[Beware, Traveler - Spoilers Ahead]
Who’s your favorite Flash character? Mine is Harrison Wells and yes, I mean every Harrison Wells. From Star Trek’s evil Mirror Universe counterparts to the Fringe division learning to embrace their alternate selves, the doppelgänger has long been a beloved trope in Science Fiction, capable of drawing out both conflict and nuance of character — and Tom Cavanagh’s work is no exception. It means that I was (and remain) thrilled to get another iteration of Harrison Wells on the show: the quirky and enigmatic H.R.
Now this meta could have easily been an angry defense of H.R., considering that the other members of Team Flash mostly seem to hate him and, from what I’ve seen, the fandom does too. Which honestly surprises me. I personally find him to be lovable, entertaining, and a breath of fresh air within the story…but hell, no one needs to like the characters I like. This isn’t a ‘my fave is the best!!’ pissing contest.
No, I’m more interested in the question that H.R. represents: What in the world do you do with a non-logical character in a predominantly logical environment?
As a sort of disclaimer, I’m using ‘logical’ here as a nebulous catch-all for the hard sciences/pseudo-sciences/things that do not fall into the realm of the Humanities. AKA, most of the stuff you find in superhero stories. Because that’s what The Flash gives us: a world where science rules, unquestioningly. Science is the source of the protagonists’ power, the means to the antagonists’ defeat, and even when something ethereal like magic is introduced (“Legends of Today”) it’s quickly shuffled out of the narrative because it’s too much of a threat. This results in a set of characters with a (heh) logical, but rather limited skill-set:
Harrison/Harry/Eobard Thawne - All genius scientists with backgrounds in, frankly, whatever the story needs.
Cisco - Mechanical engineer who, as Harry says, “can do anything.”
Caitlin - Bio-engineer capable of solving any medical emergency under the sun.
Barry - Our protagonist, who could have easily been a part of this group purely because of his powers. However, he’s also a forensic scientist and easily keeps up with all the technical aspects of their work.
Wally - A student, but one with incredible mechanical and technical talent.
Jesse - Also a student, though said to have a “genius IQ” and clearly takes after her father in terms of worshiping science.
Julian - Another astoundingly talented forensic scientist.
Hartley - Physicist who was once the “favorite” of Dr. Wells.
Martin Stein/Ronnie/Jefferson Jackson - Brilliant physicist, structural engineer, and mechanic, respectively.
The main outliers:
Joe West/Eddie Thawne - Police detectives, the former of whose lack of scientific knowledge is often used for comic relief. It’s fine though because they’re still able to back up Team Flash with police resources. They’re useful despite not being scientists, and thus their outsider status is not just tolerated, but looked upon fondly.
Iris West - Journalist, was useful in season one when her writing was introducing Central City to the Flash… now though? She’s able to follow the science mumbo-jumbo slightly better than Joe (“Speed-canon, Dad.”) but that doesn’t mean she contributes much. She’s tolerated, frankly, because she’s the main love interest (which is a whole other rant). And don’t get me wrong, I adore Iris, but within the boundaries of this world her contributions are primarily in the form of giving Barry pep-talks and something to fight for. (Again, it's a rant for another time.)
And then there’s H.R.
This is the world H.R. is entering into. This is the team he’s trying to join---one that’s saturated with the logical; the objective; the scientific. It’s a group that says loudly and clearly that if you can’t talk particle acceleration or invent a quantum splicer, you don’t belong here. Hell, Cisco says it outright when he complains that out of the entire multi-verse they got the one Wells that (supposedly) isn’t a genius.
I find this absolutely fascinating. I also find it incredibly frustrating.
Because this should be a golden opportunity for the writers. Look at this change of pace! They have a character who supposedly doesn’t fit, who brings an entirely new set of skills to the table, and that should, in turn, provide new opportunities and complicate what it means to be “useful” in this science-driven world. If we look at this analytically, we can see that H.R. has already demonstrated a number of astounding talents and characteristics:
He managed to trick the team into thinking he solved the cryptogram (acting skills)
Read through the entirety of the Team’s records and has used that information to achieve his ends---such as buttering them up with coffee orders (critical reading, memorization)
When caught admits that he’s working on a book and that he’s produced a number of best sellers (creative writing)
Presents himself as the Team’s “muse” (ability to act as a sounding board for developing ideas, helping to bring out others’ potential)
Trained Wally when no one else would (coaching, compassion)
Built an entire museum within STAR Labs, presumably single-handedly (planning, execution, perseverance)
Is constantly pulling together events and cracking jokes (organization, decorating, entertainment, morale)
In many ways I think of H.R. as Watson. He's a man who is too often labeled as nothing but a moron (think Harry’s comments vs. Nigel Bruce's portrayal), but who has a certain amount of genius within his specific field of interest (creativity/medical knowledge). He acts as a stand-in for the reader/viewer, acknowledging how impressive the other protagonist(s) accomplishments are and often times ‘dumbing it down’ for the rest of us. His overall usefulness to those around him is primarily in the form of companionship + the ability to act as a sounding board. Watson is there to help Holmes “shed light” on tricky situations by asking the right questions; H.R. is the team’s “muse” and continually provides creative insights into their problems.
One of the potential issues then is that recent adaptations of Watson (Sherlock, Elementary) allow him to be these things and become a more overtly useful partner to Holmes. John provides physical backup, Joan is a full-fledged detective, etc. H.R. was never really given that opportunity. He’s still the Watson of the 19th century: absolutely necessary, but viewed as supposedly ‘lesser’ when compared to Holmes----or in this case, Team Flash.
Still, I think the above is an impressive skill-set. And yes, I’m admittedly biased. H.R. largely represents who I am—a reader, a writer, a funny sort of person who happens to be completely useless at science—and I was thrilled to see how the writers would fit someone like me into this logical, genius-driven world. What’s sad though is that their answer to the “What do you do with a character like H.R.?” question is apparently, “Nothing.”
Despite a few throw-away lines about how he’s indeed a part of the Team now and Cisco’s fight for him against Gypsy (which can be read as a ‘this is just what heroes do’ action), nobody seems to actually like H.R., let alone appreciate what he can do—let alone explore how his talents might benefit the Team. He’s rarely given credit for the ideas he helps to develop. His (frankly beautiful) acts of friendship are met with consistent disgust and unease, even more-so once Harry is back on Earth One. Joe once asked him if he had a pathological need to make people like him, which brings up another important issue within superhero narratives: that apparently neuroatypical people don’t belong there either. H.R. demonstrates a lot of neuroatypical characteristics—hyperactivity, anxiety, the need to constantly fiddle with particular objects, uses humor and self-deprecation as a defense against horrific insults like someone spitting into your coffee—and the fact that the show neither has the other characters defending H.R. or at least warming to him is incredibly disheartening.
And of course, we all know how this ends. We know how a story like H.R.'s concludes.
We’ve had one good Wells who was revealed to be bad. One seemingly bad Wells who is now firmly on the side of good. This season it was time to have a Wells who is exactly as he appears, but since The Flash writers don’t seem to know what to do with a creative character in an otherwise logical world, H.R. couldn't survive for long. Ultimately, in an attempt to make him “useful,” he sacrifices himself for the Team—and of course then everyone looks back and regrets how cruel they were, once he’s safely out of the way.
I think H.R. deserved better than that. Because he represents a class of character we so rarely see in the superhero genre and I, personally, would like to see a whole lot more like him.