Family is a main theme of the fifth season of The Flash, and it certainly was at the heart of this week’s episode, Blocked. Let me start off by saying that I enjoyed this episode for the most part. It had a nice touch of humor, some drama, and a refreshing return to Barry and Iris in their respective jobs as C.S.I. and Central City reporter. However, it was also a reminder of the problem the Arrowverse in general – and The Flash in particular – has with mothers.
Quick. Name one positive, healthy, loving, living mother/daughter relationship on the show. I’ll wait. No? Nothing? Okay, surely there’s a healthy mother/son relationship, right? No? Still nothing? It makes me really want to ask the writers…who hurt you? At times it seems Disney has fewer issues with mothers, and it has a long-standing and well-known policy of killing them off.
Nora Allen: Doomed To Die
The very foundation of the show is predicated on the death of Nora Allen. If Nora lives, there’s no show – or at least the show is fundamentally very different. Barry’s entire journey as a hero is based upon the murder of his mother and unjust imprisonment of his father. Barry spent the whole first season trying to get to the bottom of her murder. At the end of the third season, he raced back in time in an attempt to set history to rights. In doing so, he learned what seems to be an inescapable truth to the series itself: Nora Allen Must Die.
While she was alive, all signs point to her and Barry having had a healthy, loving relationship. But since these flashbacks only exist to drive home the extent of his loss and torment at her death. Nora’s relationship with her son doesn’t exist for its own benefit. It exists to make her death, the linchpin of the series, more poignant.
But surely this is a single outlier of the series, right? Well, in a sense, yes. It was at least a loving, healthy relationship when she was alive. Also, we got to see the love between mother and child, if almost entirely in flashback. Sadly, that does make it something of an outlier in the series.
Francine West: A Troubling Stereotype
At the risk of opening some old wounds for Iris West fans, let’s talk a little about Francine West. Mother of the female lead of The Flash, Iris West. Fans were given precious little information on her through the first season. We simply knew Iris had lost her. When we were told that she would take part in the second season, fans were excited and wanted to know more.
However, the show’s treatment of Francine didn’t remotely live up to fans’ hopes. In fact, their treatment of the character touched not just on the issues of sexism in The Flash (which I’ve written about before) but issues of racism, as well. As it turned out, Francine wasn’t dead. She was a drug addict who had abandoned her child. Joe had either never really tried to find her or he did (as he claimed) and he’s the worst detective in the world. She was living in the next city over under her real name.
After she abandoned Iris, Joe made the rather absurd decision to pretend she was dead. A rather frustrating plot decision, because that certainly wasn’t a lie that could ever bite him in the ass. It’s not like there was any chance Iris could ever learn she was alive. As she did. But, okay, he decided to let Iris believe her mother was dead for nearly two decades. Iris’s reaction upon finding that she was alive? A few tears and unrealistically immediately, almost instantaneous, forgiveness.
On the other hand, she held much more of a grudge against her mother. A reasonable response, given that her mother had abandoned her? Perhaps. It could also have been an interesting plot if it was given proper time and attention. If we had seen Francine and Iris get to know each other. If we had been able to watch the progression from anger to forgiveness. However, most of their story happened off-screen, until Iris decided to suddenly forgive her on her deathbed. If the number of minutes spent on the Francine/Iris story reached even the high tens, I would be surprised.
Which still manages to do one up on the Wally/Francine relationship. Although Wally had been raised by his mother, and though her illness drove many of his actions in his first season, they never even shared a scene together. Not when he returned to Central City. Or when she followed. Not even when she was about to die. The two actors subsequently did share a brief scene together, but it wasn’t really Francine. She was the main driving force of Wally’s plot when he first joined the show, and we didn’t get even a single scene of mother and son together.
But at least she was given a name. Which is better than Cisco’s mother has ever gotten.
Mrs. Ramon / Earth 2 Mrs. Wells – Sorry, Who Are You Again?
The former was only mentioned in passing, when Cisco established that his parents favored his brother. Jesse Quick’s mother on Earth-2, Mrs. Wells, was…well, I have to assume she even went by “Mrs. Wells.” I don’t believe she was ever given even that much of a name on the show.
Since Jesse was a recurring character, it could perhaps be forgivable that we know so little about her mother. We know she’s dead. We know Harry loved her and didn’t speak much of her after her death. Everything we know about her mother actually comes from him, and it’s precious little. On the other hand, since this was a source of tension between Jesse and her dad, it isn’t forgivable after all.
As for Mrs. Ramon, she’s Cisco’s mother. Cisco has been a main character on the show since the beginning. Of course, we don’t know his father’s name, either, and so this is as much due to the show’s general failure on behalf of his character than a pointed indictment. However, Mr. Ramon is something of an outlier in being an unexplored father/son relationship on the show. There have been almost an excess of father/son relationships on The Flash from the beginning. (The father/daughter relationship between Joe and Iris has improved from the first season, when the writers became aware of their failing due to the #DoYouHaveaDaughterJoe hashtag. However, it still tends to be forgotten as often as not.) Mrs. Ramon is part of an overwhelming pattern.
Cisco Ramon and Jesse Quick. Two more mother/child relationships on the show down, and we don’t even have names for the mothers in question. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the treatment of mothers on the show.
Carla Tannhauser – Giving Love a Bad Name
Which brings us to Caitlin’s mother, who seems to have a key role to play in this season. And yet, while we’ve seen very little of this relationship so far, we’ve seen enough to know it isn’t a healthy one. The relationship between Caitlin and Carla was strained at best in the third season. Supposedly grieving her husband’s death, Carla had emotionally distanced herself from her only child for several years. She didn’t even seem to know that Caitlin had married her fiancé Ronnie, let alone that she had lost him. Twice.
Things don’t seem likely to be much better this year. In this week’s episode, it is revealed that Carla helped fake her husband’s death after his illness. To what point and purpose, we don’t know, but it doesn’t make one optimistic for a joyful reunion between the two when next we see her.
For the record, under these circumstances, I wouldn’t begrudge Caitlin any bitterness she may feel upon this revelation. But come on. First Joe lied to Iris for years and told her Francine was dead. Now we find Carla has lied to Caitlin for years and told her that her father was dead. Not only is the storyline rather repetitive in that respect, but it’s another mother/child relationship down the drain. One might hope that the storyline will get a proper arc, with character growth and forgiveness. But does anyone really have much hope that will happen? Given the lackluster (to be kind) treatment of mothers throughout the series so far, does anyone really think that is going to happen?
Iris West-Allen – #DoYouHaveaMotherNora
Last but not least, one of the most important mother/child relationships of the entire series. The focus on family in the fifth season is primarily centered around Nora West-Allen, Barry and Iris’s daughter from the future. After her father’s disappearance in the future, she traveled to the past to meet him. Her adoration – and adulation – of her father is understandable. However, the tension she clearly harbors towards Iris is less so.
We do not yet know the reason for her emotional distance from her mother, but it isn’t exactly subtle either. While fans have been reassured all will be explained, that doesn’t change facts. Once again, The Flash has introduced a mother/child relationship to the series. Once again, that relationship is given the short shrift. Now, don’t get me wrong. Given Nora’s motivations for traveling into the present, it isn’t unreasonable that Nora would be desperate to get to know Barry in the time she has with him. As the hero of the story, it isn’t a surprise that his relationship with her would take central stage.
And if the Nora/Iris relationship were an outlier in the series, it would be less troubling. However, it isn’t an outlier. It is part of a consistent pattern. Various father/son relationships have been explored on the show. For a while, Barry couldn’t put on his shoes without tripping over a new father figure. These relationships have been given poignancy and depth. Emotional resonance and character growth.
Mother/child – particularly mother/daughter relationships, on the other hand? The sad truth is that the current tension between Nora and Iris, as frustrating as it may be to the audience, isn’t a surprise. It isn’t a shock that the mother/child relationship plays second fiddle to the father/child one.
As a fan of Barry Allen, I don’t begrudge the relationship that the writers are setting up between him and Nora. Watching him bond with and train his daughter has been a joy to see. The conversations about parenthood – between Joe and Cecile and Joe and Barry – were some of the most heartwarming parts of the episode. But, running counterpoint to this, every scene between Iris and Nora was a reminder of the general mistreatment of mothers throughout the series.
For the most part I have high hopes for this season of The Flash. The first two episodes have set a more balanced tone than in some years past. Nora’s storyline is intriguing. Ralph has managed not to infuriate me yet this year. There is even hope that we will get to explore the characters’ lives outside of the lab more. As of right now, the season feels promising, a marked improvement from last year’s show.
And yet, with all that, the Iris/Nora relationship is a reminder of the show’s failings with regards to its female characters from the very beginning. Giving Caitlin a plotline and focusing on Iris’s role as a reporter – as they did this episode – is a good start. But the show will never live up to its potential for greatness until they give more consideration to the way they treat their women overall. Giving them agency. Allowing them their voice, addressing their pain (which they did not entirely do this week, since the impact of the future headline on Iris was glossed over). And depicting positive mother/child relationships on the show. Even once. Please. For crying out loud.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on The CW.