No figure in a superhero story exasperates impatient audiences quite like the dreaded “love interest”—something Candice Patton, aka The Flash’s Iris West, knows all too well.
Unlike the crime-fighting teams of allies or even the world-threatening mega-villains, the traditional love interest starts out completely in the dark about the hero’s vigilante life. She (it’s usually a “she”) is the last to know everything, and the first to unwittingly step into danger. And she’s often upset—she gets shut out and lied to a lot, and her date’s always rushing off without any explanation.
None of this endears her much to audiences. And yet it’s a trope that crops up time and again in stories about the Lana Langs, Mary Jane Watsons, and Iris Wests of the superhero world.
“It was hard in the beginning,” says Patton, 27, of her part in the CW drama’s first season. “I could see the potential [for Iris], where I think a lot of people couldn’t. I think they imagined that she would always be this version—just in the dark and kind of getting in the way of Team Flash doing their job. But as an actor and knowing where my character was potentially going, I could see the growth she would have over the next season and two and three and four. I can still see that.”
Now that Iris finally knows Barry Allen’s big secret, thanks to the fallout from a timeline-altering event at the end of season one, her role in the speedster’s story has changed. No longer just the unattainable object of his lifelong affections, Iris is also a teammate and a useful ally in S.T.A.R. Labs’ fight to defend two Earths. It’s a shift Patton describes as “freeing.”
Nowhere is the change more apparent than in two of this season’s best episodes, the Kevin Smith-directed “Runaway Dinosaur” and the dimension-hopping, doppelganger-filled “Welcome to Earth-2.” Both feature quippy, wisecracking versions of Iris that take the lead in hunting down evildoers (or zombified metahumans). Not surprisingly, both were Patton’s favorites of the year.
“That felt like such a long time coming. We’ve seen Iris just cry so much,” Patton laughs, remembering the space “Runaway Dinosaur” gave Iris to crack jokes. “She’s just been put through the ringer since Eddie and her mother died and she found out about [younger brother] Wally. It just seemed like she was constantly in a state of depression. So it was nice to see her have fun and bond with Cisco.”
“I think that’s Iris’s sweet spot,” she adds. “I hope we kind of stay in that lane of giving her a lot of agency and the ability to work with the team to help the Flash in Central City.”
Viewers of season one may have been in a rush to see Iris reach this point, an impatience perhaps spawned from decades’ worth of superficially empowered female characters in comics and on TV. Still, Patton says, the journey itself has been crucial for her character.
“We often see women on TV who are weak and not given a lot to do and it can be frustrating as an audience member—I totally get that,” Patton says. “But I think it’s important to also not do the flip side because that’s not real life either. We’ve got to see them grow into their strength, at least for me, for it to be believable.”
“I’ve said this in an interview before, but sometimes I find that audiences have a hard time watching women grow,” she adds. “They want to see their women on TV come in and, from day one, be strong and have it all together and figured out. And I just don’t think that’s true of real women. We’re flawed, we’re messy.”
Still, Patton says, it’s “nice to have moved beyond” Iris’s damsel-in-the-dark phase, a development that, over the course of season two, has worked to bring Iris and Barry together. In an alternate timeline that was rendered obsolete when Barry used his speed to turn back time and save Central City from a tsunami, it was all but certain that Barry and Iris would eventually fall in love and marry.
In the show’s current timeline, however, their fate together was always less certain—until now.
In “The Runaway Dinosaur,” Barry risks his own life to regain his powers after losing them to Zoom, an experiment that doesn’t quite go as planned. Barry finds himself ripped from the Earth entirely and stuck inside the Speed Force that gives him his powers (and allows for a gorgeously meditative series of scenes with his dead mother, Nora).
It’s his connection with Iris that brings Barry back to Earth, however. Later, as the pair visit Nora Allen’s grave, Iris—who has stayed strictly friends with Barry since her fiancé Eddie gave up his life to stop his evil time-traveling descendant Eobard Thawne—has a change of heart. When he laments, “We never had anyone who was just right for us,” she turns to him and asks, “Didn’t we?”
It was the triumphant—and ever so sweet—moment #WestAllen fans had been anxiously awaiting, one only made possible, Patton says, because of the time Iris spent as Barry’s ally and confidante, rather than his love interest. (Much of season two featured Barry and Iris exploring other relationships—he with Patty Spivot, a charming young detective, and she with Scott Evans, her editor at Picture News.)
“We haven’t discussed it a lot this whole season, but I think Iris had been holding onto that relationship with Eddie,” Patton says. “She wasn’t at a place where she was ready to finally move on. And when Scott entered the picture, it was a lightbulb moment for her: She was either going to hold onto Eddie or move on.
“Once she decided to move forward,” she continues, “then the question was, ‘Well is Scott really the right person I want to do that with?’ And I think it brought her back to the feelings she has deep down for Barry.”
It’s a subtly momentous message for a traditional superhero narrative to adopt: Getting the girl is about more than the chase—it’s about bonding with her as a fellow human above all. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, however, for a show that has consciously prioritized making strides toward equality, inclusion, and respect both in front of and behind the camera.
Flash co-creator Greg Berlanti—who runs four other superhero-focused CW shows, including Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Arrow—was recently honored by the Alliance of Women Directors for his commitment to hiring women and people of color to direct his shows.
For actresses like Patton, who often advocates for more active roles for Iris, having a female director on set makes a “huge difference.”
“A female director will come into the West-Allen house while we’re shooting a scene and, you know, a male director will say, ‘Okay, maybe Iris is bringing in the food from the kitchen,’” she says. “And a female director will instinctively think about that choice and say, ‘You know what, let’s have Joe do it.’ It’s a small difference and there’s power in that.
“I think anytime you have anyone who is diverse on television making decisions, it colors the landscape in a way that the majority can’t see,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean that white males don’t have something to offer, it just means that having different perspectives only colors the landscape. It only makes it better…For me as a female actress, I feel safer on set. I feel empowered to make choices because I have a woman who understands what I’m going through.”
As for where Patton would like to see Iris go after tonight’s second season finale (which she promises will end on a “huge, huge cliffhanger” and bring #WestAllen fans "the moment they're looking for"), Patton already has a few ideas.
“I would love to see Iris do what she does best in helping Team Flash, which is working at her job,” she says, “at Picture News, working on stories and using her investigative skills to help out the S.T.A.R. Labs team It’s such a huge part of the comics that we haven’t really touched on yet, this reporter dynamic that’s kind of the Superman-Lois Lane thing. It’s such a cool aspect that I’d love to see more of.”
We couldn't agree more.