There’s something about “The Sound and the Fury” that just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s that the villain never really sparks, or maybe it’s that the episode does plenty of teasing in regards to Dr. Wells’ more nefarious goals with precious little payoff to go with the hints, but ultimately it seems to come down to the episode being, well, just kind of expected. The Flash hasn’t been redefining the superhero genre on television, but it has been a bit of a breath of fresh air. Injecting a lively, spirited take on a genre that has taken an unlikely turn towards the serious of late. In both its plotting and its tone, this week’s installment heads just a little too far towards the norm to truly stand out.
The Flash obviously isn’t the only live-action superhero story that has a lighter edge, pretty much every Marvel property takes a sunnier tone, but by and large the Christopher Nolan school of thought that started with Batman Begins has taken root for other comic properties. Just look at the trailer for Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four that was recently released for your evidence. There’s a property that’s largely known for a warm, familial vibe and the trailer for the movie looks like nothing less than a riff on Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar. That’s not a criticism. I’m not trying to be overly precious about the source material. It’s merely an observation that, for many comic book films, the default tone tends towards the grim and portentous.
“The Sound and the Fury” veers towards grimness more than a few times in this episode, whether it’s Harrison admitting that the explosion of the particle accelerator wasn’t a complete surprise or The Pied Piper’s ultimate plan to literally vibrate The Flash apart in a particularly gruesome looking attack. While there’s still the show’s usual wit and warmth on the edges of the episode, Cisco bristling at Hartley giving himself a code name was a particularly enjoyable moment, the center of this episode deals with characters mistrusting each other and harboring strong resentments.
That’s not something that immediately bodes ill for the series. While The Flash excels at being cheerful, it still needs to pair those brighter emotions with darker ones for the light side of things to truly mean anything. The issues arise from the fact that there’s very little in this episode that the viewer hasn’t seen before. For instance, how does the show highlight that Dr. Wells and Hartley have had a contentious mental battle going on for years? Why, by showing them playing chess in the past and having them relate their present day conflict in terms of chess moves of course. It’s hacky writing and The Flash doesn’t find any way to transcend the clichés of the material.
All of which is doubly frustrating, because the episode seemingly attempts to try a few unexpected things along the way, despite being bogged down in a plot that hits more than a few expected beats. While Andy Mientus’ Pied Piper falls into some very generic villain traits, his grudge against Dr. Wells and his plan which involves being intentionally kidnapped, the episode does an admirable job of both setting him apart from the main characters and refusing to soften him. Hartley’s just kind of a dick and while his sexuality may have caused him to be disowned by his parents, the episode doesn’t try and use it as an excuse for his actions. He’s just an unfriendly guy with an axe to grind and the smarts to pose a real threat.
The problems emerge in the details, the Pied Piper is an effective bit of plot propulsion, but he doesn’t bring much oomph to his scenes. He’s bad, he’s got a mostly justified reason for hating Wells, but he’s going about things in a way that hurts innocents so he’s got to be stopped. If his plan felt more original, or if Mientus had more notes to play than frustrated genius, the episode might click. Instead Hartley mostly grumbles around the screen, only truly illuminating in a few spare moments, most prominently in his last scene with Cisco where he reveals that he has info on Ronnie and he plans to use it as leverage to secure his release from the particle accelerator prison.
It’s here where The Pied Piper seems valuable, in that he’s most interesting when he’s being casually cruel to other characters rather than just operating on his own, throwing around sonic blasts. Hartley’s not a great one man show, but he’s a solid foil to the other characters, and now that he’s promising to stick around for at least another episode it’s possible to be hopeful that Hartley’s darker tone will become more enjoyable when actively bounced off a lighter episode.
“The Sound and the Fury” isn’t a bust, it’s still got plenty of the strong elements that The Flash has developed over the course of its first season. The relationships between the main characters are still warm and compelling, the action scenes still impress, and the overall plotting is sound, but the episode veers ever so slightly into the dark in a way that doesn’t serve the series as well as it might. If the episode’s tone had been calibrated just slightly, and The Pied Piper tweaked to provide something a little more than dour gloominess, things might have come together, but as it stands the episode lacks something that might have truly made it stand out.