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How Does Titans Address Dark Subject Matter?

DC Universe’s Titans delves into extremely dark subjects in its latest episode. But, does it do a good job?

Titans has effectively extricated itself from traditional comic book adaptations by adopting an overly dark tone, even more so than The Dark Knight trilogy and the DCEU films. The show has been working towards discussing real-world issues, and in its latest episode, ‘Hank and Dawn’, Titans delivers on its promise.

‘Hank and Dawn’ starts off with two wannabe superheroes taking down a bad guy, but it soon evolves into a harsh portrayal of abuse, death and revenge. This episode is not for the faint of heart, and it isn’t what we expect to see in a show where people dress up in silly costumes to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other.

We break down how ‘Hank and Dawn’ deals with the real-world issues it purports to focus on. Spoilers ahead.

The Main Story

Dove OG-Hawk-Hank and Dawn-Titans-Series Regular
OG Dove and Hawk. Source: Series Regular

After an absence from Titans forthe last six episodes, ‘Hank and Dawn’ puts Hawk and Dove back on centre-stage. The episode is driven by Hank Hall’s (Alan Ritchson) past and his eventual rise into the role of the superhero Hawk, with Dawn Granger (Minka Kelly) appearing partway through with an origin story of her own.

Hank is a star football player with a scholarship and a storied career, but when he receives football-related concussions, his younger brother Don (Elliot Knight) steps in to ensure that Hank receives the proper care and rest he needs. Hank, ever the hot-head, makes a scene about it in the library, thus provoking a fight that ends with both him and Don being expelled from their college.

But the Hall brothers have other matters to attend to. Don has been tracking their neighbours and has found a network of sex offenders. He suggests the two of them work together to take them down. Thus, begins the reign of the superhero duo Hawk and Dove.

Meanwhile, Dawn is a ballerina, whose mother, Marie (Marina Sirtis), has made the decision to return to her abusive partner. Dawn has managed to escape this man but Marie is still in his thrall. Despite Dawn’s insistence that Marie leave the man, who is implied to be her husband, Marie still thinks she can make the best of a bad situation.

When a freak accident kills Don and Marie, Hank and Dawn end up in the same therapy group, and seek solace in each other. As the two get closer, they learn about each other’s past and it becomes clear that Dawn will not rest till she can take down the bad guys of the world. Hank comes along for the ride and a new Hawk and Dove are born.

Abuse and the Real World

Group Therapy-Hank and Dawn-Titans-Series Regular
Even heroes need therapy. Source: Series Regular

One of the earlier scenes in ‘Hank and Dawn’ sees a young Hank (Tait Blum) win a football game attended by his little brother, Don (Jayden Marine), who cheers him on enthusiastically from the stands. Observing this is Hank’s coach, Vincent (Trevor Hayes), who promises to show Don the weight room/ locker room. When Hank sees the coach with his brother, he insists Don leave, even swearing at his brother to stop him from going. It is evident that Hank is terrified of his brother being alone with his coach but Don is too young to understand. Eventually Hank agrees to go to the room with his coach in Don’s stead. As the door closes behind young Hank and the coach, the boy appears resigned to his fate.

Much later in the episode, Hank opens up to Dawn about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his coach. The scene cuts right after he mentions being taken inside the locker room, but whatever Hank tells Dawn off-screen is incendiary enough for her to seek the coach out and try to get him to confess. It is also heavily implied that Hank and Dawn eventually kill the coach in an act of revenge.

Child abuse is not the only real-world crime that the episode deals with – the abusive father/ step-father (the relationship is never made clear) that Dawn has escaped is the show’s first foray into examining domestic violence. Marie’s decision to return to her partner is a very real portrayal of abusive relationships, as well. At one point, Marie talks to Dawn about how the cycle of violence stopped when Dawn broke the man’s arm, but blames herself, and Dawn’s sister, for making mistakes that incurred his wrath and began the violence again. Victims of domestic violence often try to control their own behaviour in the hopes of stopping their violent partner’s actions but this tactic rarely works for long, something Dawn obviously realised, hence her reasons for leaving.

What Did the Episode Do Wrong?

Hank Hall-Hank and Dawn-Titans-Series Regular
Too much Hank; not enough Dawn. Source: Series Regular

Despite the radically strong scene between Dawn and Marie and, particularly, Dawn’s insistence that her mother is stronger than she realises, this aspect of Dawn’s life, and that she has a sister who hasn’t escaped their father, is not as well-explored in this episode as it could have been. With the focus of the story being on Hank and his problems, the vital real-world issue of domestic violence that affects 1 in 4 women in America, gets swept under the carpet, and is not mentioned thenceforth. This is unfortunate, and once again places Dawn in relation to the men in her life rather than as a person in her own right.

Titans also surprisingly holds back from directly addressing the coach’s abuse of Hank. There has been a running theme in the show of heroes taking down paedophiles, but Titans has been strangely afraid to actually use the word. We only see Dawn saying she’s sorry for what happened to Hank and then pushing to exact revenge on the coach, but Hank never gets to share his story in his own words.

As I was watching the episode, I couldn’t help but wonder if the writing should have made the matter more explicit. During his brief appearances on Titans,Alan Ritchson has shown a remarkable ability to imbue Hank Hall with depth and emotion. Surely, Ritchson could have been trusted with talking about what young Hank had been through? It feels like Titans wanted the praise for dealing with difficult subjects, like child sexual abuse, but was too afraid to actively engage with the topic within the text of the episode.

I also wonder about the denouement – Hank and Dawn beating a man to a pulp, maybe even killing him – not being very realistic. This isn’t exactly an option normal people can resort to. Most people would have had to turn to the law, not take it into their own hands. It feels like the episode, despite generally strong writing, turned to the most convenient way to wrap up the situation.

Noticeably, Dawn doesn’t get to seek revenge against her father – instead she channels her anger at her mother’s death against the man who hurt Hank. As fascinating a character study as this is, the messaging borders on dangerous; as if to say, if you are hurt and angry, beat up the first convenient target!

Sadly, the episode ends just as Dawn is speaking about her regrets over their actions but ends before it gets to fully engage with this aspect. One can only hope that future episodes will go back to that moment, as it is a strange place to leave hanging.

What Did the Episode Get Right?

Hank and Dawn-Titans-Super Hero Hype
This episode was better than expected. Source: Super Hero Hype

For anyone who had read that ‘Hank and Dawn’ would be dealing with issues of child sexual abuse, the thought might have been that the victim would be Dawn, whereas Hank would be the victim of an abusive father. That Titans chose to flip the gender script is commendable, and still surprisingly rare. Boys are very often victims of sexual abuse but are less likely to come forward about their experiences due to fears of being perceived as weak.

I like that this episode dealt with its weighty issues with subtlety. The scene where young Hank tries to save his baby brother is handled particularly well. The building tension and the fact that something is very clearly off about the coach is expertly drawn out, though I do wish Titans would stop making its child actors swear. The rest of the episode evolves well, but nothing quite captures the tense moments of that early scene. One can really see why Hank becomes the man he is because of what happened to him.

The scene between Dawn and Marie where Marie discusses going back to London, was another highlight, even though the subject matter made it a tough watch. That Marie and Dawn still have a strong bond and healthy relationship was a relief to see, as mother-daughter relationships are still too often depicted as troubled and toxic. I love that Dawn’s story is motivated more by her mother than anything else and I would have liked it if that was more the focus of her characterisation than her devotion to Hank.

Thematically, ‘Hank and Dawn’ is starkly different from the rest of Titans. By narrowing the focus to two characters, the episode had room to showcase their histories and personalities, giving us a thorough examination of what makes these characters tick and how their relationship works. And, by delving into real-world problems, Titans finally shows that its darkness isn’t just a matter of lighting but of tackling matters that affect millions worldwide.

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