One of the most remarkable things about Book One of The Legend Of Korra was the consistency. Every episode was written by series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, directed by Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu, and animated by Studio Mir, making Book One feel like an extended feature film rather than a serialized TV show. You could always depend on one jaw-dropping action sequence per episode, whether it came in the form of a pro-bending match or a battle on the streets of Republic City, and the overall plot of Book One had a much stronger focus than what has unfolded in Book Two.
While the loss of Studio Mir and the old directing team has made a significant impact on the quality of the animation, the writing has also taken a blow as DeMartino splits scripting duties with Joshua Hamilton and Tim Hedrick, two veterans of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Despite some strong ideas, Book Two is overstuffed, throwing in new characters and plotlines that haven’t had the opportunity to be fully developed. There’s a civil war between the North and South Water Tribes, incursions from the spiritual world, Korra’s relationship drama with her parents, uncle, and boyfriend, Varrick’s manipulation of Bo Lin and Asami, Bo Lin’s new role as mover star and doomed boyfriend of Korra’s cousin, Mako’s frustration with Korra and his new job on the Republic City police force, and Tenzen’s dysfunctional family vacation. That’s all before the writers folded in a bunch of Original Avatar material two weeks ago.
It’s no surprise that “The Beginning” was the strongest chapter of Book Two thus far, an episode that centered on one specific storyline and also featured the return of Studio Mir. That two-parter provided a human perspective to all the mystical happenings of this season, fleshed out the history of the avatar, and brought back the visual spectacle that made Book One so stunning, reinvigorating the series as it ventured into the back half of Book Two. With this week’s “The Guide,” the series returns to the aforementioned myriad of plots, but things are starting to get a little more streamlined as Korra reunites with Tenzen in hopes of finding her way to the spirit world.
With Harmonic Convergence only days away, Korra needs to make sure she stops her uncle Unalaq from freeing the dark spirit Raava, but the only way she can do that is by entering the spirit world. Tenzen believes this is the job he was born to do, but, as has been the case for most of this season, Tenzen doesn't want to accept the multiple signs that suggest he is wrong. Jinora has exhibited a natural bond with the spirit world all season, and that connection only increases once Korra joins their party. A furry flurry of dragonfly bunnies has appeared to help Jinora lead Korra to the entrance of the spirit world, but first Tenzen has to give up control over what he believes to be his predestined role.
Tenzen's storyline in Book Two has primarily been about putting him in situations where he's forced to confront his flaws, and the inclusion of his two siblings has helped expose the character's vulnerabilities. Anyone with siblings understands the frustrations and tensions that build over time, largely because brothers and sisters are the people that know you and your strengths and weaknesses best. When I'm around my sisters, we all tend to regress back to more childish personalities, which makes it incredibly easy to set each other off in fits of heightened joy and anger. Tenzen’s vacation has seen more of the latter than the former, but it ultimately leads to the realization that Tenzen can't handle all the responsibility of training the Avatar on his own. Once he relinquishes his duty to Jinora, Korra is able to begin the next stage of her growth, discovering a way into the spirit world while also showing proficiency with the Avatar technique of expelling dark spirits from the human world.
Right now, it feels like there are two different shows unfolding in The Legend Of Korra. The first involves Korra and Unalaq’s battle over the future of the spirits in the human world, while the second follows Mako, Bo Lin, and Asami as they deal with Varrick and his gradual takeover of Republic City. The Varrick plot comments on the Unalaq happenings through the propaganda of Varrick’s Nuktuk films, but it’s not quite clear how these two stories will come together by the end of Book Two. The Mako/Korra romance has suffered the most because of this gap, making it hard to invest in their relationship. The little bits we saw of Mako and Korra together at the start of the season were focused more on drama rather than affection, providing little reason for viewers to invest in the success of their partnership.
After learning that Varrick was responsible for the bombings in “The Sting,” Mako goes to Bo Lin and Asami with the news that their gracious benefactor isn’t who he seems. They both don’t believe him, and when Mako confronts Varrick, he’s faced with a tough decision: abandon his investigation and join Varrick’s security force or risk the wellbeing of his brother and ex-girlfriend. Mako learns the full extent of Varrick’s villainy when he turns down the job offer and is framed for the explosions himself, ending up in police custody when Lin Beifong is tipped off about Mako’s previous interactions with the Triple Threats and discovers explosives planted in Mako’s apartment. To make matters worse, Asami is there when the arrest goes down, so now she thinks that Mako had a part in the damage done to Future Industries. It’s a bad time for the firebender, and with Korra preoccupied with the forthcoming Harmonic Convergence, he’s going to have to find his own way out of this predicament (although Bo Lin and Asami will probably come to his aid eventually).
On the animation front, Studio Pierrot returns to do adequate work, but adequate just isn’t good enough. Emily’s complaint about the blinking is still applicable, and it’s astonishing how much reaction shots change when characters stare forward with their eyes permanently opened rather than blinking. The animation studio is part of the problem, but so is Colin Beck’s direction, which is nowhere near as dynamic as the work of the Book One directing team. Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu had an eye for staging incredible action scenes that quickly cut between different angles to maximize the impact of a fight, but Beck’s direction is far more static. The result is visuals that do the job, but in a less distinct way, taking away some of the style and energy that elevated Book One. At this point, it’s unlikely that the old directing team will return for any Book Two episodes, but thankfully Studio Mir will be back next week just in time for Korra’s trip to the spirit world.
- I didn’t care for Korra’s infodump speech at the beginning of the episode, but I did love Tenzen’s “I knew this would happen!” reaction.
- Dragonfly bunnies are definitely up there on the list of cutest animals in the Avatar universe. So adorable!
- Bo Lin’s experience in the mover industry is easily my favorite subplot this season, mostly because it’s a lot of fun seeing how this show puts its own spin on 20th century concepts.
- This week confirms that Unalaq is working directly with Vaatu to free the dark spirit from its imprisonment. Also, Unalaq’s an idiot who thinks bending a bunch of water will open a spirit portal. If it was that easy, don’t you think somebody would have already tried it?
- I have a feeling that Desna and Eska are about to switch loyalties and turn against their father because he’s completely wackadoodle.
- As a huge Kiernan Shipka fan, I’m very happy to see Jinora get more screen time in Book Two.
- “The burning means it’s working!”