With the deluge of superhero adaptations showing no signs of slowing down, now may seem like the perfect time for these stories to buck conventions. What’s forgotten, however, is how hard it is to pull off the traditional formula. The Flash isn’t trying to subvert expectations, although it does veer into more fantastical, mythologically dense territory than its peers. This season has struggled to find its footing, particularly since Savitar is another boring rehash of the villainous speedster that Barry has already faced. Every time he’s mentioned, I miss Captain Cold and the Pied Piper. But with “Dead or Alive,” the season’s best episode yet, The Flash finally gets its formula right, mixing zaniness, a dash of pathos, ridiculous sci-fi, and a lot of heart.
“Dead or Alive” primarily concerns the team getting entangled with a metahuman who goes by the unfortunately offensive name of Gypsy (Jessica Camacho). Gypsy, who comes from Earth-19, has been tasked with hunting down HR. Apparently on their Earth, inter-dimensional travel is strictly outlawed, making HR a criminal. By crossing to the main universe and foolishly broadcasting his fictional stories across the multiverse, he’s put his life in peril. The punishment for this crime on Earth-19? Death. No trial. No appeals. To make matters worse, Gypsy isn’t only exceedingly good at her job — she has the same powers as Cisco and is light years ahead of him in terms of knowing how to wield them. When she tracks down HR, she opens a portal into STAR Labs, easily stops Cisco, and halts Wally in place. Later, she’s even able to turn the tables on Barry. Yeah, she’s that good. I’m not much of a fan of HR (even though I’ve loved Tom Cavanagh throughout the series), so when Caitlin says, “I know HR can be annoying, but he doesn’t deserve to die” I couldn’t help but think, Are you sure?
When faced with a charismatic, attractive badass who happens to have his same powers, Cisco can’t help but ask her out when he should be defending HR. Can’t say I blame him. Maybe his overwhelming attraction to Gypsy is what causes him to get the not-so-bright idea to agree to a trial by combat to save HR. Only 24 hours to train before a fight to the death with Gypsy doesn’t give Cisco much time to up his game. The hilarious reactions of the rest of the team as Cisco bombs at training (with Barry trying his hardest to support him) highlights one of the best aspects of this episode: It’s utterly hilarious. Carlos Valdes’s comedic timing is aces here. He lends Cisco the perfect blend of fear, flirtatiousness, and confidence when it counts. He isn’t alone, either. The entire episode is propulsive, light on its feet, and breezy without feeling forgettable. This is why I watch The Flash. Even Julian has settled into being the resident cynic in a way that plays well off the cheery optimism of the rest of the team.
Of course, none of this would work if the writers didn’t craft an antagonist that is memorable. If there is one thing The Flash has struggled with this season, it is making each villain-of-the-week feel vital among the more major predicaments. Gypsy isn’t much like her comic counterpart, which makes me wonder why they kept the name — especially considering its problematic meaning. But beyond that, she’s so much fun to watch. Equal parts cocky and sharp-tongued, actress Jessica Camacho is an immediately captivating presence. Furthermore, the action of this episode, directed by Harry Jierjian, is emotionally and visually engaging.
After Barry’s failed coup, HR is in the hands of Gypsy, meaning he’ll be helplessly watching from the sidelines. The showdown sees Cisco and Gypsy being more evenly matched than you’d expect — until she decides to play dirty by opening a portal to another Earth. This kicks off one of The Flash’s best action sequences as Cisco and Gypsy travel from universe to universe, trading blows and come-ons. It’s thrilling, a touch wacky, and expertly crafted.
Against all odds, Cisco wins. (For that he should thank Julian, who figures out Gypsy’s signature move, giving Cisco an opening to throw her off balance.) Cisco, of course, doesn’t kill her. This isn’t that kind of show. Gypsy will tell the higher ups of Earth-19 she killed HR, and in exchange, HR can never return home. Considering his reasons for coming to the main universe — he wanted to rewrite his story and he doesn’t have any emotional bonds there — this seems like a fine trade-off. Gypsy heads back to Earth-19, while Cisco, in turn, gains a potential paramour and ally.
But for all the greatness of this main story line, what gives “Dead or Alive” its heart is that the writers finally paid attention to the interiority of one of the most important characters: Iris. Last week, I wondered how knowing Iris may very well die in four months would affect her. The last episode didn’t give us much of an inkling. But this week, “Dead or Alive” takes full advantage of the narrative to develop Iris’s character in ways that let Candice Patton shine.
Iris is handling a particularly dangerous story, digging up dirt on an arms dealer who gave Plunder his highly advanced gun. Both Barry and Joe are against her investigation. Honestly, I bristled at their reaction. I get wanting to keep her safe, but as she says, “I’m still a journalist, Barry. I can’t hide from the world just because of what you saw.” However, Iris’s dedication to this story soon comes across as a death wish. She decides to approach Wally for some help by appealing to his current enjoyment of being a hero. Remember how Flashpoint showed them as a brother-and-sister crime-fighting duo? Well, Iris decides to bring that back into action. Yes, please!
This team-up leads to a lot of hilarity at first. Iris gets Wally to take pictures of Joe’s file on the arms dealer while she distracts him. (She alludes to her and Barry wanting to have kids, which nearly sends the poor man into a tailspin, only for her to reveal she’s talking about bringing a pet into their household.) As we soon learn, Iris’s desire to nail this story is more than just about journalistic integrity and helping out Central City. “I want my life to mean something,” she says. “More than as a daughter or as a sister or as a girlfriend. But as a reporter.”
Finally! I loved Iris this episode. She’s actually given room to behave like an actual human being. Not a prop, not just a Superhero Girlfriend™, but a full-fledged character with a goal and motivations. Watching her face off against the arms dealer also proves there is more to Iris than we’ve seen all season. She stares the dealer down, walks right up to his gun, and doesn’t care if he pulls the trigger. Remember, she believes she has four months left. The arms dealer is so baffled by Iris’s cocky display, it gives Wally time to rush in and knock him out. (By the way, the transition from this scene to Joe yelling, “Hell no, I ain’t cool with this,” is not only hilarious, but also lends an energy this show needs.)
Later, Iris and Barry hash things out. He wants to protect her. She wants to live her life. You know the drill. But she isn’t afraid to die. She’s afraid of ending up like her mother, who left no real mark on the world. Barry tries comforting her by saying that Iris’s mother left her mark in the children she had. But considering Iris’s earlier words to Wally about wanting to be more than just a woman defined by the men in her life, this isn’t really all that heartwarming.
Just when I thought this episode couldn’t get any better, the ending added another layer of greatness. Something Iris said makes Barry realize he’s going about things all wrong. So, he goes to Wally and tells him his new plan. “I’m not going to save Iris from Savitar. You are,” Barry says. This means, based on Julian’s calculations from earlier, that Wally will have to pretty much double Barry’s current highest speed. Wally is shaping up to be a great hero and he’s improving faster than Barry ever has (once again proving Wally West is the best Flash in and out of the comics). With Barry’s plan and Iris’s development, The Flash is finally becoming the show it always had the potential to be.