Grant Gustin ruined my life. Kind of.
Gustin’s casting as Barry Allen in the second season of The CW’s Arrow was the moment that series stopped being an uncommonly good superhero soap and became the Arrowverse, an often shockingly ambitious small-screen take on the cosmic sprawl of DC comic books, spawning a stable of CW shows that, at their best, were some of the most surprising superhero adaptations we’d seen at the time.
This week Gustin ended his decade-long tenure as Barry Allen/The Flash after nine seasons and 184 episodes as the star of The Flash, and several more in the many crossover episodes between his show and the show’s wider universe. The finale, “A New World: Part Four,” coincides with the end of the Arrowverse, as The Flash is the last show in the lineup still standing after Arrow’s 2012 debut.
Frankly, the less said about the finale, the better. It’s a whimper of an ending, leaning on tropes that The Flash had worn out about four seasons ago: time travel, alternate timelines, evil speedsters, and actors playing so many characters that when one of them dies it barely even registers. The show felt stale ages ago, and weirdly inured to its own stagnancy. Yet I still watched, because Gustin still showed up.
It’s hard to overstate how much Gustin’s role as Barry did to expand what the idea of superhero adaptations in the 2010s could look like. The first half of that decade was a transitional phase from the grim and grounded aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy — which Arrow chose to emulate — to the still grounded, but buoyantly fun tone of the early MCU.
The Flash, however, never hesitated to embrace the bombast and absurdity of its comic book source material, even when it barely had the budget or means to pull it off. While Arrow attempted to keep itself firmly away from superhumans in its urban vigilantism, The Flash delighted in it, eagerly throwing the comic’s feverish absurdity at the screen. Before the first season was through, The Flash would showcase psychic gorillas, a nuclear superhero comprising two men in one body, a villain who calls himself the Weather Wizard, and a pair of weirdly endearing criminals who didn’t have powers but did have a hot gun and a cold gun, respectively.
Gustin’s performance as Barry Allen was a big part of why all that landed. In his first appearance in Arrow, Gustin immediately charmed because he was, above all else, a believer. He was an audience surrogate that could delight in the comic book stuff surrounding him, and when the supernatural bolt of lightning struck him to make him The Flash, it felt like a kid being rewarded for having a little faith in magic. Barry, like many superheroes, had a tragic backstory, but unlike Stephen Amell’s grim Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, Barry could smile and do good in the world, not letting tragedy define him.
The Arrowverse was built on that smile. Gustin’s boyish charm and enthusiasm were the perfect vehicle for the conviction you need to sell four-color comic book plots, to delight in their absurdity and also take their melodrama seriously. It’s arguably because of The Flash that fans would hop from spinoff to spinoff, devoting so many hours to this rapidly expanding TV universe. It’s why I did, even if I frequently questioned my decisions afterward.
Unfortunately, The Flash — passed from showrunner to showrunner as cast members filtered in and out — eventually succumbed to the grimness of the times, constantly returning to Barry’s central tragedy, that he lost his mother as a child, until it was almost all that defined him. As the show returned to this beat over and over again, the light went out from Gustin’s performance, and the series was never really able to surround him with characters that Barry palpably connected with — the last of these probably being former Glee co-star Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl.
In the current streaming era, television endings are given far more weight than they have had at any point in the medium’s history. Shows that survive cancellation are often allowed to end on their own terms, or at the very least, play that ending up. The Flash, it seems, did neither. After all that running, it simply seemed tired. I was, too.