Because fans should be critical, too

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!

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18 responses

  1. I find it hilarious how everyone was saying wan should be the main character and should have his own show and the first thing you say is that you don’t like wan lol. Color me suprised.

    December 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    • I’m just as surprised as you, but as you read, my issues with Wan are pretty complicated.

      And you know what? I absolutely agree: Wan should have his own show, one where his character and scenario is given room to breath and it doesn’t feel so rushed and convoluted. They’re still making Avatar comics, so maybe they can expand Wan’s tale that way. Like I said, the conceptual elements of “Beginnings” are wonderful; it’s the execution that ruined my experience.

      December 26, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      • Catastrophe

        Except the comics are badly written and totally destroy past characterizations. Most of the characters are noticeably out of character. Also, I found the plots really ridiculous. Though I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys the comics. To each his own.

        January 5, 2014 at 3:57 am

      • I personally find the comics to be pretty boring, which is a shame, because the drawings are often lovely. In theory, an Avatar comic could be quite wonderful, especially without the executive and budgetary limitation of television animation production. Something truly good has yet to come from that concept, though.

        January 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

  2. rosemon

    I’ve witnessed many people gushing about how wonderful the Beginnings arc was, but I have a feeling that it’s only because the rest of the season was downright horrendous rather than okay. So of course Beginnings looks like a masterpiece in comparison to The Sting…

    December 25, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    • I actually quite enjoyed the sting. And I’m nnot the only one that thinks so.

      December 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      • I didn’t enjoy “The Sting,” and to add insult to injury, I barely even remember “The Sting.”

        I remember almost all of “Beginnings,” though, so what does that tell ya?

        December 26, 2013 at 7:04 pm

  3. Regardless on what you feel about bolins scenes i think it comes to a pretty good conclusion imo. Episode 10 is also a pretty great episode too. He’ll I’d say the entire second half is pretty good for the most part.

    December 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    • I’ll finish the season and post my thoughts as I’ve done here. I’m eager to see where they go from “Beginnings.”

      December 26, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      • rosemon

        Ah, so nothing about the Sting stuck out to you? Not the way the love triangle was brought back? Not the way Bolin sexually assaulting his co-star was played for comedy (complete with creeper dialogue like, “I know YOU liked it too”)? Not the way the writers “fixed” Korra’s character by resetting it via amnesia? Excited to hear your thoughts on the rest of the series, in any case. I can’t quite remember whether it was Bryan or Mike, but one of them said that he had fallen in love with the character Wan upon the first announcement of the Beginnings Special. I’m not sure what this says about Bryke, though.

        December 28, 2013 at 9:51 am

      • To clarify, I’d known about those terrible elements thanks to tumblr. At that point, I’d stopped watching the show altogether, so reading about the love triangle and everything else second-hand gave me enough to both be infuriated (that it happened) and relieved (that I wasn’t there to witness it myself). So by the time I watched “The Sting” myself, I’d pretty much braced myself for the worst and got it. Additionally, aside from my issues with “Beginnings,” I honestly wouldn’t have anything new or insightful to say that someone on tumblr (particularly Writing Fails) hadn’t said all ready and/or I felt particularly strongly about.

        December 29, 2013 at 1:30 am

  4. JMR

    As much as I enjoy this episode aesthetically, and will grant that it tells a fairly effective story, at least in comparison to the rest of the season, I’ve found it’s one of those you really don’t want to think about too hard or else it all starts to unravel. There are two main sticking points for me:

    1. It starts a pattern of Bryke playing very fast and loose with the mythology. Now, in a show with looser continuity this wouldn’t be such a problem, but with a strongly continuous fantasy epic like this it gets bothersome. The main point is the whole “bending was granted by lion turtles thing” when the origins of bending were pretty firmly established in the original series.

    And I don’t want to hear the standard apologetics about how “those were just legends” or “the lion turtles gave them the power then the moon/dragons/whatever taught them the forms”, because we see clearly that this just isn’t true when Zhao kills the Moon Spirit at the North Pole, which removes the water-benders ability to bend.

    2. I don’t like the way the episodes treat the humans and act like they’re the bad guys in all of this, constantly going on and on about how humans are selfish, nasty, smelly bastards, because y’know what, spirits? You have your own perfectly good world you can go inhabit, so if you hate the human world so much, you can just kindly get the fuck out.

    And it’s even worse because the show acts as if the humans being pissed about the spirits basically taking over their world is just them being selfish meany-pants. Uh, they’re constantly living in fear of being maimed or killed by spirits to the point they barely leave their homes, and we’re shown this fear is entirely justified. It’s gotten so bad they’ve completely lost contact with each other because they won’t dare venture out into the spirit infested wilderness. They’ve basically been colonized by the spirits and the show makes them the bad guys for daring to be angry about it.

    December 28, 2013 at 12:29 am

    • Dman

      If you argue that it does not make sense for the Lion Turtles to have given people bending, and use the example of Zhao killing the fish, then the original series’ canon does not make sense. If the original benders- the moon, the dragons, the badgermoles, and the sky bison, were the source of benders’ power, why would Fire Lord Sozin make a sport out of eradicating the dragons? Wouldn’t that ultimately leave firbenders defenseless? Same goes for airbenders. Once Appa was dead and before Aang found a new liter of Bison cubs, did Aang’s airbending disappear? And about those spirit fish, what happens when they die naturally? Do waterbenders lose their bending then? This argument really opens up a can of worms…

      December 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      • Amonymous

        I personally prefer the explanation that the lion turtles granted bending because the idea that the first waterbenders learned to bend through the moon made no sense to me

        December 28, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      • JMR

        Only because you’re taking it farther than intended. That was a specific example intended only to refute:

        A) The “those were only legends” argument. Clearly they’re not just legends, because the death of the moon spirit has an obvious effect on the water-bender’s ability to bend.

        B) The “the humans were taught the bending forms by the forces mentioned in the original series” argument. Zhao’s killing the moon spirit didn’t make the water-benders forget bending forms, it removed their ability to bend entirely. Obviously the connection is closer than that argument would permit.

        The original series seemed to imply that each bending system had it’s own unique origins based upon the philosophy and strengths of that system. Waterbenders learned from the push and pull of the tides. Firebenders learned about the connection between Fire->Heat->Energy->Life from the dragons. Earthbending begins with Oma and Shu learning from the badger-moles. Airbending is left the most ambiguous, but is said to have been learned from the sky bison. You might notice that none of these stories involved Lion Turtles.

        Beginnings takes all that and says “Nope, a giant psychic turtle booped a dude on the head and that was that”.

        It’s a clear retcon made all the worse by the fact that it’s so unnecessary.

        December 28, 2013 at 11:39 pm

      • tox

        Pretty late, but I’m not sure what’s hard to understand here.

        The lion turtles gave humans the ability to manipulate the elements. The original masters gave humans the technique. However, there’s an intimate relationship with bending and spiritual energy; hence, you can’t bend in the spirit world. Killing the moon doesn’t mean people forgot how to waterbend, but it does mean that the connection to that spiritual energy is snapped. There’s something similar to celestial heat sources as well (the sun, the comet).

        Basically, you need the ability to control the element, and have access to the spiritual energy that facilitates that control. It’s unclear what that is for earth and air.

        September 22, 2014 at 3:25 am

    • You know the funny thing about that is, the mythology was already kinda loose in terms of the origin of bending. If we go by what the original show tells us, it implys that ANYONE can become a bender if they study the bending animals. So you’re telling me that a normal person saw a dragon and tried to move like it and he created fire? He did it without dying from insane burns? That’s a lot to swallow. And also if this were true don’t you think that the air benders could be brought back if the air acolytes were to study the airbison? Also the whole story of Oma and shu is kinda shady; what made them think that bending was even possible? If we go by what the lion turtle said then it definitely doesn’t make 100 % sense at least that two normal random people in two separate villages were able to find the possibility of earthbending. Not to mention how fast they must have learned considering how they were showed to be pretty young in the flashback. Also if everybody is born capable of bending then why isn’t every person born a bender? See, it’s not so outrageous to think that the bending power was given to humans by their early protectors and was taught by the animals to use the element as a extension of oneself. There are so many other questions that I could list but om just gonna stop here. When you stop to think about it you come to realize that the story makes more sense now than before.

      January 15, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      • JMR

        My problem isn’t that the Lion Turtle story is implausible. Ultimately, there are near infinite possible explanations for the origins of bending, limited only by the extent of your imagination. My complaint is that the story is counter-factual. We know from what we see in the show that the moon-spirit, not ancient Lion Turtles, is the source of water bending, as Zhao killing it destroys water bending. Whether or not you personally like that explanation doesn’t change that it’s a retcon, plain and simple.

        Also, if the expectation is that the explanation of a mystical, fantasy element in a fantasy or sci-fi work will leave absolutely no stone unturned or question unanswered, then all fantasy and sci-fi works play loose with their mythology. How does Harry Potter do magic? How did Sauron fill the ring with his evil power? At some point we have to accept that we won’t have all the answers. We can’t ask for perfection, but we can ask for consistency, which is what was lost here.

        January 16, 2014 at 8:31 pm

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