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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Legend of Korra: Rebel Spirits and The Southern Lights

Hey guys, I know it's been dead around here lately, but I'm currently swamped with assignments, work, bad weather and a lingering illness. Fun times. So in order to keep this blog relevant until I can return my full attention to the last three episodes of The Musketeers and all the other half-finished posts that have been stagnating on Microsoft Word, I've delved into my now-defunct LiveJournal and resurrected some reviews that I originally made there.
Back in 2012 I reviewed the entirety of The Legend of Korra's first season, and continued with the second season in two-part instalments, being a little lukewarm on the show after the somewhat confusing Book: Air.  But the fact that it was called Spirits reeled me in, and I ended up enjoying it immensely by its second half – in fact, I like it more than Air, even though it seems to be ranked last by most fans of the franchise.
I rewatched the whole thing on DVD recently and found that most of my thoughts and feelings about season two remain the same as they did back in 2013, so I'm cut-and-pasting the posts I wrote at the time here for posterity (and having done so, my reviews for all four seasons of the show will be on this blog).

For my thoughts on where I stand regarding the first season, you can follow this link. I don’t want to get too much into it, so let’s just say that I enjoyed it for what it was, but was acutely aware of what it failed to be. And since I get the strong feeling that I’m going to end up saying the same thing about season two, I’m going to make a concentrated effort to disengage my brain and try to just enjoy the ride.
But I think the main problem (yeah, I’m griping already) is that I simply don’t feel engaged with the characters or their situation. And I have no idea why that is. All I know is that while watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, I couldn’t get enough of the world-building, the character development and the story-arc. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I was completely riveted. Here, I just feel a friendly sort of indifference.
Of these first two episodes, the thing that really stood out – and not in a good way – was the sheer amount of exposition. Too much telling, not enough showing. And sure, you’d expect a bit of it in a season premiere, but I hold up Avatar: The Last Airbender as a show in which swathes of exposition is imparted in the most elegant and non-intrusive ways possible. This creative team knew how to do exposition right, getting it across to the viewer with casual dialogue or visual cues in ways that left you wanting more; that made you feel as though you weren’t getting info-dumps but details of a world that was rich and fascinating.
Here we were not only screeching to a halt every few seconds so that a character (usually Unalaq) could talk about the what, where, when, who and how of the plot, but the exposition itself felt cluttered and convoluted. There’s an imbalance between the spirit and mortal worlds? Because of a closed portal? Since when? And what will opening it achieve? All these rules felt totally arbitrary, and without understanding them properly, I couldn’t feel any sense of triumph at Korra’s victory. (If that’s even what it was).
Information also came at bizarre times. For instance, Korra is just about to head off with Unalaq to the South Pole when her father arrives to tell them all about the Everstorm, a neverending blizzard that is poised right over the place they’re trying to go. Shouldn’t that have come up before they set off?
And there were other really clunky scenes, as when Asami lands her plane and is told by a subordinate that: “since your father was thrown in prison, no company will work with us. We’re nearly bankrupt.” Why is he telling her something that she most certainly already knows for herself?
***
So the story-arc for this season is set up to be an on-going mystery behind why spirits are attacking mortals. Problem is, it doesn’t really feel that important. No one’s taking it remotely seriously except Korra herself and the guy who is (presumably) meant to be seen as our villain. Everyone else is either squabbling with each other over silly things or going on vacation. Sorry, but I can’t consider the spirits a threat if characters aren’t treating them as one.
The story is also heavily reliant on the bonds between Korra’s family members. Now, in theory, I love the idea of a father and uncle getting into a “custody battle” over their daughter/niece (who just happens to be the most powerful being in the world) regarding their opposing viewpoints on how she should be raised. Heck, I love the idea that an Avatar has living parents who have to grapple with the aforementioned fact that their daughter is world famous and stunningly powerful.
But everything about Korra and her father, mother, uncle and cousins feels like it’s just been plonked in out of nowhere. These new characters either had tiny cameo roles in the first season, or weren’t mentioned at all, which means I couldn’t get a handle on what Korra’s relationships with any of them were like prior to these episodes. There was no indication last season that her uncle was the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe or that her parents were anything but simple folk living in the South.
In fact, it seems astonishing that the topic of her father’s deep dark secret has never come up before. Surely Korra would have known that her uncle was a powerful Chief, which should in turn have inevitably led to questions about why her father – the eldest brother – was living in relative modesty in the South.
Basically, it’s always jarring when siblings/cousins/family members are suddenly thrown into the mix. It means that the main characters have hitherto unexplored but drastically important bonds with people that the audience has never heard of before, and it only serves to broaden the gap between the viewer and the protagonist. Compare Korra’s interactions with her father and uncle to her arrival in Republic City. There we were discovering the city alongside her. Here we’re watching her interact with people we’ve barely met but which she has known for her entire life. It creates an inevitable disconnect.
***
And then there’s Korra…
Look, I don’t want to go too hard on Korra. I find it interminably irritating when people demand complex and flawed female characters, only to rake them over hot coals whenever said female character does something out of line. It doesn’t seem to be too bad here considering most of the fandom’s ire is directed towards a male character (so it’s not like I can accuse them of double standards) but I also feel that Korra is getting a bit of a hard rap.
Because I like the fact that a young woman who has been tightly controlled her entire life is struggling to assert her own independence whilst at the same time being frustrated and frightened by the thought of making decisions on her own. I like that serious trust issues have developed between Korra and her father thanks to Tonraq’s tendency to hide things from her and keep her sequestered in a compound for most of her life. I like that Korra is railing against Tenzin’s condescending “for your own good” mentality when she believes that her responsibilities as the Avatar require her to take decisive action. And I like that Korra made an difficult decision to choose what she believed was right for her own development, even if it meant going against what her mentors believed.
(And let’s be honest here; she does make a good point when she says that Unalaq was able to quell the spirit when Tenzin and her father could not, and does have good reason to distrust them both at this point. Unalaq will undoubtedly turn out to be bad news, but so far he’s delivering on his promises).
What I don’t like is the behaviour and attitude with which Korra does these things. It demonstrates just how very little she’s actually grown, and I’m acutely reminded of how mature and polite the previous generation was. I loved watching a show in which young people were consistently respectful toward their elders and eager to learn from them, punching a hole straight through the idea that adolescents can’t help but act like spoiled brats.
But Korra is channelling Anakin Skywalker at his most petulant, and it all seems to be following the tedious Junior Knows Best trope, wherein the youngsters are always proven to be wiser and cleverer than their elders. Except in this case, you just know that Korra is going to end up with egg on her face. The narrative is clearly setting her up for a fall, and that annoys me considering I think she made some pretty good points in her decision to follow Unalaq, is acting in a way that feels true to her character, and has admirable determination in trying to deal with an immediate problem.
Yet the story has set it up so that either way, she can’t win. She’s going to be punished for her “attitude problem” when the script could have quite easily made her more sympathetic (and the conflict more nuanced) if she wasn’t acting quite so bratty about the whole thing.
Miscellaneous Observations:
According to the opening narration, the Republic City Council has disbanded and elected itself a President. Since there’s no word on which of the two individuals shown is the President, I’m going to assume it’s the woman, posing at the podium with her husband, until I’m told otherwise.
Was that the voice of Keith David as the salty old seaman that gets nabbed by the spirit?
I’m utterly indifferent to Mako and his relationship with Korra. That’s all you’ll be hearing from me on that score.
Why do I get the feeling that Bryke don’t like Asami very much? I suppose she was given a moment of dignity when she stared down Varrick, but for the most part she was like the show’s Butt Monkey. And then she disappeared entirely.
My immediate theory is that all these spirit attacks are being setup by Unalaq himself, to give him an excuse to invade the Southern Water Tribe “for their own good” (with the portal business being devised to get Korra out of the way while his navy invaded). I hope I’m wrong. I want to be surprised, and I want Unalaq to genuinely believe in what he’s trying to do.
Tenzin saying “it was a pleasure serving you”, may not have reflected well on Korra, but it was a nice reminder that she is in fact the Avatar. She may serve the world, but ultimately people answer to her. With that in mind, I appreciate that her inner conflict revolves around not wanting to be told what to do any longer, but also being rather lost when faced with making a decision for herself.
Katara makes me sad. She just seems so utterly lonely, and I have a hard time connecting her to that beautiful and vivacious young girl of the first series. A part of me actually feels that Bryke would have been better off doing a prequel to the original series, exploring the lives of the Avatars before Aang. Perhaps not Roku, since his life was summarized fairly thoroughly in The Avatar and the Firelord, but the likes of Kyoshi, Kuruk and Yangchen would certainly have fascinating tales to tell. (Note to self: chase down plot bunny involving Kyoshi’s early childhood).
Bolin. What have they done to you? Not since Gwaine on Merlin has a character been Flanderized into lame comic relief so quickly, and for so little reason.
Desna and Eska seem like they could be interesting, but so far have yet to do anything important (besides contribute to the Flanderization of Bolin).
I loved the conceit of a forest in the middle of icy tundra, as well as the contrast that ran throughout the entire two episodes of physical violence versus peaceable spirituality (and the power inherent in both). That said, I had to roll my eyes when Korra’s victory at the South Pole once again relied on brute force and the Avatar State. She really hasn’t learnt anything, has she.
Korra’s mother was annoyingly absent throughout all of this. Why is it that the father-figure and the protagonist’s relationship to said father-figure is always more prominent than the role mothers play? Imagine gender-flipping either Tonraq or Unalaq, and the characterization instantly becomes more interesting.
The most intriguing thing for me was Jinora’s little subplot. She’s obviously a very spiritual child and my guess is that the statue she found was that of the first Avatar.
I’ll keep watching, but I’m not going to inflict a constant stream of negative reactions on anyone. If the next two episodes don’t spark my interest, I'll just watch without commenting.

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