Titans Is Having an Existential Crisis on Its Singular Earth

Rachel, Kory, Dawn, and Donna realizing they have no idea what the hell is going on, either.
Image: DC Universe

Even though it all falls under the same corporate umbrella, there’s no way in hell that DC Universe’s Titans is coming anywhere near the Arrowverse’s upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. But that’s not to say that the series isn’t in the midst of a universe-shattering crisis all its own.

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For the past few weeks, Titans has often felt as if it was lost at sea and unsure of where to go as it built toward a deadly confrontation between the Titans and Deathstroke. But after the big showdown came and went, Titans seemingly lost its focus and made the curious decision to scatter its characters to the wind at a point in the season where it doesn’t make sense to begin staking out new, disparate story arcs.

The Deathstroke story isn’t properly finished, of course, but there’s also Dick’s becoming Nightwing, the situation on Kory’s home planet, Conner and Gar being hunted by Cadmus, and Dawn and Hank’s ship issues to deal with. Also, Rachel’s been hanging out with a new group of homeless teens and unknowingly bringing demons to life in San Francisco! It was always clear that this season of Titans was going to be busy, but with just two episodes to go, it doesn’t seem possible that the writers are going to be able to wrap things up in satisfying or interesting ways.

Though Dick’s been telling himself that getting purposefully thrown into prison is the right thing to do as penance for the role he played in Jericho’s death, “E.L._.O.” is a reality check of sorts. Dick doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but what he’s actually doing is making a grand display of self-pitying martyrdom that isn’t even really all that effective; nobody knows what he’s trying to pay for, except a small group of people on the outside who, as luck would have it, are all in desperate need of Dick’s assistance at the moment and have no idea where he is.

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While Dick’s dealing with some sort of infectious bug he caught in the clink and getting into shouting matches with the vision of Bruce Wayne that his mind’s conjured, the rest of the Titans have all fallen off the wagon in one way or another and are quickly accepting the idea that their hero days are over. At the Cadmus labs, Conner’s nowhere to be seen, but we spend a lot of time watching the horrific experiments Mercy Graves oversees as they’re being conducted on Gar, who’s being conditioned into becoming a monster.

The fact that in most incarnations Beast Boy is capable of transforming into countless creatures and often has romantic feelings for Raven makes the torture that Titans’ Gar goes through that much more awful to watch. Because you know that as inhuman as the experiments are, they’re likely going to eventually lead to Gar gaining a broader control of his shapeshifting abilities when he eventually breaks free of the organization. But at the same time, the way Cadmus specifically uses Gar’s memories and feelings about Rachel as the focal point of its reconditioning suggests that when the two are reunited, there’s a very real chance some of the programming might kick in, leading to a bloody fight.

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As Tiger-Gar mauls the Rachel in his mind to death, Rachel in the real world can’t escape the dreadful feeling that something terrible is about to happen to the people she cares about. As was the case before Trigon made a move to take over the world, Rachel’s been having seemingly prophetic dreams, only now her dreams about Dick all involve his death at Deathstroke’s hands. Every time she falls asleep, she finds herself at Dick’s funeral (where, strangely, Dick is also attending, waiting to be murdered by Deathstroke) and there’s nothing she can do to warn him about what’s going to happen.

Rose and Jason, who are a thing now.
Image: DC Universe
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While all of this is happening, Jason and Rose have hit the streets to burn off some steam fighting criminals and then retiring in said criminals’ houses to eat their food and have sex. For Rose, the boning and bone-crunching is just a way to pass the time now that they’ve both broken away from the Titans, but to Jason, it’s a bonding experience that’s making his romantic feelings towards Rose that much more intense. You wouldn’t expect to see Jason Todd singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story to a woman who once wanted to kill him but hey, this is Titans.

Elsewhere, Donna’s still searching for Rachel and realizing that Gar and Conner are in trouble. Dawn’s searching for a way to leave her Dove persona in the past once and for all, but you know it’s all a farce because she does this by making a dramatic drive into the middle of nowhere where she conveniently finds a dumpster to dispose of her box-o-vigilantism. Of course, she can’t bear to leave a framed photo of her, Dick, Donna, and Hank behind, and after she goes back to grab it and drives off, she hears a curious ad on the radio that becomes more significant as the episode goes on.

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In a lot of ways, “E.L._.O.” feels like a rushed attempt to give Kory’s arc this season some heft because it spends a considerable amount of time showing us the depressive funk she’s fallen into following her sister’s declaration of war. Much like Dick, Kory’s chiefly concerned about her own despair and she spends her time drinking heavily, waking up in arcades, and trying to bang a psychiatrist who almost immediately picks up on the fact that she’s going through something. In another universe, this sort of characterization for Kory would come across as an interesting contrast to her usually optimistic, confident persona, but because this season of Titans has been so lacking in the way of screen time for Kory, her depiction here just feels kind of off and not well-thought-out. The character’s emotional tailspin would surely have led to her crashing and burning in an explosion of strobe lights and disco music were it not interrupted for a television ad similar to the one Dawn overheard on the radio.

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Depressed as Kory is, the promise of the world-famous jelly donuts at Elko’s Diner is enough to compel her to get up and make a beeline for it in her car, but what she doesn’t know is that all of the other Titans are doing more or less the exact same thing. Though each of the messages they receive are different, Donna, Kory, Rachel, and Dawn all end up in Elko’s Diner, confused as to what the hell is going on. There are any number of madcap villains that Titans could have brought into the fold here because at this point, the show feels as if it’s rather off the rails. Instead, though, it’s old man Bruce Wayne who tells the Titans that it was him all along manipulating the airwaves to lure them all into the middle of nowhere to tell them they need to go get their boy out of prison.

Master manipulator Bruce Wayne.
Image: DC Universe
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Donna, in one of the episode’s few moments of triumph, immediately tells the group that she’s not with the shit because she knows Dick Grayson and how he really does want to torture himself because that’s just the kind of messed up person he is. Dawn agrees that it’s Gar, ultimately, who needs their help the most, and she and Donna make their way back to San Francisco to get shit done. A heartbroken Rachel assumes that Kory’s going to leave her again too, dooming Dick to rot behind bars, but the would-be queen informs her young friend that she really doesn’t have much better else to do, and the pair head to where Dick’s being held.

If we’re being honest, the only prison Dick’s really been in this entire time is in his mind. To be clear: he is literally in lockup, but it’s not like he couldn’t use his Robin-honed skills to bust out whenever he wanted and make a go of living on the lam. Dick wants to suffer and because his body is so accustomed to dealing with physical trauma, he instead inflicts trauma of the psychological sort on himself by manifesting a vision of Bruce who spends the entire episode (again) taunting him.

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It’s difficult to put your finger on what it is about the scenes between Dick and Bruce in the prison that just doesn’t work, but the entire conceit feels rather silly because you never get the sense that Dick’s actually descended into madness. He’s angry, sure, but he’s obviously quite sane and just having very, very intense conversations with himself while throwing himself against walls. By the end of the episode, Dick finally comes to the conclusion that the whole method acting thing really isn’t a good look for him, and in the final moments where he’s talking to Force ghost Bruce, something about his last exchange with Deathstroke in his family home clicks into place.

It’s unclear exactly what “E.L._.O.” is pointing too as it flashes back to Dick confronting Jericho’s parents about the boy’s death, but it wouldn’t at all be surprising if he were actually somehow still alive out there. But again, because the series really just seems to be making things up as it goes along, there’s no telling what’s going to happen next.

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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.