From Marlon Brando as Jor-El in the Richard Donner Superman to Russell Crowe as the same character in Man of Steel, there’s been this idea that the best way to adapt a comic book is to cast a relative unknown as the lead and surround them with well known actors who are probably overqualified to be there. This often means that the hero’s father or father figure will be someone well known, like Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man or Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor. It adds a sense of gravitas even if the expensive sets and costumes do most of the acting for them, as Hopkins has frequently joked about Odin.
When The Flash started it had two such figures: Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells and Jesse L. Martin as Joe West. There was nothing in either actor’s past to suggest that they would ever end up in a comic book show, and though Martin had years of experience playing a cop on Law & Order it still seemed like an odd fit to see him slipped in as Barry Allen’s surrogate dad. It signaled that even though Flash was to be a fun, Richard Donner-esque superhero show it was also going to be grounded in the type of emotion that an actor like Martin could help land like a fist to the jaw. Even if Joe and Barry’s heart-to-hearts throughout the first season grew a bit repetitive and some viewers rolled their eyes at just how many father figures Barry had (three total), the acting on display between Martin and Grant Gustin always tugged at your heart strings.
Season 2 promises to have less of that. As Gustin joked in an interview, he’s enjoyed getting to be the one to console his friends instead of being the one to cry all the time. That doesn’t mean he’s off the hook. It just means that Joe’s focus must switch from Barry to Iris, with the show throwing a real curveball by revealing that Iris’ mom isn’t actually dead. We saw the start of that storyline near the end of the last episode when Iris’ mother showed up at the police station and told Joe she wanted to see her daughter, and it was an important complement to the comic book elements of “Family of Rogues.”
This is the episode which will probably be remembered as the beginning of the Arrowverse’s efforts to prep Captain Cold to become an anti-hero on the forthcoming spin-off Legends of Tomorrow. In the comics, Captain Cold is the leader of The Rogues, a collection of Central City baddies who must unite to have any chance of defeating The Flash. The Rogues operate by an admirable moral code strictly enforced by Captain Cold, and in times of trouble when Central City is under siege by outside forces they’ve repeatedly stepped up to defend their beloved city, turning into temporary heroes before quickly trying to find a way to profit off of their newfound fame and reputation.
We’ve seen the beginnings of this idea on The Flash, and “Family of Rogues” took it a bit further by helping us better understand why Cold and his sister are the way they are. Short story: It’s not just the superheroes that have daddy issues. Some of the villains do too. Cold’s dad (Michael Ironside, who previously did voice-over work in the DC Animated Universe and played Lois Lane’s dad on Smallville) abused his sister Lisa when she was young and doesn’t hesitate to plant a bomb in her neck as a necessary step to pulling off a heist. In this particular area, the difference between the hero and the villain is often that the hero loses his or her father figure due to tragedy whereas the villain is forced to commit patricide, which is exactly what happens at the end of “Family of Rogues,” with a stunned Barry looking on as Cold kills his father in, excuse me for this, cold blood even though Team Flash had neutralized the bomb in Lisa’s neck.
It’s a solid bit of storytelling, neatly giving us Cold’s background with a scenario which ultimately pairs him with Barry and Lisa with Cisco, their optimal pairings. People love Lisa and Cisco so much as a potential couple that MTV ranked every sexually tense moment between the couple in this episode.
However, while all of that stuff is fun – the same goes for Caitlin and Jay Garrick’s flirtations, which is kind of the only thing the show has for them right now – Flash’s best special effects are always emotional (I say that a lot, I know), and the most important scene in “Family of Rogues” probably involved two people sitting at a dining table together and working through pages of emotionally draining script.
That is where Jesse L. Martin shines. The show had always been purposefully vague about what happened to Iris’ mom, to such a degree that we should have always expected her to show up out of the blue forcing Joe to finally tell the full story. That moment arrived halfway through “Family of Rogues,” after Joe first asked Barry for advice and then aborted an attempt to tell Iris the truth after she proved to be too busy at work. Eventually, there they both were at the table in the West household, with Joe fighting through tears, revealing that Iris’ mother was a drug addict who once overdosed when she was supposed to be looking after Iris. He was forced to check her into rehab, but she checked out voluntarily and completely disappeared.
Martin really puts the dagger in the viewer’s heart while explaining why he lied and led Iris to believe that her mother had died, “I couldn’t stand the thought of you growing up thinking you were abandoned, going to sleep at night thinking that your mother left because you weren’t enough to make her stay, that you weren’t loved, because I loved you. I love you with everything I got.”
Excuse me. I have something in my eye.
— [Awkward sounds of me openly sobbing]
Anyway, it’s quite the bomb to drop. After Joe lied to Iris last year about Barry, this news about her mom is the type of thing which could justifiably lead to her exploding, e.g., “Stop trying to protect me, Dad! Stop lying to me!” Instead, Iris, as touchingly performed by Candice Patton in this moment, simply registers her understandable surprise before consoling her father, recognizing that his actions were motivated by the love of a single father put into a tough spot. A lesser show might have turned this into a multiple episode arc in which Iris refuses to talk to Joe out of anger, but instead they’ve had this lovely moment together in advance of what will surely be an emotionally trying time now that Iris will finally get to meet and know her mother for the first time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There is an amazingly effective emotional honesty and vulnerability to The Flash, and “Family of Rogues” neatly contrasted two very different father figures, Leonard and Lisa Snart’s terrible dad and Iris’ overprotective, but undeniably well-intentioned and loving father. Plus, any episode that pairs Barry with Captain Cold and Cisco with Lisa Snart is going to have a lot of fun.
1. After Dr. Stein’s collapse at the end of last episode, I had expected this episode to be the one about him getting a new other half for Firestorm. Instead that’ll happen next week.
2. Welcome back, Tom Cavanagh. We’ve missed you.
3. Captain Cold’s dad can’t be all bad. He did blow up a guy’s head just for insulting his son.
4. It’s so tempting to simply write Barry and Patty off as a repeat of Barry and Felicity. The surface similarities are obvious, and she has a somewhat similar awkwardness. There is just something slightly different about their energy together, though. Patty seems way more assertive than Felicity was in the beginning.
5. I kind of like Jay Garrick a little better now that he’s cut his hair. Does that make me shallow?
6. Maybe I’m gullible, but I actually believed Lisa when she called Cisco her first true friend.
7. So, Barry’s just completely stopped disguising his voice when he’s The Flash? Captain Cold’s dad should have easily realized, “Hey, aren’t you that tech guy I just shot?”
8. Welcome back, Linda Park. Any ill will you might have felt toward Iris over your breakup with Barry is clearly in the past.