Season 4 of The Flash arrived on DVD and Blu-ray recently, bringing with it the tumultuous ups and downs of the series’ most ambitious but uneven season to date. What follows is a mostly spoiler-free synopsis of Season 4. If you’re a fan of The Flash, you already know that it’s impossible to talk about the show without gently unwrapping a few mysteries along the way, but I promise to keep it light. And while I watched it and planned to review it regardless, I need to point out that Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
Unsurprisingly, all of the chaos resulting from the cliffhanger ending of Season 3 is handily undone within the first episode of the new season. It’s become a bit of a TV trope, and while The Flash isn’t the first or only show to indulge it, it’s always amazing to see how quickly the previous season’s plot crescendos are untangled in service of the new story.
In the show’s timeline, six months have passed since the events that brought last season to a close. Team Flash has continued their work without Barry, following his decision to sacrifice himself to the Speedforce to save the world/multiverse. Caitlin is absent from the team as well, having sequestered herself away ostensibly to keep Killer Frost from surfacing and wreaking havoc amongst the people she loves. Wally and Cisco have stepped up to keep the city safe, and we get a quick glimpse of Kid Flash and Vibe in their hero roles before things come to a head. Iris has stepped into a leadership role with the team, dealing with the loss of her fiancé by burying herself in the work.
There’s barely time to establish this, much less make any of it feel real or lend gravitas to the absence of Barry, before the team is racing to bring him back. I get it, you can’t have The Flash without The Flash, but it’s the kind of slapdash writing that rears its head throughout this season. So not even halfway through episode 1, Barry is back! But he’s got some sort of amnesia/PTSD! But that’s all fixed within a few minutes as well!
It’s a setup, of course, for the overarching stories that will weave their way through this season. We have the brief introduction of Season 4’s Big Bad, actions taken by the team that will have massive unintended consequences, and Barry and Iris’s relationship (they were engaged to be married at the end of last season) served up front and center.
Those “unintended consequences” result in some of my favorite moments from Season 4, with the introduction of several new metas. While they all still play to the ongoing storyline, it’s always fun to get back to a “freak of the week” approach, with several episodes highlighting each new meta, their backstory, and the conflict that leads them to cross paths with Team Flash. The majority of them aren’t pulling from actual DC comics rosters, but we do get some oblique references for the fans and one very interesting choice of an established character coming into the fold.
It’s always interesting to me that in the Arrowverse, the majority of the metas are, for lack of a better term, bad guys. It makes sense in a very comic book way, you only really want your main hero and his companions as protagonists, and you need lots of villain fodder, but it also ends up spinning some pointed commentary about human nature. We get to know a few of them and their motivations, and inevitably they are indulging very real human impulses. Revenge, greed, lust. While the show usually never says it directly, the implication comes through clearly: it’s a tough choice to be handed power and to choose to use it selflessly.
I say that it “usually never says it directly” because there are exceptions to the rule, and this season presents a big one in the form of Ralph Dibny, The Elastic Man. Dibny is at times the best thing about Season 4; his cynicism, sarcasm and selfish nature make for a great foil to Barry’s all-positive, all-the-time attitude. His path to heroism is a conflicted one, and it shines a light on what makes Barry so special and unique. There’s also an almost nihilistic streak to Dibny that has a lot to do with his fear at who the team is facing down in terms of the Big Bad.
It was a bold choice to go with a non-speedster for this season’s arch-nemesis. The Thinker, dubbed The Fastest Mind Alive, presents new challenges for the team and a feeling of dread and hopelessness that makes for some truly desperate moments as they come into conflict. Team Flash isn’t known for its intellectual prowess, outside of Dr. Wells, and he’s saddled with some personal challenges that leave him struggling on the mind side of things. The Thinker manages to be one step ahead, and even the most effective plans of the team are out-thunk at every turn.
This makes for a very grim vibe, and while it’s not quite as blatantly dark as previous seasons there’s a tinge of existential dread that creeps in, feeding a palpable sense of loss of hope. It’s a bit heavy, man. And watching Wells in particular flounder, damn is it painful, especially to anyone that’s dealt with senility or memory loss in a friend or loved one.
This is all confounded by a very poor decision to introduce several new iterations of Wells from the multiverse. Meant to be comic relief and to allow actor Tom Cavanagh to chew up as much scenery as possible with multiple roles spanning varied deeply cliched versions of his primary character, these scenes were a low point of the season for me. The other Wells are a cringe-fest of genre tropes and goofy accents. I know that Cavanagh is a fan favorite for his sense of humor and wacky personality, but it’s overindulged here to the point of painfulness. Not sure whether to blame the writers or the actor here, but I found it difficult to watch, and couldn’t wait for these moments to roll past.
The Thinker also ends up assuming several roles as he inhabits different bodies throughout the season, absorbing and stockpiling meta powers along the way. This can be uneven at times, as you’re essentially getting a new actor every few episodes attempting to recreate the performance/speaking patterns/mannerisms of the original actor. Conceptually, it’s fascinating, but in execution it can feel a little poorly done. While the powers and the intellectual capacity to out-think our heroes is menacing, not every character he inhabits allows that to shine through. It is unintentionally effective though in allowing us to empathize with his love interest, who continues to see less and less of the man she adores in each iteration. This dovetails with the salient plot point of her coming to terms with the fact that as he absorbs more and more power he moves further away from his humanity.
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, this season definitely has some flaws. But what saves it, what always makes The Flash my favorite of the Arrowverse, is that it almost doesn’t even matter what the plot is. We’re not showing up every week (or bingeing in marathon sessions as the case may be) for the Big Bad. We’re here for The Flash, and Grant Gustin’s irrepressible charm. We’re here for the team. The relationships, the pop-culture references, the latest Cisco villain naming, the incredibly fun vibe that the show manages to invoke even in its darkest moments. That’s all thanks to an ensemble cast that’s only achieved better and better synergy as the show has gone on.
We also get a pretty amazing guest star this season in the form of Katee Sackhoff, playing Amunet Black. Her character brings back a nuance we haven’t felt since Wentworth Miller’s Captain Cold left as a frequent recurring character. Her snarky tone is a great balance to the bland implacability of The Thinker and Sackhoff is having obvious fun with the role, vamping and sassing her way through every scene while also managing just the right amount of menace.
Is this the worst season of The Flash? I’ve seen the idea pop up quite a bit in some of the more clickbaity review titles over the course of its run. For me, it’s a bit of a moot point. I’m still having fun, I’m still impressed that the writing team is trying new things (even if some are less successful than others.) As a critic, I could pick it apart all day long. As a fan, I’m still loving the hell out of it.
Now, let’s talk about the extras packed into the home video release.
As with many of the DC television series home releases, there’s a genuine effort here to feed the fans. From Comic-Con panel footage to the expected deleted scenes and gag reel, they do a lot to pull back the curtain and let the audience in on what really seems like a legitimately fun cast and crew experience. There are featurettes on The Thinker, Elongated Man and a chat with Katee Sackhoff and writers Eric Wallace and Sterling Gates. We also get a little overview of this season’s Arrowverse crossover event, “Crisis on Earth X.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit of owning the home video release is that you’re given all four episodes of the crossover event in chronological order. It’s a massive hassle to try to catch them all as they are broadcast, and if you were watching as they dropped on Netflix you were likely introduced to them out of order. Here you can see all four episodes of “Crisis on Earth X” in one place, with Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl’s respective episodes all present here in this release. It’s hard to talk about the crossover without some super spoilers, so I’ll just sum it up by saying that it’s one of the most comic book moments of the collective Arrowverse, and a bit more coherent and cohesive than the previous crossovers. It rewards familiarity with all four shows, particularly in regard to how well you know the personalities of the various characters and how they might mesh (or not mesh!) together. It also throws some fascinating spin on the multiverse versions of established characters. And finally, it’s just a whole lot of Nazi punching fun, at a time when we desperately need some of that.