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The Legend Of Korra: “The Calling”

A narrow focus holds back an episode that needs more substance

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The Legend Of Korra

"The Calling"

Season 4 , Episode 4

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Avatar Korra finally gets her mojo back in “The Calling,” which is a very good thing because this show has lost a lot of momentum in these last two episodes. It’s not that “The Coronation” and “The Calling” are bad—it’s rare for an episode of Avatar or Korra to be flat-out awful—but the story has considerably slowed down as it waits for Korra to overcome her PTSD. With the memory of the exhilarating Book Three still very fresh in my mind, Book Four is very sluggish by comparison. The writers are delving deep into the characters (specifically Korra), but in the process, they’ve pushed the action elements of the series into the background and disrupted the balance that makes this show so engaging.

The success of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend Of Korra lies in a balance of four elements, and I don’t mean earth, air, fire, and water. Those four elements are character-based drama, youthful humor, extensive world-building, and dynamic action. Those first three have been present for most of Book Four, but the last two episodes have severely diminished the amount of action, which is the most important element for keeping the pace moving quickly. I’ll always appreciate this show’s devotion to character development and establishing the political climate of this world because that gives the story weight, but without those rousing action sequences, the series starts to feel overly heavy instead of satisfyingly full.

Last week’s episode wasn’t particularly thrilling, but at least it offered significant forward movement for this season’s larger political narrative. “The Calling” has Meelo, Ikki, and Jinora learning about the value of teamwork while Toph continues to walk Korra through the steps of her healing, and that narrow focus makes this episode feel very slight compared to what has come before. Yes, Tenzin’s kids are adorable, but they don’t have an especially interesting story. Jinora is easily the most intriguing because she’s the oldest and has received the spotlight before, but Ikki and Meelo have primarily been used as comic relief, which doesn’t give them very much depth going into this episode.

“The Calling” comes across as an intentional throwback to the lighter days of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a connection that is made at the beginning of the episode when Ikki comments on how she and her siblings are about the same age as Grandpa Aang and his friends when they travelled the world. The Legend Of Korra has a more mature bent than its predecessor, and while this episode maintains that maturity with Korra’s storyline, the thread with Tenzin’s kids has a very juvenile tone. The three siblings keep getting in each others’ way, but eventually they learn that each person is an important part of the team in an incredibly predictable moral lesson.

While the youngsters’ story isn’t especially captivating, it does provide the highlight of this episode: Ikki’s abduction by two of Kuvira’s soldiers. It’s a development that gives the middle child the opportunity to prove her worth in this mission, and she shows off her wily resilience by convincing the soldiers that she’s on their side. The bumbling soldiers are hilarious, and I love the idea that they’re willing to believe their child prisoner simply because they’re really lonely and bored. The soldiers are the kinds of characters the Aang Gang regularly came across, more cartoonishly exaggerated than the figures that inhabit Korra’s world. (The same can be said of the fisherman that Korra met two episodes ago and who Tenzin’s kids meets this week, and he actually is a person that Aang encountered in the past.)

Bringing in some new characters helps expand the scope of a story that feels very small, and it’s just lot of fun watching Ikki develop a legitimate bond with these two grown men that were intending to turn her and her siblings into prisoners of wars. She’s annoyed when Jinora and Meelo knock out her captors, but it’s not just because they interrupt her undercover mission. She’s mostly irritated that they hurt her new friends, and she leaves the two men some sweet buns as an apology for her siblings’ rude behavior.

Ikki discovers that Korra is hiding in the swamp and Jinora’s spirit powers eventually pinpoint Korra’s location once Toph finishes her work on the Avatar, but Meelo doesn’t really do much besides screw up. Ultimately, his major contribution is pestering Ikki so that she would leave the group and get captured, and while he’s not particularly useful when it comes to searching, he’s important to this episode because of the humor he brings with his cocky ignorance. He’s always been overly confident, but now that he’s entering the very earliest throes of puberty, he thinks he’s completely grown up and knows everything. He doesn’t, and this episode constantly returns to that idea for comedy this week.

Over in the swamp, Yoda Toph keeps pushing Korra to move past her mental blocks, a process that begins with Korra reliving all those past traumas that have put her in this position. As she walks through the swamp, the terrain’s mystical energies take Korra back to those moments when she found herself suffering at the hands of Aman, Unalaq, and Zaheer, and seeing those three events again makes you realize just how often this show’s season finales incapacitate the lead character. No wonder the poor girl is so afraid of going back to that life. She regularly found herself trapped in near-death situations, and while she may not have been the happiest person for the last three years, at least she was never held captive by crazy men that wanted to use her or destroy her.

Toph points out that the pain of those attacks has stayed with Korra just like Zaheer’s poison, and she needs to expel them both if she’s going to truly heal. When I was a kid, my mom loved to tell me, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Korra is so focused on the loss that she hasn’t been able to get to a point where she learns anything, but Toph is there to guide her to the lessons being taught by each of Korra’s adversaries: Aman wanted equality for all; Unalaq wanted to bring back the spirits; and Zaheer believed in total freedom.

The problem was that each of these men took their respective ideologies too far and threw themselves out of balance. Korra has suffered because of these obsessive zealots, and is intimately familiar with the pain caused by these corrupted individuals. That doesn’t mean that the goals these men were fighting for were bad, it just means that these men didn’t care about how their own personal missions impacted the world at large. Korra’s encounters with Aman, Unalaq, and Zaheer taught her about what needs to be done in order to truly achieve balance, and Kuvira has something to offer to Korra’s education, too. Kuvira’s campaign shows the importance of unity amongst people, but like the other Big Bads, her intentions have become twisted by personal ambition and a thirst for power.

So much of this show is about Balance, and I love how Toph’s role in Korra’s recovery is to show her that the villains she fought had something valuable to offer her. These aren’t one-dimensionally evil characters, and Toph’s unbiased view forces Korra to look at her old opponents in a new light. One Korra’s perspective is changed, she can open herself up to the next stage of the healing, which involves reestablishing her connections with the friends and family that want to help her.

Touching the Banyan Grove Tree rekindles Korra’s spiritual energy, and that immediately catches Jinora’s attention. The first people reunited with Korra are Tenzin’s kids, which is appropriate because they’ve always been like Korra’s siblings on this show. They hug and talk about Korra’s new short hair and it’s all very sweet, but can we hurry up and get Korra back in action? Thankfully, it looks like that will finally happen next week as “The Calling” ends with Korra bending the remaining metal poison out of her system, reentering the Avatar state, and heading off to kick some Kuvira ass. The ending feels a bit rushed, but after four episodes of Korra apart from season’s main storyline, I’m willing to accept an accelerated conclusion if it means getting Korra back in the fray.

Stray observations:

  • Kuvira has sent all her forces to Zaofu, which makes me think next week’s episode will be action extravaganza I’ve been desperately waiting for this season.
  • I love that Toph is an absolutely horrible storyteller. See below for specific examples of her shoddy summaries of key Avatar events.
  • Meelo has his first crush on a girl this week, and it’s exactly as cute as it sounds. Also: Meelo’s got some killer eyebrows.
  • Meelo’s purple berry face is the stuff of nightmares.
  • I would also like to give Toph a hug now, if that’s O.K.
  • “I’m not adorable. I’m dangerous.”
  • Ikki: “Remember when he used to be so nice and sweet?” Jinora: “No.”
  • “I threw some rocks at the Avatar, he got all whiny and Sokka fell in a hole.”
  • “It was hot. I was on a blimp. And I think a giant turtle showed up. Wow. What a day.”
  • “Boy you Avatars sure need a lot of hand holding.”
  • “Cranky? Old? Blind? You must be Toph!”