One of the most common critiques lodged against the first season of Korra is that of its breathless pacing. In Bryke’s ambition to construct a tightly wound mini-series they didn’t allow enough time to stop and consider what was happening in the world. Oddly this frustration doesn’t really bare out in the first half of the season. It feels like the clockwork watch the showrunners wanted to make, all ticking down to the attack on the Pro-bending arena. But now, without the sport for a spine, things start to fell supercharged, pushed along as more and more information needs to get out.
“The Aftermath” then is the first time we start to really feel this strain, but without it totally tanking the episode. The seventh entry in the season is another fun dive into noir tropes, gorgeous production design, elegant action, and a series of small weird character moments. Yet you can feel the weight of information constantly coming out of the characters, huge reveals and motivations merely spoken about but never moving beyond a conceptual framework. It’s the major problem with the first half of the show, the ideas are there, but don’t have enough time to be fully considered.
Mako and Bolin are out of living in the Arena following Amon’s attacks. Korra offers space to live, but the Bending Brothers have already agreed to hang out in Asami’s immaculate mansion. This rubs Korra the wrong way as she is still not fully over her crush on Mako, but she agrees to visit the group out of a sense of kindness.
When Korra does arrive at the luxurious estate we are greeted by a cavalcade of small details to highlight what Asami’s life is really like. We do get the swanky. Korra meets the trio swimming in the pool (and showing off their period appropriate swimwear that have grown quite modest since the days of “The Beach”) and Asami offers a bit of activity with The Avatar. Korra’s apprehensive over the more feminine things that Asami might offer, but instead the industralist’s daughter decides to show The Avatar the thrills of racing. Turns out Korra had her pegged wrong, Asami is not prissy.
While out and about in the mansion Korra overhears Hiroshi on the phone talking about things that seem like invocations of Equalist ties. It puts Korra in a tricky place, Beifong has already raided the stocks of Hiroshi’s rival Cabbage Corp and uncovered Equalist materials. Could the Sato’s be involved in an even larger conspiracy to hush up and distract from their ties to the rebellion. Things are even stickier because to Asami and Mako it might look like Korra is trying to break them up, another dread element from the love rhombus.
Still Korra takes her concerns to Lin, and the chief considers them seriously. It’s here where we get the clearest example of the pushing to get information out. Lin and Tenzin state that Hiroshi has motivation because a triad member killed his wife. Fine enough backstory, but it lacks any real heft because we don’t really know who Hiroshi is before or after his turn to the dark side. We’ve barely seen him, so the whole investigation feels off. By the time the second act roles around we know he’s the bad guy by pure conservation of characters.
This doesn’t totally bum the episode. There’s a fun bit where Korra, Tenzin, and Lin meet a guy in a trench coat under a bridge to get some intel. The show also doesn’t skimp out in the final moments of the episode. Despite Hiroshi’s harrumphing, he does in fact have and underground super lab (complete with giant Amon posters) for our heroes to get trapped in. And if you thought Korra couldn’t get more steampunk, well here come the mechs.
The mechs are both an incredibly fun bit of work to mix up the action, and a profoundly silly piece of world building. You see the introduction of metalbending creates a conundrum for the writers, how do you accomplish things like tanks and other large machinery without immediately being exposed to the metalbenders. The answer is pure platinum, a rare, soft metal that could not support a tank or a wall no matter what. A silly detail, one that will always get a side eye, but you just have to roll with for the rest of the show.
Never the less, Beifong and company’s battle with Hiroshi’s mechs is another delectable piece of action. We get our heroes vastly outgunned, despite scrapping together every chance to attack. Lin gets the most out of her barrage, turning her armor into giant knives (and possibly killing a guy). But alas the metalbenders are weak to electricity. Even Tenzin’s sick air wheel can’t compete with the tech on display.
So when Asami comes down to confront her dad it’s not shock she turns on him. Even if she would be sympathetic to the Equalist cause, her father just severely injured people she considered friends and allies and lied to her about his intentions. So Asami considers the weapons her father created and turns against him, allowing enough time for our heroes to escape.
With another disastrous loss on her record Beifong pledges to chase Amon “outside the law.” It’s a cheesy bit of Batman affectation, but understandable given Tarrlok’s slimy ways. Despite being a powerful group of benders, our heroes are quickly losing all ground to enemies and political rivals.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Danie Dae Kim returns to the world of Avatar to give Hiroshi enough of an magnanimous sheen to cover his true intentions.
- Tarrlok takes over for the radio announcer for diegetic episode recap. It’s both a incredibly clever trick, and kind of breaks the world, but I’ll let it slide.
- Beifong’s Seismic Sense returns, this time heightened with the cool sliding foot cover of the police armor.
- Originally Asami was supposed to turn to the side of The Equalists, luckily the showrunners thought better and changed that. Especially in the back half of the show
- I love that we see Tahno moping around in the police station, he might not have been a good person, but he probably didn’t deserve this fate.
- Little bit sibling goodness between Mako and Bolin: constantly dunking each other in the pool and pulling a bit of a street con on the cop.
- Korra with powder puff is a brilliantly bizarre character bit. Seems she’s trying to at least freshen up a bit like Asami, but sees the makeup as the enemy in some regard.
When Extremes Meet
For better and worse The Legend of Korra is a show about politics, or at least how real world political ideologies could feasibly seep into a world of children’s fantasy. It’s a bold gambit, fitting complex issues in a box that a younger viewer could theoretically understand, and it’s something where the show has a mixed success rate. You see while it’s interesting to bring up these ideas in the world of The Four Nations we frequently have to contend with the fact that the politics of this universe are mostly vague or incomprehensible. The viewer is only able to make connections to sort of related real life corollaries, without the show ever explicating ins and outs ofthe structures in place.
This becomes a major issue down the road, but it also can reward as it does in “When Extremes Meet” a dizzyling dark and tense entry in the franchise. Squeezing weasly political maneuvering with the implicit power structures that exist in world where people have magical martial arts. How do those who have the ability to best others in combat wield such authority in a society that seemingly has to govern all people? It’s an issue that any Avatar would have to face, but a more pointed one in a rapidly industrializing world.
Korra is a bit out of sorts. With Mako, Bolin, and Asami moving to live with the Air Acolytes it feels like once again her world is flipped upside down. Things aren’t helped by Ikki revealing Korra’s feelings for Mako. Come on Ikki, Korra and Asami are just starting to become friends. The situation goes from bad to worse at the inauguration of the new chief of police, Saikhan. Whatever his motive he seems to be in the pocket of Tarrlok, and willing to use the councilman’s task force as an extra legal bump to hunt down Equalists.
Korra smartly smells a rat here, and confronts Tarrlok on his schemes. But the politician is a wily man, and he cuts straight to the heart of Korra’s insecurity. She’s still in training, she can’t airbend, so what authority does she have over an official serving the public. The remarks sting, further enhanced by her admittance to Tenzin that she has been unable to properly communicate with her past lives. Each of these things add up to a total sense of failure on her part as The Avatar. She hasn’t mastered airbending, hasn’t talked to Aang, and hasn’t put a halt to the trouble in Republic City.
This leads to a momentary breakdown, a sob while staring at the shadow of her legacy in the form of the giant Aang statue. This moment feels like a recapitulation of “The Voice in the Night” her fear of failure overwhelming what she could possibly achieve. So when her friends come to join her they make a bit of pact, they’re in this together, a new Team Avatar, one that will be there for each other thick and thin.
With The Krew assembled, and a hot new ride available provided by Asami, we get to see what these teen heroes can accomplish. It’s pretty impressive. With Asami behind the wheel and everyone providing bending backup Team Avatar is able to track down some escaped Equalists. It’s another sequence of technical excellence, demonstrating the directors’ ability to relatively smoothly integrate 3D elements with 2D animation. The Krew’s success does nothing more than raise the ire of Tarrlok who continues to consolidate power.
He introduces a new curfew for non-benders, that if they’re out after dark they are an immediate threat. When Team Avatar gets word of an Equalist riot they find Tarrlok instead ready to round up a bunch of innocents trying to get their power back on. Korra’s uncertain what to do, but a woman points out that she’s their Avatar too and needs to take action. Korra confronts Tarrlok, whose had enough. He starts using the police to capture protestors, and turns his heavy hand on Asami. After all she’s a non-bender out past curfew, and Mako and Bolin are assisting her. In this moment Korra takes a brash stand, heaving up two giant boulders against Tarrlok, but what will such force accomplish, she can’t beat a member of the city council in the street. Even as the Messiah, on what authority in the politics of the city does she stand? Does it matter that she’s the Avatar is people in power refuse to consider her of importance?
Tenzin turns out to be ineffectual in this matter as well. His posturing having no impact on the situation. Saikhan merely repeating talking points that Tarrlok has provided. Once again the most powerful people in the world are futile against plain bureaucracy. Such is life in a modern society.
Korra won’t take this lying down, and she impetuously goes to confront Tarrlok in his office. Here we get a fun inversion of the title. Mostly it seems like a referrel to Amon and Tarrlok, but here it can reference Tarrlok and Korra, indeed it’s a triangle of intimidation. And as much as Tarrlok is a wretched person he has Korra right, what did she hope to accomplish by coming to his office. Merely to intimidate him, show strength instead of perceived weakness, but where will such actions take her?
The answer is one of the gnarliest duels in the franchise, and another spectacular piece of action. With no music we get a full no punches pulled showdown. Here more than over the combatants full intended to harm the other into submission. Tarrlok’s ice bullets slicing through Korra’s flesh before she tears down his office wall. The lighting is also superb, casting everything in an eerie blue glow that slowly filters away to murky grays and blacks.
Just when Korra seems like she has the upperhand, charging in with a firebending finish Tarrlok reveals himself to her. In a moment that still shocks all these years later, Korra stops in mid-motions. Frozen in place. Then we hear the signature squelching of the most noxious power in The Four Nations. Bloodbending has returned. It’s not only a punch to the gut, it’s a cute bit of metaphorical work from the show. What is this crooked politician if not a bloodbender: someone warping people around them for their own gain, to consolidate power, and control others. Tarrlok might have never shown it publicly, but this is his true self, a man willing to manipulate no matter the pain,
These final moments also smartly literalize an idea that has run through the whole season. Korra can’t punch her way through politics. Here that becomes a diegetic truth. Just as she could land a full blow she is literally stopped in her tracks by a political power. Mere force isn’t enough when total control is possible. Tarrlok slams Korra against a wall, she’s treated to another flashback before being loaded in the trunk of a car and driven off to some unknown local. Things have taken a turn for the worse.
Odds and Ends
- Tarrlok can bloodbend at any time, helpfully highlighted by the constant shots of the crescent moon.
- I like that Tui and La are engraved in the wall in Tarrlok’s office.
- Some fun deformed animation from Korra and Ikki when the airbender kid reveals the Avatar’s affections.
- Until now this is arguably the most violent the show has ever been, what’s even more surprising about Korra is that the series routinely ups itself in this regard.