If the DC Universe has a benevolent version of Lex Luthor, it’s Greg Berlanti. The producer, responsible for Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and the animated Vixen series has spearheaded a massive resurgence for the company on the small screen. Better still, the work he and his teams have produced is coherent, shares a continuity and, most importantly, a sense of joy. That last, with the DC movies seemingly tripling down on the idea of murder as character development, is the most important. The Berlanti-produced shows, Oliver Queen’s almost universally awful life and life choices aside, are defined by joy. The scrappy mutts of Legends of Tomorrow refusing to be forgotten by history. Kara Danvers discovering not only who she is but that strength, bravery and kindness are inextricably linked. And, of course, Barry Allen, the fastest science puppy alive.
A big part of the success of all these shows is the supporting casts and that’s especially true of Supergirl and The Flash. The dynamic between the female characters, in particular Cat and Kara, on Supergirl is fascinating and I’m hoping to write about that in detail at a later date. Here though, I’ll be talking about The Flash and in particular, Joe West.
Joe, played by Jesse L. Martin, is a Central City homicide detective. He’s also the father of Iris West and the adopted father of Barry Allen as well as the partner of Eddie Thawne, Iris’ fiancé in Season 1. Joe is, in essence, the series’ designated dad, just as Harrison Wells is its designated weird uncle. Joe is wonderfully laconic, endlessly pragmatic and wears his heart right next to his detective shield. He’s also simultaneously the best, and worst, father on TV, depending on which one of his kids you focus on.
Starting with his genetic family, Joe’s relationship with Iris is inherently troubled. We find out early on that he forbade her from joining the Police Academy and later that he wants any potential fiancé to ask him for permission to marry her. Worse still, Joe has very little problem keeping the truth about Barry from his daughter. He’s manipulative, patronising, and defines himself as the absolute moral authority in her life, regardless of the fact that Iris is an adult and has been for some time. Or to put it another way, had the series been made a few decades ago, Joe would have been Spencer Tracy’s role to lose.
The constant marginalisation and patronising of Iris is a problem the show has both on screen and in the writers’ room, and a lot of that starts with Joe. However, where the first season in particular struggled with giving Iris anything meaningful to do, the second season has provided both welcome change for her and more context for her father’s actions.
It does this in one of the most effective ways series drama can: by taking one of your assumptions and turning it on its head. Iris’ mother is barely referenced in Season 1 and it’s implied, heavily, that she’s dead. When she returns in Season 2, she brings some much-needed backstory with her. An addict, she and Joe split up because she was a danger to herself and Iris. That explanation by itself is pretty bad, and the show flirts dangerously closely with some pretty standard “doomed female addict” tropes for a while.
What pulls it back from the brink is how honestly this plot explains—but does not excuse—Joe’s faults as a parent. He’s a police officer, a man who defines his life as being a moral standard and a guardian for people less fortunate than himself. We never see his marriage in detail but we do see the after effects of it; Joe, crushed with guilt at his inability to save it and by extension his wife from addiction and his daughter from childhood trauma. That guilt defines every relationship we see Joe have and it’s significant that as Season 2 closes, the possibility of romance for Joe hasn’t come up. He’s a dad, a cop and a widower and he’s either not ready, or not strong enough, to move past that last one in particular. Iris revels in it and the show does some of its best work exploring how briefly reuniting with her mother changes her. She for the most part, moves on. Joe doesn’t.
That’s because, from his point of view, he fails. As a husband and a police officer. That haunts him in every way for years after his wife leaves and, as is often the case, the next generation of the West family pay the price for it. Joe let his wife down, and as a result he wraps Iris up in the biggest protective blanket he can find. She’s forbidden from being a police officer, she’s all but forbidden from dating and he remains incredibly protective of her all the way through the series to date. As Season 2 comes in to land, his choices with regard to Iris are still frequently awful, but we now at least understand why he makes them. Plus, while those choices are often bad, they’re never without context now. He’s presenting as an arrogant dinosaur of a parent; in reality, he’s a man still smarting from a near-mortal wound to his family, desperate not to fail them again. It’s not an excuse for how Iris is viewed, but it is context.
That trauma is actually the foundation of why his relationship with Barry works so much better. Joe, grieving the loss of his wife, his idea of family, and much of his self-confidence, is faced with a child who has just experienced the absolute worst day of his young life. Barry has just seen someone kill his mother. Worse still, he’s seen his father arrested for it. His childhood is over; he desperately needs help. Joe desperately needs to help someone. Anyone. The two sets of damage lock together. A terrified small boy and a traumatised man hold each up until they can stand on their own two feet.
It also builds an inherent comfort with Barry that Joe never quite has with Iris. He is far more prepared to let Barry into the spaces of his life that Iris was explicitly barred from. In fact, their professional relationship is mutually beneficial. Barry’s work as a CSI helps Joe’s work as a detective. Later, Joe’s work as a detective helps Barry’s work as the Flash. The two men hand authority off to one another in a way that’s based on mutual respect and love rather than the outdated expectations and guilt that define much of Joe’s relationship with Iris.
That isn’t to say that either relationship is uniformly bad or good. In fact that very comfort in his relationship with Barry arguably underscores Joe’s sexism even more: Barry’s a guy and, sort of, a cop. He and Joe have nothing but common ground and that means the instinctive barriers he puts up around his daughter aren’t there. Even that arguably folds another layer of trust into place, with Joe viewing Barry as a trauma survivor at an early age and perhaps instinctively trusting him to be stronger than Iris.
Joe’s relationship with his daughter shouldn’t be seen as universally bad, on the other hand, because it isn’t. There’s immense love between them, even if Iris has to continually make end runs around her dad to live her life. Likewise, Barry gets away with very little and Joe clearly tires of making constant excuses for him even as the series hands him a rock solid reason for continuing to do so. The series is often at its best when it explores and is defined by Joe’s respect of, and fear for, his foster son’s second job. He never lets Barry off the hook but he also slowly learns that he’s standing in the way of both his kids and does something about it.
That emotional honesty makes the recent visit to Earth 2 even more interesting. There, Joe is a nightclub singer with almost none of the crumpled, careworn worldview of his Earth 1 counterpart. Iris and Barry are married, and working as a police detective and CSI, respectively. Most interestingly, Joe and Barry do not get on. Joe’s belief that Iris became a cop to pay for Barry’s PhD shows that some things don’t change. He’s still overprotective, still in many ways being very unfair. However, without the tempering of shared tragedy, he lacks the self-awareness and caution that Earth 1 Joe develops and his relationships with both Barry and Iris suffer for it. Or, to put it another way, Earth 2 Joe is happy but untempered. Earth 1 Joe has survived long enough to become happy.
That endurance and slow, mildly grudging emotional evolution is playing out again as Season 2 winds down. The discovery of Wally West, the son he didn’t know he had, has simultaneously thrown Joe off balance and given him a huge opportunity. A man haunted by what he sees as his greatest failure is suddenly faced with both the embodiment of that failure and the chance to do something about it. That chance is built on the hard-earned relationships he has with his other two kids and Joe’s absolute emotional honesty. The moment where Wally confronts him over Barry being favoured and Joe responds with “He’s my son. Just like you.” is powerful, simple, and absolutely honest. Joe West has a family. It’s odd and occasionally fractious but they’re everything to him. His willingness to welcome Wally, and address the concerns his arrival raises with all three kids, speaks to that.
So in the end the conclusion is, like Joe, complicated: He’s the best dad on TV. He’s also one of the worst and that fallibility is why he’s so interesting. He’s overprotective, old-fashioned to the point of sexism, but painfully, endlessly emotionally open. He owns every single one of his mistakes, learns from them when he can, and loves his kids unreservedly. He’s a moral authority who never stops trying, a dad painfully aware of his limitations and desperate to move past them. He’s not a grown-up, because in the end no one is, but he is the battered, crumpled, lovable heart of one of the sweetest shows on TV.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.