I was happy to see at least a little bit of Bolin in “Turning The Tides;” he hasn’t had much to do these past few weeks. But it seems significant that two of his funniest moments—his belated yell of "CAR! Oh, we're good," and panicked "MOUSTACHE GUY!"—were literal moments, tiny flashes of humor that were barely even animated. They were pretty much shouted over action in a way that brought to mind Patton Oswalt’s shtick about doing punch-up for mostly complete animated movies, which he says necessarily means coming up with funny lines that can be yelled from off-screen. I doubt the writers actually did that or anything, but it’s a bummer that Bolin, who’s such a delightful, promising character, has been squeezed out by the need to move the plot along to the extent that he’s down to serving the same function as these tangential punch-ups.
Avatar: The Last Airbender had the luxury of a loose master plot spread out over 61 episodes, giving the characters a lot of leeway to meander around doing things not specifically related to the plot. Team Avatar’s nomadic lifestyle also was helpful in limiting the recurring characters the audience had to get to know; in the first season, at least, we were hanging out primarily with Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh. (Arguments could be made for Zhao and Yue.) Most everybody else walks onstage, then off again.
Korra’s static setting means pretty much everyone is a recurring character: For starters, there’s Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, Lin, Amon, and Tarlokk. (Arguments could be made for the four members of Tenzin’s family and Hiroshi Sato.) The first season of A:TLA, then, aimed to establish five characters in 20 episodes, and they didn’t really transcend their jerky-loving, hissy-throwing, hope-speechifying origins, parodied so well in The Ember Island Players, until mid-second season. Korra went to establish an ambitious eight characters in 12 episodes, plus fitting in a much more compact plot, plus a brand-new sport, plus makeouts. No wonder Bolin’s just shouting stuff from the backseat.
It’s a really ballsy thing for the writers to attempt, and so far I’ve found the pace exhilarating rather than off-putting — I enjoy shows that know where they’re going and pull me along at Maglev speeds. It’s a different show from the original in tone and production circumstance, and expecting the exact same things out of it is setting yourself up for disappointment.
However, as much as I like the idea of how the Asami-Mako-Korra thing is being handled, I haven’t spent enough time with the characters to care too much. Objectively, it’s great that the conflict has been manifesting in tension between Mako and Asami instead of in competition between Asami and Korra, who seem determined not to make it a thing; I’d have loved to see Korra and Asami hang out outside the context of Mako at least once to drive that home, though. Objectively, it’s great that they set up Asami’s pissiness by first showing her being sad and hurt when her boyfriend publicly acts like he’s in love with someone else; it would have been more effective if we knew more about her, Mako and their relationship aside from “they’re kind of that gross couple from high school that used to make out in the stairwell and insisted on sitting on each others’ laps all the time.”
Another thing I was not so into about the back end of the season is the consistency. Not consistent character behavior, which I think is mostly good, both in characters acting like themselves and characters acting like normal human beings. But the Equalist foot soldiers are showing a few signs of Turok-Han syndrome—they started out as formidable opponents, but as the series goes along they seem to get less and less good at their jobs.
This isn’t unjustified: Team Avatar 2.0 is shown to be pretty smart, and each fight scene demonstrates that they’ve put a lot of thought into creative ways to deal with chi-blockers and the mechatanks since the last fight. In this episode, Team Avatar 2.0 does pretty well against the big mechs by tripping them, literally flooding their engines, and blasting them into the sky. Mako even figures out how to redirect the electricity from their giant tasers, bless his soul. So it felt a little unearned, though pretty fun to watch, when the airbender kids just swooped in and knocked a bunch of unmoving, not-dodging chi-blockers over like bowling pins.
But boy, now that I’ve spent most of this talking about my aggregated problems with the show (it doesn’t really have much to do with this particular episode—it’s just that the penultimate week seems like a good time for it), Korra does do some things really, really well. Badassery, in particular. Beifong gets a ton of great moments in this episode, from that little High Noon waiting scene on Air Temple Island to, of, course, the thing you all probably want to get on with talking about, already.
The brief scene where Amon takes Beifong’s bending is really well done in a number of ways. Jeremy Zuckerman, who also did the score for the original series, is very smart about knowing when to whisper when a lot of composers would shout.
For example, try watching that scene with the sound off as if someone had sent you it to score; imagine what music you’d have come up with to go with this scene. The visuals most obviously suggest something low, menacing, rumbling. It’s dark. It’s raining. Something bad is going to happen to one of our heroes. When the “camera” looks at Amon it’s from below, as if the viewer has also been captured by scary people in masks; it’s also sometimes skewed at a disorienting, tilted “angle.” And there’s that dramatic zoom shot with Beifong looking straight up into the rain as she gets dis-bended—perfect for a big, loud moment. But instead, the score seems to take its inspiration from that one second where Beifong closes her eyes in resignation, and gives the whole scene that feeling of peace and sacrifice, especially when the music goes silent right at the big moment. The approach is so much more tonally effective than taking the obvious route; it’s really skillful and really lovely.
Questions that may or may not be relevant in the final two episodes next week (feel free to contribute your own):
- Might there be a reason aside from Korra just being a doofus that there’s a lot of static between her and the Spirit World?
- Can energybending be used to do things other than taking bending away?
- What’s the significance of the slightly different methods Aang and Amon are shown using to remove bending?
- Where and from whom did Amon learn to do it?
- What does Amon have going on under the mask?
- How could Yakone bloodbend in the daytime with his hands tied?
- Why did firebenders kill, like, everyone’s parents?
- How did Beifong get that damn scar?
- The baby, who pops out after approximately five minutes of labor, is named Rohan, Sanskrit for “healing” and Nerdskrit for “HERE COMES THE CAVALRY!”
- Heh, speaking of the cavalry coming, the timing on the reveal of General Iroh’s voice being Dante Basco cracked me up. I could practically hear Barney Stinson yelling “WAIT FOR IT—” in the pause between his face being shown and the voice of Zuko lisping out of his mouth.
- We finally get to see “Moustache Guy” (I like that name way better than the Lieutenant) without his goggles for the first time, and he has mad crazy eyes. Given how much effort somebody back at Equalist HQ clearly put into the “seriously, we’re exterminators!” ruse—uniforms, a truck, a zapper dolled up as a spider-rat sprayer—it’s really funny how quickly he’s, like, “Oh whatever,” and just electrocutes the Fire Nation councilwoman in full view of the street. Love that guy’s voice, too.
- "It is a tragic day, indeed!" It seemed so obvious to me last episode that Pat was female, and this episode I'm back to being positive Pat is male. I feel like the writers might be messing with us.
- We see Hiroshi again, chillin’ with Amon in one of the Equalist airships. The brief conversation they have about Asami is clearly not the first time they’ve discussed it, which I found a very funny idea. How awkward must it be to make small talk, much less chat about very intimate, sad stuff, with a guy who probably doesn't even take his mask off in the shower?
- Tasty visual of the week: In the scene where the White Lotus guards hold off the Equalists while Team Avatar 2.0 escapes, the show stays back with the doomed guards for much more time than redshirts usually get, ending with that very cool visual of a chi-blocker running right into the camera.
- Tasty visual of the week runner-up: The pan up from the gang escaping underwater to above the surface, where Republic City is shown to be partially on fire, and then cut up a level higher to where the dirigibles are chasing the airbenders.
- I chatted with Janet Varney, the voice of Korra, yesterday; it was fun! Look for the interview later this week.