Tonight’s episode of The Flash, “Back to Normal,” may focus on the now powerless Barry Allen. But it’s also an important episode for this season’s Harrison “Harry” Wells. The Earth-2 doppelganger of last season’s primary villain, Harry’s not really a likable character. He’s curt, unpleasant and often selfish, yet nevertheless, he’s managed to serve as an important ally for Team Flash.
However, recent events, particularly last week’s failed attempt by Barry to take the fight to Zoom, has now put Harry on a very different page than the rest of the team. With Barry now powerless and Zoom with an open gate between worlds, all Harry wants to do is find his wayward daughter and protect her the best he can.
“Why Tom deserves an Emmy, and I mean that in all sincerity, is two episodes ago you were reminded of the character he was playing last season and how different and deadly and scary that character was,” says Flash Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg. “Then in this episode, you see a tortured man who’s beset with guilt, and then you see these incredibly loving scenes with him and his daughter. You see how much he loves her. It’s all played by the same guy, and it’s all just shades, variations and subtle tweaks to the character, and you believe it all.”
In a show that is impressive in all kinds of ways, Kreisberg is alluding to what may be the one most deserving of greater attention. Bringing to life two very different, very complex versions of the same character, Tom Cavanagh’s performance as Harrison Wells has been Emmy-worthy and certainly stands out on a show where it regularly has to compete with time travel twists, giant shark mutants and some of the wittiest banter in primetime. Debuting as a supportive mentor to Barry last season before being revealed to be both the Man in Yellow that had been tormenting the team and an obsessed villain from the future named Eobard Thawne (in other words, the Reverse-Flash as we know him from the comics), Cavanagh this season has returned as Wells’ Earth-2 doppelganger, a much different character than he played in season one.
“Our pitch to the network was that last year you loved him and he was evil,” reveals Kreisberg. “This year, he’s a jerk, but he’s doing everything he’s doing because he loves his daughter more than anything in the world. We loved that dichotomy.”
“That’s one of the nice things that television can afford,” adds Cavanagh. “You spend forty plus hours crafting various things. It’s harder to do that on the big screen. It’s much easier to do that on television by virtue of putting in the time. You have a scene between [season one Wells] and season two Barry Allen and everyone can follow along. They’ve spent forty hours watching. You’ve got that in the bank as you start saying those words.”
The scene Cavanagh is referring to took place two episodes ago, in an episode which saw Barry traveling back in time to learn from the season one version of Wells. The highlight of the hour was a sequence in which Wells revealed that he knew this Barry was from the future, kicking off a game of brinksmanship where the character who held the upper hand changed several times.
“That was an incredibly well written scene,” says Cavanagh. “I know it went on for five minutes, but the reason you could keep watching is because it had these heights and valleys to it where it looked like I was the aggressor, and then he was the aggressor, then I was going to kill him, then he had a reason for me not to do that, and then finally there was a dementor and we’ve gotta go!
“That’s one of the great things about doing a show like this. Yes, they’re having a huge psychological faceoff, but there’s also a ticking clock in the form of a time wraith who’s coming to kill. For me personally, that was a season two highlight, and when they yelled cut [Grant and I] were very sad to be done with that scene. That was just a really gratifying moment for the two of us.”
That it was equally as gratifying for viewers has everything to do with Cavanagh’s continually evolving performance throughout the season. In the timeline of the show, Barry traveled back to earlier in season one, when Team Flash didn’t yet know that Harrison Wells was secretly an enemy, which required a different version of Wells than an episode set later in season one would have. Of course, once Harrison realized that Barry knew who he really was, he dropped the act and a bit of the later season Wells came through. We’ve seen a similar evolution with the season two Wells.
“One of the most interesting things for us when we were writing the beginning of this season is we’d have the table read and Tom basically cut half his lines out,” Kreisberg shares. “It took us a second to figure out that this Wells speaks a lot less. The Wells of last season could fake being a human being. He was verbose and he liked to talk and be a showman. This Wells has no time for people. He lives in his head. It was a learning experience for us as writers who sort of came at this from the other direction. Tom really created the Wells for this season.”
Adds Cavanagh, “I thought it would be nice if this guy talked a lot less, was a lot bitchier, was a malcontent. He has the intelligence, but his intelligence is not on display the way season one Wells’ was. His intelligence is for him, and that was it. He wasn’t a people person, he was an antagonist.”
He certainly was, but will he be going forward? Tonight’s episode represents a turning point for Wells, who not only finds his daughter but seems to commit fully to helping Team Flash defeat Zoom when the episode ends. Does this mean yet another evolution for Harry? There certainly seem to be more rewards for longtime viewers in the episodes ahead.
“We have this scene, which I won’t give away, but I kept it in my back pocket the entire season,” teases Cavanagh. “I knew there’d be a moment where we’d get to play it, and sure enough, these guys wrote the season finale and it’s in there. I’ve just been longing to do it. In many ways, where we’re leading to for the season, I think the payoffs are extreme.”
The Flash airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST) on The CW.