“Put a little love in your heart.”
The Flash and Supergirl enter this crossover in a very weird place, each coming off arguably their worst episodes to date. “Into The Speed Force” took Barry back a step, leading him to make selfish decisions that were contextualized as selfless, while “Star Crossed” placed Supergirl in the odd position of having to gripe about being lied to by Mon-El without the actual subject of the lie (his horrifying legacy as the prince of Daxam) ever coming into play. Despite each season’s gradual course-correction, things aren’t looking good for the Girl of Steel and the Scarlett Speedster, nor for their respective shows, which is exactly why “Duet” couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
It’s utterly, incomparably delightful.
Dermott Daniel Downs has directed some of DCTV’s finest episodes, from The Flash’s “Fast Enough” to Supergirl’s “For The Girl Who Has Everything” to Legends’ “Raiders of the Lost Art,” not to mention the last time our heroes crossed paths on a Tuesday, the enormous “Invasion!” crossover. He carries his keen eye for balancing character and concept over to this week’s run-in, placing both Barry and Kara in a precarious predicament that is, quite nakedly, first and foremost a gimmick.
After Darren Criss’ Music Meister whammied our heroine unconscious on Supergirl (with mysterious knowledge of both her identity and of Cisco’s interdimensional device), J’onn and Mon-El follow him over from Earth-38 with comatose Kara to see if Team Flash can help her. Before they know it, Music Meister materializes at STAR Labs with seeming omnipotence when it comes to Barry, Wally and the show’s various plot threads. He knocks Barry out with his hypnosis, sending him to a dreamlike 1920s cabaret where Kara is singing on stage. Before we know it, we’re off to the races with one hell of a comicbook soap opera with a bunch of catchy tunes up its sleeve.
To fully understand what’s happening here, one needs to understand this version of Music Meister, who has almost nothing in common with his Brave and The Bold cartoon counterpart. While we don’t learn much about him until the episode ends (even then it’s left somewhat vague), what’s clear from the get-go is Meister isn’t from around here. Not in terms of being from neither Earth-1 nor Earth-38, or any other Earth in the multiverse; he doesn’t belong inside these four fictional walls. No prison can hold him, because he isn’t really a character. He’s a Grant Morrison-esque embodiment of authorial voice, setting whatever rules he sees fit for this narrative in order to make our heroes go through the motions, and he works like a charm.
Barry grew up watching Singin’ In The Rain to deal with rainy days, a habit he’s carried over to adulthood post his breakup with Iris, while Kara’s memories of her adoptive family (and likely her intro to Earth’s culture) are connected to The Wizard of Oz. The shared construct they create in their unconscious state is that of a classic Hollywood musical. It appears “Music Meister” can send people into any genre of dream, so the musical concept appears to stem from the heroes themselves, just as the idea for the episode came about thanks to the cast’s collective musical talent. In order to escape this strange reality, Kara and Barry must follow the script laid out in front of them, going through the motions of the story they’ve been dealt until they reach its inevitable end point.
It’s an excuse to have the cast flex their vocal cords and put on their tap shoes, but it’s imbued with a directly metatextual sense of narrative correction. Granted, The Flash has been doing this a lot this season, but it feels like it’s finally worked. While Barry and Kara are still themselves (sans speed and invulnerability), they encounter the other musically talented members of The CW’s DC roster. John Barrowman (Arrow’s Malcolm Merlyn) shows up as the gang-affiliated owner of the nighclub where Barry and Kara work as singers; also under his employ are various musical archetypes like Jeremy Jordan (Supergirl’s Winn Schott) as the piano player caught between playing the same ol’ tunes and hoping to perform his original songs, and Carlos Valdes (here on double duty as both Cisco and “Pablo”) as a lowly bartender with an American dream.
The plot, as Barry and Kara begin to understand it, involves warring family factions and their respective kids who have fallen in love. On one side, you have Barrowman. On the other, you have Jesse L. Martin and Victor Garber (if you’ve ever wanted to ship Joe West with Martin Stein, there you go!), whose daughter Millie has gone missing after shacking up with Barrowman’s son behind their back. The dynamic duo are tasked with tracking down this lovelorn Shakespearean couple, but what complicates matters is the fact that they look exactly like Mon-El and Iris West, the people Supergirl and The Flash just broke up with. Ruh roh!
In the real world, Music Meister has stolen both their powers, and is flying, speeding and causing mayhem in general around Central City, forcing Wally/Kid Flash to get over his Speed Force trauma and regain his lost bravery to beat him. With the help of Vibe and Martian Manhunter of course; these crossovers were made just so I can type sentences like this one. They put Meister away in a cell at STAR Labs, but when Iris and Mon-El try to interrogate him for info, all they’re met with is cryptic advice. These two wounded lovers are, apparently, the only ones who can save Barry and Kara, because like Dorothy, Neo and every other chosen hero in human history, they’ve had the power all along. The only problem is, they have no idea what that means.
Barry’s advice to Millie about filling in her dad(s) on her forbidden romance comes about as an extension of his own need to realize that “love conquers all” and can beat any opposition (something her fathers know all too well), while Kara’s advice to not-Malcolm Merlyn about trying to see things from his son’s point of view helps her do the same with Mon-El, right before both sets of dads break into song about leaving behind music and fatherly advice for their children. Now, this is a bit of a shortcut for both shows in order to get their couples back together, and it’s especially strange after Supergirl dropped the ball just one night prior, but it’s all so structurally, thematically and emotionally sound within the construct of this one episode. One cannot, of course, divorce a single entry from its larger continuum, but given the non-stop hilarity and sheer emotional honesty of everything on display (The Flash and Supergirl singing about their friendship in “Super Friend” is everything I never knew I needed!), “Duet” comes damn close to making me forgive each series’ larger transgressions.
Keep in mind, these things are still very much a problem, and may well continue to be, but “Duet” works wonders as a self-perpetuating entity, allowing these heroes and this universe to function at their optimum. A musical is perfect for The Flash and Supergirl because they work best when they’re emotionally broad, when their heroes are honest and good, when they hit even predictable emotional beats with sincerity, and when they’re up against a gimmick-of-the-week that challenges them to be the best version of themselves. While “Duet” certainly exposes each show’s weaknesses – the story draws you in by going as far away from their romances as possible before eventually circling back to them – it also plays on their every strength, including and especially a cast of characters we love to spend time with when they’re having fun instead of moping.
They’re the kind of shows where “cheese” is both the flavour of the month and the flavour everyone shows up for, where an idea like “the real power was love all along!” is approached completely straight, as Mon-El and Iris realize they’re the ones who need to save the heroes for once, enlisting Cisco’s help to “vibe” them inside this musical dream just as a gang war breaks out and Barry and Kara are shot. What’s more, the lesson Music Meister has been trying to teach the heroes is that love isn’t just about saving people, but allowing yourself to be saved. A much more pressing lesson for The Flash, to be sure. That it doesn’t work for Supergirl is eclipsed only by the fact that her forgiveness comes about too easily, but “Duet” is such a delight that I’m okay not thinking about Supergirl’s lack of romantic direction until it returns next Monday. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.
Barry and Iris’ romance rarely feels convincing, but this is one of the times when it does. “Duet” plays fast and loose with musical diegesis, ending on Barry proposing to Iris again, this time for the right reasons and with a self-written Flash-themed romantic ballad, making for one hell of an impactful ending. “Runnin' Home To You” is one of this season’s high points, not just for its title or lyrics (written by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote La La Land’s “City of Stars”), but because of how it allows Barry to regain the sincerity that made Iris, and the rest of us, fall in love with him in the first place. Regardless of these shows’ larger problems, this was a singular hour where I laughed, cried, and truly believed what Barry’s mother once told him: “Everything’s better in song.”
More like this, please. Many more like this.