The Flash is, without a doubt, one of the greatest live action superhero experiences in recent memory. Maybe, even, of all time. I wouldn’t hesitate to already place it in the upper echelon of live action superhero comic adaptations alongside Superman: The Movie, Spider-Man 2 and The Avengers. It is a landmark moment for superhero television, a milestone for DC’s attempts to translate their comics to live action and just damn good television.
And, for my money, the reason it works so well is how it handles the death of Barry Allen’s mother.
From moment one of the first episode of the show, we see Barry Allen witnessing the death of his mother, Nora, at the hands of who we’ll later come to know as Eobard Thawne. Oh, major spoiler alert for, like, the entire show here, by the way. Anyway, the reason this is important is because even before we are introduced to the Reverse-Flash, we are shown the visual iconography of the Speed Force, the lightning, and this is inextricably linked to the death of Nora Allen for the rest of the show. This means that when Barry is then linked to the Speed Force, when he starts using that same lightning and those same powers, every action Barry takes is with the knowledge that he is using the same power that took his mother from him.
The moral decision to use that power to help people is truly what defines Barry Allen as a hero. For, truly, there is no courage without tragedy. There is no such thing as bravery without something to be brave in the face of. And, for Barry, that bravery is in the face of the man who killed his mother, who has the exact same powers he does. For every person the Flash saves, he is using the power that took his mother from him to ensure that no one else has to experience that same pain. Every moment of The Flash is built on this foundation. Even when faced with the choice to go back in time and save his mother’s life, he can’t and he can’t do it because without that tragedy driving him there is no telling whether he will be the same hero he was in that new timeline. It is a beautiful moment of storytelling and perfectly illustrates the sacrifices one must made to truly act as a hero, as a purely selfless individual.
Now, you’ve probably read all that and are looking at the title waiting for the dreading but to turn things around. Well, here it is: but that was all well and true during the run of the first season. In the recently concluded second season of the show, things were taken, in my opinion, a little bit too far. The show continued its theme of highlighting Barry’s truly heroic acts with real tragedies in the life of those around him. However, after 23 episodes, having a life-changing tragedy occur during what felt like almost every episode, it began to bog me down as a viewer. At a certain point past the three quarter mark of the season, I just couldn’t muster the raw excitement that pushed me to watch every episode of the first season as soon as I possibly could. The show’s fetishism for tragedy had drained the excitement I had for watching it.
Now, let’s break down all the ways Barry Allen suffers in the second season of The Flash: Barry saved Central City, but caused the apparent death of Ronnie Raymond; Barry finally got his dad released from prison, only for him to leave town the same day; Barry met the girl of his dreams only for her to leave him because he just wouldn’t tell her he’s the Flash; the man whose face was worn by the man who killed his mother returned because time travel screwiness means his grudge with Barry will never end; the wife and mother of his adoptive family died; he had to watch his adoptive father die on another Earth; he watched a friend and mentor apparently die right before his eyes; that man he thought was a mentor and friend turned out to be alive and the villain of the season; Barry is forced to give up his powers to save Wally’s life; in order to return his powers, Barry is pulled into the Speed Force and must confront his past tragedies and his mother’s form; his biological father died in front of Barry’s eyes then his doppelganger from another Earth turned out be another Flash.Continued below
That’s… a lot. And that’s probably not even everything, just the biggest moments throughout the season. I understand that this was all to lead Barry to the point of desperation, driving him to do what he refused to do at the end of last season and go back in time to save his mother, but my question is: was it worth it? Was all the tragedy, all the heartbreak that Barry and the entire cast of characters on the show had to endure episode after episode worth it just so the third season could be set in the ‘Flashpoint’ timeline?
I think what I’m really trying to ask is what this achieved in terms of Barry’s character. Who is Barry Allen by the end of the second season and who is that person compared to who he was at the end of the first? He’s a lot more lonely, for starters. He’s cut off from everyone he loves, afraid that if he stays too close to anyone person he might lose them. This gives him a paranoid edge. Now he’s afraid to be heroic because he knows he will be punished for it. The show has put Barry in a position where he is unable to be the Flash without losing more of the ones he loves. This is, as a viewer, more than frustrating.
I want to watch The Flash to see the Flash in all his glory. It’s something I struggle with frequently in superhero movies because I cannot stand superhero movies – particularly origin story movies, but that’s a thinkpiece for another – that take forever to introduce the title hero. I don’t watch a movie called Man Of Steel only for Clark Kent to wander around Alaska for an hour and a half before putting on the Superman suit. And I don’t watch The Flash to see Barry fret and wring his hands over the idea that if he suits up as the Flash one more maybe this time it’s Cisco who dies or Caitlin or Wally or Harry or Iris or even Joe for real this time.
Throughout the season, Barry (and the audience) lost some of the best aspects of the show. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought Patty Spivot’s departure was a low point for the show and the loss of maybe the best character the series has seen. The continuity snarl that was Jay Garrick and Hunter Zolomon meant that who we thought was Jay Garrick had to die before Barry’s very eyes before being revealed to be Zoom all along and in order to get John Wesley Ship as Jay Garrick, Barry had to watch his father die. Barry losing his mother was the crux of the entire show for the first season. It was the tragedy that defined almost every aspect who Barry grew up to be. Is it really worth it, then, for Henry Allen’s life to be so casually thrown away just to see John Wesley Shipp suit up as the Flash once more?
It’s a neat continuity nod for the fans, but I have to keep questioning whether any of this was worth it.
This is all compounded with the first look at the third season of the show revealing a world where Barry Allen is not the Flash. Without the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his mother, there is nothing to drive him to investigate the urban legend of the Man In Yellow and nothing to drive him to help others when he can. Barry Allen finally gets to be happy, finally gets to grow up the son of Nora nad Henry Allen, but he has to make the most selfish decision he possibly could to achieve that. In the final moments of the trailer, Eobard taunts Barry by asking him “Now who’s the villain?”
In many ways, the show has driven Barry Allen past the point of desperation and has made him use his untold powers to completely change the fabric of the universe just so he gets to be happy. At what point can we keep rooting for Barry as the hero? Barry once told Joe that it felt like every time he won, he still lost. That for every victory he had as The Flash, something was taken from Barry’s life. That’s pushed Barry to the point where he has taken the world from everyone around him just so that Barry Allen gets to win. Is that not what Eobard Thawne did when he went back in time to kill Nora Allen in the first place?Continued below
Has Barry pushed himself so much that’s ended up on the same level as the man who ruined his life in the first place?
I don’t know, and I know this isn’t the kind of problem that fundamentally breaks the show. This is just an element of the show’s storytelling and getting to the end of that journey will make this arc make more sense in the context of the larger picture. Trust me, you don’t have to write in the comments that I’m bitching about a story I haven’t seen the end of yet, I know that. But my point is that the path The Flash has taken to get to the ‘Flashpoint’ story has actively undermined a lot of the stunningly hopeful qualities that made the show such a joy to watch in the first place. Tuning into The Flash is not a wild ride of comic book nonsense plots and awe-inspiring heroics anymore, you have to brace yourself for yet another scene of Grant Gustin crying into someone’s shoulder because another character Barry was close to died.
I’ll still be tuning into the third season of The Flash, but it will be without the excitement that I went into the second season with. I can only hope the show pushes past this onslaught of depression and becomes a fun show once more.