Because fans should be critical, too

Then I Watched Episode Two and Three of Book Three

Before I even discuss the episodes, I must apologize for my hasting criticisms of Book Three of The Legend of Korra based solely on my reaction to the first episode. I made the mistake of not watching the first three episodes at the same time, which is the way they originally premiered on Nickelodeon, and by extension, the way they were meant to be watched. Out of fairness to the show, I watched them that way. Yes, I even rewatched that dreadful first episode, suffering once more through it’s rough-draft-level dialogue.

But I’m glad I did. By the time the third episode was over, I was genuinely shocked by how much I had enjoyed most of it. So much so that, instead of drawing any drastic conclusions, I was actually intrigued to see where the show would go from there. Specifically, I want to know what happens to Kai  now that he’s been taken into captivity. I also want to see what Brother Zaheer (no, he’s not called Brother Zaheer in the show, but that’s what I’ll be calling him from now on and you should, too!) and his fellow criminals plan to do with their new Airbending freedom. The rest I don’t care for, but I’d be willing to endure it to see what comes of those two plotlines.

Actually, if there’s any conclusion I can draw, not just from these three episodes but from Avatar: the Last Airbender and Korra overall, it’s this: for all their talent and ambition, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are simply incapable of creating a consistently entertaining and satisfying animated television series. The quality of their work fluctuates so sharply that episodes as masterful as “And The Winner Is…” from Book One of Korra co-exist with episodes as absolutely atrocious as the Book Two finale. How much of that is their fault, and how much of it is the fault of the medium (and the Nickelodeon executives) is up for debate. Nonetheless, the sooner one comes to terms with this basic fact, the easier it will be to watch either of their shows.

I’m actually surprised I didn’t realize this sooner. After all, it’s the very reason this blog was created for Avatar. Even after my baffled hatred mutated into reluctant, but real love, it’s always fascinated me how the best episodes transcend the constraints of the average American animated children’s program, and how the worst episodes adhere so absolutely to those very constraints. So much so that the best episode of the entire series (“The Southern Raiders”) is immediately followed by the most inexplicable (“The Ember Island Players”). How is that even possible?

And then Korra came along, and I guess I naively hoped that, with DiMartino and Konietzko penning every episode (not to mention Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu directing every episode), the consistency problem would be fixed. To a degree, it was: I still hold Book One of Korra to be the most accomplished work in the Avatar saga from a purely technical standpoint, and sometimes even a dramatic standpoint. When the four men really focused their cinematic and storytelling energy, they could up with some of the most exhilarating and suspenseful set pieces ever seen in a television series, let alone an animated one. “And The Winner Is…” remains their crowning achievement. There’s not a single moment that doesn’t work in that episode (I’m willing to forgive the odd cosplay shout-out because it’s thankfully brief and not at all prominent), all the more impressive by the alarming number of narrative twists and turns that occur in the span of its twenty-two minutes. No matter how much I curse Book One as a whole, “And The Winner Is…” will always have a special place in my heart as a fine example of brilliant filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the finale of Book One simply and thoroughly destroyed the illusion that DiMartino and Konietzko had finally created their masterpiece. As usual, it revealed that the only consistent thing about their work was its inconsistency.

This is partially why I continue to regard the remainder of Korra as an ongoing experiment in just what they can get away with before their viewership drops completely. They truly lost me with the Book Two finale, a very deliberate dive into pure nonsense which they dubbed as “spiritual.” Unless by “spiritual” they meant “potentially suicide inducing,” which would make the Book Two finale as “spiritual” as an Owl City album.

That’s the nature of experimentation: if it fails, it fails miserably. But if it works, it works gloriously. And often times, those very successes are the rectified results of those previous failures. (We sure wouldn’t have no The Dark Side of the Moon if it weren’t for those previous Pink Floyd albums that hardly anyone remembers because most of them sucked.)

What makes this experiment potentially more interesting is that it involves an ongoing narrative. Since the context, the characters, the settings, etc., are always the same (the independent variables, if you will), the real fun comes in how those elements are shaped by the writers into individual episodes. What combinations and what plotlines generate the best dramatic results?

So far, the sudden reappearance of Airbending in seemingly random individuals has proven to be a goldmine for story material, the most exciting of which involves Brother Zaheer and his pals’ prison escape. Brother Zaheer is clearly a thinking man, which makes him the most dangerous kind of villain: what we perceive as evil, he has justified in his mind as good and worth fighting for. DiMartino, Konietzko, and company have wisely chosen not to reveal much of Brother Zaheer’s plan, the first step of which involves breaking out his fellow criminals, including his girlfriend. Now that the authorities (which, for some reason, includes a very old Zuko, but let’s just thank our lucky stars that they didn’t bring Dante Basco back for this!) know his next move, they will try to prevent him from breaking her out. The tension is pretty high already, and I’m actually excited imagining how Brother Zaheer will pull this one off.

Sadly, as previously mentioned, not everything is as intriguing as what Brother Zaheer is up to. I could care less what Korra is up to anymore. Nor do I care for Tenzin’s failed attempts to recruit new Airbenders to revive the Airbending traditions. Those attempts were made even more painful because I accidentally predicted (and then dismissed as too stupid) that Tenzin would have a comical montage in which he goes from door-to-door like a salesman, pitching the Airbending lifestyle, only to have the door repeatedly slammed in his face. I shit you not: literally seconds after the thought crossed my mind, it became a reality onscreen. I had to leave the room at that point. I almost stopped watching the rest of the episode. I’m glad I didn’t.

There are many failed moments like this sprinkled throughout the episodes. My favorite occurs in the second episode, when Brother Zaheer arrives at the prison cell holding the first criminal pal. Since Brother Zaheer is disguised as a White Lotus guard, he isn’t immediately recognizable. However, once the real guard realizes it’s Brother Zaheer, he expresses his surprise by exclaiming, “Zaheer?!” Or, at least, that’s the emotion I think he was supposed to express, but the way the voice actor delivers the line is comically nonchalant; you’d think he and Brother Zaheer were good buddies who hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

But there are still enough moments that work. I liked when Mako and Bolin were tricked into taking a train to the lower class section of Ba Sing Se. And I absolutely loved the entire sequence involving the fruit cart and its owner, who can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether he should punch out Mako and Bolin for conspiring to steal his rotten fruit or for not even considering it worthy of theft in the first place. Also, it turns out watching the first episode twice wasn’t entirely pointless: Meelo’s line about starting an Airbending army turns out to be foreshadowing for what the Earth Queen has in mind for all the Airbenders she’s locked away (including Kai).

My problem is that when I’m watching Korra (or Avatar, for that matter), sometimes all I ever see is the potential—often squandered on poor execution or failure of imagination. But you know what? The fact that that potential is there at all makes it the most interesting American animated children’s program on the Internet now (I almost said television). As long as you don’t expect every new episode to be a winner, you’re bound to find something to like. I certainly didn’t expect to be won over by episode three, but aren’t such pleasant surprises what make life so wonderful?

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12 responses

  1. Clander

    I was optomistic as well but once I took a step back I saw this season so far for what it really is I started hating the series again. I will still consider episode 5 to be the best so far (though it still has shitty problems, and that isn’t saying a lot) This whole thing is so far from the realm of me caring it’s hard to believe. I don’t care about most of the characters but the one who absolutely ruins every single moment he’s in. Every single scene, every frame: is Bolin. He has become so insufferable and irritating I can go as far as to say he is one of the worst characters I have ever seen. He literally has nothing left to do plot wise but get a girlfriend. How am I supposed to be invested in Bolin at all when his entire “character arc” is defined as him being a horny teenager? It’s come to the point for me that whenever I see Bolin do anything, I immediately say out loud “Go die!” And then there’s Korra. I never really hated her like a lot of others did but by god It’s getting there for me. The reason is that she just gets everything handed to her. She even learns metal bending in the blink of an eye. I remember the days when characters actually had to work for what they wanted. It sometimes even took an entire episode. Then when it comes to her “flaws” she is rewarded. Her brashness doesn’t need to be fixed. It saves the day almost all of the time. (you’ll see what I mean) She doesn’t have to learn or change because the plot rewards her actions at every turn. I will continue to watch the show out of morbid curiosity but if you’re anything like me, your optimism will soon be squashed.

    August 3, 2014 at 4:16 am

    • Trust me, I’ve finally learned to curb my enthusiasm when it comes to these shows. Every new episode on a DiMartino/Konietzko production is a gamble. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll just have to watch Book Three to the end see how they disappoint us this time.

      It’s true that Bolin has no real reason to be around anymore, and the already lackluster quality of the scripts make his appearances unbearable sometimes. Still, don’t blame this on P.J. Byrne. He’s a fine character actor doing the best with what he’s given. Sometimes it pays off. I distinctly remember having a big laugh at his lengthy, probably improvised grandma rant.

      August 4, 2014 at 12:08 am

      • Clander

        Well I’m glad you enjoyed his grandma rant. I found it quite unbearable.

        August 4, 2014 at 1:53 am

      • It was heading into that territory for me as well, but the abrupt ending of “then she dies” is what redeemed it.

        August 4, 2014 at 5:49 am

      • seven

        I remember reading a post on tumblr that addressed some of the problems with Bolin (If I find the link I’ll post it). Anyway, it made this excellent point on how the writers don’t let Bolin show or experience serious emotion; his feelings are often written away for humor ie: Book 1, Episode 5. So this just completely hinders his growth as a character.

        Bolin (and Mako) don’t really need to be there. They aren’t essential to the plot and they aren’t going through any interesting character development imo.

        Korra still feels like the same Korra from Book 1 to me as well which has, ultimately , left me so uninterested in her character. I definitely believe that the villains are the most compelling part of the show right now.

        August 5, 2014 at 8:20 pm

      • This is very true, and also made even worse because Bolin’s potential for growth is always apparent. Why they insist on keeping Bolin a childish goofball (albeit, an occasional funny one thanks to voice actor P.J. Byrne) is beyond me.

        I’m starting to realize that each season, the plot and the situations have become more complex, but the characters haven’t. Granted, this dramatic setup would work if each of the characters had a clear, well-defined, and endearing personality (which, of course, they do not).

        August 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm

  2. Brian

    So does this mean you’re back, or did you just want to stay for the first three episodes?

    August 3, 2014 at 7:27 am

    • I’ll watch to the finish and see how it pans out. My expectations have started to settle down.

      August 4, 2014 at 12:10 am

  3. Okay, great thoughts marshall. I really agree that korra and avatar really do have inconsistent qualities. But anyway, I’m glad you gave this season a second chance. I’m definitely more happy with this writeup than the previous one. Keep up the good work, looking foward to the frozen review!

    August 3, 2014 at 7:53 am

  4. Grindal

    I thought I would wait until all of Book 3 had finished to see if I would try to recommend it to you after your personal response to the end of Book 2. But I’m really glad you’re watching it and hopefully you find the rest of Book 3 ‘more consistently’ lives up to the higher standards that our beloved Michael and Bryan are capable of – so far they have for me.

    Your point on consistency in all seriousness though is very merited, and is something the writers only hit twice during ATLA, once during the tour de force that was Book 2 after the introduction of Toph and the other from The Western Air Temple to Sozin’s Comet (removing The Ember Island Players of course). In fact – NO SPOILERS – the latest episode of Book 3 Korra epitomises your point perfectly as it has a tedious and sometimes cringe-inducing first half until it explodes into what I think might just be the best 10 minutes of Korra, possibly surpassing And the Winner Is… as it has not only action but story.
    N.B. Anyone reading this who has seen the episode, don’t discuss it here even if you disagree with me so we can keep the page (and Marshall) spoiler free until he catches up.

    Anyway, keep having fun with the Frozen review (really looking forward to it) and hopefully you enjoy watching Book 3 of Korra. To each his own though if you don’t.

    By the way I highly doubt it but do you think you’ll be doing a running commentary on Book 3 of Korra as you watch each episode, or just post thoughts when you feel it necessary?

    August 3, 2014 at 8:43 am

    • I’ll post when I feel it necessary. There’s so little new insight I can provide on this series, so something truly extraordinary will have to happen if I’m going to write about it.

      August 4, 2014 at 12:13 am

  5. rosemon

    I personally don’t see any point in continuing this series after Book 1’s awful finale, let alone Spirit of Competition. This Zaheer guy and his cronies didn’t do a thing for me; they seemed like a bunch of overpowered fanfic characters hastily assembled for the sake of having more bad guys. I certainly couldn’t describe any of their personalities, assuming they have any. Some random person put it better than I could: “There are no characters in LOK like there are in Avatar, where Katara was motherly and Zuko was troubled. In Korra, your powers are your character.”

    August 3, 2014 at 6:38 pm

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