The Legend of Korra Book 2, Episodes 1 and 2: Rebel Spirit; The Southern Lights
After over a year off the air, The Legend of Korra returns, and it looks even more beautiful than ever. I honestly don’t know what this production team is doing that others aren’t (is it a money issue?), but the visuals are comprised of some of the most incredible animation I’ve ever seen. But how are the episodes themselves? Well, the answer is complicated.
Last year, I talked about how the fact that Korra went from being a stand-alone miniseries into a continuing series after all 12 episodes had been produced had an effect on how I viewed the ending. “Endgame” effectively wrapped up all of the major plotlines and concluded the various character arcs. As to be expected, this created problems going in to Book Two. Although there are certainly new stories to tell, the characters’ stories seemed to be completed. Korra went from being a brash, headstrong girl to a woman who understands that there are methods of conflict resolution other than violence or a direct approach. Tenzin and Korra were able to learn how best to approach the other, and developed a strong bond of trust and respect. Mako… um, Mako dumped Asami after learning he was supposed to be with the show’s protagonist? The less said about that arc the better. So now in Book Two, subtitled “Spirits,” while there are plenty of stories about Republic City and the world as a whole that can be told (for example, Amon may have been insane, but there was a germ of a righteous idea in equalism), where do the characters go next? Unfortunately, it looks like they regress a bit.
Granted, character development requires writers to walk a fine line. We want characters to learn and grow, but they must remain true to who they are. Zuko changed tremendously over the course of the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but he was still Zuko at heart. Even though his allegiance changed, he was still dour and humorless, still mission-focused and a believer of direct action. Korra remains impulsive and prone to jumping in to situations without weighing all the options or learning all the facts. She is still very much the Korra we know and love, but is this at the expense of what she learned at the end of Book One? On one hand, it makes a kind of sense that she would regress a bit after defeating Amon; she focuses on the fact that she defeated a major threat to Republic City, choosing to remember herself as a grand victor over evil. She conveniently forgets that she just barely won, and that, before she did, Amon succeeded in removing her bending ability. On the other hand, her relationship with Tenzin has greatly deteriorated. All of the mutual respect the two had for each other seems to have evaporated, and they are back to where they were at the beginning of the series. Seeing the two of them snipe at each other made Korra’s decision to abandon Tenzin’s teachings and join with her uncle Unalaq an inevitability rather than the emotional gut punch the writers were going for.
A lot of the emotion in these two episodes didn’t quite work. When Korra’s father Tonraq told the story of why he was banished from the Northern Water Tribe, James Remar’s line reading made it seem like Tonraq’s attitude toward the whole ordeal was annoyance rather than shame or sorrow. And Korra spends much of these two episodes upset with Mako for silly reasons, and is starting to come off as the stereotypical “shrill girlfriend.” This is upsetting for many reasons, chief among them that Korra had been portrayed so well in the first season and that there are so many ways to portray conflict in relationships without having to rely on such a clichéd trope. Korra is not the only person at fault though; Mako is a pretty crappy boyfriend, thinking that “supporting her” equates to telling her exactly what she wants to hear. To the extent that animated characters can have chemistry, these two have very little, and thus, the romance plot remains the weakest part of the show.
However, there is still plenty of story that can make good use of Korra’s character as we know it, and the reintroduction of the Spirit World is the next logical step in her journey. Although Korra did learn and grow, she still has many challenges to conquer, and not having dealt with the spirits in Book One, they will present a new challenge to her. Beyond that, it stands to reason that, when confronted with a new challenge, Korra will revert back to what she’s used to when solving problems: direct violence. The use of the Spirit World as her next challenge provides a good reason why Korra seems to have regressed (once we get to the introduction of the spirits, that is). She’s still shaky with her spiritual side, and when panicked, she relies on what she knows. Unfortunately, physical violence won’t work on immaterial spirits. Whereas Amon represented her opposite in an ideological sense, the spirits represent her opposite in a material sense. Her go-to form of problem-solving will have no effect on them, and she will have to learn how to get in touch with her spiritual side. And that road will certainly be bumpy.
She assumes that Unalaq is going to teach her how to fight spirits. She can’t comprehend that the proper course of action is to work with them and help them achieve balance. Furthermore, she is quick to accept Unalaq’s offer to teach her because he reminds her that one of the Avatar’s roles is to be a bridge between the Spirit World and the physical world. Because Korra ties her identity to her Avatar-ness, she believes that if the Avatar is supposed to do something, then she has no choice but to do it. Korra complains about her lack of freedom but cannot see that she denies herself free will by believing that her role as the Avatar defines who she is. Beyond that, she also gravitates towards Unalaq because he proves himself adept at something she isn’t yet: working with the spirits. He proves to her that he has a power she doesn’t, and power is something Korra seeks, something she respects. Korra wants to be the best right now. When Tenzin’s methods of teaching prove ineffective or too slow, she dumps him for someone she believes can help her improve right away.
I am quite happy that The Legend of Korra is back, and overall, I enjoyed these two episodes. There is a lot of potential for greatness this year. But if I’m being completely honest, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t a few red flags as well. Like I said, it’s a tricky balance. Korra will always be flawed, like all people. But she also has to learn from her flaws. Things become problematic when she starts making the same exact mistakes she made last year. Korra is arrogant and headstrong, but she is not stupid.
- Katara doesn’t care for Kya and Bumi’s treatment of Tenzin. I know it’s fun to mess with people who are uptight (or so I’m told, as I’m usually on the receiving end of the messing), but Kya and Bumi don’t seem to understand the burden that Tenzin has, what with being one of the last airbenders.
- Why are Tonraq and Unalaq spelled with q’s instead of k’s? Most Water Tribe names have k’s in them (with a few exceptions).
- What was up with that Varrick dude? He’s going to factor into Asami’s story, as she seems to believe that he can help Future Industries climb out of the hole it’s been in since Hiroshi’s Equalist activities were revealed, but he seems to be nothing be eccentricity.
- I greatly approve of the Princess Mononoke vibes these episodes give off.
- Unalaq promises to teach Korra, then tells her to do what she thinks is right. She is not at all worried by the prospect of entering into a situation having no idea how to approach it. This is evidence of the bad kind of character regression (i.e., the writers ignoring her growth, rather than her fear and uncertainty causing her to fall back into old patterns).
- The reveal about Korra’s father creates similarities between Korra and Tarrlok. Both had fathers who had to forge new identities after causing great harm. Also, Korra’s family has a similarity to Zuko’s family in that the younger brother (Unalaq) ascended to the leadership position, rather than the initial heir.
- More Aubrey Plaza please.