Five Thoughts on Titans‘s “51%”

By | September 10th, 2021
Posted in Television | % Comments

The seventh episode of Titans season three is a surprising one in several ways. On a plot level it moves to shut down the threat of Scarecrow with plenty of time left in the season. It also begins to work through an ethic of vigilantisim that the show has always lacked. It isn’t easy or clean but if it is followed through should strengthen the show going forward.

1. Saving the City
Titans in their past two seasons has followed the standard narrative arc of building to the Big Bad’s master plan coming to fruition in the last 2-3 episodes of a season. Deathstroke and Trigon have been smaller personal villains; the threat of unleashing a demon hellscape aside. Which makes the decision for “51%”, the seventh episode of the season, to be the big master plan and save the city episode a real surprise. Scarecrow’s plan, after using the disruption the petulant Jason Todd made in the previous episode, was to begin the mass distribution of his happy time no fear drug and medicate Gotham City into submission. Or it was until the Titans put a stop to him, resulting in Scarecrow running away like he’s Dr. Claw proclaiming that he’ll get them next time.

With his big plot effectively foiled, the mass generator McGuffin was easily destroyed, it leaves Titans in an interesting spot. There are still 6 more episodes left. Perhaps now the show will begin to shift Jason Todd into less of a lackey roll? Teagan Croft is still listed as a regular, they’re paying her and she was in the trailer, so whatever that thread is needs to develop. Doing the “save the city” episode now is a shift and one that isn’t quite as self-aware as on latter seasons of Arrow. At the sametime this series has had major issues structurally when it comes to satisfying endings as they try to cram 15 episodes of content into a 13-episode order. Maybe with this out of the way the final batch of episodes will be more satisfying on a character level.

2. The Oracle Machine
Titans had previously hinted at Barbara Gordon’s time as Oracle and “51%” gives us the namesake as Dick talks Barbara into turning the surveillance machine on. The machine is more a functional plot point than interesting bit of narrative. The decision by the writers to write out the Oracle computer reads more like a self-conscious remove of a potential deus ex machina from their toolkit, that also helps to reinforce the apparent dominance of Scarecrow.

The mothballing of the machine begins to create the notion that this Barbara Gordon is if not “more,” moved past her time as Oracle, and achieved actualization in a way Dick hasn’t yet. And as Commissioner has more official ways of implementing the Surveillance State to better equip vigilantes. Barbara has moved beyond the need to illegally surveil people to do her job of protecting the good people of Gotham. Dick meanwhile is acting more and more like Bruce, despite all his protestations otherwise.

As a piece of production design, it is an effective homage to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The luminous display and rounded corners also act as a refrence to another homage to HAL, Chell from Portal.

3. Rewriting Blackfire

With the logic of 51% and its fluid justifications episode scribe Kate McCarthy, and the rest of the writing team, are able to effectively reverse Komand’r’s more classical depiction as a villain and into a space closer to an antihero. The structures are the same, Komand’r usurped the Tamaranian throne from Koriand’r, the addition of parricide comes in later revisions – I want to say the New52 but that era of “Titans” isn’t really talked about. What the McCarthy and director Nick Gomez do is change the most important aspect for Komand’r’s characterization: why. In Titans Komand’r has constantly alluded to larger societal structures that made her fait accompli usurpation and murder as well as placed some of the blame on her sister. After Starfire didn’t return to Tamaran, the populous grew restless and blamed her sister for keeping their Princess away. The people wanted their other Princess executed to bring back their desired one. Her parents instead of choosing the greater, 51% option, to maintain power in Komand’r’s estimation seemed willing to give into this violent urge. Faced with this situation, the only good option for survival was for Komand’r to fight back, usurp the throne and murder her parents in the process.

Continued below

There is an aloof quality to Damaris Lewis’ performance it fits the characters outsider perspective on all things. In the moment where Komand’r opens up to her sister, however, Lewis shows a crack of vulnerability as she wonders if Starfire will even believe her now. Director Nick Gomez plays the moment surprisingly small; it comes after Starfire murderers Knox. That sort of placement could’ve allowed for some melodramatic carry over. Instead, his staging reinforces the distance between the two sisters, but in an interesting twist the cross cutting into close ups on the actresses has a way of shrinking the distance between them signifying the new closeness between the two sisters. Now, if that bond lasts the rest of the season we’ll have to wait and see.

4. 51% and justifying anything

Father used to say that in life the “right” choices were sometimes only a little better than the wrong ones. He called it the 51% rule. If your choice was 51% “good” and 49% “bad,” than you take it. – Komand’r in Titans “51%”

“if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him.” – Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response. – Dick Cheney

“The awful thing about life is this: everybody has their reasons.” – Octave in La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)

There is an absurd history of patriarchal logic that through connotation genders rationality as masculine and emotional responses as irrational and feminine. In each quote we have the mathematical rhetoric of rationality that appears to justify an ethical action. Of course, underneath that rhetoric is stirring emotions and supposed irrationality. The kind that justifies xenophobia and decades long pointless war.

I’ve previously described the world of Titans as one of shit that is constantly pushing you to give into your lesser angels, baser urges etc. As the Princesses of Tamaran talk over parental advice, Titans begins their experiment in poor Octave’s lament and builds a lens to view the remaining season through. Komand’r employs that logic to justify her actions in usurping the throne and killing her parents; it was the best choice in a bad situation. The writing team than twist the supposedly cold nature of that logic when she uses it to complement Koriand’r’s murder of Knox, noting that feeling of righteousness also coursed through her as she killed their parents. It forces up the question: was the path taken 51% “good,” because it felt the best, or maybe it was easier? It forces the viewer to again question Komand’r’s motives and how she is presented. Maybe that was the best option for her in a sea of bad ones. Maybe she is just using it to justify her own terrible actions? But if Komoand’r can justify parricide that way, what’s to stop Koriand’r from doing the same with Knox?

By naming this test, Titans begins to dismantle and remake an ethical framework, something this show hasn’t really had. The ethics of vigilantism are always in some way being explored in these kinds of shows, even when it isn’t actively trying. In the breakdown it places the show in a liminal, messy, space that the show is hopefully read to sit in and work through some of the larger questions that still remain in the season/series. Killing Knox was a reactive move. That ease and feeling of righteousness are the same ones that underpin the decision by Dick to write Jason off as a lost cause. Which is the same kind of thinking that drove him away in the first place. Dick has yet to really sit and think about the messiness that killing Jason would make even if it is the cleanest to him. Dick might not be willing to put in the work, but Garfield is. In a subtle c-plot, Garfield is the only Titan still willing to show some sympathy and compassion towards Jason. To try and understand him, which is more than Dick or Bruce have ever done. If anyone is going to be an effective arbiter on Jason it will likely be Garfield, the put upon emotional support of everyone in the show.

5. Superboy Learns

A consistent refrain for me this season has been “but what about Superboy?” as part of a larger critique of how the show manages its ensemble cast. Joshua Orpin’s Kryptonian hybrid, along with Krypto who appears to be scurrying about just below camera level, have largely served as power set pieces than characters thus far. Slowly but surely the show has been giving Orpin more to do on a character level, see the one sided and awkward flirtations/demands by Komand’r and his work in “Hank & Dove.” “51%” sees Conner’s overall record against the heartbeat bombs go to 1-2 after being tricked by Jonathan Crane. He might not have saved the powerplant worker, but he did recognize that there was nothing he could do in the time remaining. The bomb had been modified and had less than 20 beats left. He realizes the hopelessness of the situation before Dick even does, who likely would’ve been blown up were it not for Conner tossing him aside like a rag doll. The decision to stand there and take the blast was a choice, you could chalk that up to there not being enough time. The framing of him in the explosion is ambiguous, it lacked the clear melodramatic context of shock that Hank’s death had. Perhaps we are supposed to read Orpin’s expression as accepting the situation and knowledgeable that he did and saved all those he could. Either way it’s an effective character moment that shows his maturation, now if only they’d give him someone to talk to about his feelings of inadequacy.

//TAGS | Titans

Michael Mazzacane

Your Friendly Neighborhood Media & Cultural Studies-Man Twitter


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