When The Flash premiered on The CW three years ago, it was a beacon of light in the grim-dark world created by its predecessor, Arrow. In the intervening years, the show has grown and changed, adding new characters while dispatching a few. Barry Allen himself has become a deeper, darker version of the character we met back in 2014. It's not a perfect show, but the way it has tracked most of its characters has been smooth and interesting, with one caveat: It kept forgetting it had female characters. That is, until this past season. As the show heads into its fourth season, with Barry Allen trapped in the speed force, the question is: Will those characters continue to grow, or shrink into the background once again?
As with most of the CW DC television universe, there are two main female characters in a sea of guys (this is even true about Supergirl, a show ABOUT a female superhero). For The Flash, those two characters are Iris West and Caitlin Snow, two characters who have had quite a storied history in the comics. In the show, however, they have been largely relegated to wheel spinning and exposition, without much of a story outside their relationships with various men.
Take, for example, Iris, who, thanks to her comic book history, was always moving toward her eventual relationship with the titular hero. Iris got off to an okay start on the show, playing the Lois Lane role to Barry Allen’s costumed hero. While she has never been a very good reporter, she’s at least better at following the rules of journalism than Kara Danvers. But beyond a small amount of investigative moxie early on, Iris has generally served as professional damsel in distress and the source of Barry’s romantic ennui, spinning her wheels during the show's entire second season up until the point when she and Barry finally got together at the start of Season 3.
All the stagnation of Iris’ story, though, doesn’t hold a candle to what they’ve done with Caitlin Snow, the woman who would be Killer Frost. Caitlin has done pretty much nothing except have doomed relationships for the entire run of the show. In the first season, her entire character arc revolved around her dead fiance, Ronnie Raymond, who quickly turned out not to be dead, to be one-half of FIRESTORM, and then to quickly be dead again by the start of the following season. Season 2 Caitlin, meanwhile, spent her entire second season trying to save her new boyfriend Jay Garrick before he revealed himself to be evil. Without the people she dated, Caitlin had virtually no purpose except to spout medical jargon.
Then came Season 3, and it was like the show suddenly woke up, looked around, and realized there were two brand-new characters to play around with. Both Iris and Caitlin became major focuses of their own stories, and while both women were the “thing that needed saving” all season, they were finally instrumental to their own rescue.
Iris is the easiest to point out, as her potential death was the crux of the second half of the season. While Barry and the rest of Team Flash worked frantically to figure out how to save her, Iris spent the bulk of the season wrestling with her own feelings about her mortality and her relationship with Barry. She struggled with reckless behavior and unnecessary risk-taking as she attempted to deal with the idea that she was fated to die. But it was in the season finale that all of that came to a head, when after her death is stopped it is Iris who takes out the bad guy, Iris who saves Barry’s life for a change.
It was Caitlin, though, who had the biggest arc this season, a welcome turn of events following two seasons of stagnation to the point of uselessness. Very early on in, Caitlin discovers that, as a result of Barry mucking around with time, she now has metahuman cold powers. For reasons that still haven’t been properly explained, Caitlin, unlike every other meta in Central City, is severely affected by those powers, which turn her into a totally different person. Caitlin Snow becomes Killer Frost. The prospect of losing control, of turning into a murderous, unhinged, downright evil version of herself is what motivates her throughout the entire season.
Caitlin struggles with the idea that she could, deep down, be evil, that she might one day lose control and hurt her friends, that she might be their worst enemy. She spends all her time terrified of what she might become and working tirelessly to cure herself. Despite all that work, though, Caitlin does eventually succumb to her powers and their evil influence, becoming Killer Frost during the final few episodes. But while an evil Caitlin is fun to play around with, it’s a struggling Caitlin wrestling with the darkest parts of herself that is the true treat of this season, and one that we finally have a chance to see as the finale’s final moments begin. Finally, after an entire season spent terrified of what she might become, Caitlin faces down those dark parts, and while she doesn’t win, she also doesn’t lose. She is no longer the Caitlin we know and love. She is something different. She is, despite seasons of failure to become so, an actual character.
On top of the leaps and bounds The Flash’s third season took for its two main women, it also managed to do wonders for supporting female characters, introducing three new supporting women with their own goals and contributions, as well as offering a returning character a new chance to prove herself. While the introduction of Gypsy, Tracy, and Cecile did largely serve to offer love interests for the men on the show, these women also have jobs and skills of their own and manage to contribute to Team Flash in their own unique ways. Add to that Jesse Quick’s new motivations to strike out on her own and take over as the Flash of Earth Three, breaking away from both her father and her boyfriend to start her own life and find her own destiny, and you’ve got a whole team of women ready to show the boys what the superhero-ing is all about.
The Flash has struggled over its first few seasons to connect with its female characters, relegating them to the sidelines despite establishing them as capable, intelligent people. Thankfully, that all seems to be changing with this past season, and it seems like they may be continuing this trajectory in the season to come. During San Diego Comic-Con, the show's cast and creators talked a great deal about the major changes coming to The Flash after the events of the third season finale. Among them, Iris West will be taking on a greater role as leader of Team Flash. Meanwhile, Caitlin Snow looks like she'll have her own arc now that her cold powers are part of who she is.
With all the steps the creative team took to bring these two characters to the forefront of the show at the end of last year, it will be interesting to see which paths they choose for them going forward.