The one hour premiere of Legend of Korra Book 2 was a seemingly non-stop torrent of plot, exposition, comedy and all the normal Avatar-isms. And that wasn’t due to it being the first actual episodes in over a year, I rewatched them a couple days later and yep still break neck and relentless. “Civil Wars, Part 1” operates in absolute contrast to the first two episodes. Down south Korra must deal with stopping a Water Tribe civil war. While also down south but Tenzin goes searching for his missing daughter Ikki (who isn’t found!). These two plot setups by appearance feel like they would be ripe with tension to exploit. It isn’t. Reactions are muted, almost like everyone involved doesn't want to call what’s going on by it’s real name
On rewatch it struck me how that final shot of the Northern Navy on the horizon mirrored that of the Fire Nation Navy in the oft repeated opening of Avatar: The Last Airbender. That was an invasion by an easily identifiable enemy military force and that is exactly what is going on in Korra. With the invaders black and red being replaced with blue. It’s such aggressive action that you’d think Korra, always looking for a fight, would snap into action. She doesn't, this is a messy complicated matter which she isn’t prepared in anyway to deal with. For starters the Water Tribe is her people. No matter how much a being of the world the Avatar is, all still have ties to a culture or nation. Making matters worse her Uncle Unalaq is the overall Chief of the Water Tribes and done some Darth Sidious style manipulation in weaving himself next to his Avatar niece as the sole source of confidence and affirmation for her.
Forcing Korra into a pacifist stance has been interesting to watch, it’s hard for both her and the show to deal with. She as a character and series have always dealt with problems head on with a fistful of fire. It is such a stark change of tone that in some ways is making her appear “dumb”. We’ve got a bit of omniscience and can sense that Unalaq is not a totally upstanding man. So seeing her be so easily manipulated is a bit hard to watch. It’s affecting, I’m just not sure the effect is from good craftsmanship or poor. This new stance has at least gotten her to give up a bit of her stubbornness and replace it with a bit of vanity(?). She readily admits she is more used to fighting in wars than stopping them before they start. Much less ones involving her family and people. The same goes for spirits Korra views herself as a warrior. The standoff between Northern and Southern Tribesmen with her in the middle is the perfect example, she looked ready to take’em all on.
If there is one giant recurring motif in this entire series it’s that there are no good Fathers in the Avatar universe, only good Mothers. This touch even extends to our former hero Avatar Aang, who has left his middle aged children highly bitter at what they perceived to be favoritism towards Tenzin. He tries to remind them of all the fun times they had on vacation with Dad only for them to be rejected by Kya and Bumi.
Series creator and episode scribe Michael Dante DiMartino rightfully plays on typical children show trope by uniting three disparate protagonist together with singular mission in order to bring them closer emotionally. They did this several times back in Last Airbender. In this case the children of Aang go on a search for Ikki who has run away...for some reason. Normal episode they would've had some argument, been forced to work together, and find the prize through a combination of their unique talents. Now this is “Civil Wars, Part 1” but I really thought they’d find Ikki by the end of this one. Instead all we get is resentment and bitterness boiling to the surface as Kya and Bumi attack their younger brother over being Dads favorite. While Bumi, despite being the oldest acts the least mature. And Kya laments the fact she is the Mom of the group. To which Tenzin jealousy remarks about her freedom to spend most of her life traveling the world on her own (and not with Dad). The normally stoic Tenzin gives off a hint of biterness that the future of an entire culture is on his shoulders and that it is his fathers legacy. Only for Kya and Bumi to remind him that THEY too are their fathers legacy and it is just as much theirs as it is the master airbender. In the Blu Ray release the series creators and other important staffers did commentary for the episodes. It’s here that Bryke let it known how they have a massive show bible with every character having a methodical backstory. While we never get to see this you can feel it in scenes like this. It’s in the voice acting and animation that these are a bunch of bitter 40 something-ish children of the former Avatar.
Korra's mother tells her daughter of the time she first met Tonraq and how they just wanted a simple life together with her. But then she was made the next Avatar and “simple went out the window.” This show is never simple and I love it for that.
Callum Petch (
I have a feeling that a lot of long time Avatar fans are going to absolutely despise this week’s Korra episode for one reason and one reason alone: it dares to make Aang, retroactively, just as fallible and flawed as the rest of the people who populate both series’ universe. He may have been a great avatar, but he was a lousy father to everyone except Tenzin, with Bumi and Kya clearly having suffered from the lack of a loving father when they were all younger. The concept and theme of parents, sins of the father, father figures and all that is one that Korra keeps coming back to (in fact, let’s be honest, it’s the entire backbone of the show by this point) but I find that it’s a move that’s yet to feel stale. Maybe because it’s so deeply ingrained into the show’s DNA, maybe it’s because the show presses enough of my personal buttons with it, but the “no father is perfect and, in fact, they’re mostly kind of jerks” track that Korra often takes continues to work for me. So finding out that Aang clearly had a favourite child, that said favourite child was Tenzin, his only airbending child, and that his other non-airbending children resent him for that, and that Tenzin doesn’t even remember them being so resentful of Aang’s favouritism, feels natural and another step towards smashing the black and white morality of Korra’s parent show.
After this week’s episode, and especially the conclusion, I am more than willing to go along with the current theory held by most that Unalaq is our primary Big Bad for, at least, the first half of this season. Besides the obvious, falsely arresting Korra’s parents at the episode’s close, there’s clearly something about him that we’re not being told and his overly supporting disposition towards Korra, on a show that has made a habit of building up and then violently tearing down father figures, is not sitting right with me. That being said, he’s currently yet to make a very distinct impression besides the giant glowing neon sign above his head that screams “I WILL TURN OUT TO BE CRAZY OR EVIL LATER” and, again feel free to call me selfish in regards to decent pacing, I get the feeling we’re just kind of spinning wheels until the real Grey DeLisle voiced Big Bad (because why else do you get Azula to voice a character called The Dark Spirit) shows up. Hopefully he gets to show far more layers in Part 2.
In fact, whilst I’m finishing up on my complaints here (because, after this, I’m just going to non-stop gush about this episode), I’d like to quickly delve into my biggest complaint and it’s the treatment of Bolin. Or, more specifically, the non-treatment of Bolin as he has officially been relegated to comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, his scenes with Eska (and, by extension, Desna) are still hilarious, even if they do carry a slightly… wrong undercurrent, but Bolin does deserve more than to simply be the go-to funny man whenever the mood runs the risk of being too dark. I get that they’re trying to make him the Sokka of Korra, but I think that the writers on the show have forgotten that Sokka, whilst still being a very funny guy, got actual dramatic material, too, and that oftentimes the jokes he was involved in were also actually a part of his character development. Bolin, right now, is still just “the funny guy” and whilst he is a very funny guy, and P.J. Byrne continues to nail every line, he deserves to be more than that.
OK, that’s enough of being a negative Nick on proceedings because this was an excellent episode. The scenes between Tenzin, Bumi and Kya managed to make me turn around my opinion on the latter two almost instantly and gave a legitimate reason for Tenzin and his family to remain in the show. The scenes of them playfully trading barbs were genuinely sweet and the scenes of them bitterly arguing resonated much better than I initially believed they would; excellent writing, there. Mako’s role was limited, as was the Korra/Mako relationship, but the scenes he was in worked by showing him in two of the situations his character is best written: teasing/helping Bolin like brothers are wont to do, and a relationship scene with Korra that didn’t make me want to rip the voice boxes out of both characters. More scenes like these please (and also maybe a few where he fails miserably at trying to be cool, like in last week’s premiere, too)!
And then there’s Korra herself and her current no-win situation; being forced defuse the growing tensions between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, which is on the absolute cusp of all-out civil war, by remaining neutral between two sides who refuse to accept the concept of neutrality. In fact, in a very subtle piece of character development that still feels natural and not just shoved in for the sake of the episode’s plot, Korra actually goes to great lengths to remain neutral throughout and only ends up fighting the Southern waterbenders as a last resort, when they kidnap Unalaq, and even then without any of the overkill that she typically displays in bending battles. Not only does this seem to mark a vital change in Korra the character, as she begins to embrace her role as the Avatar, it also allows Korra the show to craft an extra-specially gorgeous fight sequence. Seriously, go back to that scene where Korra fights a Southerner with his own rope and try telling me this show’s animation department aren’t working overtime week after week.
I also really, really loved the fact that the show took the time to point out that the issues between the Southern and Northern Water Tribes stretch back centuries and that even the Avatar can’t smooth things over with a few choice words and actions. These resentments and bitter hatred have been too deep-seated for too long for them to just be magically healed within a day or two. That’s a very mature stance to take in regards to conflicts that very few TV shows and films take, so to see any show take it is a bold move (folks, we should probably just drop the pretence and label that Korra is a “kids’ show” because that’s not been true for a very long while). I hope that Korrahas the nerve to follow through with this and not have both sides be happily unified by the end of next week because I feel it would end up a major cop-out, otherwise.
Blasted word count limit! There’s so much more that I wanted to go on about, too! Korra accepting her parents back into her life, the logistics of the kidnapping attempt, going into more depth about the occupation by the Northern Water Tribe, how Varrick is clearly not the dumbass you may have though he was from his first appearance, the continuing sad lack of Asami… There was a hell of a lot to unpack here, and this was only part one of a two-parter! Who knows how much next week will have to talk about?
Oh, lastly, I must say that I miss having an actual credits’ sequence. The current method (running them, super tiny, in the bottom left of the screen during the closing sequence of the episode) is distracting and lamentable. Fix it, Nickelodeon, pronto!
Author’s Note: Hey, folks! I won’t be reviewing the show next week as I will be spending the weekend in London covering the Eurogamer Expo for GameSparked, then moving into my university accommodation, so I likely won’t be seeing the episode until Monday night. It’ll just be the very capableon reviewing duties solo for next week. Rest assured, though, that I shall return to these the week after and will be here until season’s end! See you in two weeks!
Callum Petch heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. He goes by on the Screened community. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), listen to the Pupcast (iTunes link) and read his weekly gaming column Petchulant every Friday over on GameSparked (site link)!