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Titans 2.4 Review – ‘Aqualad’

September 27, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Titans -- Ep. 204 -- "Aqualad"
8.5
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Titans 2.4 Review – ‘Aqualad’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Friday’s episode of Titans.]

If Titans is a show about a new generation trying to learn from the old one’s mistakes, the second season has been a microcosm of that thus far. The first three episodes of the season saw Dick Grayson moving his young charges – Rachel, Gar, and a very reluctant Jason – back to the empty Titans headquarters in San Francisco and picking up a new potential member in Rose Wilson. However, the sins of the old Titans have returned with Dr. Light and Deathstroke taking aim at the team, bringing the original members back on board and threatening to reopen some old, very deep wounds.

This week’s episode, “Aqualad,” unearths the first of those wounds, and it’s not going to be the last. Titans has never been too worried about pausing its present storyline to dig into the past, and generally it’s worked. That remains the case here for the most part, as we learn more about those ghosts that Donna mentioned in last week’s episode – and how those ghosts haunt her in particular.

Titans Team

The fact that flashbacks are prevalent in Titans doesn’t take any of the risk of slowing plot momentum away if you devote a full episode to it. Last season’s “Hawk and Dove” did that to a degree; though the effect was kind of negligible and the context necessary, it did slow things down.

I found myself concerned that “Aqualad” might do the same, but that wasn’t the case. We’ve grown used to Dick, Hank, Dawn and Donna over the course of the last season-plus and slipping back to tell this story of when they were a team helps push the plot forward. We need to know why Deathstroke has suddenly returned to action now that the Titans are back up and running. The showrunners could either tell us or show us, and this is a classic case of why “show don’t tell” is usually the rule. By exploring this era directly, we get a chance to understand more fully how formidable this version of Slade is and why it’s so personal to the team.

An important key to making that work is getting the audience to buy into the episode’s titular character. I’m not talking about Garth’s Atlantean aspects here. We’ve seen plenty of superpowers, aliens, demons and magic already, and if we’re watching a DC Universe series then we have to accept Aquaman and his people as a given. By that, I mean we have to go along with the idea that Garth was a central part of the original Titans. Those feelings of personal connection must feel real, which isn’t the easies thing to accomplish when an actor who jumps in for a single episode. Fortunately, Drew Van Acker hits the right notes. He has an instant ease with the regular cast that makes it easy for us as the audience to believe he has worked with these guys. Whether his bro-esque repartee with Hank or his brotherly dynamic with Dawn and Dick, it feels authentic and lived in.

Titans Donna Garth

Obviously, the most important dynamic that needs to be established here is Garth and Donna. And there are definitely sparks between the two. Van Acker and Conor Leslie capture the tension of two young adults who had a thing when they were kids but are at a crossroads now. They’re two characters who work together, both in concept (Atlantean and Amazon) and in form. Donna’s feeling trapped between destiny and love makes sense, and Garth’s dogged pursuit is believable.

Establishing the right level of emotional weight to make a loss feel appropriately weighty is a challenge that is normally slotted over a longer time period. There is a lot packed into this relationship for a single 44-minute-long episode; the story has to introduce Garth, convey Donna’s keeping her distance, explain why that’s the case, set up her departure and then have Garth change her mind, only for tragedy to strike. That requires certain narrative shortcuts in most situations, and we see a bit of that here in the pufferfish recollection as well as Donna’s conversation with Dawn. None of it feels rushed though. To be frank, I’ve never been a big fan of this version of Aqualad. Garth never clicked with me, but I found myself toward the end of the episode hoping that we wouldn’t see what was clearly about to happen.

Titans Donna

Obviously, that hope was for naught as Garth needed to be sacrificed on the altar of Deathstroke’s badassery. I’m not complaining though. We talk about “fridging” as a concept, and it is absolutely an overused trope in certain aspects. But even the coiner of the term, Gail Simone herself, has always been clear that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Its overuse is a problem, but part a secondary character’s value is how they relate to the protagonists, and how they enhance those protagonist’s story. Putting a bullet through Garth’s chest sets the Titans down the dark road of revenge, and if Dick’s approaching of Slade’s son Jericho is any indication, this is going to be dark indeed. That serves the greater story, and I’m on board.

From a technical aspect, there’s also a ton to appreciate here. “Aqualad,” as directed by Glen Winter, has what are probably the best visual effects in the series to date with Aqualad’s water control and Dr. Light’s powers. Winter and his stunt coordinator Larnell Stovall also oversee some of the better fight scenes of the series to date. While I expected “Aqualad” to be kind of a bore of an episode, I found myself engaged as much if not more than I have been with any episode of season two to date. And I’m quite excited at this point to see where this storyline goes in both the past and future.

Titans Dick Hawk Dove

Some Final Thoughts:

• Apologies for missing the last two weeks. Between my coverage of Rose City Comic Con and personal things last week, it was unavoidable.

• This episode reminds me that Finding Nemo is a sixteen-year-old movie, and I am not okay with that fact.

• To be clear, we don’t know for sure that Garth is dead yet. He certainly seemed that way, but the Atlantean factor and the fact that we don’t get the moment where we see him expire means he could easily be in a coma in Atlantis or some such. No one on the team actually refers to him as dead in the aftermath, so maybe we’ll see Van Acker again.

• Extra kudos to Winter and company for that fun, bloody opening sequence as Deathstroke unleashes carnage on basically everyone involved with the trial that is his contract. The upbeat song choice combined with the slow motion and sudden blood spurts was inspired.

• Between her conversation with Donna and her dynamic with Dick in this episode, Dawn remains the shining light of this team and I enjoy seeing her get as much screen time as they can muster.

• Dr. Light is working out well as the secondary villain of this part of the season thus far, and it was damn satisfying to see him get his ass kicked.

• Next week: the Titans have to try and save Jason from his dumbassery in last week’s episode, and Rose becomes a potential bargaining chip. That should be fun.

8.5
The final score: review Very Good
The 411
"Aqualad" is an effective flashback episode that manages to tell a story out of time with the current storyline while still maintaining plot momentum. Thanks to an effective performance by Drew Van Acker and some solid writing and direction, there's plenty to enjoy here. It gives us context as to why the original Titans split and sells how deeply personal the Deathstroke situation is to the team, making for a great episode all in all.
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Titans, Titans Review, Jeremy Thomas