Re-Avatar State: “Skeletons in the Closet” & “Endgame”

Skeletons in the Closet

If you will allow me a bit of ostentatious pontification, I would like to submit a proposal to why the season one finale of The Legend of Korra is odd and discombobulating, beyond the fact that it was originally constructed as a series wrap up. Yes you’ll hear me lodge the usual complaints: the pacing is off, the romance plain awful, and few big moments feel inexplicable, but I think there’s something else going on here.

Even though there are many issues in these final two episodes, I would say seventy or so percent of what is shown on screen is actually quite good. The usual kudos to the animation, design, and action included. In fact I get what the showrunners were aiming at, turning the tale of violent revolution into one of bitter regret and sadness, but they made a costly mistake along the way. For the problems of the finale are less what’s on the screen, and more the story and thematic beats that have been omitted (cue jazz joke).

Because the show has raised provocative questions, positioned itself in the realm of the political, and gone out of its way to challenge the assumptions that the viewer. But these elements of the show don’t raise their head here. As a series finale this pair doesn’t contend at all with the thematic heft of what The Equalists represent, as a season finale it becomes an odd bit of handwaving in the future. Something that happened, but the repercussions won’t be immediately apparent. Some of this can be chalked up to the mad scheduling of the show, but the rest of it sits on the shoulders of the showrunners who feel like they can’t properly interrogate the question of whether or not The Equalists have a point that should be contended with.

This problem doesn’t ever resolve itself, though the show is able to wriggle out of this hole a bit with some smart character work down the road. So it’s safe to say that the first season finale is a land of contrasts, plenty of excitement and thrills to spread around even if the thing feels a bit flubbed.

Amon has overrun Republic City. The street’s are crawling with mechs and our heroes have been forced into the sewers to live with the bush hobo from the premiere. Things are still deteriorating as Korra and Mako slink around in Chi-blocker outfits. Korra’s ready to knock some heads, but the rest of her crew persuades her to take things easy until the United Forces arrive. Surely the might of Iroh’s fleet will balance the scales.

So when the ships appear in the harbor things seem off, where are the Equalist armaments? Iroh smells trouble and he’s greeted with it. The bay is filled with mines and Hiroshi unveils his latest invention for The Equalist cause: biplanes. Again I will quibble about choices in this episode, but the action is not one them. The dogfighting between the ships and the planes is once again a technical achievement that features many an excellent piece of action. In this particular skirmish it’s Korra redirecting a torpedo from the water into a plane, just incredibly cool.

Unfortunately this fight leaves the ship’s wrecked and our heroes scrambling for reinforcements. Weirdly enough our hobo friend has a wire, and Iroh is able to send out a message to Commander Bumi (Tenzin’s brother). They begin to formulate a strategy to nullify the planes and regain control. Iroh suggest heading out to the airfield and wrecking it, but Korra wants to pursue a different option. Getting the drop on Amon at Air Temple island. It’s another moment that feels a tad regressive for her character growth, if she is meant to learn the value of patience and understanding, then it frustrates that another headstrong scheme is so quickly followed.

As preparations are made for departure we finally see Mako cut it off with Asami. His final word on the thing a bit mealy mouthed and frustrating. He can’t openly say what he regrets about things being messed up between them, but at least it’s off the table. So Mako joins up with Korra and the two plan their ambush.

A brief stop by The Lieutenant doesn’t hinder our heroes as they decide to hide out in the attic, but somebody’s here. It’s Tarrlok, resigned, imprisoned, and filled with an important revelations. He’s Amon’s brother. Amon is a waterbender. Amon takes bending away using bloodbending. With this information Tarrlok begins to explicate the sad and lonely yarn of two waterbending brothers.

The tale of Tarrlok and Noatok is an excellent piece of sympathetic expositing. Turning our terrifying villains into figures of pure tragedy. Aided by Baker’s despondent narration, and some grueling imagery of the impact of bloodbending, the history of the Yakone family is one that posits a reasonable assertion to why Amon would hate bending while partaking in the art. In fact the entire picture here presents a world where Aang’s go to solution for the big bads of the world can be quite dangerous. Just because Yakone’s bending was removed doesn’t mean he couldn’t have influence over other people’s lives, and instill his hate into others.

This sense of loss and dread is well instilled again by excellent music and the use of some poor animals as puppets for the waterbenders. The cycle of abuse is palpable, and Yakone’s final assignment of having the brothers bend each other is grotesque in all the right ways. The ghosts of the past manifesting themselves in the cruel contortions of the siblings.

This story allows Korra and Mako to think they finally have the upper hand on Amon, revealing his identity at his big rally. Tarrlok offers his regrets, but decides to remain locked away for his actions. It’s actually a smart moment of non-redemption. He has helped in the way he can, but not in a manner that justifies total forgiveness of his actions. Armed with Tarrlok’s story we enter the show’s final moments.

Odds and Ends

  • I love that the final big invention from Hiroshi is the most normal, we got airplanes now.
  • Teen Noatok’s hair suspiciously looks like Korra’s.
  • Yakone confirms that bloodbending itself is a crime, which is both understandable and seems difficult to monitor.
  • The hobo encampment is a fun setting, but a frustrating backdrop for the finale. We finally look at the true underclass, and it’s just swimming along fine, nothing to see here.

Endgame

When talking about “When Extremes Meet” I mentioned that Korra has become an explicitly political show, one that wants to think about how real world systems might appear in a fantastical setting. There it provided a provocative piece of television, here it bites the show in the ass. You see the finale of what has been a political showdown ends up instead being a personal one. Amon’s motives were not out of any “for the people” sentiment, but reflects a sense of trauma and anger at the abuse he suffered as a child. Again his reasoning and hypocrisy aren’t inherently troublesome with the platform, the problem is that he has a platform that people believe in.

Amon wouldn’t work as a leader if the people of Republic City felt like things were running smoothly. The Equalists are a large group, so they have to believe something, and because the story we are told moves totally into the realm of the personal we never come to grasps with the movement as a whole. These giant crowds are as easily swayed by the reveal of Noatok’s true identity in a flash than by anything else. It only takes one water spout to topple an organization that has overtaken one of the largest cities in the world. The showrunners just couldn’t (or didn’t want to) contend with the implications of what anti-bending sentiment means in the world. 

So alas the story of Equalists becomes nothing more than a batch of grudges. Tarrlok and Noatok, Asami and Hiroshi, and so in, not an actual movement to consider. Bryke had big ideas on how to situate the conflict of this season with no thematic follow through. It’s why, even if was the series finale, “Endgame” would be a bit of a misstep.

The thrills are certainly there. The action is, again, stupendous, and the situations we find our character in are consistently exciting devoid of the concerns of political implications. When Korra and Mako appear at the rally there is a sense of real danger and terror, their livelihoods and sense of selves are perilously close to being stripped away forever.

 Korra tries to speak the truth, but the crowd’s against her. Especially when Amon reveals his face with an exaggerated firebending scar. It seems like that’s that for our heroes, but things take another turn when Amon reveals he has captured the air family. So the duo goes on the offensive and storms the stage (with a cool fire infused wall running move) they are able to free Tenzin and the kids, but Amon’s hot on Korra and Mako’s tail.

Elsewhere we have Bolin, Asami, and Iroh taking out Hiroshi’s airfield. This allows some closure for Asami with her father. Hiroshi offers a mere moment of reconcillation with his daughter, but she refutes his offer to help. Asami then turns against her parent, taking control of a mecha tank and smashing his planes. Hiroshi attacks his daughter, seeing no opportunity for them to be a family again. With an assist from Bolin. Asami bests her dastardly dad and concedes that Hiroshi is quite a poor father.

The biplane sequence with Iroh is mostly just a scene for the animators to show off. Demonstrating the ability to create a large sense of scale through a smart use of panned background paintings, computer animation, parallaxed animation layers and a judicious use of wide shots. It doesn’t add anything to the plot, character, or world of Korra, but I can’t complain too much when the action is this slick.

Back at the arena, Korra and Mako try so slip away from Amon, they end up hiding in a broom closet and Amon is able to ferret them out and reveal his strength as a bloodbender. I again quibble with the pacing of these moments, but in the immediate they are quite gripping, and the sequence where Amon actually takes Korra’s bending is quite chilling. Now that we know that the source of such power is bloodbending these moments feel like an even greater violation of the people they are perpetrated against. So when Amon finally destroys Korra, it’s met with a silent rasp from our heroine instead of a giant shout. It’s devastating, unfortunately the moment doesn’t last that long.

Now we arrive to my biggest bugaboo in this entire shebang. Much like the rock opening the Avatar State in “Sozin’s Comet,” Korra getting her airbending is a big whiff of a plot contrivance. It kind of just happens for now real reason (without doing some deep meta work) and reduces the final confrontation between our hero and villain to a few kicks in a hallway. It doesn’t feel like Korra has learned why she can airbend in this particular moment. Is it out of fear for Mako? She’s acted in others interest before, so that isn’t it.

This frustration is compounded by the reveal of Amon’s hypocrisy to his followers. Once out the window and in the water he makes a little waterspout to save his skin. The result is everyone knowing he’s a lying hypocrite, and just like that the revolution crumbles. There are few impacts to discuss in the upcoming seasons, but The Equalists as political force or thematic wedge are effectively off the table.

Surprisingly Korra or the rest of Team Avatar don’t have the final say in Amon’s fate. Instead Noatok desperately clings to the last bit of family he has left. Opting to free his brother and scrap together some semblance of life elsewhere. Tarrlok has different ideas. As the two cruise the ocean on a boat Noatok he proudly proclaims, “together again, there’s nothing we can’t do.” Tarrlok with a resignation in his face agrees and notes that, “It will be just like the good old days.” Tarrlok quietly takes an electric glove, unscrews the gas canister on the boat and shocks the whole thing. Noatok sheds a knowing tear just before the two of them are engulfed in fire. It’s a flabbergasting moment, one that pretty explicitly shows the death of our villains in a harrowing suicide pact, and it represents Tarrlok’s last piece of grace to the world. If they continued to live, the legacy of Yakone would still haunt the land. No person should suffer like they did.

I want to emphasize the final moments with Tarrlok and Noatok because I think it sets the stage for the closing section of the season. It deliberately puts in mind the conceptual framework of a character taking their life to end a cycle, so why couldn’t another do it to restart one. This is where the discourse machine gets roiling, in the concluding section we see Korra’s despondence over her loss of bending. For the the thrust of the season we’ve seen Korra’s self be tied entirely to the concept of The Avatar, and the concept of The Avatar tied entirely to bending.

So when she reenacts her run along the cliffside from the first episode there’s something chilled about it, not just the hushed score (which is terrific here as usual), but the muted colors and Korra’s refutation of her friends and family. Not even Mako’s declaration of love can keep her to stay. And she walks right up to the edge of the cliff, and we get a shot, a PoV looking down to the ocean, one that matches the view from Tarrlok earlier, and it’s hard not to think that Korra considers leaping off. Willingly taking her own life to refresh the cycle of The Avatar.

But she doesn’t.

And this is why I think Aang showing up at the end and restoring Korra’s bending makes sense. It doesn’t completely work on a thematic level (one contemplating death does not always mean they’re open to the greatest change), but given the restrictions of the age rating I think it tracks. It works with the swell of the soundtrack, the return of Korra’s power, and her first entrance into the Avatar state (I could do without her profession of love to Mako).

So with her power’s intact she gives Lin her bending back and Tenzin finally christen her Avatar Korra. It’s a nice moment, though one that will always feel odd because of the structure of the show. So much of what is gained here will not be followed up on for quite a long time.

Odds and Ends

  • Originally Iroh was going be down at the South Pole with the group, Asami was going to note how nuts her love life had been, reveal she was in her twenties, and join the military. Weird!
  • The Lieutenant died (?) as he lived, getting smacked around by an assortment of characters, here Amon revealing his bloodbending.
  • Surprisingly the show gets more explicit with it’s deaths as it goes along, might be one of the reasons it started to run into so many production troubles.
  • This is probably the best view we get of the past Avatars on the show. Would love to know more about the Jafar looking dude.