Re-Avatar State: “Out of the Past” & “Turning the Tides”

Out of the Past

As the first season of The Legend of Korra barrels into its final act, the strain of the pacing and meting out of the plot really starts to grip the series. Once again this pair of episodes are exciting, filled with tension, dread, and thrilling action, but the breathless quality is being felt. Even though Korra spends most of her time in a box here, I wish there was time to give contemplation about the situation that has overtaken our characters. The Equalists are on the verge of toppling the city, and despite Amon’s terrifying and charismatic appearance, there’s no real sense to who he is and what his movement represents. Also the deleterious impact of the love triangle really raises its ugly head, consistently undercutting moments of excitement with pure irritation.

However there is still much to enjoy here, the aesthetics, filmmaking, and tone are still a sight to behold. Things kick off in a startling manner with a pure horror movie opening. Korra’s strained body floated into a box by Tarrlok. It once again heightens the terror of our new and improved forms of bloodbending, all grotesque contortions and bulging eyes. But Korra’s stuck for the time being, and for the first time in the series she takes this moment of isolation to reflect on what’s happened.

Without the ability to punch through her problems, she takes the time to meditate on them, and begins to make contact with Aang. Instead of a conversation we get a culmination of the flashbacks that have haunted Korra since the fourth episode. Here we see the early days of Republic City, complete with Police Chief Toph and Councilman Sokka. You see there’s a seedy gangster in town, a mob boss known as Yakone, and he’s been accused of the crime of bloodbending. Aang has decided to step in and provide an extra shield in case things go awry.

Yakone, it turns out, is the greatest bloodbender in the world. A man who can contort bodies and limbs with mere thought and the gentlest movement of his hands. At his trial, once Sokka declares him guilty, Yakone turns on the crowd and bends their bodies to his will. Causing mass muscle spasms and puppeteering as he lets himself free. As he flees in a chicken-horse and buggy, Aang gives chase. On an amped up airball he captures Yakone and takes his bending. Still the mob boss promises revenge. It’s here that Korra concludes that Tarrlok is Yakone’s son, in a weird way back in the city to reclaim his father’s name, even in secret.

Tarrlok is on his own mission. Calling in Tenzin with a bit of misdirection at city hall. The councilman plants evidence and electrocutes himself to sell the charade, claiming that Equalists came and took Korra away. So Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, Asami, and Lin (working outside the law) decide to take the Equalists strongholds underground. Bolin recounts his steps when he got kidnapped, with Lin on the team she’s able to sniff out some motorcycle tracks and open up a metal grate to find the Equalists.

This section of the episode is the most aggravating for a pretty simple reason, there’s no real suspense to the plotting because we know Korra isn’t in the sewers. Despite some fun stuff (including more seismic sense, tram ramps, and jail breaks) it’s a circuitous second act that actually pushes the most aggravating part of the series forward. The biggest character developments here are a part of the dread love triangle.

Bolin accidentally lets it slip that Korra and Mako made out during the tournament, and this whole affair features a series of moments where Mako acts in great aggression to find Korra. Asami is starting to get wise to her boyfriends true affections, and it sucks to see our second most prominent female character left to glower at one of the male leads. After the dynamism of Team Avatar in “When Extremes Meet” it feels like a total regression. 

Once the group realizes they’ve been tricked they re-confront Tarrlok. This time the slimy politician is cornered, and his only out is knocking everyone unconscious. He flees back to get Korra and go on the run, but this time he’s thwarted by somebody else. As he exits his cabin Amon and The Lieutenant appears. Tarrlok is cocksure, subduing most of his opponents, but Amon is able to break the grip. The Equalist leader then delivers his most frightening moment in the series, as Tarrlok asks “What are you?” we only get an ominous answer, “I am the solution.” And boom Tarrlok’s taken out.

Korra is able to use this encounter to escape the box. The Lietenent once again underestimates her tenacity, and gets rolled by The Avatar. Still Korra has to slip past Amon, and the encounter is just too close for Korra’s comfort. She skis down the mountainside, before being knocked out and saved by Naga. Still with her knowledge and close call with Amon, she needs to recoup, and Mako seems too invested in her comfort, sidelining Asami.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: An unfortunate bit of casting is that of old Sokka, here performed by Chris Hardwick. Hardwick has had some abuse allegations against him recently, but I get why he appeared on the show at this time. He was a big name in nerd circles and also worked frequently with Janet Varney.
  • Toph still calls Aang Twinkle Toes and Sokka still grouses about his boomerang skills.
  • The title of this episode is a reference to the classic Robert Mitchum noir, a film that includes a former gangster trying to obscure his sordid history.
  • I love how the air family just kind has to live with the kids jumping in the parents bed.
  • Bryke voice the two Equalists that get scooped by Lin.
  • Lot of fandom speculation at the time of this episode wondered is Amon was a robot of some kind, given all the steampunk accoutrements. 
Spoiler

  • Aang’s message to Korra is about Amon as it is about Tarrlok, the two being brothers and all.
  • Bolin trying to take a piss in prison becomes a weird running theme in the show.

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Turning the Tides

The last big sweep before the double whammy of the season finale is another excuse for the show to display its spectacular side. Using all of the tools and techniques to create a series of thrilling and kinetic action set-pieces to heighten the stakes and drama as the story is about to wrap up. It’s an entry that features much excitement and one of my favorite character moments in the entire series, but there’s still a frustrating anchor around the whole thing. The dread love triangle sneaking up and making any scene that deals with it worse. As I said in my recap of “The Spirit of Competition” I quite enjoy that episode, but its aftershocks continue to be ruinous in a surprising amount of ways.

So let’s deal with the anchor first. I think I figured out why I enjoy the episode that fully focuses on the love triangle, but despise it’s presence elsewhere. In “The Spirit of Competition” the romantic entanglements are treated mostly as farce, a knowing send up of the tropes that YA fiction was swimming in at the time. In the entire rest of the show, the romance is treated as serious drama, on the level of most other plot points, and it becomes ruinous. Here it mostly relegates Asami to pouting and rightfully chastising Mako. Mako then becomes a complete ass, the true definition of a jerkbender. Someone who hides his feelings for others just to maintain some sort of control in the situation. I kind of get it from a macro perspective, Mako is given the Batman backstory to justify his more retentive traits, but it just plays so badly now.

However, when the episode isn’t undercutting itself to this plot line it’s a pretty evocative and exciting piece of action storytelling: one that gives a few great moments to our older characters with Lin and Tenzin. It’s still frustrating to have The Equalists be mostly a functionary force for Amon, but they do provide a fine backdrop for some excellent fight sequences.

As Korra is recovering The Equalists go for the full offensive on Republic City. With Tarrlok out of the picture, the rebels target the rest of the council members. Tenzin is able to dodge his apprehension with the tingling of his beard, and we’re able to see him demonstrate how much heft an airbender can have, tossing people to and fro. With his narrow escape secured Tenzin is left as the only member of the city political structure to be left standing, so he takes control and tries to assess the situation.

Things aren’t great. The Equalists are carpet bombing the streets and destroying means of egress for those in the metropolis. Tenzin puts aside his issues with Saikhan to try and coordinate an escape for the police force and send a wire to the military for help. Things continue to spiral out of control as some mechs roll up to the station, snatch the metalbenders with magnets, and send Tenzin on the defensive. Luckily the Krew crashes onto the scene (literally as they send the car flying into a mech) to preform some high octane action.

Everyone gets a fun beat, Korra fills a tank on the mech with water to stop it, Mako redirects the shock of the mech to defuse it, Bolin creates bullet like rocks to knock them down, and Asami does some extended hand-to-hand fighting to keep Tenzin from capture. The group might have staved of this attack, but things keep going down the tube as airships head to the air temple, just as Pema’s starts to go into labor.

On the island it’s up to Lin to protect her ex’s wife, and she once against demonstrates her limitless badassery. Slinging around combatants like yo-yos. Still The Equalist tech is built specifically to deal with metalbenders, and she’s eventually taken down by well placed shock. Luckily the air kids are on the scene, each with a snappy one liner and surprising move to keep Lin together. The threat is subdued long enough to make sure the baby is born.

Once The Krew and Tenzin return to the island they take a moment of rest. Tenzin greets his new son Rohan, and they assess the situation. More airships are coming, and a plan needs to be made. Tenzin needs to skedaddle as far away as possible to protect the remaining airbenders in the world, and he instructs Korra to lay low until the United Forces arrive. Korra hesitates, but realizes that now is the time to be patient and wait for assistance, jumping into the  fray would only get people hurt. So the two say their goodbyes and head off in different directions. The Krew gets one more hit in. As Naga tromps down the island she sideswipes The Lieutenant, man that guy has it rough.

The air family and Lin try to escape on Oogi, but it’s not enough. Lin decides to fully sacrifice herself for the good of the airbending nation. She leaps to the airships and pulls a page straight from her mother. Ripping and tearing them with abandon. Alas it’s not enough, she takes one down, but is caught on the other and meets her fate. Meelo’s comment of, “that lady is my hero,” will eternally ring true.

The sequence where Lin’s bending is taken away remains one of the show’s most moving moments in the immediate. Instead of bombast it’s quick, quiet, and reserved. Our strongest character slouched in the rain as Amon approaches her. Much like Korra Lin’s life is wrapped in the possibility of bending, but she’s already been stripped of her title and done her best to save those she loves. The music builds to a climax, and right as the deed is done it cuts out to a solo instrument, revealing the loss and pain that Amon has caused.

With out heroes destitute and scattered it seems like there’s no hope left, but hark what is this? A handsome man on a big boat with the voice of a teenager? Why yes it’s the offspring of Zuko and a pure fan service character in the form of Iroh II, the general of the United Forces, ready to take his warships and help in Republic City. But will his arrival be too little too late.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know that Voice: Yes Dante Basco returns to voice Iroh II, and it is so weird to have Zuko’s voice come out of a regular person.
  • Seeing the Lieutenant without his mask is disconcerting to say the least,
  • Fun moment: Korra is a terrible driver and gets a bunch of tickets for parking in a lamp.
  • Very funny to me how Hiroshi says “benders.”
  • Fun filmmaking, at the start of the season everything was drenched in a golden hue that has now been entirely siphoned off into gray as the finale nears.