Because fans should be critical, too

Retro: Korra: “The Revelation” and “The Voice in the Night”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Korra learns that the leader of the Equalist movement can take away people’s Bending. She does her best to cope with her fear by ignoring it.

Key Points:

  1. In Avatar, Aang was the reluctant hero who needed to accept his responsibility as Avatar in order to defeat the Firelord and save the world. Korra, being the anti-thesis of Aang, relished her Avatar status since she was a child and finds every opportunity to use (and abuse) her incredible power. What kind of villain could pose a threat to someone like Korra? Someone who could take that power away.
  2. Enter Amon, the leader of the Equalist movement. He preaches the evils of Bending, and how every single catastrophe in history has been instigated by Benders. After seeing his family be slaughtered by corrupt Firebenders, he vowed to rid the world of Bending and bring peace and equality. And the Spirits have given him the ultimate gift for the task: the power to take away a person’s Bending forever (just as Aang did to Firelord Ozai).
  3. But isn’t that a power only the Avatar possesses? Not so, as Amon promptly demonstrates in front of a huge crowd of Equalists (and Korra and Mako). He strips the most dangerous mob boss of his Firebending, rendering him helpless. Amon means business.
  4. This revelation of Amon’s power is a game changer, not just in the fight against the Equalists, but for Korra, for whom the prospect of losing her Bending is the ultimate nightmare, literally and figuratively. This may just be the first time that she has even experienced genuine fear in her entire life.
  5. Little wonder that she handles this new emotion pretty poorly. Aside from the traumatic nightmares, she does everything to hide her true feelings from everyone, especially Tarrlok, the smarmy counsel member who wants her to head his new task force to stop Amon. She rejects the offer, much to Tenzin’s surprise, opting instead to “focus on her Airbending.”
  6. This Tarrlok, however, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and does everything he can to suade Korra, including lavish gifts, each more expensive than the last. When that doesn’t work, he holds a party in her honor and, with the help of the press, virtually bullies Korra into joining the task force anyway.
  7. As Tarrlok is quick to observe, Korra’s fear can easily be overridden by her pride. It’s her pride that tricks her into accepting the task force position, but also to call Amon over the radio and challenge him to a one-on-one match at midnight on Avatar Aang Memorial Island (the island with the giant statue of Aang). Stupid is an understatement; even Tarrlok tries to talk her out of it.
  8. And Amon does show up—eventually, and not at all alone—but not to take away Korra’s Bending. Smart man that he is, he knows she’d only be a martyr if he defeated her then and there, and is waiting for the perfect moment to destroy her. Having come this close to having her Bending taken away, Korra finally allows herself to cry in Tenzin’s arms and admit her fear.
  9. She’s had a rough few days. On top of this Amon stuff, Korra now has a rival for Mako’s affection. Her name is Asami, and she’s the daughter of Hirashi Sato, Republic City’s richest resident and inventor of the automobile—called the “Satomobile” in the Avatar universe, which doesn’t explain where they got the Latin root for “mobile” from—AND the new official sponsor for the Fire Ferrets. To make matters worse, Asami and Mako have already had a few dates and seem highly compatible. Did I mention that Asami is very pretty?
  10. It’s worth mentioning that, before all the Mako hate started pouring in, he and Bolin’s back story as street rats orphaned by Firebenders did make him, however briefly, into a somewhat sympathetic and trustworthy character.
  11. Oh, and we also meet Pabu the red panda, who’d I actually forgotten all about until just now. Much like Naga is the new Appa, Pabu is the new Momo. Both new animals are equally memorable.

High Points:

  1. It takes a little bit of time before the third episode really takes off, but once it does—from the Chi-Blocker chase and fight sequence and beyond—these two episodes are amazing! The fight sequences are visceral and fun; the character interactions are almost always intriguing and actually move the story forward; the art direction, especially for the night scenes in the city, is gorgeous; and the suspense actually keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. Even as I watch these episodes for probably the fourth time in my life, they still work magnificently.
  2. I think what makes all the difference between these episodes and the first two is the establishment of an actual conflict, which gives everything that happens from now on some gravitas and meaning. The battle with Amon and the Equalist movement is much, much bigger than Korra’s initial problems with Airbending, but now it makes those problem more pressing of an issue: if Korra can’t master this last element, does she really stand a chance against a man who take all her Bending away?
  3. Amon, what a villain! What a terrifying presence, even before we learn of his Energybending ability! What a pitch perfect performance by anime-dub veteran Steve Blum, who channels charisma and menace into every line! What a riveting show when he demonstrates his De-Bending technique (from lightning to fire to nothing)! And at this point, what a perfect opposition to Korra! You get the sense that this girl’s impulsive aggression is no match at all for Amon’s calculated cool. (No wonder DiMartino and Konietzko had to cop-out in the end: without a deus ex machina, this guy would have definitely defeated Korra fair-and-square, meaning they’d actually have to *GASP* develop her character!)
  4. All jokes aside, the towering presence of Amon puts Korra’s inflated ego and machismo in check, and you finally start to feel some sympathy for the girl. All she knows and all she’s good (arguably) at is being the Avatar, and now her entire being is threatened by Amon and his anti-Bending, anti-Avatar ideology. Her fear is completely justified, which is why every scene in which that fear is at the center works really well.
  5. Check out the scene where Amon interrupts the normal radio broadcast to deliver his message to Republic City. A simple shot-reverse-shot of Korra staring at the radio which tighten into close-ups of each, yet combined with Blum’s great delivery and Korra’s silent yet visible terror, it becomes a paralyzing moment of unbearable, almost Hitchcockian tension. It may be my favorite scene of the two episodes.
  6. Another favorite is Korra’s close encounter with Amon on Avatar Aang Memorial Island. Once again, Blum’s performance is the centerpiece, complimented by more great silent animation of Korra and subtle, moody lighting. The follow-up scene of Korra crying into Tenzin’s arms is effective, too, and for once Janet Varney finds the perfect note in which to portray Korra sympathetically.
  7. There are a few action sequences, the best of which is the first encounter with Chi-Blockers who have kidnapped Bolin and some other gang members. Great use of CG environments in that one, which allows the “camera” to circle and track the action at key moment, making for some kinetic shots. Same goes for the scene where Korra, Tarrlok and his task force infiltrate an Equalist training facility. Good job, Messieurs Ryu and Dos Santos!
  8. As new characters go, both Asami and Tarrlok are pretty interesting. Asami’s personality, as far as I can go, is deliberately left vague so that the show can throw a twist our way, revealing her true intentions. We already don’t trust her since she started moving in on Korra’s guy, so I’d say it works in the show’s favor.
  9. Tarrlok is such a smart guy, and an expert manipulator, that you already know not to trust a single word he says, even when he makes good on them. His task force with Korra on board is a success, but is he doing it for glory or justice? Both seem about right, and is there anything wrong with that?
    10. Finally, special mention goes to Lin Bei Fong. She gets a single line in which she gets to put down Korra again, and absolutely nails it!

Low Points:

  1. I said I liked Tarrlok, didn’t I? Well, I don’t really like his voice actor. Which is borderline heresy, because if you know anything about Dee Bradley Baker, you’d know he’s one of the most prolific and versatile voice actors in the business, particularly in the field of animal noises. (Appa? Momo? Pabu? Nagu? Daffy Duck in Space Jam? All him!) Tarrlok, though?
  2. And it’s not even that his performance is bad per se. It just sounds a little too cartoonish and theatrical next to the relatively natural and less obvious performances of Varney, Blum, J.K. Simmons, Mindy Sterling, and others. I’ve always theorized that Baker was a replacement for another actor who dropped out at the last minute. Imagine Tarrlok’s lines being read by someone like, say, Oliver Platt, and you’ll understand how Baker oversteps the line between sleaze ball and “sleaze ball.”
  3. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, P.J. Byrne is excellent as Bolin, even if the character is a little too silly for his own good. How does Bolin wind up getting involved with the gang that gets kidnapped by the Equalists? By putting on a street-side mini-circus featuring Pabu the whatever-I-don’t hybrid animal to raise money for the entry fee into the Pro-Bending championships. Come to think of it, this particular incident isn’t that bad, but as the series progresses, it doesn’t get any better for Bolin.

Random Points:

  1. I want to talk a little bit about that scene where Tarrlok’s task force infiltrates the Equalist training facility, because it illustrates some of the more trouble aspects of Book One’s message.
  2. The main conflict of Book One is between Benders and a certain faction of Non-Benders who believe that Benders have a disproportionate amount of power in society, and they use that power to oppress Non-Benders. The most extreme of this faction are the Equalists, the terrorist organization led by Amon and designed to take down all Benders and rid them of their ability to Bend, including the Avatar.
  3. It’s been observed many times by much more intelligent folks than myself that this isn’t exactly a black-and-white issue. While the Equalists are clearly the “bad guys” and Korra and the other Benders are the “good guys,” it’s definitely true that in the grand scheme of things, Benders do have a physical advantage over Non-Benders, an advantage which can and has been abused in the series itself (even by Korra, no less). It makes perfect sense that a group would come along to “equalize” the playing field in an attempt to bring “peace” to the world, even if by violent means.
  4. Extremists or not, the Equalists have a point, even if the show itself attempt to dissuade you otherwise. In the task force attack scene, we see a group of Equalists training themselves both in self-defense and in the art of Chi-Blocking, two skills that would come in handy with rouge Benders. Putting aside the Equalist agenda, are these not skills that any sane Non-Bender living in a world of Benders would want to have in case of emergency?
  5. And why is Chi-Blocking a skill limited to the Equalists? Along with Lightning-Bending(?), Chi-Blocking is one of those rare techniques we’d only seen used by one or two people in Avatar. In Korra, though, Lightning-Bending has been normalized to a degree that those capable of doing it can work in power plants to provide electricity for the city. Why isn’t Chi-Blocking also normalized? Apparently, everyone on the police force is a Bender, but wouldn’t that be a solid, pacifying skill to have at one’s disposable when dealing with out-of-control Benders? (Instead of, you know, fighting Bending with Bending, which the first episode demonstrated could cause more damage than it’s worth?)
  6. And not a single one of those Equalists arrested gets even a brief moment of humanity or sympathy to their plight. More to the point, am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that each one of those Equalists we see training in the facility are all wearing their Equalist masks while they’re training? As far as they’re concerned, this is a safe-space where they’re all in solidarity against the oppression of Benders, so why keep the masks (especially with banners of Amon plastered all over the walls? The easy answer: so the audience will know that they’re the “bad guys,” and thus will feel few qualms about seeing these folks ruthlessly frozen with Waterbending or assaulted with Earthbending. I doubt even the members of Antifa wear their masks all the time.
  7. In this day and age, when we’re seeing pretty close parallels to the Equalist movement being played out in real life, it’s a bit troubling to see how carelessly the conflict is handled in Book One of Korra. Generally speaking, Benders are the “privilege” class of the Avatar universe (at least, according to the series itself), and for writers as transparently left-leaning as DiMartino and especially Konietzko, their muddled handling of the politic crisis in their own fantasy universe either reflects a poor understanding of real world politics, or an even worse understanding of their own political agenda. It’s difficult to say, especially since their agenda seems to shift with every season until finally Korra and Asami close the series as symbols of LGBT representation, with absolutely no warning or development of any kind.

Conclusion:

Well that got a lot more political than I ever intended (Lord knows it won’t be the last time when dealing with DiMartino and Konietzko). But I don’t watch Korra or Avatar for the politics, I watch them for the storytelling, and on those terms, “The Revelation” and “The Voice in the Night” are pretty damn good. Since there aren’t that many episodes of Korra you can definitively say that about, you’d better enjoy them while you can. I have a feeling the next episode is going to be a tad more divisive.

Next week: Avatar: “The Warriors of Kyoshi” & “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”

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4 responses

  1. Rosemont

    Good to have you back! Great recap, as always!

    “But I don’t watch Korra or Avatar for the politics”

    With Korra, I guess that’s a little hard considering that the writers made politics a huge selling point of its story, specifically their version of Chinese Communism. I wonder how much critical “take-me-seriously prestige” the show would’ve gotten had it not put politics front and center? Bioshock Infinite received similar praise simply for having politics in its story despite an even more troubling message, now with actual racial minorities being painted as extremists. As for the Mako hate, before that, there was a lot of unwarranted Asami hate (as in slut-shaming misogyny) on Tumblr from jealous fangirls who were likely in love with Mako for his looks and projected themselves onto Korra. I mean, why else would anyone in their right mind want those two to get together? Strangely, I don’t recall Bryke ever defending Asami in their DVD commentaries or mentioning the hate she got like they did with Mako.

    April 30, 2017 at 11:50 am

  2. edbva

    You’re right about the enjoyability of these episodes masking a flaw in the show’s political themes, but I see it from a different direction.

    Firstly, I do not agree that the Equalists definitely have a point. Benders naturally have a power advantage over non-benders, but that does not automatically equate to systemic oppression. (At least that wasn’t the case in AtLA, so why should it be here?) We need hard evidence either way, and so far there isn’t any. We’ve seen bending triads in action, but for all we know that is just evidence of bending triads. Do the crime bosses have alleged ties to the upper echelons of power? Have they overrun significant sections of the city and turned them into competing fiefdoms? On the economic front It is plausible that this world provides more opportunities for benders, but two of our main characters are pro-bending athletes scraping out a measly living, and two other newly introduced non-benders are filthy rich members of the elite. On the political front, again inconclusive. Tarlok vaguely implies that all the council members are all benders, but is that by design? How does one get on the council? How does this Republic work? (It’s called a Republic for a reason, right?)

    These are questions the story should be answering. Better yet, these are questions Korra could be asking. But at the moment she’s freaked out about the threat Amon’s power poses to her identity. And besides When Extremes Meet, 4 episodes later; those question never get asked. This was a consistent trait throughout the series: the antagonists are only relevant to Korra insofar as they reflect an existential threat to her agency and sense of self.The socio-political issues they represent are of secondary importance, and that’s how the finales generally pan out: the bad guy is defeated, Korra re-asserts her right to exist as the Avatar, and the world’s issues are addressed obliquely by other characters.

    I think this happened in part because Bryke could not help but ditch the more ambitious parts of the story for something they felt more comfortable writing. Which also means that they had no idea of the complexity of the situation they were creating. Nevertheless these two episodes work on a dramatic and emotional level, because Korra’s interpersonal conflict was quit engaging. Unfortunately this may be the last time I’ll say that this season.

    May 2, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    • JMR

      Ultimately I think that this is exactly the issue. The show (likely intentionally, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish) leaves the exact nature of the conflict between benders and non-benders out of focus, ill-defined. It ends up making that plot line something of a political Rorschach test where everyone sees it a little bit differently based on what they come into it believing. Even as someone who has gone on at length on the issue on this very site (many moons ago), I have to admit that attempts at really exploring it are necessarily based mostly in conjecture for this reason.

      It seems like bending should afford people a leg up in life. After all, there’s no real downside to it. Anything a non-bender can do, a bender can do plus bending. But as you say, the show itself contradicts this, as unintuitive as that may be.

      I believe it is one of the comics that clarifies that the Republic City Council is chosen by the leaders of the other nations. But that doesn’t really answer much on this front. On what grounds are they chosen? Is there any way to remove them if they’re doing a poor job? It hardly even matters because the other three who aren’t Tenzin and Tarrlok are cardboard cutouts who simply agree with everything Tarrlok says. Just about anyone could take over the city with those three easily swayed dimwits making up the majority of the Council.

      But I’d particularly like to second your point about Korra not asking the important questions throughout the season. All other things the same, if I could at least feel that she didn’t come out of this conflict just as ignorant of who the Equalists were or why they were willing to risk life and limb serving Amon as she was when she was first heckling the protester all the way back in the first episode, I’d be much more satisfied by this plot line. However, this isn’t the case.

      May 7, 2017 at 11:12 pm

  3. lukepearson

    I remember when they released a bio on the boy that Mako gets his information from, everyone on tumblr stared shipping him with Jinora because it said in her bio that she was starting to notice boys and they were the same age. Instead he is only in this one episode and never seen again, to this day I have no idea why they bothered giving all that information about him saying that he was an orphan, I though that he was going to get taken in by Tenzen or something.

    May 16, 2017 at 12:41 pm

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