This Titans review contains spoilers.
Titans Episode 11
As good as Titans has been during its first season, and I do believe that the balance of these episodes have been very good, with moments that approach greatness, it really hasn’t done itself any favors. Unfortunately, the Titans finale is a particularly egregious example of the show playing into the outside perceptions of the show.
From the first trailer, Titans has been a little…confusing. That early footage made it seem like the series was going to lean into the worst instincts of the early DCEU, or that the show was trying far too hard to distinguish itself as a piece of “adult” television, along the lines of the Marvel Netflix shows. The awkward first episode aside, and accounting for a misstep here and there, that isn’t the case at all. In fact, Titans has been a surprisingly character-focused affair, with perfect casting for every major role (and important guest star), an equally surprising sense of humor, and offering an elegant, creative way to introduce the concept of a fully functioning live action DC Universe.
But its problems, notably an inability to stay on track with its main story for more than an episode at a time, and its occasional reliance on shock value violence to drive home its point about Dick Grayson’s journey, have been a little less than charming. And make no mistake, “Dick Grayson” indulges all of the show’s worst instincts.
To be clear, as an hour (well, 40 minutes) of TV, “Dick Grayson” is reasonable, and it fits in with the overall way this season has been structured. It is, ultimately, another detour episode, similar to the ones that have used flashbacks or new character introductions and side missions to reveal something about the core cast. In this case, it’s a demon-induced hallucinatory dream sequence to get into all of Dick Grayson’s fears and insecurities. As a pitch for an episode, and even in some of its execution, it’s fine. But as the Titans season finale? It’s a failure, especially coming right after one of the season’s best episodes.
And while the promise of a live action Batman is certainly something that DC Universe marketing would want to lean hard on, even the trailer for this episode, which highlighted the Batman’s murderous rampage through Gotham City, was a perplexing decision. Core DC fans, the target audience for DC Universe, don’t want that, while casual fans, or those who have been skeptical of Titans from the start, point to it as yet another example of the show’s unnecessarily darkness. It doesn’t matter how often I tell people that Titans is quite a good show, the dominant impression is still that of “fuck Batman” (a line which, in context, was actually great) and whispered tales of Robin stabbing some poor henchman in the dick with a pair of garden shears.
But rest assured, the events you see in that trailer, Batman murdering the Joker, killing cops, Dick starting a family with Dawn…all of it is a result of a Trigon-induced dream. Now, this in itself…ummm…I mean, the show barely gets away with the idea that “it was all a dream” but I will allow it in this case. And it is an effective exploration of Dick’s psyche, starting with how the family represents his “one that got away” thoughts about Dawn, and his desire to have an exceedingly normal life (albeit one where he is still a police officer, although this time in sunny Los Angeles…as far away from Gotham as he can possibly get). So right out of the gate, we see that while Dick may want to get away from the influence of Batman in his life, his desire to help others remains undiminished, since he stays in law enforcement. It’s a nice touch, and it helps reinforce that on the whole, this show understands Dick Grayson, even if it has made a weird decision or two with him along the way.
As was set up in episode 6, Jason Todd remains the ultimate symbol of Dick’s issues with being Robin. And it’s funny how, to drive home the idea that this is all happening in Dick’s head, Jason even refers to Dick as “the real Robin…even Superman says so.” Quite a subconscious humblebrag there, Dick. Even the explanation of how Jason ended up in that wheelchair, a victim of his own cockiness, is just further proof of how Dick views himself and others who wear the red and green.
Dick’s arrival in Gotham City feels kind of like something out of the golden age of burned out ‘80s urban wasteland dystopias. The synth-heavy soundtrack helps set the mood, and Gotham here feels like something out of RoboCop or the old Max Headroom TV series…or, of course, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns. But here, it’s cartoonishly amped up, something it would be easy to dismiss as Titans’ constant quest for edgy authenticity, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Instead, it’s Dick’s worst fears bringing us a “heightened reality” Gotham City, but it’s easy to see how preconceptions about Titans could get people to think it’s another example of this show going over-the-top. It’s still pretty clever.
But it doesn’t hold together. For one thing, it’s clear from the outset that this is a dream sequence of some kind, which undercuts any drama the rest of the episode may offer, and so the deeper into the hallucination we fall, the less compelling it gets. The problem is, Titans has taken us down this road with Dick’s fears and insecurities so many times already this season that seeing them made flesh just doesn’t have enough impact. How many times has Dick expressed that he didn’t want to become like Batman, or that he worried Bruce would finally cross the line? I lost count.
But imagine if Dick had been suppressing these feelings all season, trying to convince everyone and himself that he’s still Robin while certain actions clearly would say otherwise. If then everything were to come spilling out here, perhaps in a way that doesn’t start by essentially assuring fans that nothing that comes next is true, we’d be kept guessing. Having him face down a murderous Batman would have felt cathartic. Instead, it comes across as an excuse to tease fans with the promise of a live action Batman, and to offer another “shock” moment as Dick kills his mentor in brutal fashion and becomes everything he hates.
I’ve argued before that Titans feels little obligation to “traditional” TV structure and expectations, and I guess I stand by that. But I still feel that a season finale should be a season finale, and this is the kind of cliffhanger you leave audiences on for a regular episode, or perhaps a midseason finale, not something to cap the season. It’s anticlimactic and feels like a cheat. But the fact that they felt like they could get away with ending the season in this fashion tells me a little more about what to expect going forward, and it puts some of my earlier complaints in perspective.
For starters, we now know that Titans Season 2 is basically still the first season of this show in all but name. I’ve been watching this season expecting it to have traditional “cable show/short episode order” pacing. Instead, we’re actually getting a broadcast style 22 episode season…albeit one spread out across two seasons. What I thought were “detour” episodes that derailed the main story basically take the place of what would be “villain of the week” episodes on shows like The Flash or Arrow or Supergirl. It’s funny how I’ve long argued that all of the CW shows would benefit from shorter season orders, and here I was rejoicing that we’d finally see that applied with Titans, when in fact Raven and Trigon’s story (not to mention Dick’s journey from Robin to Nightwing) were clearly always intended to be a 22 episode arc. When I look at it like this everything else starts to make a lot more sense.
But that being said, the effect is less one of “I need to see what happens next” and more of “that’s it?” and that’s not a good feeling. I’ll be back, of course, as I very much believe in this vision of this particular corner of the DC Multiverse. I’d just like to see the show spend a little less time on reminding everyone how “adult” it is and a little more on carrying its main characters’ arcs forward at a more reasonable pace. With each passing episode, Teagan Croft, Anna Diop, Ryan Potter, and Brenton Thwaites (and I really hope Conner Leslie becomes a series regular) prove that they are as perfect in their respective roles as Stephen Amell or Melissa Benoist or Grant Gustin. So let’s make sure the spotlight stays on them long enough so that each episode feels less like the undercard and more like the main event for them.
On the other hand, that post credits scene sure goes a long way towards establishing a ton of good will for and from a certain segment of fans (specifically: me). I mean, seriously, who’s a good boy? Who is just the bestest doggo in the entire Multiverse?!? Go fetch me Titans season 2, please.