We consider analytically the evolution of a three-dimensional wave packet generated by an impulsive source in a mixing layer. The base flow is assumed to be spreading due to viscous diffusion. The analysis is restricted to small disturbances (linearized theory). A suitable high-frequency ansatz is used to describe the packet; the key elements of this description are a complex phase and a wave action density. It is found that the product of this density and an infinitesimal material volume convecting at the local group velocity is not conserved: there is a continuous interaction between the base flow and the wave action. This interaction is determined by suitable mode-weighted averages of the second and fourth derivatives of the base-flow velocity profile. Although there is some tendency for the dominant wavenumber in the packet to shift from the most unstable value towards the neutral value, this shift is quite moderate. In practice, wave packets do not become locally neutral in a diverging base flow (as do instability modes), therefore, they are expected to grow more suddenly than pure instability modes and do not develop critical layers. The group velocity is complex; the full significance of this is realized by analytically continuing the equations for the phase and wave action into a complex domain. The implications of this analytic continuation are discussed vis-a-vis the secondary instabilities of the packet: very small-scale perturbations on the phase can grow very rapidly initially, but saturate later because most of the energy in these perturbations is convected away by the group velocity. This remark, as well as the one regarding critical layers, has consequences for nonlinear theories.