Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Old Wounds and The Original Airbenders

The latest two episodes of The Legend of Korra continue to tie up loose ends, shed new light on old characters, and bring our antagonists one step closer to the Avatar. Again the dual airing of episodes lends itself to contrast and comparison, and now we finally know (even though they don't share any screen time) why Lin and Tenzin split up. Each one, in their own way, is entirely too stubborn to sustain a long-term relationship with the other.

Tenzin’s scene with Pema only exemplified this: though Tenzin/Pema probably don’t have the same sort of passion as Tenzin/Lin may have done, Pema is a calming, quiet presence and knew just what to say to him in that particular situation. In other words, sometimes the person you marry is not the person that creates mountains of angst and drama – and that’s a surprisingly mature message to put across to what is at least partly a teenage audience.

In fact, both these episodes were surprising in regards to who the writers chose to focus on. Korra and Bolin are in supporting roles, whilst Asami and Bolin are nowhere to be found. Instead the story-arcs explore the clay feet of our adult characters, in which Lin acts genuinely nasty at times, and Tenzin is depicted as a frankly terrible teacher. Yet both stories have enough depth to make their foibles understandable.

I recall there was a bit of controversy last year when it was revealed Aang was a less-than-ideal father to Kya and Bumi (focusing most of his attention on Tenzin), but I felt this was a viable portrayal of the character – backed up by the fact that Toph was apparently a less-than-ideal mother to Lin and Suyin. And why not? Life has no definitive happy ending, and there’s no end to how a character can develop (or regress). Since the original gang had their own parental issues, it’s only understandable that they would struggle with their own children. I’m looking forward to seeing if Zuko’s daughter has any hang-ups.

In this case, Toph’s stifling upbringing made her too lenient with her own children, giving them too much freedom when they should have had at least some sense of discipline. Though Lin finds it in following her mother into the police force, younger sister Suyin becomes more of a teen rebel.

It’s not every show that can make therapy interesting, but Lin’s acupuncture session is like a cross between Aang’s chakra lessons in The Crossroads of Destiny and Korra’s flashbacks of Aang throughout Book One: Air, in which we get glimpses of Lin’s strained relationship with her mother and sister, as well as the origin of her facial scar (which almost feels like a shout-out to Indiana Jones).

Mercifully, Lin’s beef with her sister doesn’t have anything to do with jealousy over her family, but with deep-seated resentment over an unresolved issue that’s been left to fester. In their youth, Suyin was irresponsible and reckless. This is in stark contrast to her more conscientious sister, who watches her suffer no consequences for having driven a getaway car, maimed her sister’s face, and forced her mother into an early retirement – all without any remorse. Heck, I’m pretty ticked off on Lin’s behalf, and Lin is no doubt reminded of these events every time she looks in a mirror.

And yet the show is too smart to cast Suyin into a villainous light for all of this, and anyone who was expecting the city of Laofu to snap shut like a Venus Fly Trap (admit it, that possibility was lingering at the back of your mind) is thankfully proven wrong. From Suyin’s point-of-view, the whole thing was resolved years ago. She and her mother talked out the problem, and reached an understanding.

It’s all rather complex in its simplicity; the fact that one sister’s experiences can have a deep psychological impact on her, whilst the other can work through her issues and move on. And it’s a credit to the show that they were prepared to cast Lin (in a manner of speaking) in the wrong. No doubt Suyin was a frustrating and selfish little snot in her youth, but ultimately Lin was the one who chose to brood for years on end. It might sound unfair, but her current unhappiness is on her.

Yet thanks to an all-out brawl between the sisters and a genuine attempt at communication, the situation is finally resolved. Special kudos to Mindy Stirling’s voice acting, for you can actually hear the change in Lin’s voice after she makes peace with herself.

Meanwhile, over in the Northern Air Temple, Tenzin is having his own problems with his brother Bumi. And his daughter Jinora. And his array of new airbending students. In an attempt to engage them in the nomadic air culture, he only manages to drive them away; treating them like airbenders when they’re simply not. A monkish lifestyle might be easy enough when you’re born to it, but trying to adapt after a lifetime in the Earth Kingdom is something else entirely.

And there’s even a dash of hypocrisy to the proceedings, in which Tenzin refuses to let the one acolyte that is interested in Airbender customs get her tattoos. Between pushing Bumi too hard and insisting on Jinora’s obedience, Tenzin is soon witness to the two of them storming off.

But Kai is still around, and he convinces Jinora to goof off and investigate some baby air bison. Harmless enough fun, except – you guessed it – poachers are on the loose, and aren’t above kidnapping children to hid their activities. Not the most original villains, but then they don’t need to be.

It’s Bumi and his military training (along with the possibility of two children in danger) that kicks the airbenders into action, and it’s not long before Kai and Jinora are safe and sound. It’s all pulled off without much help from Tenzin – though even he gets a little validation when Daw’s newly-shaved head gives him ample warning of an incoming net.

The thing I like about this particular episode is that is seeks to demonstrate that some people just aren’t natural leaders, aren’t natural teachers, aren’t naturally attuned to the spirit world – and that’s okay. In the shadow of his famous father, Tenzin often tries to be everything to everyone, and as a result, can’t really manage to handle anything well. It’s only when he stops trying so hard to make himself (and everyone else) perfect that he can be an effective teacher.

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to learn and improve on whatever skills you may or may not have, and (as we also saw with Lin) your capacity for growth and change doesn’t end after your formative years. Tenzin’s “my way or the high way” is very reminiscent of his initial treatment of Korra in season one, yet here there’s a neat bit of role reverse with Korra giving him advice over the radio.

True to life, these characters always seem to be in flux – which is fitting for a season called Change. Throw in a mini-subplot involving Bolin’s reluctance to learn how to metal-bend (overcome when he has a chat to Opal) and it’s almost like watching an episode of Full House, where family truths and self-esteem issues are dealt with on an episodic basis (only without the triteness).

That leaves our convicts, hiding out among the vines in Republic City, and apparently just vetoing the idea of “taking out the President.” Between depiction of their driver deciding to throw himself off the bridge sooner than warn the police, and the obvious deaths that the quartet must have caused during the ensuing chase, you have an expertly handled build-up of a legitimate threat.

Their confrontation with Korra can’t come fast enough.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Laofu is like a blend of the Emerald City and a great metal flower garden. A lovely detail was having the rooftops open each morning, just like real lotis flowers.

Some neat continuity in these two episodes, such as Suyin teaching Korra to metal-bend with meteorites (of the same kind that Toph’s bracelet was formed from?), and a throwaway gag involving the Earth Queen apparently eating her father’s pet bear. And yet for all these call-backs to the past, there are details reminding us of the more contemporary setting – I especially liked Tenzin and Korra communicating through radio channels.

No Asami for two episodes? Not good enough. The consequence of adding more characters to the blender always means that some will be pushed to the background... but seriously, I want my girlfriends back.

I wonder, could Aiwei’s ability to read people’s heartbeats (and so tell if they’re telling the truth or not) work when they’re wearing metal shoes like Lin’s? Because he was able to tell that Korra was lying, though I don’t recall him doing the same to Lin.

Surely Varrick magnetic suit has to come back in some capacity, right?

The plural of bison is bison. Good to know.

Among Tenzin’s students, it’s nice that they’re making a decent effort in establishing the personalities of such minor characters. So far the hapless Daw and the Hermione-esque Otaku are the standouts, but each of them has a distinctive design.

Korra describes her job as “conflict resolution” – and there’s the Avatar in a nutshell.

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