If you learned the exact date of your death, would you focus on living life, fully embracing your every desire, or would you try to change the future? For Iris West, this isn’t a mere what-if scenario to mull over with friends. It’s her reality.
After having nightmares and disrupting Wally’s training in hopes of altering the future he witnessed of Iris being murdered by Savitar, Barry tells her the truth in The Flash’s mid-season premiere. Considering Iris suspected something was up — and the utter stupidity of keeping such a major thing a secret — I’m glad the show didn’t linger on Barry keeping this from her for too long. Despite so much of the episode concerning the possibility of Iris dying only four months into the future, there is little focus on how much this revelation upends her own life. Sure, she cries when Barry reveals the truth using the future newspaper article in the time vault. She also argues against telling Joe, in order to protect him from doing something dangerous. But there is little examination of how this affects Iris emotionally.
Will she start covering more dangerous stories? Does her impending death make her think of the mother she barely got to know? Is she more keen on isolating herself or taking daring chances she wouldn’t otherwise? Learning you’re going to die would be a major event for any character, but beyond a few tears, Iris doesn’t seem all that effected.
Although this development relies on the rather frustrating trope of threatening a hero’s love interest, it does give The Flash a fresh opportunity to develop Iris. Instead, she’s treated like a non-factor in a story line that hinges on her survival. This betrays the problems inherent in the superhero-girlfriend archetype: She’s often more object than subject. Candice Patton has a warm presence, humor, and skill that should be utilized. But all the charisma in the world can’t distract from how thinly her character is written. (Although her wardrobe continues to be absolutely stellar. The red jumpsuit she was wearing when Barry told her about the future was stunning enough to almost distract me from the episode’s issues, of which there are quite a few.)
This isn’t to say “Borrowing Problems From the Future” is a bad episode. Far from it. Kid Flash is a pleasure to watch in action. Seeing Barry and Iris deal with the dynamics of living together is a breath of fresh air after so many placeholder love interests. (I love the chemistry between Grant Gustin and Candice Patton, and it is really on display here.) But it is a remarkably lackluster episode, more worried about refreshing our memory and laying out the shape of the rest of the season than telling an engaging story that stands on its own.
This is especially disappointing because the episode is directed by Millicent Shelton, who helmed last season’s best, “Welcome to Earth-2.” Shelton continues to prove herself as a talent who should be tapped for superhero adaptations going forward. The staging of the action leads to some the best moments, particularly when Barry and Wally work in tandem as speedsters. But while Shelton’s direction continues to be admirable, the writing definitely isn’t.
Beyond Iris’s future conundrum, Wally struggles with living in Barry’s shadow. He’s supposed to be watching and studying Barry save the day rather than participating in the heroics. This leaves Wally feeling anxious about his own standing as a hero, especially when he hears one of Joe’s co-workers laying into Kid Flash for standing on the sidelines. All of this lays the groundwork for the show finally cementing Wally as his own superhero worthy of his own praise and focus. But Wally isn’t squaring off with a criminal mastermind like Captain Cold or a fascinating metahuman like the Pied Piper. He’s dealing with the completely forgettable petty criminal Plunder, who has neither personality nor panache.
Barry is pissed off when Wally saves him from being on the wrong side of Plunder’s futuristic gun, since a part of his jaunt to the future involved him watching a local newscaster report he captured the criminal. If Plunder is never arrested, the future can be changed, which means Iris might actually be saved. The more future events he disrupts, the greater the chances of her survival. Instead of telling Wally the truth, however, Barry brutally criticizes him. Eventually, after coming clean to the team about Iris’s future, Barry decides to let Wally cut loose. He quickly stops Plunder, saves the day, hears his superhero moniker cheered by fans, and even gets on the news. This would all be great if Plunder wasn’t so rote. Wally deserves a better villain to come against as his introduction to the people of Central City. Keiynan Lonsdale’s equally cocky and kindhearted performance isn’t enough to save this story line.
Of course, the West family aren’t the only ones dealing with drama. Caitlin’s power-dampening bracelets are proving to be only a temporary fix. When they power down for just a moment, her powers immediately reappear. Out of desperation, she seeks help from an unlikely source: Julian. But he isn’t exactly excited about helping Caitlin. “I don’t cure metahumans,” he tells her. “I put them in prison.”
Caitlin isn’t giving up, though, especially since she realizes how lonely Julian is. Learning you were the puppet for a speed god to exact vengeance isn’t exactly the best way to ring in the new year. So, she suggests that Julian should join Team Flash, which he does by the end of the episode. Even with Julian’s help, however, the road ahead doesn’t look so great for Caitlin.
Meanwhile, the team realizes that identifying the events that lead up to Iris’s murder will be vital to changing the future, so Barry and Cisco vibe together to witness the moment when our beloved speedster accidentally traveled to the future. (Or, as Cisco puts it, “Hang on McFly, I’m about to vibe you to the future.”) They find a bit of unlikely hope when they notice HR on a roof behind Savitar. He wasn’t there before, which means it’s definitely possible to change the future. (Didn’t Jay already tell Barry this in so many words, though?) “I think a man often meets his destiny on the very road he takes to avoid it,” HR said earlier. I guess that advice doesn’t quite hold true.
When they vibe, Barry and Cisco also make note of the headlines on the news. They’re full of a lot of fun Easter eggs, including a reference to Music Meister getting a six-figure book deal. (He’ll be the Big Bad in the upcoming musical crossover with Supergirl.) There’s also the very ominous report of Killer Frost missing. As Iris says, they need to worry about Caitlin’s future, too.
The rest of “Borrowing Problems From the Future” is stuffed with low-stakes subplots, like HR’s attempt to open the STAR Labs Museum in order to make enough money to support Team Flash. The first attempt is a disaster. Then, Cisco ingeniously calls an elementary school to offer discount tickets to students, which gives the museum its very first customers. While I’ve enjoyed Tom Cavanagh in the other renditions of Harrison Wells, HR isn’t all that fun to watch. If anything, his love of porkpie hats, scarves, and twee dialogue is starting to grate. His redemption story is wasting valuable screen time that would better serve other characters, namely Iris.
Yes, the housewarming scene at the episode’s end was cute. But cute doesn’t equate to memorable, and it certainly isn’t the kind of character development that Iris desperately needs. Since getting them together, The Flash hasn’t found a way to balance interesting characterization with developing their romance. Iris should do so much more than care about everyone else and act as a pawn for whatever latest villain has Barry in their crosshairs. A mostly enjoyable albeit forgettable episode, “Borrowing Problems From the Future” demonstrates how frustrating The Flash can be. It has all the makings of a great show, but it seems reluctant to push itself too far beyond what we’ve already seen. Nevertheless, the nod to Gorilla Grodd during that future news program (along with the upcoming musical crossover) means that The Flash still has the time and ability to surprise us. Hopefully, that also involves making Iris the richly developed character she deserves to be.