Because fans should be critical, too

The Legend of Korra

Announcement: Next Retro Review Pushed Back One Week; Research and Responses

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!


Retro: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”

B.A.S.S. Line:

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.”

Key Points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. By the way, Bolin and Mako are brothers, which unfortunately makes the prospects of a love triangle very probable.

High Points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).

Low Points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.
  9. Before moving on, I must confess that I forgot all about Naga the polar-bear dog. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Random Points:

  1. 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).
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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)?
  7. 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.
  8. 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?!)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Conclusion:

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.


Retrospective: Episode(s) Analysis Format

(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.)

B.A.S.S. Line:

This will include a very brief summary of the episode(s) in discussion.

Key Points:

  1. This section will focus almost exclusively on the narrative aspects of the episodes. This includes character, plot points, locations, etc., in no set order.
  2. New characters, new locations, and any new insight into the mythology and inner workings of the Avatar universe are detailed here.

High Points:

  1. 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.

Low Points:

  1. Same as “high points,” but for moments and choices I thought didn’t work as well.

Random Points:

  1. This section is reserved for any loose observations or thoughts that have no place in the previous ones.
  2. 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.

Conclusion:

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”


Thoughts on the Series Finale of “Korra”

There are two specific moments in the Book Four finale that resonated with me in contrary, but peculiar ways.

The first moment occurs at the end, and it involves everything with Korra and Asami. Now, let’s say you’re an unsuspecting viewer with no prior knowledge of The Legend of Korra, and you just happen to catch these last few minutes of the series. You’d be excused for thinking this was the culmination of a relationship between two women who’d been through Hell and back together, and now wanted to take some time away with to relax and enjoy each other’s company. On it’s own, it’s a touching moment. (And I agree with JMR that the implications of a lesbian relationship in a kid’s show is pretty damn cool.)

Unfortunately, as seasoned viewers of Korra know, this moment is supposed to be the pay-off to four seasons worth of material. But where was the set-up? Where in the rest of the story did the writers plant the expectation in the audience’s head that these two should be together like this? Perhaps it counts as a hint when Korra and Asami wrote each other letters during the three-year gap between Book Three and Book Four. In one episode, Korra specifically states she only felt comfortable writing to Asami. But even that development comes out of nowhere (though it does get addressed in another episode, which helps). As much as I’d love for this ending between Korra and Asami to work, from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t. It feels forced and unnatural. I can’t go, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” because my brain is making me go, “Where the fuck did that come from?”

Contrast this with the second moment, which occurs right after Korra has saved Kuvira from her own death ray gun, opened a new spirit portal, and transported them both to the Spirit World. Upon entry, Korra is holding an unconscious Kuvira in her arms (in a manner uncharacteristically maternal for Korra, which adds to the effect). Here’s the kicker: Kuvira wakes up, realizes she’s in the Avatar’s arms, releases a genuinely terrified whimper and jumps out of Korra’s arms.

Initially, I expected Kuvira to stay weak and vulnerable in Korra’s arms as they went into the usual spiel of “You saved my life! Why?” That expectation was usurped by Kuvira simply because she’s not the kind of person to allow herself to be weak and vulnerable, especially not in the presence of her greatest enemy, let alone in her arms. (Listen to that whimper Zelda Williams does once Kuvira starts pulling away from Korra. It sounds frightened, but also embarrassed. Since when in the Hell is Kuvira ever embarrassed?)

This little window into Kuvira’s psyche reveals more about her than even the following sob story about her childhood as an orphan (that said, it does make her repulsion at being in such a child-like state in Mama Korra’s arms that much more intriguing). Like the best and most effective bits of character development, our understanding of the character comes from not what she says, but from our expectations being subverted/affirmed by her emotional reality. In this brief little moment, Kuvira has no choice but to be herself, even if it’s completely irrational. In hindsight, what else would she have done?

These two relatively brief moments are the only ones that really stood out to me in the entire two-part finale. Had you checked my pulse throughout the rest of the finale, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was dead. That’s how bored I was. Not that there weren’t nice little touches here and there—the fight between Kuvira and Korra in the head of the Giant Mecha Suit was brilliantly accomplished, and I personally loved everything having to do with Varrick and Zhu Li, but they really deserve their own show—but for the most part, it played out so blandly. Moments that should have been tense and exhilarating don’t have the impact they should. Moments that should be emotional lack characters and motivations strong enough to warrant such investment (particularly bad when it comes to the fate of Hiroshi Sato, who the writers reconnected with his daughter only so he could take part in the final boss battle). Any scene involving the Giant Mecha Suit comes across as silly and non-threatening (watching that thing try to swat away its airborne attackers falls somewhere between being really funny and really stupid). And on top of everything, the level of destruction in these episodes damn near made me sick. This could just be a personal thing, but after enduring Transformers, The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Godzilla, and especially Man of Steel (one of the absolute worst movie-going experiences of my life), I’m tired of all this reckless property and collateral damage. They should have spent less time destroying Republic City and more time making sure we actually cared about the folks caught in the chaos.

Much like the rest of the series, the finale contains one wasted opportunity after another. As much as I despise the Giant Mecha Suit, it did provide a brilliant conceit: because Kuvira is Metalbending to the Suit, she can feel everything that happens to it. That explains how she could tell Hiroshi was cutting into her leg with the Hummingbird ship (because she certainly couldn’t look down to see it). The idea that Kuvira was personally enduring the damage brought upon the Giant Mecha Suit would have made for some interesting drama, especially in the scene where she rips her right arm off when the gun no longer works. None of this really comes into play, though, probably because they didn’t have time (or the budget, for that matter) to fully realize the potential of all their ideas. What a pity.

Still, what works does work well. Despite the typically stilted dialogue, I rathed liked Korra’s final scene with Tenzin, even though it reminded me that Tenzin was one of the worst casualities of Korra‘s messy, unfocused execution. And it was nice to see Kuvira, if not redeemed, at least surrender on her own terms. And seeing the Bei Fong sisters in action is always fun.

Overall, though, this was the most disappointing finale of the entire series, which is odd to think about. Book One’s finale infuriated me. Book Two’s finale baffled me. Book Three’s finale physically made me sick. And now this finale made me feel almost nothing. Unless I’ve just grown numb after four seasons, I simply don’t understand how this could happen. How could a series with so much going for it from the start devolve into such a mess? How is this a worthy follow-up to Avatar: the Last Airbender? I honestly wonder if creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko just stopped caring at some point, and just wanted to get the whole thing over with. What will their next project be? Will they try to separate themselves from the Avatar universe as much as possible? Or will they be stuck having to make those Avatar comics for the rest of their lives?

Whatever the case, Korra is finally done, and all I’m left with is the nagging regret of someone whose wasted a good part of their life devoted to a relationship that was never really there to begin with. (Now I’m just being dramatic, and I apologize.)

The good news, though, is that now I’m that much more excited to re-watch Avatar!


I Can’t Believe It’s Almost Over…

It’s a bit strange to think that, in just a few days, The Legend of Korra will come to an end. After four seasons and two-and-a-half years, the spin-off of Avatar: the Last Airbender will no longer be around.* No more new episodes to tune in to, on the Internet or otherwise. No more adventures of Korra, who only just started to grow on me this season. No more relevant updates from creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who will probably forever be caught in the existential trappings of a hardcore fandom and anime conventions. No more bizarre developments to bitch and moan about (like that Giant Mech Suit, which I’ll talk about in a moment). No more missed/wasted opportunities to tell a good story within the confines of an American animated children’s program.

I’m actually tearing up just thinking about it.

To alleviate (exacerbate?) my grief, I started leafing through the “Art of” book for Book One of Korra. Every new page made me more wistful than the last. Here I am going through the selected concepts, ideas, sketches, background paintings, key animation sheets, etc., of what will probably be the last great traditionally-animated television show ever produced (and it wasn’t even that good). How did a show with the potential to revolutionize what could be done with American animated children’s programming devolve into such a joyless and pretentious enterprise? How did we go from the Equalists (who, for all their dirty tactics, made some damn good points about the marginalization of Non-Benders in the Avatar universe) to a Giant Mech Suit straight out of C-grade anime?

And let me make this absolutely clear: I hate Kuriva’s Giant Mech Suit. It fails on every possible level. Aesthetically, it doesn’t match up with the mostly traditionally-animated atmosphere of the series. Viscerally, it lacks any sense of weight and scale necessary to make us feel its terrifying presence. Thematically, it’s silly and obvious. Dramatically, it reduces the human drama to a video game.** Intellectually, all bets are off: Kuvira is most definitely crazy, and beyond redemption and empathy. Emotionally, it’s void: how am I supposed to be invested in something I don’t believe has any right to exist in this universe? How am I supposed to relate to the characters if they can’t even relate to the gravity of their own situation? Not one character seems bothered that a giant robot being controlled by an evil dictator—on the face of it, a gruesomely nightmarish idea—is going to destroy their city. Wouldn’t the very sight of such a monstrosity cause even a hint of shock and awe? By comparison, Seth Rogen’s reaction to the giant, well-endowed demon of Hell in This Is The End was more plausible. Yes, a Seth Rogen comedy about the apocalypse was more believable than this new development in a serious fantasy drama. (And you know what? I bet Rogen’s new film The Interview will contain a much more nuanced portrayal of an evil dictator than we have here in Kuvira.)

Are my tribulations unfounded? Could the last two episodes actually save the series from utter disgrace? Have DiMartino, Konietzko, and company found a way to redeem the many missed opportunities and mistakes they’ve made up to this point?

I honestly don’t think so. History certainly isn’t on their side: every single season finale of Korra has been horrendous, and they’ve gotten worse each season (though I’ll give Book Three a pass because it finally helped humanize Korra in my eyes). First, Aang gave Korra back her Bending when she was in no position to deserve it. That happened in the last three or so minutes. Then, there was the completely nonsensical (or “spiritual,” as Konietzko called it) fight between a giant blue Korra and a giant red Unalaq. That lasted almost an entire episode.

Now here’s a Giant Mech Suit that Korra must find a way to take down (only because she promised Dante Basco that she would). Two episodes to go? What’s going to happen? Will Korra become the Blue Giant again and wrestle it out with the Giant Mech Suit? While that’s happening, will the others and Bataar, Jr. sneak into the suit, find Kuvira, and distract her with Bataar, Jr.’s presence? Maybe Bataar, Jr., having nothing else to live for—he betrayed his family, and now his own lover just tried to kill him—will initiate the second known murder-suicide in the Avatar universe by destroying himself, Kuvira, and the Giant Mech Suit. Maybe Blue Giant Korra will deliver an uppercut that sends Kuvira and her Giant Mech Suit to spend their remaining breathes in outer space. (Now I’m just getting silly.)

If this wild speculation tells you anything, it’s that I hungrily await these last two episodes of Korra. Good or bad, redeeming or damning, tear or rage-inducing, whatever they are, I’ll be tuning. I don’t know if it’s for completionist’s sake (I mean, it’s only two more episodes), or masochism, or plain curiosity to see how much worse (or better!) it could actually get, but facts are facts: for two more episodes, I am a faithful viewer. Only when it’s over will I be able to adequately evaluate what exactly it was I was faithful to.***

*On television, anyway. As far as I know, they’ll still be making Avatar and Korra comics as long as they make money from devoted fans.

**In all fairness, while the Giant Mech Suit itself is beyond idiotic, from a strictly formal standpoint, its reveal was absolutely brilliant. Despite their flaws as storytellers, DiMartino and Konietzko are masters of the element of surprise. Maybe they learned it from working with M. Night Shyamalan.

***On a completely unrelated note, happy 40th birthday, P.J. Byrne!

Take Two:


Quick Impressions of “Kuvira’s Gambit”

Has it come to this? Is this what we were waiting for? Were Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra nothing more than an extended preview to a video game? Have we finally reached the final boss? Will Korra have to hypercharge into her Giant Mega Form (as last seen in the nauseating finale of Book Two)?

Perhaps I’d be more open to accepting this new plot development if the Giant Mecha Suit looked like it belonged within the Avatar universe on at least an aesthetic level. As executed in the episode, this lumbling CG travesty looks like it was imported directly from a PlayStation 2 release. Where were the Miyazaki-inspired intuitions of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko when this came into development? (Or maybe they were thinking of Neon Genesis Evangelion.) Maybe this would have played out better with a cinema-level budget, as opposed to the comparatively meager budgets of television animation. Then again, this isn’t the first time something was compromised by Book Four’s budget cut. Remember the clips show episode “Remembrances?”

Forgive me if I dwell too much on my hatred of the very existence of this Giant Mecha Suit. My judgment of this entire episode has been clouded by it. I could have sworn that the rest of the episode played out like video game cut scenes, complete with strategies on how to defeat the giant boss (for the multi-player effect), and even a concept for a stealth level: kidnapp Bataar, Jr. and bring him back to the hideout.

Speaking of Bataar, Jr., my tribulations with voice actor Todd Haberkorn’s performance have proven justified. The entire sequence in which his love for Kuvira proves to be his undoing –she’d rather lose him trying to defeat the Avatar rather than save him to secure a happy relationship during peace time–loses much of its power thanks to his unconvincing slimeball delivery. (Zelda Williams, on the other hand, provided just enough nuance to her short lines with Bataar, Jr. to make you feel her dilemma.) Had Haberkorn been up to snuff, this could have been a nice little scene. It may have even redeemed the stupidity of the Giant Mecha Suit by attaching it to an emotional beak of the story.

I’m afraid, dear readers. We only have two more episodes to go. Every season finale has gotten longer and more horrible. Book Two’s finale was twice as bad (and lasted much longer) as the Book One finale. We’re approaching the finale of Book Four. Will this finale be twice as bad as Book Two’s? Mathematically, it seems feasible. What are we in for?

Maybe I’ll just being silly. What did you all think of this episode?


Quick Thoughts on “Operation Beifong”

A very good episode! It definitely has the best Bending duel (between Kuvira and Suyin) that I’ve seen in a long time. All the action and suspense worked wonderfully. And it was good to see that Zhu Li was trying to sabotage the big gun all along (even if she did help build it, but she was just trying to keep up appearances, or maybe she changed her mind in the process of building it, speculation, speculation, etc.).

I was afraid that Toph’s re-appearance would be intrusive (in a bad way), but it wasn’t. It actually felt quite natural. Seeing the entire Bei Fong family together was actually kind of sweet. (I loved that Suyin’s husband tries to call Toph “mom.”)

By the way, I think I know why Opal bugs me. It has nothing to do with her anger at Bolin. It’s her voice actor, Alison Stoner, that irks me. She was fine last season, but here, she’s being asked to convey emotions that are beyond her capabilities (compare Stoner to Mae Whitman as Katara back in Avatar: the Last Airbender, where a similar grudge was held against Zuko until “The Southern Raiders”).

Maybe it’s just me. In any case, what did you all think of this episode?