A little under 18 months later The Legend of Korra is back with Book 2: Spirits. What was going to be a standalone mini series turned into one of Nickelodeon’s true hits. Now with a guaranteed 3 more seasons (counting this one) Korra is back. Like the Avatar Korra has become a bit of a bridge between the older 18-25 demographic and Nickelodeon’s normal target the 10-15. In the time between seasons the show has also changed airdates moving from Saturday to Friday nights at 7pm. Which on any other network would be seen as death slot. In this case, however, it seems like Nickelodeon is trying to see if Korra can be a show that will draw people to their channel instead of having it on at a time when people might happen to watch it. It isn’t surprising to see that the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show is on right afterwords.
Old Timey Radio Voice Guy says it’s been 6 months since the defeat of Amon, the City Council has been dissolved with the election of the first President, and the pairing of Korra and Mako has become the talk of the town. Everyone gets a nice little moment in a reintroduction montage. Bolin is having issues with pro bending without Mako and Korra. Asami’s company is sinking due to her father. Korra still hasn’t really learned to come at a problem in a way that doesn't involve fighting it. Mako, he’s off being a cop with pithy one liners.
It’s what comes after that lets everyone know what Book 2 will be about (if the title didn’t give it away). Somewhere in the ocean there once was a cargo ship. It’s quickly and dramatically dragged under by an angry spirit that resembled a squid. The spirit world isn’t happy. Exploring the spiritual world of Avatar is a fertile and logical next step for Bryke and Co. . Republic City was an interesting near past quasi steampunk update that surrounded the fantastical bending abilities with realism and socio-political issues. The new socio-political conflict of deals with new modern amenities vs tradition as the Southern Water Tribe deals with being spiritual out of balance compared to their Northern brothers.
A conflict apparent with the the glacier festival. Unalaq, Korras Uncle and Chief of the Water Tribes, laments that the festival was a beautiful communion with the spirits. Old masters would fast and meditate and commune with the spirits. Keeping everything in balance. Now, it’s a brashly commercial celebration selling fried meat on sticks and lots of merchandising. The whole thing looks like someone took an old 1950’s carnival and pasted it onto a beautiful glacial landscape. It’s worth noting that Unalaq tells Korra that she is the bridge between the material and spiritual world. Everyone else simply says the physical and spiritual.
Spirits aren’t all light or dark, just when things go out of balance the darkness takes over. Giving them a dark purple color as opposed to the normal lightish blue. When a spiti begins to attack the festival Korra and everyone leaps into action. The first real extended action sequence of the new season. All of them are rendered powerless against this spirits rage. Tenzin tries to reason but is soon brushed aside. Only Unalaq is able to calm the spirit with beautifully rendered bending. The water bendings tai chi roots show in that sequence. It’s a very pacifist stance for the normally action heavy show to take. Korra must learn NOT to fight the spirits but to understand and to a degree empathise with them. It’s an ability she admits to lack.
The Last Airbender was a solid heroes journey with a clear endpoint. Korra wasn’t conceived that way and without the other Books still in production it’s hard to say how connected they will be. One clear through line should be the continued maturation of Korra as a character. It’s only been 6 months since Book 1 and she still tackles every problem with a fistful of fire. She continues to be out of balance and Spirits should go in a direction to correct that.
Everything about these two episodes were about the yin and yang of cultures with personal ties to give them form Unalaq and Korra’s father, Tonraq couldn’t be more different. Tonraq was an over eager General who tarnished hallowed ground. Unalaq has all the mannerisms of the archetypical old wise man (or Iroh). Unalaq isn’t very Iroh like as he invades the Southern Water Tribe at the end of “The Southern Lights”. All in the name of bringing the South back into balance with the North. You know the normal justification for many real and imagined wars.
Tenzin, voiced by J.K. Simmons, is one of my favorite characters. After Korra gives him the boot as teacher, he takes his family on a trip to all the Air Temples. Including Kya and Bumi, because getting to see the entire family of Aang and Katara is kinda awesome. In the commentary tracks for Book 1 series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko basically admitting to having an insane show bible. It shows in the little familia interactions between Kya, Bumi, and Tenzin. The latter all teasing their younger brother for his serious demeanor. But that should all go away once Vacation Tenzin takes over.
Structurally the two episode premiere did what any good premier should do. Introduce new viewers and reintroduce seasoned ones to the characters and world. I have my complaints about Bolin becoming the show's sole source of comedy in these two episode, but his relationship with Eska is worth it. At the same time I’m not going to get all armchair quarterback with since we’ve only seen two episodes.
Callum Petch - @jackanderson
So that you all know where I stand: I was very late to Avatar: The Last Airbender (only watched it for the first time back in February) but I loved it, Book 2 is one of my favourite seasons of television ever, was not a fan of how the Ozai fight ended but I reversed course upon such a thing being an integral part of The Legend Of Korra’s first season (that I finished a few weeks back, stupid UK air dates), which I also loved whenever the dreadful shipping wasn’t happening, Bolin and Lin Beifong are The Best and I thought the finale was excellent even with Makorra becoming an official thing.
Now that that’s all sorted, what did I think of the Book 2 premiere? It was pretty good. Messy, to such a degree that I’m still not sure who are our regulars for this season and who just popped up to give their stories closure, but entertaining. Much like the first season premiere, actually, I preferred half hour one to half hour two but I’m still intrigued by where the season is going to go, this time.
If there was common thread uniting these two episodes, it was that of Korra burning bridges with her former fathers (figuratively, in Tenzin’s case) in a way that’s fast, impulsive and may be hard to repair. She needs a change and one too many negative revelations regarding said father (figure)s in too short a time leads to her coldly rejecting Tenzin and Tonraq (her father) in a way that actually feels natural because Korra has always been overly impulsive and quick to shut down anyone who tries to make decisions for her. Tenzin’s goodbye, in particular, stung badly and that’s pretty much down to Janet Varney and JK Simmons’ excellent voice work with Simmons, particularly, nailing that feeling of betrayal from a man who’s clearly come to regard Korra as family.
Korra the show, meanwhile, took great pains to try and make Unalaq appear as a kind, reassuring and wise man who would make a great new mentor for Korra and, I’ll admit, that I was slightly won over. However, due to myself being a jaded 18 year old who has watched far too much TV over the years, I always had a feeling that he would end up turning out to be evil in some way, shape or form. And, lo and behold, at the end of chapter 2 he’s an extremist who plans to use military force to get the Southern Water Tribe to embrace spirituality. Whilst I admit to being a tad disappointed at this revelation, I have a feeling that such a move will only go about making things worse for our heroes and better for our, as yet, undefined villains, so I am willing to go along with it.
Something I am less willing to go along with, however, is Korra and Mako’s relationship which, surprise, is still pretty frickin’ terrible. Mako is still a fine character whenever he’s not being forced to interact with Korra (his teasing of Bolin is one of this premiere’s biggest laughs), but this show still cannot write Korra and Mako together doing shipping stuff in a way that’s not ridiculously cliché and doesn’t make either of them come off as terrible people to one another. In an over-bearing attempt at course-correction, this time Korra is the one who’s actually being the jerk in the situation and Mako is now the dogged nice guy who just can’t seem to get women, man(!) It’s about as stupid as it sounds and it adds nothing to the show. One of the reasons why I was willing to accept those two becoming an official item was due to my faith that maybe they’d be written better when the sexual tension was cleared and they could just be a couple (like Chuck and Sarah from mid-S3 onwards in Chuck), but so far that’s disappointingly far from the case. Here’s hoping for a fast improvement.
Outside of the Korra/Mako relationship and the current lack of a clear direction regarding where the season is heading (which I’d be less critical over if we didn’t only have 14 episodes), this was still a fun premiere. Bolin continues to be The Best and his new relationship with Eska is already yielding comedic goldmines (give praise to Aubrey Plaza, the Daria Morgendorffer of the 21st century, for nailing every single line she gets), the action sequences continue to look absolutely spectacular thanks to Korra’s unique art-style and the absurdly high quality animation (which looks fantastic even in standard definition) and the show is still refuses to talk down to the target audience or dumb down its darker moments (Korra’s journey into the Everstorm is a genuinely frightening moment) whilst still knowing exactly how to balance it with a killer joke or comedy sequence.
All of the new characters have already managed to make an impression, though not all good. As mentioned, Eska and her identical twin brother Desna are laugh riots and Unalaq is just kindly and trusting enough to make the reveal of his true motives be a genuine disappointment. I’m not yet sold on Kya and (much like his original series counterpart, who I never liked) Bumi, partially because I’m still not sure why they’re here or how they’re going to tie back in to everything (Tenzin and co. are off in their own entirely separate story by chapter 2). I mention my dislike of those two because Varrick, the businessman Asami and Bolin meet in chapter 1, is much the same as them but with a key difference: he’s actually genuinely funny and I like him.
Re-reading this I seem to be overly critical on the season premiere. I really did like these two Korra episodes, but I think the back half of last season spoiled me because I’m just waiting for all hell to break loose. That seems selfish of me, I’ll admit, especially in regards to this thing known as ‘pacing’ but I’m a selfish kind of guy. Ah, well, a ‘pretty good’ episode of Korra is still better than pretty much any of this season’s new network shows are looking and I’m looking forward to seeing where we end up when this is all over. It’s good to haveKorra back.
Callum Petch lost his leg like he lost his way. He goes by @jackanderson on Screened. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), listen to the Pupcast (iTunes link) and read his weekly gaming column Petchulant over on GameSparked (site link).