Re-Avatar State: “Peacekeepers” & “The Sting”

Peacekeepers

Throughout the entire Avatar franchise the show has hewn pretty closely to a few basic rules to keep its characters looking consistent with one another. There’s the general art design put forward by Bryan, but there’s other things as well: the look of faces, the shape of eyes, and how light casts shadows on characters. You see for the franchise the creators decided to stick to a two-tone method for shading. That means that when a character is standing in light in such a way that shadows would be cast across the face the only differential is a slightly darker shade of skin. It’s simple, clean, and an easy look that provides depth to facial animation while keeping things straightforward enough to change during frenetic action sequences. It’s an important stylistic feature of the program.

For some reason the animation studio behind “Peacekeepers” and the entire first half of season two decided to throw that conceit out for a few scenes. So for a couple of shots The Legend of Korra does not look like The Legend of Korra, instead it looks like a weird knock-off anime version of the show. It’s a small thing, but a reason why this particular episode rankles me more than any other. Just when Korra needed it the most, the artistry in the animation completely vanished.

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Again the result is a death by million cuts situation that concludes in what I would argue is the show’s weakest entry. “Peacekeepers” looks bad, continues the confounding loop-dee-loop storytelling that muddles character motivation, and stinks up the place with some half-baked politics. And let us not forget reintroduces elements of the dread love triangle back into the fold. It’s everything I don’t like about the show hand delivered in a singular package.

Team Avatar and Varrick are back in Republic City to rally the support of President Raiko and get the United Forces to help the South in the War of the Water Tribes. Beifong wants Mako back on his beat, and Bolin is left to his own devices, as such he ends up under the wing of Varrick. The billionaire has a future for our former pro-bending star.

Korra wants more direct action in fomenting support for the south. In a weird turn from every person she talks to there’s an insistence of neutrality. It’s an odd scab that the show in the first half keeps on picking at. Certainly Korra didn’t want to start a civil war in the Water Tribe, but the behest of everyone that she remain a removed factor from the fray seems suspect. Aang acted directly against the Fire Nation military, Kyoshi killed Chin the Conqueror, isn’t the Avatar supposed to act in exactly moments like this?

So Korra joins a protest from Southern Water Tribe members, marching through the streets to rally support. Things are heated as the North has counter-protests. Things seem kosher enough until Mako notices a triad member running out of the Southern Water Tribe Cultural Center, seconds later an explosion rocks the building, and Republic City is sent into political turmoil.

Korra believes that this action is because of Northern agitators, but Mako is more suspect. What was a firebender doing planting the bomb? Korra’s beliefs create roadblocks with the new president Raiko. Raiko again insists on neutrality, and wants the United Republic to stay out of Water Tribe affairs. This means Korra has one last place to turn. The underhanded tactics of Varrick.

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In a meeting with Korra, Asami, and Bolin, the captain of industry concocts a nefarious plan to gain support for the South, save Future Industries, and turn Bolin’s star into something more. With his new Mover technology Varrick will produce propaganda films for the South. With support increasing among the public politicians will have to relent, and the Southern rebels can use Asami’s tech for military purposes. Maybe Korra could even get support from General Iroh while bypassing the president. It’s all a little fishy, but our heroes play along for now.

Korra scouts Iroh, and the General seem onboard until she’s scooped by Raiko (with a tip from Bolin that went through Mako). Look’s like Korra is out of luck in Republic City, until she hips to the fact that Iroh’s mother, Fire Lord Izumi, might offer support. So she stops the police stating dramatically breaks up with Mako (in the sequence with the off shading) and drives out all alone on a boat. She weeps for for her broken relationships before Eska and Desna approach, followed by a dark spirit. Seems like Korra has been engulfed by the vengeful phantasm.

Bolin for his part is all geared up and ready to roll as Nuktuk, Hero of the South, for Varrick, but will all these convoluted ploys pay off?

Odds and Ends

  • Poor Iroh is so horrendously off model in this episode that I get actively embarrassed looking at him.
  • I almost forget Tenzin’s story where he teaches Meelo to train Lemurs, it’s cute and funny.
  • Finally got our Sokka statue, holding his trusty boomerang.
  • I like that the two goof-off detectives pronounce Mako’s name wrong.
  • Varrick’s other ideas while brainstorming: Radios for pets, pink mint lemon tea, and hand shoes.
  • There’s a book with a Bruce Lee looking fellow on the cover that is never explain but becomes a bit like The Gideon’s Bible of the franchise.

The Sting

Here’s a weird turn of events. “The Sting” is almost a really good episode of the show. Conceptually it contains many fun, insightful, and exciting ideas and a smartly executed twist on where certain character dynamics stand. Unfortunately each one of these smart ideas is actively undercut by some boneheaded writing decisions that up the ante on the unlikeable elements of our characters. With a few tweaks here and there we might have had a thoughtful entry for the first time since season one.

So what are those elements and what undercuts them? Let’s start with the main thrust of the episode. Mako doing an off the books sting operation to discover who is sabotaging Varrick and Asami’s business partnership. The context of this plot is another fun way for the show to probe different storytelling techniques. While season one frequently leaned into noir aesthetics, there wasn’t much of an emphasis on the crime story elements that popped on the edges of the narrative.

So conceptually I enjoy the idea of Mako crawling back to his former triad mates for help with an off the book run. I love that Mako promises Shady Shin could get his bending back (a small but fun piece of continuity), I love that these character designs from the peripheral of the first season reappear in a surprising manner.

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What undercuts this storyline is the reemergence of the dread love triangle. Mako just broke up with Korra, and already he’s reverting back to a relationship with Asami, like come on my dude. Another element is that the stiffer animation just doesn’t serve the big action scene in this episode very well. The boat chase is a delightful idea, but lacks the cinematic oomph to stand on its own.

I love the thought behind Bolin, mover star. In fact everything around Nuktuk is a treat. The cheesy theme song, repainted Naga and Pabu as the trusty sidekicks, the bizarre tonality of a world just working its way to a visual mass medium, and all the accouterment details that pepper the narrative. Like how it seems like there can’t be any bending on the set of the film by the actors themselves, or how Varrick is using these propaganda pictures to also sell his own products. It’s all quite clever and involving, except they go and decide to make Bolin assault a woman.

I don’t want to paint the writers as acting in any sort of malevolence, but their shtick with Ginger and Bolin on set is incredibly tin-eared and gross. They make Bolin a tremendous idiot just so he can break boundaries with a an unwilling woman. I just can’t explain this moment of grossness, and I get why people may have written off his character because of this very sequence. It boggles the mind to think the writers though this was funny or clever in any way, it just rankles what should be an involving piece of world building.

I will say that the final twist of the episode is in fact very clever. After visiting a Nuktuk set Mako realizes that Varrick is behind the series of bombings that has been plaguing Asami. Indeed as soon as he gets the facts he goes to tell her, only to find a menacing Varrick intercede with his purchase of Future Industries.

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What’s great about this turn is that it’s not really a turn at all. All season we’ve seen Varrick participating in less than great morality, but his personality has always sparked away any introspection. In fact his underhanded tactics are frequently supported by our heroes because for the time being they have the same aims, just as soon as the means are questioned he’s willing to turn to more vicious routes. The Varrick turn is so well handled that it makes the show grappling with Unalaq even more baffling. If they could do the shock bad guy reveal here, why couldn’t they push it with the main antagonist of the season.

We end the episode with another sour note. Korra has washed up on an island in the Fire Nation with her memory wiped. The fact that the writers had to turn to amnesia to wrench in the story that they want to tell is just another groan worthy justification. Although I will finally say this, the worst of the show is over, even if the rest of the season is silly and doesn’t make a lot of plot or lore sense, it looks amazing and features some sterling action and design. 

Odds and Ends

  • Despite some of the dunderheaded character decisions made in the mover plot, I do just adore all the details that inform the design and execution of Nuktuk. The structure is an obvious reference to classic film serials like Flash Gordon (evil Unalaq even looks like Ming the Merciless), the tone deft casting of Bolin in a poor caricature of a culture is a sly dig at stuff like Nanook of the North (certainly the name Nuktuk is a nod to that), and it features a goofy theme sing that would fit in 60’s superhero show.
  • Two-toed Ping actually has twelve toes.
  • Varrick’s evil chair swivel would have been just a smidge more effective if the animation on his face weren’t so wonky.