Re-Avatar State: “Beginnings”

Part One

I don’t think there’s a cure all solution to fix this season of television. The production was too distraught and the resulting story too messy to find a panacea for the myriad of issues that plagues the screen, but with this two-parter I think there could have been a fix that made the early going a bit more bearable. The biggest issue that’s been pestering the season is a lack of clarity about what our characters want. Yes Korra is out to protect her home, but there’s not real overarching goal for her to follow to reach this objective. And what does Unalaq actually want to achieve? Power, certainly, but there are goals that are deliberately being obfuscated from the audience.

Thus, I think, if the story told in “Beginnings” were kicked up in the narrative  it would have provided some much needed focus and balance to the story. Exactly halfway through this particular story and we only now have a deadline and end goal for our heroine to chase after. At the close of these two chapters Korra has a target to pursue and objectives to clear. It’s a focus that this plot has desperately lacked, and while the machinations of getting to the story told in “Beginnings” are a bit groan worthy I appreciate that for the first time this season we get something as grand, beautiful, and ambitious coming together in this moment.

While writing about this season I’ve frequently whinged about how much the drop in animation quality has been especially deleterious to the quality of the show. I might be a shallow person, but exciting or dramatic visual techniques can add a whole lot to the viewing experience. Even with all the narrative bumps in season one, I still love it as an aesthetic object. There’s been nothing like that in season two, until now.

 

“Beginnings” is the return of the original animation studio to the show, and with it a shocking and sumptuous display of visual prowess. Narratively these two episodes are imperfect (though I find them incredibly exciting and interesting), but the execution in production and direction is so jaw-dropping and staggeringly beautiful that I can let it overwhelm me for a bit.

Korra needs to recover her memories, and luckily for her the island she has washed up on is home to some helpful Fire Sages. They bring her in and dump her in a magic water tank to commence the flashbacking. After a brief exchange with Aang, Roku, Kyoshi, and Kuruk, Korra begins the deep dive into the life of Wan, the man who would become the first Avatar.

Ten thousand years ago we see a world much different than the one displayed by the franchise so far. The world of the spirits and the material are intermingled, and the dangers of the fantastic forces have pushed humanity into cloistered cities on the back of Lion Turtles. People do not have the inherent ability to bend, but instead must request the power from the majestic beasts to survive in the wilds.

Here we are plopped down with Wan in full Aladdin mode. Outrunning some guards from the ruling family that he’s nicked food from. Even way back in the olden days humans still lived in a stratified society and Wan is at the very bottom rung, his only companions are the desperate and those transformed into chimeras by the spirits. Life in this world is more precarious than we could imagine, with humans living on a knife’s edge in their cities, fearful of what the spirits might do to them.

This fear and societal structure makes Wan a shockingly low-status and roguish figure for the first Avatar. Though he has good intentions for a few of his actions, there is also a sense of pure survival to his work. So when he takes the promethean step of absconding with fire to steal food from the town’s rich it has a sense of petulant balking at society. Wan wants to burn things down a bit, even if he doesn’t have the heart to follow through.

For his actions he is banished to the spirit wilds, where his cleverness is put to the test. He’s constantly befuddle by odd looking creatures and bizarre imagistic monsters. Things are thrown further into array when he stumbles upon a spirit oasis (yes very Miyazaki) overseen by an Aye-Aye spirit. The Aye-Aye is particularly capricious towards Wan, noting humans general indifference to nature and life. Wan is aggrieved, and decides to strike out on his own, and perhaps find other human settlements through out the world.

His plans are interrupted when comes across a caught cat deer. Moved by the plight of the animal he rescues it, and turns away some hunters from the forest. This action ingratiates Wan with Aye-Aye and also inspires those who live in the fire town to take the element and learn to live off the land on their own. Now that Wan has the support of the spirits he decides to actually use the fire as a martial art, watching dragons and practicing bending. His skill sharpening into the modern form of bending that we see in the current era.

With his skills in place Wan decides to leave the spirit oasis to find more people and learn about the world. In a short montage we get another swing at the absolutely sublime imagery of these episodes. The music swells and we see Wan traverse a variety of environments. The lush ink brush backgrounds and hard outlining of the characters creating a brief moment of such evocative scale that one can briefly forgo the problems of the show and just sink into the beauty of what is being shown on screen.

Alas such majesty is destroyed when Wan stumbles upon two warring spirits in the valley. Do stop their destruction of the area Wan separates the two, and learns that he has made a grave mistake. For these are the spirits Raava and Vaatu, the balances of order and chaos in the world, and their struggle is like those of mythic legend, eternal and necessary for the world to exist. With Wan’s ill informed actions, he might have mistakenly ushered in the end of the world.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Wan’s spirited performance is given by Walking Dead alum Steven Yuen. It’s an excellent piece of acting that gives great characterization to an individual we just met. Also noted Avatar superfan and professional tennis star Serena Williams once again cameos, this time as a Fire Sage.
  • Carrot Spirit.
  • The first season of the show got an excellent full soundtrack release, the rest did not, and I so dearly wish that I could hear the isolated score that’s presented in these episodes because it is amazing.
  • The look of these episodes is explicitly based on woodblock paintings from Japan. It’s gorgeous and does make wish that franchise did more switches to the general art style.
  • Another Miyazaki touchstone, Mula sure looks like the elk ridden in Princess Mononoke.

Part 2

The existence of the Avatar was an accident. A mistake made by an overzealous individual acting without proper information. From this simple, but catastrophic misunderstanding, the foundation of the world of the Four Nations was founded. It’s a classic presentation of a mythic tradition, how one slip led to the world the we know today.

What’s fascinating about how “Beginnings” positions the origin of The Avatar is that the process is more embittered than one would expect. Wan does become powerful, he does resolve some conflicts, and he does prevent the world from tumbling into chaos, but the work is never done. His life’s purpose not resolving in and of itself, but instead needing to be transferred and reborn again. It’s really striking how mordent the history of the world is knowing that the fight for “balance” never really ends.

There’s been some discussion in the comments about how these episodes flatten the mythology of the franchise and break down the importance of what the Avatar is. The implication being that if the thrust of the power of our heroes comes from two spirits locked in combat that it robs the lineage of The Avatar of its singular representational power of being the force that acts as a weight against the world at large.

In some respects I’m sympathetic to this point. The mechanics of Raava and Vaatu are incredibly simple and boil down the conflict of this season to something that is so large that it lacks much thematic heft. We learn about Harmonic Convergence and the duel of the spirits to decide the fate of the world, that is where the narrative of this season is heading, a rematch between order and chaos that resets the scales of the world every 10,000 years. It turns the mechanics of an intricate setting into rather simplistic dualistic contrasts. There is light, and there is dark, and an epic fight to decide the result of the two.

On the other hand I think these two episodes do an excellent job of contextualizing the work of The Avatar, and why such a position might not be the honor that it is first displayed as. Despite Wan’s ultimate triumph over Vaatu his quest is met by many dour failures along the way. When he tries to settle a dispute between some old village friends and Aye-Aye Wan utterly loses, the resulting battle wiping away his old human companions.

Indeed after promising his life to resolving disputes between different peoples and nations he dies thinking back as a failure. A man who may have stopped a certain level of destruction, but one who cannot settle any and all dispute that crosses his path. Wan’s death is oddly wrecking in it’s implications, that no singular person can ever properly balance the world, even with the promise of Raava as a spirit to guide Wan through multiple life times. Again the work is never done.

This also segues into another talking about how the Avatar works, I wondered if the spirit of the Avatar being a spirit that transverses bodies would dampen the idea of the history of one person sharing a connected past, instead it mostly adds up to a neutral understanding. The mechanics of why the Avatar is the Avatar are fine enough for a fantasy word, but they are simply grist for the lore mill without really damaging the inherent mythology we have been given. Raava is simply the string connecting these people together, allowing them access to each other’s lives. The Avatar is the lineage in and of itself.

With all that high minded talk out of the way let me once again just marvel at how these episodes look. Like when Wan first reaches the city of the airbenders, and their wind being demarcated by curling solid clouds that integrate the characters into the washes and paint strokes of the background art. Or the undulating power of the transition between regular spirits and their darker counterparts, how the solid linings transform into a malignant translucence. Or perhaps it’s the intricate design of the various Lion Turtle cities, each perched in their environment with breathtaking remove, making the stiff movement from Avatar into something gigantic and graceful.

With so little action in the season being of note the final duel between Wan and Vaatu is a technical and artistic explosion. A spectacle of combat filled to the brim with clever camera tricks, vibrant colorings, and swelling score that links everything together. It swirls with confidence around something that could be so silly, and for the first time since season one the scale of action has a sweep to it, a beautiful certitude in its bombastic nature.

Wan also makes a fateful decision here. The world of humanity is dangerous enough, and he concludes that the seperetion of the spiritual world and material world is needed to help settle things down. It’s an action just as consequential as he decision to fuse with Raava, and one that unintentionally causes as many headaches as it solves.

All this information, now deposited into Korra means she’s ready to reorient her goals this season. The Fire Sages also give her a deadline, Harmonic Convergence is merely a few weeks away, and she’s gotta get hip to the spirit world to help prevent Vaatu from succeeding this time. It’s great for Korra to have concrete goal and timeline, though I think the Harmonic Convergence aspect of the story to be pretty darn silly in the long run of the season. Still after this point, despite more storytelling missteps, the show gets one thing right, it looks pretty darn cool.

Odds and Ends

  • There’s a brief shot of the planets aligning in the solar system that confirms that this isn’t just an alternate earth, but a wholly different universe. Also the sun looks super cool.
  • I enjoy that tiny Raava lives in a teapot with Wan.
  • Aye-Aye calls Wan Stinky right until the end.
  • Bison at the end of this episode are very cute.
Spoiler

  • One of the reasons I’m so enamored by Wan’s death here is that it directly links to the shock and terror Korra goes through at the end of season three. Bringing forward the question of whether the position of Avatar is just too much to bear for any one individual, what with all the service and sacrifice.

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