The Flash – Season 4 Episode 7
“Therefore I Am”
The Flash offers a look into the backstory of this season’s villain, Clifford DeVoe aka the Thinker and suggests how big a threat he is to Team Flash.
Last week’s episode may have been more or less a dud but it did have an effective cliffhanger that set up the beginning of this episode nicely. Barry heading to confront the villain so soon into the season can only be met with some sort of delay that will prevent the enemies from properly clashing until much later on.
Up until this point we have seen glimpses of the Thinker and heard him talk about having a plan but we’re no closer to knowing what that plan is. It’s clear that it involves Barry in some way and has something to do with the Metahumans created by Barry’s return from the Speed Force. These teases have been a combination of inching the plot forward and reminding us that there is a serialised plot going on in the background. In many ways it’s reminiscent of the way that Doctor Who mishandles season long arcs.
This episode was a much needed breath of fresh air as it focuses on what this show does best; delivering engaging character drama. If a villain is to be present for an entire season then there should be some reason to invest in that villain beyond the fact that they’re dangerous. This is something that massively succeeded in season 1, mildly succeeded in season 2 and failed spectacularly last season. Big bads are a mixed bag on this show so it’s unclear whether DeVoe would be a good thing for the show or a bad thing.
So far I’m content to say that he’s very much a good thing; at least so far. The best villains are those who don’t see themselves as villains and I get the impression that DeVoe sees himself as more of a victim than anything else. He gets his powers from the original villain factory -the Particle Accelerator explosion- and wants to use them for good. The backstory is delivered at a very deliberate pace which makes sense as it ties into the idea that no amount of running will help Barry defeat DeVoe; the fact that the episode takes its time getting to the point of his powers manifesting reinforces that and allows for the character to be developed organically.
Clifford DeVoe is introduced in the first flashback as an unassuming eccentric who is incapable of keeping the interest of a class of students and generally seems scatterbrained. His wife Marlize (Kim Engelbrecht) is introduced almost immediately as someone who cares deeply for her husband. The previous appearances of this character were unremarkable though showed that she was an assistant of sorts for the Thinker. Comic fans will know of her as the Mechanic but this is the first sense we get of her as a person and it adds layers to the villain story that will fill this season.
One thing that definitely comes across well is the husband/wife dynamic. There’s a familiarity to their interactions making it believable that they have been married for years but there is also a clear partnership there where each brings something to the table that the other can’t. It’s interesting to watch and elevates them beyond villains.
This is enhanced once DeVoe gets his powers and loses a lot of the functionality in his body. On a very simple visual level this makes their partnership literal as Clifford brings the brains where Marlize provides the physical means to make his ideas a reality. One could not exist without the other and that’s what creates an interesting dynamic.
The depiction of DeVoe getting his powers is really well done. Framing it around a partial retcon of the first episode to show Clifford and Marlize attending the press conference just before the Particle Accelerator explosion. It shows that DeVoe was a person of interest for Eobard Thawne and suggests this might play out in some way in the coming episodes. It was also a really tense and well executed sequence from the press conference to the accident.
So much time is spent in the flashbacks and in the present day showcasing this back and forth between Clifford and Marlize because it clearly does form the core of both characters and has to be convincing if this is to be a villain that the viewer will invest in. The flashbacks do a great job showcasing their relationship as they deal with the setback associated with Clifford’s deteriorating condition.
Clifford’s intellect delivers a great excuse of moving this part of the plot more quickly than it usually would. Since Clifford pretty much knows everything there’s no need for him to live in denial as he’s an expert on what his condition means and the chance he has of surviving it. Once he concludes that he won’t survive it he and Marlize are able to move on without being consumed by hopelessness.
I really liked Clifford becoming introspective after getting his powers in order to explore the fact that he’s a tragic figure. His powers have a significant cost to them in that his body can’t handle how quickly his brain is working. In order to function at the rate it does energy that should be used for other parts of the body has to be redistributed and the result is a body that is very quickly failing him. He mentions that all he ever wanted to do is help mankind and he feels that he is being unfairly punished compared to the Metahumans wasting their powers hurting people and committing crimes. He says this without resentment in a way that comes across as more of a statement of fact than anything else. There’s nothing he can really do about it at that point but it’s cosmically unfair all the same.
Eventually he starts to resent his situation such as when he is unable to pick up a book from a shelf without help. It’s a really strong and powerful moment showing real vulnerability from Clifford who is at the point where he is begging for death. His situation has driven him to the point that he resents his intellect and wants the ordeal to be over. Marlize is there to pull him back from the brink and remind him that there is hope to be had. She offers to build something that will prolong his life long enough to hopefully figure out a cure. It’s fair to say that this is the point where the Thinker is truly born as it marks a point where Clifford is willing to do things for personal gain even if that gain basically amounts to little more than survival. Hopefully the built in tragic aspect to the character and the fact that he’s on a time limit will continue to make him compelling as the season progresses.
The present day scenes give us a Barry Allen obsessed with Clifford DeVoe and proving that he is the villain despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. On one hand I like to see Barry driven to do everything he can to protect those he cares about and get ahead of the constantly escalating villain problem for a change. It’s interesting seeing him so driven and behaving recklessly as a result of that to the point that even his friends think that he’s crazy and obsessed. It definitely appears like the ramblings of a madman and one man’s word against overwhelming evidence which gives Barry a notable uphill struggle as he tries to find the smallest inkling of proof that supports his story.
Barry comes across as an idiot in this episode. I get that he’s obsessed and driven to protect those he cares about but he could be a lot smarter about it. Breaking into the DeVoe household without a disguise and snooping around rightly gets him into trouble because he took no steps to protect his identity. His fixation on not losing the state of perfection that his life has achieved since returning from the Speed Force. This is where Iris actually becomes useful for once when she reminds Barry that life isn’t static. Eventually Joe’s next child will be born creating something else to be put at risk. Barry and Iris are due to be married soon which means something else will change and they may have a child of their own someday which creates another thing that could be lost. Barry is thinking about the big picture but only seeing parts of it and it’s really holding him back. My favourite moment of idiocy comes when he discovers the camera and then has to ask DeVoe how he knew his secret.
There is a problem with the angle of Barry seeming crazy trying to prove that DeVoe is the villain.; we already know that Barry’s right so any disbelief just comes across as killing time until the eventual reveal. It was a strong episode for the supporting cast who start out fully committed to supporting Barry in his mad notions and slowly taper off to the point that they are forced to accept that Barry has been burned by previous experience and is projecting that onto DeVoe. Again, we know that the opposite is true because it has been well established that DeVoe is a villain with a plan.
I wonder how this episode would have played out if the reveal of DeVoe as the Thinker waited until this episode. The name could still be thrown around as it was before but this episode could have been the first time we see him. This would allow the audience to be taken on the journey with Barry and doubt him just as his friends do. Unfortunately the eventual reveal is less impactful because we know that it’s coming.
What isn’t clear is what the Thinker’s plan is. This episode establishes that he has the perfect cover story as a respected and mild mannered member of the community who doesn’t make trouble for anyone, he is also able to mask the genetic markers that give away that he’s a Metahuman and he is so brilliant that he has thought of every possibly counter move that Team Flash could make. This is all well and good but feels a little pointless when he reveals that Barry was right all along towards the end of the episode. It’s a great scene and Neil Sandilands delivers a really unsettling performance compared to Grant Gustin’s faux bluster but makes all the effort to hide the truth somewhat redundant.
It could be as a way to toy with Barry and show that he’s completely in control of the situation. Barry has also been firmly established in Captain Singh’s mind as a lunatic obsessed with the DeVoes for some unknown reason so he effectively has nothing to lose by telling Barry the truth because he feels that there’s nothing he can really do about it. Unfortunately it largely comes across as unnecessary gloating and it might have been good to see a few more episodes of Barry unable to prove what he thinks he knows while DeVoe works against him.
My suspicion is that his plan has to do with harnessing Barry’s ability to heal in some way to be applied to himself. It makes some degree of sense when considering the ticking clock that is his life and the fact that he is clearly focused on Barry. Of course there’s no reason that he couldn’t harness Wally’s ability to heal but considering how readily he’s forgotten about I can believe that he wouldn’t consider that.
Wally returns in this episode after a brief stint in Blue Valley that we don’t get to see though apparently he got to fight an alien starfish. This is most likely a reference to Starro though we don’t get to see that either. There was absolutely no point to Wally’s sabbatical whatsoever because he hasn’t returned having learned anything profound about himself or his purpose; he was simply away for a while and has come back for no real reason either. At least he’ll be around for the crossover where he will probably also be forgotten.
A definite highlight for the season that offers backstory for this season’s villain and establishes him as a tragically sympathetic character with a simple motivation. The flashbacks detailing his origin and relationship with his wife are really well done and are allowed plenty of time to breathe. Lots of depth is given to these characters and they are definitely compelling enough to be engaging antagonists.
The present day scenes are somewhat problematic because Barry acts like an idiot when trying to prove that DeVoe is a villain. We as the audience know he’s right which ruins the impact somewhat but Barry could have went about this in a much smarter way. His conversation with Iris suggests that he’s looking at the big picture but only seeing part of it which makes sense considering how he acts. DeVoe revealing the truth to Barry also made no sense as he was in a position of strength where Barry had been discredited and had no proof of what he thinks he knew. Revealing the truth makes all of that feel somewhat pointless and further confuses the Thinker’s plan.
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