Re-Avatar State: “The Spirit of Competition” & “And the Winner is…”

The Spirit of Competition

Ah yes, here we are, the episode that, to some, breaks The Legend of Korra. After an exciting opening act, introducing the viewer to a changed world with new characters and ideas, the show takes a hard swerve into the area that the Avatar franchise should dare not tread. That is the realm of the teenage romance. One could forgive the showrunners for thinking that the audience wanted more heated shipping wars. Indeed one of Airbender’s lasting impacts on the internet was it’s frothing community of shippers. A never ending debate on which coupling was the best.

This response probably set off the wrong thought in Bryke’s mind. That the people wanted more awkward romance, even if in the last go around it was one of the weakest elements of the story. So now we arrive at “The Spirit of Competition” an episode that foregrounds a frustrating love rhombus that hampers the show for nearly two full seasons. It serves mostly to reveal our characters more irritating traits, and suck precious time away from more engaging elements of the show. I understand the showrunners impulse to emphasize these elements for a tonal contrast with the rather moody tone struck in the last two episodes, but these decisions prove rather damaging to show for a while. A squeaky wheel that you wish would stop for the benefit of other more complete ideas.

However I actually don’t hate this episode, despite it’s tortured reputation in the fandom. Yes its decisions are a net negative for the overall scope of the story, but here it allows for a more relaxed and silly portrait of life in Republic City. A gorgeous evocation of early winter in a metropolis, where light snows cause the skies to glow pink at night like the cheeks of new lovers. Even within it’s character stressing romance it still includes more than few moments that I find genuinely funny or engaging.

The Fire Ferrets are practicing for the tournament, and love is in the air, as each of them gives the other a knowing look. Things are a tad awkward, especially when Asami arrives with the new uniforms, but they are still fully focused on the sport. Still Bolin questions Mako if he should ask Korra out on a date. Mako, in his infinite wisdom, thinks that both Asami and Korra are options for romance, but that he’ll stick to Asami for now. This piece of relationship advice is bizarrely revealing about Mako’s priorities, rather selfish and transactional. Korra still has her eyes on Mako, and when she asks Pema for advice she gets the wrong idea, dogged pursuit.

In their first match against the Rabaroos the Fire Ferrets blow out the competition. Nimbly, the Fire Ferrets work together and play off each other. It’s great fun to watch, and highlights the good dynamics that exists. Unfortunately love’s got to come and ruin the whole thing. After the match Korra confesses her feelings for Mako, who rejects her, right after Bolin steps in to offer a night out. It’s a fragile state of affairs, and everyone it execerbating the tension.

However Bolin and Korra’s night out proves to be a highlight of the episode. It’s a fun bit of urban exploration, with the duo stopping off at authentic noodle shops and interacting with rivals. The Fire Ferrets run into the reigning champs while chowing down. The Wolfbats are a particularly grotesque team, lead by anime pretty boy Tahno. Tahno is one of my favorite kind of tertiary characters. His overly expressive face, smooth voice, and unique design dig up a small corner of the world. He and his team are design a bit to look like the vampy movie stars of the silent era. His scrunching face, twirling hair, and pointed angles make him feel distinct in the world.

All of this cavorting combined with the winsome jazz music once again highlights the aesthetic evolution of the franchise. With the exception of Ba Sing Sae, we’ve never really had the opportunity to do a night on the town, and the world of Republic City is lush and beautiful.

Too bad that the trip wrecks the team’s play. Mako and Korra have a huge spat before the next match, with the firebender questioning what the Avatar hopes to achieve with Bolin. Korra on the other hand notes that Mako does have some affection for her. They end their conversation on bitter terms, “You’re Crazy,” “You’re a Liar.” Alas such passions nearly knock the Fire Ferrets out of the match, but Bolin, feeling mighty, pulls it out in end.

Still the knot twists, and after the match Bolin catches Mako and Korra in the middle of a mistaken kiss. He’s rolling in the depths of despair, and goes to get drunk. With the next match swiftly approaching, and Bolin hungover, it looks like the Fire Ferrets are on the ropes. But it seems that Korra’s training has paid off, as she single handedly saves the team. Bolin and Mako make-up with a groan worthy “women be crazy.” But hug it out, and Korra calms herself by healing Bolin’s messed up shoulder. All in all a good wrap to the romantic foibles at least for now, as they stare down a contest with The Wolfbats.

All this romance does bring up an interesting aspect to Korra as a character. Her design and appearance are, to put it delicately, unique in the world of mainstream fantasy. Even at the height of Hunger Games fever, our plucky heroines tended to be white and waifish. Traits that Korra outwardly rejects. Instead she’s dark skinned, muscular, and has notable curves. Features that don’t usually come up for characters pursuing romantic partnership. So much so that a whole nontraversy this year was entirely based on how muscular a woman was in a video game. People need to wrap their minds around women with different body shapes way better, these characters aren’t solely made to drool over. Never the less, even if executed in a less than ideal manner I appreciate the effort to make a person who looks like Korra a part of romantic pursuit.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Our third Oscar winner appears on the show with Rami Malek giving Tahno a slinky sneer. This is another one of those casting coincidences that just startles in hindsight.
  • I love the set-up of having restaurants in Republic City that serve the authentic cuisine of other nations.
  • “Which reminds me, this match is brought to you by our sponsor, Flameo Instant Noodles! Noodliest noodles in the United Republic.”
  • The “Hey Mako” man is voiced by director Joaquim Do Santos.
  • I love that The Wolfbats win an entire match as The Fire Ferrets talk it out at the end of the episode, that’s good background detailing and storytelling.

And the Winner Is…

If the previous episode might be considered a misstep, the halfway point of the first season is an undeniable high point. Effortlessly mixing many of the show’s different plot lines into a sleek and thrilling 22 minutes, “And the Winner is…” brilliantly synthesizes the successes of Korra into one package. Like a classic movie trailer one can say this has everything: action, adventure, intrigue, and just a hint of romance.

The finals are tonight, and The Fire Ferrets are heated up about their prospects. Until Amon cuts into the radio broadcast and calls for the arena to be closed down, less the people of Republic City want to suffer dire consequences. The team hightail it to the city council to voice their opinions to find themselves outvoted. In a rare piece of conciliation, both Tenzin and Tarrlok agree that the game should called off, lest somebody gets hurt. The Fire Ferrets plead: it helps Korra’s training, it will provide financial stability to the Bending Brothers, and it’s a melting pot at the heart of the city bringing people together.

Still Tenzin and Tarrlok do not yield, until Lin steps in. The chief of police believes she can hold the line against The Equalists, with her metalbenders providing extra security. Lin understands that if the Council concedes to The Equalists now only larger threats will come down the road. Tarrlok, with a crooked smile, sees an opportunity to consolidate power, and agrees to Lin’s terms if she takes all responsibility. It’s a show of Tarrlok’s nasty tactics, he knows trouble’s around the corner, and he can dine out on the destruction that looms over everyone in Republic City.

So Tenzin’s on the wrong side of the vote again, and he has some heated words with Lin. The two aren’t on the best of terms, and with a few clicks of the gears Korra figures out that they used to be romantically entangled before Pema came along. It’s a small bit of comedy from Korra and Tenzin, but it’s a funny digression as we look deep into the romantic foibles of characters now in their middle age. A lot of credit goes to Simmons as well, as his voice goes from dreamy recollection, to startled realization. It’s a nice bit of levity before what’s to come.

With Beifong on patrol, and Tenzin offering a truce for the night on past baggage, it seems like everything is ready for the final to begin. The Fire Ferrets come on stage and Pabu does a little dance to the amusement of a film. Yet again our heroes are outclassed by the rivals, as The Wolfbats take the stage in explosive fashion: vampire outfits, fireworks, and howls. Impressive, but a little vainglorious.

Turns out that the pompous pretty boys of The Wolfbats are a bunch lousy cheaters as well. Almost as soon as the starting bell rings The Fire Ferrets are faced with a barrage of dirty tricks. They expect a call from the ref, but it seems like they’ve been paid off. Hell even the radio announcer knows it. Once again it’s fun to see another noir trope massaged in the story, so many classic tales of the seedy revolve around bought sports matches, and that style is slathered up here with aplomb.

The trickery allows the directors to pull out all the stops in the cinematic department. Here we are treated to slow motion, super smooth animation (the image of the water/rock projectiles is lodged in my mind for it’s clean execution), and a trick unthinkable in the Avatar days. A final death match where Korra’s delivers the final punch on Tahno is shown, rewround, and then played back in slowed time. I love the expressivity of what the directors feel like they can do.

This only continues until a disturbance is noticed in the audience, a bunch of people are wearing masks, and they have gloves that knock people out with an electric shock. In a matter of moments, Tenzin, Lin, the police, and even the announcer (who is currently wetting his pants) are all down. Amon appears on the play field with a promise to The Wolfbats. For their cheating to the top of the most popular sport in town they will be rewarded with their bending being stripped away. So Amon once again demonstrates his power, to a wider audience, and preens about the ills of bending. How can it be good when a bunch of cheats are hailed as heroes?

While he monologues The Fire Ferrets must escape a bond constructed by the Lieutenant, luckily Pabu is on the scene, and chews through their binding. Korra springs into action, trying to launch herself with a waterspout, alas there’s not enough for to reach the quickly fleeing Amon. Good thing Beifong springs into action at just the right moment, swinging from the rafters like an acrobat to launch the Avatar to the roof and continue the foot.

This final sequence is a showstopping piece of action. A wonderful use of dynamic filmmaking and character based decision making. We have the three levels of encounter: the bombed out arena, the cracking glass roof, and the escaping Equalists airship. The shattering glass providing a ticking clock for how long the fight can take place, and Amon providing a frustratingly out of reach goal. Th mix of long shots and close-ups make the strikes of fire and metal against the Equalists fully punch through. And my favorite moment, a POV shot from The Lieutenant that ends with Korra elbowing him in the face.

Time runs out however. Lin is able to grapple onto Amon’s ship, but Korra’s broken the glass and is fast approaching an uncertain fate. So Lin puts her grudges aside, there will always be another day for Amon, but not the Avatar. Lin knows that she’ll take the brunt of the heat for not stopping The Equalists, but it’s a worthy trade when the other option could be The Avatar’s life.Still her Spider-Man like skills can’t reverse the entirety of the attacks. The Pro-Bending arena is fully destroyed, and as Tenzin fearfully intones, Republic City is at war.

Odds and Ends

  • Hmm, some sort of Cabbage Corporation is sponsoring music on the radio.
  • I love the expressiveness of Tahno’s face as his bending gets removed. He really looks like no other character in the series.
  • Korra gets another flashbcak while knocked out, not much new, but we do see Toph and Sokka.
  • This fight would have gone completely differently if Korra knew airbending. It’s interesting to see our hero be gravitationally challenged after it posing little threat to Aang.
  • The electric gloves are conceptually interesting in world that can’t have guns for outside reasons. I like that they prove to an equalizer of a sort, providing the power of electricity through modern technology. As Amon says, “The power of chi blocker in their hand.”
  • Interesting that Amon refers to bending as an impurity, getting a little too eugenicy for my taste.