Arrow vs. The Flash: Dramatic Irony in Superhero TV

For all of the ways Arrow failed to effectively utilize dramatic irony in season 3, The Flash succeeded in its inaugural outing.

It’s no secret that Arrow, coming off of a strong sophomore season, didn’t exactly live up to its potential in season 3. Meanwhile, rookie drama The Flash continued to improve throughout its inaugural season, ending the 2014-2015 season as one of the best new shows on TV.

So, what gives? Why were these two shows that have so many of the same elements, albeit with slightly different tones, diverge so quickly in quality last season? Well, not to get too high school English class on you, but if you want to know what the respective superhero and supervillain of The Flash season 1 and Arrow season 3 was, then I have your answer: dramatic irony. Both shows have other strengths and failures that have contributed to their narrative quality, of course, but none has been as defining as this one so integral to the tradition of superhero drama.

For those who were sleeping through that particular high school English class, then let me define this narrative device for you: At its most basic level, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the character or characters do not. It is knowing that Romeo and Juliet are (400-year-old-spoiler alert!) both going to die before they even meet. Not because everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, but because Shakespeare puts it right in the prologue. Dude knew how to rock some dramatic irony. And so does The Flash

The success of dramatic irony in The Flash.

Dramatic irony has always been a common feature in superhero narratives (and, you know, stories in general). You’ll feel its influence anytime we are privy to the identity of the person underneath the superhero mask, while other characters remain oblivious. To put it in DC television terms, it’s what’s at work every time Lois Lane and Clark Kent are together and she is fooled by those damn glasses.

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The Flash demonstrated both an interest in and command of dramatic irony from the get go through its slow burn reveal that Dr. Wells wasn’t who he appeared to be, but the show upped the dramatic irony ante with its time travel narrative. “Out of Time” was a great episode not only for the killer cliffhanger that saw Barry jumping backwards in time, but for its crazy twists and satisfying character development: Dr. Wells kills Cisco. Iris admits she has feelings for Barry, and finds out he is The Flash. It was compelling, ambitious storytelling that I was so afraid would be completely wasted in the time travel re-set. It was not.

“Rogue Time” dealt with the fallout from Barry’s jump backwards in time to live the same day over again, and it was steeped in effective dramatic irony that worked on two important levels. First, it bonded the viewer to Barry’s character in structural ways. Like the viewers, Barry was reliving this day knowing how it was different in the alternate reality. It engendered further empathy, affection, and connection to Barry’s already hugely likeable character. We were in a similar narrative position as Barry, and that made us allies.

Our dramatic irony didn’t just end with shared knowledge with Barry, however. We were privy to things that happened in the alternate timeline that Barry wasn’t — namely, Dr. Well’s murder of Cisco. Eventually, Barry, Cisco, and the rest of the gang find out about the alternate reality murder, but there are a string of episodes where it’s just us who is in the know. The Flash trusts its viewers enough to give us that additional layer of dramatic irony, to hold our hands with in-world expository discussion of the event. It trusts that we are paying attention.

In this context, the use of effective dramatic irony is about trusting your viewers enough to give them multiple narrative levels to think about — i.e. what the respective characters know, what the audience knows, and how those two tensions play against one another. It must be built on solid characterization and the fleshing out of consistent character motivation. Character is the building block of any serialized television show, and it is just as compelling in crafting dramatic irony as it is in anything else a show tries to do. Which leads us to…

The failure of dramatic irony in Arrow season 3.

For all the ways The Flash used dramatic irony to build empathy for its main character and tension within the narrative, Arrow failed. Every opportunity the show had to give us insight that might explain why the characters (especially Oliver) were acting the ways they were acting or to create tension were eschewed: We found out that Thea killed Sara at the same time as most everyone else. We didn’t know the alpha-omega virus was in present-day play until the penultimate episode of the season. Arguably worst of all, we were asked to believe that Oliver had been brainwashed into being Al Sah-him.

All of these events were explained after-the-fact in lazily-rendered exposition. This wasn’t necessarily a failure in what happened, so much as a failure in how it happened. We didn’t get to see Maseo deliver the virus via flashback to Ra’s. We didn’t get to fully understand the terrible moment of Malcolm and Thea killing Sara as it was happening. Arrow chose ephemeral plot twist shock value over steadily-built character or plot development.

Asking the viewers to believe that Oliver had been effectively brainwashed was the chief dramatic failure of a season that didn’t do a whole lot well. This was a great chance for dramatic irony, and Arrow totally missed it. Avoiding dramatic irony isn’t inherently a bad storytelling choice. Sometimes, being an out-of-the-loop viewer can be just as compelling. It creates its own kind of suspense.

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Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. At least, not with the way the show told the story: i.e. trying to convince us that Oliver was conditioned into killing his friends and his family after three weeks of early morning buckets of water to the face and no cable. This is the dude who spent years fighting for his life on a remote island. This is the dude who runs away to that same remote island run shirtless through the jungle when things get tough. This is the dude who sledgehammers and salmon ladders in his free time and, from what I have observed, counts “willfully masochistic” as one of his primary character traits.

We were never going to believe that Oliver had been turned, at least not through a one-episode storyline. I still lament the loss of a season that saw Oliver joining The League of Assassins at the mid-season mark and spending most of the second half of the season away from Starling City — a narrative choice that would have demonstrated more faith in the viewers and might have convinced me of his turn. If you’re going this not-letting-us-know-what-is-happening route, Arrow, then you’re going to have to commit.

The suggestion that we would believe Oliver would kill his loved ones — or especially that the show would kill off most of its cast — was borderline insulting. It expected so little of its viewers.

This decision also served to alienate the viewers even further from Oliver. To be clear: it’s not that Oliver made a bad choice. It’s that Oliver made a confounding choice that isn’t in line with the effectiveness of his character when it comes to protecting his loved ones.

Sure, Oliver is terrible at communicating, but he isn’t usually so terrible at being a vigilante martyr. It doesn’t make sense that he would trust Malcolm Merlyn and not his loved ones for no particularly good reason with such a terrible non-plan. This was the latest in a string of confusing, dramatic irony-avoiding choices that served to distance Oliver from the viewers over the course of season 3 through the show’s inability to thoroughly explain characters’ motivations.

So, while viewers of The Flash were being let in on a secret that only Barry knew, bonding us to that character and letting us uniquely understand what he was doing and why he was doing it, viewers of Arrow were being actively distanced from Oliver — a character who started out on this show by pretty much only talking honestly to the viewers via a series of voiceovers. I’m not saying I want the voiceovers back, but I am saying that a show that tells its story so much from one character’s point-of-view that we are asked to endure interminably flashbacks to his terrible vacations on Lian Yu and in Hong Kong, needs to commit to that storytelling POV.

Not to get too The Flash on you, but go with me for a moment to another Arrow alternate season three timeline. Imagine a season three that let us in on the secret that Oliver was working with Malcolm Merlyn much earlier. Imagine a season three that allowed us to see Oliver’s thought process and struggles as he chose to lie to his friends rather than lazily asked us to believe that he killed all of them. (And don’t even get me started on the potential for and failure of dramatic irony in the flashbacks. That’s an article for another time…)

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I haven’t given up on Arrow, nor do I have absolute faith that The Flash will be able to maintain its narrative ambition in the face of a second spin-off show and, you know, the incredible odds that are against any TV show ever being good. The creation of TV shows on a weekly basis has so many variables and, frankly, I’m always slightly amazed that any TV shows ever managed to get made well, nonetheless ones with as much consistent action sequences as The Flash and Arrow both boast. That being said, that’s a pretty low bar to jump and after an amazing second season two (filled with some great examples of effective dramatic irony), I expect more of Arrow. As for The Flash, keep up the good dramatic irony work, friend.