Re-Avatar State: “The Guide” & “A New Spiritual Age”

The Guide

In the post about “Beginnings” I speculated that the season might have been helped if the story of Wan had been placed earlier, allowing Korra to have a clear goal to pursue rather than dither about in malformed politicking. While still lumpy these two episodes mostly bare out that hypothesis, Korra’s plot finally feels like it’s moving forward instead of spinning in circles and there is some nice character work for her and her relationship to Tenzin’s family. Even if this thing doesn’t totally cohere, and Unalaq still being a bad villain, there’s more purpose and thought in the movement of the show.

Part of that comes from the fact that Korra and Tenzin are finally back together in a manner that scratches at some of the more interesting developments that cropped up in the first half of the season. One is Korra’s realization that her isolation was bad, but well intentioned, and the other being that Tenzin must live directly in the shadow of Aang. This confluence demonstrates another flaw of the opening salvo of the story, wrenching are characters apart can be effective, but also frustrating. The tossing of our heroes to the corners of the globe is an interesting idea that lead to stories feeling too cordoned off and disconnected. “The Guide” finally ties together a few threads in a manner that makes the narrative more put together.

So the tension here comes from the fact that Tenzin views himself as more of a failed son of a great man than anything else. While he certainly has tried his best to teach the ways of airbending and spirituality, Tenzin has never really had the demeanor of an airbending master. The tiff he had with his siblings earlier this season further demonstrates that fact. Tenzin is too burdened by the weight of carrying out the survival of the Air Nation that he struggles with trying to match the culture he aspires for. This tension leads to the inevitable reveal here: Tenzin has never been able to access the spirit world.

This revelation is pretty small in the grand scheme of things, but it does a lot of work in shaping the kind of person Tenzin is in the context of the show. For all hist musings about the importance of rest and balance, he is always countered by knowing he hasn’t succeeded in his own estimation. It’s a touch demoralizing, but it makes a him a more believable teacher, someone who knows a lot but can can still succumb to their flaws.

This dynamic also clarifies the relationship with Korra. Tenzin will always want to lead and direct, sometimes to the detriment of their partnership, but this desire will always be out of good intentions and well meaning interest. Tenzin always wants his students to make it (see Meelo and the lemurs), even if he struggles  to enact his lessons. However there is a grace to him realizing he needs to pass the future to his students and let them act in his stead.

This brings in Jinora. I contest that her spiritual connections are more than a little contrived (she saw one statue glow, and now we’re here with bunny spirits), but I like the dynamic that is being setup. Korra having to work with every person she knows to be able to resolve the problems in the world. It makes her feel less isolated, and Jinora serves as a compelling teacher compared to the obvious insidiousness of Unalaq.

Back in Republic City, Bolin and Asami bumble around Mako trying to tell them that Varrick is behind all the bombings that have wrecked Future Industries. Bolin is still too enthralled with his star persona to flip on Varrick, and Asami is just kind of there. As much as I like the twist presented in “The Sting” it weirdly doesn’t amount to much in the broad execution of the story. Yes Asami and Mako are kind of dating again, and Mako gets thrown in jail after being framed by Varrick. It’s all kind of just a blah mess that confuses what could, in theory, be a compelling series of events for the rest of our cast. I do still like Varrick himself, here upping the menace without really changing his demeanor. Again an interesting character caught in a snooze of a story.

We also check in with Unalaq for a few scenes that continue to highlight what a woefully poor character he is. After blustering his way with Korra for the opening act of the season we again see that he doesn’t really have anything together to enact his evil schemes. He needs the other spirit portal open, and just kind of flails about to accomplish that goal. His only respite coming when Vaatu informs him that Korra has entered the Spirit World

This also connects to the major bug in this episode, which Korra just kind of succeeds at calming the spirits with the technique that Unalaq demonstrated in the premiere. This power has never been compelling in and of itself, especially since spirits were seen as more idiosyncratic in Avatar, and I find it hard to believe that one stroll down memory lane would have her ready to accomplish the technique in practice. So it kind of flattens the power into another tool in the arsenal. But it does set up Jinora and Korra finally entering the Spirit World, and seeing what delights exist beyond this material realm.

Odds and Ends

  • This is the last episode of the show to be saddles with clunky animation, and though it’s still a little stiff, it’s arguably the best looking of the lot.
  • I like that we get to look at another refurbished air temple, helps expand the world a bit.
  • Korra’s recap of recent events is quite funny.
  • I do not question Meelo’s bell ringing or Kya’s incense abilities.

A New Spiritual Age

Here’s a refrain you’ll hear me singing for the last act of this season. Even though a lot of what’s happening on screen doesn’t completely track on a narrative or thematic level, boy does it look good. With the reinstatement of the original animation team locked down for the rest of the show (thank God) Korra finally recovers one of its lost talents. Being a mind blowing piece of animation for television. This is hardly a panacea for what is still a mess of story, but we’ve at last arrived at what one could deem the fireworks portion of the program, don’t worry about what’s happening and let the pretty colors wash over you.

Except not quite yet, because pound for pound “A New Spiritual Age” is probably the best episode of the season. While not wrapped in the splendor of “Beginnings” or the bombast of the finale (which is very silly) it actually takes the conceit of the season and puts an interesting twist on it and allowing Korra to engage with her surroundings in a thoughtful manner. It’s the one entryof the season where it feels like I get what the showrunners wanted to execute, but were too hamstrung by network bickering to actually coalesce. Using the Spirit World as a way to interrogate how Korra interacts with everything.

What’s frustrating is that it took so long to get to this conceit at all. The Water Tribe Civil War is fine in theory, but disastrous in practice, and all the circuitous mealy-mouthed political talk sucked a bunch of energy from what could have been an interesting dive into the lore of the show. Never the less, once Jinora and Korra enter into the Spirit World we are treated to a neat little riff on Alice in Wonderland that reframes how Korra has acted.

In the early going I noted how odd it felt for every character to be constantly clawing at each other. Again there’s an intention here that it smart, just because our heroes succeeded in the past doesn’t mean things are going to run smoothly now. Korra’s bullishness was the clearest indicator of this concept. If this first season found her as impetuous, than the second displayed a person with total abandon. It’s tough spot to put our protagonist in, and one  that works better conceptually than in execution, but here a viewer can glean at what the writers’ were aiming at.

Almost as soon Korra steps into the Spirit World she runs into trouble. A bunch of meerkats pop out of the ground and start jumping her. Korra’s response is to naturally thrash about, but that only enmeshes the spirits further against her, and the gaggle of kats send the pair down a spiraling log flume. Just when Korra was hoping for Jinora to lead her to the spirit portals they are separated by the impossible geographies of the Spirit World. Korra is set down in a scraggly forest filled with some legit frightening monster design, and burdened with all the weight of what’s happened over the previous episodes, so she quite literally regresses into the form of the small child from the very first scene of the series.

This transformation is a touch blunt in it’s metaphorical underpinnings. Frequently Korra has acted overly petulant over the course of the show, and here we literalize those emotions by framing her as a child. What works about this is that it allows the character to reframe her perspective on her surroundings in a manner that feels stickier than some of the lesson that get told to her. Korra is used to being the force in any given situation, now she will ask for help.

And boy does help come, here in the form of Iroh. Our favorite jovial uncle has found a second life in the Spirit World and offers his old friend The Avatar some tea and much needed wisdom. At his Mad Hatter-esque party he dispels with a bit of insight that can help clarify Korra’s position. As Korra once again gets upset about being separated from Jinora, her negative emotions twisting the previously friendly spirits into dark forms. This again literalizes some of Korra’s struggles throughout the season, her lashing out can cause even her closest confidants to turn against her. So Iroh tells her, “Even in the material world, you will find that if you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.” So much of the story this book has been about the flailing of Korra’s emotions, and here she see’s a way to manage them.

Iroh intones that it’s best to help yourself by helping others, and Korra decides to take an injured spirit bird back to its nest. The trek is filled with scary creatures, but baby Korra now has the emotional bandwith to deal with her troubles. Her reward is both a return to her full body and a new (and pretty) steed to ride to the spirit portals with.

Concurrent with all these events is Jinora trying to find a path to the spirit portal with the help of an old favorite. Yes we are going to Wan Shi Tong’s library, and are once graced by the presence of “He Who Knows 10,000 Things.” The return of a major location from Airbender can feel a bit fan servicey, but the use is smart as it drives a wedge in how humans and the spirits view the world. Wan Shi Tong has not grown wiser in the world of human developments, and Jinora can provide insight not known by the spirit. This and the companionship of the Avatar allows the young airbender to peruse the tomes.

Unfortunately Wan Shi Tong has also become friends with Unalaq, who drops by to shatter Jinora’s research. The evil uncle kidnaps Jinora and brings her to the spirit portals to play a bit of a ransom game. Unalaq offers Korra a choice, open the other portal or let Jinora perish. Korra is always going to do what it takes to save Tenzin’s kids, so she opens the portal, but Unalaq is always one to go back on his word. Even with the portal open Unalaq scampers away with Jinora and leaves Korra in the lurch. Vaatu can now escape during Harmonic Convergence, and Korra is entirely on the back heel, and she must deliver this disastrous news to Tenzin. Things are once again quickly falling apart.

Odds and Ends

  • Good filmmaking returns. This episode features some of the most dynamic camera moves ever in the series, with the screen twisting and turning through huge landscapes. Also present are effects that add to the otherworldly quality of the Spirit World, my favorite being the one where Korra stands still and the environment moves around her.
  • Bumi and Kya are treated to the better animation for the first time and are immediately more lively because of it.
  • We see professor Zei’s skeleton. He really did die there with his books.
  • Wan’s teapot is used by Korra to carry the spirit bird.
  • “Of course I do! There is a box, and inside the box, there is a tiny man who sings and plays musical instruments.”