The Flash began season 8 with a five-part story arc that put Barry on his back foot. The team behind the show was clearly trying to replicate the fun of that arc with this Red Death arc, but the heavily-tweaked version Red Death doesn’t have the gravitas to push the story the way that Reverse-Flash did. Spoilers follow for The Flash Season 9, Episode 04, “The Mask of the Red Death, Part One.”
“The Mask of the Red Death, Part One”
The Flash (Grant Gustin) is forced to make an impossible choice. With the power out in the city, Team Flash calls upon the Rogue Squad to help as Iris (Candice Patton) is visited by an old friend. Joe (Jesse L. Martin) and Cecile (Danielle Nicolet) work on finding a balance.
As The Flash begins to close out its second-to-last storyline, we find an episode weighed down by extraneous stories that we don’t really care about and cashing checks that the writing can’t afford at a breakneck pace that makes the first three episodes feel weirdly overlong.
This episode is a huge amount of story dump all at once. Red Death has The Flash chained up somewhere while Ryan Wilder shows up at Iris and Barry’s place, wounded and looking for help. This is maybe one of Iris’ best scenes in the whole series, and is actually really enjoyable. This is the Iris we’ve wanted to see this whole time. She’s smart, insightful, and self-sufficient while still being a human surrounded by superhumans. She clocks almost immediately that Ryan isn’t who she says she is, and Candice Patton does a great job of showing suspicion that lets us in on her point of view without also making it feel like it would be totally obvious to Ryan. She’s careful and observational and uses what she knows about Ryan to test this imposter.
This is where the big story dump begins in earnest. This Ryan is, of course, not our Ryan, the one from the canceled Batwoman show’s Seasons 2 and 3. This is a Ryan from another timeline, and she tells Iris a true version of her story that conveniently leaves out certain things, and here’s where we start to see how this Red Death differs from the one in the comics.
Both characters are Bat-vigilantes who, after repeated loss and tragedy, realize that they can’t stop all crime at once, and so they claim the Speed Force to make the idea of a crime-free world a reality. That’s about where the similarities stop, though. In the comics, the Red Death is Bruce Wayne from another Earth. After being driven insane, Batman traps Barry on a Batmobile built into a Cosmic Treadmill and drives it into the Speed Force. This fuses the two people into one, controlled by Bruce while Barry is forced to helplessly watch. This Red Death is Batwoman who, after similar losses, built an armored speed suit and infused it with artificial Speed Force. In her timeline, Batwoman accidentally killed Iris.
Our timeline’s Iris quickly realizes that Ryan is telling a version of the story that paints herself as the hero, and that Barry was most likely trying to stop her. At the same time, the Red Death reveals themselves to Barry, which is to say that they remove their helmet to reveal an empty, remote-controlled suit. As an experienced fighter, even the unpowered Ryan quickly subdues Iris, and then remotely recalls her suit. It assembles around her, Iron Man-style, and this part actually looks pretty good, especially for a television show. For as often as CW’s Arrowverse shows have had some really bad effects, there are moments here and there that show what a good team of VFX artists can do even on a small budget.
Heel Turn, Turn, Turn, Turn
Flash manages to talk to Chillblaine and puts a seed in his mind about how it’s never too late to start being one of the good guys, so of course when Red Death forces Barry to start running on the Cosmic Treadmill, Chillblaine overloads it, destroying it–and its one-of-a-kind tech–completely. The last we see of Chillblaine, the other rogues are surrounding him and beating him up. While we don’t have a body, it sure seems like he might be dead.
A lot of this feels like a lot of work to end up going in a circle. Chillblaine was a bad guy, then a good guy, then a bad guy, and finally a good guy. The Cosmic Treadmill was built, used for about 10 seconds, and then destroyed. These moments make it hard to take the dramatics seriously because it feels like as soon as we believe them, they’re going to flip around again. But Chillblaine was getting annoying, so maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world–no offense to Jon Cor, who did the best he could with the role and its overwhelming amount of time spent shirtless.
It really seems like this Red Death storyline is going to wrap up in the next episode to make way for the return of Bloodwork, who has been confirmed to return for this final season. The Flash Season 8 did such a good job with its five-episode arc at the beginning of the season that I know the writers are capable of this, but somehow this instead feels rushed, like something they wanted to get out the door real fast.
Remember that? Remember this?
There are a bunch of lines referencing other Batmen sprinkled throughout the episode. At one point, Ryan calls criminals “a superstitious, cowardly lot.” This is a line from the very first issue of Detective Comics, and it has been referenced throughout Batman’s history in comics and cartoons alike. Written in 1939, though, it feels incredibly outdated here–I cannot imagine Ryan saying it even a little.
After suiting up and standing above Iris, Ryan asks her, “you wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” This is from a scene in 1989’s Batman, said by Bruce Wayne when the Joker ambushes him and Vicki Vale at her home. This doesn’t feel as outdated, but the delivery just doesn’t land.
Finally, Ryan grabs one of the Rogues by the collar and screams at them, “I am vengeance, I am the night!” This line, to the best of my knowledge, comes from the “Nothing to Fear” episode of Batman: The Animated Series. In the cartoon and with Kevin Conroy’s iconic voice performance, the line is powerful. It marks a moment of Batman overcoming the fears accentuated by Scarecrow’s drugs and reclaiming his own mind. Here, it’s just an unhinged character acting unhinged, so it sounds silly. Robert Pattinson’s Batman had a similar line in The Batman, and it even worked there because the whole point of that movie is how young and immature that Batman is. Nothing about this line works here.
There maybe be other references scattered throughout, but those are the ones I caught, and that’s partly because they don’t sound like anything else Ryan says either in these episodes or during her time as Batwoman. She talked like a modern adult woman, not like a literary poet.
None of this even gets into the worst parts of the episode, the relationship drama happening between Joe and Cecile and Chester and Allegra. It’s worse with the latter couple for the same reasons that Chillblaine’s constant side-switching was a headache. At least Jesse L. Martin is so deeply likable that you can’t help but enjoy his scenes regardless.
As we head into the final episodes of The Flash, I really want to just sit back and enjoy these episodes, but they’re making it really tough.