SPOILER ALERT: These reviews include significant plot developments from episodes of Titans.
Episode 7 – “Asylum”
The Titans road trip continues with a visit to an asylum (not Arkham, but nearly as nefarious) to find Rachel’s mom. They get the hot tip from Nuclear Family’s Dad (Reed Birney), who requests to speak to Rachel alone. The way he asks sets the tone for the whole episode:
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. Close the door… please?”
Turns out, he wanted to expand Rachel’s skill tree by slashing his throat in front of her to unlock her healing powers. Level up! Here and later in the episode, Birney does an excellent job of putting a calmly unsettling face and voice on what is otherwise a murderous doomsday cult. His smooth vocal delivery and comfortable body language makes him seem deceptively harmless and suspicious as hell at the same time. He gives the Titans their next quest in the form of indicating an asylum (not that one…) where Rachel’s mom Angela is being kept. What if it’s a trap?
Turns out, this asylum may as well be an Arkham trap, given how blatantly torturous the place is. Gar gets tased into submission for refusing to show off his transformations; Kory is straight-up dissected on an operating table; Dick gets neck-injected with bright orange fear toxin. Nuclear Dad chats with Rachel to try and win her over again, but she believes in a thing called Friendship. She reopens the wound she closed and the Titans bust out, fresh traumas and Angela in tow. The wages of violence get a neat quiet moment on the way out. After Dick beats his way through a hallway of guards, the other Titans tiptoe around the bodies on the ground. You might think there’s a lesson in there, but Kory lights the place up. I hope all the supervillains locked in there (you know this place is a supervillain factory) found a way out.
What’s next for the team? Are they truly, finally under adult supervision? How long will a DC property allow a mom to live?
Episode 8 – “Donna Troy”
This episode breaks slightly from the usual road trip this season’s been into two stories. “A” Plot: Dick pays a visit to his spiritual older sister, Donna Troy (Conor Leslie), one of the best characters to grace the show to date. “B” Plot: Kory/Gar and Rachel/Angela pair up for revealing conversations during a train ride to a safe house Angela knows (and doesn’t belong to Bruce Wayne).
In case you thought the Doom Patrol’s dynamic was oddly wholesome, here comes Dick and Donna’s adult friendship as the purehearted element of the show, and it is beautiful. In adolescence, she would tease Dick about being older, smarter, and prettier than him. As an adult, she shows him up with acrobatic grace, flipping above a truck and daring him to keep pace. Dick isn’t just living in the shadow of the Bat, but also every superhero with a better handle on adult life. She invites him to her photography gallery show, where Dick must face his greatest challenge yet – socializing at a party! Meanwhile, Kory dryly observes Gar’s crush on Rachel, which turns the green boy beet red, and Angela lends some much-needed context to Rachel’s origins. Special effects and easter eggs can be fun, but it’s nice to see so many characters branching out their personalities with each other and with a minimum of melodrama. It’s okay for the show to take a breath and let everyone hang for a bit – some of the best Teen Titans stories took time to knit the group together before ripping it apart.
The violent turns don’t take long, though. In a rather bizarre cut, Donna gets taken away behind the gallery and Dick gives chase. Without giving away too much here, Donna does the Amazons proud with subterfuge and cleverness while Dick looks like a meathead trying to fight his way to a solution. At the same time, law enforcement catches up to Team Kory’s train in pursuit of her, leading to a standoff. Side note: from Detroit, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois to Killdeer, Ohio… Titans loves the Midwest, huh? At least, whenever Kory’s not shooting fire at people. In her defense, the cops who find her shout, “Get down on the ground!” and immediately open fire.
Nothing happens at the end of the episode, certainly not a cliffhanger that rested on Rachel finally doing something to Kory that the season had been building to the entire time. On to the next episode! Will we get more road trip or a deep dive?
Episode 9 – “Hank and Dawn”
“You don’t like trouble.”
“So teach me how to like it.”
Fans of the TV show Dexter often express an acceptance of “serial killer with standards” Dexter’s methods. The argument I would hear from friends and family goes: Yes, everyone has the right to a fair trial, blah blah blah, but if there’s plenty of evidence someone is an unremorseful murderer or rapist, what are we waiting for? Dexter sees the case files and makes the easy call most people would!
Enter Hank and Donnie (Elliot Knight), half-brothers who had genuine affection for one another. Donnie genuinely cheered at Hank’s football games (Hank attends private school via a sports scholarship), and Hank… whew. Am I going too far in saying this episode single-handedly transcended expectations of vigilante superhero narratives and addressed a number of raw emotions involved in sexual assault, corrosive trauma, and abusive relationships? I’m kind of sorry I underestimated Hawk and Dove’s introduction back in the second episode; this episode springboards off what viewers already saw in their dynamic and mines the pathos of recovery from them. Knight’s Donnie is a wonder, simultaneously keeping to himself but standing his ground and supporting Hank when the occasion requires it. HIs personal moments as just Donnie say more about what “Dove” should be than any action sequence. Watch his body language in the college administrator’s office and tell me he wouldn’t have been Kord Industries’ intellectual property guardian keeping LexCorp at bay.
The structure of this episode is a wonder of efficiency – there’s a childhood story, college story, tragedy, and romance, all punctuated with quick moments of Rachel screaming for help from within reflective surfaces. Not now, Rachel, there’s a brawl in the college library, complete with the killer catalyst of a line:
“This is actually a library, asshole!”
After a certain tragic event in the episode, Hank and Dawn meet each other in a support group and hit it off with a quickness. Dawn grew up with refined discipline – the ballet sequence is an excellent visual showcase for the world of physical and mental control she comes from. Hank’s football background comes with its own physical prowess, but he’s more like an unleashed attack dog. She finds his messy shenanigans freeing, while her manners and consideration are calming for him. The smoke alarm going off over their cute kitchen play is practically a sign from God, but Hank can grab it from the wall and Dawn can pluck the battery out. Theirs is a life without warnings. Together, much like Hank and Donnie did on handheld video, they decide to right some wrongs and beat justice into bad people.
By the time Dawn is swinging broken glass at a career pedophile, she would love Batfleck’s line from Batman v Superman:
“My parents taught me a different lesson, dying in the gutter for no reason at all… They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”
Birds of a Feather
“Hank and Dawn” has a lot to say about the traumas people carry from childhood and how they carry over into aspects of adult life. Donnie recognizes this in Hank during college and how the administration only values his physical power, neglecting his care and development in favor of seeing him as a disposable performer. Similarly, Dawn has a clear perspective of his mother’s suffering at the hands of her abusive husband, but cannot convince her mother to change and leave that source of pain. Just like how serial killer cop Dexter is entertaining on screen but not a good role model, Hank, Donnie, and Dawn traverse fantastically cathartic character arcs acting out violent therapies for their damage. Titans has made another compelling case for at least some of the violence on its show, providing deeper pathos than earlier episodes led me to expect. Hawk and the Doves’ journey reverberates with the narratives of learned violence and brutal retribution that the Titans are experiencing.
Fans of Geoff Johns’s JSA will recognize the warm feeling in their chests at this point in watching Titans. The strength of that comic, as here, is that the plot reliably digs into different characters with each chapter. By the time you return to the character you thought was your favorite, you actually want to stick with – whoops – the entire cast. That’s where I am now, actually invested in the series and wanting anything but a tidy conclusion for this season. The Titans road trip has revealed itself as a series of small family reunions, and viewers like me continue to enjoy fanning through their photo albums.
Verdict: 4 out of 5.