Barry Allen’s upbeat adventures were, in a time long past, the antidote to the brutal darkness of Arrow. Once in awhile, we still get glimmers of those halcyon days, but even those are often kneecapped and hamstrung by the sense of sadness that has become pervasive in Flash’s world. The third season of The Flash was the most frustrating yet. But to to make sense of why it was so frustrating, let’s look at the mistakes made so far.
If you happened to have checked out my thoughts on the most recent season of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, some of this will be previously-tread ground, but let’s dive in.
The Flash‘s biggest problem is repetition. Really, this is the same problem that held back Arrow until just this season. Superheroes are, to some degree, inherently formulaic, and I accept that, but it’s the ways in which the formula is broken that make a character and story interesting. Once you learn the rules of the game, you find creative exceptions to the rules. The Flash, on the other hand, has stuck strictly to the CW DC playbook since day one.
In the first season, that was fresh. All of it was fresh. We had this inexperienced young hero that was the utter antithesis of the only other hero character in his world, Arrow. Where Arrow and his alter ego Oliver Queen were hardened, frustrated, and guilt-ridden, the Flash and Barry Allen were hopeful, full of possibility, ripe for development, education, and more.
With these fresh, confusing powers, Barry was taken in by Harrison Wells, the physicist whose reactor accidentally created him. Wells and his two junior scientists, both geniuses in their own rights, worked alongside Barry to become the hero the city needed to fight the new frightened and angry metahumans popping up all over the city.
In this season, we had a few important things. First, we had some fun weekly villains that gave us ways to explore the Flash’s new powers. They weren’t all memorable, but they all made for fun, light episodes for a fun, light character. Second, we had a mystery – who is the Reverse Flash? Third, we had Barry’s driving mission: to prove his father innocent and get him out of prison. They gave Barry something to do, something to discover, and something to fight for.
Meanwhile, we met all these new characters and got to know them through the course of the first season. We got close to them and developed relationships. Even some of the lackluster characters, like Caitlin Snow, were still enjoyable enough that they helped carry the show along.
While the show revealed pretty early on that Harrison Wells was the Reverse Flash, it played with that for a long time, confirming and then casting doubt on the notion a few times. When Harrison Wells turned out to be Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash, it was heartbreaking.
Whenever actor Tom Cavanaugh would say “Run, Barry, Run!” it was inspiring and hit all the notes it was supposed to.
“Now this is a comic book television show,” we would all say. It was great. The Flash felt good to watch. It felt like we were seeing something new.
So when we looked back on all those moments, casting this new context on them, it added new depth to them. The tied fates of the Flash and Reverse Flash gave all of it this complexity. Without the other, neither could exist. The Flash created the Reverse Flash created the Flash.
In the second season, then, we went in with optimism and forgave a lot. What we didn’t know was that we were seeing what would become a spiraling pattern.
There was a lot to love about the second season. The show went in full-bore on the Speed Force, on the multi-verse, and on the Flash family. It felt like the writers and producers were investing in the comic book world.
With Flash’s mentor gone, he needed a new one. That mentor came in the form of Jay Garrick, supposedly Earth 2’s version of the Flash. Again, this was cool. TV comic book shows had never gone so deep into the weeds. But the pattern began to emerge.
Early on, the show introduced Zoom, Flash’s newest nemesis. They showed him as a dark, brutal psychopath that the Flash was clearly no match for. Eventually, the Jay Garrick we had known would turn out to be Hunter Zolomon, the true identity of Professor Zoom. Once again, the Flash’s mentor betrayed him.
In all of this, though, the show struggled to give us interesting villains for Flash to battle. Many were boring and forgettable, and Zoom so completely outclassed Flash that their encounters weren’t fun or exciting, just tense. And the show continued to add characters, both to the Flash family and to the greater Arrowverse. It had to try to find time for both the existing cast and these new people.
There were good parts to the season, but too much of it felt like Season 1 but with a more brutal villain. The ending was actually pretty interesting. Instead of a fistfight, it came down to Barry using his powers creatively and ended up creating a crucial Flash character. Then, they took things in a direction that had tons of potential.
Savitar: God of Boredom
When season 3 opened up, I was wildly excited. The end of the second season had Barry going back in time to stop the Reverse Flash from killing his mother, creating a timeline called Flashpoint. In the comics, Flashpoint is this wildly different universe where Superman is in a government prison deep underground, the Amazons are at war with the Atlanteans, and Batman’s secret identity is Thomas Wayne, the grieving father of the deceased Bruce Wayne.
The CW doesn’t have access to many of these characters, so instead of getting a full season of weirdness, we got an episode or so of Barry in his alternate happyland and then a full season of him being punished for messing with time.
And how do we punish Barry?
With another mysterious speedster who likes killing and hates Barry Allen.
By this point, Barry is so weighed down by guilt that he’s less The Fastest Man Alive and more The Saddest Man Alive. What took Oliver Queen Five Years in Hell (and four seasons in Star City) took Barry a mere two and then some.
The entire season, we knew that this new speedster, Savitar, was going to kill Barry’s love, Iris. That hung over the show since almost the first episode. We also knew that the identity of Savitar was that of someone very close to Team Flash, and that the betrayal would be a deeply cutting one for the characters.
These two things paralyzed the show. With Iris, the show was setting up stakes that it couldn’t make good on. Killing Iris would’ve been a gross decision by the writers and producers, and it would be a major divergence from the Flash story. The show takes liberties, but killing off Iris would be about the same as killing off Lois Lane. Where there’s Barry, there’s Iris. So there’s this drama hovering over the characters, but to us as viewers, it was meaningless. I think that even those only passingly familiar with the comic books knew as the season progressed that them actually killing Iris was all but impossible.
And the betrayal we were promised was never going to have the impact the writers wanted to. Barry’s been betrayed by people close to him so many times that, as viewers, it’s a cry-wolf situation. It doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore. “Who will betray Barry?” isn’t a question we ask with bated breath, it’s one we ask with a bored sigh.
And so where did the season take us?
Can we turn on a light?
This season was all about Barry not giving into his dark side. We ended up with a lot of Barry not doing stuff. Too many situations came down to Barry not giving in and taking the easy way out of an impossible situation. Each of these weighed him down more and more.
There were attempts throughout to make lighten things up, but over and over, these plot points ended up being one-step-forward-two-steps-back.
Even the big mid-season crossover between the shows played into this. The Legends of Tomorrow team found a recording from Future Barry Allen telling them not to trust Barry Allen, throwing Team Flash’s trust of Allen into question. What was supposed to be an exciting crossover was dragged down by the Tears of Barry Allen.
Even Arrow managed to, with all its darkness, still be more positive than Flash.
And then despite all of the time Barry spent suffering for his actions at the beginning of the season, we didn’t actually get any catharsis for all this darkness. With Savitar defeated, Barry and Iris sat down on the couch, only to have the Speed Force itself launch an all-out attack on the city because Barry still needed to be punished harder. The season ends with Barry stepping into the Speed Force, supposedly taking his medicine, to save the world with his sacrifice.
And again, these are stakes the show cannot make good on.
Barry Allen and Grant Gustin are the star of the show, literally. The Flash can’t survive for very long without the Flash. Kid Flash and Jesse Quick are not substitutes for him in terms of character or the ability to carry the show, even if the characters can do what Flash can do. Where Flashpoint was setting up a potential season of fun that it ended up not being able to make good on, this season finale cliffhanger is setting up consequences that it’s going to have to roll back in just a few months when the show starts. These are shackles with no weight, no lock.
The only characters that really went anywhere new were H.R. Wells and Caitlin Snow.
H.R. started out as a goofball. The character loves drama and excitement and flourish. Though he was initially annoying, he found a working place within the team that made him a character that both we and the other characters on the show could appreciate and accept. When he jumped in the way of Savitar’s blade, I felt it. It was the perfect way for that character to go out. A noble, heroic sacrifice right in front of everyone. It was a total payoff to everything he’d done throughout the season. It was theatrical, deceptive, and beautiful.
Caitlin had a similar sort of evil hanging over her that Barry did, but instead of wondering if she would give in, we were allowed to wonder if she would be able to climb back out of it. The character is just enough of a main cast member and just enough of a side character that we had no way to know what the story would do with her. Would she be taken by her powers? Would she return to the team and the status quo? Neither, actually. This was one of the high points of the finale.
Instead of forcing the cure on her, Cisco gave her the option, and while she didn’t take the cure, she did take the option itself. Knowing she didn’t have to be Killer Frost showed Caitlin that she could be who she wanted. She embraced her abilities and decided, instead of either of the obvious options, to just be herself, and figure out what herself was going to be. Finally, Caitlin Snow got a character arc that was about her from end to end, and it finished off in a way that stayed true to that.
The Flash has a lot of work to do in season 4.
The writers need to stop betraying Barry. They’ve promised season 4 won’t be about another speedster, but it could be too late at this point. They need to stop putting up stakes they can’t make good on. They need to stop putting the members of his team at risk and instead put him in danger. It never feels like Barry is in danger. The continual use of his friends and family as hostages feels cheap, and it gets exhausting. The writers need to use the show’s cast of characters as a source of strength, not betrayal and heartbreak.
And most importantly, they need to dry Barry’s face off. No more tears.