[WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Flash Season 1, Episode 17]
By this point fans of The Flash have gotten used to being surprised, stunned, or downright staggered on a weekly basis. But in recent weeks, the stakes have been raised significantly. After Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) was revealed to be ‘The Man in Yellow’ – better known as the ‘Reverse-Flash’ – sooner than many fans expected, the show’s writers thrilled die-hard fans when Wells confirmed his true identity to be that of Eobard Thawne; a time traveling speedster from the future, just as he was in the comics.
While staying true to the traditional Thawne/Barry Allen rivalry, the show’s writers have been eager to make some changes as well (the introduction of Detective Joe West and Eddie Thawne, for starters). Yet every time fans assumed they had a handle on Thawne’s motivations or the comic mythology being adapted, another curveball was thrown, with promises that the final twist in store was one that few would ever see coming.
The startling revelation promised seemed to arrived in Episode 17, “Tricksters” sending comic fans jumping for joy. But did the twist really deliver on the fan theories and speculation – or simply cash in the show’s chips early?
Judging the real impact of the twist means first laying out exactly what new insight into the death of Nora Allen was given. Once adult Barry successfully defended his younger self from Thawne and escorted him to safety, Thawne similarly fled, presumably after killing Nora as a consolation prize. Almost immediately afterward, Thawne’s powers – based on his connection to “the Speed Force” – failed, according to his A.I. Gideon, thereby stranding him in time.
Enraged, Thawne removed his yellow mask to reveal… a man who was clearly not Harrison Wells. Following hot on the heels of Dr. Wells (Cavanagh) admitting he was both Thawne and Nora Allen’s killer, viewers were stunned to see another face (that of actor Matt Letscher), even if the explanation was impossible to guess in the moment. And stranded though he may be, Thawne quickly set out to return to his own time and place.
Perhaps even more tragic than another glimpse of Nora Allen’s murder was a look at Harrison Wells fifteen years before the events of the series. When he was first suspected of foul play by Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), Wells – actually Thawne – had described his life fifteen years prior as that of an ambitious scientist happily in love with a woman named Tess Morgan. That was indeed the case, but Thawne’s secret surveillance of Harrison and Tess hinted at a more a sinister explanation for the “car accident” that would soon befall them.
The dots were finally connected as Thawne staged the car accident (killing Tess) and came face to face with Wells. Explaining that the young scientist would one day make history with his particle accelerator, Thawne’s need of a faster ride home meant the construction would need to be fast-tracked by someone with a clearer vision of the future – using a futuristic gadget to transform into Wells, killing the actual doctor in the process.
With Harrison Wells now out of the picture, Thawne was poised to (presumably) complete the particle accelerator years sooner, thereby turning Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) into The Flash ahead of schedule, unlocking the speed needed to return to his own time. And just like that, the disparate theories and unanswered questions – how could Thawne actually be a famous scientist who gave Barry his powers in the first place? – seemed to be answered.
Even in a TV series already famous for its twists and turns, the Thawne reveal was well-received by viewers, judging by the online conversation. It’s easy to see why DC Comics fans would approve, seeing the strange and seemingly contradictory theories formed into a single chain of events which parallel the classic scheming of Eobard Thawne. For new fans, a ‘big bad’ is revealed, and a memorable transformation means a murderer has truly been hiding in plain sight from the pilot episode.
Finally, the moniker of ‘Harrison Wells’ can be tossed aside entirely: the villain at the end of this story is Eobard Thawne, just as it has been for decades of published DC Comics. Portrayed to perfection by actor Matt Letscher (The Carrie Diaries), Thawne is shown to be the single villain, with a straightforward enough plan: at some point in the future, he traveled back in time to kill Barry Allen as a child, before he ever became The Flash (a notion any Terminator fan can grasp).
The only wrinkle in his plan? The realization that the Speed Force giveth, and the Speed Force taketh away.
For the time being, the real nature of the Speed Force – the mystical energy source that fuels nearly every speedster – doesn’t need to be explored or explained. All viewers need to know is what they have now been shown: Thawne lost his speed (or at least most of it), was stranded for years carrying out Harrison Wells’ accelerated work, unable to regain his own powers until Barry Allen unlocks the Speed Force in the present. Thawne may have let the term slip while coaching Barry to phase through objects, but regardless of how soon the writers intend to tackle the Speed Force mythology, this latest twist has laid even more foundation.
Over the years, the nature of the Speed Force has changed a great deal: it’s been a fifth dimension Barry can tap into, an extra-dimensional phenomenon contained within Barry’s body, or an alternate dimension that speedsters can actually reside in. What is clear is that it begins with the lighting bolt which struck Barry – meaning Eobard Thawne owes his own speed to that same event. That means Thawne is free to torment Barry Allen, but unable to kill him (or he would lose his own powers). In The Flash TV series, Thawne lost his speed only after Barry left him stranded in a timeline in which Barry had yet to gain his powers.
Thawne’s mysterious “endgame” may still be speculated upon, and why Thawne believes he must first help Barry reach his potential before he can return to his time and place. But the confirmation that it is a far-off version of Barry who travels back to his childhood home (note his modified suit and white chestpiece) clears up more confusion. Fans also know that Thawne’s decision to change the course of history means the future is a mystery even for him (hence the constant check-ins with Gideon).
Now that Thawne’s plan has been revealed, the course of the series is undeniably simpler. And, true to their word, the showrunners supplied a twist in keeping with the comic book source material, yet managing to take viewers completely by surprise.
As sad as it may be to see a happy, ambitious Harrison Wells killed by a time traveler for what seems like a selfish reason – and as shocking as it may have been to see Eobard Thawne literally take his place, the surprise wears off eventually. When it does, viewers are left with a much more hollow realization: we never really knew Harrison Wells to begin with. He was destined to create S.T.A.R. Labs and a happy marriage, sure. But that was in another time; another version of history that has never been glimpsed.
It’s a shock to see Wells on the losing end of a murder for once, but the actual ‘twist’ may be more accurately described as a ‘clarification’: it’s now perfectly clear that for all intents and purposes, there has never been a Harrison Wells since The Flash‘s first episode. Not in any more substantial way than a simple moniker held by Thawne, as he set out to check off the list of events for which Wells was responsible (five hundred years of scientific progress can make anyone seem like a genius in 2015).
The fact that no fan guessed the twist in store (or one of many potentially on the way) also comes with a caveat. That is, we can’t blame fans for not guessing that Thawne took Wells’ place by using a magic device to copy his DNA to physically copy him, and leave him buried in a ditch somewhere outside Central City. Mainly because that level of science or futuristic technology was never present in the show’s fiction before the reveal.
It was a shocking and unsettling effect, but becomes significantly less powerful when viewers realize they’re watching the death of a character they had never met. The musical swell and ominous cliffhanger may imply something grand or epic, but an acknowledging “Oh” may be more appropriate. For such a complex web of unanswered questions, ending with a whimper seems like a shame, despite the show’s best efforts.
We, like the fans, had been wracking our brains trying to navigate the many hints, clouded admissions, and ulterior motives of Harrison Wells and the ‘Man in Yellow’ for months. Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be nowhere near as complicated. The Flash certainly isn’t alone in proving that a mystery is often more interesting than the solution – but since the writers had done such a superb job of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats to this point, revealing there to be just one villain, with one motive, can’t help but be somewhat underwhelming.
As Barry teams with Joe and Eddie to unravel the mystery of Harrison Wells, the audience can’t enjoy the chase and breadcrumb-like trail of clues in the same way. They’ve already been shown the crime, the explanation, and the motive behind fifteen years of murders. A new mystery may be on the way, but consider this further proof that having the puzzle solved for you isn’t always as satisfying.
What did you think of the Eobard Thawne/Harrison Wells reveal? Now that you’ve had time to take measure of just how much has changed in The Flash universe, do you feel we’re being too hard on the writers, or did seeing the dots connected so clearly take a little bit of the fun out of the viewing experience (for now)?
Be sure to share your own thoughts on these twists and reveals, and where you think Eobard Thawne, Barry, and the series is headed in the next episodes!
The Flash returns Tuesday April 14 @8pm with “All Star Team Up”.
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