Whatever Happened to “The Fastest Man Alive”?

If Only I Had a Heart

If Barry Allen is why I fell in love with the show, Iris West-Allen is what has kept me there. Anyone who has read the comics knows that The Flash is a superhero that draws his strength from family and the people he loves – and that’s any Flash, be it Barry, Wally, Jay, Bart, and all the others. Just as Lois Lane is the heart of the Superman mythos, Iris West-Allen is the heart of Barry Allen’s Flash mythos. And while the show has never wavered from showcasing that Iris and the West family are the heart of the show, that doesn’t mean the way she’s been written hasn’t left a lot to be desired.

Actually, let me rephrase that. For me, Iris has never been badly­-written so much as she’s been under-written – meaning, while her character is well-constructed and consistent, she frequently isn’t given enough to do, and is one of the victims of the show’s constrained storytelling based around S.T.A.R. Labs. Put simply, the show has a problem writing people who aren’t scientists or superheroes; as Iris is one of the few who is neither, she often gets the short end of the stick. In the comics, Iris West-Allen is an iconic reporter and the romantic heroine of Barry Allen’s story. On the show, the writers are usually more concentrated on the latter than the former, to the neverending frustration of fans.

Fans, critics and Patton herself have been calling for Iris’ journalism to be more of a priority.

The first problem is one I still can’t believe I have to even talk about, because fans, critics, and Candice Patton herself have been calling for it for years – her journalism isn’t as important to the show as it should be, made all the more shameful for how easy it is to incorporate journalists into superhero narratives. In fairness, unlike some of the other characters, we know what Iris’ job means to her, why she pursues it, and how she deals with setbacks. The problem, however, is that these things aren’t explored regularly. They are often small bursts of storytelling amongst large chunks nothing, each one feeling sudden and slightly disjointed. In a way, Iris has been swallowed up by The Flash as well as Barry, because instead of thinking of Iris as a character in her own right who happens to co-lead a team of superheroes with her husband, she’s just another character that needs to have lines.

The last two seasons are a prime example of this. In season 4, we learned that Iris quit her job because of the trauma of Savitar, watched her get her mojo back, and start up her blog again – all in the same episode, with no allusions to it before that. There were some mentions of it before the end of the season, but it didn’t really come up again until season 5, and while she’s made some steps, the show is reluctant to extend the arc past one episode, when it should be spaced out over at least a few. Which only adds to the fact that Iris’ journalism feels like an afterthought rather than a priority.

I mentioned one reason that this was so frustrating was because of how easy it is to incorporate journalists into superhero narratives. After all, Superman has Lois Lane, Spider-Man has J. Jonah Jameson, and even Wally West has Linda Park. They bring news of the superhero to the world, connecting them to the city they live in. But the other reason is that the show has no problem giving everyone else season-long arcs – and sometimes arcs that should justifiably should go to Iris. Ralph’s arc last season featured him seeming to forget everything he learned episode after episode and being taught how to be a hero again. Sherloque Wells (and as much as I love him, I’m sure we all know this character is merely an excuse to keep Tom Cavanaugh around) has been given a season-long investigative arc, both finding out about Cicada and exposing Nora’s secrets. And for reasons as yet unexplained, the show insists on repeating the same storyline with Killer Frost over, changing the rules and expecting it to make sense.

Look. Candice Patton is the leading lady of The Flash. Iris West-Allen is the romantic heroine of The Flash. Narratively and structurally, she is the most important woman on the show, and if there were a hierarchy, she would come second only to Barry. I am not mincing my words, because not only are there fans who find it difficult to grasp, but the writers themselves seem to have forgotten. After all, why is it that Iris is the only character who can’t have her comic book storyline consistently represented, while other characters can? Why are the rules constantly rewritten so Killer Frost can do the same things over and over, but Iris can’t get more than one episode at a time of development? And why does Sherloque, a frankly unnecessary character, get a storyline that should, by all rights, go to Iris? As I said, some of this problem is because the show doesn’t know how to handle characters that aren’t superheroes or scientists, because they’re much easier to make into plot devices. But a lot of it is that they just don’t consider Iris to be a priority. And on a show that claims to be “open to all” but can’t give the Black leading lady her character’s due while finding all kinds of space for the white characters, that’s not a good look.

The next problem, I suppose, concerns both Barry and Iris – they no longer feel like a couple. Not only do they not share romantic scenes, but they go entire episodes without even being in the same room. I’ve heard producers say that Barry and Iris as a romantic couple would take a backseat to them parenting this season, but not only is that a little unrealistic, it’s hard to swallow when you have Joe (Jesse L. Martin), the guy who literally just had a baby, being more romantic with Cecile (Danielle Nicolet) in one episode than Barry and Iris have been in about six. It’s bizarre. The Flash was sold as a superhero show with heart, humour and spectacle, and part of that heart was the relationship between Barry and Iris. Countless episodes in previous seasons have shown how important they are to each other, but they’re less romantic now than when they weren’t together, to the point that fans often joke that they got divorced and didn’t tell anyone.

Barry and Iris’ relationship has all but disappeared from the show.

The other half of this problem is that it once again leaves Iris with the short shrift. Iris’ strength in the face of hardship is one of her more endearing (and enduring) qualities. However, it’s also one of the most frustrating, as it often means that she has to be strong for everyone else while they unload their problems on her. Meanwhile, she swallows hers and soldiers on. Usually, the show will allow her to unload on Barry and sometimes her father, but those instances have been rare this season. A recent episode saw Iris confiding in her father about being attacked by Cicada, which was wonderful, especially given Martin’s absence…but why wasn’t she telling Barry? The show has, thankfully, stopped pretending that Iris and Caitlin are friends, so it follows that she’d confide in the person she’s closest to – her husband. But since this was an episode where they shared no scenes, we have no idea whether Barry even knows how she feels. Which, once again, leaves Iris to shoulder her problems alone even though we know the minute Barry is upset, she will drop everything to listen to him. More than that, they haven’t even discussed the effect of Barry’s disappearance on Iris, when we definitely got how Barry would feel if Iris had died in Season 3. Last season, Iris stabbed herself to help save the team, but the next episode focused mainly on Barry’s grief while Iris walked around in a sling. It’s not fair to Iris – and really, it’s not fair to Barry either. This is a man who went to the past and made a video of Iris’ dead boyfriend in order to help her move on with her life. How much he cares about his family is a key part of his character, and just as it’s unfair to Iris to have her suffer by herself, it’s unfair to deny Barry the chance to comfort her.

Whatever happened to “the fastest man alive?” Well, what kind of story about Barry Allen are you even telling if Iris West doesn’t get to fulfil her comic book purpose, and their relationship isn’t given the respect it deserves? You might as well say that Clark Kent doesn’t need Lois Lane. I’ve watched shows that don’t know how to treat their Black female characters (hi, Bonnie!). I’ve even seen shows that treat their Black leading lady so badly that she asks to leave (hi, Abbie!). And I know that, like myself, there are many fans who will continue to call it out…or simply stop watching.

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