"

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The Flash has had some communication problems in the past. Chief among the frustrations that steadily accumulated through seasons two and three is that the characters had become moody and introspective, unwilling to share their thoughts and thereby storing up secrets and resentments which would inevitably explode out in a painful, ugly way. At some point down the line, Barry, Joe, Iris et al simply just forgot how to speak to each other.

It's no surprise, then, that after a premiere that cleaned up the mess of season three mostly by apologising for it, that season four's sophomore outing took its aim at those communication problems. Mixed Signals is not a particularly rich episode thematically, but its aims go beyond just restoring the original meta-of-the-week formula - it's about the characters of STAR Labs and Central City learning how to talk to each other again. It's a sign, in spite of the narrative flaws, that The Flash has found itself again.

Mixed Signals is definitively second-gear Flash - if it's throwing back to the tone of season one, it's recalling those fun but pedestrian opening episodes with D-list bad guys like Multiplex, big emotional breakthroughs and cryptic stingers featuring villainous plotting, as opposed to the full-throttle craziness of the later episodes. But that kind of low-ambition, low-stakes feel works. It allows for an episode that can focus on charm and fun without the need to get bogged down in brooding. Mixed Signals isn't weighty or substantial, but as a slice of light-hearted superhero fun, it's a zippy treat.

The most important facet of the episode, and likely the one that decides whether you're on board with it or not, is the reassertion of Iris and Barry as the show's emotional centre, the pairing around which every other character orbits. Their conflict this episode covers familiar ground, but it's a necessary dose of emotional reality to the heady joy of having Barry back and cheerful once more (illustrated brilliantly in the delightful opening sequence in Barry's apartment). Season three had to have consequences, and this was a smart way to go about it.

Their conflict also works because it's infused all the way through with the approach of a comedy. That's most apparent in the couples therapy scenes, which are, as well as being clever and innovative short to blast through a few episodes' worth of angst and secrecy to get to the emotional truth by the end of 42 minutes, a fun way for the show to hang a lampshade on itself, calling attention to the absurd body count and trauma that these characters have brushed off over four years. Part of The Flash's reinvention has been a newly acquired self-awareness, something that it sorely lacked in its brooding third season, and that's clearly been liberating for the writers.

Ultimately, though, the point of the therapy scenes is to get Iris and Barry back in sync, communicating how they really feel after months of lying and unilateral decision-making. It's an example of how The Flash has smoothed over a lot of the details of season three in order to make the drama more streamlined this year, in how Iris' emotional confession scene works as a psychologically realistic conflict to get Barry to look beyond his own perspective and realise the value of the others around him, but doesn't make a lot of sense when actually applied to the details it's referring too (the storm in the season three finale was a life-or-death situation where a snap decision was the only one available).

It's a good decision for the writers to embrace the way in which Barry's crusade has grown beyond him, and Iris' repositioning as not only an emotional supporter but also a tactician in the field for Barry to rely on gives her character much more to do in the procedural mechanics of the show.  Barry has never been a lone wolf superhero, and while hearing "we are the Flash" might not be what comic purists want to hear, it's entirely in keeping with the show's interpretation of Barry as someone who'd be lost without friends and allies.

Likewise, the quick and emotionally mature resolution of their couples conflict, in which, shock horror, they actually listen to one another, Nonetheless, the plotline does feel like a slight recon of season three that's taken the cliffhanger and used it for different dramatic purposes than was originally intended. Given season four's campaign to push every element of this show in a different direction to season three, I wouldn't be surprised if I make this complaint again in the coming weeks.

An offshoot of this is the Cisco/Gypsy date night subplot, which really shows the episode's comedic underpinnings. There's a kind of sitcom feel to the overt clash between work and personal life set up as Cisco juggles his upcoming date with battling Kilgore, partly because their relationship isn't as baked into the show as Barry and Iris - it can afford to be light-hearted and jovial all the way through, with the emotional crux being the revelation of a festival called 1-1-1 Day. It's fun, with Carlos Valdes and Jessica Camacho evidently enjoying the silly, lightly farcical nature of it, and Mixed Signals wisely doesn't spend too much time on it, making it a buffer between the more complex emotional moments of the A plot, but there's a little bit of dissonance between intention and reality.

Gypsy is a fine character and the kind of utility player who comes in every now and then that every superhero show should have, but we still don't really know her as a person. Mixed Signals offers the most textured portrayal of her so far, with her confession to Cisco showing a convincingly endearing interior beneath all the smirking and threats, but she's still primarily defined by what Cisco thinks of her. That was okay for the story when she was an unattainable crush, but now they're properly dating, it feels just a touch retrograde. On the bright side, this is a problem The Flash is evidently aiming to fix, given that we have a guest appearance from her father (played by Danny Trejo!) in a couple of weeks, but it's a sticking point in the here and now.

Finally, there's the meta of the week, Kilgore. Some people decry these kinds of bad guys, who The Flash rarely fleshes out beyond their power and a quick motivation, but there's something strangely comforting for me in the meta-of-the-week formula. It works for the show, allowing it to provide the requisite spectacle fans expect while providing plenty of room for character interactions and light-hearted comedy (with the exception of the Reverse Flash, over-powered villains often darken the mood to the point of grimness).

Kilgore is a good example of that simply, unfussy approach working in The Flash's favour. He has a cool power, which is realised cleverly in a few tense set-pieces that allow for a return to the spectacular showcases of Barry's speed the show had mostly left behind, and he strikes a balance between being threatening and silly (I mean, he says "Call me Kilgore"). So while he's a fairly dull character, with the actor bringing little to the role, he serves his purpose just fine.

That purpose, by the way, is twofold. In a meta sense, he's providing the comic-book threat any episode needs. In a narrative sense, well... he's certainly being used for something, as revealed in a stinger that hops back to the Thinker's absurdly decked-out post-modern art exhibition that he calls home and sheds a little light on his nefarious plans for Central City. And it looks like The Flash has found a neat spin on the usual Big Bad formula - instead of the villain creating foes and sending them at Barry to accomplish a vendetta, the Thinker seems to be using Barry as a tool or a middle-man in a plan that's ultimately about assembling a menagerie of super-powered foes inside Iron Heights (with the help of a seemingly corrupt warden).

These episode-ending puzzle piece scenes are working really well for season four, slowly unfurling an inscrutably complex plan in a way that nostalgically recalls the early days of Harrison Wells skulking around STAR Labs and looking at future newspapers. Ultimately, the show is going to have to push DeVoe into the spotlight soon enough, but I'm enjoying the slow burn for now. Season four has come out of the gates carefully, nudging things back into the classic formula, but there's a sense that it's building to something exciting and different with each week. Episodes like Mixed Signals are a reminder that The Flash has relearned how to strike the balance between good episodic stories and overarching intrigue, and it's going to be exciting to see how that'll change as we head further into the new status quo.

Episode Grade: B+

+ Couples therapy
+ Fun and light-hearted tone
+ Good spectacle

- More retconning
- Gypsy needs development

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