The Flash and Agent Carter: Doing Dramatic Irony Right

Grant Gustin, the dude who plays "The Flash"
Grant Gustin, the dude who plays “The Flash”

I started writing this article on June 9, 2015, but lost focus. I didn’t finish it until Jan 1, 2016! By then, the new season of Flash was already halfway done, and the second season of Agent Carter was about to start. Whatever.

These past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the complete first seasons of two new entries to the skiffy TV world: The Flash, based on the DC comics character of the same name, and Agent Carter of S.H.I.E.L.D., based on one of the more minor characters of the expanded Marvel comics universe.

Both shows were exemplary.  I must admit to having been annoyed by The Flash‘s first entries, finding them immature, cloying, and too “teenagery”, the way that its CW spiritual predecessor Smallville was.  And I found its actors to be grating, particularly Grant Gustin as the titular Flash and Carlos Valdes as one of his sidekicks, Cisco Ramon.

Gustin struck me as an uber-popular and arrogant fratboy who was now overplaying his role as the nerdy Barry Allen, a character who is weirdly in love with his stepsister (gross).  And Valdes played Cisco like an 11 year old girl, smirking annoyingly whenever he solved some scientific puzzle.

Oh, the science.  It was mind-numbingly insulting. When will I stop expecting TV science fiction to make a cursory effort to make their science somewhat sensible?  In one particularly cringe-worthy scene, Barry (Gustin) “intimidates” a superstar scientist by showing off his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and threatening to tell the internet about her cool toys.

But it was the charm of Tom Cavanaugh, who played lead scientist Harrison Wells –who is actually the futuristic villain Eobard Thawne, also known as the Reverse Flash (still following?)– that kept me watching. And I’m glad I did.

Gustin stopped annoying me. I gradually came to accept him as Barry Allen.  Mind you, my favourite Flash was always the likable dork Wally West.  I always read Allen as more stalwart and heroic, not nerdy. So Gustin’s version took a while to settle with me. But when it did…. wow. Gustin grows to become downright lovable. I have since learned of the almost heroic moments backstage when Gustin had to persevere through migraines caused by his facial mask, never complaining once, causing me to view this young man in a new light. As one who suffers from migraines, I have to give respect to someone who can tolerate them and continue working during an attack… with people… under lights. Ouch.

And Valdes… well, his character got abused a lot, so I took pleasure in those moments. In season two, he, too, becomes lovable.

There were many extraordinary moments in season one of The Flash. One in particular set the fanboy tongues a-wagging: the appearance, in a live action TV show, of Gorilla Grodd.  Yep, Grodd, in all his simian glory. I could not believe what I was seeing. (A similar moment would happen in season two, with the appearance of …gulp… King Shark!)

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Since Flash‘s season one ended (and, man, what a tremendous ending it had!) many people have written of the show’s daring, loyalty to the source material, and genuine comfort with itself. What I want to point out is its masterful use of dramatic irony, something Agent Carter did well, too.

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Agent Cater, a miniseries in its first season, tells the story of Peggy Carter, whom you may remember as a the original love interest of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, during WWII. After the war, after Rogers is presumed dead, Carter continues to work for the government, but her status as a mere woman reduces her role from ass-kicking super-spy to office flunky, perpetually underestimated by her male colleagues.

But Carter is contacted by Howard Stark (father of Iron Man), who is being investigated by the feds. She agrees to work for Stark to conduct a parallel investigation, right under the noses of her male colleagues.

Four things make Agent Carter grand: (1) the performances by all the actors are stellar; (2) the setting is realistic and really does feel like the few years after WWII; (3) the mystery at the core of the narrative is a genuinely intriguing one, brought forth by facts and observations and suggest a grander design, and not merely a shallow writing ploy (so common in TV writing today) in which tension, conflict, and mystery are generated simply by characters unexplainably and irrationally refusing to share information with one another; and (4) the aforementioned dramatic irony.

Classic dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. Oedipus Rex is the example most cited of well fashioned dramatic irony. In that play, the audience knows that Oedipus is the long lost son of the king, and that his actions of killing the king and marrying the queen are actually crimes of patricide and incest.

In the case of Agent Carter, we don’t have true dramatic irony at play, only a sense of it. Peggy Carter knows that she is more than her colleagues assume, so she is in on the audience’s information. But what she doesn’t know is that she has allies amongst the men she seeks to sidestep, and enemies amongst the women she befriends. Agent Carter is such a powerful and sensitive depiction of post-War sexism. Yes, we feel for Carter’s inability to be taken seriously, even though we know she is far more capable than anyone else on her team. At the same time, we recognize that the men who oppress her have themselves been through more Hell than we of the comfortable 21st century can envision. Some of them are limbless and traumatized, but all of them seek to return to their lives of being taken seriously, as well.

With Flash, however, genuine dramatic irony is taken to profoundly expert levels. Harrison Wells is Barry’s mentor, teacher and protector. He is also the villain that killed Barry’s mother, and whom Barry seeks to capture. The audience knows this from early on in the season. Barry only finds out the truth a few episodes from the finale.

Writers are fond of saying that the ending is not as important as the journey. In the annals of TV sci-fi, two famous cases of this are JMS‘s Babylon 5, in which the ending to the saga was given away early in the story, and Lost, in which were constantly reminded that the ending should not matter…. because, frankly, they didn’t have an ending. In my viewing experience, I have rarely seen this adage well enacted.

But in The Flash, it is done masterfully. It’s not that we know the ending –we don’t, which is a good thing, since the season one finale is a thing of pure beauty– but that we know the big reveal, that Harrison Wells is the villain.

It works for two reasons. First, the writing was surprisingly mature and confident. The audience was not coddled or insulted. We were shown Wells’s deeds and, as the series unfolded, some of his motivations and methods. We don’t need to agree with him or to like him in order to understand and be fascinated by him. A lesser writer would have gone for the broad brush, would have depicted Wells as a flat, simplistic villain. Instead, Wells is conflicted. On one hand, he hates the Flash and wants him destroyed. On the other hand, he has grown to love Barry like a son. This conflict doesn’t make him less of a villain –he still murdered Barry’s mother. Rather, it makes him a three dimensional human being. And ultimately, a real man is a more terrifying villain than any comic book monster.

The second reason it works is that the actor, Tom Cavanaugh, pours his considerable charm, gravitas and thoughtfulness into every scene. He is he true star of The Flash, at least in the first season, because his complexity carries every story. The audience looks to him, watches him, examines him for any sense of reluctance or duplicity. Every word that Cavanaugh, as Wells, utters to Barry must be delivered with precise tone and cadence, as the knowing audience will seek to determine if it is given with genuineness or ill-intent.

The Flash is, for me, easily the best superhero TV show I have ever seen. (For the record, Jessica Jones is #2). I won’t yet rank Agent Carter since it was a miniseries. It’s a little easier to tell a tight story in just a handful of episodes, than it is to string out an epic across an entire season. But believe you me, I’ll be watching season two of both shows with dedication.

The Flash season one is now on sale:

Agent Carter season one is now on sale, as well:

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