Season three has shown us, so far, that The Flash tends to operate on one of two levels: staggeringly simple (we're talking did-a-fourteen-year-old-write-this? kind of simple) and engagingly creative. A strong first season treated us mostly to the latter, while the former has been creeping into the show's standard operating procedure since season two proved itself to be little more than a tepid rehash of what we got the year before.
Example: this third season seems to be giving us a big of a change-up in terms of the macro story. Savitar is some sort of armor-wearing Speed-Force god with a rather strong desire to see Barry dead, Team Flash is expanding, and most characters are struggling with their predetermined fates and deeper inner natures in ways that are both compelling and fresh.
But then we get moments like the one where Kid Flash, having just stopped some futuristic gun-wielding bad guys, is immediately greeted, thanked, and cheered for by a group of young cheerleaders. Glossing over the fact that there seems to be a bus full of matching-uniform-wearing, school-aged cheerleaders heading to some function in like, an industrial park at the absolute dead of night...it's hard not to be taken right out of the moment when a throng of shivering cheerleaders emerges from a bus and excitedly goes "WHO ARE YOU?" in a city where there has been a "Flash Day" for at least a year or so now. (Later in the same episode, two cops who are literally standing in a pile of shattered window glass yell "HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?" at someone who had just broken and entered.)
I know, these are relatively small nitpicks. I understand that these are scene-to-scene moments, and aren't indicative of the show's larger narrative structure. But what good is that larger narrative structure if a show can't fill it with real, meaningful moments to help prop it up and move it along? Good plotting is nothing without solid action and dialogue to bring it to fruition, and unfortunately it's these smaller moments where The Flash has lately found a tendency to trip itself up.
Problems like this aren't limited to scene window dressing, either. Consider Iris' core motivation in this episode: unencumbered by the fear of death (Barry has learned that Savitar will kill her in five months), Iris decides she's going to pursue a relatively dangerous story about an arms ring. She's doing this despite Joe's repeated warnings because it's a story that she believes will "CHANGE PEOPLE'S LIVES."
This character, a fully-grown adult woman, believes that writing an article on an arms ring in her city will legitimately change people's lives and cement her legacy as a difference-making journalist. She seems to believe she can accomplish this with one article. She seems to believe that she can write this one article in less than the five months she may or may not have to live. She seems to — it bears repeating — believe that this article will change lives. That's tough, and what makes it tougher is that Iris' insanely cavalier in response to her impending doom actually sits with her characterization as a pretty level-headed emotionally mature individual. (This only makes Barry and Joe's continued insistence on deciding what's best/safest for her infuriating as fuck.) In fact, immediately after Iris goes on about how important her arms ring article will be, we are treated to a moment in which Joe West and his boss — two real cops who are having a real discussion about how to go about combating a real serious crime problem in their city — halt their conversation in its tracks so they can both giggle at a conversational use of the phrase "fast and hard."
And so, "Dead or Alive" serves up a bit of what's now typical for the more lighthearted of the Arrowverse fare (mostly Flash and Supergirl): a combination of exciting plotting and thrilling action, with moments that will strike you as the way a fourteen-year-old might imagine the real world working. This is an episode that features Iris straight-up walking into the lair of a dangerous arms ring and not just getting immediately shot on sight when a gun-toting bad guy catches her taking cell phone pictures of his wares.
But it's also an episode that features a beat that succeeds on both a character an action level in ways that few other genre shows would be able to accomplish. The meat of "Dead or Alive" deals with the fact that HR Wells has apparently broken an interdimensional travel ban, sending an Earth-19 bounty hunter (known as a "Collector") after him to take him home. Cisco challenges her to a convenient trial by combat, learns to embrace (more of) the full potential of his powers, and ultimately gets to be the badass we all love seeing him be.
It's a thrilling moment on a number of levels. It's super fun to see Cisco go up against another meta with vibing powers (but the fact that she also called it "vibing" once again pulled me right out of the episode, because that term initially came from the fact that Cisco's powers manifested as memory flashes, not energy projections and portal generation), and his character development is very neatly woven in with the scene's action. Not only this, but the sequence was a total blast, to boot. Watching Gypsy and Vibe hop through dimensions was one of the more fun moments this show has pulled off. This is how good genre TV is supposed to work, but on The Flash it's starting to seem like these moments are sandwiched between an increasing number of moments whose juvenility is getting more and more difficult to ignore (remember back in season one when Flash saved a guy who was washing windows on the side of the skyscraper...in the middle of the night and without any lights anywhere near him?).
At this point, season three seems to be improving upon season two...but at an admittedly slower clip than I'd have expected from a show like The Flash.
Oh, and also...
• "HOW'D YOU GET IN HERE?" Jesus.
• I'm really enjoying the common predeterminism thread going on here. Watching everyone wrestle with their powers and better natures has been the most thematically rich thing Flash has done so far.
• The men in Iris' life are fucking insanely overprotective. When Joe started that conversation I was legitmiately expecting Barry to say something along the lines of "I know it's dangerous and I'm worried too, but Iris is a grown-ass woman who makes her own decisions." I slapped my forehead a good one when that didn't happen.
• Oh man, I forgot to mention the episode's ending. What an exciting reveal/reversal!