Musical episodes are notoriously tricky tightrope acts. Pull it off and you might end up with something as marvelous as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s beloved “Once More, With Feeling,” a fun, thrilling, and emotionally profound episode. Of course, if the musical fails, a show will have a misstep on its hands that isn’t easily forgotten. “Duet” is neither revelatory nor a complete disaster, packed as it may be with stage talents like Jesse L. Martin, Victor Garber, and John Barrowman. But it is so entertaining and heartwarming, it’s easy to look past the nagging plot issues.
“Duet” opens with a flashback. A young Barry watches Singin’ in the Rain with his mother, who praises the genre as being wondrous. She’s right: It’s a great genre, if you know what you’re doing. In the wake of his terminated engagement with Iris, Barry finds himself turning to Singin’ in the Rain and other classic musicals for comfort. “Everything is better in song,” Barry tells his new temporary roommate, Cisco. Barry has to put his brooding on hold when they get a call from HR.
Apparently, a breach has opened up in S.T.A.R. Labs, which can either spell trouble or one of their many friends from other universes coming in for a quick jaunt. In this case, it’s Mon-El (Chris Wood) carrying a comatose Kara, a.k.a. the always lovely Supergirl, with J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood) by his side. They need Barry’s help since they have no idea how to get Kara out of her coma, and the person responsible said he’d target the fastest man alive next. Before Barry can even go looking for him, Music Meister (a lackluster Darren Criss) appears at S.T.A.R. Labs. Music Meister is annoying enough in how he taunts Barry, seemingly knowing everything about him right down to his secret identity. I was hoping he’d get a beat-down sooner rather than later. But somehow, neither Barry nor Wally is fast enough to stop him. Before long, Barry finds himself under Music Meister’s spell, and trapped in the same mysterious coma with Kara.
When Barry wakes up in a totally different world full of ’40s styling, fast-talking dames, oddly named gangsters that could have walked out of Dick Tracy, and Kara singing a lovely rendition of “Moon River” on a nightclub’s stage, he realizes this isn’t any ordinary coma. Music Meister pops by to explain things: They’re in their own minds, which is why this reverie is crafted like a movie musical. (Both Kara and Barry are deeply connected to the genre.) To get back to the real world, they just have to follow whatever story the plot of the musical dictates. But there’s one catch: “If you die in here, you die out there,” Music Meister warns before he disappears, leaving Barry and Kara scrambling to figure out what to do next.
In the musical, Kara and Barry are surrounded by the people they know in real life. Of course, it isn’t really them, but imagined versions filtered through the romantic notions of a classic musical. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll stick to calling them their usual names.) Malcolm Merlyn is a criminal and nightclub owner. He’s also Kara and Barry’s boss, and he demands they sing something new. Professor Stein is a gangster. Winn is a pianist who says things like, “I tickle the keys around here.” Cisco also works at the nightclub, and he’s pulled into the opening number kicked off by the Music Meister. The most engrossing reinvention is Joe as one of the most powerful gangsters in the city. “The mayor may have got the vote, but I got the power,” he tells Barry at one point. Joe kidnaps Barry and Kara, forcing them to track down his missing daughter.
Iris isn’t that hard to find, thanks to a tip from Cisco. The only problem is who Kara and Barry find her with: Mon-El. Apparently, they’re star-crossed lovers, given that their fathers are gangsters who hate each other. This is the first time Iris has appeared with much purpose in any of the Flash/Supergirl crossovers — and as always, Candice Patton makes the most of what little screen time she gets. This version of Iris is a fast-talking, sharp-tongued mobster’s daughter with a killer wardrobe. I can totally see why Patton name-checked Dick Tracy’s Breathless Mahoney as inspiration. Her work here is just another example that The Flash doesn’t utilize her skills often enough.
Barry surmises that getting Iris and Mon-El to admit they’re in love to their warring fathers will be their ticket out of this weird fantasy. While Barry takes Iris back to Joe, Kara handles Mon-El with Malcolm. Barry makes a moving case about love and belonging to Iris’s two fathers. That’s right: Joe and Professor Stein are married gangsters in this musical. It’s great. This detail leads to the best song of the night sung between Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman. If you told me the entire point of this episode was to have Martin sing as a sharp-suited gangster, I’d believe you. I shared Barry’s enthusiasm as he sat on the sidelines in utter awe of these men and their talent. But don’t let that heartwarming song about fatherhood and parenting fool you. Joe, Malcolm, and Professor Stein aren’t happy about their kids being in love. “Gather up the boys. We’re going to war,” Joe says.
If you haven’t guessed by now, “Duet” is utter nonsense. But it’s the sort of saccharine, vibrant nonsense that’s held together by great signing, decent songs, and a lot of charm. I especially enjoyed seeing Barry and Kara interact. Their song and tap-dance number about being super friends (pun intended), which was written by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom, is simply joyful.
In the real world outside of this musical dreamscape, other characters get a few good moments of their own. Beyond getting to hear Martin sing and enjoying Garber’s return, my favorite moment in this episode belongs to J’onn. The whole point of crossovers like “Duet” is seeing characters together who normally wouldn’t interact, right? Caitlin’s theory that Music Meister is siphoning Barry and Kara’s powers proves to be correct when the team notices him trying to rob a bank. Wally wants to take him down alone to prove he isn’t still rattled by what happened in the Speed Force (although he definitely is). Cisco insists on joining him, as does J’onn. But Cisco’s leery of having a civilian tag along. Of course, J’onn isn’t just a government agent, as anyone who watches Supergirl or reads DC Comics would know. J’onn transforms into his real self — the Martian Manhunter — with just the right hint of cocky bravado. “Green skin and a sick-ass cape,” Cisco says in shock, looking at J’onn in his natural form. I couldn’t get the smile off my face watching J’onn, Cisco, and Wally team up to take down Music Meister, quickly subduing him in the S.T.A.R. Labs pipeline.
Back in the musical, Kara and Barry get caught in the cross fire of the war between Joe, Professor Stein, and Malcolm. Team Flash sees their vitals spiking in troubling ways, which leads Iris to come up with a novel idea: Can Cisco vibe her and Mon-El to wherever Barry and Kara are? As the Music Meister told her, Iris can save Barry herself. So what saves them from dying in the musical? Love. Iris kisses Barry, waking him up like they’re in a fairy tale. Mon-El kisses Kara, but it’s a far less moving moment. That’s the biggest problem with this crossover: “Duet” suggests that Kara and Mon-El have a strong enough romance to parallel Barry and Iris’s. They don’t! Kara has no chemistry with Mon-El, and they lack the history that lends such emotional impact to Iris and Barry’s scenes.
The final sequence when Barry serenades Iris makes that contrast even clearer. He proposes again, and Iris enthusiastically answers yes. It’s the sort of swooning romanticism that The Flash loves to rely on, and it works beautifully here. “Duet” is a welcome respite from the main plot of season three. Unfortunately, The Flash can’t avoid Savitar and Iris’s possible death forever. After the joyful rush of a musical, in which life’s problems find simple resolutions, Team Flash eventually has to come back down to Earth.