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?