This article contains spoilers for Titans episode 9.
DC Universe’s Titans has evolved into an enjoyable stand out in the crowded super-TV arena by balancing violence, dark tones, humor, and interesting character interactions. But as good as the show has become, the ninth episode of the first season takes the series in a shockingly mature direction with a raw, unsettling origin story of sexual violence that is rare for the genre.
The Hank Hall of Titans – aka Hawk and one-half of the Hawk and Dove vigilante duo with Dawn Granger – was introduced in the second episode as an alcoholic brawler, and poster boy for aggression and toxic masculinity. But “Hank and Dawn,” an episode set largely in flashbacks, reveals Hank (Alan Ritchson) was sexually abused in grade-school by his coach (in a deeply disturbing scene). He never speaks about it with anyone, including his brother Donny (Elliot Knight), whom he protected from the pedophile. To provide an outlet for his anger, he and Donny become the original Hawk and Dove team, delivering brutal punishment to sexual predators. When tragedy kills his brother, he enters the orbit of Dawn (Minka Kelly), a survivor of physical and emotional abuse, and soon-to-be partner.
The episode, written by Geoff Johns is an exception in the superhero genre. Marvel’s Jessica Jones notwithstanding, shows with superpowers don’t often focus on the lifelong trauma of sexual abuse – and especially not on male survivors. It is a point not lost on Ritchson, who said working on the episode is a “privilege and responsibility.”
“I really wanted to do justice to the truth of that circumstance, and what that would be like,” Ritchson said in a phone interview about Hank’s origin story. “You want that to translate, all that pain and hurt and confusion.”
When talking about the script with executive producers Johns, and Akiva Goldsman (who also directed the episode), Ritchson says they discussed how personal the story was to many people. He said it was on the forefront of everyone’s mind how important it was to be honest, and that there were tears shed in the office during talks.
“It’s a kind of story that we don’t often get to see on screen, especially with these kind of shows,” Ritchson says. “And as important as it is to entertain people for the sake of entertainment escapism, I want to create an image that relates to people and hopefully helps them heal in some way.”
Ritchson goes on to say he hopes fans will walk away from the episode with a respect for his character, and for the show – even if the story alters the various origins of Hank Hall from the comics. He said he was surprised Titans “was going there,” and he respected the fearlessness of not staying “sugary.”
“That fearlessness is what makes this show so special, and I hope the audience feels that.”
Although much of “Hank and Dawn” addresses the former’s trauma, Kelly’s Dawn grew up with a physically abusive father. The woman becomes a powerful ballet dancer, gymnast, and Jiu-Jitsu student, but is powerless to convince her mother (played by Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: The Next Generation) to leave her abuser. The same tragedy that kills Donny takes her mom, and she soon bonds over shared grief with Hank. She also eventually seeks to punish the man who preyed on him.
Ritchson and Kelly had already filmed together as Hank and Dawn, but he said they had to lean on one another to get through the episode because “you can’t just turn that stuff off when you go home at night.”
“It takes its toll on the body and the mind while you’re doing it … [But] she and I both, really love tackling this kind of deeper, more raw subject matter,” Ritchson said. “I am so grateful to be able to share this partnership with her; she is the perfect person for this.”
(Ritchson heaped more praise on his costar by saying she “worked her ass off from every angle” and went for it in the ballet scene in the episode, and that her hard work generally makes life easier on him.)
By the end of the episode, Hank and Dawn are together as lovers, and partners – yet aren’t the Hawk and Dove we initially met. Ritchson said there is a lot of room to explore their history, as well as learn more about Donny, but doesn’t know when or how, or even “whether or not that may be reserved for a potential spin-off, or Hawk and Dove miniseries, or something they can stick more to the Titans history.”
But he did say the result of the events that brought Hank and Dawn together in the past, and the trauma of their abuse, set up their next chapter as Dawn wakes from the coma she’s been in since episode three.
“She has this past that’s sort of calls to her in a way; there’s echoes of it in her life now — and he has this almost unhealthy infatuation with her where only in the sense that if something were to happen to her, I think he may never recover,” Ritchson said. “Now you know why, and I think it heightens the stakes of their present day experiences together and helps you understand why she wants to get safe and out of it so badly and why he needs to heal somewhere else so badly.”
However, Ritchson said to expect both to get pulled deeper into the world of the Titans’ vigilante lifestyle. And, along the way he said viewers will understand more of where the stakes are for both characters.
“I think it sets up beautifully a future for caring about who they are in this world.”
As for final thoughts about the subject matter of the “Hank and Dawn” episode, and its relative novelty in the superhero genre of TV, Ritchson said he hopes the episode will assist both allies and survivors to talk about sexual abuse, as well as offer some solace via these fictional characters.
“For those that relate to that kind of past and circumstance, that has maybe learned to deal with it in their own way, or similarly to Hank, I hope that there’s something helpful about having a relationship with somebody like Hawk and Dove.”