As we continue to debate whether or not The Flash’s fourth season is actually good or just better than Season 3, one thing that we should all be in agreement over is how the show successfully rehabilitated Candice Patton‘s character Iris West (now West-Allen). In fact, Iris’ journey from Barry’s sister/love interest to forgotten non-meta to leader of Team Flash may be the show’s best course-correction. One of Season 3’s major problems (and there were quite a few) was that it sidelined Iris not only in her career as a journalist, but spent half a season making her watch the team flail in trying to figure out how to prevent her death. She had to literally stand there and be told how she dies over and over again. And somehow it was still all about Barry. Even regarding impending doom, Iris wasn’t given her own agency.
When The Flash returned for Season 4, Iris was the only one who really flourished during Barry’s Speed-Force absence. She took on a leadership role with the team, one that has continued even after his return (in fact, the show — in a rare move — actually addressed some of the emotion and frustration for the couple surrounding that). For the most recent episodes when Barry has been incarcerated, Iris (while still loyal to him, of course) has continued to move the team forward, taking on new cases and trusting that Barry can take care of himself. It’s a storyline that also played out in “Don’t Run,” where Iris had to choose between saving Caitlin or Barry (and chose the former). Barry takes care of Flash-y things, and Iris takes care of the rest. The “we are The Flash” speeches maybe weren’t particularly clear in that regard, but I think it’s what the writers were going for: Barry and Iris are partners in leading in the team, although arguably Iris is a lot better at it.
At this point, Iris’ former career as an investigative journalist is a little bit of an inside joke for show watchers, especially because the future newspaper with the West-Allen byline has been such a pivotal one. Who knows, maybe she’ll go back to it — those two have to make money somehow, and I don’t know that they can continue to afford that swank loft while Barry is off the force. But the reality is, if you’re going to have Iris hanging out at S.T.A.R. Labs all day anyway, give her something to do there. Do I really care that the change happened suddenly, with no build-up or training montage? If you try to apply logic to The Flash you are wasting your time. Embrace the fact that the show took a central, but narratively lost character and actually made her the badass she has always meant to be (like her Earth-2 doppleganger was) — that’s what matters here.
This all brings up one of The Flash’s core issues: it usually doesn’t know what to do with non-metas. Caitlin and Cisco grew so much as characters once they gained their powers, and Caitlin’s struggle with her Killer Frost side continues to pay dividends. But those changes were always meant to happen. Look at the non-metas: Harry, Joe, Cecile, and in the past HR and Julian. This week,The Flash felt it needed to give Cecile pregnancy-inspired temporary powers just to force an emotional moment between her and Joe about their insecurities. If you take away all of the ridiculous telepathy in “Honey, I Shrunk Team Flash,” what you’re left with is an actually great storyline about two older parents who are also new to their relationship and working through that. There is enough wacky meta stuff happening, like the shrinking gag with Dibney and Cisco, which was silly and fun; don’t gild a lily by adding in powers where there don’t need to be any. Trust your actors (and let Joe do some actual police work sometime). One of the most inspiring things about the trajectory that Iris’ character has had is that she has had comedic, emotional, and strong moments just by being human and because she is “only” a human. Imagine!
The lesson of Iris, basically, is that it is possible to have a fully-functioning member of the team who is not a meta. And just because a character is a meta doesn’t meant that they should be forgotten. Yes S.T.A.R. Labs is pretty crowded these days, but some of the episodes that worked best this year were ones that gave time to Cisco, Caitlin, and even a little to Dibney (though I will argue, as I always do, that less is more with Dibney) in exploring who they are outside of the lab. Dibney gently lecturing Joe in “The Trial of The Flash” on why he wouldn’t want to make a mistake like planting evidence (crazy as that was to begin with) was potent stuff — it was deep yet still a little glib, and in just one scene showed a whole new (and very likable) side to Dibney.
To take things outside of The Flash’s direct universe, one of the things that has, so far, made fellow CW show Black Lightning so successful as a superhero series is that it puts character first, and super-heroics second. Black Lightning has also set a high bar for itself to tackle complex and dynamic themes alongside the crimefighting, but it’s that deep character work that The Flash should also aspire to return to. It doesn’t always have to be dark, either — there’s plenty of drama to be found in joy and adventure, something The Flash tends to excel in. With Iris, the series has also shown us that it knows how to put things right, to rescue one of its own characters, and to allow them a rebirth. They are The Flash indeed.
The Flash airs Tuesday nights on The CW.