“The Flash” does not earn its feel-good ending in a problematic episode

Outdated gender stereotypes, fragile masculinity, poor fathering, and to top it off, ignorant portrayal about foster parenting, multiple personalities, and mental health care, in a muddled script that fails to push forward this episode’s own plot, or the season’s arc

“Magenta,” The Flash, Season 3, Episode 3. Directed by Armen V. Kevorkian, written by Judalina Neira and David Kob

Spoiler warning: This review contains spoilers for this episode, about upcoming episodes of The Flash, and about Netflix’s Luke Cage.

It’s one thing to analyze a story by its own rules as entertainment, and to analyze a story as reflective of writers’ perspectives of the world and, in directing this writing to an audience, what it reflects about a culture’s values. It’s the challenge reviewing “Magenta,” which is dissatisfying in four parts: as an individual episode, as it portrays multiple personalities and mental health recovery, as part of the season’s arc, and as it portrays parenting especially in terms of gender norms and foster families.

As an episode, the plot is perfunctory, which exacerbates how this ending is not earned by this show, and which ignores many difficult realities to foster care and mental health care.

This episode’s villain-of-the-week, Frankie Kane (Kathryne Dobbs), is abused by her foster father (Peter Flemming), and she has formed a secondary personality, Magenta, who is making use of the metal-manipulation powers given to her by one of this season’s supervillains, Alchemy. After one fight scene outside the police station, Barry (Grant Gustin) finally talks Frankie down from using her powers to kill her abusive foster father in this episode’s climax. In the denouncement, when Barry debriefs her, he somehow got the local police to relocate Frankie to a new foster home in another city (DC Comics setting Keystone gets a name-drop again). Frankie is not yet convinced she can live with this secondary personality and her past actions. Barry’s only advice to contending with the secondary personality Magenta is not to recommend professional help but that Frankie “fight her.”

This advice is not helpful, Barry.

This advice is not helpful, show.

You have to show what that battle looks like, without belittling it.

I am going to repeat this point throughout this post: my criticism is not only because I see problems with this episode’s flaws but also because I have seen these same topics, tropes, storylines, even jokes handled far better in stories with similar plot, media, and genres. If you want to show Frankie’s mental health care as “fighting” against Magenta, there are many stories that indeed frame mental health care as like a battle between superheroes and supervillains. Paul Dini, a writer behind many titles and animated adaptations of DC Comics characters, indeed represented some of his work through trauma in terms of facing off against a villain like the Joker.

The challenge for The Flash is that, unlike Dini, it is not necessarily telling us a personal story, such as a memoir, but a story about other characters. Therefore, it is frustrating to see writers reduce the long process of working with a secondary personality as “fight her,” advice given not by a therapist or other health care professional, but Barry Allen, whose arc this season seems to be the man who cannot help screwing up the timeline. Barry wants to play the hero with a grand gesture of the superhero’s one last punch and one rousing speech: that is not the reality of mental health care.

This is not to say that such a grand gesture moment cannot be earned in the superhero genre, and done well, especially as advice to characters, and us readers, trying to respond to our own concerns. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s portrayal of Superman convincing a person not to kill herself is a ubiquitous example online, and while that example skirts close to being inspiration porn, it does not treat this moment necessarily as the end of this unnamed person’s work following Superman’s intervention. And we do get a similar moment in this episode’s climax: Barry’s repetition of Jay Garrick’s remark last week, that he “move forward,” I think is helpful advice to Frankie. “Moving forward” suggests an endless task. It is not the grand gesture, the climactic battle of good against evil, but a daily event that may never end, much as working through mental health concerns is constant.

Foster care representations also persist with how this show addresses an almost generational definition for what makes a supervillain: that if you have abusive parents, you too will be seen as, or literally become, a supervillain. We risk having that with Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) this season, given her experiences coming up with her mother (more on that below), and we already had it with the abusive parents in previous seasons of The Flash with Zolomon Hunter’s father and his entrance to the orphanage, Leonard and Lisa Snart’s involvement in crime thanks to their father, and hinted by Mick Rory’s time after he inadvertently killed his own parents and was passed through foster care and eventually juvenile detention. To have Frankie made into a supervillain on the basis of her parenting is troubling.

I also will add as an aside that I am torn on how the episode handles Frankie’s foster father. (No, he is not going to be named in this review: he doesn’t deserve it.) It is not how simplistic he is written that bothers me, even as that simplicity is used to justify the violence Frankie commits upon him–as reinforced by Iris (Candice Patton) saying he is a “dick” who has it coming. Rather, it is that the episode shows he is abusive, yet there are other forms of abuse hinted and not shown in this episode. On the one hand, telling rather than showing is frustrating for watching; on the other hand, I appreciate that the episode avoided being exploitative, turning into torture porn (on top of the inspiration porn) to make me a voyeur as to the violence he inflicts on Frankie.

Turning to the other flaws with this episode, as part of this Season 3 arc, its plot plods through: Jesse Wells (Violett Beane) is back with superpowers, Caitlin is still hesitant to reveal her Killer Frost superpowers are manifesting, and its not until the end of this episode that Barry and Joe (Jesse Martin) learn that Alchemy killed the Rival Clariss in last week’s episode. This is all delaying inevitabilities, which is necessary to build suspense, but which require something more than a tease to keep my interests.  

For example, we don’t want to show off our new speedster superhero Jesse too soon, so we have to delay until the end of the episode to witness her superheroics, and we only see her superhero suit in a gift-box, not even on her yet. And we have to wait until halfway through the episode to hear Jesse explain her realization she had superpowers, as she describes to Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) the first time she saved someone’s life with those abilities. So, why aren’t we seeing this rather than only hearing about it? The episode is hinged upon how her father, Harry (Tom Cavanagh), is not letting her do superhero-ing, and when we have an opportunity to see her in action, that is limited to her running around STAR Labs to test her speed and health. This delay is to build up the very impressive climax, when Jesse keeps the hospital afloat to prevent Magenta from killing everyone in it, including her abusive foster father. And she saves Wally, who is still as reckless as he was last season, risking his own death to try to jump-start his potential super-speed. Yet I am disappointed how little else Jesse is given to do here because, again, there was a solution. Rather than having others tell us Jesse has super-speed, show us: last week’s teaser did not have to be Alchemy killing Edward Clariss (Todd Lasance) (oh, the bad guy killed his lackey for failing them–ho-hum), but show us Earth-2 again and show Jesse’s origin story. I know that the budget may not be available to re-make Earth-2, but damn it, try to do it, because I would rather see it happen than only listen to Jesse narrate it.

To the show’s credit, it does acknowledge there is a gender component involved to this delay: Jesse notes that Barry gets to be a superhero while she is not, and the explanation is not one of only experience (or judgment, given that Barry, again, screwed up the timeline so badly–and yes, I am still salty about that) but also, in subtext, because he is a man. Wells’s concern for his child’s safety is realistic; when this show has Joe and Henry Allen celebrating their son Barry as a superhero so soon in his career, that is problematic. Granted, Joe was hesitant in Season One with Barry’s superheroing, but he had motivations other than parental concern, including his suspicions about Harrison Wells and the death threats he was receiving from the Reverse-Flash. Here, Harry is written as just a father who doesn’t want his daughter to be a superhero. Even when he tells her at episode’s end that she has been his hero, and he has difficulty letting her be a hero to other people, the space in-between the opening and the ending are disappointing in articulating his fears. This is not like Finding Nemo where Marlin can project his parental anxiety onto Dory; this is the writers making excuses to delay the climax, which is lackluster writing.

Even as the show acknowledges this gender-based double-standard, it is within the context of Harry getting to show that, hey, at least he is not as bad as Frankie’s foster father–a low bar to cross–and has instant forgiveness for his meddling. Harry gets to say that he is too easy on forgiving himself for his misdeeds, but this seems less like having Jesse developing her father and more like Harry feeling sorry for himself.

This double-standard is not helped by the context of its episode, where, at the same moment, Joe can mock his own son, Barry, for his gendering. One challenge in reviewing this kind of an episode is that I expect it to accomplish two tasks: represent the world as it is, and represent characters better than I. I can’t have both. The world as it is does have people like Joe who refer to Barry’s emotionality as making him “like a daughter.” And the world also has people like Joe, who is better than I am, when he is personable and authoritative as a parent to Wally. At its best, then, this episode can show people as complex, full of contradictions, dare I call them, in this kind of a show, paradoxes.

That leads to the second challenge: how much of the fault in this episode is the responsibility of the writers, and how much is the responsibility of our world? For such a quick gag like Joe mocking Barry’s emotionality as feminine as insult towards him, I got to say the responsibility for that one is on the writers: it’s a foolish gag that did not have to be there, whose comedic payoff was not worth the perpetuation of cliche gender stereotypes. And when that gag is on top the reductive representations of mental health, it is a flaw that I treat more severely than if it was the only problem with a much better episode.

Finally, this episode’s biggest flaw is how it handles portrayals of schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and other similar health care conditions. This is a trend to this show. Last season, villain-of-the-week Eliza Harmon underwent treatment to gain super-speed, the side-effect being a second personality that spoke to her through the mirror. This episode, Cisco (Carlos Valdes) invokes Jekyll and Hyde to reduce the complexities of Frankie’s experience to a pop culture reference, which is in keeping with his character, but which treats multiple personalities as good-vs-evil rather than a far wider range of situations that is beyond me, someone with no mental health care professional experience, to determine. I was so upset watching this episode that I did yell at my television: “You have not earned this!” I think this may be the most I can say right now to analyze the problematic portrayal of Frankie, so moving forward with my own discussions about representations of ability in superhero works, I leave it to others more knowledgable than I to add to this discussion.

While I am not a mental health expert, what I can offer is a recommendation: if you want a DC Comics television episode that looks at schizophrenia and multiple personalities within the superhero genre, watch the Static Shock episode “Frozen Out.” Admittedly, Len Uhley’s script is heavy-handed, having a Saturday morning cartoon “very special episode” vibe, yet one that is earnest and much less detrimental in representing mental health than this episode. Plus, that episode benefited from excellent performances by veteran voice actors and DC Comics mainstays like Phil LaMarr as Static, Michael Dorn as the reverend, and, surprisingly, Starfire herself Hynden Walch as Maureen, whose loss of family, experiences with schizophrenia (which, however, is never named for Maureen’s experience), and transformation into a superpowered being are treated with respect by Walch’s performance and Uhley’s writing.

What To Change In This Episode

I will add one more criticism, and that concerns how this episode could be improved with minor changes:

Revision #1: Cut out that stupid “daughter” joke by Joe against Barry–it’s not worth that kind of sexism for an unfunny gag.

Revision #2: As I hinted above, just have Jesse show up at the beginning of this episode in her superhero outfit, already superhero-ing. In the first episode of this series, we got Barry in the outfit. In this Season 3 opening, we got Wally in the outfit. If the story in this episode is not working, at least give spectacle, and after one season with Jesse, that moment is earned, with her in the superhero outfit. Supergirl did it, after one season, finally giving viewers the Super Cousins fighting side-by-side.

Revision #3: I also want to discuss the foreshadowing this episode does, regarding Caitlin. We know she is going to become Killer Frost: a future episode’s title is already confirmed as “Killer Frost,” because that episode’s director, Kevin Smith (accidentally? purposefully?) revealed it. And they are setting up her mother as being part of her transformation and potential road to supervillainy–which, after having one awful fathers and two really flawed fathers royally screwing up their three children this week, I am not looking forward to the idea that it is the mother who inadvertently makes her own child into a supervillain, but that’s a long gender studies-infused post for later.

While I just spoiled a lot of that information for viewers, it’s not like the show is subtle. Caitlin is making it obvious that she is uncomfortable with her newly acquired ice superpowers, which presents two problems in how this episode writes for Caitlin.

First, we don’t see her ice powers on display, unlike last week’s episode. Why be so subtle about that detail? Can’t afford the budget or a few seconds to show Caitlin repressing her power? (And if one of you makes an Elsa from Frozen joke right now, I will be shaking my head in consternation at you, because I was born without a sense of humor and do not appreciate that obvious but apt joke.) And if Caitlin actually can control her powers, why was she summoning frost in STAR Labs, where someone still could enter and witness the ability she is trying to keep secret?

Second, Caitlin is telling us more than showing us that she is uncomfortable with this transformation. Maybe it’s not that her exposition is the problem so much as what is being espoused: she is afraid she will be like her villainous counterpart on Earth-2. I’ll return to that point in a moment. But as a lengthy aside, after an episode in which “superpowers makes you crazy” is the storyline, rather than more complicated reasons, such as a desire for revenge (as with Farooq in Season 1’s episode “Power Outage”), I am not looking forward to the idea that Caitlin becomes a villain because her powers affect her mind, or the stress of this transformation makes her a villain.

Returning to my point: if you are going to have Caitlin espouse, then have her say the obvious, that she is worried she will be like her Earth-2 doppelganger, or that she is worried about her body changing and what that means for her, or that she is upset with Barry for messing with time and changing her life. There is a point where mystery hampers the plot, hardly building suspense and just frustration. When streaming a season’s worth of episode, that is more forgivable: if you want to get to the climax, skip ahead a few episodes. In initial viewing on broadcast, however, it is less forgivable: as with Jesse and her superhero suit, stop teasing and get on with it.

Random Observations

  • Oh, hey, a new introduction! I can summarize it far more succinctly: “My name is Barry Allen–and I keep screwing up the timeline.”
  • I didn’t write about the Barry and Iris storyline, and, as I discussed with Ellak Roach, whose feedback helped me write this review, there are many plotlines to cover. I’ll summarize that I do appreciate the dialogue the show is giving to Iris, who is coming off as far more quippy than before–saying she and Barry have been “super busy”–including in the preview for next week’s episode (albeit with another dull gender stereotype, one I hope is self-aware on her part, about mirrors and whether her outfit makes her look fat).
  • However, the romance between Barry and Iris is also perfunctory, like this plot: the two are figuring out how to balance Barry’s superheroism and their relationship. At least this is a work in progress, demonstrating the realistic work of “moving forward” in a relationship.
  • But are there no people in Central City? Barry takes Iris out on two dates, and there are no other diners at those restaurants? What, no budget for extras?
  • Also, Barry is still creepy with the “speed by and pay for items without talking to the cashier” when he buys the flowers.
  • Ellak had to point out that Wally is in a yellow shirt, since my colorblind self couldn’t tell, so we got another Kid Flash costume reference.
  • Third episode without Singh. Why you holding out on us, show?
  • Enough with Harry doing Borat “Not!” dad-humor, please.
  • If Barry needed super-strength, don’t team up with Jesse: go back to Supergirl’s Earth and bring her here!
  • Wally, if you want to get super-speed, you know what you have to do: just keep running. Move forward! Come on–it worked for Saitama!
  • So, the new timeline gives us a Speed Lab, but still no ring that lets Barry transform immediately into his costume? This is the worst timeline.
  • Julian (Tom Felton) harassed a person into a confession. Thanks, show: I needed to know he was a dick and to have him abuse someone with a mental health problem.
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