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The Flash: Has Barry Finally Learned His Lessons?

At least for this season, probably

Noel Kirkpatrick

Character development for (especially more mainstream) superheroes is difficult. More often than not, they don't really have all that much because publishers don't want to muck with recognizable, tested formulas. So if the characters do change, it's normally the result of the creators' desire to keep up with the times, a creative overhaul/new storytellers, or some sort of universe-changing event that allows the character to really change.

There's also the matter that superheroes are, for the most part, roughly the same age they were when they were created, and that keeps them from changing too much. (Peter Parker is the exception that pretty much proves the rule to all of this.)

But that's all in comic book pages. In TV, our expectations are probably a little different, especially when it comes to more serialized television. We've come to expect characters to grow, to learn, to change, to develop past where we see them in the premiere episode. This isn't always the case, of course, but when shows like The Flash devote narrative space to grappling with the consequences of actions, we expect things to change. Otherwise, what's the point of characters experiencing these ups and downs?

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This is the quandary that Flash has found itself in with "Into the Speed Force." Barry (Grant Gustin) had to return to the Speed Force to save Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) from the prison Savitar freed himself from (not sure why he needed the philosopher's stone when he just needed some fool speedster to take his place, but I've likely forgotten something, too). The Speed Force once again decided to put Barry through an emotional wringer, this time in the forms of Eddie (Rick Cosnett), Ronnie (Robbie Amell), and Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller).

Each of them interrogated Barry about his reasons for wanting to free Wally, and the Eddie incarnation in particular rightly pointed out that the Speed Force only granted Barry back his speed when he promised he was over his mom's death. And then, blamo, Flashpoint. Basically, the Speed Force, while being totally understanding that Barry is a complex man who is driven in no small part by his emotions, would really like it if he could learn some lessons from these ghosts of tragedies past.

​Grant Gustin and Wenworth Miller, The Flash
Diyah Pera/The CW

The big lesson the Speed Force wanted Barry to take away from this all this, however, was that he, and he alone, was the one who needed to stop Savitar. He's the Flash, after all, and he needs to trust and believe in himself and his abilities. He needs to keep fighting, hence the reason the Speed Force manifested as Snart right outside speedster prison.

The trouble with all this is that we've been here before. Every season has Barry learning to believe in himself after something goes very awry -- people sacrificing themselves, people getting murdered, people getting unwanted metahuman abilities because of alternate timelines, people getting stuck in Speed Force prisons -- and that weighing on him until he has his "Run, Barry, run" moment and beats the evil speedster of the season. And then he'll do something kind of dumb right after that.

All of this is supposed to be charting Barry's development as a hero, but when it feels like the show keeps re-setting Barry to a guy who needs to revisit the Speed Force to be reminded that, hey, he's the hero, it just feels like The Flash can't really let Barry grow and become comfortable with himself.

And this gets back to the comic book point about character development. For The Flash, Barry is always going to be this guy who doesn't cope very well and needs to be reminded each season that he can do this, whatever the "this" of the season is. It's very unlikely he's ever going to grow out of it, or that the show will let him; it's a good story engine, after all.

But it makes Barry look like pretty stunted. He's gone through this sort of thing three times now and hasn't really grown at all despite it. It'd be one thing if this were a comic book, or even an episodic-driven TV series that you could watch in practically any order and not lose anything from the experience, but it's not. It's a serialized program that placed an emphasis on characters and their relationships. If they're not going to change and grow from their experiences, why give them any experiences that force them into these kinds of situations?

I'd like for Barry to grow and realize that he can do these things and that he can trust himself and his team, but I've also been saying that for almost two and a half seasons now. I guess we'll know for sure come this time in Season 4 if Barry needs to visit the Speed Force again.

The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on The CW.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)