Re-Avatar State: “A Breath of Fresh Air” & “Rebirth”

A Breath of Fresh Air

How one defines worth in the world of long form entertainment is a tricky thing to considered. So much of our current discourse around things like television shows or video games is hinged on a time investment that sometimes people are unwilling to make. The promise that it gets really good after eight or hours is always a hard pill to swallow, especially when it comes to something like a serialized story that relies on ingesting the narrative bit by bit. So in the long run The Legend of Korra is exactly that type of entertainment. The one where you must begrudgingly understand that the pleas of, “it gets good in the third season,” are both annoying, and absolutely true. If season two was the reason I was so hesitant to cover Korra than the back half of the show is the reason I pushed through the muck to write about it.

The wild thing about the shift in quality is that it is both immediate and rooted in what could be considered bad decisions in the past. From the title card everything moves with certitude and understanding of both what this changed world means and how our characters interact with it. There’s a confidence and a clarity to the storytelling here that hasn’t been present since the first half of season one. Everything just hits better, the plot is cleanly structured, the thematics more coherently in place, the character arcs more compelling, and hell even the jokes land with a better punch. And everything is tied together with the now consistently wondrous production design and animation, on a pure technical level the franchise is never better than Book Three.

Another fascinating thing about the bump in quality is that there’s no rebooting or backpedaling on the elements in the first two seasons that didn’t work. Sure we’ll encounter some soft retconning here and there as the series progresses, but for the most part all the narrative from this point forward is firmly built upon the elements that have already happened in this particular story. It highlights something that I think was a great strength in Airbender but hasn’t really been  appeared in Korra due to the show’s tumultuous production, this is a franchise that doesn’t forget. A tool that makes serialized storytelling all the more engaging because you’re attention has been rewarded.

One of the great qualities about the cheekily titled “A Breath of Fresh Air” is that it’s entirely about the unintended ramifications of stopping the apocalypse. Out of all of the premieres in the entire series it stands out as the most low key, but also incredibly considerate of the situation Korra, Tenzin, and the rest of Team Avatar have found themselves. Things are kind of awkward, but also there’s a promise for growth and possibility in the new world.

The biggest issue I had with season two was how long it took to unveil what it’s central conceit was, instead obfuscating ideas and concepts in layers of unneeded political whirlwinding. Here we cut to the chase, and know exactly what the premise of the third season is, and how it will impact the show. In the very first scene we learn that suddenly Bumi can airbend, and this simple fact radically changes the direction of the series. It provides a framework for Korra to work in that isn’t immediately defined by oppositional forces. By the end of the premiere she has a goal in mind that isn’t explicitly based on a confrontation with a big bad (though one is inevitable), we are finally seeing what the job of the Avatar looks like when it’s not confined to the sheer spectacle of world ending events. The training wheels are off, and we are in the deep end of considering what an Avatar can do to bring balance to the world. Much like the positioning of the end of “Beginnings,” the work is never done.

This situation turns out to be trickier than Korra, Tenzin, Jinora, Raiko, and Lin would like to at the current. After the Kaiju battle in the bay Republic City has been infested with spirit vines, and the president is on Korra’s case to resolve the problem despite the fact she just averted calamity mere weeks ago, This little back and forth demonstrates what  I said about the writers’ building castles out of the sand of the previous seasons. Raiko was a tertiary impediment to Korra last season, and the vines felt more like finale decoration than actual threat, but the two twin together here to create another thematic wedge for the show to explore more explicitly for the first time. On whose authority to the people of the world act when there are systems of government and magic that don’t directly intersect?

The people of the United Republic are all impacted by Korra’s decisions when facing down world destroying demons, but they also elected a president to deal with the minutia of living in this world. So who do you go by, the by birth demi-god, or a duly elected official. It’s a problem that the show doesn’t resolve for now, but it’s an concept to keep in your back pocket as the season continues. For the time being there’s no resolution as Raiko banishes Korra from the city, and Korra decides to act in manner to build the Air Nation back up.

Speaking of which the goal to track down new airbenders lets the audience sink in to the new, much improved character dynamics that exists. Korra still a person of bullish character, but her experience has tempered the aggression to the point where she even meditates without anyone pointing her to it. Asami has been bumped up significantly from her background role in season two. In the premiere she serves as a sounding board for Korra when they both need to work through personal issues. Hey and they get to hang out in the car while dishing hot gossip. Even Mako get’s (a hilarious upgrade), the writers’ never seem to know how to handle this character outside of contrived romances, so they do a smart rework to make him an incredible dope with almost no social tact. A man who would sleep under his desk at work to avoid the awkwardness of his former lovers.

Mako still has a good sense about him though as he gets a call about a potential airbender and brings the news to Korra. This sets in motion a rather touching series of events. Daw, the newly imbued bender, has ended up on top of a bridge, afraid of what his new powers mean. Korra decides to fly up and talk to him about the situation. This sequence again highlights why I think the ending of Book One works as internalization of Korra rejecting death, that experience there helps her immensely here, as she offers understanding, guidance, and a quick rescue when he falls. It’s in turn everything a good Avatar should do, and galvanizes her to help Tenzin fully reform the Air Nation. The world might be in flux, but things might be looking up.

Except, when a giant spirit explosion causes people to get airbending, you never know who might be the person to possess that power. That includes a mysterious prisoner who talks to his guards in the form of poetry and uses his new found gifts to pull off a slick escape attempt. Say to hello to Zaheer, this season’s big bad. We don’t know much right now (why is he in jail? what do the White Lotus have to do with it?) but his calm demeanor and swift action certainly spells trouble for our heroes. Especially when he leaves his captors with the promise to end the Avatar.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Punk rock legend and noted public speaker Henry Rollins is here to give Zaheer a quiet menace and warrior poet stylings. To some his performance seems a bit flat, but I think the cool certitude with which he speaks gives everything he does a worrisome chill.
  • Some more winking at how even the creators knew how season two went. Korra states here that her approval rating is at eight percent.
  • Plenty of laughs here, but my favorite is Bolin pointing to all the sitcom archetypes Tenizn’s family resembles.
  • Mako was a nothing character for so long that his shift to sincere and uncertain dopiness really plays well. Especially with Korra and Asami’s gentle ribbing when he’s not around.
  • With the animation locked in for the rest of the show we are treated to a myriad of fun details. My favorite is the background gag of the guy in the car passing Korra as she talks to Asami.
Spoiler

  • Bringing back the spoiler section because there are finally things foreshadowed and planted again.
  • I like that Zaheer’s big plan is just to kill Korra in the avatar state to stop the cycle, refreshingly simple and coherent.
  • The focus on Korra’s contention with Raiko is obviously mean to wrap back around to the conflicts she has with the Red Lotus. The leaders of the world are obstinate to her, so why should she respect them? Consequently the Red Lotus doesn’t, and just offs those they don’t respect. Amplifying the “on whose authority” theme of the season.
  • The other thing hinted at here is the coming fear that Korra might succumb to a certain rejection from the world, which indeed does happen by the end of the season.
  • The spirit vines are shockingly important, heading all the way to the series finale

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Rebirth

For all intents and purposes Tenzin is the leader of the Air Nation. For the bulk of his life that literally meant minding the legacy of the culture and keeping an eye on his kids and Korra. As such his sense of identity and leadership, while always well intentioned, has been strained by the burden of knowing that his progeny and the Avatar will be the only people in the world who can airbend. He came to terms with that truth at the end of season two, but here he is faced with a new challenge. Building a new coalition of airbenders out of people who already have established lives.

It turns out that getting people to drop what they’re doing and join a new society is a lot harder than Team Avatar anticipated. For most of the populace of the Earth Kingdom these events are an offputting oddity, not the world shaking deal that it is Tenzin or Korra. Indeed the process of meeting and recruiting new airbenders wraps around to the ideas presented in the premiere. Do Tenzin and Korra have the ability to uproot people to join their seemingly just cause, the answer here is an almost emphatic no. This once again highlights the intriguing political problem of the season: Tenzin and Korra have ultimate power and prestige, but are sometimes unable to enact it on your average person.

All this is pretty high minded thematic talk, but its impressive because of the fact the “Rebirth” is the first comedy forward entry in the series since the “Spirit of Competition.” Yes their is menace in the background as Zaheer continues his slew of prison breaks, but the narrative of Team Avatar this week is incredibly light and zippy. A series of character based misadventures and foibles that highlight character flaws in an amusing manner and do table setting for the rest of the season.

So new airbenders are popping up all over the Earth Kingdom, and Team Avatar is on the case. Asami has fashioned a brand new airship for the trip, and the group has coordinated with Lin to determine where to stop along the way to Ba Sing Sae. Mako has delivered his research to the group, but still feels on the outs because of his romantic drama. Bolin talks him into coming, noting that they may stumble into their extended family in Ba Sing Sae. Mako wouldn’t want to miss their grandmother dying.

With everyone on board the ship the process for picking out new airbenders begins. Things seem to go smoothly at first. The village Team Avatar stops at is accommodating to the crew, and the new airbender jovial about the sudden onset of his abilities. Things take an immediate sour turn when Tenzin begins to force the issue of recruitment to a new Air Nation. The farmer simply can’t, he has a family and business to attend to, and won’t be able to reform a lost society on a mere whim as Tenzin insists.

Thus begins an amusing parade of ineffective recruitment. We get a sterling montage interspersed with a travel by map view of the progress not being made (decked out with very funny chibi versions of the characters as well). Tenzin’s promise of vegetarian diets and bison best friends are just not enough to sway a person out of the life they already live. Whatever the new air nation looks like, it can’t be formed by force.

Unless it’s force done Avatar style. While Korra’s bullish nature has definitely been tempered entering this stretch of the series, it still is a cornerstone of her behavior as a person. So when she tromps into the home of slacker Ryu, she’s greeted by a quasi-immovable object that her place in the world can’t push past. Pure apathy. Again this sequence is mostly a laugh generator as Korra can’t get a commitment to the greater good from a basement dweller, it still again creates an interesting juxtaposition between the world’s messiah and its average citizens.

Luckily for the group it’s Bolin who cracks a plan to get people to join them. With his mover and street performer flourish put to good use, Bolin sets up a airbending act to draw in crowds and encourage people about the possibility of their powers. Here we get to see a shockingly swole Tenzin use his air-wheel, Korra tease Mako with a small cyclone, Jinora whizzes through the air, and Bumi shows off his recently earned techniques. And it seems to work as a kid named Kai steps up as a new recruit.

However Kai ain’t nothing but a street rat running from the law. After a brief tiff with the local authorities the group has to decide whether or not they want their first new recruit to be somebody of questionable background. The answer is of course yes. Tenzin can’t  look towards prestige or normalcy in such a dramatic situation. So Kai might be a thief, but he’s also an airbender, and deserves at leas the opportunity to be a part of the reformed nation.

Elsewhere we see Zaheer doing a re-formation of his own. Looks like he wasn’t a lone wolf as he busts out some compatriots from intricately designed prisons. There’s not a lot of substance in these moments of themselves, but the execution is exceedingly great and demonstrates that this group means serious business.

First up Zaheer cruises to a wooden box in the middle of the ocean where tosses a couple of rocks to the man trapped there. That man turns out not to be just a earthebender, but a lava bender, turning the minerals in hand into a superheated glaive to cut open his prison cell. Ghazan is back with Zaheer. The two then head deep into a Fire Nation volcano and cut open a barrel of water for Ming-Hua, a bender who uses water to replace her missing arms. She get’s to do cool Spider-Man moves around the prison to enact their escape. Only one team member remains, Zaheer’s lover.

All of this is of utmost concern, and you new it’s bad news when Zuko appears to follow through on these escapes. With furrowed brow and concerned eyes, Zuko knows that Zaheer’s team spells trouble for Korra and the rest of the world. So with a hop on his dragon Zuko tries to intercede and stop Zaheer from making any more progress.

Odds and Ends

  • Yes the lave glaive is a reference to Krull.
  • Ryu is explicitly designed after show director Ki Hyun Ryu, glasses and all.
  • Bolin has retained his fake mustache from “The Revelation” and apperently takes it with him everywhere.
  • The animators really want the characters on this show to be yoked as possible, and it is incredibly funny.