(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)
WARNING: Spoilers for the season finale of The Flash.
The first season of “The Flash” wrapped up this week and it reminded us why it has gotten so many things right that other superhero shows of have failed at. It’s fun, it’s clever, it has a message, and it isn’t ashamed of the insanity at the core of its basis. Every episode in the season has a theme within them, some of them outright spoken by the characters, but it was the final chapter’s theme that I found most interesting: destiny vs free will. Destiny is a common theme in superhero fiction and sits as the cornerstone for almost every major superhero. A character greater than a regular person can be our savior, but seldom do the characters in these stories wrestle with their place as a messiah beyond pure acceptance.
In the episode, Barry is given the opportunity to go back in time and get the thing that he’s always wanted in life: his mother alive and his family reunited. Should he go through with it though, he will completely alter the timeline that he and all of his friends inhabit, changing their own lives to benefit himself and morphing his own existence in the process. It’s possible that if Barry’s mother hadn’t died and his father never gone to prison, he would have never gone into forensic investigation and never become The Flash. He struggles with the consequences of making this decision for the entire episode before ultimately deciding to go through with it. When Barry arrives in the past though, he’s given a non-verbal pause from his future self to NOT carry out rescuing his mother and he uses this time to tell her that he loves her and that he’s okay instead. Barry returns to the present, having made peace with his brief time at his mother’s side and cemented in the fact that his current life is just what he wants. He chooses his destiny as the person he’s become.
For Barry to even go back in time in the first place, he has to make a deal with Dr. Wells, aka Eobard Thawne aka his arch-enemy the Reverse Flash. He will tell Barry how to go back in time, but he has to send him back to his own time in the future. This is an interesting approach to the two-sided question, because Thawne is sacrificing his destiny to get back home. The sole reason that the Reverse Flash went back in time was to kill Barry as a kid, instead opting to kill his mother and leave Barry with an existence based solely in crippling sadness. He’s spent years planning for Barry to become The Flash, and even trained him to become a hero, but he is willing to let all of that change just so he can return home. Thawne rejects his destiny (which he has already significantly altered by going back in time in the first place) but also gave up his entire choice in the matter. When Barry reappears out of the wormhole and nothing has changed, Dr. Wells is angry with him for not going through with it, for not making the choice for him and changing his own fate as his nemesis.
The third character caught up in the middle of destiny vs. free will is Eobard’s ancestor and Iris’s love interest, Eddie. In the most recent episodes, Eddie not only learned that the Reverse Flash was his descendant but also that in the long line of Thawne’s, he amounts to nothing of note. This haunts Eddie rightfully so, but he eventually comes to fall on the side of free will. Despite knowing that not only does he not even make a blip on the radar of history, he won’t even marry his own girlfriend. Eddie says “screw the future,” literally. As Dr. Wells prepares to annihilate everyone in STAR Labs after Barry’s return from the past, Eddie takes it a step further, plants his feet in the sand, and gives the finger to destiny by taking his own life. Naturally this triggers a dramatic space-time response as a result, erasing the Reverse Flash. This not only makes Eddie the most interesting character in the series, not just because he was willing to give up his life to save everyone, but because it was a life that he had complete control over.
The finale of The Flash might have been slow-moving with an eye-roll worthy cliffhanger, but thematically it was the most interesting episode of the series. These characters have been wrestling with the idea of their lives and how different they could be all season, and they were all given the chance to change them. Where do these characters fall when it comes to accepting their fate or telling destiny to take a hike and let them be? It’s a fascinating journey for any assemblage of characters, but superheroes and villains should always have to make this choice. The answer not only can change how a character goes through with the rest of their life, it also reveals to the audience who is the actual hero among the cast. Eddie Thawne might have been spinning his wheels for most of the season, but he kicked it into high gear at the last minute and had me on his side. The message of the entire episode, and in fact the season, amounts to the point that we can make our own destiny and that the future is ours to mold, even if that means being given the opportunity and saying no.