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The Flash Needs to Get Back to Its Character-Driven Roots in Season 5

The Flash cast

While The Flash is technically Barry Allen’s story, the CW series that bears the name has always been more of an ensemble drama. As Barry learned to control his powers, he leaned on a core team who were not only his partners in his fight to protect Central City, but his friends. The relationships between the original Team Flash – Barry, Cisco Ramon, Caitlin Snow and Harrison Wells – formed the center that the rest of the show was based on.

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Sure, you could argue that back in 2014 the show was just taking a cue from Arrow’s success by building a strong supporting group around its lead. But The Flash leaned into its core friendship in a way that Arrow never did, keeping Team Flash generally hopeful, drama-free and focused on the idea that being a hero could actually be fun.

Barry, Cisco and Caitlin not only cared about each another collectively, but were all allowed to have distinct relationships among and with one another. Their friendships were multi-faceted, changed along with the characters, and generally helped give The Flash’s zanier and more over-the-top moments legitimate emotional stakes.

However, since Season 3, that dynamic between that original group has not only fractured, but been largely ignored as an entity, with new storylines focused on almost everything except the friendship which had previously made up the heart of the show. As Barry battled Savitar and Caitlin struggled with her dark alter ego Killer Frost, the original Team Flash was basically set against itself for the first time, an event from which the group largely never recovered. (And which The Flash never really addressed afterward in a meaningful way.)

As new characters were added to the canvas and existing ones discovered Barry’s secret, The Flash had less and less time to devote to its once primary friendships and character arcs. After all, there are only 42 minutes in an episode, and an increasing number of stories to serve. It became more and more difficult to balance meaningful arcs for this many people at once, and The Flash canvas felt bigger, messier, and less focused.

When Season 4 started, however, it seemed as though the show planned to address some of these issues head on. New team members Julian and Tracy basically disappeared, Jesse Quick went back to Earth-2, and Wally headed off on a journey to find himself on fellow CW property Legends of Tomorrow. This season’s initial episodes generally felt like a return to The Flash’s Season 1 form, focusing primarily on Barry, Cisco, Caitlin and Iris while featuring plenty of laughs and a return to a more light-hearted tone.

Unfortunately, Season 4 couldn’t keep up this “back to basics” feel for long. Despite a promising introduction, the very human and relatable DeVoe rapidly devolved into a lackluster Big Bad that couldn’t support 23 episodes of story. The introduction of the bus metas not only provided us with a bunch of new villains and targets to keep track of, there were so many of them that each only averaged about a third of an episode of screentime apiece. It’s doubtful that even the most hardcore Flash fans could actually name all these people, who largely showed up just to die in the service of The Thinker’s evil (and often poorly defined) plan.

The bus metas plot also led to the introduction of Ralph Dibny, a fan favorite character from the comics who rapidly became a major part of the team. Despite his newcomer status, Ralph got a multi-episode arc that showed him learning how to be a hero, as well as getting many patented Team Flash pep talks about how rewarding it is to help others. Furthermore, he also took over as the group’s back-up superhero if Barry wasn’t around, leaving Caitlin and Cisco with little to do beyond provide science or technical exposition as needed. (Even though both of them also possess metahuman abilities.)

Over the course of Season 4, we spent more time with new characters and one-off metahumans than with most of The Flash’s core cast. Cisco’s relationship with his Earth-19 girlfriend comprised the entirety of his Season 4 storyline. This twist might have been entertainingly ironic if Caitlin, normally forced to carry the show’s dating drama plotlines, had been given a meaningful story of her own. Instead, The Flash remained generally flummoxed about her dual identity as Killer Frost, treating her as a split personality, separate person, or an intrinsic part of Caitlin whenever the story required it.

Earth-2 Harry popped in and out over the course of the season, but his mental deterioration was ultimately played for laughs rather than real development. (His emotional “growth” when it comes, is the most obvious sort of deus ex machina, and not driven by any real choices.)

Iris fared a bit better, becoming general Team Flash commander in addition to Barry’s wife, though neither of those roles gave her much of a story of her own. Let’s be real: Hazard, a meta who appeared in three episodes and died after being possessed by The Thinker, had more of a real story arc than most of Team Flash this season. These characters deserve better, and so do the viewers who’ve been watching them for years.

The introduction of Barry and Iris’ daughter from the future to close Season 4 hints that the show may at least be aware of some of its current flaws. Nora West-Allen’s presence doesn’t promise a looming apocalyptic threat or completely rearrange the laws of the show as we know them. (See also: Flashpoint, Barry’s trip into the Speed Force.)

Yes, her arrival – combined with Ralph and Wally’s returns – means that there are still probably too many people in Central City. But her presence does hint at a smaller, more character-focused main story than the series has attempted in the past. And that’s a very good sign for Season 5 – not to mention something the show really needs to do.

Perhaps by getting back to the relationships that originally made the series successful, The Flash can recapture some of the magic that made its early seasons so great. After all, none of us are really tuning in to this show for its nuanced plots or complicated villains. It’s the team at the center of it all that makes The Flash something special, and provides the emotional stakes that give everything else meaning. We’re crossing our fingers as Season 5 begins.

Lacy Baugher is a digital strategist and writer living in Washington, D.C., who’s still hoping that the TARDIS will show up at her door eventually. A fan of complicated comic book villains, British period dramas and whatever Jessica Lange happens to be doing today, her work has been featured on The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Flicks, Culturess, The Tracking Board and more. She livetweets way too many things on Twitter, and is always looking for new friends to yell about Game of Thrones with.

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.

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