“Like all great children’s tales, it contains truth within the myth.” – Zaheer, “A Breath Of Fresh Air”
Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend Of Korra have a passionate adult audience, but first and foremost, these shows are targeted for an audience under the age of 18. They are fanciful children’s tales about young people with extraordinary abilities learning to survive in a world of warring nations and mystical creatures, but they contain truth within the myth. Like all great children’s shows, Avatar and Korra use metaphors to guide viewers through their own life experiences, teaching valuable lessons that can be applied in a world where people can’t bend the elements to their will.
The first season of The Legend Of Korra was a captivating coming-of-age story about a headstrong young woman with incredible power running away from responsibility, the standard metaphor for the adolescent that doesn’t know how to direct her energy. Korra throws herself into boys and sports to avoid her Avatar duties, but eventually she steps up to fulfill her destiny because that’s what she needs to do to become a valuable member in society. The difference between Korra and the average teenager is the nature of the value: Korra has to maintain the spiritual balance of the world, while the average teen is just trying to get an education so that a well-paying job can be secured in the future.
Korra had the benefit of a great villain in that first season, with Amon representing the disenfranchised masses that are fighting for a fair chance while the upper class thrives on their suffering. The industrial age introduced a political atmosphere that was a considerable change from the world of Avatar, and the first season used this new period to tell a story about the ongoing war between high and low social classes. Then Amon went away, the spirit world got angry, and the series got lost for a season.
Book Two was a transitional arc that needed to set events up for a major shift in status quo with Book Three, and it took a lot of misguided turns to get to the endpoint, which saw Korra leaving the gates to the spirit world open to create a New Spiritual Age. It brings me great pleasure to say that the first three episodes of this new season are a huge step up from Book Two, greatly expanding Korra’s horizons by taking her outside of Republic City while introducing a genuinely scary gang of new villains with some incredibly cool bending skills. Most importantly, they devote considerable time to exploring character relationships, rebuilding the tight bond amongst the cast that disappeared for much of last season.
Book Three is titled “Change,” and the first thing it does is show the major new development following Korra’s actions. While running around with his adorable pet Bum-Ju, Tenzin’s brother Bumi falls from a tree and discovers that he’s now an airbender; he’s just one of many, and the season opener, “A Breath Of Fresh Air”, looks at how these new airbenders are impacting Republic City. In addition to new benders, Republic City also has to deal with entire neighborhoods getting consumed by vines from the spirit world, forcing humans from their homes so that spirits can populate the area. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to urban migration, Korra style.
Korra is being blamed for all the chaos in Republic City, but she makes a damn good argument when President Raiko complains about the difficult position the administration is in because of the Avatar. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Korra says. “Did I put you in a difficult position by fighting the giant force of pure evil that was going to destroy the whole world? Maybe your administration could have handled that.” Korra was dealing with forces that would stomp any other mortal like a flea, and she did what needed to be done in order to save the world from utter destruction. The current situation isn’t great, but it’s a lot better than what could have happened, and President Raiko should be grateful that he’s not some dark spirit’s dinner right now.
Korra allows herself to get swept up in public opinion, but her teacher Tenzin is there to show her that she’s made the right decision. She hasn’t made things worse, she’s made things different, and change is something that scares people. Those people are not her responsibility, though. “You’re not the president, Korra,” Tenzin says. “Your job isn’t to fix the daily problems of every person in Republic City. Your responsibility is to bring balance to the entire world, and that means that no matter what you do, some people are not going to be happy about that.”
J.K. Simmons is the gift that keeps on giving on this show, and he gets the opportunity to show a lot of different sides of Tenzin over the course of these three episodes, which give Aang’s son a lot to do as he tries to rebuild the Air Nation with Korra and Team Avatar. Despite her efforts to help Republic City, Korra finds herself exiled at the end of the first episode, and it’s the best thing that could happen, unshackling her from the responsibility of protecting Republic City so that she can start fulfilling her true duties as the Avatar. She dedicates herself to rebuilding the Air Nation by recruiting new airbenders, but it’s a harder job than she and Tenzin anticipate.
The second episode, “Rebirth,” looks at the challenges the group faces in their recruitment drive, emphasizing comedy to highlight how silly Korra and Tenzin’s strategies are. Tenzin thinks that people will feel a spiritual obligation to join the Air Nation despite its restrictive lifestyle, and it’s no surprise that new airbenders are unwilling to give up their current lives to join some bald man’s new nation. His dinner with a man who is rightfully reluctant to leave behind his farm and family goes almost as bad as Korra’s recruitment of a 22-year-old slacker, showing that Korra’s more aggressive strategy is just as uninviting as Tenzin’s. Jon Hader and Maria Bamford do hilarious work as the voices of slacker Ryu and his mother, and those moments of humor are a big part of Korra’s charm.
The primary source of levity on this series is Bolin, and this show just keeps on giving us reasons to love him, especially as his brother Mako becomes increasingly pathetic. (It should come as no surprise that most of the Stray Observations are Bolin quotes.) It’s hard to tell what direction their story will go, but it looks like new airbender Kai will be a part of it. After performing a street spectacle to make the Air Nation an appealing lifestyle choice (at least for those who want to join the circus), the team gets its first new recruit in Kai, an orphan thief on the run from the law, and Bolin takes an immediate liking to him while Mako is immediately suspicious of Kai’s motives.
The boy is able to escape custody by convincing Team Avatar that airbending has changed his behavior, but when they fly to the walled city of Ba Sing Se, Kai gets right back to his old tricks. Bolin and Mako’s attempts to stop the boy’s pick pocketing are fruitless, but Kai’s devious behavior puts the brothers on a more meaningful path. Stuck in the impoverished lower ring of Ba Sing Se with no money or passports thanks to Kai, Bolin and Mako find themselves sleeping on the streets and plotting ways to steal moldy fruit from a street vendor. In a moment of serendipity, Bolin and Mako are recognized by their uncle, who runs the nasty fruit cart, and quickly find themselves surrounded by the family they never had.
Bolin’s desire to have a traditional family unit comes through in the first episode when he comments on how much he enjoys staying with Tenzin and his brood, so he’s delighted to finally find his biological relatives. One of the most touching moments of the three episodes is when Bolin and Mako’s grandmother shows them mementos of their father and mother, a solemn scene that unites these characters through tragedy and shows how much they need each other. Bolin and Mako’s family members have one more important task, though: informing the two of the city’s disappearing airbenders. The Earth Queen is drafting airbenders into her army, and the trio of episodes ends with the regiment gaining its newest soldier: Kai.
It’s great to see all the character work being done in these episodes, especially because very little of it is romantic in nature. Korra and Tenzin’s father-daughter relationship gets a good amount of screen time, as does Tenzin’s relationship with the rest of his family, both living and deceased. Tenzin’s reverence for the history of the Air Nation is inspiring, and Simmons’ performance captures just how much the rise of new airbenders means to the character. Korra’s other primary relationship isn’t with either Mako or Bolin, but Asami, and it’s a smart decision to flesh out Korra’s bond with her sole girlfriend, who started to feel like an auxiliary character last season.
It’s a lot of fun to see the girls bond over how big of a doofus Mako is, and their fight sequence against Mad Max-styled motorcycle-riding barbarians in the third episode shows just how much ass these two women can kick when they team up. Their battle is part of the political struggle that adds depth to “The Earth Queen,” which brings back the class warfare theme of Book One, but this time with a Marie Antoinette-inspired villain in Queen Hou-Ting. The taxes of the poor are paying for the Earth Queen’s topiaries, and Korra’s assumption that the barbarians are the good guys is probably the correct one.
When it comes to The Legend Of Korra, the things I’m looking for are spectacular action sequences, imaginative designs, smooth animation, and stories that balance character drama with larger social issues. Visually, these three episodes are some of Korra’s most impressive chapters, with Studio Mir bringing the events to the screen with impeccable detail. (And they’ll be doing it all season!) Melchior Zwyer joins the directing team after doing some outstanding work on Young Justice, and he’s a welcome addition to the series, bringing an appropriately large sense of scope to the first episode. That scope is a major component of the action sequences, and Zwyer, along with directors Colin Heck (“Rebirth”) and Ian Graham (“The Earth Queen”), does excellent work spotlighting the environments to show how the characters utilize their surroundings in a fight.
Moving outside of Republic City provides a slew of new characters and settings to explore, and I can already tell that a major part of Book Three’s appeal is going to be the variety of locales that come into play. Beyond the Earth Kingdom villages and vine-infested Republic City, these three episodes take us to various other kingdoms around the globe, specifically their secret prisons that house some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. New airbender Zaheer is in one of them, and he uses his abilities to break out of his isolated mountain prison and find the rest of his crew, who are being held in similarly remote locations.
The prison breakouts are the action highlights of these three episodes, quickly establishing Zaheer and his companions as major threats by showing their remarkable bending ability. Zaheer and firebender Ghazan have some sweet moves, but they pale in comparison to armless waterbender Ming-Hua, who gives herself two water appendages to wipe out her enemies. They’re scary enough that they demand the attention of Lord Zuko (gruffly voiced by Bruce Davison), who gets an awesome introduction at the end of the second episode when he rides off on his giant red dragon to fight Zaheer and his pals.
We don’t get the chance to see Zuko in action—he spends the third episode going to the Northern Water Tribe, where he shows Eska and Desna their secret ice prison—but I anticipate one hell of a brawl, especially with Studio Mir animating the entire season. With the visuals and the plot back on track, Book Three is the Change that The Legend Of Korra needed, and I’m very excited to see what other surprises are in store.
- I didn’t want to spend much time on Nickelodeon’s publicity campaign (or lack thereof) for this show, but seriously WTF is going on over there? Who thought it would be a good idea to drop a new season announcement just a few weeks before airing? And where’s the advertising? It’s strange to see this kind of treatment for what is arguably one of the network’s most popular shows.
- I love the background details on this show, like the disgruntled driver who gives Korra and Asami the stinkeye when he passes them on the road. They bring the world to life.
- I’m definitely going to need a spirit-heavy episode because those little buggers are adorable. The airship should really just be full of those weird little guys.
- Is there anything more adorable than Oogi and Naga sticking their tongues out on the deck of Asami’s airship? Yes, because Bolin could also be up there.
- I like the idea of Henry Rollins voicing an outlaw ringleader, but his Zaheer performance is out of sync with the character’s appearance. The design suggests someone more weathered and gritty, and there’s an almost youthful aggression in Rollins’ voice.
- “If you don’t want to wear the sweater I made you, that’s fine. I’M SORRY I GOT MAD!”
- “Stop waving your arms around at the table. It’s not funny anymore.”
- “It is absolutely my pleasure to meet you, Daw. I’ve never met a new airbender before. Well, at least not one whose diaper I didn’t have to change.” Daw: “Actually, I just fell off a bridge, so I could use a fresh diaper right about now.”
- “Those maggots will bow to me!”
- “Daddy, where are you going? Why does the bald man want to take you away?”
- “Your best friend will be a giant bison!”
- “An airbending show that will leave you breathless...with wind!”
- “He shaves every hair on his head every single day! It’s the one, the only guy with an arrow point to his nose...Tenziiiiiii-iiiin!”
- “With the power of airbending, even this beast can float! Like a feather.”
- “I can just stuff Pabu in my shirt...These two are going to be a little tougher.”
- “The bad news is...we’re stuck here. The good news is...you can go to the bathroom wherever you want!”
- Eska: “Why didn’t anyone tell us we had a secret prison we could have been throwing people in?” Desna: “I’d like to put my tailor in here. He never gets my cuffs right. They’re so...crease-y.”
- Zuko: “Ironically, I hired a guy with a similar ability to kill the avatar myself once. (Pause.) Didn’t work.” Eska: “Don’t feel bad. I tried to kill Korra after she ruined my wedding. It happens.”