“Shade” is one of the strongest episodes of the season. Although it hits many of the marks we’ve come to expect from The Flash — a perilously uninteresting metahuman of the week, family drama, Julian’s continued dedication to hating Barry for no reason — it also gives us a few things we rarely see. There’s a refreshing focus on Cisco and Caitlin’s friendship. Joe finally considers his own life by going on a date with D.A. Cecille (Danielle Nicolet). The Alchemy story line develops in a fascinating way. And, apparently, Iris can throw one mean punch. As a whole, these story lines ask a significant question: In a world where time travel exists, how can humans and metahumans alike help others?
It’s also nice to see The Flash return to several story lines that have been lingering in the margins, like Caitlin’s seemingly inevitable evolution into Killer Frost, and Wally’s role as Kid Flash in the Flashpoint timeline. Still, the moment that stuck with me from “Shade” is one of the most fleeting, a simple exchange between Iris and Barry.
“It’s hard being a bystander,” Iris tells Barry, voicing insecurities about her usefulness to Team Flash. Much like Wally, she doesn’t think she can help others because she isn’t a scientist or a metahuman. Barry disagrees: “Whether you realize it or not, there is no Flash without Iris West.” On the surface, this seems like a heartwarming exchange that underscores how Iris is Barry’s better half and anchor. But upon closer inspection, it’s revealed to be nothing more than a patronizing comfort. If the show thinks Iris truly is that important, she would have a much bigger story line this season.
Even worse, in my mind, is how this sentiment betrays the show’s myopic view of heroism. Even a world as seemingly utopian as Earth-1 has problems beyond metahumans and supervillains. Iris can do good in ways that Team Flash cannot since she’s a journalist. She can speak truth to power. She can investigate how metahumans are changing laws and law enforcement in Central City. She can inform the men and women of Central City about these issues. Capturing metahumans is really just the first step. The idea that she’s a hero because she knows how to give Barry a good pep talk is both condescending and short-sighted. Unfortunately, this problem exists in many superhero stories; the only heroes that matter are those with great and unusual abilities.
This scene brought to mind a DC Comics story line from the New 52 revamp a few years ago. It takes place on Earth-2, where Catwoman and Batman are married and their daughter is Robin. Batman is furious that Catwoman would allow their child to fight crime. “You’re off saving the world from bogeyman — someone has to take care of reality,” Catwoman replies. That quote was bouncing around my head as I watched this episode. Where are the heroes who focus on smaller issues? I just don’t believe that Iris would feel inadequate or would want powers. Storytellers and journalists play an important role when the world is in chaos. I wish The Flash would remember this.
I’m also somewhat annoyed with Wally’s development. Yes, he desperately wants to be a speedster, especially after seeing Jesse Quick gain her powers. But why isn’t he trying to help people until that happens? With the city’s police force so focused on metahumans — to the point that Barry is assigned to handle metahuman cases, much to Julian’s chagrin — it seems like common crime would go unpunished. Somebody needs to protect Central City for ordinary criminals. If he’s dead-set on being a hero like Barry, why hasn’t Wally considered acting without powers?
Not everyone wants to have powers, of course. Caitlin is so worried about her future, she steals the power-dampening cuffs so she can wear them herself. Eventually, she reveals to Cisco that she’s had powers for several months and she’s afraid of what she will become. At Caitlin’s request, Cisco vibes her future and sees a grim premonition: She’s in full Killer Frost mode, fighting with him. Cisco tries lying about it, but she knows him far too well for that to hold up. Despite the tragedy awaiting her in the future, Caitlin begs Cisco not to tell the rest of the team.
“It never helps when we keep things from each other,” Cisco says after forcing Caitlin to reveal her abilities to everyone else. He is right. Lying has always caused problems for Team Flash. I understand her anger at Cisco’s betrayal, but what I don’t get is why Caitlin’s abilities are making her evil. Every other metahuman seems to retain their personality and morality after gaining abilities. What’s so different about her? That problem aside, the Killer Frost story line is one of the season’s best, so I appreciate how Cisco and Caitlin’s friendship plays such a significant role in its development.
Truth is a major theme in other story lines, too. After Wally starts having vivid visions of Kid Flash, Barry finally comes clean about the Flashpoint timeline. This only makes Wally angrier. “He can screw up over and over again because he’s Barry,” he tells Joe. I understand Wally’s anger. Barry has a habit of messing things up (hello, Flashpoint!), but he gets a pass because everyone has so much faith in him. Joe isn’t just worried that Wally is getting powers, though; he’s worried about how he’s getting them. Eventually, Team Flash decides that keeping Wally locked up away from Alchemy isn’t a good idea. With Barry, a SWAT team, and Joe by his side, Wally leads them to Alchemy’s lair. Curiously, Julian is nowhere to be found at police headquarters, adding fuel to the idea that he’s in league with Alchemy. Or maybe he actually is Alchemy?
With his raspy voice and cultish followers, Alchemy continues to be a marginally interesting presence. Just as Barry and the SWAT team think they have him captured, the situation gets far more intense. Another speedster who seems even faster than Barry kills off some of the SWAT team and pins Barry to the ceiling, revealing himself to be “Savitar, the god of speed.” (If you read the comics, you know Savitar isn’t actually a god. He just thinks he is — and he’s Wally’s nemesis.) Even more tantalizing than the introduction of another speedster, though, is where the episode leaves Wally. He touches the stone that Alchemy wanted him to grab. The moment he does so, he’s cocooned in … well, I honestly don’t know how to describe it. The next time we see Wally, it seems safe to assume he’ll be the speedster he’s longed to become. But what does it say that his abilities come thanks to one of the season’s main villains?
For a series that explores the multiverse and multiple timelines, The Flash can sometimes seem claustrophobic. Yes, the Alchemy story line has gained new heft with the introduction of Savitar and the tease about Wally gaining his powers. We’re finally seeing some progress on that front. But the show suffers most by giving characters like Iris and Cisco little to do beyond helping everyone else. For The Flash to evolve, its definition of heroism needs to evolve too.