Genre shows (at least, other than Game of Thrones) don’t usually get a lot of respect when it comes to being recognized for awards and commendations. And so, it has been a constant (and lazy) refrain this past year to say that the CW’s freshman drama The Flash was one of the year’s best superhero shows, when truly it’s been one of the year’s best overall. The series has — perhaps against the odds — found a perfect balance of humor, drama, superpowered-action, and genuine emotion to fuel it through 23 episodes. Its pilot was strong, its finale was even stronger, and everything in between was a delight and a great ride.
The Flash‘s greatest achievement, though, may be in the strength and chemistry of its cast. While there are several of the show’s stars who could, and should, be singled out for their performances (including The Flash himself, Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin as his surrogate father Joe West), it’s Tom Cavanagh as the mysterious villain Dr. Harrison Wells who really helped make The Flash become something special.
Superhero series (be it TV or film, Marvel or DC) can sometimes have a villain problem, but the mysterious nature of Dr. Harrison Wells, coupled with Cavanagh’s complex portrayal, made him not only a viable season-long question mark, but made it also impossible to imagine the show without him (it’s something Wells says to Barry at the end of the season finale, “Fast Enough,” too: “how will you ever get along without me?”)
The character of Wells really came into his own, though, once his true identity as Reverse Flash / Eobard Thawne was discovered by the S.T.A.R. labs team. For each of them, Well’s betrayal was not just about lies or covering up his true nature, but in the complicated fact that they had formed real bonds with him. And, it’s to the show’s credit that these weren’t dismissed — when Barry and Cisco both confront Wells, he tells them he’s proud of them, respects them, and even just enjoys their company (even though he hates future Barry and wants to kill him, and did kill Cisco in an alternate timeline).
Cavanagh cultivated a distinctive speech pattern and cadence for Wells, and was (for much of the season) the perfect kind of observant mentor and intelligent, professorial type. It wasn’t until these last few episodes of the season that he started to let loose his Eobard Thawne personality, which was still staid, but with a much darker edge to it. It was familiar, yet distinct.
In “Fast Enough,” Wells essentially explained the major plot points of the season in a long exposition to Barry, which Cavanagh managed to pull off with aplomb — somehow him going over all that we already knew felt new and interesting. Also, him telling Barry, sincerely, that he felt a fatherly pride towards him only complicated things further. Barry now knows Wells killed his mother, and yet, he also had felt something like a father/son relationship between the two before.
Though Wells taunts Barry, he also still wants to help him and the team (in order to help himself, too). Later in the episode, Cisco goes to ask Wells an engineering question, and also brings up questions regarding his nanotech. Here, Cavanagh’s Wells is completely relaxed as he chats with Cisco from his cell, calling back to their earlier rapport as if nothing much had happened. Even when he’s locked up, and all of his sins have been laid bare, he’s still somehow a natural part of the team, with an indefinable charm.
Every great hero needs a great villain, and the dueling nature of The Flash and the Reverse Flash provided that all season long. In the best pairings, the two seem to need one another, even when they’re focused on stopping or destroying each other. Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty come to mind, Thor and Loki, and in more grounded terms, Justfied‘s Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder do, too. The antagonists are connected, and need each other, even just in a practical way.
Like in these other examples, even though it’s the hero’s story, the anti-hero steals the show. The Flash was literally made — and almost unmade — by Wells as the Reverse Flash. It’s been a fantastic arc that has driven so much of the tension this season, and even wrapped (for now?) with a satisfying conclusion. And yet, it would still be wonderful to have Cavanagh appear in future seasons or the spinoff (even though technically, his “Cavanagh appearance” is just a shell). Thanks to his distinctive performance all season, “How will you get along without me?” remains a haunting question.