Hi guys! I’m back from my honeymoon; thanks to Oliver for doing such an awesome job while I was gone. Trying to explain to my husband why I found this sign super entertaining was not easy:
These two episodes bring Team Avatar back together. And some long-neglected members get a chance to be their competent first-season selves again. Lin: is once more a credible police chief — while she sends officers to lock down the President, she herself goes right to Varrick’s box, before the would-be kidnapper admits who sent him. Asami: Has chances to display competence again, even if it’s just “driving Team Avatar around and yelling orders in an awesome scratchy voice.”
Even Bumi gets to be a hero—cutting through his goofy persona with a super nasty-looking throwing knife that he seems pretty practiced at chucking into torso areas. I kind of rolled my eyes at the music-tames-the-spirits thing when it works out for Bumi that first time, because that was way too easy, but that made it extremely funny when it became clear that only that one spirit was into Bumi’s flute and everyone else was still going to try to kill him. I would now very much like to see what actually happened in Bumi’s story about the feather, two eggs and a barrel of molasses, as it seems that he’s not making this stuff up; I’d also like to hear the tall-tale-summary version of how Bumi singlehandedly rescued everyone with the help of a wooden flute, a polar-bear dog and a possessed mechatank.
Bolin’s been used as a pure comic-relief character more than even Bumi this year. In “Night Of A Thousand Stars,” he finally comes off as a real person who’s funny, which makes him much more entertaining. Though the scene of Bolin visiting Mako in jail didn’t quite feel genuine, it was certainly the least concussed the character’s acted in a while. But starting with him walking out of his movie premiere, there’s just stacks of awesome Bolin material. He invents spoilers. (Nuktuk: Master of anachronism!) He deduces something’s up from a boat and a fallen veri (?) cake. He tears the sleeves off his suit like Bruce Willis, causing me to laugh so hard I blew milk out my nose even though I was not even drinking milk at the time.
And then after an entire season warming the bench, Bolin gets a completely awesome, really creatively constructed fight scene all to himself. A shoutout to the quality of the fights in the two episodes, which, though I can’t get into it too much, brought back that feeling of creativity and every fight introducing some element we’d never seen before via setting or combinations of bending. Bolin’s was particularly rewarding to watch, with the parallels between the onscreen action and the hysterical play-by-play from Announcer Guy in the audience, but the nasty brother vs. brother brawl at the South Pole and the aerial battle of Nuktuk: Sky Warrior also felt new and exciting.
Mako: OK, that was a pretty dick move. But unlike in the past, I found his motivations fairly sympathetic. (Anyway, didn’t Asami look less heartbroken and more disgusted — like, “UGH, GOD, fool me twice…”) Who wouldn’t, given a chance to turn back time on a nasty breakup fight with someone they loved, at least be tempted to be selfish and strike it from the record? (P.S. Who thinks Korra’s totally just pretending not to remember?) But one of the reasons I think I empathized was it was so fun to track Mako’s frantic oh-shit-oh-shit-what-do-I-do inner dialogue via his series of facial expressions and David Faustino’s drawn-out “Iiiiiiiiiiiiit… wasn’t such a bad fight.” It was human, and it was funny. I didn’t have to assume anything about why Mako decided to take another chance on Korra; it was all right there in the visuals.
In fact, I was constantly noticing how well-done the facial expressions in these episodes are, and how often I’d find myself laughing out loud at something that partially or entirely had to do with a character’s face. This was particularly evident in “Night Of A Thousand Stars” after Team Avatar is awkwardly reunited: Bolin’s shock-face popping up in the background of Mako and Korra kissing, the many scenes in which Bolin hits Mako with some rib-poking brotherly smug, Varrick’s “I did!” sequence scrolling between face reaction shots, ending in the very funny visual gag of Mako looking even more infuriated. It got me wondering whether that might be more of a factor in how much I enjoy something than I think it is.
I’ve found this season to be a really interesting learning experience about animation. In the first season, when everything looked lovely across the board, I really only noticed the animation when it was splashy. This season, it’s so clear that while everybody remembers the cool fights, it’s the less-flashy everyday stuff — the small changes in facial expression and shifts in posture — that quietly make a watcher believe that a bunch of lines on a screen are a human being with feelings. It’s a brain thing, I think: The more “alive” characters look, the easier it is to forget they’re not real and feel empathy for them; the more empathy you feel for a character, the more you experience/feel/live his or her story rather than just watching it.
Like, think about the last really enthralling movie you saw in a theater. I know that when I’m completely engrossed in a great movie (one that I don’t have to review), Emily Guendelsberger … kind of doesn’t exist, temporarily. I sit down in the theater, the lights go down—and if the movie’s doing its job, my own thoughts get paused for a couple hours as I get to experience a slightly muted version of what it would be like to actually be the characters onscreen and do what they’re doing, and if I’m absorbed enough, my body reacts as if it's actually in the movie. My muscles tense during The Raid: Redemption because I am feeling some of that fight-or-flight, rather than merely watching it. I tear up to an embarrassing degree when the guy’s wife dies in the opening of Up, because I am feeling that sadness. My, uh... heart pounds at the end of Y Tu Mamá También, because I’m feeling that sexiness.
Those are all good movies that did their job well. When complaining about bad movies, people tend to mention the things that “broke the spell” or “pulled me out of it” — in other words, things that unpause their own thoughts and remind them that they’re in a theater watching a movie. Terrible acting, a plot that doesn’t make sense, lines that nobody would ever say, egregiously fake special effects. I don’t usually notice stuff like stiff animation in a conscious way, but I think it still causes a very small voice to shout “Something’s not quite right! This isn’t real! Wake up!” and hits the unpause button on Emily Guendelsberger, who wonders why the hell she’s thinking right now instead of feeling.
Like now—I definitely felt these two episodes rather than watching them, and so my experience of everything was more positive. The fights were exciting, the jokes funny, the characters more sympathetic. But I’m not sure whether that’s because the writing is any different, or anything’s changed but the animation. I suspect that I have been able to enjoy Korra a lot more lately because there’s no wonky Picasso-face Asami or frozen characters nudging me in the ribs and whispering “Hey—these people aren’t real, wake up!” Given that what everyone says they love about the first show is “the characters,” I’m curious to rewatch some episodes of A:tLA with my newfound respect for the animation of facial expressions and body language.
- Soooo, we finally get Unalaq’s plan: There shouldn’t be a bridge. There shouldn’t be an Avatar. Spirits and humans should live together. He’s gonna fuse with Vaatu and become “the new Avatar… a dark Avatar.” I dunno—for one, didn’t he just say that there shouldn’t be an Avatar? Two, Vaatu’s pretty big. The only reason Raava went that route was that she was tiny and weak. I don’t know why Vaatu would be into this plan when he could just fly around his own kite-squiddy self.
- I’ve been getting a lot of Ozai vibes from Eska and Desna’s relationship with their dad these past few episodes. There’s a familiar-feeling “bad dad rationalizing” moment as Desna gets close to emotional saying that his father is the wisest man in the world, and “if he says what he is doing is right, then I believe him.” But the twins, given all the sidelong looks they were shooting each other, seem less and less on board with Unalaq’s big plan the more they hear about it.
- Ditto the Northern Water Tribe soldiers, who get one of those wonderful humanizing moments as spirits drift disconcertingly around the camp near the gateway: “You know, if I wanted some ball of evil lurking over my shoulder all the time, I’d have stayed at home with my mother-in-law.”
- “Things have changed so much since we first met.” Much as I try to avoid makeout speculation, I definitely thought Asami and Bolin were gonna make out there.
- “You go find Jinora.” Realistically, how ridiculous is that? Like, your daughter’s somewhere in this enormous world. We have no clues. Go find her?
- “You named your battleship after your assistant?” “Yep, they’re both cold, heartless war machines.” I hope we find way more out about Varrick and Zhu Li next season, because I doubt there’s time for it in the finale with everything going so bonkers.
- Varrick also apparently invented dazzle camouflage. And a battleship that can be piloted by seven people, or by robots or something. Actually, if it was just the seven of them, why didn’t they just fly there? Let’s just forget about the battleship, that didn’t really make sense.
- Visual of the night: “Don’t worry, there’s no way they’ll be expecting this!” followed by the awesome reveal through the clouds of all the dark spirits swarming around the light beam.
- Line reading of the night: First Lady Buttercup’s weirdly sexy “The seal-lion seemed a bit far-fetched, but the portrayal of this President is right on the money.”
- Line reading of the night, runner-up: David Faustino’s extended hemming and hawing as Mako tries to figure out what to do about Asami and amnesia-Korra.
- I really like that the President is completely immune to the manipulations of Varrick and our pack of hero teenagers. Because he should be; they are all ridiculous. “I know you love helping people!”
- “We have to go tell Mako what happened!” “Yeah!” “…Oh, you mean right now!” Finally, Bolin gets to make out with someone. Even if it’s Ginger, who does not seem to like him very much.
- “NORTHERN WATER TRIBE AUTOMATONS! NOOOOO!” So the Future Industries mechatanks appeared in Varrick’s movers, but they also actually were in the possession of the Northern Water Tribe in “Harmonic Convergence.” Did I miss something there?
- The Fire Nation: They make the best red stuff over there! Fact!
- OK, I guess Nick released the season finale early online yesterday? I got a screener link for it out of nowhere yesterday evening and couldn’t help but watch it in a fast-food joint between one party and another party, but I’d kind of been drinking beers and would prefer to wait and talk about it next week. Because even before I watched the finale, I have this as the last thing in my notes: “There’s kind of a lot of stuff to pack into the finale, right?” I’ll say this: There’s definitely a lot of stuff.