Re-Avatar State: “Night of a Thousand Stars” & “Harmonic Convergence”

Night of a Thousand Stars

I remarked in the article on “A New Spiritual Age” that the final act of this season is mostly gobbledygook slathered over with an amazing coat of paint. If the first half of this narrative was an anemic attempt to replicate the splendor of show’s original animation, than the back half is an all out assault on the eyes. Every visual trick that the directors could imagine is applied in dazzling manner, concocting in what some occasions would be the action highlights of the franchise.

Unfortunately these spectacles are mostly empty calories because of how frankly boring the narrative ends up being. It’s another thing that makes the first half of the season worse. We spent so much time with this story cranking out wheels within wheels narratives that when we finally get to the finish line the whole thing ends up ridiculously shallow. A whole bunch of windup for a “whatever” kind of climax. It points to the central flaw of the story being told, Unalaq is a terribly shallow villain whose plan is not very interesting to engage with on the merits.

This narrative floundering is pretty well highlighted in both of these episodes, where events kind of just happen without much concern or emotional impact. “Night of a Thousand Stars” rings pretty hollow when viewed through the lens of our characters. Very little insight is shed on Bolin, Mako, Asami, or Varrick, despite some exciting and flashy set-pieces. If the reveal of Varrick’s moral murkiness in episode six was a highlight, then the lack of any real follow through is kind of a huge disappointment. Again all that plot machinery that didn’t really lead anywhere.

Tonight is the big premiere for the finale of the Nuktuk serials, and Bolin tries to offer consolation to an imprisoned Mako. Things aren’t going so hot, but Mako tells Bolin to be on the watch for anything fishy at the premiere. To whit all the luminaries of Republic City have come to the screening, the most important of which is the president himself. Varrick is pretty clear in his intentions here, he wants the obvious propaganda of his films to sway Raiko to provide support to the South. Even if the execution if wobbly I still like how they use Varrick’s personality. He is absolutely upfront in what he wants, even if he schemes to get there.

The Nuktuk finale is filled to the brim with cheap thrills and a buttering up of the president, but Bolin isn’t really feeling his star moment. He misses his brother, and goes out to brood for a moment. Lucky for him the brooding allows him to catch sight of a bunch of kidnappers sneaking into the arena. With his bad news senses tingling Bolin goes after the people attempting the subterfuge. This leads to an absolutely delightful action sequence that couldn’t have been accomplished in the episodes with weak animation.

Standing in front of the screen Bolin takes on the waterbenders in movements that parallel the events portrayed by Nuktuk. People scream and shout as their tussle plays out on multiple dimensions of movement and engagement. Bolin using his flighty earthebending stances to counteract the attackers much like the hero he plays bounces around enemies with stagecraft waterbending. It’s such an ingenious set-up that for a moment I can forgive all the silliness and dunderhead romances that lead to it, but just for a moment.

For as soon as the curtain is called on the premiere Beifong immediately apprehends Varrick and Zhu Li, and that’s kind of it for the whole mover plot. Raiko is still a hard no, and Varrick is off to prison with Mako getting out. All this stuff is even sillier when Korra and Tenzin arrive on the scene. They are desperate to get the United Forces’ help in dealing with Unalaq, but Raiko is still answering in the negative. After all he’s got his own government to look after, but that leaves Team Avatar in a bit of sticky wicket. How do they get the force needed down to The Southern Water Tribe. And the answer is Varrick, the cause of and solution to all their problems.

In a padded jail cell he offers all of the mechs, planes, and ships that our heroes could need. He’s a bad dude, but he doesn’t want the world to end. So he gifts Team Avatar with needed resources to counter Unalaq. Which just comes at the wrong moment, for as all this business in Republic City is going down, the actual fighting in the South has taken a nasty turn.

In the throes of defeat, Tonraq and the rebels make one last hasty attack on Unalaq and the Nothern troops. Too bad for the Avatar’s dad is that Unalaq has gone full evil wizard at this point. floating around on a spirit manta ray and blindly shooting down the opposition. When the two finally meet for a throwdown for the chiefdom things get pretty heavy. Much like the movie fight the  duel between Tonraq and Unalaq is pretty damn exquisite. A twisting match of ice spires and water shots pinging back and forth between opponents. The liquids land with heft and fervor, causing notable bruising and bleeding to our combatants, there’s even an insanely impressive slow motion shot that feels like the animation studio showing off their chops.

But again Unalaq is such a wet sock of a bad guy that I don’t care much what the outcome of this fight will be. Yes it looks cool, but unlike any other season of the franchise the sucking void of the opponent greatly lowers the weight of the stakes. Again it’s a byproduct of all the twisting they did at the beginning to add “depth” to the character. Now it looks an elaborate ploy towards no interesting end.

That leaves me with the one final “are you serious” moment of this episode. Why, oh, why did they feel need do bring the love triangle back again, this time with amnesia. It doesn’t make sense, it creates artificial drama, and doesn’t impact the final episodes in any interesting way. Dear writers, stop trying to make romance happen. It just isn’t your strength.

Odds and Ends

  • Pabu is a shockingly good actor on screen. Those street tricks have paid off in the long run.
  • “No expense has been spared, I brought in the finest entertainers from Ba Sing Se, and the best food from around the world. Heck! I even had this red carpet imported from the Fire Nation! They make the best red stuff over there. Fact! “
  • “Don’t tell me you guys are still mad about everything that happened. I did some good things, too. Korra, who warned you about Unalaq?  I did. Bolin, who got you into the movers?  I did. Asami, who saved your company?  I did. Mako, who got you thrown in jail!? I did!  Oh yeah, guess that was a bad thing.”
  • Varrick’s ship is based on the design of WWI dazzle ships, vessels with bright colors meant to obscure speed and direction.

Harmonic Convergence

One of the more interesting counterfactuals that this franchise offers is the prospect of an Avatar, or somebody gifted with similar abilities, acting in a manner that is less than heroic. What would happen in the messianic figure just stopped pursuing balance in the world and instead moved in their own self-interest or acted on the motivation of more nefarious sources. It’s a fascinating thought to consider because it fundamentally shakes the moral framework of this world to its core. As presented in the show The Avatar is an agent for stability and peace, but what if they weren’t?

The answer the show dumps on us in the most profoundly uninteresting execution of this said concept. What if there was an Avatar, but get this they were evil? Like some sort of Dark Avatar. Yeah one that’s fused to the spirit of chaos to do some wacky nonsense, and what if the person fused to said spirit is the most boring, shallow, and single-minded villain conceivable. Yeah that would be great.

So it comes to Team Avatar to understand Unalaq’s grand scheme, and it is one of the silliest, if not the single most eye-rolling decisions, the show makes. Eradicating characterization  for an ultimate showdown between good and evil. A duel where the stakes are completely flattened because of the limp puttering around that the show did to get to this point. It frustrates to no end how poorly executed Unalaq is as the antagonist of this season, and how much it does to pull the whole show down.

If this mind-numbing narrative twist hadn’t been sorted into the show, and basically become the context for the closing moments of the season, I would instead be talking about the sheer spectacle on display here. “Harmonic Convergence” will never top a best-of list of the franchise, mainly because the main narrative elements here are so weak, but I totally forgot that it includes legitimately one of the finest pieces of action the Korra has put together. Again I might be a simple man of simple pleasures, and I am always tickled when the directors and animators pull out all the stops for what can be done with TV cartooning.

Team Avatar is hastily approaching the Southern Water Tribe, and good old Mako is back in the world of romantic trouble (as is generally the case) because he can’t properly cut it off with Korra while the world is at stake. In the meantime Tenzin is on the war path, tossing off his monkish cloak for pure rage at getting his daughter’s soul back. This bit of rage from Tenzin isn’t exactly flattering, but it adds an interesting shade to his characterization as somebody who can’t fully embody the airbender creed.

Unfortunately the crew gets word that Tonraq has been captured, so they regroup at Korra’s old training compound to seek help from Katara and formulate a plan an attack. Among the wounded rebels Katara tends to Jinora’s lifeless body as the rest try to find the best way to get to the spirit portal. Asami hatches a scheme, inspired by Bumi colorful military stories, to use Varrick’s plane to distract the Northern soldiers while Korra gets to the portal and closes. it.

This then leads to the aforementioned action sequence. A wonderful piece of animation that does an amazing job of establishing scale and movement through the air, an incredibly difficult task considering that the movement of the sky and the people in it must be considered at all times. This dogfight is a pure show off move, and I must admit that once again, even during the contextually awful story that was being told, I found myself thoroughly entertained for a few minutes by what I was watching.

Too bad for Team Avatar that the plot is a bust. There are too many dark spirits flying about the portal, and Tenzin never gets a proper angle in, loosing Bumi to the ground below. Asami might be a whizz with a plane, but that won’t stop a barrage of ice bullets from taking it down. Alas the team is tied up in Unalaq’s tent with no hope except for the boisterous Bumi.

With Naga and Pabu, Bumi sets out to enact his own rescue operation. One that includes spirit fisticuffs, flute tricks, mech tanks, and a whole lot of good luck. The bumbling Rube Goldberg sequence that this produces is again, fun to watch, and serves as a good grounding for Bumi as a character. For most of the show he’s been a man of pure bluster, using outrageous tales from the front lines to help compensate for the shame he feels about being Aang’s nonbending kid. Luckily it seems like those tall tales are mostly true.

With Bumi’s hero moment completed Korra dives into the spirit portal to close things up before those darn planets align. Here she’s met with resistance from Unalaq and we once again get another fun action sequence. This time colored in with psychedelic pyrotechnics as the moment quickly approaches when Vaatu can escape. Again if this animation were couched in any other narrative framework it would be amazing, as it stands, it’s mostly just sound and fury with nothing backing it up.

But because this is the penultimate entry before the two part finale things have to go haywire. And Unalaq is able to prevent Korra from closing one of the portals before it’s too late, and Vaatus escapes, providing the audience with a menacing laugh and an extremely weird final shot meant to instill fear in the audience.  It’s show down time folks.

Odds and Ends

  • This episode gestures to a much more interesting use of Eska and Desna than the story told ultimately took. Here the twins are starting to fret about the dangers their uncle is putting the world in. The show has used them as punchlines and henchmen for so long that this all feels too little too late, again could have been some interesting family dynamic explored here.
  • We get a look at Avatar world from space, and you know what the geography makes pretty decent sense scaled up from the introductory map.
  • Hey this is the first time Katara actually gets to do some waterbending in the series.