The long-awaited introduction of Sue Dearbon on The Flash is a big deal for fans of the show for many reasons and thankfully, her small-screen debut did not disappoint, giving us an episode that both played up her charming chemistry with Ralph and slyly subverted some of the worst aspects of her character’s comics story. But Sue’s arrival isn’t just a great piece of highly anticipated fan service. No, it’s also a significant part of a much larger, long overdue trend. Because as we head into the back half of Season 6, The Flash is finally telling stories about its female characters, and the show has rarely felt so exciting to watch.
Despite its success as a lighter alternative to the grimdark feel of some of the other Arrowverse series, The Flash has never quite known what to do with its women. For the initial seasons of its existence the show only really had two of them in the first place, and frequently regulated both Iris West and Caitlin Snow to the sidelines of other people’s stories. Iris, unfortunately, spent a lot of time waiting for Barry to save her from various threats, while Caitlin seemed to exist only to take part in doomed love affairs and spout science babble every so often at STAR Labs.
As the series went on, The Flash eventually added more female characters to the main canvas, but continually struggled to give them anything of real significance to do. Many were little more than love interests, and the long-promised storylines for Iris and Caitlin seemed to never really materialize in any significant way. Iris was largely forgettable as Team Flash leader during Barry’s Speed Force-induced absence, and even though the introduction of Caitlin’s icy meta alter ego Killer Frost was exciting, the show couldn’t really decide on basics like how her powers worked.
In earlier seasons, the show regularly failed the Bechdel test simply because its two leading ladies never talked to one another. (Even though they worked virtually in the same room most of the time!) And when The Flash remembered to have things like very special girl power episodes, they involved strange, out of character decisions like Iris’s bachelorette party being attended almost entirely by people she barely knew. Even the first time the series gave us a primary female villain was something of a flop, as Grace Gibbons’ Cicada 2.0 turned out to be on the world’s dullest revenge quest.
It’s been a rough few years, is what I’m saying.
This is why Season 6 feels like such a breath of fresh air. Whether it’s because The Flash got a new showrunner in Eric Wallace, or because the show got the Crisis on Infinite Earths monkey off its back at last halfway through, but there’s something really different about the show in its sixth season. And that’s largely because its female characters, one and all, have significant arcs and stories of their own, at last. Iris is finally (finally) getting to be a real journalist, investigating cases that have nothing to do with Barry alongside her all-female squad of coworkers. Newcomers Allegra Garcia and Kamilla Hwang both have aspirations of their own beyond their connections to various men (Cisco and Nash). And the show has finally picked a lane with Killer Frost, spending the bulk of the season letting the character develop more fully in into a person in her own right, rather than remain a being that exists solely in the shadow of her other half.
Sue Dearbon arrives in Central City with her own goals and agenda, which have nothing at all to do with Ralph (though their adorably goofy noir-tinged banter certainly feels like something we’ll be seeing more of in the coming weeks). Sure, we know Sue and Ralph are meant to be, but her presence on the canvas isn’t because of him. It’s hard to over stress what a difference that makes –having female characters who are treated as multi-dimensional, layered beings in their own rights rather than as narrative extensions of or accessories for the men around them.
And the exciting part is – she’s not alone.
For the first time, we’re also seeing Iris have a significant life outside of her relationship with Barry. She’s built a team of smart, diverse female journalists at the Central City Citizen and, for once, it feels as though her storyline has actual weight behind it – as though what Iris is doing is meant to matter, unlike her largely silly Flash-stalking blog from the show’s first seasons that served as little more than a vehicle for her and Barry to still flirt while she had a boyfriend.
Sure, this season hasn’t achieved perfection in this particular regard. Caitlin has sadly all but disappeared from the canvas and far too many of Kamilla’s story beats are still connected to Cisco. Cecile’s role as a mother has almost been completely erased by the fact that the show seems to regularly forget that she has a child. But, Team Citizen’s stories are finally being largely treated with the same gravitas as Team Flash’s, and the two even appear headed toward intersecting with the other down the road. And it’s almost impossible to overstate how important that is. Yes, like most of the other Arrowverse series, The Flash has precious little idea what journalism actually involves, but it’s certainly no worse than Supergirl, which, let’s not forget, gave Kara a Pulitzer Prize. Am I vaguely confused about how the Citizen has money to publish itself let alone pay its employees? Obviously. Do I care more about that than I do the fact that these women now feel more central to the plot than they ever have before? No, no I do not.
Season 6 even appears to be in the process of giving us a proper female Big Bad – one Eva McCulloch, a brilliant scientist who may or may not have been driven a bit mad as a result of spending six years trapped in the mirror dimension with only her dark matter abilities for company. Comics fans no doubt recognize her name as a gender-flipped version of Evan McCulloch’s original Mirror Master, which certainly sets her up for a significant story of her own as the season progresses, and the slyly villainous streak the character has already revealed is intriguing. A woman who understands – and is willing to manipulate – the performative nature of female weakness for her own gain is certainly someone I want to watch. Could a female Big Bad be the story The Flash has needed all along?
Maybe. After all, Iris West is finally getting her due as a leader in her own right. Killer Frost is making friends and embracing the over-the-top schlock of corporate holidays. Allegra may have a strange connection to Nash, but the most important thing about her character is her relationship with her villainous sister. And Sue Dearbon is real. Anything feels possible now.