The real struggle I, and many fans, of Korra had about is its wasting of what could be interesting stories. It is no longer the epic tale of a century long war. Instead it is what the Avatar was always supposed to do— help create the peace and balance of the rather mystical world they inhabit. Season two tries to get the series there.
Season two, right off the bat, and even as the story goes on, feels like it was responding to some of the criticism of the first season. It is thanks to its segmented nature that allowed it to turn around and address some important moments and character growth that it needed without being tied down to a set quest. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Korra book two sees The New Team Avatar unsure of their future. Bolin is lost with a new Pro-Bending team, Asami’s company is in the pits, Mako is working as a police officer, and Korra feels ready as Avatar, but on a trip back to the Southern Water Tribe for a spirit festival she realizes she’s far from ready when rampaging spirits attack. She goes to her uncle, Unalaq, to learn the truth of spiritual balance only to find out his plans seek war between the tribes. It is not New Team Avatar’s job to stop it, but that will be harder than thought as Varrick, an eccentric inventor and producer, has his own plans at work. To win Korra must truly be one with the Avatar’s of yor in order to bring balance.
This season follows in the footsteps of the previous season by focusing on a different aspect of the world in order to find fresh conflict for the main cast. In this case it is diving deeper into the spiritual elements that Avatar only teased at. This does come at the cost of introducing new information we should have known about by now. The biggest element, the history of the first Avatar, will get its own segment, but that’s not all. The biggest is the deeply spiritual nature of the Water Tribes, especially the Southern Water Tribe.
The fact the Southern Water Tribe has festivals to celebrate the spirits but was never shown makes sense because the whole tribe was reduced to one village, and we don’t spend time there to get the know the culture. That’s fine. It just seems odd that Katara or Bato never mentioned it. This is doubly worse when they reach the Northern Water Tribe. They, too, don’t seem all that spiritual. They have a single spiritual place that seems more religious than an actual realm to celebrate spirits, but again we saw it during a war so that can slide. Just the fact it’s never mentioned seems odd.
It’s also odd that Spirit Bending – for lack of another word – wasn’t mentioned. Unalaq says that the spirits are mad. Part of that is him playing his game, but it is shown that spirits can do physical harm and become enraged, so learning that style of bending seems important and is odd that it never came up.
None of those break the season, and the enraged spirits can be related to the villain plot, but it’s systemic of much else in the season. The closest comparison is how a president is electect to a city (which makes no sense mostly because it’s not clear if Republic City is the capital of the World Government, or just a metropolitan city like New York) and democracy just exists despite that not seeming to exist in the world at all until now. Maybe if part of the plot related to the election and why it is important, just like how finding balance with spirits is important, that could work.
Speaking of the story. It’s better overall than last season. It still plays for time a little too much, but ultimately feels more focused on its main theme and Korra’s arc. It’s still not perfect, or Avatar level quality though. But, backing up, it starts far better than season one. The first four episodes in fact feel incredibly tight, refreshing, and like a strong direction for the series. They make quick work of setting up the new status quo, threat, and stakes easily. Unfortunately the story hinges on New Team Avatar not being together for most of the season and does everything it can to break them up for their own arcs of varying quality. Mako’s feels the weakest. He’s an officer trying to investigate terrorist attacks done by Northern Water Tribe members but is dismissed for no good reason, and ultimately proven right. Asami is just there to worry about her company and be a sounding board to everyone else. Bolin’s is probably the best. He’s unsure of what to do in his life, meets Varrick who gives him a chance to star in movers, their version of movies, to gain support for the Southern Water Tribe. This has him touch fame and arrgoantness only to realize he’s closer to the actor he plays than anyone else. He manages to keep his charm despite having to be a jerk thanks fo his general simple-mindedness. Korra’s arc is a little more complicated. For one it’s an extension of season one’s. In that she felt no connection to her past lives and duty as Avatar. Now that she’s unlocked that part of her life she does what she’s always done, jump headlong into the first problem she sees. In this case it is overcompensating for her lack of spirituality by learning everything she can about bending them and bringing balance. There is also a similar focus on how she overuses her Avatar-state powers to save the day and must learn how to use her other skills. This does create the reoccurring problem that the only way this season can create tension is by taking away her Avatar-ness.
There is also more on the love triangle beteeen Korra, Mako, and Asami. It’s not really development, it more just focuses on Korra and Mako’s relationship with Asami being a total champ about the whole thing. Not being catty, mean, or disruptive, just patient. Instead, the real meat is saying how Mako and Korra don’t work. It just says that in the worst way possible: by making Korra unreasonable. I think she’s supposed to be seen as unreasonable. Like she doesn’t know what she wants and takes it out on Mako, but that is communicated. Instead they bicker about work, break up, Korra forgets cause of Avatar shenanigans and it only comes up at the end when she remembers. There is no tension to it. Instead it feels like the team didn’t actually want them together and tried to find a way to break them up. The odd thing is that they’re right. They shouldn’t be together because they have no chemistry. In other words, they’re a boring couple.
Disappointingly much of this story is let down by Unalaq, his plan, and the framing the show used to express that plan. The writers learned from the first season and decided to give Unalaq validity. His idea, that modernization has cut people off from the spirts so the spirits should be with the humans, is one that is supported throughout the season. Not so much the use of technology, but ability to coexist. They are both seen as aggressors and helpers who needed someone to guide them into unison, not seperate them. The reason he is ultimately proven wrong and made a villain is that he sides himself with the literal source of chaos and evil to do it, because now Avatar has physical representations of good and evil… in a series that tries to give its villains more fleshed our motivations.
Breaking this down, we find out about the Raava and Vaatu (is it odd that I think they need apostrophes in their name after the first “a.” I usually hate those, but those names would benefit from the broken vowel sound). Raava being the spirit of good and Vaatu being a spirit of chaos and darkness, both battle each other for a nonexistent dominance. The first Avatar seperated them through an acccident and sealed Vaatu away during a harmonic convergence of the spirit and human world (shown through the planets aligning cause this was written in the 90s apparently). Now he seeks freedom to cast his darkness over the world, totally abolishing any point Unalaq had. Just like Amon, it didn’t have to be that way. This time it’s not a misreading of the economic and political situation of a city, but in framing of the spiritual battle.
Raava and Vaatu are framed as a God and Devil of their world (I would say only real, but I mean in the physical sense of that word). I am not a religious studies major, but it seems like the divide between the two is always that the Devil tempts with self-interest while God is focused on the interest of others, and that divide is what should have carried over. Avatar Wan, Aang, and Korra were all selected because of their selfless nature. Meanwhile, Vaatu’s precense often brought out the self-interest in the spirits it was around. That would mean that they were not corrupt, but instead shown the ways of only helping themselves. Carrying that forward to the Unalaq. Instead of bringing darkness (which is not always evil-Dark Magician from Yugioh is an obvious example). Unalaq would bring about selfishness. He would bring about the drive to look only after yourself and no one else. Actually, that sounds like anarchy so I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. The point, if Unalaq was to be taken seriously he needed a motivation that wasn’t trumped by Vaatu. That is unless he was tricked but that doesn’t seem to be in the show, just a theory. Instead it should be selfishness that leads to spirits taking over, a total over correction. But it’s still a kids show so it has to be generic evil, leaving the villains only useful ideas at the beginning.
Again, maybe the team considered that but lost time because season the series is now serialized and needs to create a fuller supporting cast, most of which are great new editions. Tenzin’s brother and sister, Bumi and Kya, are a very interesting trio Bumi, Aang’s first born, is benderless and lives up to his namesake by being utterly ridiculous in a fun way. Eccentric but has great luck and thinks on his feet. Kya is both the flower child and clear leader when they were kids. She’s the only levelheaded one, is perceptive, and clearly written to be the cool aunt who used to be a vagabond of some kind. They have a great dynamic that is reminiscent of the original trio from Avatar, the fact they meet Zhou in the Spirit World and he freaks out supports this (yeah he sees Tenzin as old Aang, but then you see a water bender and a benderless tactican and it all comes together).
The next is Varrick. Varrick, the most eccentric and wacky character ever made is a highlight of the show. He’s bold, whimsical, and a ruthless capitalist. The fact that ones his plans are foiled and he says all the good he did by being bad, that spells out my argument from last season. All true power in a society is based on money. He manipulated New Team Avatar, the Southern Water Tribe, and the intergangs of Republic City while having only quick wits and money. He also has a personal assistant that is reminds me of Mercy, Lex Luthor’s assisstant, in the shows.
The final duo I don’t need to spend as much time on. Unalaq has twins. Both of them are moody pragmatists. The only reason they stand out is Eska, the female, falls in love with Bolin and is voiced by Aubrey Plaza, the only person who could do that roll without coming off as edgy.
Except that’s not all. Tenzin’s daughter Jinora has an expanded roll in the story. Jinora, the (actually i don’t know where she falls in the age of the children. I think middle. She says Ikki is bossy so that would make sense, but she’s taller so i don’t know) possibly middle child of Tenzin, is revealed to be spiritually aware unlike many others. This leads her to take an affinity to the world we she and Korra visit to try and stop Unalaq. She also has the ability to, I guess, help Korra stop the big bad at the end. It’s not clear how she does this. The writer reasoning is probably to make Team Avatar Jr’s hunt for her matter more. They find her so she can help Korra, but the helping isn’t given. The idea, might be, that she is pure of spirit like Raava that she can help reignite her, but that’s speculation
This season also brings back characters from the past series into the fold. This is probably the most contentious because, even more than anything else, if someone thinks it works for them, then it does. For instance, I like that Zhou is still around somewhere. I thought we saw a different fate for him in Avatar, but decades have passed so it’s easy enough to believe he ended up in the most prison. Then we get the Ghibli Owl, Wan Shi Tong, he too makes sense to be in the world, and supports the idea that Unalaq’s real goal would be spiritual dominance over humans. But his appearance is so brief that it’s easy to also skip over. Then you get the big one, Uncle Iroh. Now, it makes total sense that the chillest man in the whole world would peace out to the Spirit World over dying. Him making a house and living pretty much totally normally feels right. However, bringing him back to play mentor to Korra and Team Avatar Jr, feels too easy. They could have introduced a new character, but instead reused him as an audience short cut.
Finally, the animation has gone down hill since the last season. This might be the most controversial bit of whole piece, but it’s true. If you watch season one the show is incredibly expressive. Everyone moves their hands, and changes facial expressions a dozen times over. It just has a deep energy. Season two, though does look pretty, is more stilted. There’s far more closeups than last season, and static shots. The piece of evidence I’ll go to his when characters cover their mouth. Characters doing that is easy shorthand to not animate the mouth. Last season they did it, only you could still see the mouth and jaw move. This time you cannot. They cover their mouth and it’s normal anime nonsense. That’s not saying it’s bad, just pointing out the changes.
This season, unlike the previous had the best episodes of the whole series. The rug I’m pulling out from under you (Shane, totally not dead co-king) is that it’s not the Beginnings two-parter, but the Civil War two-parter. Beginnings, despite being pretty and an interesting if morally simple explanation for the Avatar and spirits, doesn’t have a strong theme to it. It’s just information Korra needs for the finale. Maybe part of it is supposed to be that Wan, despite being well meaning, made mistakes (there is a lot to like about Wan that I didn’t have a place to put in this, but he’s what I imagine a young Superman would be. All that power and right heart but no idea of how to be useful), that-like so much- wasn’t communicated well. Yet, Civil War was. Civil War, the two parter where Unalaq reveals his plan to forcibly unite the Water Trubes under a more spiritually focused bent, and abused his own family to do it is paired with Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi looking for Jinora and bickering. That subplot comes to the conclusion that you can’t pick your family, but they mean well. That is contrasted with Unalaq showing no regard to that and warring with his family. See, the Civil War is not (just) the war between tribes, but the war between their family. That is what Korra can be at its best. A series with focus on what it wants to say and can say it well. It could make some of the best television… if it got to stay on television.
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