The Legend of Korra Book 1, Episode 5: The Spirit of Competition
Let’s get this out of the way very quickly: I do not enjoy watching sporting events and I tend to avoid sports movies and TV shows (which means I’ve never seen Friday Night Lights despite EVERYONE telling me that I should). When a sport is part of a story, especially made up sports, I don’t mind a few excursions to play because it helps with world-building. Quidditch had an interesting concept, and served in some instances to flesh out some of the character conflicts (especially in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince). Similarly, in Legend of Korra, I enjoyed the pro-bending scenes in “A Leaf in the Wind” because it helped flesh out the change that the bending arts have gone through in just 70 years, becoming more secularized and used for entertainment as well as necessity, and taught Korra the value of airbending. However, I was not as much of a fan in “The Spirit of Competition,” in part because it dominated the episode and because the metaphors in play, which need to be explored, were not handled as well as they could have been.
In this episode, the Fire Ferrets, now dubbed the Future Industries Fire Ferrets, advance through the Pro Bending tournament while the individual members of the team deal with their feelings for each other. For the past three episodes, we’ve seen evidence that Korra is attracted to Mako, but she has tried to downplay it or hide it, even as Jinora and Ikki see through her attempts. Here however, the “Previously On” announcer opens the episode by outright stating that that she’s crushing on him. Bolin’s feelings for Korra have been made much more overt to the audience, if not to Korra. Meanwhile, despite a few hints that Mako might have feelings for Korra as well, he has plunged head-first into a relationship with Asami Sato. “The Spirit of Competition” uses the Fire Ferrets’ matches to represent how these relationships affect the team dynamic, which starts out interesting, then unfortunately goes off the rails a bit because the episode needs to end with the Ferrets remaining in the tournament.
Of the three team members, Mako remains the most pragmatic and rational. He may have feelings for Korra, but he understands that dating a teammate can make things very complicated. Korra and Bolin, on the other hand, are very driven by their emotions. Korra asks Jinora, Ikki, and Pema for advice in asking out Mako after a not-at-all-convincing denial that she has feelings for him. And after Mako explains to Bolin why neither of them should pursue Korra romantically, the younger brother ignores the advice. Korra professes her feelings for Mako (“I really like you and I think we’re meant for each other!”) but gets shot down. Immediately after, Bolin finally works up the nerve to ask out Korra. She initially turns him down, too despondent about being rejected, but a little flattery from Bolin (ok, a LOT of flattery; it’s clear that Bolin has placed Korra on an impossibly high pedestal) causes her to change her mind. Mako, and the audience, know that no good will come of this.
As this is going on, the team’s performance in the arena reflects their personal lives. Before this romantic mess begins, the three are a well-oiled machine, easily taking down their opponents. After Mako rejects Korra and Korra accepts a date with Bolin, Korra and Mako get in each other’s ways while Bolin has enough euphoria and self-confidence to keep the team alive. And when Bolin is inevitably crushed by the realization that Korra never actually cared for him the way he does for her, the entire team ceases to function. Sadly, the out-of-the-arena story suffers for the sake of the tournament storyline. As I said, the Fire Ferrets were never not going to win all their matches. While Korra and Bolin are on their date, the reigning Pro Bending team, the White Falls Wolfbats, is introduced and boast about their superiority. Clearly, the Fire Ferrets will one day have to face these people. But the degree to which Bolin is hurt by Korra’s actions seemed too great for the team to recover so quickly. In an absolutely heartbreaking scene, Bolin, holding a bouquet of flowers to present for Korra, witnesses Korra forcibly kiss his brother, and it absolutely destroys him. He can barely keep his head up in the next match. But by the end, he has forgiven both Korra and Mako. It looked like it would take a few episodes for Bolin to trust or even want to speak to Mako and Korra again, but because they had to win all their matches and come together as a team, what could have been a good long-term plot was quickly, and unsatisfyingly resolved.
· When the captain of the Wolfbats tries to goad Korra into a fight in the noodle shop, she instead signals for Naga to scare the crap out of him. If she had hit him, the Fire Ferrets would have been disqualified from the tournament. Korra is learning that direct violence isn’t always the answer.
· On the other hand, the scene in which she tries to get Mako to admit that he has feelings for her, despite just her just getting back from a date with Bolin and him dating Asami, shows that she still has a lot of selfishness issues to get over.
· Love Potion of Rainbows and Sunsets: band name of the week.
· The Pro Bending announcer says that Korra’s name hasn’t been in the papers much lately (as she has been training for the tournament). What has she been doing to get press? Anything beyond working in Tarrlok’s task force?
· Nice to see that the word “flameo” is making a comeback. But what about “hotman”?