Nine Things Slowing The Flash Down

The Flash has been the #1 rated show on The CW since its debut, not moving from that position in four years despite the general decline in ratings across network television. It’s also been one of our favourites: blending heart, humour, and superhero hijinks with expert precision brought to life by the wildly charismatic Grant Gustin in the leading role of Barry Allen, and an array of supporting characters that imbue wit, charm, and warmth into their roles.

But as much as we’ve enjoyed The Flash, several elements have dragged it down at times. Some of those things have lurked in the background since the first season, quietly ballooning into more obvious problems that crop up every episode. Others have emerged in the last two seasons, but they’re no less exasperating. While there’s not a show we watch that hasn’t frustrated us, we love this one too much to stay quiet. So, without further ado, here’s a list of changes that might let our favourite speedster show reach new supersonic heights.

1) Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Kitchens

When The Flash began, there was exactly one metahuman hero named Barry Allen who fought against all manner of super-powered criminals with the support of his team back at STAR Labs. As he was just getting the hang of his new powers, it was understandable that he would falter on how fast to run or how hard to punch. But as the show developed, so did he, culminating in the fourth season being the first time he could honestly call himself “the fastest man alive.” Which is great, except that the threats he’s facing have not leveled up to match his new and experienced skillset. Worse, tech support characters have also gained superpowers and new heroes have entered the fold, all while there’s still only one metahuman a week to battle on average.

At the start of the season, fans wondered why Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) kept getting knocked out so that Barry could defeat the villain, but that was only a symptom of a much larger problem. This year’s crossover, for example, put Cisco (Carlos Valdes) out of commission for two episodes just so he wouldn’t be able to open a breach to or from Earth-X. The Flash’s day-to-day struggles expose the disparity even more. It spends ten minutes on Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) transforming into Killer Frost only for her to be defeated in ten seconds, and episodes on Ralph (Hartley Sawyer) repeating the same insecurities about being a hero instead of just being one. What’s the point of recruiting metahumans if they must be nerfed to even the playing field?

Previous seasons of The Flash had fans complaining that the Big Bad was always a speedster, and The Thinker has certainly been a nice change of pace because he requires Barry to use his mind rather than his speed. But even this villain’s plan of attack amounts to sending out one metahuman a week for reasons unbeknownst to us, and it can get repetitive when the entire cast spends half the episode standing in STAR Labs debating who is going to fight and fail first. Considering that no one wants the writers to hit a reset button, the show must find ways to capitalize on those powers – and highlight the heroism of those without – beyond just taking them off the chessboard. Use characters like Iris (Candice Patton) and Joe (Jesse L. Martin) to first uncover issues through their respective jobs and inform the team, then let each character attack situations from the angle that suits them best. Sidenote: this doesn’t include one-off episodes, like the fun role reversal set to occur in “Run Iris Run.” Maybe if the show had done that for some of their other heroes, it wouldn’t be in this rut.

But above all else: if the solution is so simple that stalling in STAR Labs and knocking out your heroes does the trick, then find a more difficult problem.

2) Working Hard or Hardly Working?

In one of the most iconic scenes from the pilot episode of The Flash, Barry Allen analyzes a crime scene, and the audience literally “sees” the science as Barry tracks down everything from the shoe size of the suspect to the make and model of the getaway car. All of this happened before the Particle Accelerator explosion and, due to the show’s insistence on running every episode through the STAR Labs exposition machine, we’ve rarely seen Barry in his element since. Instead, Barry’s intellect is often downplayed to give Team STAR Labs something to do.

Barry is not the only character whose iconic comic book profession suffers through this kind of constrained storytelling. In Season 1, Iris West transitioned from graduate student and barista with a blog to up-and-coming Ace Reporter at CCPN. Yet the show was never able to integrate her journalism arc into the main storyline, which is ironic given how comic books often wrote superheroes with reporter girlfriends in order to keep the love interest close to the main narrative without being in on the superhero’s secret. Even when Iris didn’t know Barry was the Flash, there were countless missed opportunities to have her job parallel the “meta of the week” plot. Her opportunity to investigate Harrison Wells, for example, was immediately taken from her by Barry and his scientist friends. Since learning Barry’s secret, the writers have worked to fully integrate Iris into the team, culminating in her blossoming into a great Team Leader in Season 4. However, it still doesn’t address the main issue, which is that the show spends way too much time in STAR Labs.

The best way to combat “STAR Labs fatigue” is to let Central City be its own character. The most intriguing parts of this season so far – the bus metas’ backstories, couples’ therapy with Dr. Finkle, and Keeping Up with the Devoes – have taken place outside the lab. Barry, Iris, Joe, and Cecile all have professions in which they interact daily with the citizens of Central City, and taking advantage of that would allow for much more dynamic storytelling. Pulling back from STAR Labs would also open up Caitlin and Cisco to more interesting storylines. Cisco is technically still a CCPD metahuman consultant, and Caitlin has contacts both at Mercury Labs and in the criminal underworld as Killer Frost. However, currently it seems as if they don’t exist outside the lab and just wait for Barry to bring them the case of the week. In the recent  YA novel The Flash: Hocus Pocus, Caitlin and Cisco actually stumble upon the Big Bad on a day off together at the Central City Pier. I don’t see why we couldn’t get something similar in the show. STAR Labs can still be home base for strategy sessions, but the character beats of the city should drive the episode.

Incorporating each character’s day job back into the story may be just what the show needs to make a stagnant formula feel fresh again.
– Jessica

3) We Need To Talk About Killer Frost

Caitlin Snow’s story has always involved the tension of waiting for the catalyst that would turn mild-mannered Dr. Snow into the heat vampire Killer Frost. Fans watched her go through grief and trauma, wondering when the darkness that Hunter Zolomon (Teddy Sears) hinted at would manifest itself. It finally happened in season 3, but Killer Frost’s story has been plagued with problems since its inception.

First, there’s Caitlin’s agency; too much of the arc hasn’t actually been about her. While it was apt that her powers manifested because of Barry’s Flashpoint meddling, it’s frustrating that they automatically made her evil. Instead of explaining why Killer Frost immediately followed Savitar, they focused on Cisco’s and Julian’s angst at failing to save her and treated her as collateral for Savitar to leverage against Cisco. During season 4, the problem is markedly worse: Caitlin must be shouted at or harm herself for the transformation. She lacks agency over her powers and memory of Killer Frost’s actions, even though Killer Frost can remember Caitlin’s. Instead of using her for laughs or pep talks, the show would do well to lean into Caitlin’s trauma. Perhaps Caitlin should schedule her own therapy session with Dr. Finkle to talk about her inner demons and learn to coexist peacefully with Killer Frost.

Then there’s the missed opportunity to have Killer Frost be Caitlin’s way of lashing out. The episode “Killer Frost” was quick to highlight Barry’s Flashpoint mistake, but didn’t explore how her tragic history may have shaped her meta origin story. Caitlin has lost Ronnie twice, been duped by a supervillain, and been estranged from any warm relationship with her mother. Any of those could explain why Killer Frost emerged, but the show has left us with nothing but assumptions. Is she a dual personality, a whole new person, or the darkest part of Caitlin? What makes her choose to be evil or good? The Flash should address these questions.

Finally, the issue of Caitlin’s accountability is arguably this arc’s biggest problem. Killer Frost tried to kill Barry, Cisco, and Iris at various points before actively participating in H.R.’s murder. Characters claim that’s just Killer Frost, but what about Caitlin herself? When she stole the Philosophers Stone, actively putting Iris’ life in danger, nobody said anything. Nor did the show resolve why Caitlin worked for a slave trader in exchange for a cure her friends already found. If these issues were addressed, these selfish actions could show that Caitlin is a survivalist at heart. Instead, it looks like she simply doesn’t care. This lack of accountability results in a lack of tension – it doesn’t matter if Killer Frost does something bad when everyone pats her on the head and absolves her of blame. She’s no longer evil because Iris told her not to be, so now she’s just another meta on the team – except her powers make her cranky.

Whether her two personalities become one or she otherwise falls prey to a genuine emotional trigger, the time has come to give Killer Frost’s story some agency.
– Ivy

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