To say it’s surprising to be so pleased five episodes into The Flash’s fifth season is an understatement. The show, as promised by showrunner Todd Helbing, has managed to maintain the heart, while filling the episodes with multiple subplots and keeping everyone out of STAR Labs (this is the best part to be honest). Every episode has only gotten better, flowing well from one to the other, something previous seasons have never managed to do. “All Doll’d Up,” which centers the aftermath following the reveal of Nora and Iris’ conflict and introduces a creepy new metahuman named Rag Doll (guest star Troy James), is probably the best episode of season five.
The Flash (and the Arrowverse at large, really) has always focused more on father/son relationships, and fathers in general, more than they have on mothers. Women, it seems, are always secondary and pushed to the side, mother/child relationships deemed unimportant to the development of characters unless said mother is long dead. The worry here was that Barry and Nora’s relationship would get spotlighted while Iris had to suffer on the sidelines. And she does for awhile, but the focus really shifts during episode four, “News Flash,” when Barry finally takes a stand and supports Iris’ decision. It changes his own relationship with Nora and moves to center the conflict between mother and daughter after episodes of buildup. This has never happened on the show before and they’ve shockingly treated this storyline with care and thought.
The insight into Iris’ fears, worries, and vulnerabilities as a mother is so good and well-written. Iris is hurting and Barry tries to make her smile and feel better throughout the episode, trying to turn their investigating into a team-up/date night. It parallels the story Cecile tells Nora later about how, when they’re kids, Iris tries to make Barry smile and feel better after his mom’s death. It’s also wonderful to see so many in Iris’ corner (Cecile finally steps up and even Iris gets to tear into Nora for her recklessness) because she is being hard on herself throughout the episode. She questions not only her decision to protect Nora with the dampener, but also whether she’s even a good mother in the future. After dropping the ball on the entire Francine West storyline back in season two, they acknowledge Iris’ feelings on the matter in a way that makes sense and treats her fears and vulnerabilities with the respect and care they deserve.
“All Doll’d Up” is full of subtlety and nuance as well, not just with the Nora and Iris tension, but with regards to the realization for Iris that she does raise Nora alone–everything from Barry saying she doesn’t have to become that person and she that she can raise her differently, to Iris saying she has no choice in who she becomes and that it’s out of her control really brings this fact home. There’s probably more to the reasoning behind why Iris put the dampener in Nora, but at least one of them is because of Barry’s disappearance in 2024. Nora mentioning to Cecile that her mom never wants her to do anything dangerous all but solidifies that. Iris is facing a daughter who seemingly hates her on top of the prospect of losing the love of her life and it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch. The pacing of the storyline is well-executed and the layering of the story and the choice not to simply just provide us with an info-dump adds to the show’s storytelling and develops Nora and Iris in a way that is organic and not rushed. Candice Patton is a standout and continues to deliver every week, her performance both emotional, understated, and intense.
Rag Doll proves to be the show’s scariest villain thus far and the real-life contortionist who plays him, Troy James, does an excellent job being extra creepy. His backstory comes in a bit late, but he is at least one of the more memorable metahumans this show has ever had and the fact that he is off doing his own thing before deciding to inflict pain on the West-Allen family is a good decision. Rag Doll likes to “deliver the most painfully emotional blow possible” when it comes to his victims, meaning he doesn’t just steal expensive items for the sake of stealing. This is a great setup for what is a switch of one of the usual superhero tropes. Instead of kidnapping Iris to get to Barry, Rag Doll, who clearly doesn’t know Barry is The Flash, kidnaps him to hurt Iris and watch her suffer.
Taking quick action, Iris jumps over the building to save Barry, knowing that if she unlocks the metahuman cuffs, he’ll be able to save them. It’s a thrilling and surprising moment, one of Iris’ best, and one of the most memorable scenes of the series overall. It’s a true showcase of “badassery” and reaffirms how much of a hero Iris is, sans powers. It’s also an important moment because Nora gets to see how her mom is just as much of a hero as her dad and that the Iris she remembers from the future isn’t the one she’s missing out on getting to know in the present. The thawing of the ice between mother and daughter is natural and flows well, opening the gates for more understanding between them.
On a side note, Barry and Iris getting dolled up themselves to go undercover and investigate the case is fantastic. The episode shows how well they work together as a unit and their team-up highlights the layers of their relationship and how they always have each other’s backs. Grant Gustin and Candice Patton’s chemistry here is so very palpable and the romantic slow-motion dance scene puts it on display so effectively.
Caitlin’s search for her father’s whereabouts continues to be dull (and frankly, more confusing as the show struggles to make sense of both her and Killer Frost). This storyline hasn’t provided much insight into who she is as a person, why it is that she wants Killer Frost back so badly, and why her father even leaves her behind in the first place. What development is this storyline giving her? Will it result in the return of Killer Frost? The series has lost a lot of steam with this subplot given the way they’ve handled it in the past and this new route isn’t proving to be any better. The scene transitions between this subplot and the main plot are a little bit jarring because it doesn’t serve as a great tie-in and takes us out of the story. The Flash is trying to pace Caitlin’s subplot alongside the rest of the storylines and it’s only proving to drag on for longer than need be.
However, “All Doll’d Up” finally gives Cisco some very much needed development. He’s given the chance to finally express his feelings and point of view, something which has been missing since the beginning of season three. He’s always been supportive of Caitlin especially, so it’s nice to see her finally pay attention to and support him. Their scene in which she tells him that even without his powers, he’s still Cisco, still worthy, and still her friend no matter what is heartfelt and sweet.
There was some worry that the writers would only focus on Cisco’s breakup with Cynthia and that this would be the extent of his story this season. It’s a nice change of pace and so very refreshing to hear him speak up about his own insecurities and how the struggle with his powers has impacted his sense of self. Cisco claims he never wanted his powers, but he’s embraced them and now he’s a bit lost without being able to fully use them. The idea of heroism and of only being worthy of being a hero only when powers are involved has always been both ridiculous and naïve. Cisco’s self-worth and feelings regarding his powers and Iris’ save minus any superpowers parallel each other. You can still do amazing things and are important as a person, powers or no powers.
The Flash is really bringing its A-game this season and is actively developing its characters. The episode puts Iris and Nora’s tension front and center and allows Iris to filter through so many of her emotions with regards to parenting, her future, and her past history with her mother. It also gives us some long-overdue Cisco development and a memorable villain in Rag Doll. Ultimately, “All Doll’d Up” builds so well upon the emotional climax from “News Flash,” gives us one hell of a follow-up, and also delivers the season’s best episode–as well as one of the show’s strongest–thus far.