Oh, man, there’s so much to talk about! I’m going to have to leave a lot of things (in particular the super interesting ways in which, by seeing the way the pre-bending society worked, we can extrapolate how bending has made for a pretty egalitarian society in which the genders are basically equal and situations in which an upper class oppresses an underclass are much harder to sustain) for another week, because this is way too long already. Definitely talk amongst yourselves.
Here’s another two episodes in which we barely see Korra at all, and it turns out to be massively beneficial. Hooray! In part, this is because they have the opportunity to tell a complete story in 45 minutes, and they still got it on that front. The Korra story is really complicated and gray and long-term, which inherently has fewer opportunities for black-and-white, moral-of-the-story satisfaction. Here, the writers get a brief reprieve where they can just tell a simple story with a beginning, middle and end and clear good-vs.-evil morality—the standard on Avatar: The Last Airbender—and they still got it.
Plus, it’s all mythology stuff, which ties equally in to Korra and A:tLA, with loads of neat details for fans of the original. For example, Wan’s apparently the choreographer of the fire dance that Aang and Zuko do in season 3 of A:tLA, and the airbender tattoos apparently evolved from little human beings to arrows. These two episodes also indirectly fill in backstory (quite satisfyingly, I thought) for the whole lionturtle thing that seemed so out of the blue in the finale of A:tLA. “The power is yours to keep… until your return” was a pretty neat surprise about how bending hasn’t always been the way it's been shown in the show.
Another thing that made this double episode enjoyable is that the animation is back to being credited to Studio Mir; it’s really noticeable how much better everything looks. I’d like to think that I’d have noticed right away even if I wasn't aware of all the out-of-show information about the two animation studios. Tying back to what I mentioned a few episodes ago, blinks for no particular narrative reason are back. It’s most obvious when the huge lionturtles do it in the background of a few scenes, but the spirits do it, the humans do it, everyone that has actual eyes rather than laser-beam-shooting patterns does it. The “camera” moves again, too, breaking up scenes where people are just standing around and talking with slow zooms and pans and jittering all over the place in the several sweet-ass fight scenes.
The flashback scenes are in a slightly different animation style, with very stylized backgrounds like two-dimensional layered papercuts or woodblock prints, especially when we visit towns. The the elements are much more stylized in the same way, with curlicues. It’s different, but very pretty.
But what I think is more important, and why I could get engaged with this episode in a way I haven’t been able to with others this season, is that the characters’ faces and bodies move like they’re alive again. I'd like to attribute most of my buying into this story like I used to to the resumption of facial expressions rather than the straight-up storytelling, because I really do feel like it's a big deal. We'll see when Studio Mir does an episode that has the usual characters in it.
Some of the characters' actions in this episode even seem familiar, as if Studio Mir has a staff Silly Guy they call up to act out stuff to be used as a reference for silly animated movements, the same way that the show employs a real-life martial arts expert to devise and demonstrate different bending moves. (The different styles of martial arts seemed much more distinct in this episode, too, though I’m not sure if that’s because Korra’s supposed to be a doofus who uses all the elements the exact same way or whether that’s the animation.) In particular, the way the lemur spirit moved when cracking up at his own “it’s in None Of Your Business Valley!” joke was really reminiscent of the ways Sokka moved when cracking himself up in A:tLA. (This mystery Silly Guy is potentially co-showrunner Bryan Konietkzo, as in the past he’s posted gifs of his own motion references for a few memorably funny scenes.)
So what happened in the episode? We learn that the Avatar only exists because one guy, Wan, accidentally screwed up the balance by choosing to interfere with things he didn’t understand—and that the Avatar existing at all is something of a workaround meant to hold everything together until the next time the planets align.
The solution that Wan comes up with at the end of "Beginnings pt. 2" feels jerry-rigged in a way that I doubt would appeal to many Taoists. The idea of the spirits of yin and yang eternally joined and cancelling each other out is very clean, very natural, very harmonic, very Taoist. Notice that when Vaatu shows up at the air village, a monk asks where his other half is, not where the light spirit is. The spirit-world battlefield is even shaped like a yin-yang. (Interestingly, the light side, yang, is traditionally associated with masculinity and the dark side, yin, with femininity, yet here those gender identities are swapped with Raava and Vaatu.)
This world doesn’t really have religion, really—roles that are rooted in belief in God or gods tend to be rooted in bending instead, like with the air monks and the fire sages. Even Raava and Vaatu, though they’re a much bigger deal than your average spirits, aren’t gods—the other spirits just call them the “great spirits.” But they’re just part of the greater balance themselves.
The situation now, with the yin locked up and the yang merged with a human spirit is not something Taoists would regard as good. Though Wan tells Raava he’s going to help restore balance to the world to make up for his mistake, the very existence of the Avatar is a sign that things are out of balance.
So yin and yang have been carrying on their evenly matched struggle for millions of years, through a whole lot of these 10,000-year cycles between planetary alignment. The current situation seems like a patch—one that’s held for the duration of this one cycle, but which, given the way things seem like they’re breaking apart and the boundary between the spirit world and the human world is cracking, may not be a solution for much longer. Maybe the Avatar is something that shouldn’t be around?
Your view on this depends on whether you think Wan was right to try to stop the eternal, physical-world-wrecking battle of yin and yang, and that depends on which philosophical viewfinder you’re looking through. Korra and A:tLA draw on and mix together different elements of Buddhism and Taoism to build this world—Buddhism’s lack of concrete deities and afterlife, Taoism’s focus on balance and yin and yang, Buddhism’s reincarnation and humanism, Taoism’s respect for nature. (I’m not well-versed in Eastern religions, so this is very basic; if you are, I’d love to hear more in the comments.)
But Buddhism and Taoism would (I think) have different views on Wan’s action. Taoism would probably see breaking apart the yin and yang and throwing things out of balance as the worst thing that could happen—the way things are would be out of balance, and things should end with Raava and Vaatu resuming their eternal wrestling match. Buddhism, with its focus on the possibility of change, the self, humanism and personal morality, might argue that Wan was correct to try to figure out a way to stop this battle that had been crushing all the little people in its path for millenia, even if his way is something of a workaround—I mean, the Middle Path was kind of a workaround at the time, right, and the idea of nirvana is something that breaks an eternal cycle?
Anyway, I have no idea what’s going on with that. Just stuff to think about. I’m really interested to see which of those views will fuel the upcoming harmonic convergence battle (which, as the Fire Boss Lady knows off the top of her head, is only a few weeks away), because the two views don’t seem particularly reconcilable.
Also, what? The apocalypse is coming in a couple weeks? That raises those stakes right up.
- That coda, where Wan dies on a battlefield in a sort of hopeless way, thinking he’s failed, was cool. “Even with Vaatu locked away, darkness still surrounds humanity.”
- Re: the introductory scene to Wan, all I gotta say is “Riff raff! Street rat!”
- Still a lot of unanswered questions; here's a few. The statue of Wan in the air temple had him surrounded by Spirit Valium; there's still a big mystery as to what it is, why it works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work. From what we’ve learned this episode, it looks like it just removes the dark influence from spirits so they return to their normal (but still occasionally aggressive) selves.
- How exactly did that thing where Wan touched the spirit portal and shot light out of his mouth (like Aang did?) and then turned into the permanent Avatar work, again?
- How are the spirits getting to the human world? And why are they turning dark?
- I thought bending didn’t work in the spirit world?
- Why is Unalaq into opening the portals?
- “I wonder how long I’ve been away?” Me too! Has the war really started? I also wonder how Korra got there, anyway, and on whose orders.
- Loved the way the music interacted with the last fight with Vaatu--the eye-beam organ chord (I think it was the dominant?) is incorporated into the fight music, the visual static of Wan’s body being reflected in the beat, how the Avatar theme circled in only after Wan and Raava had merged.
- So the portals have been closed since the living-on-lionturtles era? How did Unalaq know to open them? Obviously he wasn’t being totally forthcoming by saying that it was a thing that the water tribe used to do.
- Visual of the week: So many! Maybe I’m just desperate for it after weeks of not-exemplary animation. But: When the guy possessed by the spirit and half-leur-faced yells and runs away, with the actual spirit standing right behind him;
- And the air guys I guess have always been peaceful monk types, but used to have people head tattoos rather than air tattoos. Details! Wish we’d had more of a chance to check out the early water and earth bender cities.
- Line reading of the week: “Stinky is more accurate.”
- “We’ve been raising this herd of air bison since the hundred years’ war.” Heh, nice that they mentioned where the heck the supplemental air bison came from in-world.
- There were Studio Ghibli callouts all over the place, most obviously to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. In particular, as Wan tries to sneak into the bath oasis by blending in with the spirits processing over the bridge, two little black spirits with characteristics of Spirited Away’s No Face (one blobby, crawling guy and one with big, blunt teeth) crossed right in the foreground, and, like in Mononoke, spirits going dark because of forestry. What other things did you catch?