Doubting the Bad Guy: What Flash, Season 1 Does Right

A typical--and arguably necessary--ploy in genre television episodes is for the good guys to instantly know whether or not they should trust a newbie.
In NCIS, Bellasario cut down on time by having Gibbs'
"gut" be an ongoing (and useful) plot device.

If the good guys are supposed to trust the ambiguous character, they never ask themselves the most basic questions, like, "Why are we accepting what this person tells us?" If the good guys are supposed to be only temporarily fooled, at least one of them will have a "feeling" that the ambiguous character is up to no good.

This instant-knowledge is arguably necessary since time is a factor: television characters don't have much longer than 50 minutes to figure out exactly how trustworthy a new character might be. Still, the instant-knowing gets a tad too convenient after awhile--and makes mincemeat of plot tension.

Flash, Season 1, handles the trust/mistrust of the ambiguous character, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh) quite well because the writers take their time, allowing the characters' reactions to develop organically. The at-least-one character-with-the-uneasy-feeling is Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), and his unease is believable and appropriate to his character. It doesn't feel tacked on; it is part of what makes him who he is.

Detective West, like many people in Central City, doesn't trust Harrison Wells, the man whose lab blew up, damaging the city. If not for Barry's condition, he would never have associated voluntarily  with Harrison Wells at all. He reluctantly but desperately hands Barry over to Wells' care. It turns out okay (at least, apparently) but West never loses his initial reservation.

So the mistrust is there from the beginning.

What keeps the mistrust from becoming "THE GOOD GUY ALREADY KNOWS!" syndrome is that West fights his distrust. Rather than growing into a state of distrust--the arc used for Caitlin, Barry, and Cisco--he starts with distrusts but tries to suppress it because he is a civilized, fair-minded man. For a civilized man, a "bad feeling" isn't enough, and West can't help but noticed that (1) Wells saved Barry's life; (2) Wells was cleared by a formal investigation yet eventually took personal responsibility for the events leading up to the lab explosion; (3) Wells apparently lost his wife, explaining why he moved to Central City; (4) Wells fights metahumans; (5) Wells has prevented Barry from making mistakes . . .

West occupies the interesting position of almost wanting to disprove his own doubt. Consequently, his verbal confrontations with Wells--before Wells' true identity is revealed--contain Die Hard-like tension. Nobody starts screaming; instead, both men are very tactful as they hint at the possibility of extreme suspicion. I half-expect them to start speaking with level, British accents: the ultimate sangfroid.

Stretching out the doubt can be quite effective--unless, of course, it becomes an endless lack of resolve.

3 comments:

FreeLiveFree said...

On the flip side, there's characters who the protagonists trust pretty quickly and rightly when there isn't a reason to. It's just necessary for the story when the show is a half-hour to an hour. I just watched an episode of the Real Ghostbusters (I have a lot of time to waste before I go to work) where the heroes aid a vampire who just wants to live peacefully. While the episode bears out he was a "good" vampire, the heroes trust him pretty quickly. They just ask him what he does for blood and he says he drinks artificial blood. They then decide to help him against the bigoted version of Van Helsing that is after him. You couldn't do it in the time amounted for a cartoon show, but it would be more realistic for them to be more skeptical. Well, realistic for a cartoon about ghosts and vampires.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think suspension of disbelief is definitely a factor. I am sure that I have encountered many, many instances where characters immediately trusted other characters, and I didn't even notice. But the ones that struck me as TOTALLY UNLIKELY--those I remember.

FreeLiveFree said...

It's undoubtedly something you just have to accept like audible explosions in the vacuum of space in a Sci-Fi movie. But the writer in me, or maybe the fan theorist, just can't help but wonder what if?