Re-Avatar State: “Darkness Falls” & “A Light in the Dark”

Darkness Falls

In my prefatory paragraphs about the The Legend of Korra I made note that the response to the show was similar to the  response to The Last Jedi. A mixture of indignation at changes to the world’s lore, and for some, awe at the lengths the creators were willing to go to upset the status quo of everything. I’m a big fan of both of these pieces of entertainment, and I find most broad critiques couched in suspect motivations, but I actually get where the grumbling comes from when it comes to the big dramatic moment of the season finale.

The severing of the Avatar’s past live from Korra is one of those things that’s actually pretty good in concept. It’s a shake-up to the narrative structure of the show that can sometime rely too heavily on extended flashback expositions, and it forces our heroine to reckon with what the legacy of the Avatar means not only in a modern world, but one where she represents the totality of what’s left of the Avatar. There’s a lot to pull from this, and as always in the show’s second season it really fails on the follow through on anything meaningful.

Because the past lives of the Avatar don’t really feel important to Korra in the way they did to Aang. It’s another victim in how the show is structured, this again was supposed to be the grand finale of the series, but the emotional impact of watching the faces of the past explode are blunted by the fact that Korra has talked to them a grand total of two times. So we end up with this hugely consequential story moment that whiffs a bit of climactic desperation. The show needs to do something dramatic now, and this what they settled on rather than build to.

Such are the issues that plague this final go around in the season. I will once again state that the action and animation are stupendous. Beautifully fluid, colorful, and cleverly constructed. Each set-piece smartly escalating and changing the playing field that our heroes are on. This action is emboldened by the decision to have just a prism of colors play the background, again giving the events depicted a psychedelic vibe. If I could contain these past few episodes to only the fights you would think this was pretty darn great instead of irritatingly constructed.

So Korra tosses Unalaq into the physical world to deal with Vaatu herself. It’s a difficult battle, but one she can handle. Her strength and assurance returned after a season of uncertainty about what actions to take. It again points to the flattening of the stakes of the show where the big final battle is mostly taking shots at an evil kite, but the directors and animators make it work, giving what could be silly a sense of heft and danger.

Mako and Bolin are on duty guarding the spirit portal, but get caught off guard by the twins. The bending brothers plead with Eska and Desna not to let their father become a monster. There’s a bit of wavering from the twins, but they let Unalaq back into the spirit world so he can fuse, and fuse he does. Thus we finally have our Dark Avatar, and it’s not as exciting as that should be. For the moment it’s just Unalaq with glowing purple eyes.

The fight continues as Korra and Unalaq continue to trade blows out on the ice flows. Some snazzy liquid effects are used here to convey the motion of all the water being flung around, but the bought is mostly a power game that Korra will lose for the time being. There are a few neat moments, like when Korra breaks out from being crushed in crevasse, and then springs up with a fully glowing Avatar State. There’s glimpses of excitement to be had.

Alas Korra succumbs to Unalaqs whips of water, and as the two are locked in a head-to-head moment Unalaq turns into a J-horror monster. Head cracking back and evil spirit ooze leaking from his face. In this moment he pulls Raava from Korra, and begins the destruction of the light spirit. To reiterate for the hundredth time, isolated from everything else there is power to this moment (especially with the musical score going wild in the background), but it fails to connect because of how little investment we have with Korra and her past lives. So darkness does reign for right now, Unalaq turns into a giant kaiju and stomps around. That’s probably bad news.

Elsewhere we have Tenzin and company searching for Jinora in the spirit world. This once again reiterates the ideas expressed in “Civil Wars.” The group is once again on the hunt for one of Tenzin’s kids, and they bicker about the best way to approach the search. Here their efforts are confounded by spirit shenanigans, including a giant evil spider and a talking mushroom. Along the way to find Jinora the siblings get thrown into a spirit jail known as the Fog of Lost Souls, where humans are damned to spend an eternity in madness and confusion.

Here the tensions between them begin to fray even more. Bumi gets lost in one of his war stories while Kya rebels against unseen constraints holding her back. The two run off screaming into the fog, falling to their innermost fears. Tenzin is then left alone with his thoughts, and his thoughts turn to failure. How can he, son of Aang, be so maladapted to handle the world of the spirits and provide for the future of the Air Nation.

When it looks like Tenzin might lose his mind to despair as well he comes upon the visage of Aang. Tenzin confesses his feelings of failure and notes that he is not his father. The phantom of Aang agrees, “You are trying to hold on to a false perception of yourself. You are not me and you should not be me. You are Tenzin.” This bit of wisdom finally increases his resolve. For too long he has acted as merely Aang’s legacy, instead of a full individual, with this revelation he clears the fog and finds the rest of his family.

Jinora’s spirit senses there’s trouble and disappears to help in what is a totally out of nowhere turn for her. It connects to the usual troubles of the show where things kind of just happen with little setup or explination. There’s been a bit of Jinora’s spiritual connectedness in the past dozen episodes, but nothing that implies what happens next.

So the world is facing ten thousand years of darkness, the Avatar is knocked out and severed from her spirit, and the end times are nigh. There’s little hope left, unless…

Odds and Ends

  • I Know that Voice: Grey Delisle makes her triumphant return to the franchise as both the spirit spider and the mushroom. Incredible range.
  • Zhao also returns in one of the more clever call backs to the original series. I like that he thinks Tenzin is Aang but older, he has no ides what has transpired on earth in the past 70 years.
  • The Bolin and Eska thing is still bad. Why would he have true feelings for her now, what made him change his mind, it’s so bizarre.
  • Not to be that guy, but I love how Korra looks with her hair down.

A Light in the Dark

Here’s my dirty little secret when it comes to the second series finale for The Legend of Korra, I think some of it kind of works. Yes, yes this comes with all of the usual caveats that accompany any entry produced this season, and I wouldn’t exactly name this episode as coherent or good. However there’s some smart character and thematic groundwork put down here that becomes important, interesting, and thoughtful as the series continues. Yes it continues the show’s tradition of having nonsensical plot contrivances resolve the biggest issues on screen, but there’s something here that is more actionable than one would immediately expect.

The first of said plot contrivances comes almost immediately. With the gigantic Unavaatu (yes this is the official name of the kaiju character) stomping around Republic City things are looking real dire for Team Avatar. Korra has been knocked clean on her back, but luckily Tenzin has an idea. The prison where Vaatu was kept is actually an ancient holy place called the Tree of Time. Here, Tenzin explains, one can meditate on the history of their life and connect with the cosmic energy of the universe, which Korra needs to do to counter Unavaatu.

Within this deluge of out of nowhere lore jargon there is the kernel of an important idea that slowly grows into one of the defining themes of the show. Tenzin explains to Korra that her actions weren’t important just because she was the Avatar and bound to the spirit of light, but because of her own soul and identity. Korra has so long had her identity wrapped up in the concept of being the Avatar, that it takes a lot to shake her of that notion. But right now she isn’t the Avatar, she is Korra, and her actions for the benefit of the world are made on account of herself and not some great spirit. This point is unfortunately buried under a mountain of plot mess, but that it is so explicitly stated is very important for the direction of the program, a cornerstone of what makes the second half of the show interesting.

As such Korra meditates in the Tree of Time, and with the power of cosmic energy, she transforms her personal spirit into a blue giant. Her form growing and exiting the tree and zapping to Republic City to do battle in the bay. Here we get the centerpiece of the finale and another exemplary piece of animation.

The showrunners of this franchise have never been shy about hiding their influences, and it’s clear that they wanted to do a kaiju battle quite badly despite the thousands hoops it took to get to this moment. The duel of the giant spirit beings in the waters of Republic City, despite all the silliness that it took to enact, is quite the accomplishment. It’s is easy to forget how hard it is to convey large scale events and weight through animation. Things have to move at a different pace to give the oomph needed to properly articulate the size of what’s happening.

So Korra doing laser blasts and body slams through the water is certainly hypnotic in execution. The movement of the waves heavier than your usual fluid motion on the show. Each step our two combatants is greeted with a heavy thud in the sound design, and effortful movement of the bodies on display. For the pure light show aspect of the finale I think this is fairly well done.

However it is still undercut by random things kind of just happening to move the story to its conclusion. So when Korra seems down for the count in her Kaiju bout, Jinora’s spirit appears and gives her a boost. This is one of those things like Korra’s airbending, or Aang’s magic chiropractic session, that is just totally hard to square. A contrivance concocted to get our heroine out of tight spot. I have little to explain the actual machinations of what happens (I believe Jinora puts light back into Vaatu for Korra to take out, but that’s incredibly unclear), and in the moment it is so sudden and out of nowhere it plays really poorly as the conclusion to this particular battle.

With Jinora’s assist Korra is able to pull Raava out of Unavaatu and tame the beast with the spirit bending power that Unalaq taught her. I assume this moment is supposed to present some grand irony in Unalaq’s demise, but I’ve never loved how the show used this technique. Turning the wrangling of spirits into a simple action rather than a weird back and forth with somewhat unknowable beings.

Never the less Korra is able to claim triumph over the gigantic beast and returns back to the spirit portals to re-fuse with Raava. This moment feels silly when it should be the grand catharsis of the season, but again the production does a lot of work in selling it. The whirl of changing colors, the crescendoing music, and final images of Korra are quite striking despite everything else the show presents. It’s here that Korra makes the biggest decision in the series so far, she decides to go against the actions of Wan, and keep the spirit portals open. Maybe it is too much to ask one being to be the bridge between humanity and spirits, and balance and change can be achieved by slightly reclaiming the world as it use to be. There is another smart piece of paralleling here: Korra is the first Avatar much like Wan was. A new start to a new cycle, and this time her choices are going to be different.

In the fringes of the narrative is some fun and frustrating stuff. The good bits involve Varrick’s fortuitous escape for prison. Unavaatu’s rampage break’s ope his jail cell, and with the help of Zhu Li he executes “Operation Winged Freedom” and gets one last joyful proclamation of “do the thing.” It’s too bad that Varrick’s narrative didn’t amount to much this season, but he’s still out there causing mischief.

On the forehead slapping side is the final resolution of the dread love triangle. Mako finally comes clean to Korra to cut off their relationship. Luckily they both know that it was unsustainable, though a bit questionable from Mako why he didn’t immediately tell her to break the amnesia, and they decide to amicably split. Amusingly two seasons of romance has only brought us to a place where the romantic partners kind of shrug their shoulders and move back to being friends rather than lovers. Conceptually: fine. Execution: terrible.

So with everything cleared for the time being Korra makes some grand proclamations. The Southern Water Tribe will be a sovereign nation with Tonraq leading. The Spirit portals will remain open, and Korra will not act as the sole arbiter between the material and spirit world, and that the world will be open to a great change. Indeed change is coming, for each of these statements foretells good things for the show, with this mess firmly in the rearview mirror we will be greeted by the back half of the Legend of Korra, one of the best animated programs to ever be made.

Odds and Ends

  • I love Pema’s reaction to Jinora showing up to the Kaiju battle.
  • A really cool effect appears when Korra pulls Raava out of Vaatu, it looks like there live action elements composited into the animation with bubbles and swirling fluids.
  • One of my favorite images from the entire show is the quick zoom along Mako, Kya, Bolin, and Tenzin bending. One of those incredible bits of filmmaking that feel misplaced here.
  • If you’re a new viewer, well the worst is over, and you’re in for a treat for the rest of the run.