When Slade Wilson first crossed paths with Dick Grayson and the original Titans team, the assassin’s attack left the young heroes so devastated that once they believed they’d defeated him, they vowed never to come back together out of fear that doing so might somehow lead to more tragedy. But eventually, Titans brought the heroes back, and all of their greatest fears about Deathstroke seem to be coming to pass.
Despite its title, “Deathstroke” doesn’t spend all that much time depicting Wilson’s latest plan to destroy the Titans from his own perspective, opting instead to emphasize what his presence alone can do to put Dick on edge and make everyone question whether he’s really cut out to be their leader.
Episodes like this one make you appreciate the effort Titans puts into giving each of its characters solid conflicting motivations. As haunted by metaphorical ghosts as Titans’ tower has been, the Titans have all been able to keep them at the edge of their minds up until this point. But now that everyone knows what Rose’s connection to Deathstroke is, and Jason Todd’s life is seemingly in the balance, the Titans’ ghosts are being put front and center so that they can no longer be ignored.
There was a moment at the very end of Titans’ previous episode suggesting that while Deathstroke is every bit the homicidal maniac the show’s heroes have made him out to be, at least one of his attacks on them—the one that presumably led to the team’s dissolution—was prompted by something the Titans themselves did. Following Aqualad’s death by Deathstroke, Dick sought out Deathstroke’s son Jericho and made quick work of befriending the boy under false pretenses. While we still don’t know exactly what Dick and the Titans ended doing to Jericho, his sister Rose in the present day has insinuated that Jericho’s long dead, suggesting that Deathstroke has returned, in part, because he’s got an understandable bone to pick. But he isn’t just a vengeful killer, he’s a sadistic monster who delights in torturing people emotionally as well as physically, and so his sickening plan to destroy Dick revolves around Jason Todd.
There’s a tragic poetry to the fact that Jason wouldn’t have ended up wandering into the sewers hoping to apprehend Doctor Light were it not for Dick’s insistence at benching Jason without trying to explain the reasons why. While Dick has seen Jason’s potential and how good training under Bruce has been for the new Robin, the younger hero’s impulsiveness and his inclination toward brutality give Dick rightful pause. But by not understanding that Jason needed more communication rather than being shut out, Dick demonstrates that anger issues aren’t the only character flaw relearned from Bruce.
When Dove told Dick to “be Batman” in “Aqualad,” there were any number of ways you could have interpreted her meaning, but in the present day it seems as if what Dick’s trying to settle into is that kind of mentor/leader role that Batman ultimately played within the Bat Family. Dick’s new to the whole business of building a chosen family of heroes and so you can understand why he’d make a certain number of mistakes. Unfortunately for Jason, “mistakes” in this context amount to his being captured by a surprisingly disposable Doctor Light and tortured by Deathstroke.
Why Titans decided to introduce Doctor Light, who essentially ended up being a steroid junky whose juice of choice was the soft white light emanating from naked light bulbs, only to kill him so unceremoniously remains a mystery. But his death, like Aqualad’s, winnows down the story Titans is right to focus on—the one about Deathstroke’s desire to teach by inflicting pain. As Deathstroke sharpens his blades in preparation for cutting into Jason’s flesh, he explains that what he’s really trying to do is disabuse the young hero of any notion that his antics with the Titans or Bruce Wayne are a good thing. Unsurprisingly, Jason’s true purpose for the time being is to act as a bargaining chip in exchange for Rose. Deathstroke seems to have a legitimate disgust for young superheroes—which is such a classic, but underused, character trait for a villain that it’s interesting to see here.
Being the son of the world’s greatest detective, Dick fully understands that Deathstroke wants to appear as if he’s willing to make a trade. But Dick also knows that a.) Deathstroke’s prone to lying and b.) Dick wants to keep both Rose and Jason as far away from Deathstroke as possible, making a trade untenable. But Dick isn’t alone in making this decision, and the rest of the original Titans and the returned Kory are all divided along moral lines as to how they should proceed. Kory, Dove, and Dick believe that keeping everyone safe is in the team’s best option, though none of them is immediately prepared to present a plan as to how to go about doing that. But Hawk and Donna, at least initially, see things in more sharper shades of black and white. Innocent as Rose is, they think ultimately she’s a liability to them all that Dick never should have brought into their orbit.
By letting Rose, Rachel, and Gar spy on Dick, Hawk, Dove, and Donna as they debate about what to do, the episode gives Titans a really interesting moment of multilayered character building for a number of different people. Rose has had no reason to believe any of Rachel’s assurances that the tower would be a good place for her, and Donna and Hank make it obvious they want her gone. At the same time, however, Kory, Dove, and Dick are just as fierce in their defense of Rose, and Rose has no reason to assume that either of them is performing for her because they don’t know that she can see them.
As abrupt as Kory’s return to Titans’ core storyline is, the time she spends with Rachel discussing the resurgence of her demonic powers makes you realize just how much time the series has spent on the street level as of late (light-sucking villains notwithstanding). Kory explaining the nature of her unique abilities in an attempt to help Rachel understand and accept her own is this small, but solid way of reestablishing that Titans exists in a much larger more fantastical world with more fascinating things in it than assassins who hate millennials. Just as soon as Kory’s encouraged Rachel to unleash the energy she feels inside, though, Rachel ends up demoning out and breaking Rose’s back, promptly causing the girl to wonder if she’s truly destined to be a monster.
“Deathstroke” begins to stumble some in its final third as the other Titans try to come to grips with the fact that Rachel killed Rose...and then suddenly, Rose’s body regenerates, healing her for the most part, before she passes out. As wild a turn of events as that all is, it’s not exactly out of the ordinary for a team of heroes that once included both an Atlantean and a Amazon. Shocked as they all are, Rose and Rachel’s incident gives the team the resolve it needs to try and take Deathstroke out once and for all while saving Jason in the process. But of course, Dick being Dick, he ends up offering himself up to Deathstroke hoping to make a trade. Surprising no one, Deathstroke’s got no interest in making a trade for Jason and just as it seems as if Deathstroke’s going to make Dick watch Jason die, Kory pops up to work some alien pyrotechnics that somehow don’t manage to fry Deathstroke, who’s merely an enhanced human in a funny getup.
The final moments of “Deathstroke” aren’t much to write about in terms of narrative substance—it’s more of a punching, kicking, and blasting affair. But that very last shot of a terrified Jason Todd maybe plunging to his death while Dick is helpless to do anything but look on is one of the more heartwrenching shots Titans has pulled off so far.
If only there were one or maybe two other people on the team who, you know, flew or something. If only.
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