Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Legend of Korra: Darkness Falls and A Light in the Dark

Here's my final review for the last episodes of The Legend of Korra's second season, as written back when it first aired. It's fun looking back at what I made of it before the ship righted itself with Book Three, and before I became a fully-fledged Korrasami shipper (at this point I thought Mako/Asami was the better option!)
Now I can really start looking forward to the comic book in June!

Well, that's the season finale of yet another show, and it managed to be a fairly solid and satisfying conclusion. I wouldn't go so far as to say that final episodes can make or break a show, but I do think that they are crucial when it comes to a viewer's capacity for re-watching the material. Go out with a bang, and the DVDs will fly off the shelves. Go out with a whimper, and people will shrug and move onto the next series (perhaps after a few internet rants).
So I'm happy to say that I'll be buying The Legend of Korra on DVD, and you have to admit – it was a lot better than Book One. That said, the first six or so episodes are best described as "scattered", in which new characters and a lengthy set-up is spread out over a number of episodes, without a solid sense of what's important and what's superfluous.
We're not given a clear fix on the likes of Unalaq and Tonraq as characters, nor on their relationships with Korra and each other. Looking back, it's strange that so much time was spent on Tonraq and Senna when they more or less disappeared from the story halfway through.
Familiar faces weren't handled particularly well either: Bolin was relegated to comic relief and Asami shunted to one side, whilst Tenzin and his family were shipped off to the Air Temples for an extended holiday, mucking about in irrelevant subplots until it was time for Korra to show up again. And don't even get me started on the whole Bolin/Eska fiasco.
But the Beginnings two-parter was excellent, and after that the story really hit its stride. What I most appreciated was its sense of scope, achieved through the parallel plotting of Mako/Bolin/Asami in Republic City and Korra/Tenzin/Jinora in the spirit world, with both sets of characters finally converging at the South Pole. Unlike last time, in which the final confrontation with Amon was squeezed into a single episode, this season took its time in heightening the suspense and allowing for a great sense of closure by plotting the action over the course of four episodes.
Whilst Korra, Bolin and Mako try to stop Vaatu and Unalaq from fusing together, Tenzin, Kya and Bumi head into the spirit world in order to find Jinora's spirit. The former plot-thread is composed of fairly standard fight sequences, whilst the latter has a couple of surprises in store before Jinora is found, and ultimately the pattern of the previous two episodes is replayed when the group reunites again outside the Tree of Time.
From there, Korra taps into her inner power in order to fight Vatuu alone, taking the fight to Republic City so as to finally defeat him. It's here we reach the season's ultimate climax...and I'm not sure how I feel about it.
I'm still in two minds about whether or not the lion-turtle, energy-bending and Aang's use of the Avatar State in Avatar: The Last Airbender was a deus ex machina or not. At first I thought it definitely was, and yet have since read several metas that convincingly argue otherwise. (And even if I did think the lion-turtle was a bit of a narrative cheat, it was at least assuaged by the dramatic impact of Zuko/Katara versus Azula and Sokka/Toph/Suki taking on the Fire Nation airship fleet).
Here we have Korra tapping into mystical energy of some kind that allows her to become a giant spirit, quite reminiscent of "Koizilla" back in Book One: Water. The problem is that I'm still a little unclear on how Korra actually achieved this. Much like her air-bending in Air, we've been told that she's no good at tapping into her spiritual side, only for her to become an instant expert right when it's most convenient.
Furthermore, the "rules" of Avatarhood are still fuzzy. I mean, how much of any given Avatar is a mortal individual and how much is the spirit of Raava? When Korra remembers her other lives, is she remembering things that she personally did, or things that Raava did whilst in the body of another person? Is the Avatar a line of a single reincarnated soul (essentially the same person in different bodies), or does it work more like the line of Slayers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the only thing all the girls have in common is their mystical powers and a psychic connection to her predecessors?
I only ask because the show keeps suggesting the former, whereas everything in the dialogue and characterization suggests the latter. And if that's true, then does Raava choose who is to be the next Avatar? Or is there in fact some sort of unexplainable link between Wan, Korra and all those in between that goes deeper than Raava's presence?
Tenzin and Korra's conversation in the Tree of Time emphasized the importance of the individual, but Korra's ability to meditate and unlock such awesome power in such a short time without any sort of build-up is a lot to swallow. I wasn't even sure if Korra was still a bender without Raava inside her. Perhaps she wasn't, as I heard the term "energy-bending" get mentioned by Tenzin, which seems to be the go-to phrase when you've written yourself into a corner.
Basically, if I don't understand the rules, I can't understand the cost.
Still, I can make an educated guess. Raava was being attacked by Vatuu/Unalaq (which was intercut with images of the past Avatars exploding into gold dust) until she is eventually destroyed, so I'm going to assume that means the part of Raava that was specifically fused with Korra was totally destroyed. It was Raava then that was the unifying link between all these other Avatars, and when Tenzin says "Ravaa is not who you are", he's also confirming my first hypothesis (that all the Avatars are separate individuals who just happen to have the same spirit inside them).
But, as the show was careful and clever enough to establish in Beginnings, Vatuu and Raava can never truly destroy one another, as a part of each exists in the other (nicely symbolized in the yin-yang shape of clearing where the spirit portals and the Tree of Life is situated). This is what Jinora, who plays the role of the lion-turtle, leads Korra to after she floats down out of the sky. By reaching into Vatuu/Unalaq, Korra is able to reclaim the tiny piece of Raava that is still left and thus become a "new" Avatar, one that doesn't have the link to her predecessors.
Okay, I guess that makes sense. I guess my point of contention is this idea that the Avatar is a reincarnated entity, as this particular story suggests that Raava was the only aspect that was being passed along the Avatar line. It also technically means that anyone could have tapped into the cosmic energy and made themselves into a giant spirit; anyone could have fused with Raava and become the next Avatar. Korra does it because she has a spiritual connection that wasn't fully explored, and is guided by a little girl who is inexplicably imbibed with the knowledge of what to do.
I guess it makes about the same amount of quasi-sense as Buffy's burst of Slayer strength after she dies and is resuscitated in Prophecy Girl, even though it would have been more logical if the power had left her completely at her (temporary) death and passed fully to Kendra.
And where is Vatuu now?
Hopefully it doesn't sound too much like I'm complaining about all this; if you've read any of my other reviews you'll know I'm a stickler for the intricacies of world-building and the untangling of moral conundrums. This story's understanding of its own rules pertaining to the Avatar interest me, and I like the challenge of trying to figure it out. But perhaps it's not meant to be fully clear-cut. In dealing with spirits and other mystical phenomena, maybe some of it should remain ambiguous, and the bond that exists between Korra, Raava and the other lives of the Avatars not meant to be fully understood.
Another thing that struck me from a narrative sense is that the restraints of this show's format stopped these episodes from being a truly massive, world-changing event. The Beginnings two-parter derived its storytelling power from the fact that it had the freedom to change things profoundly. The Avatar was born, Vaatu was sealed away, the portals were closed, a New Age began. Here, though some things have changed for good, there's still a sense of the status quo being restored. Though the spirit portals have remained open and Korra's link to her past lives has been lost, she and Raava are still intact, the Avatar line continues, and Vaatu is once again destroyed (but seriously though, where is he?)
Had this not been a show that had to revert to some semblance of normality, it's interesting to ponder what otherwise might have been. Wouldn't it have been interesting if Korra WAS the last Avatar; if after ten thousand years this was the natural conclusion to that line? Granted, there's no telling what a world ruled over by Vatuu would have been like (certainly not beneficial to human beings), but if Korra had been less defined by her role as Avatar, the ending of the line could have even been portrayed as a bittersweet but ultimately positive thing, giving this teenage girl the chance to live out a normal, mortal life.
Of course, if that happened, there would have been no more show – but it's still interesting to think about.
And it would seem as though Bryke did in fact take on board some of the criticism that was levelled at them at the end of the first season. This time, Korra's victory cost her something dear (the link she shared with her past lives is permanently severed) and Mako and Korra break up for good. Whew!
As I've said in the past, I have no real strong feelings on this couple – or in shipping in general – but strangely enough it's in the breakup scene that we really get a sense of them both as mature, responsible adults. And though I hate the idea of Asami being "second best" in any way because Mako couldn't work it out with Korra, I do think they make a more compatible couple. I won't be throwing any furniture if next season has them hook up again.
Whatever's in store I just sincerely hope that the whole love triangle business is well and truly over.
Miscellaneous Observations:
It was quite interesting to watch water-bending being used as a tool for ill-intent for a change. Throughout most of Avatar it's been the element of fire that is so often cast into the Slytherin role, whilst water has for the most part portrayed in a gentle, healing light (the blood-bending notwithstanding). Yet here we get Unalaq and Vaatu melding together and bending water in ways that depict the element of water in very a cold and sinister way.
These episodes were not good for my claustrophobia. Whether it was Korra getting squeezed between two sides of a crevasse or Tenzin and his siblings being trapped in a canyon of fog, I was feeling pretty uncomfortable.
There were also some disturbing images as well: the sight of Korra getting Ravaa sucked out of her was deeply disturbing, and I felt legitimately upset when the images of all the past Avatars disappeared into golden light. I know it was meant to symbolize the loss of her connection to them, but it also gave the chilling impression that all these people were actually destroyed.
I'm a little disappointed that the lemur spirit didn't show up again and identify Korra by her scent, calling her "stinky" and thus reaffirming her identity as the reincarnation of Wan (if indeed that's what she is – see the very long analysis above).
Avatar: The Last Airbender was always excellent with its female characters, so I can't help but feel that they were given short-shrift here. Asami is taken out of the fight early, Katara didn't get a word of dialogue, and Kya didn't get much to do either. Come to think of it, neither did Bei Fong. And Pema's contribution can be summed up in one line (which was admittedly fabulous, making her the quintessential embodiment of mothers everywhere).
The first time Iroh showed up in the spirit world, I clapped. This time he felt a bit random. And he had one of Wan Shi Tong's foxes with him? Why?
I would have liked to have seen President Raiko taken to task for not helping. All it takes for evil to triumph is for one good man to do nothing, and if he had offered his troops when Korra asked for them, Unalaq could have been contained before everything fell apart.
Though Tenzin's spiritual insecurities came a little out of left-field, it was good that he was finally able to overcome his anxiety and give Korra the advice she needed in dealing with the problem at hand.
Colonel Zhao! Hah, what a great cameo!
Mako and Bolin haven't exactly had a good run of episodes, but I felt that their characters were done justice in the final handful. Okay, so Bolin's subplot with Eska was utterly incomprehensible, but when it came to fighting back-to-back in defence of Korra and holding legions of spirits at bay, I felt oddly proud of both of them.
The twins' Heel Face Turn was obvious, but welcome.
And an appropriate exit for Varrick: "DO THE THIIIIING!" If that's the last we see of him, he went out on a high note. Literally.
So to wrap up, I enjoyed this season of The Legend of Korra. It wasn't perfect, and it certainly doesn't come close to what was achieved in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it was creative and surprising and funny and (mostly) beautifully animated. There are still some problems in the narrative, ones that run so deep that it's hard to pin-point them exactly – suffice to say that there was an elegance to Avatar that has always been missing from Korra.
Apart from Beginnings, which I really could rave about forever, there is a certain disconnect between characters and plots, usually the result of character development trying to take place without a solid bedrock. I've already mentioned that Tenzin's insecurities about being Aang's son felt a little shoehorned in, and Korra's loss of the connection to her past lives would have been felt more sharply if we'd actually seen her utilize them in the past (or at least fully understand how they work within the context of the show).
The plot was rather unnecessarily cluttered to begin with, and though it evened out towards the end, things like the Varrick subplot and the invasion of the South still seem a little disconnected when looked at from the vantage point of the finale. I definitely think that Jinora's connection to the spirit world should have been explored more fully, and Unalaq would have benefitted greatly from a more nuanced portrayal – perhaps as a misguided man who honestly thought what he was doing was right, with added clarification as to the political situation.
Still, I'm still on board for the upcoming Book Three, and am interested to see what a world in which humans have to co-exist with spirits will be like. (Fingers crossed for a return from Koh!)

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