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The Failure and Redemption of “The Flash’s” Iris West

by  in TV News Comment
The Failure and Redemption of “The Flash’s” Iris West

The first season of The CW‘s “The Flash” was not kind to Iris West.

Among the show’s host of lovable and well-defined characters, Candice Patton‘s Iris swiftly fell by the wayside due to some rather aimless characterization; viewers familiar with the comics know long before Iris does who will she become, but it was difficult to see a bright future for the character as presented throughout the season. Fortunately, Iris did discover her sense of purpose before the first season was done, and this revelation offers hope that the character will have a stronger direction when the show returns.

The main problem is a simple one: up until the point where Iris learns the Flash’s identity, the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. Most characters on the show — even some of the villains — find out about Barry’s secret identity right off the bat. Iris, however, doesn’t make that discovery until the 21st episode in a 23-episode season.

None of this is to say that Iris absolutely must know Barry’s secret in order to be an interesting character. She has the potential to be a strong character in her own right, but her primary arc during the course of the first season focuses on her tension — or lack thereof — with the Flash, and the fact that he was doing everything possible to keep his true identity a secret from her. As a result, other aspects of her life fell by the wayside or — even worse — were designed to place the focus on another character.

Take, for instance, her relationship with Eddie Thawne. Though it initially causes some tension between Iris and her father, Joe, this quickly evens out and becomes a background joke. It establishes Iris as a stubborn, headstrong and willful character who knows how to stand on her own, but the development on her end stagnates early on. Furthermore, as soon as Eddie finds out about Barry’s superhero identity, the secret — and Eddie’s difficult decision to keep it from her — becomes the central conflict of their relationship, shifting the focus from Iris to Eddie’s internal conflict.

Likewise, Iris is completely tangential to Barry and Joe for the majority of the season. She exists for Joe to worry over, so the audience knows he cares very deeply for the people he loves. She exists for Barry to pine after in that well-known “girl next door” fashion, apparently for the sole purpose of providing some will-they-won’t-they sexual tension while also allowing Barry to grow as a character by accepting that she might reciprocate his feelings towards her. She is able to proceed from one job to the next because of her knowledge of and connection to the Flash, not due to her own intuition or skills. What’s more, the Flash chooses her not because he believes in her skills, but rather because he knows her personally and wants to keep an eye on her.

Iris serves as a motivation for Barry and Joe to feel protective. She is a representation of the everyman who is threatened by the presence of metahumans — and there is nothing inherently wrong with that idea! However, the show constantly places her in peril by proxy. Like the Lois Lane of Golden Age “Superman” comics, Iris spends season one stumbling into metahuman threats and making poor decisions that result in her frequently needing rescue. Last season, this shtick got old fast, and the result was a frustrated response to the character from “Flash” fans across the board.

This sense of frustration is compounded by the fact that by mid-season, Iris is literally the only regular cast member who doesn’t know about Barry’s secret. It felt as though the writers drew this out to create tension, but the third-person omniscient voice through which the show is told exacerbates the problem. Everyone — from the fans to the main cast to numerous guest-starring characters — knows that Barry is the Flash. And while the secret isn’t quite as obvious as it is often presented, the fact she remains in the dark for so long makes Iris appear ignorant at best and stupid at worst for not noticing what everyone else already knows. Once Eddie is brought into team Flash’s inner circle, Iris no longer has anyone with whom to discuss her suspicions or frustrations without them being deflected, and there’s no other character for viewers to fairly compare her to. As such, the wait for her to uncover the Flash’s identity felt stretched out.

Iris’ character arc felt aimless, as if the writers weren’t quite sure what to do with her in the lead up to the big reveal. She starts out as a waitress; expediently, she becomes an intern thanks to a journalism class she doesn’t seem really want to be taking (at a college we never see her attend, for that matter). Her interest in journalism only perks up when the Flash appears. Her intern pit stop leads to a rather prominent position at Central City Picture News, but we’re not shown her merit or aptitude for this until she closes in on discovering Barry’s secret.

All of these things — her waitressing job, her college education, her internship, her journalistic intuition — have the makings of very interesting storylines. However, the details of these important milestones are glossed over, resulting in a journey that is rushed and out of her control. Additionally, where she could have focused her attention on Central City’s growing population of metahumans, she spends the majority of her time trying to score more meetings with the Flash — over and over again. For almost the entirety of the show’s first season, Iris West exists solely as a reactionary character.

Both Joe and Barry spent a bulk of the season repeating one mantra: “We can’t tell Iris about Barry’s secret, for her own safety.” A trope that’s been used across the superhero genre since its inception, it usually leads to tragedy as the unwitting victim falls into some trap because they simply weren’t aware the danger existed. Even if it is done with the best of intentions, the trope generally strips away a character’s agency under the guise of caring (there’s a saying about such good intentions for a reason). By keeping Barry’s secret — and forcing others, like Eddie, to do the same — Joe and Barry decide what is safe and good for Iris without her consent or input. Though this isn’t a condemnation of Joe and Barry as characters, their decision and subsequent follow through in this instance was wrong.

To their credit, the writers turn this notion on its head when Iris finds out Barry’s secret for herself. Instead of melting into doe-eyed adoration for her suffering hero, Iris gets angry — and justifiably so. Not only that, she makes clear to both Barry and Joe that everything about the situation was not okay, that she is an independent individual who should be allowed to make her own decisions and look after her own safety. Iris is justifiably hurt; in essence, Barry and Joe deemed her unworthy of their trust, to the point that they would lie to her and convince others to do the same under the guise of protecting her. However, by opting not to tell her the truth, they put her in more danger than if she had known. She had to find out for herself; no one — not her father, her boyfriend, her friends — told her about the secret. The fact that Iris responds with anger and frustration turns the trope on its head in a clever, heartfelt and completely relatable way.

Iris immediately and effectively throws Barry and Joe’s arguments back at them by proving her use to Team Flash. When Joe is kidnapped by Grodd, Team Flash is stumped, unsure of what to do or where to look. Iris sees the situation from a different angle; in a rare moment, she shows her journalistic savvy and makes herself a crucial component of her father’s rescue, integrating herself into the team, naturally and effectively. At this moment, it’s finally possible to see not only who she is destined to become, but to understand what Barry sees in her and why he fell in love with her in the first place.

Further, Iris proves to be undeterred by the destiny laid out before her. After Eddie reveals that she marries Barry in the future, she tells him they can determine their own fate, and in doing so becomes a fully realized individual — after all, she won’t let anyone tell her what to do or what path to take. Eddie’s death isn’t part of their plan, but Iris was willing to take control of her life before his sacrifice. This fits in with the headstrong and willful character we see in the first few episodes of the season, and — in making a definitive decision about her future — she finally begins to come into her own, ending on an uptick for her characterization (if not her situation). If Iris keeps on this track, there’s plenty of reason to hope she’ll become a fully fleshed out character.

Thankfully, the treatment of Iris is an outlier when it comes to “The Flash’s” female characters. Caitlin Snow, Linda Park and Lisa Snart show a range of diversity and depth other series, superhero or otherwise, should take note of. Nor does the problem lie with Candice Patton’s performance; she played the role with great ability throughout the season, and her skill at convincingly portraying the betrayal and hurt heaped on her by Barry and Joe brings the character home.

While the bulk of the first season simply didn’t know how to handle her character, Iris’ turnaround at the end gives us hope for her further development in Season Two. If she can maintain this trajectory, allowing her journalistic instincts and personal strength to continue to grow, Iris could become just as well rounded and strong as any other member of Team Flash. Fortunately, Executive Producer Andrew Kriesberg has hinted that this is the case. “One of the best things in the premiere is Barry decides that he wants to work alone because he doesn’t want to risk anyone else’s lives, and Iris is really the one who gets the band back together again. She’s the only one who can stand up to Barry.”

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