Why The Thinker's Backstory Was One Of The Flash's Most Brilliant Moves

the thinker in his chair

Major spoilers below for The Flash's latest episode, "Therefore I Am."

Before Season 4 of The Flash reared its "This house is bitchin'" head, the cast and crew were going hard on promoting this season as being fun and more like Season 1 than the past two seasons had been. Surprisingly enough, everyone was telling the absolute truth. From the cut of Ralph Dibney's jib to Katee Sackhoff's British accent, the show is speeding along on all cylinders, and it reached an early peak with "Therefore I Am." Clifford "The Thinker" DeVoe's unexpectedly emotional backstory was revealed, which comes close to already cementing the character as The Flash's best villain yet.

As interesting as The Thinker was in concept over the first six Season 4 episodes, there was something vaguely hokey about the comic villain's scenes. From the flying chair to the know-it-all dialogue to DeVoe playing holographic chess against himself, I admittedly had my doubts that this first non-speedster big bad was worth the anticipation. But now that we know what's making The Thinker tick -- a tainted biological clock, for one -- it opens up a world of interesting theories and expectations for where his feud with Barry will go next. Even more important than that, this is easily the most sympathy The Flash has earned for any of its big villains.

The Flash took viewers back into the past with "Therefore I Am," showing us how Clifford DeVoe and his wife Marlize actually had virtuous intentions whenever they embarked on their quest to basically conquer intelligence. It gave actors Neil Sandilands and Kim Engelbrecht ample time to imbue their respective characters with the depth and convictions that were previously missing. (Also, kudos on South Africa's inclusion, since that's where both actors were born.) I obviously understand how ridiculous the whole "let's activate the brain cap by hanging out near the particle accelerator in the rain" plan was, but it was the best way for this show to push the DeVoes' plan forward in a way that tied directly into The Flash's origin story.

We'll never exactly know how Clifford DeVoe would have changed the world for the better with his newfound infinite knowledge -- at least not without some Flashpoint diversion -- because he soon found himself suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, caused by his brainpower usurping energy from the rest of his body. Which, obviously, made him feel less than heroic, and he chose to embark on prediction-laden villainy, with Barry Allen's Flash as a main target. For the most part, his antagonism now feels a lot more grounded and understandable, thanks to some legitimately emotional moments of desperate frustration and near-hopelessness as Clifford and Marlize came to terms with their initial plans getting thwarted by the limits of the human body.

We still need to see more pieces of the puzzle to get the full story, but for my money, The Thinker is already more rounded than The Flash's past three big bads. Since Reverse-Flash's issues with The Flash were based on future events and went unseen, it was hard to find a reason to feel sorry for the murderous Eobard Thawne. In the cases of Zoom and Savitar, they remained one-dimensional threats for too long before their identities and backstories were revealed. And even though both Hunter Zolomon and Evil Future Barry did elicit some sympathy for their tragedies, one was a serial killer and the other was a time remnant. Not exactly the most relatable stories for casual TV viewers.

Plus, Barry's major nemeses of the past have been pretty direct about threatening Barry's life, his family members, his friends and just about everything else. And each of them messed with timelines and/or crossed dimensions to cause their havoc, making them rather oligarchical in nature. In contrast, The Thinker really does seem to be playing a long con game with Barry, which is a fascinating change of pace. Sure, he's the reason why those bus riders found themselves unwitting metahumans, with many of them going the destructive criminal route with their new abilities, but he seems to just be causing trouble in Central City to keep Barry busy, rather than trying to destroy everything or rule the world. Plus, DeVoe played a huge role in Barry escaping the Speed Force, so his motivations are (at this point) far more intriguingly mysterious than previous villains.

And as a final point, this episode clearly pointed out several ways in which Marlize DeVoe is just as important to The Thinker's rise as Clifford was. While he's offered the ideas and plans, Marlize is the one who actually built the thinking cap and other stuff, and who looked after Clifford when he first started losing the ability to walk. There's a moment when she melodramatically declares that she would be nothing without Clifford, but I think the opposite is far more true. In that sense, I almost want there to be a twist at some point where she takes over the big bad reins.

I concede that by the end of Season 4, The Flash could turn The Thinker into a miserable and unwatchable villain in a way that completely upends everything I've said above. But as it happens, I've gone over the 2.6 million ways that this story could turn out, and there are several outcomes that have DeVoe developing even better than we thought. So stay tuned.

With lots more left to come from Barry and DeVoe's strange war with one another, The Flash airs Tuesday nights on The CW at 8:00 p.m. ET. Next week is the big mega-crossover involving the Earth-X heroes and villains, so we might have to wait until the December midseason finale to see where things go next. In the meantime, check out some other comic book shows we're pumped for, and then head to our fall TV premiere schedule and our 2018 midseason schedule to see what other new and returning shows are on the way.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.