[This review contains both SPOILERS and Triggers!]
Last week’s Titans ended on a major cliff-hanger, with Dick Grayson and Donna Troy racing to intercept the rest of the team, having discovered something sinister about Kory Anders’ origins and why she was looking for Rachel Roth before she lost her memory. It was too little, too late, however as Kory had begun strangling Rachel while the young empath was in the middle of trying to heal her broken mind. So naturally, faced with this exciting moment, the show decides to slam on the breaks and send us flying through the windshield into an episode that tangents off into the origin story for Hank Hall and Dawn Granger.
Oh, remember them? They appeared way back in the second episode, which seemed like a CW-style crossover with a better-realized show with far more interesting characters? Then the show completely forgot about them for six episodes? Yeah. Them.
The damnable thing is that I should hate “Hank and Dawn” for completely derailing the flow of Titans’ story. Yet I can’t. Because this flashback episode detailing how Hank Hall became a vigilante and brought Dawn Granger into his world is far more compelling than everything the show has done so far with Raven, Robin, Starfire and Beast Boy.
The episode starts with Hank Hall as a young football star, attending a private school with his younger brother, Don. Hank is aggressive and sporty. Don is passive and bookish, but worships his star athlete brother. The story jumps forward ten years as the brothers are attending college, with Don hard at work on his studies and Hank living the life of a Big Man on Campus.
None of this will be surprising to those who know the characters from the comics. What is surprising, however, is that Geoff Johns works a new tragic angle into the lives of The Hall Brothers that is sure to be controversial – the idea of a tween Hank Hall surrendering to being molested by his football coach, in order to save his brother from suffering the same fate and them both from being expelled.
Johns has been criticized in his past comic writing for adding unnecessary darkness into his revamps of classic DC Comics characters. It was Johns who first proposed the idea of Barry Allen growing up without his parents because The Reverse Flash went back in time, killed Nora Allen and framed Dr. Henry Allen for the murder in a bid to ruin Barry’s childhood and stop him from ever becoming The Flash. Johns was also responsible for the Shazam! revamp that gave Billy Batson a more cynical personality.
Thankfully, while this angle goes on to inform the rest of the episode and Hank’s personal struggle, Johns’ script treats the subject matter with the gravity it deserves and it gives the character a depth he often lacked in the comics. The episode is a tremendous character study of Hank, who throws himself into football because it’s the only thing he’s good at and the only thing that makes him feel strong. When a concussion leaves him unable to play, Don suggests that Hank can find an outlet for his anger going after child molesters that have escaped prosecution in their neighborhood. This leads to the two adopting the Hawk and Dove identities and fighting to make sure no more children suffer as Hank did.
Later, the episode introduces Dawn Granger and unites her and Hank through the same tragic event that kills Don. A romance blooms between the two as they find comfort in each other that they can’t find in survivors’ therapy. Then Dawn accidentally learns about Hank’s past and plots a surprising course to give Hank the closure he clearly needs.
As in earlier episodes, Alan Ritchson nails the performance, finding multiple levels at which to play Hank. Though Hank plays at being a man’s man and isn’t a great thinker, there are hidden depths to his soul that come out subtly as the story progresses. Elliot Knight matches Ritchson perfectly as Don Hall, showing that – like Teddy Roosevelt – he may speak softly, but carries a big stick. This is particularly clear in the scene where it is Don who comes to his brother’s defense, standing up to a college administrator who is more concerned about Hank playing in the big game than his health. Finally, Minka Kelly completely delivers as Dawn Granger, capturing the character’s inner light even as she finds herself in the thick of battle.
That light is evident in Akiva Goldsman’s direction. Though color choices and careful lighting, Dawn seems to glow slightly in nearly every scene she is in – the guiding light Hank feels he needs made into a living metaphor. The effect is subtle, but well developed by the production team.
Alas, these flashbacks are intercut with a ghostly Rachel Roth demanding to be heard, as if she were begging to be freed from the lackluster main plot of Titans and allowed to be part of this much better Hawk and Dove series that Johns and Goldsman seem to be stealthily developing. Hopefully there is a spin-off in their future, same as the Doom Patrol, because while I might be able to survive more Titans episodes for the sake of more Hawk and Dove, I would rather not.