A good villain is one of the most important parts of just about any superhero story. Antagonists and conflict are essential to just about all sorts of drama, but when it comes to superheroics there’s just something extra important about the bad guy. Shows like The Flash thrive on strong villains because just about any episode is going to ultimately head towards some amount of fisticuffs, and while solid cinematography or choreography can elevate those sequences, nothing quite makes them exciting like being invested in the characters and the emotional stakes of the fight.
A good villain is the key to that investment and “The Trap” helps highlight exactly why Harrison Wells, or now Eobard Thawne, is a truly fantastic enemy. There are obvious reasons for why this is true; he’s a capable combatant/match for Barry and he’s suitably fearsome based on his actions throughout the course of the season, but the real secret to his success as a villain is that he blurs the line between friend and nemesis. Wells’ devious side hasn’t been hidden from viewers, and since the early days of the series the question wasn’t whether he was working against the team but only when the main cast would figure out that he was bad.
The real twist came into play not when Wells was revealed as the Reverse-Flash/Eobard Thawne, but when his true emotional conflict was revealed. Thawne’s evil, willing to murder and manipulate solely to achieve his own ends, but he’s not a man without emotions or feeling. His relationships with the core team have been proven to be honest friendships that he has truly cherished. Dating back to the first time Cisco confronted him with knowledge of his true identity, a scene that is nicely revisited this week, it has been undeniable that despite Thawne’s ulterior motives his passion and affection for the people he’s worked with hasn’t been faked.
The best example of this comes midway through the episode as Barry turns to Wells for help in putting out a building fire. Like many times before, Wells walks him through putting the fire out and Barry succeeds. Afterwards the pair talk, Wells wholeheartedly encouraging Barry to look to himself in the future, certain that all Barry needs already has within him. It’s a scene that’s densely layered as both Barry and Wells are working against one another and yet it’s impossible to deny that the pair are sharing a true moment. Barry underlines the point too clearly later on, but it doesn’t rob the scene of its intensity or its complexity thanks to the writing within the scene and the strong performances from both Grant Gustin and Tom Cavanagh.
Tom Cavanagh in particular has invested so much humanity and emotion into Wells/Thawne that it’s entirely too easy to fall into his seeming kindness each and every week even as his villainous nature has been on display for quite some time. All of which makes the end of this episode so very exciting as the team finally confronts Thawne and everything comes out into the open. In a scene that twists and turns in unexpected ways, perhaps the most surprising of which is the quick return of Hannibal Bates from last week’s episode as he steps in for Wells during the confrontation, it becomes clear just how much Wells has outthought the rest of the characters in a speech that is at once entirely over the top and monomaniacal while still managing to touch on tender moments of reminiscence when Thawne touches on just how much of an unexpected pleasure it’s been to work with Barry and the rest of the team.
It’s one of the better big villainous speeches and it all comes back to the emotion that the character carries. Simultaneously building up Thawne’s humanity and villainy is incredibly gratifying and makes the eventual conflict between him and Barry that much more exciting. It’s not a question whether or not Barry will defeat Thawne or not, Thawne can’t exactly kill the title character of the show, but making Barry and the audience feel more than simple hatred for Wells will pay incredibly dividends as their battle won’t be solely about who can punch the hardest or run the fastest but will instead be primarily about the characters engaged in the fight and the complex relationship that exists between them. It’s the essence of drama and it all flows from the villain.
There are some flaws here, it’s kind of hard to figure out how Bates knows everything that Wells does and so perfectly follows a script or manages to improvise based on Cisco’s accusations or why Eddie thinks it’s a good idea to propose to Iris when he knows that Thawne could be on his way to attack the both of them at any moment, but that all falls away in the face of the larger drama being played out. “The Trap” features the show playing with all of its strongest elements and showcasing all the hard character work that it has done over the course of its first season. It’s involving, emotional drama that’s born aloft on the back of an expertly crafted villain and shows just why a great villain is one of the most integral components of almost any superhero story.