Quick Thoughts on “Beginnings”
Seeing as these are the episodes everyone was so happy with, I feel rather obligated to share my thoughts on them right away.
- My enjoyment of “Beginnings” was largely hindered by a single gut reaction I had throughout: I don’t like Wan.
- However, I feel that it’s not entirely his fault. You see, these episodes are indeed the most interesting (and at times involving!) in the season thus far, but it’s in spite of the writing, which is just as rushed and plot heavy as it’s been the entire season. So while the events that occur are conceptually intriguing, they’re emotionally void because, as always, there’s no time to actually get to truly know the characters involved.
- So the episodes want me to believe that Wan is a rebellious, mischievous, but genuinely “selfless” man. I say “selfless” because it was only possible to arrive to that conclusion based on what we’re told about his character. He certainly seems like a good guy, but the way the other characters talk about him, I was apparently supposed to recognize him as this perfectly altruistic being. The script, however, makes that difficult because when he’s not talking about how he’s “different from other humans,” his actions say something completely different.
- Here’s a perfect example: at one point, he finds a cougar-antelope (or whatever it is) caught in a net trap, and seems highly intent on eating it. He has a change of heart because…I honestly don’t know why he suddenly feels obligated to free this creature. Perhaps he realized he just didn’t have it in him to take a life, even for his own survival. Or maybe he felt dishonorable taking a prize he didn’t actually work for. Or maybe he simply wanted to get back at those hunters from earlier. That last one is admittedly a long shot because: 1) Wan felt sorry for the creature long before the hunters arrived, and 2) it’s not as if these hunters wronged him in the first place. They let him join their hunt on a faithful whim, and only ostracized him when he feigned being a coward. And why did he feign cowardice? To keep the Firebending given to him by the Lion Turtle and not have to return it.
- This is my key problem with Wan. He comes across as an opportunistic asshole rather than the Good Samaritan the other characters and the writers want him to seem like. That opportunism even extends to those “charitable actions” of his. Isn’t a little odd that his displays of goodness are never without an audience? When he gives up his only piece of bread to a group of hungry animals–a moment so borderline cliche that it’s actually funny–it’s in front of his friends. When he frees the cougar-antelope(?), it’s specifically for the hunters to witness. And that fight with the hunters is seen by Wan’s new spirit friend, a tall lemur-esque figure that might have been voiced by Daxter if Daxter wasn’t busy being in a Coen Brothers film this year. Whether intentional or not, Wan seems to be in it for the attention and good reputation (“Look, I’m helping! Ain’t I so good?”) rather than because he’s a genuinely selfless person.
- But perhaps that was the point? If so, then it all comes to a head when he separates the light and dark spirits in a naive attempt to resolve their conflict. Instead, he very nearly assures that the dark spirit–now growing in the absence of light–destroys the material world. Perhaps this was meant to be his true moment of growth, as he realizes that being a mediator of peace is more than image and requires actual thought and effort as opposed to simple tricks and nonsense. That would certainly make his final moments–in which he sadly admits his failure to bring about peace between humans and spirits–that much more poignant.
- If my speculation is true, then what should be a compelling character is compromised by the writing’s refusal to commit to such a flawed humanity. It’s not as if the first Avatar had to be a good person. Wan’s resolve to stop the dark spirit from destroying the material world could have been initially motivated by personal reconciliation before peace for all. After all, the light spirit who becomes his ally mentions that (and I’m paraphrasing), “Humans only think of themselves.” Indeed we do, which makes our instances of selflessness that much more significant. By seemingly eliminating that human feature from Wan, his tale seizes to have any real dramatic interest. The reason he’s “different from other humans” is because he’s barely human at all.
- Again, this was main obstacle to my enjoyment of the episodes–besides the typically graceless writing–and I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by everything else. First of all, the great animation of Book One was not only back, but put at the service of an interesting art style! The artistic choices used for Wan’s story may be my favorite in the series, even more so than the successful applications of CGI in the past.
- That and the broadening exploration of the Avatar universe and mythology ultimately makes these two episodes the best and most remarkable in the season. I honestly didn’t think I’d care where the Avatar came from or why it mattered, but I was glad to be proven wrong. It truly adds a new perspective to Korra’s and Aang’s struggles with their inherited duty to the world.
Gosh, I sure wish I could’ve been more positive about these episodes (especially on Christmas Day), but I can only be honest about these things. But as not to end on so down a note, here’s a bit of trivia: P.J. Byrne, the voice of Bolin, has a bit part in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street, which just came out today, and is, by most accounts, another Scorsese masterpiece. After suffering through Book Two’s largely unfunny shtick, it’s nice to know that Byrne’s natural comedic gifts are being well-utilized, if only for a minute in a three-hour running time.
Happy holidays, all of you!