One of the biggest developments in The Flash Season 4 was the introduction of Ralph Dibny, otherwise known as the Elongated Man. A fan favorite from the Flash comics, his presence in the Arrowverse ended up being slightly more controversial. Although the character was generally entertaining thanks to actor Hartley Sawyer’s deft physical comedy, he was often difficult to root for, or even like.
Frequently rude, dismissive, and selfish, Ralph treated everyone on Team Flash terribly, particularly its women. His casual misogyny, condescending attitude, and unwillingness to listen to others were just a handful of his (unfortunately, many) negative traits. Furthermore, the Ralph we spent most of Season 4 with wasn’t much of a hero and didn’t seem terribly interested in becoming one either.
Rather than go with his traditional comics backstory, The Flash instead chose to make this version of the character an ex-cop with a shady past. While on the force, he falsified evidence to get a conviction and though he lost his job for it, he certainly didn’t seem any less morally flexible once he turned private investigator. He became a hero purely by accident, thanks to the release of dark matter during Barry Allen’s escape from the Speed Force in the Season 4 premiere. Ostensibly, Ralph’s initial arc seemed clear: Learn to use his stretchy powers, help the good guys defeat the Thinker, and become a hero in the process.
But, that’s not exactly what happened.
Instead, most of Ralph’s story in Season 4 was repetitive and stale, as he engaged in what might be kindly construed as the one-step forward, two steps backward school of heroism. Though he often found himself on the receiving end of lectures and pep talks from Barry or some other member of Team Flash about the power of friendship and the value of helping others, Ralph struggled to internalize – or even remember – these lessons from week to week. No fewer than four Season 4 episodes feature a plot built around the idea of Ralph learning that being a hero is hard, and his near-constant inability to retain any sort of meaningful development became increasingly grating as the season went on.
Given all of those problematic elements, the transformation of Ralph in Season 5 is nothing short of miraculous. After a season’s worth of problems, The Flash has masterfully rehabilitated his character, slowly turning Ralph into the awkward, lovable goofball he was clearly always meant to be. How has the show accomplished this – quite frankly – wondrous feat? It finally took the time to make Ralph a real person, one who builds relationships with those around him and displays genuine growth over time. And by showing us these things rather than just telling us they were happening, The Flash has given us a version of Ralph Dibny that’s much easier to like and root for.
One of the smartest moves of Season 5 was probably the decision to put Ralph on the backburner for most of its first half. The character barely appeared in the bulk of the season’s initial episodes, and when he did, he stayed firmly planted in the background. This likely mollified fans irritated by Ralph’s near-constant presence in a large portion of Season 4, and allowed the show to focus on some other badly neglected storylines instead, such as Iris’ resurgent career in journalism and Caitlin’s evolving relationship with her icy alter ego Killer Frost.
When Ralph did appear, his scenes and stories largely focused on establishing relationships with other characters, rather than his own arc. And we’ve only seen him don the Elongated Man costume a handful of times in Season 5 thus far. Instead, Ralph is setting up friend dates with Cisco, having actual conversations with Killer Frost about their similar status as black sheep, and serving as an emotional sounding board for Caitlin. Occasionally, he gets to play detective with Sherloque or otherwise show off his private investigator roots, but as often as not he was simply allowed to act like a friend and genuine teammate.
In fact, Ralph wasn’t even the primary driver of an episode’s A-plot until “Goldfaced,” which saw him serve as Barry’s guide on an undercover trip into a technological black market. Here, Ralph’s shady history is not only used in an organic way that makes sense for the story – he really does seem at home among sketchy people who sell equally sketchy objects – but to demonstrate how far he’s come in a way that feels natural and unforced. His desperation to keep Barry from becoming corrupted by shady underworld types is played for laughs, but there’s an undercurrent of something deeper at work.
For all the time Ralph spends with heroes, he still doesn’t seem to think he is one – or that he deserves to be. He seems to admire Barry’s innate goodness in large part because he believes he doesn’t have something similar inside of himself, despite the fact that we’ve seen him make hard choices in the name of helping others before. Instead, this Ralph seems to think the only value he provides the team is via his history the dark things and shady people that he alone has experience facing.
Perhaps that’s the natural outcome of his repeated failures to internalize all the lessons the gang tried to impress upon him last year. Whatever the reason, his sudden awkwardness over how good a good guy he can actually be gives his later decisions more weight. The Ralph we saw in Season 4 would likely have chosen to rob a hospital in the name of protecting his cover and completing a mission. This one finds that he can’t, even if he can still see the value in doing so. And that’s real, organic growth. It’s something this character desperately needs and that viewers deserve to see more of.
From a story perspective, we can argue that Ralph’s near-death (or, well, actual death if you want to get super technical about it) experience at the hands of the Thinker is the catalyst behind his sudden shift in outlook. It at least provides a legitimate reason for a character to go through such a 180 degree reversal in terms of both attitude and general behavior. But at the end of the day the reason for it doesn’t really matter; Season 5’s Ralph is suddenly a character worth caring about, and though it’s been a long time coming, it’s an exceedingly welcome change.
The Flash returns Tuesday, March 5th on The CW.