For the first 6 episodes of Korra, the titular character and the rest of Team Avatar were made out to be unlikeable and foolishly naive. Almost like they had all didn’t realize they’d been pulled into a story where the stakes are the fate of the world (Damon Lindelof would be proud). Korra has been made out rightly as an egotistical sheltered schoolgirl who has been told she is the Muhammad Ali all the time and only knows how to problem solve with brutish action. The rest of Team Avatar has been pushed to the side by naive trust in adults who are wacky. The only one who isn’t is Mako, which has been consistently shown to be the most wait and see/mature member. This season and last really upped the ante on complex morally gray stories with socio political slants. Of course this bunch of teenagers are in no way prepared or capable of navigating much less solving these problems. It all isn’t their fault the worst thing they’ve done is be youthful in a now modern world. They couldn't know any better and none of them have Aangs innate sense of character. “Beginnings” does a lot of knowledge dropping and explains A LOT (so much so that I’m pretty certain I’ll end up leaving stuff out) but it does so by going back to story telling roots.
When The Last Airbender aired “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” (Book 3 Chapter 6) the show was in about the same spot as Korra Book 2. Around the middle part of the book that needed to set up the endgame and do some explain and pay off those allusions. We had always had these vague allusions to a connection between Aang and Zuko from a story perspective but “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” gave them a very real in universe connection. The prequel episode also explained a heck of lot of stuff from the failings of Avatar Roku and how that allowed for the Hundreds Year War and The Last Airbender to happen. But it wasn’t like a needless prequel like The Thing(2011) that explained was wholly tied to the things that would happen. Instead it informed the present by showing us the story of friendship broken by duty and a lust for power. “Beginnings” does this on a much grander scale, explaining the motivations of Unalaqu, Korra’s amnesia. All of which is wrapped in to the heroic journey of Wan as he becomes the first Avatar.
The story of Wan and his journey like all of Avatar is eastern mysticism wrapped in western myth. Transitioning from the Prometheus and the Theft of Fire myth into Pandora and her box. With what appeared to be a bit of the old Persian religion, Zoroastrianism and the battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. It is a basic story structure from the roots of Western storytelling. Not to be all fanboyish but there is also plenty of references to plenty of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away mainly). All of this gave “Beginnings” more power and sway than if it hadn't had these textural references. There was areal beauty in the simplicity of it’s structure..
In a world before the Avatar man and spirit lived in the same realm in disharmonious circumstances. The spirits unknowingly driving humanity from their home and atop the giant Lion Turtles (one of many o shit moments). These Lion Turtle cities are like the proto versions of what would become the Four Nations. The one housing what would become the Air Nomads greatly resemble the modern ones. Wan, lived on the Lion Turtle that would be the Fire Nation. Which looked a lot like the Fire Nation as we know it. An absolute monarchy under the House of Chu with an aristocracy within the walls of the Lion Turtle city. Wan was not an aristocrat or royal, he was a peasant (who is introduced straight up Aladdin style). Sick of his meeger standings he steals the gift of fire from the Lion Turtle and is banished from the city and forced to live in the spirit wilds.
From there he slowly becomes the proto-Avatar, learning to be the first true Fire Bender and not just a “Fire Tosser” and listening to the spirits. That journey doesn't really begin until he comes across a pair of great spirits fighting in the valley like a pair of Kaiju. Wan jumps to conclusion and breaks the two beasts apart, freeing Vaatu - spirit of eternal chaos and darkness - from the control of Ravva - spirit of harmony and light. Pushing him on an eternal quest to bring balance and save to world from his misdeeds. You’ve heard it all before.
What is perhaps most interesting to this proto world is the treatment of Spirits. Up to this point they had always been shown to be wise all knowing beings. Here they are made out to be no better than humanity in the ignorance and intolerance of others. Their in ability to share the physical world with humanity put i out of balance. The Spirit Wilds as they are called are overgrown and deadly. Making the Lion Turtles give humanity to bend an element in order to protect themselves. All of them though were part of Vaatu’s long term plan to take power by introducing hate and distrust into the worlds of Spirit and Man when he opened the portal between Physical and Spiritual. An interesting take on the fallibility and selfishness of man.
“Beginnings” wrapping the larger issues of Book 2 into a larger eternal struggle between harmony and chaos doesn't take away from the morally gray areas (Varrick) has gone. If anything it seems to give them a more titanical feel and different spin on how to view them. Varrick isn’t “evil” but is his actions are certainly part of a large movement into disharmony.
I’m leaving out a ton of stuff but I need to leave room for Callum. I’ll probably end up writing something more in depth about this episode anyway later when I have more space. I’ve rewatched it now two and a half times and can really tell I’m to close to it for proper thought. Something should be said though for the aesthetics of this episode. Bluntly: IT LOOKED FUCKING BEAUTIFUL (also it makes me want them to announce a Blu Ray release yesterday). The cell shading mixed with the woodblock art created a wholly unique but familar take on the world. It is worth noting that Studio Mir, the people who did last season did these two episodes and man can you tell. Not in the action sequences but in the dialog moments, something about more key frames (read more here) Everything felt so alive and vibrant.
Having read the Damon Lindelof feature on Blockbuster screenwriting, I can’t help but wonder what they have planned for Book 3 and 4. Can’t really get much bigger than a climatic every 10,000 year fight between the forces of eternal harmony and chaos. Than I remember there is still 5 more episodes left in this Book. I wouldn’t mind a return to the more social problems brought up Book 1.
The Bits At The End
Talk about this episode in our Discussion Thread.
To quote Emily Guendelsberger “Oh, man, there’s so much to talk about! I’m going to have to leave a lot of things (in particular the super interesting ways in which, by seeing the way the pre-bending society worked, we can extrapolate how bending has made for a pretty egalitarian society in which the genders are basically equal and situations in which an upper class oppresses an underclass are much harder to sustain)” That’s how I felt as I plugged away at what this has become last night and this morning.
by Callum Petch – (@jackanderson)
Do you know what I felt like I was watching whilst “Beginnings” was running? An episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. That’s not meant as an insult, far from it; what I mean is that that sense of wonder and discovery that Avatar had returned for this special two-parter. The colder and more cynical edge of Korra was stripped away for a less morally-complex and more straightforward tale of good fighting against evil, but with the slightly darker tone of later Avatar episodes (though there’s levity, there’s nothing as annoyingly childish as King Bumi from that series, for example). It’s a very nice change of pace for an hour of television that was both a completely separate and fascinating origin tale for the Avatar/Korraverse, and a way of finally giving this season a true sense of direction and clear purpose, in much the same way that Sozin’s Comet gave Avatardirection and purpose (what is this “First Half Of Season 3” you’re going on about? I don’t remember no such time-killing).
But before I dive into gushing madly over an episode that managed to get me completely and totally invested in a final battle that we all knew the outcome of anyway (which is a trick that requires the kind of masterful writing these episodes displayed in droves), a word about the animation. A frequent complaint that I’ve read and heard about with this season of Korra is that the animation quality has had a noticeable step down, yet I’ve gone all season without mentioning it. See, that’s because, due to being a filthy resident of England (I swear, you colonise a country one time…), I can only watch these episodes in standard definition on my crummy laptop, so I’m personally not noticing a massive difference because I’m not watching the show in optimal conditions. This season has looked pretty great all the way through, for me.
Yet even I noticed the huuuuuuge step-up in animation quality for “Beginnings”. This is clearly where Studio Mir have been sinking their budget into all season long because this episode looked phenomenal! Which was your personal favourite moment to look at? The lion turtle rising out of the ground? The oasis guardian possessing one of the hunters? The first time the Avatar state was activated, even if it only lasted for a few glorious seconds? The final battle? It was probably the final battle, wasn’t it, which (even with my laptop coughing up blood by that point) should have dropped the jaws of anybody who loves gorgeous animation.
Raw animating power wasn’t wholly responsible, though; the specialised art-style for this episode was equally as important. The simplified yet still detailed art-style, heavily inspired by classical East Asian paintings (and I didn’t even have to look that up; be impressed), imbued the new world with life even before the surprisingly well-developed characters came along and created the sense that you were watching paintings come to life. If the supposedly lower-quality animation in prior episodes was needed to make this episode a reality without blowing the budget, then that is perfectly fine by me. Hot damn, I need this episode on Blu-Ray, stat!
So with at least a B+ grade guaranteed based on the art and animation alone,Korra could have coasted through a bog-standard origin story with a collection of one-note and dull characters in an episode that was a nice way to spend an hour but didn’t really add anything to the series at large. But such half-assery is not theKorra way of doing things! What we ended up getting was, whilst admittedly predictable, an extremely compelling origin story full of wonderful characters and an absolutely stunning final battle that easily rivals anything in the upper echelons of either show. Steven Yuen, out of all of the voice actors in particular, was fantastic as Wan, nailing every single line reading, although he was helped by a script that kept Wan likable throughout and made his character development feel natural instead of compressed and rushed, like it could have.
Of the story turns, most of which are basic but still work thanks to the actual writing of the episode being that strong, having it turn out that the Avatar is actually an atoner rather than a Chosen One is by far the most interesting. Due to Wan’s one mistake, thousands of years ago, the world is perpetually out of balance and Avatar after Avatar after Avatar, plus himself during his lifetime, is essentially having to clean up after him. It also finally, finally, gives a true descriptor to the Avatar’s purpose to “bring balance to the world”; to build up the power of the Light Spirit Raava enough that, when the Harmonic Convergence arrives once again, the Dark Spirit Vaatu can’t swallow the world in total darkness. After all, Light can’t exist without Dark, but Dark is far more destructive than Light so it helps to try and keep Darkness to a minimum. That’s how I’m reading it, anyway, I may be wrong (as you may probably have gathered from reading my other reviews this season), but it’s a strong turn to take by giving us a clear Big Bad. A Big Bad, may I add, who was far more menacing and memorable in about 14 minutes of screen-time than Unalaq has been this whole season.
(Incidentally, yes, I am now firmly on the “Unalaq is being controlled from afar” theory bandwagon. Thanks for making the inevitable reveal mean a lot less, everybody.)
This episode just plain worked, folks. In the space of about 42 minutes, Korraestablished an entirely new set of characters, 95% of which we will likely never hear from again, and got me to care about every single one of them. It’s what made that final battle so extraordinary and why I was on the edge of my seat throughout even though Wan wasn’t going to lose (because we don’t have a show, otherwise). It’s why even some extremely clunky dialogue in Part 2 failed to pull me out of the episode (I don’t think anybody needed Raava to spell out that the Avatar and the Light Spirit are now linked for eternity by stating it out loud; even when I was at the age of 7, I could have figured that out). I was hooked on “Beginnings”’ ride from start to finish and I highly appreciate the show now having a clear endgame for this season in mind.
At the end of last week, I complained about the “Korra has amnesia” story turn as just blatant cliffhanger bait. And, well, yeah, it kinda was; she gets her memories back at the end of the episode. It’s a testament, though, to the quality of the episode that I am almostwilling to let it slide. If Korra had to get amnesia to make an episode of this quality happen, I am almost willing to let the show’s writing staff off the hook for it. Whether I completely do so depends on how next episode ends up, when Korra returns to the main cast, possibly a changed woman. If Korra doesn’t screw up Korra, I’ll forgive them for the plot turn. But next episode is next episode, the here and now ruled and that’s what matters for now.
(The Legend Of Korra is taking next week off, for some reason, so our review/recap/things will be back on November 2nd, the day after the show returns!)
Callum Petch went to the store to get more fire to start the war. He goes by @jackanderson on Screened. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), listen to the Pupcast (iTunes link) and read his gaming ramblings over at GameSparked (site link)!