Re-Avatar State: “Rebel Spirit” & “The Southern Lights”

Rebel Spirit

Alas we have arrived at the moment I’ve been dreading since my commitment to writing about Korra, for as much as I deeply love the show there is no way to sidestep an important fact: the second season just isn’t very good by most measures. So I’ve got to climb the mountain about mostly being negative about I thing I enjoy for a few weeks, it won’t be fun, but it is necessary.

So what went wrong with season two of Korra? With a bit of hindsight it seems pretty clear that this a prime example of a studio mucking about with the production of the show to the detriment of the overall product. As previously stated Korra was originally just supposed to be the first season, all wrapped up and done, but Nick wanted more, and decided to come knocking at the most inopportune time.

Just as animation was wrapping on the first season they ordered fourteen more episodes, putting the showrunners in a bit of a bind. Since animation has such a long lead time on production they couldn’t change any of the story elements of the first season, so they would have build the rest of the show from the ground up. This forced them to rebuild a writing room and rotating directing staff to make sure they had their bases cover, but this wasn’t enough.

Production and budget issues forced Korra to be handed off to a different animation studio for the first half of season two. So the weak story was compounded by a noticeably stiffer look to everything. The downgrade in production going hand in hand with befuddling story decisions. In a way its remarkable that season two barely functions: the showrunners had to split their time dealing with the studio and overseeing the show, but behind the scenes pains can’t totally paper over the final product.

Credit where credit is due, this run of episodes doesn’t lack for ambition. The problem is that the reach ultimately muddles what is a fairly straightforward narrative. The issue with the story this time around is that it is both circuitously complicated and blazingly simple. That means we spend a good chunk of this season subsuming the motivations of characters in some hack political work and not focussing in on the more interesting elements. An annoying structure to say the least.

So where are we, yes, it’s six months after season one and things have changed quite a bit. The Equalist revolt has caused Republic City to ditch the council and elect a president, Bolin is still trying to make the Fire Ferrets work as a new team, Mako is a police officer, Asami is struggling to keep future industries afloat after Hiroshi was arrested, and Korra’s still a hot head, but this time with more power.

Korra’s impetuous personality seems to have spiked in the intervening weeks, as she bumps heads with nearly every single one of her friends and family. She’s testy with Tenzin, who wants to continue to teach her about airbending with a tour of the temples. Korra feels she’s ready to leave training and strike out on her own way as Avatar, despite Tenzin’s offer for more tutelage.

Still before all this gets ironed out, everyone is headed down to the South Pole for a trip to a Spirit festival. They all deserve some rest and relaxation. Unfortunately things get off on a tense foot with the arrival of The Northern Water Tribe chief Unalaq, Korra’s uncle. It seems that there’s a chilly relationship between Tonraq and Unalaq, and the head honcho of the whole waterbending shebang has come down to disparage the spiritual practices of The Southern Water Tribe.

Unalaq brings to light new revelations for Korra as well. He notes that the spirits are rampaging in southern waters, and that dark spirits are proliferating in appearance. Secondly he notes that her training is incomplete because of her life cooped up in a compound, a factor enforced by both Tonraq and Tenzin. This insight puts Korra at odds with her immediate family and mentors, making her stilted life feel like a punishment for her standing. Conceptually I appreciate the writers tackling this subject head on, but the execution is less then great, resulting in a heroine who’s motivating factor seems to be pure petulance than understanding.

Indeed the first half of this season is weirdly aggro in almost all regards, instead of settling in to our circumstances almost all of our characters are at each others’ throats. The seemingly sweeping romance between Mako and Korra is immediately shown to be contentious here, with the two ending almost every one of their arguments in a fight. Korra keeps talking down to her father and Tenzin. Tenzin himself seems to be stuck in a simmering quarrel with his siblings Kya and Bumi, both whom constantly pick on the airbending master. This tones is understandable as a natural extension of the teen focussed energy of the show, but it wants me to step into the world and tell everyone to chill out for a second and think things over.

If there’s one thing to keep me afloat for this rough patch it’s the introduction of Varrick, maybe the greatest character in the entire franchise. That is obviously a hyperbolas statement, but Varrick is an amazing addition to the world, a reworking of the chaotic comedic character like Bumi from Aribender into something more riotous and messaged into the world building. Varrick is a bit like a cross between Howard Hues and a ketch comedy performer, swinging wildly from bit to bit with seemingly no consideration of anything around him.

He’s a perfect foil to the well meaning Asami and naive Bolin, both of which stumble on his boat party to ask for help in funding future industires. Bolin is able to cut through Varrick’s crap, and Asami stand her ground to eccentric industrialist, who’s wacky new idea includes movie pictures (or movers) that will sweep the world. We’ll see how far that’ll take him, and what machinations he has in store for our heroes.

After a day at the carnival Team Avatar is ambushed by a dark spirit. No one is able to subdue the marauding creature, even with Korra entering the Avatar state. That is until Unalaq appears and uses a special kind of waterbending to calm the being. This cements Korra’s decision to abandon Tenzin’s teaching and take up with her uncle. If spirits are actually attacking, than Korra needs to learn how to deal with this problem head on. She says a bitter goodbye to Tenzin, and wonders if she made the right decision to Mako, only time will tell if this the best path to be on.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Comedy stalwart John Michael Higgins gives Varrick a deliciously manic edge, all that work with Christopher Guest is paying off in animated form.
  • Forget to mention that Bolin’s ill fated romantic pursuit of Korra’s cousin Eska begins, things seem to be off to a chilly start.
  • I’ll try to point out good animation when it happens in the rough bits of the show, so the movements Unalaq does to come the spirit are very smooth and interesting.
  • Tons of fun details at the carnival like the Aang water game and the Appa plushies. When Korra eats some cotton candy she makes a literal :3 face.
  • Varrick’s first mover is a direct reference to Eadweard Muybridge’s Sallie Gardner at a Gallop from 1877. Widely considered to be one of the first executions of a modern film.
  • The crowd noise heard at the Pro-bending arena is in fact audio recorded from a comic-con panel.
  • This is the only episode of the entire franchise to have a cold open, weird that they didn’t go for that more often.
Spoiler

  • If it wasn’t painfully obvious by the end of the episode, Unalaq is this season’s big bad. A fact that the show tries to obfuscate for way too long.
  • The sneakier and more successful version of this is that Varrick is the sub-villain in this whole affair, a smart way especially after the character’s mostly humorous introduction.

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The Southern Lights

The second episode of the season doesn’t really resolve much of my issues of the premiere. Everyone still feels like they are ready to claw eyes out, the animation is stiff with off model characters, Korra’s bullheaded actions feel like a regress from the ending of season one, and the threat of the spirits seems mostly abstract rather than tangible. At this moment it’s very unclear what the thrust of the story will be, a problem that the rest of the show very much does not have.

Still the quest structure of the episode, and few digressions into the past, allow the audience to see a larger portion of the world for the first time in the series. So far all the action of the show has been confined to Republic City and the Southern Water Tribe, here we get to push those boundaries open a little bit.

First is with Korra’s initial lesson under Unalaq, opening up a spirit portal at the South Pole to reinvigorate spiritual energy in the area. It’s a dangerous trek, one where they will have to contend with dark spirits and a blustering wind around the portal, but Korra is excited to have a full task of responsibility handed to her. Unalaq has theoretically given her freedom to accomplish goals on her own.

This sense of openness is cordoned off a bit when Tonraq puts his foot down and insists on joining the group (along with Bolin and the Cousins). Korra acquiesces her father’s request, but the two are still on terse footing because of the knowledge that Tonraq insisted on the compound. So the group heads off into the frozen wasteland to scout out the souther spirit portal.

Meanwhile Tenzin’s family  is finally in the full swing of vacation time. The arrival at the Southern Air Temple is met with great clamor by the monks in residence. They shower love and affectio on Tenzin and Pema (perhaps too much love), while belittling the appearance of Kya and Bumi. After all what are the Air Acolytes to make of Aang’s children that aren’t airbenders. Looks like that sibling rivalry is baked into the weird cultural significance of Tenzin and his family.

Back down in the antarctic wastes of the south the tension within the group is growing. Bolin is continuing his poorly thought out romantic pursuit of Eska, only to find that the twins seem to be more of a package deal. The simmering resentment of the group boils over at camp when it’s revealed why the relationship between Tonrag and Unalaq is so strained. Back in his younger days Tonraq was a leader in the Water Tribe military in the North. While no giant war was happening there were still bandits and marauders that needed to be put down.

One day Tonraq’s troops followed a group of barbarians into a spirit forest, where he decided to raze the landscape to capture his enemies. This angers the spirits of the north, causing them to rampage in the tribe. This foible on Tonraq’s path forces him down south, and his younger brother to ascend to the role of chief. Good thing Tonraq eventually sired the Avatar or he would have been a true nobody.

This little tale once again puts Korra at odds with her father. Why does her family insist on keeping important information from her while making big decisions? It’s a reasonable question to ask, but one that gets frustratingly misapplied in this run of the show. For the narrative as it stands to continue Korra has to be kept in bizarre ignorance of what is happening around her to the detriment of the narrative. It also makes Korra out to be, let’s not say stupid, but caught with a disease of plot idiocy. Willfully following what some say to push the story forward for somewhat inexplicable reasons.

Further towards the portal the group is confronted with some dark spirits. The fight here is pretty good (with the exception of an incredibly off model looking Korra in a few shots), and it highlights one of the design elements of the season I like. The spirits have a hard outline and more solid shading than other living creatures, gives them a bit of otherworldly quality.

With the spirits gone, but their supplies wrecked, the group makes one last push to the spirit portal. Tonraq insists that this isn’t the right move for Korra, still she pushes on. Thrashing her way through a tangle of dark spirits to finally get to the portal. Once she activates the Avatar State and touches the glowing orb, a light shoots through the sky and an entrance to the spirit world is opened. Everyone, (even a long gone Tonraq) is proud of what she’s accomplished. Look’s like Korra has some self actualization today.

Twinned into this moment is a series of brief encounters with Jinora. As she mulls about the Avatar statues in the temple it seems like she is being followed by a presence of some sort. A phantom that is pulling her towards some important information. At the moment of the portal’s opening an ancient statue begins to glow and shimmer, prompting Jinora to wonder who it could possibly be.

With her mission accomplished Korra is feeling pretty good about herself until she gets a good look at the town. What’s this, soldiers from the North occupying the South. Why would such a thing happen. Unalaq contends that there needs to be more enforced reformation in Korra’s home, and that her quick jump to her uncle’s lessons might come with a huge downside.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: In a very 2012 casting move, Eska is played by Aubrey Plaza, the go to emo comedian of the time.
  • Some good animation this time with Eska and Desna skiing down the side of a hill.
  • That ancient head shaver should probably be left alone.
  • This is the first episode since the fourth where Asami doesn’t appear, don’t know why she isn’t a part of the group.