Chapter One and Two: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”
Seeing as they premiered together, I’ll have to discuss “Welcome to Republic City” and “A Leaf in the Wind” together. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because they offset each other perfectly when it comes to quality. That is to say this: I didn’t like “Welcome” all that much, but I absolutely loved “Leaf.”
The funny thing is, I actually watched “Welcome” the night before the official premiere broadcast on television, and I really did not enjoy it then either. I can’t even begin to explain how disappointed I was: to think, after all those years of producing Avatar: the Last Airbender and learning what and what not to do with their premise, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko still didn’t know how to make a good show!
Admittedly, I jumped the gun too fast on that judgment. After watching the two episodes back-to-back, I was relieved to be proven wrong. Still, if the excellent “Leaf” proves anything, it’s not that these two don’t know how to make a good show so much as they don’t know how to make a good first episode. The first few episodes of Avatar were pretty lame, too, especially compared to most of the rest of that series. They got better over time, honing the Avatar formula, occasionally coming up with transcendent mini-masterpieces like “The Southern Raiders,” and now they’ve brought us The Legend of Korra, a spinoff that, for the most part, builds impressively on the strengths of its predecessor while exorcising most of the weaknesses (except for disappointing first episodes).
So what the Hell happened with “Welcome?” How did it fail where “Leaf” succeeded?
After much pondering, I think I’ve finally pinpointed the biggest problem, and it has to do with the title character herself.
Let’s describe what Korra is like in “Leaf.” She’s arrogant, abrasive, angsty and angry, and in-your-face, rebellious, passionate, and a smart ass, but ultimately good natured. (I’m still on the fence as to whether she’s sexy or not.)
She’s almost none of those things in “Welcome” (again, the sexiness is debatable). Why not? Even when I didn’t know what characteristics she wasn’t displaying before I saw “Leaf,” something was off about her anyway. She just didn’t seem like an actual character.
I think I know why now. I think in the interest of making Korra “likable” and “sympathetic,” DiMartino and Konietzko—who officially share all writing credits for Book One of Korra, which means they now take all the blame and the praise—suppressed those bits of her personality that could have been potentially off-putting to the audience. In essence, they took away all the things that made her interesting, which is always a bad idea.
That’s the thing about storytelling: it doesn’t matter whether the protagonist is “good” or “bad” in the moral sense, because if they’re not interesting, intriguing, and/or entertaining, the audience simply will not care. Take Richard III, for example: he is one of the most evil characters in fiction. So evil that he literally explains to the audience what evil he plans to bestow upon his unknowing subjects so that we have no choice but to helplessly watch his plans succeed. You didn’t necessarily “root” for him, but you sure as Hell wanted to see what he would do next. (So, in a way, you were rooting for him for your own enjoyment!)
For a more traditional example, take Tony Stark from the Iron Man films (and now The Avengers). He may be a witty genius, but he’s also a narcissistic, arrogant, mischievous, and almost fratboy-esque asshole. Hell, he remains those things throughout the films. The one thing that’s changed from the beginning of the first Iron Man is that he now has a conscience and a will to do good for others. That alone made everything else about him periodically maddening, but always entertaining, especially when he got on other people’s nerves.
Maybe it’s because Korra is a kids’ show—which I still believe is ultimately a silly detriment, but I digress—that they had to make sure Korra was first seen as a role model before she could be seen as a character. Uh huh.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the Italian neo-realism film Umberto D. the following:
It is said that at one level or another, Chaplin’s characters were always asking that we love them. Umberto doesn’t care if we love him or not. That is why we love him.
I absolutely agree. The same could even be said of Katara from Avatar. Her character was always at her worst when she was portrayed as the ultimate good Samaritan who lead the People; conversely, she was always best when she was concerned only for herself. Since she was generally a nurturing character by default, this trait added a greater depth and humanity to her character.
With Korra in “Welcome,” we get no such thing. In fact, all we learn about her are things of little value. We learn that she’s eager to learn Airbending. Why? Because she has to learn it eventually, being the Avatar and all. (Much more interesting is her refusal to learn it in “Leaf.”) Ultimately, this does motivate her to disobey her potential Airbending tutor Tenzin’s order to stay home so she can follow him to Republic City, but that simply feels like plot mechanics at work: she has to get to the City, otherwise, the real plot of the show can’t start.
There are only three real moments in the episode where her true personality shines: 1) when she’s introduced as a destructive little girl who knows damn well that she’s the Avatar (topped off with the most effectively abrupt time jump this side of Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey); 2) when she beats up the gangsters because she can (don’t give me that “it’s my duty” shit); and 3) when she mocks Chief Lin Bei Fong’s “I’ll be watching you” expression after getting from under arrest by Tenzin. (I will admit, I’m glad she beat those gangsters up. After destroying the man’s music box and proclaiming not to be music lovers, they really deserved nothing less than death.)
These are all great moments, and pretty much the best parts of the episode, precisely because they seem to stem from her actual personality and not because of any plot requirements. Everything else is pretty boring. I mean, her flee from the Metalbending police is indeed a fun little chase sequence, but it’s not like she was running from them because she purposely did anything wrong (except get caught).
There are other things of note in this episode, too. Like that Katara is in it, and she’s played by that lady who was in that one Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s nice to see her (I guess?), but I’m almost certain the only reason she’s in this episode is because she gets to have an “emotional” moment with Korra before she runs away to Republic City. This scene is supposed to be reminiscent of the time Katara ran away from home so she could travel the world with Aang and become a Waterbender.
The problem I have with this scene is the same problem I had with the scene in Avatar. Neither girl really runs away, but instead gets caught and given approval from someone else to go away (in Korra, it’s Katara; and in Avatar, it’s Gran Gran). It’s a little better in Korra because there is actual opposition to her leaving—Tenzin sure as Hell doesn’t approve of it, and neither do the White Lotus members—but was this moment really supposed to make me feel something? Ultimately, the only reason these two did what they did is because there would be no show if they didn’t. The reasons they have for “running away” are self-serving, but conveniently it all works out in the end.
But enough about that. How about the scene where one of Tenzin’s daughters, Jinora, asks Katara about the whereabouts of Zuko’s mother? You see, she’s read about the adventures of Aang and friends and that was apparently never resolved then either. Before Katara can answer, Ikki interrupts with typical childish questions and comments.
Here’s my question: when are DiMartino and Konietzko going to stop pandering like this? This sort of fan baiting was annoying enough in Avatar (and resulted in the awful “The Ember Island Players”). Why do we need it here? I can only interpret this as a giant “fuck you” to fans who keep asking about it.
(Note: when I read a review on “Welcome” and got to this bit, I honestly thought it was a joke on the author’s part. I was horrified to find out it wasn’t, but a joke on the writers’ part. These are jokes for the fans to make, not the creators!)
What else is there to say about this episode?
Korra’s parents are boring as fuck. No wonder the girl had no qualms about leaving home.
And Lin Bei Fong is voiced by Mindy Sterling. Groovy!
My final consensus on “Welcome to Republic City” is that it gets the job done—introducing the show, the setting, and the characters—but that’s about it.
Now let’s talk about “A Leaf in the Wind!”
Seriously, it’s almost insulting how much better this episode is than “Welcome to Republic City.” That episode felt like something they had to do while this one feels like something they actually cared about. It’s so tempting to just going over all my favorite parts—especially with the episodes readily available online—but I’ll stick to generalizing and mentioning highlights.
I’ve already mentioned that Korra is at her full potential in this episode, whether it’s being a smart ass to Tenzin or kicking ass in Pro-bending. Now this is a heroine I can get behind.
Speaking of Pro-bending: this is one fascinating game. DiMartino and Konietzko and company really went to great lengths to make it seem like a legitimate sport. I remember a while ago seeing a video of Konietzko explaining the rules of the game and thinking, “I am NOT watching all eighteen minutes of this boring fucking video!” The great thing is I didn’t have to: we gradually pick up on the rules of the games as they go on, thanks in large part to Korra’s unfamiliarity with them. The result is one of the coolest ideas in the show.
We get to meet two new characters, brothers Bolin and Mako. These two are different in many ways, aside from Bolin being an Earthbender and Mako being a Firebender. Bolin is just more excitable, more social, and much goofier than his brother, who is more like a less depressed Zuko. I like these guys. They’re a lot of fun to watch.
Korra’s Airbending training is pretty funny. This stuff really does not come naturally to her, which leads to many embarrassing moments. One of them involves spinning gates, which a skilled Airbender can navigate through without touching a single gate. Korra gets his ass handed to her several times before she finally, in a fit of rage, blasts the damn thing off with Firebending.
Meditation is no better. I actually know this one from experience: to sit still and just have your mind clear of all distractions is one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do. (I still can’t do it after all these years.) Even if Korra did have patience, this would not come easily.
Luckily for Korra, Pro-bending does come much more easily, and through a series of plot mechanics that I won’t get into, she ends up joining Bolin and Mako’s team, the Fire Ferrets, and competes so they can go to the championships. Even more luckily for Korra, those Airbending lessons finally pay off when she realizes she can use them to dodge the waves of attacks directed at her. Her newly found skills help her win her first Pro-bending match. Even Tenzin admits that Pro-bending is the perfect learning tool for her.
Aside from these, there are other little details that make this episode so wonderful. I liked how Korra, upon putting on an Airbender’s outfit for the first time, instinctively rolls up the sleeves to show off her big biceps.
I also liked Bolin’s blatant womanizing, which is perfectly complemented by what a lovable goofball he is. Tenzin’s excited cheer for Korra’s victory in Pro-bending is probably my favorite part of the episode.
Speaking of which, if there’s a constant source of greatness throughout both these episodes, it’s Tenzin and his family.
I simply love all of them, from Tezin’s ever patient wife Pema—how could she not be patient with three kids and a fourth one of the way—to the kids, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo. Ikki and Meelo particularly remind me too much of my little twin brothers with their high energy and talkativeness. They’re all so lively and interesting in their own way. (Unlike Korra’s parents, who were probably glad to be rid of that little demon.)
As of this writing, the show is six episodes in, and Tenzin remains my favorite character (with Korra in a far second). He’s old enough to be a wise mentor, but young enough to not be particularly good at it. This inner dynamic makes him the perfect teacher for Korra, since they can surely learn a lot from each other. Maybe Korra can learn to take things more seriously and Tenzin can learn not to be so serious all the time. And on top of everything, he’s played by the always wonderful J. K. Simmons. What more could you ask for?
Before closing, I should also mention that the production values are fantastic. Both episodes look great, and while the animation is still not “great”, by television standards, it’s the best there is. Besides, there are sporadic moments of brilliant animation throughout, so I’m more than pleased.
I’d like to think that “A Leaf in the Wind” paves the way for smooth sailing as the show continues, but I can’t. With an episode like “Welcome to Republic City” in the mix, it’ll be impossible to predict the quality of any upcoming episode. Will there be episodes just as bad as–or worse than–“Welcome?” Will there be episodes just as good as–or better than– “Leaf?” I guess we’ll just have to watch and find out. In any case, the bar has been set, and I’m definitely eager to see what happens next. Here’s to high hopes!
All screenshots taken by me.