Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Six: “And The Winner Is…”

The Legend of Korra is a much harder show to judge on an episode-by-episode basis than Avatar: the Last Airbender. Avatar had the slight disadvantage of being conceived in such a manner that, while the average episode contributed to the overall story, their individual plots were almost always self-contained: whether it was dealing with pirates or canyon crawlers, very little carried over from one episode to another unless the plot required it. Unfortunately, this meant filler of any size could slip in and screw up the show’s overall quality. This inconsistency of quality made for intriguing viewing from a critical standpoint–great episodes could be GREAT and bad episodes could be HORRIBLE–even if it wasn’t always enjoyable.

Now here’s Korra, which displays creators DiMartino and Konietzko’s tremendous growth as storytellers. Every episode, save for the first—which I still believe does a fairly lousy job of acquainting us with our title character—is pristinely crafted and entertaining. And to top it all, each one successfully builds on what came before. Maybe the twelve episode limitation forced DiMartino and Konietzko to truly give their story the kind of focus and economy that their sixty episodes of Avatar didn’t have. As a result, Korra is a wonderfully consistent show.

For that reason, my approach to Korra has been radically different than to Avatar. The big question is no longer, “Is this episode good or bad?” (Namely because every episode of Korra is good.) Now it’s, “Is this episode a high point or a low point?” How much does the episode do for me emotionally? Is this turning point in the story as effective as it could be?

Which brings us to “The Winner Is…,” the best episode of the show thus far, and an obvious high point. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a perfect episode. Everything works. The humor, the thrills, the action, the character moments, etc. There are little things I could nitpick—and I mean really little things—but I can easily disregard them because not once do they detract from the full emotional impact the episode has on me. It’s the same way I feel about Star Wars: I could complain that the acting and dialogue mostly sucks, but the truth is that it’s still entertaining and kind of charming. Besides, once the heroes are fighting to blow up the Death Star, I’m already totally invested and hoping they succeed.

Granted, the nitpicks I have are not as blatant or all-encompassing as the flaws of Star Wars. In fact, it’s really just one thing.

In a word, fans. In a thousand…

Thankfully, a second viewing of the episode has rectified what was, once again, an initial overreaction. The sight of cosplaying nonentities triggered unwanted memories of the Avatar episode “The Ember Island Players,” one of the worst things to ever come from that series. Why do DiMartino and Konietzko feel the need to pander/troll their fans with these uncharacteristically bizarre gags?*

Thank the unseen makers of the universe that the gag in Korra is nowhere near as offensive. In fact, it’s not offensive at all. It’s not funny either. Nor does it seem to have a point. At least, not beyond the useless “We have fans who sometimes like to dress up as our characters.” Maybe some fans won a contest I knew nothing about and got to be animated in the show. If so, good for them, but it still doesn’t benefit me in anyway. They don’t do anything.

Granted, this is pretty funny.

Alas, I’ve wasted precious space complaining about something that is, frankly, totally irrelevant. I’ll stop there so I can actually talk about the episode.

On the eve of the Pro-Bending championship match, Amon broadcasts another ominous message on the radio: call off the match, or suffer the wrath of the Revolution. It seems the city counsel (Tarrlok included, strangely enough) want to give into Amon’s wishes, but thanks to the surprising interference of Lin Bei Fong—who promises on her badge that no harm with come to anyone during the match—they all agree to let the games go on. Just as Amon planned.

The night of the match, the Fire Ferrets quickly discover that Tahno and the Wolf Bats have rigged the game: the referee refuses to call the clearly illegal moves of the Wolf Bats, so that—despite the incredible effort put forth by Korra, Mako, and Bolin—they are assured a disappointing victory.

This victory, however, is swiftly upset by the uprising of Amon and the Equalists, who quickly take out of Lin, Tenzin, and the other guards, and then proceed to take away Tahno and the Wolf Bats’ Bending. With that, and the destruction of the Pro-Bending arena, the Revolution has officially begun.

Top it off with a fantastic last-act action sequence, and you’ve got the entire plot of the episode, which is fairly simple. Or simple enough. The plot flows smoothly and the twists and turns are a joy to behold, but as is always the case with great episodes, it’s the characters, their interactions, and how we feel about them that makes it so wonderful.

The big revelation here is most definitely Lin. It’s amazing how devoted she is to her job, and even more amazing to actually see her in action. Who knew she was so agile and could hold her own in a fight? (A moment’s thought would reveal that…well, of course she’s a good fighter. Not only is she the chief of police, but in this harsh Avatar world, you’re either a fighter or you’re dead.)

We also get to find out more about her and Tenzin. In one scene, Korra pretty much figures it all out: Lin is the person from whom Pema “stole” Tenzin, her soulmate. That explains why Lin is always on Tenzin’s case about being a big pushover (which he kind of is). (It doesn’t quite explain why she hates Korra so much, but never mind.) This scene is also funny because of how Korra manages to almost get Tenzin to confess everything about his love life, only for him to stop abruptly, wondering why in the Hell he’s even telling her any of this. That’s the moment when I become eternally grateful that J.K. Simmons plays Tenzin: no one else could have pulled that off better than him.

Also, regarding Tarrlok. There’s a brief moment where he considers something, smirks, and then changes his mind about shutting down the stadium in favor of Lin protecting it. What could that look mean?**

The Pro-Bending scenes are, of course, fun and suspenseful, but we also get gags before the match starts.

Pabu the [insert hybrid animal speculations here] does a cute little cheer that I doubt anyone in the Pro-Bending audience could actually see. Aw well. I saw it. I thought it was cute.

But then the Wolf Bats come on with the most overzealous entrance ever, complete with costumes and fireworks. I’m sure this is a sendup of wrestlers’ entrances, but having not watched much wrestling to know, I’d personally liken it to the entrances and shows of the most artsy and pretentious 70s glam and progressive rock bands. The Wolf Bats’ entrance is just as bizarre and overdone, and thus just as hilarious.

With all the effort the Fire Ferrets put in the match after finding out the Wolf Bats are cheating—as the commentator and, surprisingly, Tenzin point out many, many times—it’s a rock shocker to see them lose.

Well, at least we get to see the incredibly smug Tahno take a blast to the face. Priceless.

The victory signals the Equalist to reveal themselves and revolt. It is an effectively frightening sequence, seeing the Equalist posing as civilians suddenly, one-by-one, showing their true colors. (Say, wouldn’t it have been something if those Korra fans were Equalists, too? Sure, it would make little sense, but at least then they’d actually have done something.)

It’s funny: Tenzin is the first and only person to realize what’s going on, but it’s too late. The very moment he shouts, “Look out!” to Lin is the moment she gets zapped. And seconds later, so does Tenzin.

Gee, the male protagonists are kind of…let’s say “ineffective” in this show. Hmm…

It’s a good thing the Fire Ferrets didn’t win that match (and, judging by Amon’s speech, they weren’t expected to). Amon shows up, immobilizes the Wolf Bats, and takes away their Bending. This despite rather desperate pleads from Tahno for Amon not to do it. It’s impressive how they get us to suddenly sympathize with Tahno for a second: he may have been a dick, but he still didn’t deserve that.

Interestingly, Amon’s speech highlights that the Wolf Bats have been cheating their way to victory and somehow uses that as a metaphor for how Benders have always had an unfair advantage in situations with non-Benders. First of all, it was Benders on Benders, so the Wolf Bats aren’t despicable for being Benders, they’re despicable for being cheaters. (They chose to cheat, unlike Benders who can’t choose to be Benders.) Secondly, anyone could have paid off that referee. You don’t have to be a Bender to be a cheater. Maybe I’m just missing something, but Amon’s speech and logic seems skewed. Then again, he is evil.

As he makes his getaway before blowing up most of the arena, Korra—having escaped unconsciousness and being tied up—attempts to go after him by flying up to his zeppelin (the Equalists have zeppelins now?). She seems to have forgotten, though, that Airbending is still theoretical at this point. If Lin wasn’t there to save her, she probably would have fallen to her death. I think.

I won’t go over every point of the last-act action sequence except to say that Lin has to save Korra from a death fall a second time, which prevents her from going after Amon, so he escapes again. Thanks, Korra.

To tell the truth, there are too many elements of this episode that are worth discussing. (I could write an entire book on the masterful filmmaking alone.) Before I wrap up, there are three last points of interest.

Shiro Shinobi’s demise at the hand of an Equalist surely has to rank among the most brilliant moments in the series. Rather than surrender or go down peaceful, the man just continues to commentate on his own peril until the Equalist finally shuts him up with electricity. Bless his soul for going down like a pro.

After Korra, Mako, and Bolin are knocked unconscious—they were electrocuted by Lance Henriksen while in water—and they’re tied to a post, it’s Pabu who comes to the rescue. That is, after Bolin makes strange animal sounds to communicate to Pabu to chew through the ropes. It’s a funny moment, and it really reminded me of…

Coincidence? Homage? Parody? Social commentary?

Lastly, before Korra goes after Amon, she tells the guys that she’s doing so. Mako says, “Be careful!” What I find most interesting about this moment is that we don’t get a close-up shot of Mako saying this, rendering and his dialogue insignificant. She is going to do what she’s going to do whether the others like it or not. It reminded me of a key scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Our female protagonist isn’t asking for permission or for forgiveness for what she’s about to do, nor is the man present in any real position to argue with her. She is independent of his influence.

This might as well be the show’s master shot.

Ultimately, on the side of good, it’s the females who are calling all the shots. For better or worse.

*Wouldn’t you know Konietzko himself decided to address what constituted trolling? Frankly, what he writes says more about certain audience members than it does about him.

**Yeah, yeah, just because these reviews are behind doesn’t mean I am. Tarrlok’s motives should be clear by now.

All screenshots taken by me.


5 responses

  1. takethecake

    thank you for updating so frequently! I’ll put together a more adequate response later (wanna put some thought into it)

    June 13, 2012 at 11:35 am

  2. loafdude

    reading back through your reviews, i can see how deeply hurt you were by the season finale, you really had high hopes for this show

    September 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

  3. Ian

    so heres a question do you still think of this as a perfect episode even after the finale?

    October 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    • I probably would from a formalist perspective, because cinematically it’s one of the most finely produced episodes in the series. The editing, the compositions, the thrills, the humor, the music, etc. all work to create a perfectly entertaining experience. It doesn’t make the series any better, but if I had to go back and watch one episode forever, it would be that one.

      October 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  4. Ian

    also marshall i know you dont like the ending. and for obvious reasons… but i dont get why some people freak out like they do like the ending destroys all the awesomeness in the other eps. what i like about your reviews is you point out the side things like tenzin’s reaction and the little things in the eps that make the show come alive. i think most just think, oh well korra had a poorly executed ending and the show now sucks even though i loved everything before hand, which honestly is kinda dumb lol but anyway rant over thanks for replying to my last comment and i hope most of the eps before the finale you find still enjoyable, to be quite frank your probably the most fair reviewer of avatar and korra i ever seen so props to you and i hope you get more readers. if you want to reply please do so and also one last question when you re review the show will you put ratings in? i really love your scale. thanks and have a great day!

    October 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

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