This article contains major spoilers for The Flash season 3.
As we leave The Flash at the end of its third season finale, Savitar has been defeated, HR is dead, Caitlin has some of her marbles back, and Barry has been taken by the speed force. The episode is fine, but it suffers from being stuck on the end of a season of the show that’s repeatedly tested fans’ patience and shredded a lot of the goodwill built up over its first season and a half.
By far the the biggest issue is Barry Allen himself, with the final jump into the speed force prison bookending an arc that began with him manipulating the lives of his friends and family just so he could change the past and get his parents back. On paper, that’s an understandable impulse, but for viewers who’d been rooting for the character for more than two years, it didn’t make much sense.
What was an instantly sob-inducing thread in the first season had become an overused crutch; the ghost of Barry’s mother wheeled out by the writers whenever they wanted to make the audience feel a bit sad. By the time we saw Barry living his perfect life in the season 3 premiere, the emotional impact had been completely neutered and we were left just with the overwhelming sense that Barry was being a bit selfish.
And maybe that was the point. Eobard Thawne called his adversary the villain of the story in that same episode, and the choice to give him his redemption by imprisoning himself at the end of the season certainly suggests we’re meant to read this as Barry finally taking responsibility for his actions. The trouble is that there was a lot of middle between point A and point B.
The writers can’t seem to decide whether we’re supposed to see Barry as a hero, a bad guy or something in the middle, with even the group’s stance changing from week to week. For example, the reveal that Flashpoint led to the death of Cisco’s brother had potential to cause real drama within the established dynamic, but his reaction was never well-defined and seemed to change on a dime.
Similarly, the over-emotional goodbyes between Barry and each of his friends in the season’s final moments painted him as a self-sacrificing champion, rather than the flawed brother, son, fiance, colleague and friend that had been messing with their lives all season. Even him going so quietly literally minutes after sending out wedding invites doesn’t fit with the Barry we’ve been watching lately.
I’ll always remember a scene during the first Arrow/Flash crossover during the latter’s first season, in which Barry chastises Oliver for his patented broodiness, reminding his darker counterpart that he, too, had lost his parents and wasn’t using it as an excuse to be selfish and push his friends away.
That Barry doesn’t exist anymore, and there isn’t really a narrative reason for his disappearance. One key reason for the massive success of the show when it debuted was its optimism and its protagonist’s joyful interpretation of superhero-dom. There was plenty of pathos to go along with the fun, whether it was Barry’s love for his incarcerated biological father or the scenes shared between him and Joe, but it all added up to a show that left the viewer feeling good afterwards.
This year, most fans have instead been left confused, frustrated and a little (or a lot) annoyed every week, and season 3’s choice to have each episode function like a chapter in a larger story has all but eliminated the episodic nature that these kinds of shows have thrived on since Buffy The Vampire Slayer perfected it 20 years ago.
The long-form season structure rarely works for 22-episode seasons, mainly because there is never enough story to sustain the network model. You see the same problem on a smaller scale with Netflix series such as Daredevil or Jessica Jones, but here the wheel-spinning is stretched out even further.
Which means that Barry is just the largest of a bigger collection of problems that the show needs to fix in season 4 – Caitlin’s muddled transformation into Killer Frost, the constant Wells switching that sells Tom Cavanagh short, the endless parade of secret speedsters and the monotonous angst they create, and the complete lack of agency for Iris.
The Savitar reveal came too late in the season and didn’t really land, even if it could – if you squint really hard – be symbolic of the dark path Barry has been going down. Sparks of life came from moments outside of the main arc, like the musical crossover with Supergirl and the penultimate episode’s heist team-up with Captain Cold. These episodes proved that The Flash still knows how to have fun, even while the majority of the season blurred together into one giant slog.
The Flash’s struggles have felt even more egregious this season because of what its peers have been doing. Supergirl has managed to navigate a move from CBS to The CW for its second season while retaining the sweetness that set it apart, Legends Of Tomorrow honed its inherent silliness to much better results, and even Arrow managed to get a handle back on its tone for season 5.
There was a time not too long ago when people were asking for superhero shows to be more like The Flash, with the team behind The CW’s DC universe even claiming to be taking cues from its success for Arrow’s fourth season. In that case, Arrow was better off returning to its original tone, and meanwhile The Flash has become progressively darker and more nihilistic as it’s gone along.
Season 4 needs some course correction, and the fastest way to do that is to return Barry to the relatively carefree twentysomething who loves having superpowers, rather than doubling down on the angst that was never rooted in character growth. His absence from the group over the summer break gives the writers a rare opportunity to reset the character, but whether they take it is another matter.