So here we are, come off of an amazingly great episode of Legend of Korra. Can the momentum and quality hold? Turns out, no. No it can’t, but I think I might have to reassess how I’m viewing this season.
I say I might have to reassess because of how the season continues to be structured. In Book 1, there were many subplots involving a huge cast of characters; however, because the two creators wrote every episode and the same guys directed every episode, it was clear how each subplot built up and supported the main A story. I don’t mean to say that Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are hands off this season: showrunners have final say on everything in the series. What I mean to say is that with those guys writing every aspect of the series and not handing off episodes to staff writers, the season felt like an extended, interconnected novel. This season does not feel like that.
There seem to be two main groups: Korra/Tenzin and co. and Mako/Bolin/Asami. After the first episode or two, their stories have barely intersected at all. In fact, I think it’s been several episodes since those groups have even been in the same place. And that’s not a terrible thing, but it takes away so many opportunities for character growth through internal and external conflict. One of the best ways to deepen a character is to bounce him or her off of his or her close friends and relatives, because there’s already a connection between them. It’s easier for the character to loosen up. Without even the remotest chance for that kind of interaction, we risk stagnation.
Fortunately, this episode seeks to solve that problem: we finally have some movement towards the Spirit World, which means that Korra may be able to move forward in her experience as the Avatar and as a person. Hopefully her time in the Spirit World will change her for the better, or at least make her a little easier to be around. Of course, this week ended with Korra and Jinora in the Spirit World, and most of the episode (or at least most of Korra’s part of the episode) was Tenzin desperately trying to get into the Spirit World himself. Actually, there wasn’t all that much to Korra’s plot this week, save for the everyone catching a glimpse of Korra’s newfound spirit calming abilities. (But seriously, how did she learn that? Did she just watch Unalaq and pick it up based on his movements alone? I didn’t know it could work like that. Even though Aang learned the forms for water, fire, and earth, he still had to practice in order to perfect them.)
And that’s okay, because frankly, I like the other plot better anyway. There’s something very concrete about the Mako/Bolin/Asami storyline of corporate sabotage and betrayal. It’s pulpy; it’s dark; it’s over the top; it’s fun. Varrick is perhaps the most interesting and unpredictable character in the entire series, and it’s been really enjoyable to see him slowly transform from friendly, goofy business man to manipulative, dangerous business man. Varrick very coldly threatened Mako and his family, suggesting that unless Mako joined his security team Varrick would hurt Bolin and Asami. I’m not sure if Mako was stupid enough to not understand what was happening, or perhaps he was willing to stick to his principles over his family, but he said no. Which means more problems for him, more problems for Bolin and Asami, all of which means a more complicated plot, particularly compared to Korra’s generic save-the-world type deal.
So then let’s move forward with this. Let’s just embrace the separation. At some point I’m sure the groups will come together again, but for now I’ll just be satisfied with half of the storyline.
-Has Jinora always been able to see spirits? Has her connection to the Spirit World been implied throughout the season? I don’t remember.
-Again, with Studio Pierrot. Two moments stood out to me in this episode. 1. Korra and Tenzin sitting on a bench, talking, with absolutely no body movement. 2. When they find the ancient Airbender meditation area, there’s about ten seconds of Korra in the foreground just staring at nothing while Tenzin talks in the bachground. Ugh.
-Why was everyone trying to get into the Spirit World?
-Is Asami really falling for the police arresting Mako for stealing her merchandise? Is she seriously going to fall for that?
-Speaking of, beautiful detective mustaches. Love those guys.
-Some of the dialogue seems a little stilted and it doesn’t really make sense. It’s bumming me out. “I guess I’ll never have the connection to spirits like my father wanted me to.” “It’s okay, Daddy.” “I’m proud of you.”
Wow. What a pleasant departure. Last episode hinted that Legend of Korra might actually function better without its titular protagonist, and this two-parter really nailed it down.
There’s a lot to discuss here, and I don’t think that I can really do the episode justice, so I’m going to jump around, picking and choosing what I want to talk about. What I think is going to happen is that I’ll essentially have paragraphs functioning like bullet points, which is as good a way as any to unpack as much about this episode as I can. There won’t really be a sense of journalistic flow, but I think that’s all right in this instance.
Firstly, let’s talk about the story. The story was clear; the story had momentum; the story was simple in the best possible way. Without being beholden to an overarching narrative and established subplots, the writers were free to tell a self contained, quest based narrative with a heavily folkloric vibe. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Tenzin and co. and the Korra Krew, but this season has been heavy on the dark, meandering serialization and light on the pleasant aspects of being in the Avatar world. Usually I’m a fan of gray, complicated serialization, but one of the nicest aspects of the original series is that the Aang Gaang were always the good guys. Yeah they fought amongst themselves and could kind of be dicks, but at the end of the day most of the stories were cut and dry, black and white. And that’s nice to have. It lets the audience enjoy themselves without having to think too much about character motivation. I think that Pro Bending acted as this release in Book 1 of LoK, but Book 2 has had a serious lack of simplicity.
So finally we can get a self contained, clear cut story, and the momentum is all the better for it. Wan always has a goal he can strive towards; his motivations are never in question. Even in the beginning, when he was a thief (Riffraff! Street rat!), we understood why he was stealing. When he was kept fire from the lion turtle, we understand why he did it. Such a story makes for a nice break as well as pleasant viewing. And what’s more, it was a fascinating story. It was peppered with all kinds of references to the original series, and gave us an interesting look at the history behind bending and the four separate cultures. We got to learn more about the lion turtles, which is nice, as they seemed kind of dues ex machina in the original series. We got to see Wan learn how to use fire from the dragons, and maybe even originate the fire dance that Aang and Zuko learn. I love a good folktale, and “Beginnings” use of good versus evil, order versus chaos, was a smart and fun way to tell a richly detailed history that actually has an effect on the storylines happening in to/with Korra. I can only assume that Unalaq’s plan is to release Vaatu.
Secondly, let’s address how much better the animation was. Obviously the episodes had a different art style; it seemed to be a mixture of watercolor and woodblock carving, and I loved it. The new art kept the series firmly rooted in the Avatar world, but it was enough of a departure to indicate that these episodes were telling a different kind of story. Plus it was gorgeous. But even before the history started, the scenes with the fire monks and Korra were noticeably improved. Movement was so much smoother. Fire was more detailed. And hey! People were blinking and moving when they talked, not simply standing there with vacuous mannequin faces. Studio Mir really does make all the difference, and I’m so glad that they’re doing the majority of the animation for the rest of the season. Their skill really sells the idea that these characters are people, which is incredibly important for an animated series which involves so much talking and discussion. After so many episodes with the less skillful Studio Pierrot, I can’t say enough good things about Studio Mir. Let’s hope Mir does the rest of the series.
So I think that’s all I’m going to address. I’ll just leave some final random thoughts below. Sorry these reviews are late, you guys.
-Particularly Fine Direction: I loved the moment that Wan got eaten by a huge Venus fly trap. When he used fire to try and get out, the fire illuminated the inside of the plant and showed him in silhouette. Beautiful.
-This story is a interesting version of the Pandora’s Box/Original Sin myths. Wan used a gift from what is essentially a god and loosed chaos on the world. That in itself isn’t so unique, however the fact that he thought he was doing good stands out. Wan honestly thought he was helping, and in doing so he nearly doomed the world and created the Avatar. Interesting.
-So much Miyazaki in these episodes. Spirited Away was all I could think of when Wan came across the spirit oasis and tried to sneak in as “Bushy! The Bush Spirit!” I think I saw a reference to No Face as well, and I loved that there was a Carrot Spirit just chilling in the background. Finally, Wan on whatever animal he was riding was exactly like the protagonist in Princess Mononoke. I’m sorry. I’ll stop. God, I love those movies.
-The return of the ATLA score during the final battle literally gave me chills. I kind of freaked out.
-A few reviews ago I mentioned that the direction suffered without the presence of Joaquim Dos Santos, who directed every episode on Book 1. I caught his name in the credits this time, and he’s listed as Co-Executive Producer. Whatever that means. Get back to directing, man!
“I think I’ll call you ‘Stinky.’” “The name’s ‘Wan.’” “’Stinky’ is . . . more accurate.”
So . . . Korra kind of sucks. All through this season so far she’s been a little much, as if the writer’s are just going to let her do and say whatever she wants. And that’s a problem.
Korra is the Avatar and is the main character (obviously), but that doesn’t give her license to be a dick all the time. One of the biggest problems I’ve had with the series so far has been the treatment of Korra as a character: she’s just kind of mean. She’s rude or cruel to almost literally everyone around her, and while that might work if we were actually able to see the character progression or her being ostracized by friends and family, we didn’t get to see any of those things. We were tossed into season 2 and confronted with a main character who gave her family crap, who treated her boyfriend like dirt, who sent away her mentor and one of the few adult characters who trusts her completely, and who was generally too pigheaded to see what was going on around her.
Such a character type can work, but not like this. Buffy was kind of a dick in the early parts of seasons because she was dealing with emotional fallout from the season before. Walter White could act like a dick because we got to actually see his degradation from family man to power hungry empire builder. We’ve got neither of those things in Legend of Korra. Last season ended happily enough for Korra: she got her bending back, was able to return everyone else’s bending, got a boyfriend, and learned how to enter the Avatar state at will. All in all, that seems like a pretty sweet ending. But no. This season, Korra’s just an ass. It’s frustrating to see all of the characters bow to the wisdom of the Avatar when it’s so clear to the audience that she’s full of it. It cheapens the secondary characters, and throws the narrative off balance: if I don’t believe these characters would act the way they do, why would I watch the show? It would become an exercise in frustration. (Can I just point out that every time Korra’s mean to Mako, and he takes it, I want to punch one of them in the face? I don’t know which one, but I definitely want to.)
So as a consistently pigheaded and frustrating character, Korra becomes predictable in a way that’s not very fun to watch. Her father tells her not to do anything rash. Guess what? She attacks a judge. Unalaq believes that as the Avatar, Korra will stay neutral in any civil war. Guess what? Not going to happen. And yes, I do realize that her rash actions in these episodes propel the A plot forward. By attacking the judge and threatening him with decapitation via polarbear-dog, we learn that he’s on the take, and that Unalaq got Korra’s father banished. (In what is a pretty dark moment for her. More on that in the Stray Observations.) And yes, her taking a side in the civil war means that in “Peacekeepers” we head back to Republic City, about which I’m pleased. I really enjoyed spending time at the South Pole, but I got a little tired of all the ice and snow. I’m happy to have some architecture.
I get using her pigheadedness as a way to move the plot along. But it’s just so predicatable. Of course Korra was going to try and bruise her way through every situation. Of course she’s going to threaten people with violence and try to steal an army behind the back of the President of Republic City. Clearly, she’s going to do stuff like that. And that indicates a lack of character progression. It indicates a lack of the ability to learn. To me, it would be far more interesting to have a plotline based around Korra, as the Avatar, trying to stay neutral. That would represent a way for her to mature as a character/woman, and it would lead to a lot of great inner and outer conflicts for her character. It would mean a story based on character growth, not character stagnation. Currently, she’s being rewarded for acting like a brat.
However, there is some hope. Having finally revealed Unalaq for what he is, Korra is made to understand the scope of her mistakes and misunderstandings. She has to realize that through her own issues and selfishness, she’s helped her uncle take over the South. Perhaps now, she can begin the process of looking inward and understanding herself, which would actually tie back in to the name of the season: “Spirits.” There’s still time for Korra to snap out of whatever’s eating her and to have a truly important moment of personal insight. Without the Unalaq-created fog of war surrounding her, I’m hoping that she can have some self-agency.
Secondly, there’s some hope stemming from the romantic subplots. Up until this point, we had more of a focus on Bolin/Eska, which was great for some laughs. Bolin’s sheer terror at the sight of Eska, along with his being dominated by her in every aspect of the relationship (he wore the traditionally female betrothal necklace, for God’s sake), is a real delight, and at least it’s given his character something to do, which is more than I can say about Mako and Asami (who I had forgotten was even in the South). But finally, in “Peacekeepers,” Mako gets some self-respect. He stands up for what he thinks is right, which means he has a different opinion than Korra. Which is good, because Varrick’s/Korra’s plan to steal an army is really stupid. After finding out that Mako told the President Korra’s plan to steal a fleet, she screams at Mako in the police station and, growing a pair, he breaks up with her. Finally. God. So of course she airbends his desk and stomps out of the station. I’m hoping that this may act as a wakeup call for Korra and maybe clue her in on how ridiculous and self-centered her actions are. I’m hoping that will happen, but it might not. Because it’s Korra, and this is season 2, in which Korra is a dick now for some reason.
But on a lighter note, let me just quickly say that I found these episodes to be extremely funny. Almost every cut to Varrick or Bolin was absolute gold, and the sight gag of the platypus-bear pooping money makes me laugh even now, almost a week after I watched the episode for the first time. So for these episodes, the comedy really was what pulled me through, and despite some chaotic and frustrating characterization and plotting, I still really enjoyed watching these stories unfold. I trust Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, so I’ll just have to trust that these episodes will act as catalysts for a better final two thirds of the season.
Stray(ish) Observations/Things I Couldn’t Make Fit into the Body of the Review
-I’m really not sure about the “Ikki Runs Away” storyline. I get that it drives home a larger theme of family and trust, and the tea party with the baby flying bison was adorable, but it seemed like it was there just to give Tenzin and co. something to do. And that’s never a good sign.
-Give Asami something to do, please.
-Can I just say for a second how weird this show has gotten? I mean, at the end of “Peacekeepers” we had Korra fighting Eska and Deska, the former of whom was riding a giant waterspout and screaming about Korra stealing her husband. Come on. If you had no idea what this series was about and you were just flipping through channels and came across that scene, you would probably never watch the show again. Or you would make it a point to watch every episode. Depends on who you are, I guess.
-Speaking of that scene: Finally, spirits. Thank you. It’s only the name of the season. Also, the fact that Korra couldn’t calm the spirit even in the Avatar state is extremely telling. I’m beginning to think that Unalaq has an even bigger role to play on the spirit side of things: maybe he’s controlling them? Maybe he has some special bending ability that can enrage a spirit and give it more strength and speed than normal? Kind of like giving it spiritual PCP.
-I wrote about how dark this show is in an earlier review, but it just keeps getting darker. Korra threatens to have her polarbear-dog eat a man’s head, the Water Tribe apparently is a fan of the death sentence, and there was an explosion at the Water Tribe cultural center. My first thought at seeing that: “Oh God, there’s explicit, ripped-from-the-headlines terrorism now.” Those things combined with family betrayals and a civil war? This is a dark season of what is ostensibly a children’s television show. I was actually reading elsewhere on the internet, and I read somewhere that some people think that Korra is going to turn out to be the first evil Avatar. How cool would that be? To be so anxious to end the civil war and see the wrongs righted, that she just goes totally overboard and becomes Darth Vader? So cool. I doubt it’ll happen, but what a fun story arc.
-Something else that struck me about “Civil Wars: Part 2” was how static all of the character animations are. The first scene of dialogue between Korra and Unalaq was so boring to look at. They didn’t move for like forty seconds. It was just a two shot of them talking at each other. After I wrote this review, I looked up some other reviews online to see if anyone else had noticed it, and I ran across thisarticle, where the reviewer talks about how the characters don’t blink anymore. Now it’s all I can see.
-Joaquim Dos Santos was a co-director and producer on every episode of season 1, and I’m really missing him. He is such a brilliant director, particularly for action, and this season the action has been nowhere near as imaginative or frequent as it was last season. It’s a shame.
-Being someone who absolutely loves film and film history, I totally geek out every time this season talks about film in its early stages. I love Bolin telling Korra not to worry, because what she’s seeing on the screen isn’t real. The first time the Lumiere brothers showed this1895 short of a train arriving at a station, the audience freaked out because they thought it was going to come out of the screen and run them over.
-I was so happy at the return of Lin Beifong: “Thanks for starting a war.”
-“That platypus-bear is pooping money!”
-“What’s the money for?” “Bribery, of course!”
-“No honey?! We’re in a bear, for crying out loud!” Varrick and John Michael Higgins are just the best. Although, every time I hear his voice, all I can think of is Wayne Jarvis saying, “I shall duck behind that little garbage car!”
-I’m sorry this is late. Apologies, friends.
Written by (respectively): Michael Dante DiMartino, Tim Hedrick
Directed by (respectively): Ian Graham, Colin Heck
Even more so than the original series, The Legend of Korra is a television show that blurs the lines between TV for children and TV for adults. Sure, it’s got animals making funny noises and fart jokes, but let’s remember that last season ended on a murder-suicide. There have been many moments in the short run of this show that have dialed back the slapstick and dialed up the emotional pain, frequently in a beautiful and heartbreaking way. To be honest, I was worried that Nickelodeon may have tampered with season 2 a little bit, trying to bring it in line with the rest of its children’s programming. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried at all, and the show wasted no time in setting up its serialized story for season 2.
One of the issues that plagued season 1 was that it took about half the unfortunately short season to really get going. The first half was all about learning about the Korra Krew (Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami) and playing pro bending. And that’s fine. Location and character clarification is important, but it seemed like maybe it took longer than was necessary. With all of that icky place setting out of the way, season 2 got down to busy. It took a little while to set the scene, but within the first episode Korra had fought, and nearly been defeated by, a spirit, setting up the initial mystery of the season.
Enter Korra’s uncle, leader of the Northern Water Tribe (Unalaq), a powerful water bender capable of defeating spirits in a way that looks humane and beautiful, but immediately makes me question his motives and powers. Last season we saw Amon use a waterbending technique to remove people’s ability to bend, which makes me automatically wary of any other special waterbenders. Unalaq, through skillful use of his unique abilities (and the ability to make Korra pissed off at her dad), positions himself as the only master capable of teaching Korra, forcing a wedge between Korra, her family, and Tenzin. My worries were justified when the end of episode one concluded with Unalaq saying to Korra, “I have big plans for you . . .” which is about as mustache twirlingly evil as you can get.
The second episode sees the Korra Krew, Unalaq, and her father (Tonraq) travel to the South Pole so that Korra can attempt to open a portal to the spirit world which is stoppered by, according to Unalaq, the Southern Water Tribe’s lack of connection to the spirit world. Along the way, the fight more angry spirits and are saved by, surprise, Unalaq. Eventually Korra is able to open what Unalaq called a portal, and the spirits disappear, leaving me uneasy. Clearly the spirits were angry, but I don’t trust Unalaq, his motives, or his abilities. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if later in the season we discover his abilities to calm spirits is cruel or dastardly in some way.
Upon arriving back at the Southern Water Tribe capitol, my fears are justified. We get shots of Northern Water Tribe ships (made out of metal) descending on/preparing to occupy the southern capitol, highly reminiscent of the opening credits of the original series. It’s a clear homage to the Fire Nation expanding and taking over the world. I’d like to come back to my first point about Legend of Korra being more than a children’s series, as well as moving very much faster than it did in season 1. By the end of the second episode, we have a potentially fascist leader invading his own people’s land in an attempt to show them the correct way to live.
At first I was a little frustrated, as it seemed a similar plot to the original Avatar series, as well as setting up Unalaq as a similar Big Bad to Amon. However, the more I think about it, the more interested I am. Unalaq’s politics are essentially the opposites of Amon’s, though they may be implemented in a similar way (military force), which could lead to a fertile dissection of fascism. Secondly, I love that Unalaq invades his own people’s land first. This sets up the season for a civil war which may or may not spill into other areas of the world. It’s at once a huge conflict and a small differing in ideals. I’m excited to see the plot move forward so quickly. I’ve very much missed this world in the year and a half that the show has been off the air and I’m anxious to dive right back in.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some issues, of course, but the issues I have are mostly minor and come with being the premiere of a season. Scenes get a little too exposition-y for my liking, and Korra seems angry and angsty out of nowhere. Why is she so angry at her father after such a long time of not seeing him? After hearing why her father was kicked out of the Northern Water Tribe, couldn’t she have given him the benefit of the doubt? Apparently not. She just immediately latched onto Tonraq and told her father to go home because of something he did way before she was born. Jeez, Korra. (It actually really reminds me of how essentially every season of Buffy would begin with Buffy being pissed and annoying for essentially no reason.) Plus, and this is just a random quibble unattached to any of the points above, but why did everyone Korra had ever met go on that trip to the South Pole?
But overall it was an excellent debut, beautifully directed and animated, and I can’t wait to see how the season plays out. Once again, seriously quality programming from Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
-Can we take a minute to enjoy the fact that Marko took the time to write out some police-themed one liners?
-I’m so excited that the various families are expanding. I loved how accurate the interactions between Tenzin and his siblings are, and much of that can be attributed to the talented voice cast.
-John Michael Higgins as Varrick the capitalist is absolutely brilliant. “Go rest your gams, Ginger!”
-Aubrey Plaza, gold as always. Bolin: “Like a boyfriend, or like a slave?” Eska: “Yes. Win me prizes.”
-This show once again proves to be one of the better directed series on television, live action or animated. I loved the shot of Korra and Mako holding hands, the fight scenes were visceral, and that POV shot of Bolin desperately trying to see Ginger over Varrick was hilarious.
-I’m a little nervous that splitting up the cast so much (Tenzin and co. leaving Korra) will put a strain on the storytelling, but I love that airbending family so much that I barely care. I’d watch them do anything. Plus, what was up with that glowy statue?
-And finally, how obvious is it that Bolin and Asami are going to get together? I’d say pretty obvious.
Written by: Bryan Konietzko, Michael Dante DiMartino, Tim Hedrick