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.
My retrospective review for the “Winter Solstice” episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender won’t be posted until next Saturday. By then I’ll have actually had the time and energy to work on it. This week has been crazy busy, culminating on Saturday with the wedding of a good friend of mine. It’s out of state, so I’ll be away for the entire weekend. Once I get back, I can resume my work here. I was hoping I could get this one done in the midst of all this, but it just wasn’t working out. I’d rather put it off and give it the proper due than try and rush this thing (especially for these episodes, two of the best in Book One and in the entire series).
Speaking of proper due, I haven’t been true to my word in responding to my commenters on the days I established. I swear I read all of them, and they’ve all been insightful in one way or another. For instance, latenightscribe’s last few comments taught me all about head writer Aaron Ehasz’s ideas for the Book Four that never happened because of the production of the live-action trilogy (that also never happened) , and how “shipping” created rifts in the writers’ room. The behind-the-scenes drama of Avatar and Korra is becoming just as interesting–if not more so–as the series themselves. I may write something on this in a post separate from the retrospective when I have the time.
For now, sit tight and I’ll be back next week with the retrospective on the two-part “Winter Solstice.” All I’ll say about them now is that they reminded me just how wonderful Avatar really was. This retrospective would not be nearly as tolerable if I had to watch Avatar and especially Korra straight through on their own. Even a terrible episode of Avatar is more inspiring and forward-thinking than any episode of Korra past Book One, so I’ll gladly sit through Korra every other week if it’s means watching Avatar again.
Bolin likes Korra, but Korra likes Mako, but Mako’s with Asami, but Mako actually likes Korra, and nobody likes Bolin.
- As is well known by now, Messieurs DiMartino and Konietzko have a weakness for teenage romantic melodrama, love triangles, and all that jazz. They attempted to fit it into Avatar—there would be a love triangle between Aang, Katara, and a boy named Toph—but that idea was annexed after head writer Aaron Ehasz argued that Toph should be a girl. That brilliant move saved us a lot of grief and created one of the most memorable characters of that series.
- With Korra being written solely by DiMartino and Konietzko, and with no Ehasz around to turn Bolin into Boleen or Mako into Makorina, they were free to inject all the corny romantic nonsense they wanted in their twelve-episode mini-series.
- They certainly go all out. Instead of the traditional love triangle, we get a love square, between Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami. Korra has eyes for Mako, but he’s already in a relationship with Asami. He does like Korra a bit, though, but for the sake of the Fire Ferrets, he refuses to date a teammate. This doesn’t phase Bolin, who sees no problem with trying to get Korra’s attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that she’s only into his brother.
- Korra gets some “healthy” advice from Tenzin’s wife Pema on how to properly confess your love to a man who happens to be in a relationship with someone else. Here’s the catch: you have to make sure that, through no fault of your own, the relationship in question isn’t actually working out. This is bad news for Korra, since Mako and Asami seem to like each other just fine (although Mako does make an off-hand comment that suggests he’s only in it for the money).
- When Mako rejects Korra’s advances, she gravitates towards Bolin, whose own affections border on desperation. They do seem to have a great time on their “date” together, and apparently have a lot in common. Mako knows better, though: she’s just using Bolin to make him jealous (which he disguises as concern for his brother’s feelings being hurt).
- All of this comes to a head when Mako somewhat timidly admits he has some affection for Korra, so she moves in for a kiss. Unfortunately, Bolin catches this and runs away crying like a little girl.
- All of this romantic mischief nearly costs them their chance to play in the Pro-Bending finals. Before, they were a pretty darn good team, not stepping on each others’ toes, and even doubling each others’ efforts to be an unstoppable force. Once Mako and Korra start going at each other’s throats, however, the team dynamic falls apart, and Bolin, unaware of the romantic tension, steps up and wins them the next match.
- Unfortunately, after the infamous kiss, no one’s heart is in the game. Mako even seems ready to give up and try again next year (which is a great attitude to have when your girlfriend’s largesse is the reason you made it this far in the first place). Mako and Bolin get knocked out of the ring, and Korra saves the day with a miraculous three-in-one knock-out. Looks like our heroes are going to be in the championship match after all.
- That means they’ll be up against Tahno and the Wolf-bats, the reigning champs for three years straight. Tahno is a pretty boy who comes complete with a set of fan girls and cronies whenever he hits the town. If he’s a parody of someone or some character, it’s lost on me. In any case, it’s a good thing the Fire Ferrets have resolved their romantic differences, because they’ll need to stay focused to beat Tahno, who wins his Pro-Bending match off-screen and in less than a minute.
- Asami remains oblivious to all of these romantic antics going on behind her back. She’ll find out soon enough.
- The Pro-Bending sequences, as usual, are well-executed and pretty entertaining, even when the romantic antics begin to eat away at the team dynamic of the Fire Ferrets.
- It was nice to see Bolin, who usually doesn’t have anything substantial to do, step up and win the tie-breaker for the team, especially since he notices Korra and Mako just aren’t on their A-game that match.
- For as little screen time as he gets in the episodes (and the series as a whole), Tahno is an amusing character. Did you know he was voiced by Rami “Mr. Robot” Malek? I didn’t!
- Korra and Bolin’s date was short and sweet, even if it ultimately ends with Bolin being heartbroken. And while we’re on that subject, I’ll admit that Bolin’s crying fit, while mean-spirited, was pretty funny. Maybe not as funny as Charlie Kelly’s reaction when his beloved Waitress revealed she slept with Danny DeVito instead of him in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but still pretty funny.
- Funny as it is in its own right, in the context of the episode and the series as a whole, that moment is intolerably cruel. It may be the lowest point in the series, on par with the moment when Aang suddenly appears and gives Korra her Bending back, and for a similar reason: Korra is as undeserving of this act of mercy as Bolin is as undeserving of this act of cruelty.
- The comparison to the similar scene in It’s Always Sunny is no accident. Charlie wasn’t exactly innocent in that whole ordeal (which is why his tearful reaction is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious), whereas Bolin was completely innocent: he genuinely liked Korra and was totally committed to starting a relationship. Asami is also innocent in this reckless game, but for more nefarious reasons (which won’t be clear until episode seven.)
- Contrast this with Mako, who the episode implies only started dating Asami for her money. And Korra’s attraction to Mako never receives an explanation of any kind, unless DiMartino and Konietzko were fully committed to the “all girls like bad boys” train of logic.
- Also consider the scene where Korra discusses her romance problems with Jinora and Ikki (which should let you know the maturity level we’re dealing with here), and eventually Pema. While both younger girls dish out their own versions of “love conquers all” wishful thinking, and Pema relays her own anecdotal advice, at no point does anyone ever ask Korra why she’s so in love with Mako. Nor does anyone discuss the ethics of pursuing a man in a relationship. (Both of which I’d almost expect from Jinora, since she’s apparently the smart one.)
- Instead, we have Pema essentially give Korra license to confess her “love” to Mako, since it worked for her and Tenzin. Of course, for no other reason than dramatic effect, she doesn’t outright say who she stole Tenzin from (nor what her lot in life was before meeting Tenzin, but never mind), just so they can surprise us in the next episode when we find out that it was Lin Bei Fong.
- By the way, what was the point of casting someone as uniquely funny as Maria Bamford as Pema, who has absolutely nothing worthwhile to do in the entire series (let alone anything funny)? Granted, Bamford has been a Nickelodeon staple since the 90s (ex. CatDog), so it makes some sense. Then again, Bamford was funny in those shows. This is just a waste of talent. (Jill Talley, another very funny lady, was similarly short-changed in The Boondocks.)
- The worst part about all of this is just little Korra herself suffers as a consequence of her poor decisions. By all accounts, she’s the absolute worst offender and the main instigator in this romantic nonsense, from leading Bolin on with their “date” to antagonizing Mako with lines like, “…when you’re with [Asami], you’re thinking about me, aren’t you?” This is the behavior of a sociopath, not the protagonist of a children’s program.
- But Korra faces no repercussions for any of this. She does apologize to Bolin after their last Pro-Bending match, but his reaction is so nonchalant that she might as well have said nothing at all. More to the point, the time to apologize (to Bolin and Mako) was in the Pro-Bending ring, when their lack of team work damn near cost them the game. Then they could have set their differences aside and won together as a team again, which frankly would have been the much more positive message for children.
- Instead, Mako and Bolin are booted and Korra wins the match on her own, because she’s such a Strong Female Character™. I’m not opposed to this victory so much as I’m frustrated that it came with no character growth or introspection of any kind. Imagine if they’d given Korra a moment to examine how her attempt at a forced connection with one teammate at the expense of the other drove both men away from her, leaving her and her alone to fix the problem, and in her determination to face the music, would have found the inner strength and resources to knockout all three players at once!
- It wouldn’t take much extra work. Just one of those cool 360 camera shots (which they do twice in this very episodes) showing Korra all by herself facing the three other players and ending with a determined expression on her face (similar to Katara’s shining moment of maturity back in “The Desert”). But I suppose that’s a bit too simple and too sophisticated a solution for a couple of writers who allowed their fans’ obsession with character relationships to poison their own intuitions as storytellers.
- And frankly, I think that is really what this all comes down to: DiMartino and Konietzko, and their turbulent relationship with their own fandom. And a lot of that has to do with shipping, a topic I’ve tried my best to avoid, which is all but impossible when you’re dealing with Avatar and Korra.
- Long story short, back in the days of Avatar, you had fans wanted Katara and Zuko to be together instead of Katara and Aang, and you had fans who wanted the opposite. The feud apparently bled into the writers’ room, with DiMartino and Konietzko and others aiming for Katara and Aang, and Aaron Ehasz and others aiming for Katara and Zuko. The series’ finale made it clear which side won, but just in case it wasn’t clear, for the following comic convention, the crew made a special video mocking any bizarre character pairings, including Katara and Zuko.
- Does any of this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Not in the slightest, and DiMartino and Konietzko should have known better than to have taken so seriously what should have only been a fun topic of discussion among fans. Not only did they take it a little too seriously, but they allowed it to negatively influence their writing process.
- Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m willing to bet that the forced pairing of Mako and Korra was an attempt to pander to those fans who wanted Katara and Zuko to be together, and—in its negative impact on the rest of the characters like Bolin and Asami—prove once and for all what a “toxic” influence the two have on each other.
- In any case, it didn’t work. No one liked the pairing, no one tolerated either character’s terrible behavior, and frankly, no one cared whether Korra got with Mako or Bolin or Asami or Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice. All anyone wanted was a good story well-told, and the forced and unnecessary romantic antics were nothing but a drain on everyone’s time and energy, be it the audience or the animators. Unfortunately, DiMartino and Konietzko were still flying high on the good will created by Avatar, so whatever they wanted, they got.
- And let’s be absolutely clear about something: Korra was supposed to be DiMartino and Konietzko’s bid to be taken seriously as filmmakers. After the fiasco with M. Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender, Korra was their chance to prove that they could still provide the goods and be true players in the Hollywood game. Lord knows they got major support: from major acting talent like J.K. Simmons and Steve Blum, to the often brilliant animation from Studio Mir of South Korea, to the utmost enthusiasm from the Nickelodeon executives—to the point that they got the go-ahead for four seasons right after Book One finished airing—DiMartino and Konietzko had everything going for them.
- And they blew it. All for a few low blows at the fandom that helped create their success. Such self-destruction tendencies would lead to lower ratings, and eventually to Korra being taken off the air entirely before the end of its run. And meanwhile, Shyamalan has recently managed to make something of a comeback with The Visit and Split, movies that managed to connect with audiences in a major way, thanks in large part to their sheer commitment to telling their story in the most effective and entertaining way possible. If only DiMartino and Konietzko had the same discipline.
I can remember watching this episode back when it first aired, and afterwards feelings like it was a completely pointless episode in a series with only twelve-episodes. In hindsight, maybe for DiMartino and Konietzko, this episode and all the ilk spilled from it was the point, and the vastly more interesting Amon and Equalist plot was just a means to that end. Pretty sad really. Needless to say, it’s all downhill from here. At least we get one last gasp of brilliance before the series completely derails itself.
Next week: Avatar: “Winter Solstice, Part 1 & 2”
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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?
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?)
- 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.
- 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.
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”
The next Retrospective review is getting pushed back to next Saturday, April 29th. I won’t bother you all with the details, but let’s just say that a few days back, I experienced a “debilitating relapse” that all but wrecked my mental faculties for the rest of the week. I’ll be back on track by Sunday, by which point I’ll recommence with the Retrospective and the research.
Speaking of research, I want to say thank you to everyone who sends me links to interesting interviews or articles on Avatar and Korra. I’ll be adding them to the Research Hub. I also need to get better with responding to any and all comments I get, so I’m going to reserve Wednesday and Saturday as the days I respond to all new comments. We’ll see if that works out better.
In general, I want to thank everyone who’s been with me on this long, crazy ride to review Avatar and Korra (AGAIN). This entire process is always fun and educational for me, especially seeing what other folks feel and think about these two shows. To have created two shows so rich with ideas and intrigue is no small feat, and whatever my qualms with the quality and execution of either show, DiMartino and Konietzko deserve a good deal of praise and respect.
Thanks again for all the love and support. Have fun, be safe, and choose life!
Having mastered Water, Earth and Fire, Korra leaves her home to learn Airbending from Aang’s son Tenzin in Republic City. The Airbending lessons go poorly, however, and Korra ends up finding more success in a new Bending sport known as “Pro-Bending.”
- These episodes really want to make sure you understand that Korra is absolutely nothing like Aang. Where the former Avatar was basically a kind and good-nature soul who did not want to be the Avatar, but needed to learn to be brave, assertive, and confrontational in order to fulfill his duty to the world, Korra is the exact opposite: she’s a head-strong, aggressive young lady who loves her status as the new Avatar, but desperately needs to learn patience and tenderness, especially if she’s going to master Airbending, the most evasive and spiritual of the elements.
- Needless to say, Airbending masters aren’t exactly abundant anymore. To make things worse, Tenzin, son of Aang and currently the only Airbending master on the planet, can’t make time to teach Korra anything because of his duties in Republic City. And it’s not like there’s any pressing reason to teach her right away. Republic City may have its problems, but that’s nothing compared to having to single-handedly end a war that had been going on for a hundred years.
- But Korra doesn’t just run away to Republic City to learn Airbending: ever since she was “discovered” to be the Avatar at the age of four (?), the White Lotus have kept her in her Southern Water Tribe village for the past thirteen years. The better part of her developmental years were spent in isolation and what must have been constant training to be the next Avatar. (Apparently, Aang wanted the White Lotus to make sure the next Avatar was well-protected from an early age. This makes a certain amount of sense coming from Aang, but the show implies that the White Lotus took this to the extreme, and sheltered Korra from the outside world most of her life.) The girl desperately needs to get out into the world, and the giant metropolis where her Airbending teacher lives is a great start.
- Republic City is the capital of the new world, envisioned by Aang and Zuko to be a place where everyone—Benders, Non-Benders, etc.—could come together in peace and harmony. It’s societal issues notwithstanding, Republic City is a marvel of a place, booming with modern industry, technology, architecture, business, entertainment, etc. Unfortunately, the dream of “peace and harmony” has given way to violent disputes between Benders and Non-Benders, so much so that an organization known as the Equalists is calling for a revolution to end “Bending oppression.”
- Not that any of this concerns Korra (yet), who just wants to learn her Airbending and fulfill her duty as Avatar. Mostly, she just wants to kick ass and bring justice whenever she can, wherever she can. Unfortunately, there’s only so much ass you can kick in Republic City before the law gets involved. That law is firmly enforced by the Metalbending police, led by Lin Bei Fong (daughter of Toph), and they won’t stand for vigilante justice, not even from the Avatar. If Tenzin hadn’t persuaded Lin to drop the charges, Korra could have very well been the first Avatar with a record.
- Against his better judgment, Tenzin decides to keep Korra in Republic City with him, letting her live with his family (including his wife, Pema, and three Airbending children, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo) and making time to teach her Airbending. The first hurdle they have to overcome is Korra’s stubbornness and impatience. Not that she’d admit to anything like that: when all fails and she still can’t break her own wind, she blames it on Tenzin’s incompetence as a teacher. For his part, Tenzin barely manages to maintain his composure when dealing with this prideful teenager. Still, the girl has a point: Tenzin’s old school methods and principles simply don’t translate to the “here-and-now” ethos of a young woman who has only just begun to explore the outside world.
- For someone as competitive and aggressive as Korra, Pro-Bending is where it’s at. In this sport, two teams of three Benders face off and try to knock each opposing player out of the ring. It’s a fast and dangerous sport, requiring as much agility in evading attacks as it does brute force in giving them. For everyone in Republic City, Pro-Bending is the main source of entertainment. Everyone but Tenzin, who considers it a mockery of the art of Bending. So naturally, Korra sneaks off to see a few matches against his wishes.
- Conveniently, she not only gets to meet her favorite team—the Fire Ferrets—and see them play first-hand, but when one of the players unexpected quits, she gets to play on the team (as long as she only Waterbends). Lo and behold, Pro-Bending turns out to be just the thing she needed to put those annoying Airbending lessons into practice. Even Tenzin recognizes this and (begrudgingly) allows her to continue playing professionally as long as she devotes as much time to her actual Airbending.
- Being on the Fire Ferrets also means making actual friends (boys, no less!). First, there’s Bolin, the Earthbender of the team, who is a bit of a goofball and absolutely loves the adoration of his fans. Then there’s Mako, the Firebender, who takes the sport (and life in general) very seriously and has no time for anyone who doesn’t. Bolin warms up to Korra almost immediately, while Mako only starts to have respect for her once she pulls her weight in Pro-Bending. For her part, Korra likes Bolin a lot, too, but seems very keen on getting Mako’s approval since he’s, like, her favorite Pro-Bending player ever.
- By the way, Bolin and Mako are brothers, which unfortunately makes the prospects of a love triangle very probable.
- Maybe this is more a testament to how little Korra develops as a character throughout the series, but the most entertaining scenes of these episodes are those of her failing to properly learn the principles of Airbending. One of her first challenges is to successfully navigate through a series of spinning doors by using the air currents created by their rotations. Not one for nuance, Korra constantly tries to force her way through and gets smacked around by the revolving doors like a pinball. Again, my enjoyment of these scenes probably have to do the fact that Korra so rarely gets any comeuppances for her terrible behavior. Scenes like these are a blessing.
- Same goes for her arrest by the Metalbending police and her initial failure as a Pro-Bender, where her rookie mistakes nearly cost the Fire Ferrets their chance at the championships. At least in these scenes, when she does get a handle on the sport thanks to Tenzin’s Airbending lessons, there is a sense that Korra can grow and learn from her mistakes, so the Fire Ferrets’ victory feels earned instead of forced.
- As for the Fire Ferret brothers, Bolin and Mako thus far are solid characters and well-voiced by P.J. Byrne and David Faustino respectively. As time went on, both would fall victim to some damning Flanderization. But for now? Just two cool dudes.
- We don’t see much of Tenzin’s family, but they all start off fairly likable. Meelo is the stand-out with his potato head and his bizarre, but cute animation patterns. Not that Ikki and Jinora aren’t cute, too.
- J.K. Simmons as Tenzin is one of those pitch perfect casting decisions that keeps reminding you just how much range Simmons really has. (Tenzin even bears enough resemblance to Simmons that you wonder if it’s intentional.) As the only Airbending spawn of Aang, Tenzin must endure the unenviable burden of being the Avatar’s son and training the new incarnate of the Avatar. Simmons finds a way to play up Tenzin’s put-upon seriousness for pathos and comedy.
- If there’s one constant in these two episode and the entirety of Book One, it’s the high quality of the animation. For American television animation, this is as good as it gets. The traditional animation of the characters and Bending is as good as the best stuff in Avatar, but it’s the computer animation that really gives it the edge. Sometimes the effect is obvious (as with the huge zeppelins that hover above Republic City), and sometimes it’s very subtle (as when the “camera” moves freely through the CG environment to produce the effect of a pan, a tilt, a dolly, etc.). All of this creates a sense of space and intensity that Avatar could only rarely capture. Truly impressive stuff from directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu (and Konietzko as art director).
- Unfortunately, not even the best animation could save these episodes from the lethargy of the writing. Unlike with Avatar, DiMartino and Konietzko wrote each of the twelve episodes themselves, which you’d think would keep the story tight and concise, preventing the occasional interludes of nonsense found sporadically in Avatar. Not only are those interludes present in these episodes, but the real problem is that the story proper doesn’t actually begin until episode three, when Amon makes his grand entrance.
- Two episodes of nothing but setup wouldn’t be so bad if the episodes were consistently entertaining and completely devoted to developing the new characters and the new setting of Republic City. But much like our protagonists, the writing lacks restraint.
- Within the first five minutes of the first episode of the new Avatar spin-off mini-series, we get a completely unnecessary and utterly unfunny joke where Katara is unable to answer the question “What happened to Zuko’s mom?” The fact that, seventy years after the fact, Jinora could read all about the adventures of Katara and friends from Avatar, and yet there’s still no closure to the mystery of Zuko’s mother is mystifying enough. But the real question is, in the context of this new adventure, “Who cares?”
- In Republic City, Korra meets a hobo who lives in the bushes. This hobo is supposed to represent the disparity of the classes in Republic City, shattering Korra’s delusion that everyone in the city is “living it up.” The problem is that this hobo and his situation is portrayed with the cheerful whimsy of…a kid’s show (or a Broadway musical). You’d think this man would at least be a little more desperate and broken in spirit if the intention was to show how low you can go living just enough for the city. Instead, this man looks as if he’ll break out into a lavish musical number any second about life as a hobo in Republic City. (His behavior is explained later in the season. Not that it helps.)
- The main problem with these episodes is the lack of any real drama. In Avatar, the war and the Avatar’s purpose to end it was established before we even met the characters. In contrast, Korra’s delay on her Airbending lessons seems more like a personal problem than a conflict worth investing in by the audience.
- Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko were banking on Korra’s personality to carry these episodes. For all her aggressive and occasional outbursts, however, she’s just not a very interesting person. I believe this is in large part because of Janet Varney’s voice performance, which is just a little too cool and restrained for a loose cannon like Korra.
- The scripts do her no favors, either: mistakes are made, but invariably, nearly every one of Korra’s decisions works in her favor, and there are damn near no consequences for her lousy behavior and actions. (After being arrested, it’s Tenzin who has to pay the damages for Korra’s destruction of private property; she all but destroys the 2,000-year-old contraption used to teach her Airbending and somehow makes Tenzin look like the one at fault.)
- I certainly don’t recall Aang getting off that easily for some of his more reckless behavior. I can recall how, in the span of two episodes, he damn near lost his only friends by: 1) withholding important information about their father, who they hadn’t seen in years (and didn’t even know was alive or not); and 2) burning Katara’s hands due to his impatience with his first Firebending instructor. If either of these things had happened with Korra, the narrative would surely have found some way to make her behavior seem justified.
- Before moving on, I must confess that I forgot all about Naga the polar-bear dog. I’ll let that speak for itself.
- All that said, I have to admit: I love little four-year-old Korra. I love the fact that she can easily Bend water, fire, and earth at such a ridiculously early age. I love that she’s very aware of what the Avatar is and especially that she’s the latest reincarnation. Little Korra is simply adorable, and I really wish that precious child could have had a better upbringing (by the White Lotus and by DiMartino and Konietzko).
- Of course, I can only judge her upbringing based on the results we see throughout the rest of the series, since we never actually get to witness any of Korra’s training up to the present day. We don’t even get so much as a flashback to those crucial years of Korra’s development. Did the idea never even occur to DiMartino and Konietzko that perhaps the audience would want to see snippets of Korra’s upbringing the same way we got to see the upbringings of villains Amon and Tarrlok?
- Then again, by leaving those thirteen years or so of training out of the big picture (except through throwaway lines of exposition), DiMartino and Konietzko almost successfully cover up some questionable choices in the story they wanted to tell. In fact, the more familiar you are with Avatar, the more damning these choices are.
- For instance, one of the White Lotus leaders (thanklessly played by Stephen Root) says that Korra always excelled at the physical side of Bending since she was a little girl, but ignored the spiritual side. Presumably, he’s referring to that same little girl that we all witnessed as fully capable of Bending water, earth, and fire, to which the only appropriate response is a resounding “no shit.”
- Let’s quickly compare this to Aang’s learning curve. The kid couldn’t even Earthbend until Book Two, and that required him to learn assertiveness and combativeness when the situation called for it. Then he couldn’t even Firebend until Book Three, after learning the true source of Firebending from a pair of dragons. The way I see, being able to Bend any of these elements at all is the first major obstacle towards mastering them. The fact that Korra is able to Bend earth and fire at the mere age of four is nothing short of a miracle.
- You would think that the White Lotus, having witnessed this little girl’s capacity to Bend three of the elements already, would immediately ask to see her Bend the fourth one. And when she couldn’t, they would instantly set about creating the conditions in which Airbending would be possible. Not that they would neglect her mastery of the other three elements, just that they’d put more focus and energy on her weak spots. Just thinking about it from a teacher’s perspective: if a student excelled in all but one subject, would it not be reasonable for the teacher to further investigate why that one subject that gave the student trouble where the others didn’t? Wouldn’t it have done the White Lotus some good to do the same for Korra (much like Aang had to do for himself when Earthbending just wasn’t coming to him)?
- The series does have an excuse for this lapse in judgment: Korra could only possibly learn Airbending from Tenzin, the only Airbending master on the planet, and the only reason he delays his teachings is due to his heavy workload in Republic City. This makes sense up to a point.
- Sure, he couldn’t teach her directly, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have given her something to study and practice until then. In Avatar, specifically “The Deserter,” Jeong Jeong didn’t teach Aang how to Bend fire right away; he started with basic breathing exercises. In Korra’s case, it’s vaguely established that he’s visited her in her homeland before. Couldn’t he have given her some exercises during his visits? Hell, when Korra actually gets to Republic City and starts learning from Tenzin directly, one of their first exercises is meditation. Couldn’t Korra have practiced meditating all those years in the Southern Water Tribe? (As for Tenzin’s excuse that Korra needs a “calm, quiet place free from distraction” to learn Airbending, well…what better place than the fucking South Pole?!)
- In fact, Tenzin wouldn’t even have to be physically present to give Korra these exercises. Postage clearly exists in the Avatar universe, and there’s no reason he couldn’t send her letters filled with Airbending practices, positions, and wisdom until he could teach her directly. In Avatar, Aang and Katara came upon a Waterbending scroll that taught them a lot of moves. This scroll wasn’t the be-all-end-all of Waterbending mastery—they’d still need to guidance of an actual master—but it was a start, especially since Aang hadn’t really Waterbended at that point. Couldn’t Korra have gotten something similar in letter form from Tenzin from time to time? I mean, it would be one thing if she got such letters and did ignore them (generating some tension between her and Tenzin). The fact that the idea never crossed anyone’s mind is negligence on someone’s point, be it Tenzin’s or the White Lotus’, or DiMartino and Konietzko’s.
- I could honestly continue much further down this train of thought, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop here. I believe much of this confusion comes from the fact that DiMartino and Konietzko wanted so badly for their initial conception of Korra (teenaged, female, anti-Aang to the point of not being able to Airbend) to work. The fact that they couldn’t even make it properly cohere to the mythology and logic previously established by Avatar should have been the first warning sign that Korra, the series and the character, were simply not going to live up to our expectations.
- I think what DiMartino, Konietzko, Santos and Ryu really needed during the development stage of Korra’s production was another writer; someone who could play Lawrence Kasdan to their George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; someone who could exclusively focus on the narrative, the characters, the drama, and all that important foundational stuff while the other four guys were busy arguing over the best way to draw a fucking ear. That writer could have even been Aaron Ehasz.
The best way to sum up these two episodes would be “visually engaging, narratively uninvolving.” (By Book Two, the first part wouldn’t even be true, absolving audiences of the only reason to continue watching the show.) Thankfully it will get better—even great—before it gets worse. Much, much worse.
(Once again taking a page out of the book of everyone’s favorite Russian music reviewer George Starostin, the format for the episode analyses is a variation on that of his Important Album Series. For example, here is his write-up on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.)
This will include a very brief summary of the episode(s) in discussion.
- This section will focus almost exclusively on the narrative aspects of the episodes. This includes character, plot points, locations, etc., in no set order.
- New characters, new locations, and any new insight into the mythology and inner workings of the Avatar universe are detailed here.
- This is where things get more subjective, in which I elaborate on the effectiveness of the storytelling, action set pieces, animation, music, voice acting, editing, etc.
- Same as “high points,” but for moments and choices I thought didn’t work as well.
- This section is reserved for any loose observations or thoughts that have no place in the previous ones.
- This section will be a bit of a wild card (and likely the most subjective of all), as it deals more so with the “meta” of Avatar and Korra than with the mythologies of either show.
Finally, any final thoughts on the episode(s) will be put in this section.
Keep in mind, too, that none of this is set in stone. As the series progresses, previous reviews can be revised and amended in light of new connections between episodes, and new information and insights about the series. This will be an experiment as well as a retrospective, which means it’s just as liable to reveal new layers to both shows as it is to crash and burn into chaotic nonsense.
Any thoughts? Suggestions? Concerns? Let me know. In the meantime, let’s get started and see what happens!
Next week: Avatar: “The Boy in the Iceberg” & “The Avatar Returns”