Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 2 Review

One thing that I didn’t initially realize about Avatar was the scope and pace of the show - all three seasons span one overarching story, with a consistent narrative pull. Most TV shows segment their plot into individual seasons, and it seemed unexpected to spread one large plot across the whole show. Then somehow it was equally unexpected that Korra does quite the opposite. After finishing the S1 finale, with the villains vanquished and the protagonist embodying new powers, the question is immediate: what’s Season 2 going to be about?

Well, turns out there was no possible way that anyone could have accurately predicted what was coming next. Because HOLY NARRATIVE SHIFT, BATMAN.


Okay, let’s get it out in the open: Book 2 has some flaws. It’s definitely an imperfectly-executed season, that’s top-heavy in content and overstuffed with side plots that either a) aren’t unraveled with maximum interest, or b) ultimately don’t matter. This leads to a strange paradox where the whole thing is somehow both rushed and slow to pace, both thematically intricate and undercooked. This also makes it very difficult to parse, and even harder to evaluate unilaterally.

For my purposes, the shining core of the season belongs to Korra, her relationship with the spiritual world, and the mythos of the Avatar role. Korra’s spiritual development is something that was touched on in the first season, and Book 2 evolves her even further, with deliberate and organic growth. The season doesn’t start to gel until Korra is swallowed by a dark spirit and connects with the Avatar lineage, and from there, this thread is the strongest through to the finale.

What I love about Korra in Book 2 is the way the narrative handles her. She is very purposefully a flawed protagonist. The first we see her in this season, she uses the Avatar State to win a race with Tenzin’s kids. Not exactly the picture of responsibility. More than that, she’s decidedly stubborn with her parents and Tenzin, and puts her faith in the wrong guy. She’s belligerent with authority, argues endlessly with Mako, and she definitely makes some mistakes. But what’s lovely about her arc in Book 2 is the subtle transition that is best identified simply as maturity. I love a good growing-up arc because its hallmarks are difficult to identify, and therefore more challenging to devise and track from a writing perspective.

In doing this, Korra develops its main character without deploying the oft-used device of “one fatal mistake.” Yes, there is inherent tragedy in the fact that Korra has fundamentally altered the lineage of the Avatar - but there’s also the solace that she really didn’t do anything wrong. Some shit went down, she did her best to stop it, and even though she was ultimately successful, some bad consequences snuck through. She didn’t have a fatal flaw; she didn’t make that One Doomed Mistake; her weaknesses weren’t her undoing. In fact, the show takes time to develop her out of her weaknesses, and doesn’t rub her face in her shortcomings. The narrative teaches her by guidance, not through punishment. Korra is not humiliated or shamed; she tries, and she learns.

This is beautifully supported in the origin story of the Avatar. It would be very easy to dramatize Wan’s mistake of helping Vaatu, and to portray his subsequent responsibility as tortured penance for his errors. It would also be very easy to invent an Avatar back story where the first Avatar is blessed with powers because he is Chosen, Special, and Good. Korra isn’t interested in unilateral incarnations of Good and Evil in stark contrast to one another. Why else would Vaatu and Raava be intertwined? No, there is no good or evil - there is only choice. Wan made a choice with some bad information, and his eventual responsibility of power is directly correlated to this concept of human error anchored by good intention.

What’s fantastic about this decision is that it’s echoed thematically throughout the season. If you ignore everything else in Book 2 but Korra’s spirit-related storylines, this shit is tight. (A bit heavy, yes, but TIGHT.) The key learning point for Korra is that the spirits are neither good nor evil, but rather a reflection of the humans they interact with. “A New Spiritual Age” is the best episode of the season for me, simply because it’s such a keystone moment for Korra’s development. A surreal dreamscape painted with metaphor and parable, Korra’s journey to the spiritual world is actually a journey within, illuminating the relationship between fear, faith, and the reality you manifest from inside yourself.

That your world is colored by your own perspective brings to light another of Book 2’s strongest storylines - the explored dynamic of Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi. Like with the origins of the Avatar, it would be all too simple to portray Aang as an amazing hero, person, and father. The Aang-and-Katara family is in prime position for fawning and glory, given their roles in Avatar (and also that they’re awesome). But Korra once again doesn’t dally with flat dynamics where it counts - Aang’s family is not perfect, and many of the issues stem from his role in it.

It is so refreshing to see a protagonist and all-around narrative hero portrayed critically and dimensionally, without judgment. I loved watching the push-and-pull between Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi, and each new way that their issues surfaced. Of course, Bumi’s experience is unique because he isn’t a bender. Of course, Tenzin’s experience is unique because he carries the airbending tradition. Of course, Kya’s experience is unique because she played a strong caretaking role, especially with Katara. And I love that Katara isn’t used as a wizened motherly figure to step in and sort all this out. She sits back and lets it play out, which is maybe bad, maybe good - but definitely real, and imperfect.

Tenzin’s spiritual storyline is also strong, and full of refreshing choices that reflect Korra’s commitment to dimensional and thematic storytelling. First, it’s a lovely choice to give Korra’s spirit guide role to Jinora, not the traditional spiritual mentor. Then we learn that Tenzin’s never actually been able to visit the Spirit World, which is another fantastic choice. The resolution comes with Tenzin in the Fog of Lost Souls, fittingly, where he reconnects with his true identity and sheds the self-imposed burden of his father’s legacy.

Were this not already an excellent convergence of theme and metaphor, its effect extends from Tenzin to Korra, when Korra rises to the occasion even after the spirit of Raava is pulled from her. As Tenzin is not Aang, a powerful good who came before him, Korra is not Raava either. Their worth is not wrapped up in the legacy of Good, because good versus evil is a complicated concept. Good versus evil only exists because people make decisions to look for the light, or only see dark. People with good intentions make mistakes, people with misguided ideas try to apply them to everyone, and everyone struggles with a false perspective that limits their light - their true selves.

So, that’s the good stuff - and oh, is it amazing-level good stuff. It handles archetypal ideas with such light and shade, and grounds its mythos in theme and character. But chances are if you are not Korra, a blood relative of Aang, or directly tied to the myth arc of the Spirit World, then your part in Book 2 was some iteration of well-intentioned mess, theoretically awesome but effectively underwhelming by comparison. A brief run-through:

Issue 1. The social politics of Northern and Southern Water Tribes are ultimately lost on the season. It should be interesting, but the story affords very little time to understanding the cultural context for each place, and altogether it’s not enough to resonate. It is not promising when you have a Civil War in the first act of your season that peters out in relevance halfway through. What works really well about the social politics is the idea that the Northern condemnation of the Southerners having abandoned their connection to the spirits, but unfortunately this barely even serves as relevant backdrop.

Issue 2. Connecting Korra to the conflict through her family didn’t work for the same reasons - why do we care about her parents? It’s unfortunate, but there’s no time to care. Ma and Pa Korra are standard parents without any defining qualities, and their presence feels flat and unnecessary. To boot, staging another brother-vs-brother waterbender conflict seemed a bit thin, especially when the Big Bad is the protagonist’s uncle. Could be interesting, yes, but it wasn’t made unique or individually developed in the narrative. Unalaq and Tonraq’s conflict didn’t connect to Korra in any meaningful way except the baseline that they’re family - but this choice never has any life breathed into it.

Issue 3. Varrick is another example of a potentially-interesting political and social thread. He is a delightful deployment of chaotic capitalism, funding both Team Avatar and the Southern Water Tribe to instigate the capital’s involvement in the Civil War. His use of propaganda is another interesting facet on the season’s brief exploration of the powerful mindlessness of public entertainment - but there’s not enough commentary there. The narrative spends too much time trying to create mystery about him being Good or Evil when it just doesn’t matter. Isn’t it more interesting if we know all along that Varrick serves his own needs, for better or for worse? Isn’t it more interesting to posit a flawed and narcissistic force technically acting for Good? And isn’t a runaround detective plot revealing that Varrick might be a Bad Guy counterintuitive to some of the main themes of the season?

Issue 4. This same need for “mystery” plagues Unalaq’s villainy storyline as well, primarily in the beginning of the season. It’s painfully obvious, given Korra’s stubborn rebuke of Tenzin and Tonraq, that the Avatar is making a Huge Mistake with her alliances. The audience is screechingly aware that Unalaq is not going to have good intentions. So why not lean into that and show us some of his scheming? With both Varrick and Unalaq, it would have been better to not waste time with intrigue and skip straight to dramatic irony. Show us their maligned plans so that we can feel fear for what Team Avatar doesn’t yet know and what possibly might befall them.

Issue 5. Another bad side effect of “concealing” Varrick’s alliances is the fact that Mako chases a remote for four episodes. Mako as a hardboiled detective is a mostly useless story thread, because it’s tied to many things that narratively don’t weigh enough - the Civil War, Varrick’s evil plans, Asami losing her business. The sting episode is completely pointless, as it not only tangles dramatically with plot threads that don’t matter, but it also hints at Mako’s past gang affiliation without actually acting on it. Most importantly, it affords us only the briefest glimpses of Lin Beifong in Season 2, so what’s the point?

Issue 6. This leads me to the last issue - the season does its best to incorporate supporting characters, but the execution just isn’t there. Bolin’s character takes a turn for the south with his stint as a self-important actor/lovesick boyfriend. Asami is barely relevant, showing up when it’s time to pilot something or cause romantic tension. Lin Beifong’s shining moment is swinging the president to safety, which is awesome, but otherwise she is a mere accessory to the season. And it’s definitely a challenge - I don’t know that there would be an organic way to push Korra forth on her spiritual journey and effectively include the rest of Team Avatar, given the overarching themes of the season.  That being said, it was especially disappointing to see the reduced screentime for Asami and Beifong, considering the strong moments afforded them in Book 1.

Ultimately, though, this season went hard and did a massive amount of storytelling. It set out to change the show’s universe as we understood it - and it achieved that. It created real stakes for Korra and Tenzin, and let them experience failure and undoable consequences. Once again, I’m left at the end of the season wondering how exactly the show will spin this world anew. We move forward into the unknown, choices made, Avatar lineage severed, and the worlds connected to bring spirits and humans together again. Even with the issues of execution, Korra Book 2 puts forth a damn impressive display of character, theme, and storytelling - all in pursuit of a massive narrative shift that fundamentally alters its main character and the world around, and within her.
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