Titans has been a show of varying quality, giving fans both some of the best and the worst DC has to offer on the small screen, and episode 9, 'Hank and Dawn' manages to distill all of those extremes down into one of the most absurd 40 minutes of TV ever.
First off, 'Hank and Dawn' interrupts a major cliffhanger from the previous episode, 'Donna Troy', in which most of the show's long-running mysteries were finally coming to head, ending with Starfire regaining her memories to recall she was apparently sent to Earth to kill Raven, ending the episode with her hands around her neck with Dick and Donna still apparently too far away to mount an immediate rescue.
Picking up back in the hospital with Dawn after her serious injuries from episode 2, 'Hawk and Dove', 'Hank and Dawn' has the two titular characters both having dream flashbacks of their tragic origins, Hank is messed up on booze and stolen pills, and Dawn is in a coma.
Hank and Dawn were one of the show's early bright spots, with Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly giving some of the series' more nuanced performances. Fortunately, that trend continues, but those moments only come as small vignettes, framed by some of the most awkward, excessively dark, and uncomfortable scenes the show has presented yet.
The first of these scenes comes as a flashback to Hank and his brother Don as little kids. Hank is a budding football star, and he witnesses his coach, who he's apparently already aware is a pedophile, trying to lure his little brother Donnie into the weight room alone after a game. Hank tries to get Donnie to leave, but ends up having to yell at Don to go home, telling him he doesn't have enough football potential and he should be the one to go to the gym, and the scene uncomfortably cuts out as we see the gym doors closing on Hank in Donnie's place with the coach in the weight room.
From that deeply dark and disturbing allusion to child sex abuse, the show launches into what can't be anything but a big homage to Blue Mountain State, a raunchy comedy series about a hard-partying football team starring Alan Ritchson as Thad Castle, the ultimate jock, party animal, and team captain. The necessary similarities between a college aged Don Hall and Thad are understandable, but Titans actually leans into the feeling, showing Hank and Don in college at a frat party that could seamlessly be edited into an episode of BMS. Many fans of Ritchson's previous role could find the reference humorous if it weren't for the fact that they're still trying to recover from seeing the character sacrifice himself to a child sex predator to save his brother mere seconds ago.
Devoid of all this context, though, the boy's college moments are otherwise truly fun to watch, and Ritchson and guest star Elliot Knight have great chemistry. The moment they accidentally run into Dawn Granger and her mother on the street is a sweet little meet cute, until Don and Dawn's mother are suddenly, simultaneously, and unceremoniously annihilated when a traffic accident causes a small box trick to drive right over them. The moment is so fast and unexpected that many viewers may need to rewatch more than once to very what just happened. There's no slow-motion effect to add effect and allow audiences time to process, and the accident itself is seen from above, so it's hard to distinguish which characters are standing where. The scene ends barely a moment later, and it's still not clear what actually happened until next scene. Instead of playing for shock value, the accident is more a case of accidental bathos, more fit for a shock laugh in a comedy.
Again, dismissing the absurdity of the previous moment, the next few scenes show Hank and Dawn meeting again through grief counseling and learning to cope with their own losses and forming a strong relationship as they fall for each other. As we saw from their appearances in the beginning of the season, Ritchson and Kelly are great together, and even the show's cinematography and use of lighting seem to mark a high point.
When Dawn discovers Hank and Don used to be vigilantes and learns about Hank's childhood drama, she sets out to get revenge on Hank's abuser, who he's left alone all these years. While this moment does take the show back to a super dark place, it actually feels more earned natural this time thanks to the development between the leads, but as Hank brutally beats his former coach, it once again reaches absurdity when Dawn opens a laptop on the desk and exclaims some of the show's most ham-fisted dialogue: "Hank, these are pictures of kids. He's a sick man. He's sick." as if the audience and hank weren't already fully aware of just how twisted the former coach was.
Then, as if things hadn't gotten awkward enough, we cut back to Hank's apartment where Dawn strips naked, her backside lit by the light of the moon through the window in the show's first moment of nudity, followed by Hank also stripping, his backside similarly lit, as the couple chose this moment to make love for the first time... after apparently having murdered the pedophile that assaulted Hank as a child.
Adding an even more bizarre layer to all of this, throughout the whole flashback, an image of Raven has been appearing in various reflective surfaces throughout the episode to urge both Hank and Dawn to wake up, as if the two are actually experiencing a shared dream, ending with Dawn coming out of her coma to wake up Hank to tell him they have to find Jason Todd.
The most baffling part about this episode is not how absurd it got in its worst moments so much as how close it was to actually being great. 'Hank and Dawn' is a clear lesson that sometimes less can be more, and avoiding the tonal whiplash by simply toning down, or, in some cases, outright eliminating the show's darker attempts at being edgy could have made the episode a sweet glimpse at two broken people overcoming their trauma and falling in love. Instead of delivering one of the show's best episodes, the combination of extremely dark moments, ham-fisted dialogue, and accidental comedy, interlaced with and moments of true excellence, the whole thing comes together as one of the most bizarre 40 minutes of television ever.