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Forget the Friendzone: The Flash teaches you the right way to deal with your feelings

December 18, 2014

[Spoilers for “The Man in the Yellow Suit,” The Flash 1.9]

Flash has done so many things right in the short time it’s graced our TV sets.  It’s brought us the bright joy of Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen, a young man who takes absolutely pleasure in his abilities and a striking contrast to the darkness in Oliver Queen’s Arrow.  It’s brought us some wonderful cast members, especially Tom Cavanaugh and Jesse L. Martin as Barry’s father figures, and some wonderful nods to television shows past, especially John Wesley Shipp as Barry’s biological father.  It’s immediately set itself up as a world that can draw us into the more “super” aspect of the DC universe, again in contrast to Arrow’s more “human” world.  It’s been smart, and fun, and–above all else–charming, the way The Flash should be.

The worst part, so far, has been watching Barry moon over Iris West, his bff and foster sister.  Unlike some, I don’t care that they grew up in the same house for about eight years and I don’t think it makes the situation incestuous.  But it’s been tedious at best, and annoying at its worst.  For a while, Barry was hiding his feelings from her in person and then flirting with her as The Flash.  Barry has done quite a few arrogant things since he got his powers, and this has been one of them.  Iris has a semi-serious boyfriend, and he’s not going to reveal his identity as per his promise to their dad, so their flirtation is a boost to her ego and a release of sorts for him.  It gives him a sense of what things would be like if they really were interested in each other.  It’s not bad, and no one’s crossing any lines, but we watch it knowing there’s no way for anyone to be satisfied here.  Ultimately, Barry will stop getting his kicks from it and realize that because he wants more, it will feel empty; ultimately, Iris will feel guilty about it and it will screw up her relationship.

So, thanks to the Rain–er, Prism, Iris gets a wake-up call, right when she’s about to hit that guilty stage.  Her boyfriend Eddie is putting together a task force to figure out what’s going on with this “red streak,” and Iris realizes that her pro-Flash stance is going to pit them against each other.  Although she does not have to choose between the two men, she does have to choose where her loyalties lie, and she quickly and resolutely takes Eddie’s side, even if she doesn’t completely agree with him.  The Prism incident highlights her reasonable decision, and her, hey, guilt over not telling Eddie that she’s spoken to the Flash in person has brought the need for that decision to light.  Fans of the show felt she “turned against Flash too quickly” and it felt forced, but the thing is, she hasn’t turned against Flash. She’s ceased her involvement with him, emotionally and otherwise, because it’s in the best interest of herself and her relationship.  It was easy to ignore her own best interests in the midst of something new, exciting, and flirty; she couldn’t do it when someone else was involved.  It could’ve been her dad, too, but the audience also needed to see that she was committed to Eddie.

Which brings us to “The Man in the Yellow Suit,” the ninth episode of the season.  Eddie is starting to clue into what everyone, even Barry’s dad in prison, knows: Barry has romantic feelings for Iris.  Unlike everyone else, he actually tells Iris what he sees, because he’s the only one who’s close to just her in this situation–everyone else being Barry’s friends or their dad, who is Team Switzerland.  Iris is startled and thrown off her game.  How could she not know?  Because sometimes we’re blindest to the ones closest to us, but mostly because Iris glows around Barry, just as Barry glows around her; they’re just different kinds of glow.  It never occurred to her that what she saw in him wasn’t a reflection of herself.

Iris then goes to Caitlin instead of Barry himself, because how embarrassing would it be if Eddie were just jealous?  Why would Iris want to create disharmony between the two of them?  But Caitlin’s response is vague, because she’s Team Barry.  Also because Barry’s hiding more than his feelings, but that’s on Caitlin and has nothing else to do with what’s going on here.  Barry’s superhero-ness isn’t important in this scene.  It’s not the thing that’s driving Iris and Barry apart, not really.  Barry’s unspoken feelings are.

Finally, finally Iris confronts Barry and, blissfully, he does everything right in this scene in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on television.  Usually, when a character likes another character and puts off telling them, there’s a feelingsbomb, and messy bullshit happens, usually resulting in a woman ditching a guy (usually a jerk) for the bomber.  Barry’s reveal is not a feelingsbomb, and he does so many things right that I wanted to stand up and cheer, and was still in awe by the end of the episode.  I believe this scene should be a model of How to Tell Someone You Like Them Correctly.

Here’s what Barry does:

-he tells Iris how he feels

-he tells her how long he’s felt this way

-he explains why he didn’t say anything before, and it’s reasonable (and, of course, fear-based, because fear is why people don’t do things)

Here’s what he doesn’t do:

-he doesn’t tell her for his sake, but rather the sake of their increasingly awkward and problematic friendship

-he doesn’t ask her to choose between him and Eddie

-in fact, he doesn’t ask her for anything at all

-he doesn’t stick around so that she has to process this information with the pressure of having him there

Yup, he ghosts, allowing her to think on her own time and without any outside influence.  Not about whether she wants to date Barry, but about the whole scenario and where she comes down on it.  Is this a friendship dealbreaker?  No, and I would argue that part of that is because of how he explains it all to her.  This is solidified when they meet up next, and he congratulates the two of them on their moving in together.  This is heartfelt because Barry is a great guy (not a Nice Guy).  Iris’s happiness means that much to him, and Eddie, unlike the usual TV boyfriend, is legitimately a good guy.  Is Barry sad?  Of course.  But the important part for him is that he conquered his fear that their love for each other couldn’t handle the imbalance.  The important part for her is that their friendship isn’t being eroded because of knowledge she didn’t have.

I was so impressed by this scene that I was still dwelling on it at the end of the episode.  I mean, sure, it doesn’t solve the problem that she doesn’t know he’s The Flash, but that’s okay.  We’ll get to that too.  But I don’t see how else this could’ve played out.  Barry has always been open about his feelings, except when he’s afraid of something specific.

Superheroes often get a pass to be emotional because of the heightened situations they face, but I feel the show has been incredibly thoughtful about the ways they’ve allowed Barry to be an emotional character.  It’s not unusual for a scene with him and his father to end with both in tears, and although I am not one to search out show information I do occasionally read recaps and comments and I have seen no backlash about it.  (My favorite sites are probably biased, but at least one is somewhat diverse.)  He and Joe often speak about their feelings for one another–my husband got a bit choked up at that one scene between them; I was crying–and I am thrilled to see this on my television screen.  This is the very opposite of Oliver Queen’s world of withholding emotion and pats on the back and handshakes between the male characters.  Yet Ollie’s constantly being told that he’s jeopardizing his happiness with this emotional constipation, especially by Diggle, a character who proves that you can have strong feelings and still be a strong man.  In fact, we’re implicitly told through Diggle how wrong it is to withhold all emotion, since Diggle is Always Right.  No, really, go check. I’ll wait.

So while Arrow keeps proving to us that Ollie needs to allow himself to be more emotional or be miserable forever, The Flash once again takes the opposite approach.  With the men on the show being open about their feelings–and Iris having agency rather than being something for Barry to “win”–The Flash subtly does its part for equality and creates a scene that gives us the best-case scenario for revealing romantic feelings for a friend.

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