This episode is now forcing a narrative about whether Barry and Iris will be together. And I do not care right now, because the focus to this episode was supposed to be Barry’s moral conundrum whether to get back his powers, when, in almost any other story, the answer would be a resounding, “Duh, of course.”
This is Barry Allen, the boy introduced in Episode 1 who did not run away from helping the unprotected, who when he gained his superpowers decided to use them to stop crime in a classic superhero mode.
Yet this episode did not convince me that Barry (Grant Gustin) would stop trying to be a superhero.
Barry’s hesitance to become the Flash again is the equivalent to complaints about Bruce Wayne at the end of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or Clark Kent in Man of Steel: these are people who do not stop being superheroes, they keep going. Perhaps it is idealistic to hold to that idea that a hero does not stop at that work, and there should be something to appreciate in what Nolan and David Goyer were trying to accomplish with Dark Knight and Man of Steel, to show that superheroes are not perfect but instead have limitations that compromise how far they are willing to go.
But I do not think it is any less idealistic or unrealistic compared to the soap opera qualities and fantastic content inherent not only to the superhero story but to The Flash itself. Barry is supposed to be someone who does not stop trying; he is the Superman to Oliver Queen’s Batman in this Arrowverse. As such, he should be what Batman said Superman was in the Justice League animated series: someone who recognizes that this is a “never-ending battle.”
Logically, knowing Zoom is now on Earth-1, and knowing the Central City Police are no match against him, Barry should agree to go through the process to regain his powers. Instead, we have a character hesitating for 50 minutes in a 60-minute time frame. This isn’t Hamlet, where we get a sense of interiority about Barry’s struggle, whether he is willing to risk his life (as if he has not already). Instead of hearing what Barry thinks, we have loud conversations between him and other characters to tell us his feelings rather than show them. It is more effective when it is left to other characters like Harry (Tom Cavanagh), Joe (Jesse Martin), and Henry (John Wesley Shipp), as his father figures, to debate whether Barry should go through with the procedure because, in that case, we are not listening to one person wrestling with the problem himself but externalizing that struggle onto other characters with significantly different points of view. Seeing Harry, Joe, and Henry debating is like watching Kirk listening to Spock and Bones arguing: if you have decent dialogue and great actors, the scene can work, and it worked well enough for me.
But the other detail that keeps Barry from deciding to risk his life is knowing that Iris will miss him. And that is pointless when we as viewers know already, after one and a half seasons, that of course they love each other, whether that is romantically or not. A relationship upgrade at a time when Zoom is ready to kill people across Central City is not needed right now.
In the middle of this near-death situation, the show goes for the classic conceit in which, when people are around to die, they confess their love. Handled poorly, as I think it was in this episode, it is a cliche. The dialogue, helped by Candice Patton’s acting, does convince me that Iris has been struggling with the need to address this concern for some time, back when Barry was about to go to Earth-2 and her fear that this was some death-drive on his part. To add it to this episode seems needless, however: Season 1’s finale already had the characters reminding Barry that he had a home to return to, so to awkwardly force the romance into this moment seemed needless. Iris does not need to say she loves Barry to convince him to come back: he already knows that love she has for him, romantic, platonic, familial, or otherwise, so this plotline seemed not in service to the plot but, first, to feed a romance to viewers that has been teased to the point of the writers trolling the audience, and second, to delay the inevitable, that of course Barry will try to regain his powers.
It is not as if romance is not part of superhero comics: as much as publishers and markets may want to deny it, lest the comics be thought unmanly in some way, writers like Stan Lee recognized that comics have their soap opera tendencies, and that includes attention to the romance between characters. It’s actually kind of fitting that so many of the creative forces between DC and Marvel’s TV and cinematic writers got their start with the CW and its predecessors with the WB and UPN: Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek, The Flash, as well as Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow) and Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers) had some of their biggest successes tapping into viewers’ desires for love triangles. I’m not saying that makes for good television: prolonging the Clark-Lara-Lois love triangle, in comics or in Smallville, is exhausting, and the slow burn for Fitz and Simmons on Agents of SHIELD bores me.
I can’t act like I’m somehow not a shipper when it comes to comics: I do see romantic potential in stories, and I do try to focus on it when it can enrich a story. It can be fruitless in, say, Teen Titans, where the chemistry between Beast Boy and Raven allows the two to balance themselves, but it may not be the most mature way to represent a healthy relationship. In other cases, it feels like a missed opportunity not to identify romantic subtext, or change it to become an obvious text, as with Soul and Maka in the manga Soul Eater, where the repetition of “soulmates” as a theme clashes with the author’s failure to address that romantic potential (except for a small moment in the very last chapter).
The Flash has had that challenge of addressing the canonical relationship between Barry Allen and Iris West for some time, not helped by decisions made in the series that seemed pointless. Geoff Johns had revised Barry’s origin in the comics to have his desire to be a superhero be motivated by the death of his mother so that, as Johns explains in a commentary track on the Season 1 Blu-Ray, something is always holding Barry back in the past, while he is running to the future. It’s a beautiful image because it hurts; it’s also a cliche in terms of plotting, yet again another female character in a superhero story is killed off. I can address that problem in the future, but it is also a problem in what happens with Barry’s family structure:
With his father wrongly arrested for his mother’s murder, Barry is raised by Iris’s father, and the show repeatedly acknowledges that, yes, this forms a sibling relationship to the characters. This portrayal is in contrast to the classic comic book story of Barry and Iris as a couple, and it also flies against the show’s own continuity: as the Barry of this show exists in an altered timeline, in the original timeline, he and Iris were married. And in the parallel universe Earth-2, he and Iris are married. So this makes for one big bag of awkwardness not seen since Mark Millar decided it would be oh-so-edgy to have siblings Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch have an incestuous relationship. (Spoiler: it was as poorly written as you imagine.)
It felt like The Flash had Barry adopted into Iris’s family not to delay their relationship only for the sake of ship-teasing the audience. Rather, it seemed like it was done also to place the men in the spotlight: Barry therefore can have competing father figures in the forms of his biological father Henry Allen, his adoptive father Joe West, and his father figure Harrison Wells, alias the Reverse-Flash Eobard Thawne. I think those relationships were important for the show to reveal; I don’t think it is worth sacrificing the relationships Barry has with his mother and with Iris, as if we have to pick either the relationships with his fathers or the relationships he has with many women. This is not an either-or choice: we can have both.
This is the problem that has emerged as well with Legends of Tomorrow, in which Kendra Saunders’s characterization is built around her romantic relationships with Ray Palmer and Carter Hall, to the point that the core to her character is limited to her wings, the fact that she used to be a barista, and her big honking mace. It is a disservice to all character, not only Kendra but to her male teammates, just as it is a disservice not only to Iris but also to Barry. He is made into someone who is shown as if he is held back by Iris, which I know is not what the series is trying to show but which comes across as such.
The Flash has been in many ways about characters other than Barry lacking agency: while he cannot change the past to rescue his mother, he also denies opportunities for characters to be the ones who make changes in their lives, such as his refusal to empower himself and hence inadvertently sacrificing the lives those police officers. Barry offers some of the most awkward writing since the Supergirl finale had everyone bemoan the death of a character introduced practically in the same episode in which she is killed off: he mentions how a police officer was killed, who has a son the same age Barry was when his mother died. Barry bemoans how this nameless police officer left behind this nameless son–and Barry’s the one who made that choice and denied it to that officer. Joe told Barry before that death that he would have to accept the ramifications of his decisions, but when Barry has the abilities of time-travel, it makes the death of even nameless characters feel even more meaningless.
This problem of Barry being the only one to exercise agency is not helped by Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) still a captive of Zoom (Teddy Sears and Tony Todd). In the same week in which Oliver Sava (I think wrongly) refers to Karen Page in Daredevil Season 2 finale as a “damsel in distress,” I do not want to ignore how Caitlin, like Karen, does exert some action, albeit still from a position of captivity and still in service to the male hero to find the villain’s location. Caitlin is stuck as a sounding-board for Zoom to still work through his issues of trauma, to a point that the show is not taking seriously what that trauma did to him and instead reducing him to, as he says, a “monster.”
Unfortunately, Teddy Sears’s acting is not helping to show Zoom’s trauma or his monstrosity. Sears’s acting has lacked the intensity for how angry his lines sound, much as how his portrayal of Jay Garrick lacked that folksy Captain America-esque charm of a World War II steampunk Earth-2 from which he hails and which would make the shock of his alter ego Zoom all the more terrifying. It is left to Tony Todd, as the voice of Zoom (added with ADR over Sears’s face) to lend the sense of fearsomeness, if not pain, to the character. And I have no doubt Todd would have been a better choice, if not as Garrick and Zoom then as the voice at all times: like most capable voice actors, Todd’s performances as Icon in Young Justice and Dreadwing in Transformers Prime show that he is capable of lending pain, turmoil, sadness, and calm to Zoom that can make his villainy all the more chilling. It is a shame that Season 2, unlike Season 1, is not able to do more with Zoom as it did with the Reverse Flash. Then again, it is also unfortunate that Season 2 has Barry acting even more foolishly than he did in Season 1–when he decided going back in time was a good idea–and acting in ways that reduce characters like Iris into side-characters to serve as romantic interests when there should be far more given to that character.
This idea of the grand gesture, that somehow Iris and Caitlin are the ones responsible to serve as the guides for men in their lives, is paralleled with the other storyline in which Cisco (Carlos Valdes) gets a vibe (of course) that his brother Dante (Nicholas Gonzalez) will be in danger. This storyline was underdeveloped and, like the storyline for Barry and Iris, felt forced. We hardly get to see much of Dante’s Earth-2 villainous doppleganger, the scythe-wielding Rupture (Gonzalez), in action (and denying me more opportunities to reference Soul Eater and RWBY). It is also disappointing to see that, since Season 1, Cisco and Dante’s relationship was left at where it was before, despite that near-death experience. I fail to see why this new near-death experience, where Cisco witnesses Rupture’s death, is going to mend the strain between Cisco and Dante. Granted, one detail that helps is Cisco finally revealing his superpowers to Dante and the fact that he had written a message to Dante in case of he died while on Earth-2.
I can credit the plot of Cisco and Dante for taking a more realistic approach to family stresses: a grand gesture, even one of saving the other one’s life, may not be enough to hit the reset button on a relationship. A grand gesture is not enough: rebuilding a strained relationship requires patience and time. When The Flash side-steps that time by never showing Cisco and Dante bonding afterwards, I guess it’s better to admit that the relationship was not mended than to leave that character development off-screen. Still, I do wish last season had incorporated one of the deleted scenes (included on the Blu-Ray) in which the start of Dante’s healing relationship with Cisco is shown, as he defends Cisco to their mother and acknowledges not only his scientific but also musical talents. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the deleted scene, get the Blu-Ray and watch it: it accomplishes more than this episode does in showing some forgiveness between the Ramon brothers.
Oh, and this episode ended with Barry finally deciding to reclaim his powers–then “die” (e.g., got sent back in time–in graphic detail), and Jesse Quick (Violett Beane) and the Flash Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale) finally get their origin stories. And it’s about damn time. But like I said, this episode had so much happening with little time to let those aspects have some room to breathe.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the problem of DC’s film division potentially casting a white actor to play Iris West in The Flash film adaptation. While in the original comics Iris was white, not only is Iris black in the TV series but also the later comics, and it is abyssmal to continue to have so few roles in major films cast with actors who are black. I hope that DC sticks with having a black actor in the role of Iris–but then again, I’m still confused why we are bothering with a Flash film thanks to the grimdark nonsense Zack Snyder is shoving into the DC Cinematic Universe. (Yep, I’m still beating that Man of Steel-sized dead horse.)
- If Zoom is so powerful, why doesn’t he just take over Central City already? He says it was for the sake of Caitlin, which again is a waste of Caitlin and does harm to the characterization of yet another female character. This is the worst part of a superhero story: the villain is monologuing so much I’m waiting for him to act like a James Bond villain and just talk the heroes to death. It also doesn’t help me that there was something darkly comical about Zoom holding the remnants of Barry’s Flash suit, as if the look on his face was to say, “Jeez, you guys killed the Flash before I could–you’re even more evil than me!”
- Henry tells Barry that his mother’s maiden name was “Garrick.” And I throw up my hands at this point: I have no idea who the Man in the Mask is, and if he is the real Jay Garrick played by John Wesley Shipp, or the 1990s CBS Flash played by Shipp, or who knows, maybe I’m the guy in the mask. It’d make as much sense.