While Titans has gotten properly back into the swing of things from a pacing standpoint, there are still moments where the show slips up a little as it’s trying to give each member of its sprawling cast of heroes and villains enough screen time to make their subplots compelling. This week, Titans did it with a flashback episode.
It seemed unlikely that the series could continue successfully maintaining all of the characters’ plots without each episode simply becoming longer (which nobody wants), and this week’s episode, “Aqualad,” revealed one effective method of dealing with a story that’s already got too many players in the mix: Kill ‘em right off.
Though Titans’ second season has already spent more than enough time in the past, the entire episode is set four years prior to the events of Titans’ first season when the first incarnation of the team was still working out of the Tower together. Flashback episodes like “Aqualad” are always tricky because while they can be fascinating explorations into earlier points in characters’ lives, they can just as easily end up feeling like excuses to put actors in slightly different costumes and have them act like slightly different versions of the characters you already know.
“Aqualad” ends up being a bit of both and it makes you wonder whether the episode’s story might have worked better as a series of flashbacks spread over the course of the season instead.
Some time after Dick Grayson began drifting away from Batman, but before he really began struggling with his own issues of anger and violence, the Boy Wonder was well on his way to making a name for himself as the de facto leader of the Titans, a ragtag team of sidekicks and do-gooders. What’s weird about “Aqualad” is that it doesn’t quite go far back enough into the Titans’ history to feel like it’s revealing anything that couldn’t have just as easily been incorporated into a story set in the present. While it would have been interesting to see the team as actual teenaged heroes, “Aqualad” presents its titular hero, Garth (Drew Van Acker), as a confident 20-something hydrokinetic who’s been living it up with his best friends and the girl he loves in what might as well be DC Universe’s take on The Real World: San Francisco.
Here, Dick and Dawn’s romance is still in full swing, while Hank, whose alcoholism has yet to become a full-blown problem, leers at the lovebirds from a respectful but increasingly small distance. It’s not exactly surprising that Donna and Garth, the only members on the team with actual superpowers, gravitate toward one another and often end up being the key to the group’s being able to complete missions. Donna feels at home on the team, and she can’t deny her feelings for Garth, but “Aqualad” also establishes that her time in the world of mortals is complicated by her connection to Themyscira.
Wonder Woman herself doesn’t make an appearance in the episode, but “Aqualad” leans heavily into the character’s lore in order to give Donna’s background some useful texture. As it turns out, Donna’s on a kind of Themysciran Rumspringa that’s being overseen by Jillian (Ann Magnuson), a warrior who frequently returns to the mystical island when she’s not busy working as an art dealer. Donna’s dilemma is a classic one: she’s fiercely loyal to her Amazon family and she’s dreamt of becoming a legendary warrior in their tradition for her entire life. But at the same time, the Titans are also her family. Dick and Dawn are like her siblings, Hank’s...there, and nice sometimes, and Garth, well. Jillian makes it clear that she knows that Donna and Garth have been contemplating taking their relationship to the next level, and Donna, unphased, is like “Yeah, I’m probably gonna get it on with the fish boy.”
All of this new information is fine and all, but it all ends up feeling like narrative clutter as “Aqualad” unfolds and yet more characters are introduced to Titans. Chella Mann’s Jericho makes his first appearance, establishing that his death in the Titans universe which Rose mentioned in a previous episode is relatively recent. While one gets the impression that Slade Wilson raised Rose to be a killer from a young age, Jericho seems to be nothing like his sister, living a normal life with his loving mother who warns him that they have to keep a low profile no matter how comfortable things may seem.
Jericho’s mother’s concerns are shown to be more than justified as “Aqualad” also features a rather gruesome sequence demonstrating just how effective a killer Deathstroke is. Whether he’s stabbing people through their chests with swords or taking them out with sniper rifles, Deathstroke always makes his kills—and for a moment, it seems as if the villain’s on a collision course with the Titans that’s going to devastate the team. To be fair, he ultimately is, but “Aqualad” doesn’t really lead with that because it’s more interested in pushing the idea that the Titans’ emotional entanglements are really what ended up ruining things.
While Deathstroke’s out there murdering people with terrifying efficiency, Dick, Dawn, Donna, and Garth have all been extremely in their feelings about one another in a way that blinds them to some of the superhero work they could be out there doing. This episode wants you to read these versions of the characters as being dumbstruck the way that actual teenagers might, but because they’re all grown adults, it makes some of the melodramatics feel off.
The episode also insists on telling us how much Donna and Garth love each other—how much they’ve always loved each other. But because this is really the first time we’ve met Garth properly, there’s little the episode can do to make their relationship feel like it means much of anything because that kind of authenticity just comes with screen time. Sure, Garth once called a clownfish to him in non-tropical waters to charm Donna, but being told that story rather than seeing it incorporated organically (perhaps in a flashback to the flashback) leads to the episode’s attempts at emotional earnestness feeling kind of hollow. Donna having to choose between Themyscira and Garth should be a big deal, but at no point during “Aqualad” do you ever get the impression that Garth would be the kind of guy you chose over becoming a magical warrior.
That’s why Garth’s death toward the end of the episode feels like a convenient way to give the Titans a reason to fear Deathstroke, rather than a moment where their family was shaken to its core. Narratively, Garth’s death works as a plot device to keep things moving, but the emotional impact just isn’t there, and it makes Donna staying in the mortal world feel less like something she’s doing for herself and more something she’s doing for Garth’s memory.
But Deathstroke’s attack on the Titans does bring out something interesting in Dick, who wastes no time figuring out what the villain’s true identity is and taking Dawn’s words to heart when she encourages him to “be Batman.” With one of their own fallen, Dick’s more than prepared to go to war to destroy Deathstroke, but the darkest thing about “Aqualad” is the way the episode’s final moments suggests that Dick’s idea of retaliation involves going after Deathstroke’s son.
Titans has already shown that this incarnation of Dick Grayson has no qualms about fighting dirty and hurting his enemies by any means necessary, and if “Aqualad” is any indication, there’s a chance that Deathstroke might have a pretty damned good reason for coming back and trying to take the Titans out again.
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