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Let’s face it, tiger: Season 3 of The Flash was a muddled, depressing mess. The dominant story point of last season was having Barry fix his problems through time travel, only to cause bigger problems to get increasingly maudlin about. The tone of the show had gotten so dark that when Barry went into the Speed Force in the Season 3 finale, it felt like a relief. Maybe this poor, angst-ridden man would finally find some peace—and coincidentally, so would the audience.
It would appear that The Flash showrunners got the message that viewers were down on Season 3 and are on the road to a course correction this season. The title of the Season 4 premiere episode is “The Flash Reborn,” which is one of many explicit signals of a change of direction. But before the show can become reborn, it has to repent the sins of the past. It’s a necessary step, to be sure, but one that lacks the pizzazz you’d like your season premiere to have.
“The Flash Reborn” opens six months after Barry’s disappearance into the Speed Force, with the remaining members of Team Flash—Cisco, Wally, Iris and Joe—picking up the crime fighting slack. The team is down a few members since last season: H.R. died fighting Savitar, Caitlin disappeared to deal with her Killer Frost drama (more on her later), and Julian unceremoniously shipped back to England between seasons. In their superhero IDs as Vibe and Kid Flash, Cisco and Wally protect Central City before confronting a villain who happens to be a Samurai robot. Cisco comes up names for the new foe that references Japanese culture, mostly by name checking famous Japanese directors, before finally coming up with Samuroid. As baddie names goes, it’s not exactly Cisco’s finest hour but we’ll give him some slack since Samuroid is a Flash villain from the comics.
The villain gives our heroes an ultimatum: he wants to face the Flash within 24 hours or else. This serves as a convenient excuse for Cisco to unveil his heretofore secret plan to bring Barry back from the Speed Force. At first Iris is strongly opposed to this plan because…because reasons, I guess. It stretches disbelief to have her be against any attempt to bring her missing fiancé back, but the manufactured drama stretches the episode’s running time until Cisco is able to make use of old Flash set pieces like the race track and the Speed Force Bazooka to bring Barry back. When Barry does return, he’s bearded and bedraggled, and speaking in weird fragments that sound like bad beat poetry. He’s also doing his best Beautiful Mind impersonation by drawing strange, quasi-mathematical glyphs on clear glass walls. How will Team Flash ever shake him out of his stupor?
While Team Flash seeks to resolve that mystery, the showrunners allow them to find the easy camaraderie that made them fun TV friends to hang out with before Season 3 made everyone so deadly grim. After Cisco finds Caitlin working as a bartender at a dive bar, she returns to the Team Flash fold as well. (For those keeping score, the remaining members of Barry’s supporting cast are awfully diverse with two black men and a black woman, a Latino and a white woman.) But at the same time, the show wants the audience to recognize that this isn’t the same Caitlin we know and love. They mainly achieve this by giving her a “tougher” wardrobe of wife beaters and leather jackets, as well as by illustrating by the end of the episode that her Killer Frost persona hasn’t completely left her. Given how interminable that storyline was last season, hopefully the showrunners have fixed the narrative shortcomings that made it such a snooze.
As far as getting Beautiful Mind/Bad Beat Poet Barry back to normal, it takes Iris allowing herself to be captured by Samuroid because she has faith the Flash will save her. After seeing her take on a more take-charge role in Team Flash with Barry’s absence, it is a bit disappointing to see her so quickly revert to the damsel in distress role once he’s back. Still, it’s apparently enough to wake up Barry and don his new (but really only slightly modified) Flash costume to defeat the flying Samurai inspired villain. Unique gimmick aside, Samuriod turns out to be a cardboard foe who primarily serves two purposes: one, as the plot device to get Barry back in the Flash fold, and two, as a way of introducing an even more deadly villain pulling the strings. As a viewer, you’re not completely convinced that the showrunners are ready to abandon the Speed Force plotlines since Barry’s return to normalcy is a bit too pat. But having him chase around crazy villains is a welcomed indicator that The Flash is finally prepared to be fun again.