Friday, October 31, 2014

The Legend of Korra: The Calling and Enemy at the Gates

Well, we're still firmly in build-up mode, though things are slowly but surely cranking into gear. And I appreciate the new widespread scope of the show, for not only are the characters dispersed over a wide geography, but there's equal focus on the villains and anti-heroes, and even a few flashbacks to fill in a couple of chronological gaps.

I'm still of the opinion that in knowing this is the final season, the writers are very carefully and deliberately giving each character a Day In The Limelight. The premiere focused on Opal and Kai, The Calling on the air-bender kids, and Enemy at the Gates was (surprisingly) all about Varrick. And in a tiny subplot that felt hugely disconnected but was nonetheless appreciated, Asami reconciles with her father in prison, a character who hasn't been seen since Book One.

First things first; Tenzin sends his three eldest children on a mission to find Korra. Regardless of how old Aang was when he travelled the world, letting Tenzin's kids off the leash with no supervision whatsoever is a little hard to swallow, especially when one of them is Meelo. If there's one thing these episodes have made me realize, it's that I can't stand hyperaggressive prepubescent brats who are captivated by the thought of their own masculinity. Dash from The Incredibles, Mowgli from Disney's The Jungle Book, Prince Corin from The Horse and His Boy – and now Meelo. Obnoxious little shits, the lot of them.

And the strangest thing is, he's about as useful as I thought he'd be – not at all. Complaining about food, showing off, rejecting Jinora's authority, making toilet-related jokes, eating poisoned berries, making sexist remarks, generally being gross and stupid ... he does nothing in this episode to justify his presence.

Why, show, why?

On the other hand, the girls had a good run of things, with Ikki tricking the Earth Empire soldiers into disclosing pertinent information, and Jinora sensing Korra's spiritual presence once they reach the swamp. A part of me felt as though maybe it was a little late in the game to be giving Ikki some screen-time (I get that it's now or never, but given that Jinora has already been well-established, it felt as though the scene with the Earth Empire soldiers could have just as easily gone to her) but her masterful manipulation of two grown men was perhaps the high-light of the episode.

Meanwhile, Korra is still undergoing training with Toph in the swamp, and despite her diffident attitude ("What's there to tell? I threw some rocks at the Avatar, he got all whiny, and Sokka fell in a hole") it's clear that our favourite spitfire has generated plenty of wisdom since her youth. Nothing will convince me that she didn't send Korra out to fetch those mushrooms for the express purpose of getting her to experience the visions of the swamp. And with them they can articulate the overarching theme of all the villains that have featured on the show.

Amon wanted equality, Unalaq wanted the spirits to return, Zaheer was an advocate of total freedom – technically none of their motives or goals were inherently evil, but their inability to achieve their ends without harmful means are what tips them into true villainy. And their greatest crimes are the horrors they've inflicted on Korra herself. The visions that Korra sees of her foes are very clear depictions of bodily violation: Amon taking away her bending, Unalaq tearing Raava from her body, and Zaheer poisoning her with mercury.

I hesitate to make a rape correlation here, as a part of me is oh-so-very-tired of female characters having their traumas linked to sexual abuse, but at the same time it's difficult to look at these images and not see the connotations:

In comparison, Aang's struggle was very much marked by his inability to perform, with blockage and evasion as two constant themes that served as obstacles to his mastery of the Avatar State. Korra's villains have been set on robbing her of intrinsic parts of herself, which in turn has left her in a clear state of PTSD. You only need to look at this shot to see the effect it's all had on her:

But by grasping the imbalance of their ideologies and taking a trip of the Banyan Tree to reconnect with the people who love her, Korra is finally put in the mental space she needs to expunge the last of the mercury from her system. It was a simple sequence, but I'm glad of this – anything too dramatic or emotional would have somehow lessoned the impact.

And with the Avatar back to her old self (more or less, though I expect a couple more shaky moments to come) she heads to Zaofu where Kuvira and her army are amassing.

Unfortunately, it would appear by this stage that Kuvira is heading into full-on villain territory. I still hold out hope that Korra will be able to find a balanced and diplomatic resolution to this situation, but given that it is at heart an action-orientated show, I suspect she's going to have to have someone to fight.

Yet there's still plenty of nuance in the current situation. I can understand why Suyin would be reluctant to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the Earth Kingdom; after all, she's made it very clear that her prerogative has always been Zaofu and its people. That's her life, her world and she's not interested in much else. Fair enough.

But her refusal to step up certainly paved the way for Kuvira to do it in her stead, and the show has made clear it was a job that needed doing. Kuvira even manages to get some justified digs in at Suyin, accusing her of treating the metal-benders like "exotic birds in your cage" and of not taking responsibility when the world needed her. She's also self-aware enough to know that it will reflect badly on her if she takes Zaofu by force, and is willing to enter negotiations with Korra when the Avatar turns up. And she even manages to find common ground with her: "The world was descending into chaos while you were gone. In order to fix it, I had to make to make some tough decisions." Korra can only reply: "I know what that's like. I've had plenty people mad at me for decisions I've made."

But ultimately, her actions belie her intentions. We get further mention of these sinister "re-education camps" and witness her pulling the Force Choke on Varrick when he refuses to go ahead with creating a super-weapon out of the spirit vines.

There was a surprising amount of emphasis on Varrick, who finally gets a moment of conscience when he decides not to go ahead with his experimentation, but it's really Bolin who is our moral centre in all of this, defending Kuvira on grounds of her good work until he realizes how far she's willing to go in order to get what she wants. Somewhat disappointingly, when the two of them team up in order to escape, the conclusion they draw in regards to Kuvira is that "she's crazy!"

Gah, power-hungry insanity is always boring. Just look at Unalaq! And the problem is that Suyin does come across as a bit unreasonable in her treatment of Kuvira, and it's clear that the tension between the two women is very much bound up in their family drama. In fact, Kuvira's fixation on controlling Zaofu is almost certainly born out of personal resentment towards Suyin. Let's hope the show manages to hang on to this delicate balance of justified motivation and outcome in its portrayal of these two women.

And after the mecha-battle in which Varrick, Bolin and Zhu Li are arrested, we have a rather intriguing scene in which Zhu Li begs forgiveness and turns on Varrick. I wouldn't blame her if she's for real, but I suspect that she's a lot smarter than Varrick gives her credit for and is just faking it.

Finally, in what is little more than a footnote, Asami and Hiroshi reconcile. It's a little odd to consider since Hiroshi actually tried to kill Asami last time we saw him, but I suspect it was simply closure on a dangling plot-point. As an aside, I thought it was quite touching that Asami goes to a park that has a statue of Korra in it. Nice way to keep the two girls connected.

And it finishes on a cliff-hanger – Su and the twins have gone to deal with Kuvira by themselves. Looks like it'll be action-packed next week.

Miscellaneous Observations:

I liked the use of the fisherman's photography of Korra serving as a Chekhov's Gun, especially since I didn't expect him to reappear.

"It was hot, I was on a blimp, and I think a giant turtle showed up." Hah!

Bryke have always been good at humanizing minor characters; in this case the two soldiers that monitor the edges of the swamp. Not only were they fully realized, but their presence gives you a sense of the Earth Empire's reach.

Unlike some, I think this is the last we'll see of Toph. Though she's played an important part in this story, she – like Katara and Zuko – has never exactly been a central character in the second generation's story. I think she's played her part, though Korra will no doubt mention her to Su and Lin.

Did Varrick just say "reverse polarity"? Hee hee.

We get a smidgeon of motivation for Baatar – apparently he sided with Kuvira because he was tired of living in his parents' shadow. It would have been nice if his love for Kuvira was also a deciding factor, but hey – he's fairly minor at this stage.

"Where did that hatch come from?" Hah! From plot convenience, probably. It's always fun when they lampshade these things.

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