Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-Three: “The Calling”

Before I discuss the episode, I must say how amazing it is that, regarding the comments on this blog, there is absolutely no general consensus on any of these episodes. Some people really like them, some people really loathe them. Perhaps it’s to be expected, since it’s much harder to judge a show-in-progress on an episode-by-episode basis. I’m just grateful that everyone here can make their case eloquently, as it makes the differing views that much more fascinating, whether they align with or, more often, oppose each other.

Personally, I found “The Calling” to be rather dull. Not unwatchable, but dull. The second viewing was particularly painful, since it drove home just how utterly pointless it was to have Tenzin’s children go on an extensive adventure where they locate Korra (as well as beg the question of why the episode wasn’t titled “Finding Korra”).

This is yet another episode that makes me impatient for some sort of novelization of the entire series of Korra (and maybe even Avatar). See, the ideas of this episode are not bad. I like the idea of the three kids going off on their own adventure. In the past, they’d not been allowed much character development, so it’s nice to see them garnish an entire episode for themselves. I especially liked how they made appropriate use of references back to Avatar: they are only allowed to go on this mission because 1) Tenzin finally trusts his children to take care of themselves, given that 2) they are about the ages of Aang and friends when they had their adventures. This could have been a great opportunity to examine the differences between the journeys of seventy years ago and the journey of Korra’s present time, and how that reflects the realities of traveling alone on a life-changing journey as children and of the changing world these new children must navigate through.

Unfortunately, the demands of television animation prevent these ideas from being fully explored. All of these intriguing story developments must be doable within a twenty-three minute time span (minus commercials) or risk going underdeveloped (as many, many, many ideas have gone throughout Korra). Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and company are simply too ambitious for their own good. The complications of their plots and themes aren’t sustainable within the economical finesse required of good television. Unlike their live-action competition (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Louie, etc.), Korra doesn’t possess the mastery of the medium that would elevate it to match those shows (anymore, that is: Book One would have easily been the equal to any of those shows had it not botched its thematic elements with easy answers and a terrible love triangle). Being animated only hurts it when it attempts to pander to what they may think is the typical Nickelodeon audience, as well as the more forgiving and hardcore fans.

That is to say, the episode does not have the time to spend fleshing out these characters and their subplot, and by trying to force it, the writers only exacerbated the problem. As a result, the end of the episode—in which each kid states what they’ve learned about themselves and each other through their adventure—feels particularly manipulative and unearned. I never believed for a second that these kids learned anything, let alone were put in a position to gain any sort of wisdom.

The problem, again, is not the ideas, but the execution. Consider Ikki’s “arc” in this episode. Having been told off by Jinora for breaking her concentration while meditating, and having learned that Meelo threw all their food in the river, she storms off, only to get captured by two guards from Kuvira’s army. While Ikki is tied to a chair, she gets a strong lead on Korra’s whereabouts when the guards decide (for their own selfish reasons) to help her find the Avatar. I believe the point was to show Ikki’s wit and resourcefulness in getting the guards on her side to help her get what she wants.

But this doesn’t come through in the scenes. In fact, there’s no indication at all that Ikki knew what she was doing. This is where some solid character animation—the kind apparently reserved strictly for Book One—could have saved a lot of time and could have communicated the essential drama of the scenes, showing us that Ikki is, indeed, in no real danger thanks to her brain. Of course, it would first have to be set up that Ikki feels frowned down upon by both Jinora and Meelo (and it is set up, rather crudely) so that her cleverness affirms her as someone on equal footing as the other two. But without those cues that could only have come from a nuanced and convincing performance, we’ll just have to take Ikki’s word for it that she “had everything under control.” Given the flimsy nature of much of the writing, it’s difficult to suddenly start trusting the dialogue now.

Speaking of the dialogue, there’s a scene where Toph sums up each of the series’ past villains and how they took certain values (good values, at that) too far “out of balance.” As some commenters have mentioned, this moment is frustrating in its obviousness (what villain isn’t an extremist in some way?) and its blatant disregard for the real worldly concerns that each villain had and that were never truly addressed in the series. Didn’t the Equalist movement just disappear after Amon was revealed to be a fraud? Didn’t both Unalaq and Zaheer eventually go mad, thus alleviating them of credibility and re-examination?

That said, I appreciate Zaheer’s demise slightly more than Unalaq’s, because Book Three is the only season in which eliminating the villain didn’t render their cause and their motives totally obsolete. Hopefully this trend continues with Kuvira, but for all we know, she’ll go mad with power as well, thus denying everything she stood for of a fair trial and judgment. Then again, maybe the two women will settle their differences without violence and find a compromise between their values. (Considering that this is our first female villain leading the way, I’d love for them to take a more intelligent route than just another “duel to the death.” We’ll just have to wait and see.)

Also, Korra may have gotten the last bits of poison out of her system, but I doubt that her spiritual healing is over. Coming to terms with those fears and actually facing them are not necessarily synonymous, though the former can ease the transition into the latter. We’ll know if Korra’s actually grown up when it comes time to face Kuvira and her duties as the Avatar. At the very least, I’m still hopeful for a satisfying conclusion to Korra’s character development. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Also, is it just me, or does Ikki in her Air glider suit look suspiciously similar to Asuka Langley Soryu of Neon Genesis Evangelion?

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4 responses

  1. Brian

    That’s what I noticed too. The glider suits look a lot like the plug suits from Evangelion.

    October 27, 2014 at 12:28 pm

  2. Grindal

    In regards to you thoughts on Ikki and how character animation could have been used to show she was in control of the situation and knew what she doing, there is a moment before whilst the two guards are initially discussing what they should that Ikki pulls her hand out from under the ropes and wipes her brow. It so subtle that I myself missed this on my two viewings and only know of it because it was mentioned in Rob and Doug’s vlog on the episode. But I would put forward that this is evidence that the creators / animation division / whoever is in control of these minor details are still capable of intuitive character animation. But yes there still certainly could be more of it in places…

    October 28, 2014 at 4:19 am

    • I just looked back at that moment, and you are right! She does indeed pull her arm from the ropes and rub her face. I must have missed it when I was rolling my eyes at how bland and obvious the dialogue and the performances of the two guards were as they discussed what a Godsend it was that they captured one of Tenzin’s kids. This is one of those instances where it pays to just reserve all judgment until the end and watch the damn show.

      So the pieces are there for this scene to work. Could it have been done better? Yes, and it has been. Off the top of my head, I can recall three movies where a similar situation yielded much more entertaining results (for comedic effect in Pinapple Express and The Avengers, and for comedic and dramatic effect in Django Unchained). Hell, I think Aang did something similar in “The Earth King,” but for completely different reasons. I’d also argue that the way it occurs in this particular scene feels more like a comic afterthought than a plot point deliberately interwoven into the dramatic structure of the scene, because the general tone and power dynamic doesn’t change one bit with this new information.

      Again, the pieces are there, but it could have been handled a lot better. Maybe they’ll fix it when they finally make those Korra novelizations.

      October 28, 2014 at 10:49 am

  3. Talk about underwhelming catharsis. How about this:

    We know why these visions haunt her at the surface, but we don’t know the crux of the matter, and the crux is: she’s not prepared to face all of her duties as the Avatar. (Thus accentuating her brash nature as a defense mechanism, her arrogance wrought from years of being perceived as the Avatar as well as knowing all her life she could bend all four elements, and her ignorance of thinking she can tackle any problem by fighting it to death (which, in tandem with the earlier mentioning of the imbalance of Amon, Unalaq, and Zaheer, could have been a foreshadowing of the solution to the final climax between her and Kuvira towards a different kind of climax)). Korra then could’ve doted upon the final days of Avatar Wan, who not only had the trauma of mortal combat between he and his enemies, but had to face the death of his best friends, to question: “Why did Wan continue his quest to bring the world to balance, and what made him keep going? What drove him?”, only to lose her train of thought; after all, she’s lost her connection to past Avatars, and from a character growth perspective, she’ll need to come up with the answer on her own.

    She then asks the million-dollar question: why does SHE want to be the Avatar? What will drive her to continue to bring the world towards balance? And then cut to a montage of the people she’s met; from her meeting Mako at the Bending Arena, to driving with Asami, to her being comforted by Tenzin (after Amon threatened Korra on Aang Memorial Island), to her eating out with Bolin, to a montage of all the friends she’s made, all the good times they’ve had, and the sights of the world she’s seen (The Southern Lights, the Spirit world, the bending arena and all of Republic City) to come to the conclusion: “Because the world I know is worth keeping in balance.” She then proceeds to stand (swell of music here), and begins to bend the metal out of her. When she gets flashbacks to Amon, Vaatu, and Zaheer, she then thinks of the best memories of Mako, Bolin, and Asami, and with her own strength of will to protect a world of what matters to her, forces the metal out of her blood. She wishes to be the Avatar, to continue on and face whatever threats may come, not out of birthright or what the world expects of her, but because she finds the friends and places she’s come to know truly mean the world to her, and it’s worth whatever scars or injuries she may face. She is prepared to be, and in a way, re-realizes she is, the Avatar.

    Bam: in those hypothetical scenes, we’d know:
    1. What it is that matters to Korra
    2. The duties and perils of the life of an Avatar are harsh and demanding
    3. What matters to Korra outweighs her fears and the pain of her wounds and the stress of her duties
    4. And for that matter, all future wounds; because she’s actually learned her lesson, about HERSELF

    October 30, 2014 at 1:15 pm

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