How did The Flash manage to waste its entire final season?

The Flash -- “The Mask of the Red Death, Part 1” -- Image Number: FLA904fg_0007r -- Pictured (L-R): Javicia Leslie as Red Death and Grant Gustin as The Flash -- Photo: The CW -- © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been a supporter of The Flash since season 1, episode 1, and it had me the moment the Reverse-Flash entered the picture. The show became increasingly difficult to watch over its nine-season run, though, and that culminated in a final season that is, for long stretches, unwatchable. What the heck happened?

After a breezy and fun opening episode that put Barry and Iris in a wacky timeloop situation, things quickly degraded and, for the most part, stayed that way. There were brief respites; the consecutive returns of Nia Nal from Supergirl and Arrow‘s Oliver Queen both made for fun episodes that worked well both as cameos and character development for Iris and Barry respectively.

Trip, Barry, Trip

Photo: Katie Yu/The CW — © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Overall, though, this season was less of the victory lap we hoped for and more of the Flash falling flat on his face right as the starting gun went off. There were so many problems, but let’s try to count them.

Of the 13 episodes this season, three of them had little to no Barry Allen, and only one of those contributed meaningfully to the show’s protagonists. The main character of the show was basically gone for almost a quarter of the season. Grant Gustin’s shoulders were probably tired from carrying this show for so long, but this feels absolutely inexplicable when they should’ve been doubling down on the show’s best features.

Instead, we spent a ton of time watching Cecile Horton hem and haw about her future as a wife, mother, and (world’s most boring) superhero. Was she going to move out to the sticks with Joe, or wasn’t she? She was! Or was she? She wasn’t. Some of the time? And just when we thought we were done with it, she projects her consciousness ahead in time to her future self, finds out she hasn’t been home in six months, and then has a panic attack.

Meanwhile, Chuck and Allegra spent much of the season furtively glancing at each other in a bunch of corny will-they-won’t-they moments. Both characters have had interesting stories and episodes, but this generic relationship drama did neither of them any favors. They don’t have nearly as much chemistry as the show wanted us to think, and it felt painfully apparent as we spent more and more time with them.

What do we do with a girl like Caitlin?

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And finally, there’s the whole Caitlin Snow problem. We can’t know how Danielle Panabaker felt about the treatment of her character throughout the show’s run, but if we had to guess we’d lean toward “extremely disappointed.” Caitlin spent the first few seasons of the show jumping from one crappy relationship to another. Then Frost came along and things were great because Panabaker got to chew the scenery as Caitlin’s melodramatic twin. Then she made a heroic sacrifice and died, and things were boring again.

Caitlin died just a couple of episodes after Frost, and came back as Khione, a literal goddess on Earth, simultaneously infinitely powerful and deeply naive. This character could’ve been rewarding, but they frequently tied her character beats to those of Mark Chillblaine, who Team Flash gave not just a second chance, but a third, fourth, fifth, and so on–something his character even comments on at one point. If you know it’s happening, why comment on it? That doesn’t fix the bad storyline, you guys. It just means that we know that you know that you’re putting out subpar work.

Whose show is it anyway?

Photo: Colin Bentley/The CW — © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Looking back, it feels like Cecile and Allegra were the show’s main characters for the final season of The Flash, a show about Barry Allen and Iris West-Allen. It’s as if the show was so completely out of ideas for the couple that they had to sub in other stories to fill out their season order. Why was the show so focused on giving Cecile a happy ending at the expense of telling Barry’s story?

The Red Death storyline could’ve been fun, but was marred by the limitations of the latter-day Arrowverse and some really hammy acting. Even with the hammy acting, it felt like the right direction in general. Bringing in Ryan Wilder and new versions of villains like Captain Boomerang both worked as celebrations of the Arrowverse and Flash’s history. The storyline pulled in tons of classic Batman lines and generally suggested that the people working on it were having fun and trying out ideas.

The Nia Nal and Oliver Queen episodes were genuinely good; Nicole Maines was one of the great surprises of Supergirl, and it was good to see her again. Back before the network suddenly canceled Legends of Tomorrow, we’d hoped to see her join their team. Stephen Amell, meanwhile, proved that even after a few years off, he can still carry the whole multiverse on his Salmon Ladder-climbing trapezius muscles.

Eddie was robbed, but not how he thinks

Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The final Cobalt Blue storyline should’ve been epic. Sending Barry back in time to say goodbye to his parents and to the Matt Letscher version of the Reverse-Flash was a fine idea that was more good than bad, but it still took up a lot of time from the rest of that story. The four-episode arc’s main character, Eddie Thawne, didn’t even appear until the very last moments of that episode. He spent the next episode confused. Then, he turned to the dark side as fast as Anakin Skywalker, and about as believably. Like a feather in the wind, he folded before the spooky monster voice in his head.

It seems like the goal with Eddie was to bring the show back to its beginning and to make sure that Eobard would still be born so that he could be in all of the previous seasons. But Eddie’s turn was never really believable. That’s the thing about Tom Cavanagh’s Reverse-Flash; he didn’t really have a valid reason to be mad at Barry, because he’s completely unhinged, but Cavanagh made that utter contempt believable and palpable. Most of the show’s best moments took place between Gustin and Cavanagh. Actor Rick Cosnett is a super likeable dude, and so his heelturn felt less like villainy and more like a childish tantrum. To give even more power to that idea, father-to-be Barry calmed him down with a minute-long pep talk, and then they shook hands.

What should’ve been

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When you look around at the hopes and wishes Flash fans had for the final season, you see a much more interesting show. With apologies to Cecile, Chuck, Allegra, and Mark, we would drop them from the season entirely and relegate them to doing Team Flash Stuff–only appearing when they were part of Barry’s story. With that additional time, we’d do what the season should’ve done: celebrate, remember, and say goodbye to not just The Flash, but the greater Arrowverse.

We’re wading into the wishing well here, because it’s impossible to say how available previous Arrowverse actors would be at this point. With that said, we would’ve caught up with Supergirl for a moment to see what was happening in National City. The Legends would’ve stopped by to help Barry out with some kind of Time Problem so that they could get some closure after that brutal cliffhanger that left the whole team being arrested with absolutely no follow-up. We would’ve checked in on Star City to see it flourishing in the wake of Oliver Queen’s passing.

Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

And we would’ve given the stories time to breathe. Instead of trying to amp up the mystery of Eddie Thawne’s return, we would have given him enough time to get mad at his circumstances so that his turn would look less like a soap opera scene.

What happened?

It’s hard to say why this season turned out so poorly. The show switched showrunners around the fifth and six seasons, and that certainly didn’t help. The pandemic certainly impacted the show’s quality for a couple of seasons. But as I said in my review of the finale, it also seems like maybe the CW’s new owners were just trying to get the show over with as cheaply and quietly as possible. The team behind Superman & Lois explicitly disconnected their show from the Arrowverse last year, and Gotham Knights isn’t part of the shared universe, either. It seems like that decision was a hail-mary by each show’s creative teams to give the shows a chance at living on a little longer and not attaching themselves to a quickly-dying project.

In 2019, the Arrowverse had Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Batwomanand Black Lightning. Then Arrow ended in 2020. Supergirl and Black Lightning quit before they could be fired in 2021. Legends of Tomorrow and Batwoman were suddenly canceled in 2022. From six shows and a thriving universe to one show. And then that show was given two okay storylines, two genuinely good episodes, and a handful of time-filler episodes that weren’t worth the time they filled.

The Arrowverse was once one of the coolest experiments in television, and it became the CW’s albatross and was treated as such–right until Barry’s last scenes, one of which was instead about his father figure finally proposing to his girlfriend, instead of focusing on the superhero we all showed up to watch.

Photo: Jeff Weddell/The CW — © 2019 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved

There’s a lot of good looking back through the Arrowverse. Early seasons of Arrow and The Flash, Supergirl‘s excellent fourth season, and most of the run of Legends of Tomorrow are all worth holding up as some of the most entertaining superhero television. Superman & Lois belonged in there when we thought it was still connected, too. Those seasons are worth the rough moments throughout. But all of the creative people, the actors, the characters, and their worlds deserved a better send-off than The Flash season 9.