- As The Legend of Korra continued its descent into dreary, perfunctory nonsense, “And the Winner Is…” used to be my one shining beacon of light. No matter how many times the series found new ways to surprise me with its incompetence, I’d always go, “At least we got ‘Winner,’ which is proof enough that, when Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko really concentrate their efforts, they can pull off a single fantastic episode.”
- That’s sadly no longer the case, and despite some flashes of brilliance here and there, “And the Winner Is…” is just another episode of Korra, plagued by the same shortcomings and lapses of judgment as any other episode. What I once misconstrued as clever storytelling was, upon close inspection, just sly manipulation designed to temporarily distract you from some blatant flaws. And for a while, it worked.
- The episode is a major turning point in the Book One storyline: after six episodes, Amon and the Equalists launch their first major attack during the Pro-Bending finals and officially declare war on Republic City and Benders all over the world. What started as a small radical movement has, with Amon’s leadership and with devastating technologically advanced weaponry, blossomed into a deadly terrorist organization bent on ridding the entire world of Bending.
- The attack is launched during the Pro-Bending finals between the Fire Ferrets (our heroes) and the Wolfbats (led by the smugly charming Tahno), which before hand, Amon had demanded to be cancelled. The City Council nearly capitulates to his demand, but thanks to the interference of Korra, and then Lin Bei Fong (who offers to provide extra security around the Pro-Bending arena), the games go as scheduled. Just as Amon wanted.
- For Tenzin, Tarrlok, and the rest of the Council, it’s a matter of keeping innocent lives out of potential harm’s way. For Korra and Lin, it’s a matter of pride and assertion: to give in to Amon’s demands is to basically surrender to his will. Neither can abide by that; not the Avatar, who needs to let the world know that she’s in charge now, Phasma; not Lin, who even snarks that the Council has no backbone and that she’s “expect this cut and run tactic from Tenzin.” (Tarrlok slyly makes her take full responsibility for what goes down in the arena, leaving his name in the clear.)
- It’s revealed here, of all places, that Tenzin and Lin used to have a romance together, but slowly drifted apart as they got older and their career paths diverged (to put it gingerly, Tenzin wanted to propagate more Airbenders, and Lin wanted to further her career as a police officer), leaving room for Pema to sweep in and lock that down. However, on this significant occasion, they agree to set their differences aside and protect the arena. (Whether it’s meaningful that their proximity to each other leads them to being distracted and being the first officers taken out by the Equalists, I’ll leave that up to you.)
- With all the entrances, exits, and skyways being patrolled by the Metalbending police, the Pro-Bending finals go as schedule. But there’s more trouble: Tahno and the Wolfbats are cheating, but none of their illegal moves are called by the referee. This eventually leads to one of the few successful twists in the episode, when the Fire Ferrets lose the match.
- But this was also anticipated by Amon, such that when the Equalist attack is in full swing, Amon rightfully calls them out as cheaters and bullies. (He missteps when using their unearned victory as an analogy for Bending oppression, but whatever.)
- After officially declaring the revolution a go, Amon and his cronies escape. Korra and Lin give a valiant effort to try and catch up with him, but with one thing and another, he gets away. The episode ends on a genuinely exciting cliffhanger, and its all Tenzin can do to keep from saying, “The shit just got real.”
- As I said, while the episode ultimately flounders under close inspection, there are still flashes of brilliance present throughout. This is still Book One, after all, which means the direction of Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu goes a long way towards realizing even the stupidest ideas. Think of them as Ridley Scott on a bad day (see Alien: Covenant, or better yet don’t).
- Among the bright spots, the voice acting remains mostly top notch. Amon’s threats would be worthless spoken by anyone but Steve Blum; Rami Malek gets maybe a handful of lines as Tahno, deliciously cocky and flamboyant to start, and then suddenly sympathetic and fear-stricken when Amon takes his Bending away; voice-acting veteran Jeff “Johnny Bravo” Bennett has a grand time playing Pro-Bending commentator Shinobu, who hilariously continues his commentary even as an Equalist shoots him full of electricity; J.K. Simmons and Mindy Sterling have a good amount of chemistry as Tenzin and Lin respectively; and yes, even Dee Bradley Baker strikes a good balance as Tarrlok in this one (it’s still a shame they couldn’t get someone like, say, Armie Hammer to make Tarrlok’s upper crust smarm at least feel natural).
- The twist of the Fire Ferret’s defeat still works, especially since it follows a fake-out in which Korra miraculously stalls the Wolfbats’ victory by hanging off the edge of the ring and then tossing Mako back in to blast that smug grin from Tahno’s face. (His subsequent grimace always reminds me of Beavis of Beavis and Butthead, and whether that was intentional or not, it’s funny as Hell.)
- Following the defeat, there is the truly horrifying moment when the Equalists arise from within the Pro-Bending audience, revealing their true colors upon putting on their Equalists masks. Whether this remains chilling because of the slo-mo reveal coupled with the great doom-laced music cue, or because of the current political climate in which masked, violent, allegedly “anti-fascist” protesters have sprung into existence, I’m honestly not sure. But the moment is effective every single time. (As long as you don’t think about it too much. More on that later.)
- The whole sequence of the ensuing chaos in which the Equalists take out all of the police officers and take complete control of the arena is well executed. And seeing Tahno and the Wolfbats have their Bending taken away is quite effective as well.
- The centerpiece of the episode is the big action sequence at the end, in which Korra and Lin go after Amon on the glass dome roof of the Pro-Bending arena. The best, certainly most crowd-pleasing part is the moment when Korra, failing to Waterbend her way out of the arena, is saved by Lin and catapulted up to Amon’s zeppelin by Lin’s Metalbending cable. This is the very first time we ever see Lin in action, and it’s absolutely glorious. It’s also a rare moment of actual teamwork in the entirety of Korra.
- My personal favorite sequence is the fight between Korra and the Lieutenant (played by a woefully underused Lance Henriksen, perfectly matching Mr. Blum in the gravelly villain voice department). When was the last time you saw a character in the Avatar universe elbow someone in the face (let along apply direct physical hand-to-head combat on any kind)? I don’t know why, but it thrills me every time.
- Finally, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the only time Pabu the [insert hybrid animal speculations here] was actually useful and relevant the entire season. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t find Bolin’s animal chatter with Pabu to be absolutely adorable.
- Pop-quiz: remember that brief moment when we see Asami and her father watching the finals from their luxury box (and Asami blows Mako a kiss, making Korra jealous)? Ever notice how you never see them again the entire episode? Not only do we not see their reaction to the Fire Ferrets’ defeat—which is weird, considering Hiroshi sponsored the team—we don’t even get their reaction to the Equalist take over, nor do we see them after the Equalists escape and the dust has settled. Why?
- I have two theories, neither of them positive. The first is plain old negligence: DiMartino and Konietzko (and Santos and Ryu) simply forgot about them in the midst of conceiving the more exciting stuff. Who can blame them? Six episodes in this twelve-episode mini-series, and neither Asami nor Hiroshi has developed beyond abstract ideas to the audience or plot devices for our main heroes. In that respect, it makes sense that the audience would forget them, but in-universe, Hiroshi is the richest person in Republic City. You’d think someone would remember the Satos; maybe the police officers would be especially concerned with their safety. If the Equalists were brazen enough to attack Shinobu the sports commentator, why wouldn’t they go after the noble man and his daughter?
- But this is where it gets suspicious: considering what we learn about Hiroshi in the very next episode—that he’s been helping the Equalists all along by supplying them with the advanced technology—it’s entirely possible that the Equalists knew to leave the Satos well alone, thus buying them time to “escape.” But if Hiroshi knew that Amon would attack the arena after the Wolfbats won, then he must have known that the game was rigged against the Fire Ferrets the entire time, leaving him unaffected by their loss. If they did include a reaction from Sato, even once, it might have given away the game too soon. Thus, the second theory is cheap manipulation: DiMartino and Konietzko intentionally kept our attention off of Hiroshi so that their twist—that he was an Equalist sympathizer all along—could have any impact.
- There’s a problem with this theory, though. Hiding Hiroshi’s intentions—and therefore his reactions—for the sake of the twist isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself. Instead, why not at least show us Asami’s reactions—especially since she’s basically unaware of and eventually opposed to her father’s motivations? Considering she’s the one who convinced her father to sponsor the Fire Ferrets in the first place, you’d think their defeat would have some impact on her worth noting; instead of cutting to Tenzin fruitlessly calling the referees on their lousy calls, why not show Asami disheartened and maybe even averting her father’s gaze (thus keeping Hiroshi’s own reactions obscured, killing two narrative birds with one shot)?
- But there’s a reason such a solution was probably never considered (or at least given time to be implemented): in DiMartino and Konietzko’s original pitch, Asami was supposed to be a villain herself. According to DiMartino, as told in The Art of The Legend of Korra: Book One: “Asami came a little later in the development process. Once we had the idea for a nonbender revolution, we knew we’d need a character who wasn’t a bender. At first, we had planned for Asami to be an Equalist spy who was using Mako to get close to Korra. But we ended up liking her so much that we thought it was better to keep her on the good guys’ side. The development process was so important for Korra, because it allowed us to play with various story and visual concepts before the full production started” (p. 22).
- Despite how Asami eventually turned out by the end of Book One, you can see remnants of the original idea executed in the first six episodes. By which I mean that her true colors, much like her father’s, aren’t shown until episode seven; before that, her intentions are so muddled and her personality is so vague that we could easily believe she was a spy the entire time, had DiMartino and Konietzko chosen to go that route. [Not helping matters in the slightest, the voice acting by Seychelle “Penis Hair” Gabriel is completely nondescript; for the longest time, I thought she was also voiced by Janet Varney, albeit with a higher, more feminine register than Korra’s (which would have made their forced pairing at the end of the series pretty funny).]
- So in a way, both theories have some merit. By neglecting to give either Asami or Hiroshi actual characterization and autonomy, DiMartino and Konietzko (and Santos and Ryu) were allowed to factor them into the story whenever it was convenient to the plot. Again, these plot twists (i.e. that Hiroshi was evil), aren’t terrible in themselves, but the foundation laid to reach them are so shoddy and disingenuous that the effect is completely nullified.
- This is symptomatic of the entire episode. The big reveal of the Equalists, for example, is frightening, but leaves some questions unanswered. Just how did the Equalists manage to transport all of those weapons into the arena if every single porthole and orifice was being checked and guarded by the police? With all those bombs rigged to explode after Amon made his grand exit, it’s entirely possible that the bombs, the weapons, and the equipment were all planted beforehand, but they must have been hidden pretty well for that to work. An explanation of just how the Equalists were able to pull this operation off would have been nice (and might have even made for a much more exciting episode).
- Having the Fire Ferrets lose the Pro-Bending finals, while surprising, also loses its impact because of how contrived it is. By contrived, I’m not referring to the Wolfbats having paid off the referee to let their illegal moves go unchallenged. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how complicit the Pro-Bending fans and audience are with this behavior.
- I’m not much of a sports guy, but I’ve been to enough games to know that true sports fans are not just passive spectators: they know the rules of the game, what players can and can’t do, and are sometimes even quicker than the referees and commentators to pick up on foul play. And yet, here is a clearly rigged Pro-Bending match, and not a single boo is heard, not a single angry call is made. In fact, the only people who call the ref out on his shit are the sports commentator and Tenzin—the latter of whom just recently learned the rules of Pro-Bending in the first place! You’d think the Wolfbats’ victory by cheating would even incite a riot amongst the Pro-Bending viewers, which the police would then be forced to pacify. The Equalists could have even used the riot as a cover for their attack!
- Instead, the Equalists just take out each guard one-by-one, unopposed by the highly trained police force, and initially unnoticed by the Pro-Bending crowd. (It’s actually comical seeing the audience blissfully unfazed by the chaos ensuing around them, and I’m not sure whether I should chalk this up to negligence or budgetary constraints.)
- Early in the episode, Korra and her friends intrude on the emergency council meeting at City Hall, where they’ll vote on whether to give in to Amon’s demands or not. It’s taken for granted that Korra can just barge in on these meetings when she wants to because she’s the Avatar. Then again, maybe anyone barge in if they really want to (Lin does later). There’s no security around the entrance, and on top of that, the door isn’t even locked. Is this common procedure for the single most important decision makers in Republic City? The Equalists would be better off attacking City Hall if the council always leaves itself this vulnerable.
- On a more serious note, in light of recent events around the world, the poor handling of the whole Equalist plot is more disappointing than ever. Extremists groups of native and foreign origins have reared their ugly heads, destroying society and the lives of innocent people under the guise of equality and justice for all by attacking those universally perceived to be “privileged.” Ironically, if DiMartino and Konietzko had focused less on gloating about having a female of color* action hero and more on fine-tuning and presenting nuance in their tale of political unrest, they’d have been closer to the Zeitgeist than they’d previously imagined. Instead, a conflict that had enough mileage for at least two seasons was cut off after one, and not even given a satisfactory resolution. O Aaron Ehasz, where were you when we needed you!
* Yeesh, is that PC enough for you?
Three-and-a-half more seasons of this shit?!
Two Weeks: Avatar: “The Waterbending Scroll” & “Jet” & “The Great Divide”
The ones where Avatar goes from a curious novelty to an exciting show.
- Up until now, Avatar could easily be described as original, humorous, action-packed, colorful, and a lot of fun, if not tremendously outstanding. From the two-part “Winter Solstice” on, however, Avatar proved it could be something that the vast majority of its contemporaries were not: emotionally engaging.
- I don’t want to sell the first six episodes short, though: they served their purpose, and did a commendable job of establishing our main characters and giving us a general idea of the world they inhabit. Had Avatar continued down this fun, meandering road, it still would have been a good show, albeit a trivial one, little more than a curiosity. What “Winter Solstice” does—and does in such an unexpected and effective way—is finally give us a reason to care about the outcome of this ongoing drama.
- This is largely thanks to the further development of the character of Aang. We know that he’s essentially a good kid, if a goofy and fun-loving one. More importantly, we know he’s the Avatar, destined to save the day and bring balance back to the world. But how exactly? Aside from mastering the elements, we don’t know yet. And neither does Aang, but until he figures it out, the Fire Nation will continue to destroy forests and terrorize innocent people to win the war. This is a great source of guilt and anxiety for Aang, as he blames himself and his lack of Avatar-know-how for the world’s problems. He wants to make things better, and he wants to fulfill his duty as the Avatar anyway he knows how; his resolve is so strong that we, the audience, want to see him succeed. And just like that, Aang goes from a fun kid character to a relatable hero whose journey we’re willing to follow to the bitter end.
- And that’s just in the first three minutes of Part One! The rest of the episodes follow through on Aang’s determination, from pacifying an angry, village-destroying Spirit to flying straight into Fire Nation territory to make contact with Roku, the previous reincarnation of the Avatar.
- Upon making said contact, the true conflict of the series is finally made clear: Aang must master the elements and defeat the Firelord before summer, when Sozin’s Comet returns.
- As Sozin’s Comet briefly passes through the planet’s atmosphere, a Firebender’s power increases tenfold. A single Firebender powered up by Sozin’s Comet could probably wipe out a small village all by himself. An army of Firebenders, however, could wipe out an entire race of people. That’s precisely how the Fire Nation were able to slaughter all the Air Nomads, and then declare war on the remainder of the world. That was a hundred years ago. Now that Sozin’s Comet coming back, the Fire Nation plans to once again use its devastating power to end the war once and for all. Once they do that, the world will be so damaged that the delicate balance would be lost forever. In other words, Sozin’s Comet does for the Fire Nation what the Ark of the Covenant would have done for the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (more likely known as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to younger viewers).
- In summary, Aang has less than a year to master the elements—something that normally takes years of practice—and stop the Fire Nation before they destroy the world. Can he do it? He has to! In narrative speak, we’ve reached the point of no return, and Aang’s journey has finally attained a sense of urgency and excitement that gives weight and meaning to every event and episode that follows—well, almost every episode—but without totally sacrificing the light-hearted charm of the first six episodes. How’s that for balance?
- Aang’s story isn’t the only one that garnishes a new layer of meaning. In the meantime, we’re still following Prince Zuko on his single-minded crusade to capture the Avatar and restore his rightful place on the throne. In Part One, however, there’s a major setback: Zuko’s wonderful uncle, Iroh, is captured by Earthbending soldiers and being transported to Ba Sing Se—the great Earthbending capital that Iroh failed to seize back in his military days—most likely to be executed. At a crucial juncture, Zuko has a choice: follow the Avatar’s trail to the nearby village he’s likely in, or rescue his uncle from certain death.
- It’s a bit uncertain whether Zuko would have actually caught Aang had he chosen the former, but Iroh would have definitely lost his limbs had Zuko not saved him in the nick of time. This is a relief to the audience, because at this point, Uncle Iroh is the most lovable and badass character in the series. And he’s technically a villain, but thanks to his easy-going personality (and the disarming voice performance by the late great Mako), we love him all the same. And the fact that Zuko chose to risk losing the Avatar’s trail to save him? Well, I’ll be damned, maybe he’s not such a one-note villain after all. Underneath all that bitter teenaged angst, the kid actually has a heart! (Very much unlike Commander Zhao, who never evokes much sympathy because he has none for others).
- All the same, though, Zuko may not be heartless enough to sacrifice his uncle to gain back his royalty, but he is still the “bad guy” since, at this point, he’s trying to stop Aang from saving the world. It’s this ambivalence that gives Zuko the most complex and interesting character arc in the series, to the point where it’s debatable whether he is the real protagonist of the show.
- Well, gosh… I mean, the entirety of both episodes are high points within the series itself. Neither episode has much in the way of filler: every single narrative thread has a neat little payoff, each scene segues seamlessly into the next, and every plot development engages us further into the weird and mystical world of the Avatar universe. With such effortless storytelling on display, perhaps it’s no coincidence that part one is the first episode of the series credited solely to head writer Aaron Ehasz. (Co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino takes the reigns in part two, and while that particular episode lacks the emotional development of part one, it’s not one iota less entertaining.)
- I’ve already mentioned Aang’s subtle yet effective transformation into rebel with a cause in the first three minutes of Part One. Within those moments, however, the seed of the episode’s resolution is planted as well (no pun intended): while Aang pouts in the middle of the burned-out forest, Katara cheers him up with an acorn, symbolic of the fact that eventually the forest will grow back. Aang uses the exact same lesson to pacify Hai Bai, the spirit who is destroying nearby villages and who just happens to be the spirit of that same burned-out forest. Content with this symbol of hope, Hai Bai stops destroying the village, and also releases all of the people he kidnapped (including Sokka). Clever!
- Before that, Aang’s attempts to calm Hai Bai are hilariously ineffective, resulting in Sokka getting kidnapped and Aang getting trapped in the Spirt World, where no one in the mortal realm can see or hear him. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because he gets in touch with Roku’s spirit animal—a dragon—who takes him to the Fire Temple in the Fire Nation, the one place where he can talk to Roku during the Winter Solstice (the time where the boundary between the Spirit World and the mortal realm temporarily disappears). Through lovely time lapse visuals, the dragon reveals us that Aang has less than a day to get to the temple, or else miss his one and only sure-fire chance to see Roku.
- This is all perfectly ample set-up for Part Two, which is essentially one long and elaborate chase sequence between Aang and his friends, Zuko and his crew, and Zhao and the Fire Nation navy. Highlights include Appa avoiding fireballs above the clouds, rescuing Sokka after he falls off of Appa, and—in his most defining moment of awesomeness to date—Aang decimates an incoming fireball with a single air kick!
- Speaking of awesome, can we talk about Uncle Iroh? At the start of the episode, he’s relaxing in his makeshift hot bath before he gets captured by Earthbending soldiers. In captivity, however, he still leaves enough clues of his whereabouts to keep Zuko on his trail, and he causes enough mischief—while still bound in chains–to slow the soldiers down so Zuko can catch up with them. As a grand finale, he and his nephew tag team all the soldiers and take every single one out in less than a minute. Badass!
- Another character who gets to shine is Sokka (in Part Two, anyway; remember he gets kidnapped in Part One): at a crucial moment, he uses his technical genius to create fake Firebending to try and open the sanctuary door in the Fire Temple. And even when that doesn’t work, the evidence of the blast is still proof enough to convince the Fire Sages that they did open the door, prompting them to use their own Firebending to actually open the door for Aang. Clever!
- Those Fire Sages provide yet another obstacle for our heroes. Having abandoned all hope of the Avatar returning to restore balance, they’re quick to attack Aang and friends the moment they enter the Fire Temple. Thankfully, one of them is a turncoat who still has faith, and he helps the gang get to Roku’s sanctuary. This entire subplot is just another one of the neat little touches that gives the Avatar universe some lived-in believability. (In the end, after Aang and friends escape once again, Zhao has all of the Sages arrested for treason, despite only one of them consciously betraying the Fire Nation.)
- The entire climax is incredible, with Roku saving the day—by protecting Aang from a concentrated attack by Zhao and his army once the sanctuary doors reopen, and by destroying the Fire Temple—allowing everyone to escape with their lives. Even Zuko gets away (which I only note because, even way back before we knew he’d eventually turn good, knowing he was allowed to live was, shockingly enough, a relief)!
- Uh, not many this time around. Granted, Part Two is clearly animated by DR Movie, who will always be a step below JM Animation in terms of overall quality (but the animation in Part Two is still very, very good).
- I guess Katara doesn’t have a whole lot to do in either episode. Well, that’s not entirely true. She helps Aang out of his stupor at the beginning of Part One, and she flies out on Appa to search for Aang and Sokka when they’re missing. She even turns Sokka’s failed Firebending in Part Two into a positive. Then again, she also has the worst line in either episode: “Please don’t go, Aang. The world can’t afford to lose you to the Fire Nation. Neither can I.” Ugh…
- Speaking of Katara, there’s a small moment in Part One that I’d never noticed before. While Aang is attempting to get Hai Bai’s attention (and failing), Sokka wants to go out and help, but Katara assures him—without much conviction—that Aang will figure out what to do. She then closes her eyes and a weak smile appears on her face.
- It’s a tiny detail that perfectly falls in line with Katara’s feeble, unfounded optimism that Aang will somehow defuse the situation despite not having any idea what he’s doing. Once Sokka gets kidnapped and neither her nor Aang returns the next day, her optimism is all but gone, and she’s left sitting in the village gateway waiting for them to come back.
- Katara’s arc in Part One—and the whole series, I suppose—amounts to a test of her faith in Aang’s abilities and the positive outcome of things. On the one hand, that’s admirable, and to her credit, she doesn’t completely lose hope and simply mope around until Aang gets back—she does go out on Appa to look for them. On the other hand, what if Aang fails? That would mean losing yet another family member—and this time, not even because of the Fire Nation—and that probably would plunge her into utter despair.
- Thankfully, things do turn out alright, largely thanks to her innate positivity (remember her acorn pep talk to Aang is ultimately what Aang uses in return on Hai Bai); combine that with her brother’s innate skepticism, and they’re pretty much the perfect allies for the Avatar, aren’t they? (Maybe that’s another problem with Korra: none of those characters have complimentary traits that combined into something greater than the sum of their parts.)
The “Winter Solstice” episodes really were the game changer, the ones that really made you sit up and take notice that Avatar was going to be a different kind of animated series, and one worth keeping up with each week. These episodes are to Avatar what “She Loves You” was for the Beatles’ entire career: everything up to this point was good, I guess, but now it’s like, “Wait a minute! These guys are GOOD! Really good!” And except for a few sporadic low points (“The Ember Island Players” is pretty much Avatar’s “Revolution 9”), it would just keep getting better and better. Leaving just one question: which Beatles’ subsequent solo career does Korra sync up to the best (and don’t you DARE say Ringo’s)?
This Saturday: Korra: “And the Winner Is…”
Promises, promises. I’m honestly thinking of abandoning the idea of these self-imposed, frequently missed deadlines altogether. On second, I won’t do that, because how else will I learn to discipline myself?
In any case, I want the “Winter Solstice” retrospective up by Wednesday, followed by “And the Winner Is…” on Saturday. Then after that, the next Avatar reviews–which will encompass four episodes–will take two weeks to do a write-up on. (From now on, the general aim will be one week for one to two episodes, two weeks for three to four.)
So I haven’t given up, even if “And the Winner Is…” was, admittedly, a bit demoralizing. Suffice it to say, it’s no longer the shining beacon of competence within the ruins of Korra that I once felt it was. Aw well.