Hello! Welcome back! Though Nickelodeon signed up for 40 more episodes of The Legend of Korra since the last review I wrote here, the first two episodes of the second season point to the writers keeping up the breakneck pace of the first season. The new situations of our characters are efficiently set up, new characters introduced, new conflicts introduced and everybody split up around the world in a neat hour.
The writers seem to want to establish a new tone for the second season very quickly, too—at least, that's what I took away from the opening scene, in which at least one guy definitely (if not graphically) gets dragged to his watery grave by a giant spirit-squid. (I suppose the sailors could turn up in some undersea squidnapping lair later, but it seems unlikely.) It felt very unlike the first season’s careful attention to showing a parachuting bad guy drifting away from each exploded plane, and having that be the first thing we see could be taken as a statement that the second season will be a bit more adult. Korra sometimes seems to have to align with TV standards for kids’ shows and sometimes seems to be able to break the rules—you wonder whether ending the story of last season's villains in a murder-suicide just caused Nickelodeon's people to give up on the pretense that their shows absolutely have to have the "No, it's cool, they didn't die!" fig leaf.
The premiere episodes also get right down to business plot-wise, which is a relief—I was a little worried about the potential for a stretch of episodes in which the writers pretend that Unkie Unalaq (I apologize in advance for inevitably calling him Uniqlo at some point this season) is a good dude when it’s so clearly telegraphed that he is not, down to the semi-ominous music cues.
For example, all the spirit attacks we see are obviously very conveniently timed for Unalaq to pull out his Spirit Valium trick and save the day—whether in flashback, where the effect is him gaining crown-prince status over Korra’s dad, or in the present, where they serve to heighten the urgency about him getting close to Korra and easily talking her into doing what he says without asking too many questions about how exactly exploding a big glowy white egg thing = spirit world detante. (Answer: If you have to ask, you’ll never know.)
Plus, the first episode ends with Unalaq being all, “I have great plans for you, Korra,” paralleling how the first episode of the previous season ended with Amon talking about his plans and Korra. Does anyone who talks about "my great plans" ever plan to, like, throw a surprise birthday party? No. The plan is always world domination.
Speaking of, did you catch the “...and soon, the whole world” tag to Unalaq’s pleased statement about this being the first step to fixing the spiritual problems of the Southern Water Tribe? With that and the Fire Nation-looking ships and troops marching in the very end, there’s some definite world-domination parallels with Ozai and the Fire Nation of the Avatar: The Last Airbender era.
But before I spend all my space talking about the last couple minutes, let’s talk about what’s happened to our characters in the six months that have elapsed in Avatarland since the end of the first season.
Republic City has a new president rather than a Council, whom we only see in the opening filmstrip but seems like he’ll have to be important. Tenzin, therefore, is funemployed, doubly so when Korra later tells him to hit the road. Bolin’s also adrift without his former Fire Ferrets, enough that he doesn’t mind skipping town on his new teammates to help Asami try to win over shipping magnate/entrepreneur Varrick to save her disgraced company.
Mako’s got himself a job, though, as a cop on the seemingly intergrated police force, wisecracking his way to making detective. I’ve always liked Mako most when he’s being extremely uncool, so I enjoyed the later mention that he pre-writes his dumb Spiderman one-liners about putting the try in Triad.
It’s also gratifying that Korra and Mako aren’t entirely living out the “happily ever after” that the end of the last season suggested. Relationships are the things that happen after the big romantic kiss, obviously; since A:tLA ended in one of those, I’m glad that it’s being examined more with Mako and Korra’s alternating bickering and gross feeding-each-other-cotton-candy moments. (Also, you guys, there’s no way they’re still going to be boyfriend-girlfriend at the end of four seasons. I know you don’t care. But you guys.)
Korra is one person who doesn't seem to have changed at all, or to have learned much from the events of last season. Tenzin’s statement that while she’s learned Korra-style airbending, she still needs to learn real airbending is demonstrated to be extremely true in the second episode with her attempt to open the spirit gate by just punching it until it submits. She makes the near-exact same kinds of dumb decision she made in the first season (she might want to tattoo “Pay attention when Tenzin mistrusts sketchy Northern Water Tribe dudes” on her hand), and it comes from the same character flaw: She probably wouldn't acknowledge it, but deep down, she thinks she's better than the people she loves. And why would she take advice from someone who isn't as good as she is? Mako seems to have been getting the butt end of that stick in the past six months, as he clearly is now dodging her requests for advice in case he says something she doesn’t want to hear.
The only people that she does seem to instinctively trust are the people who set themselves up with a public image of being infallible at something Korra's not good at—Tarrlok at politics in the first season, Unalaq at spirit wrangling here—who are generally the worst possible people to trust.
It feels like Korra, like many people who were rewarded for being very good at things as children, has a hardwired internal connection between doing things perfectly and being good. It sort of makes sense that she seems inclined to respect and want to impress people who make her feel weak and incompetent. There's probably some parallels to be drawn with why she was initially attracted to Mako—you can’t actually know someone without breaking the illusion of perfection. And because of this, she continues to dismiss the advice of her friends and family in favor of people she barely knows.
It’s cool, though! It would be pretty boring if Korra was a perfect character now, wouldn’t it? Because, hey, did I mention that this show has three more seasons to go?
- I hope that this diaspora from Republic City doesn’t mean that we won’t get much time with Chief Beifong this season. I can’t see her abandoning her post to jet around the world.
- The stuff with Jinora makes it seem like the eldest airbender kid is going to get her own storyline this time. Hopefully having something to do with the creepily desperate air monks.
- More new characters: Bumi and Kya, who Tenzin isn’t scared of. Anymore. The siblings don’t get much to do other than than make fun of Tenzin, but I am already a big fan Bumi’s voice actor.
- How could I not mention the twins until now? Though it wasn’t super integral to the plot, the weird semi-romance between Bolin and Aubrey Plaza’s dead-voiced Eska is my new favorite thing, whether it’s Bolin making his move by sailing off pretending to be a hit-on-ladies airplane or just “You amuse me. I will make you mine.”
- The first “mover” of a running ostrich-horse was an Eadweard Muybridge film-history reference—this show is definitely aimed at kids, you guys!
- Is Ginger the first white person we’ve seen in Avatarland? Go rest your gams, Ginger.
- Neatest of the week, visual: The POV shot as Varrick swims in and out of focus while blocking Bolin’s view of Ginger.
- Runner-up: Looking down on the glowing carnival, and all that falling snow—so pretty, and seems like it would not be easy to do.
- Insert obligatory "The spirits show the strong influence of the work of Miyazaki!" stray observation here.
- Neatest of the week, audial: Also Bolin; I couldn’t help but wonder what P.J. Byrne was doing in the studio to approximate the sound of a rube trying to stick an entire arctic hen in his mouth.
- Runner-up: The subtle pang noise that Bolin’s inflated snowsuit makes when Mako stops his slide with his foot, which made me laugh so hard but also conveyed a ton of information about what the snowsuit felt like.
- There’s trailers circulating the internet that have stuff about the Very First Avatar, which looks like it’s going to be a pretty big deal, but I’ll hold off on talking about potential plot points until they actually happen. Also, in that survey last year, almost none of you seemed to care much about the letter grades, so here is your notification that I'm going to continue to be pretty blase about them.
- Katara’s going to die at some point during this series: True or way true?