Re-Avatar State: “Civil Wars”

Part One

One of the fascinating things about Korra as a character is that she has a full and (semi) functioning family. In most fantasies of this sweep and scale our hero is severed from filial ties in one way or another, but not here. Unlike Airbender, where each of the three leads are orphaned, Korra has a father, mother, and extended relatives to ping off of. It’s a fascinating dynamic, rich for thematic and character growth, but it is absolutely squandered in this mostly guileless two-parter. If the premiere spelled trouble for the show, than “Civil Wars” is where the wheels come off the main plot.

Most of the problems here can be chalked up to some obfuscating decisions from the writers that are supposedly meant to add complexity to the show, but instead just make things muddy and confused. You see Korra needs to be conflicted about her support of Tonraq or Unalaq as the North begins to belligerently force their way into the South. From an audience perspective all of this is incredibly suspect on the part of Unalaq, not helped by his devilish demeanor and ominous framing. Yet Korra seems oblivious, hooked on to every word her uncle says despite the protestations of her family and people like Varrick.

It’s an odd place for the writers to put the lead of our show in, because frankly they make her seem completely unable to form opinions on how to approach the issues in front of her. Yes she consistently asks for advice from those around her, but Korra keeps falling back on to the concepts her uncle presents to her for no particularly good reasons. Seems like she had a serious conk on the head between seasons as her actions are entirely regressive to what has happened up to this point in the show. Did her embittered relationship with Tarrlok teach her nothing about slimy politicians willing to exploit her position and power? I guess not.

This structure forces Korra to be highly reactive. An odd position considering her bullheaded nature. She now only strikes out after consulting and refusing advice. It is indeed the negative flipside characterization of a person being strong willed, especially when the context for the action is as clumsy as it is in the first half of the season.

These issues compound with the fact that there’s just no strong motivation for what’s happening. By the end of the third episode of the first season we had a clear narrative arc for our characters to follow. Here I’m not entirely sure what the thrust of the story is supposed to be, the title of the season is Spirits, but most of the focus is on Korra’s tumult and Water Tribe sovereignty. Conceptually these ideas are fine, but they aren’t connected to any clear goal right now. What does Korra or Unalaq want out of this situation? It’s nearly impossible to discern.

Such bungling spills over into what should be other enjoyable elements of the show. Bolin’s escapades with Eska seem ripe for some classic Avatar comedy, but they come off as incredibly trite and reductive here. The twins are nothing more than jokes for the writers to build punchlines around Ice Queens and goths. It could be a bit of ribald incongruity in the show, instead it feels mean and regressive to both the twins and Bolin.

The spiral of issues culminates with the concluding act of Korra’s intervention with southern rebels trying to kidnap Unalaq. We get a decent enough action sequence, but the setup feels entirely unmotivated. A meeting in Tonraq’s house about working against Unalaq and a tossed off conversation with Senna is all the build we have towards this theoretically climactic moment. The action is decent enough, it just lacks the clear emotional stakes that the show excelled at in the first season.

So when Korra reconnects with her parents right before Unalaq arrests them it once again feels like a bolt from the blue for the wrong reasons. The writers trying to parlay a dramatic and surprising twist built on nothing much of all.

Interestingly the b-plot of this episode is actually pretty thoughtful and engaging. A response I was not expecting to have considering how much this storyline raised the hackles of the fandom all the way back in 2013. After some sibling squabbling Ikki has run off somewhere around the Air Temple. Tenzin doesn’t want to break his vacation time, but decides to invite his brother and sister to search for his missing daughter.

Tenzin hopes to recast the warm memories of his childhood trips with Aang. This viewpoint isn’t shared by Kya and Bumi, both of whom are quick to point out that Tenzin got to travel the world with Aang a lot more than they did. Tenzin at first discounts these interjections, surely they saw the elephant koi and Ember Island, alas these were journeys saved for the airbending progeny of the Avatar.

Indeed there’s a lot of knotted up tension for the children of Aang, built into the fact that their father was both the most important being in the world and the sole survivor of a genocide. This means that undue pressure was put on each child. Bumi being the oldest, but the only non-bender, has to live in the shadow of doubt of his existence. What importance does a man who cannot bend serve to the Avatar besides filial bond? Bumi’s solution was the military, he’s a blowhard and a showoff because he feared being discounted.

Kya is struck by both middle child syndrom, and of course, not being an airbender. As the waterbender of the group she needed to distinguish herself in other ways, becoming the flighty member of the air family. The hippie aunt who travels the world to discover herself, and maybe relies too much on the support of mom to get her out of scrapes.

To Tenzin both of his siblings lack a sense of responsibility, but he has just been burdened with too much. Tenzin can not see out of his own head on this situation because, for the good of a culture, he really couldn’t. His whole life has been contingent on rebuilding the Air Nation, no matter what strife that may cause. So of course he would get more attention from Aang, it was the Avatar’s only tangible connection to the past. For now Tenzin’s big block is his misapprehension of the situation, he needs to realize he was treated differently and come to terms with that. 

These discussions are surprisingly nuanced, and in the format of a show aimed at teens interestingly situated. Here is a group of middle age siblings hashing out their family drama in terms that are moderately realistic. It’s a grounding touch to Aang’s family, and shockingly good considering the surrounding material.

Odds and Ends

  • Good animation alert! The trick Korra pulls with the rope to tie up a kidnapper is very well done.
  • Look Bolin do not go to Mako for relationship advice. He will not help you in any way.
  • Varrik is an appreciator of the finest cookies that he can snag for free.

Part Two

If part one of “Civil Wars” was a confounding mess of motivation and character drama than part two is the unsatisfying sword to this particular Gordian Knot. All the supposed complex storytelling is shuffled aside as quickly as possible for some shockingly disappointing action and blindingly obvious character reveal. Can you believe that after four episodes Unalaq is the bad guy?

This startling reveal is infuriating for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s not at all surprising, but the show has tried to maneuver Korra into such a position that it is to her. Did Korra miss the creepy throne Unalaq hangs out on? I guess she did. The other main reason is that the audience has no idea what Unalaq is after with Korra. He insinuates some sort of war would cause spirits to riot, but there hasn’t been any real basis for such a statement to be true. This is added to the fact that Unalaq is a lying liar, and it becomes hard to parse what his nefarious ends really are.

The winding road to this revelation is paved with bad legal procedure and a bit of 24-esque workarounds of the law. In a more considered part of the show there would be profound questions about whose political authority a society is supposed to follow, here it’s mostly empty gesturing.

Korra’s parents are on trial, Unalaq promises a fair hearing, but things seem fishy from the jump. The Judge, Hotah, has all the graces of the law, but his rulings are incredibly harsh. Hotah lets Senna go free while condemning the rest of the rebels (including Tonraq) to death. The news shocks Korra, who demands a lighter sentencing. Unalaq intervenes and gets the charges reduced so Tonraq is merely left with life in prison. Cold comfort. Especially as Korra sees Senna break down at home at the loss of her husband.

So Korra takes the law into her own hands. Runs down Hotah, and threatens his life with the ominous jaws of Naga. I suspect that this moment is supposed to play as cool in the writers’ mind, but it has the unfortunate consequence of making Korra appear overly vicious. If so much of the first season was dedicated to problems Korra couldn’t punch through, it’s a little disappointing to see the big resolution to this arc’s first act be resolved so cleanly with a little bit of the life threatening. Anyway the judge reveals that literally everything Unalaq has done was a setup to gain more power, so Korra goes to confront her uncle.

On the other side of town Asami is eagerly awaiting Varrick to close their partnership. Yet Varrick appears to have vanished, out of the way when Unalaq’s goons come trouncing through his offices. It turns out that the eccentric has hidden away in a stuffed platypus bear, along with Zhu Li of course. As such he conspires with Team Avatar to design a way for them to escape the South Pole and away from Unalaq’s forces, it will take a bit of wit.

Korra and Mako go to free Tonraq, but his cell is empty, and Unalaq appears to give an “I’m evil now” monologue. This confrontation is mostly devoid of tension, and Unalaq’s ominous reveal that he doesn’t need Korra anymore kind of whiffs of nothing. It already reeks of a villain who will be bad just to be bad. Still Korra and Mako escape and hook up with Varrick and the rest of The Krew.

Again in what should be an action spectacular with Team Avatar breaking the blockade we get a kind of nothing action sequence. In theory the idea of Asami flying a plane propelled by firebending should be a thrill, here it’s kind of whatever. The Krew eventually free Tonraq and agree to head to Republic City to rally support for the South from the United Forces. We’ve got a new goal, that still has almost nothing to do with spirits.

In Tenzin land we see his quest to find Ikki resolved. The air child has squirreled away into a cave with a bunch of baby air bison. What plays out is a cute reconciliation act between different members of the air family, even though it is a touch too neat. Ikki wants Kya and Bumi to join in on the tea time fun, alas Tenzin is wearied of his siblings. Yet the father and daughter begin to commiserate over members in their family. Ikki points out that Kya is caring and Bumi motivated, while Tenzin notes that Jinora is smart, and Meelo is unpredictable.

The two decide to return to the Air Temple proper and reunite after a bit of bickering. Tenzin apologizes for his harsh words the previous night. Bumi and Kya reciprocate by locating an old family photo of Aang, Katara, and the three of them. Too sweet after the caustic words of the previous episode, but nevertheless a smarter attempt at fleshing out what the life of these people might be like.

Odds and Ends

  • Don’t love the Eska stuff, but emo Bolin and Pabu is funny. The crazy ex-girlfriend shtick at the end of the episode is not.
  • The bison are: Blueberry Spicehead, Twinkle Starchild, Princess Rainbow and Juniper Lightening Bug.
  • Do love Varrick in the platypus bear suit: he wants honey, he drives a boat, and he poops money.
  • “Zhu Li, do the thing”