[Spoilers for The Legend of Korra follow]
A season in three parts that doesn’t quite make a satisfying whole. Book 1 had delivered an innovative and complete story that still felt unfinished. Korra was shown as being a contrast to her predecessor: a person of action and quick temper but also essentially a figure of the establishment. Her victory at the end of Book 1 was helping maintain Republic City as it was.
Cleverly, Korra was also shown as lacking a key element of her role as Avatar in that she lacked a strong connection with the spiritual aspects of the role. With the ‘four elements’ of the Avatar world already used as titular themes, ‘Spirit’ was a logical next step.
Having said that, many aspects seem forced in Book 2. Korra now isn’t just from any old water bending family, her father leads the Southern Water Tribe and is from Northern Water Tribe royalty. As with Book 1, a central conflict (for the first section of the story anyway) is sibling rivalry between two water-bending brothers: Tonraq (Korra’s father) and Unalaq (Korra’s uncle and chief of the northern water tribe).
This first section sets up an interesting conflict: Unalaq wishes to reunite the two tribes of water benders and also bring about a return to traditional ways. Tonraq is a moderniser and the Southern Water Tribe, rebuilding itself after being decimated by the Fire Kingdom in the past, is following the lead of Republic City. Unalaq’s actions lead to a civil war but it is cleverly portrayed as being a conflict of some subtlety. While we are clearly intended to sympathise with the Southern Water tribe, the unwillingness of Republic City and some of Korra’s friends to get involved is understandable. The comic subplot of Varrick’s propaganda serial presents Unalaq as a cackling madman…
…and then it turns out that he is exactly that. It’s not that the third section of the story is bad, the epic conflict between Korra and Vaatu (the primal spirit of evil) is exciting in itself, it is just that the work put into creating a subtle civil conflict is simply abandoned. Unalaq is straightforwardly wrong and evil.
I’m guessing that the original plot line was hard to resolve in a satisfying way. Korra intervening as Avatar in a civil conflict would seem like an abuse of power and would elevate her to a benevolent tyrant. Korra not intervening would leave her standing by why injustice was perpetrated. There isn’t a good answer to this paradox of centralised power other than ‘don’t centralise power’ which would require the show to reject its own premise. Luckily, these ideas aren’t abandoned completely in the show but they are abandoned for Book 2.
In between these two parts are a pair of episodes unlike any other. Korra, having being attacked by dark spirits and washed up on an isolated island inhabited only by a fire-temple, attempts to re-connect with her Avatar past lives. In the process we are shown a flashback story featuring the first Avatar. On paper that sounds like a terrible idea but it is carried off with some finesse. With a different, more stylised animation style and a backstory that is genuinely original, the story of the first Avatar Wan is a very nicely done fantasy tale in a unique world.
The interlude into the past also marks a reset for the series. The concept that the Avatar is the bridge between the two worlds (human & spirit) was a throw-away concept in the original series. With the interlude, this theme now becomes the central theme of The Legend of Korra.
The final phase of the story sets the possible future direction of the world on a new path. Korra also shifts from being a figure of conserving to a figure of change. Her final act is to leave open the portals between the spirit world and the human world. As well providing a set-up for Book 3, this act makes the future ‘progress’ of the world more open. Republic City’s convergence in form with our own world (specifically some kind of capitalist industrial 1890s-1920s New York) is a temporary meeting with our world not a permanent one. Notably, the next two seasons of Korra shows technological progress but in ways that is more speculative and fantastical than Book 1’s Republic City.
A climatic battle between giant beings in the seas outside Republic City is just the icing on the cake.
What else is there to say?
- The love triangle sub-plot between Korra, Mako and Asami still feels forced. The eventual (ambiguous) resolution in Book 4 I’ll discuss when we get to it but at this point “dump Mako” is the obvious solution to all concerned. Even Mako doesn’t seem to be keen on the idea.
- Bolin as comedy relief works but undermines the character. Book 1 Bolin was less of a goofball. Luckily he gets a bit more complexity back later.