Re-Avatar State: “Original Airbenders” & “The Terror Within”

Original Airbenders

What a week. After a short hiatus for processing the world in the past seven days I’m happy to so that I’m motivated and ready to wrap up the rest of the Legend of Korra. Indeed the timing is noticeably advantageous as this piece will cover the moment the third season of the show takes a real tonal swing, and begins a true hot streak of episodes that leads us into the finale. So without further ado…

As I mentioned in an earlier piece there is a distinct lightness to what has happened in the third season so far. That is not to discount the obvious threats posed by both Zaheer and The Earth Queen, but that at the moment, these obstacles are mostly in the background or sublimated into the events being depicted onscreen. It’s a distinct shift from the first half of the show, which almost seemed designed to end each of its installments in the most dramatic manner imaginable. Leaving our heroes in perilous places or realms of emotional fragility. Here things have a distinct pep to them, and most episodes, (barring perhaps “The Earth Queen”) conclude with a note of optimism.

This lighter touch can be attributed to the central thrust of the storytelling this time around. The return of the airbenders is a change that quite literally brings an airiness to the series, allowing a lot of pressure to be alleviated as characters grapple with what it means for new individual to be able to bend the element of freedom. Thus we offered stories, while serious, are more steeped in the goofiness associated with Aang.

In fact “Original Airbenders” is perhaps the single entry of Korra that lines up with the structure and ethos of Avatar. It’s a mostly self contained story, comedy forward with a few dark edges, and a whole lot of smart groundwork done for a whole slew characters that will become incredibly important later down the road. Its slightness belying the difficult subject matter. If Avatar was about trying to live in the aftershocks of genocide, than “Original Airbenders” is about the difficult, if amusing, process of picking up the pieces and putting a culture back together.

At the Northern Air Temple it seems that Tenzin has yet to perfect the techniques of teaching his new students about the long, complex, and sometimes dull history of the Air Nation. Outside of an Air Acolyte who got powers (head slappingly named Otaku), the rest of Tenzin’s students are more enamored by Bumi’s antics than learning from him. The long road ahead is even tougher for the pupils, as the exalted promise of a bison best friend is apparently years down the line.

Tenzin’s mood isn’t improved with news of Zaheer attacking Air Temple Island. There’s relief that Kya, Pema, and the kids made it out, but new fear that Zaheer is tracking closer is starting to resonate, compounding with Tenzin’s teaching troubles. Jinora’s new found infatuation with Kai is not a boost either. As the young airbender plays hooky with the street urchin to go see baby bison out and about.

So Tenzin turns for counsel by talking to Korra over the radio. What’s clever about this moment is that it provides Korra the ability to act as a mentor and leader, providing insight she has gleaned to somebody she cares about. Her advice: do not take the whole burden at once, and ask the kids and Bumi to help with the instruction of the new recruits. It’s sound reasoning that Tenzin unfortunately misconstrues.

Tenzin turns to Bumi for pointers, but the scampy brother only offers pontifications about his life in the military. Thus Tenzin decides to turn drill sergeant. Waking up recruits at the crack of dawn, pushing them through physical exertion, and denying them the needed rest. All this is quite amusing in the way that the show frequently is (like I will never tire of seeing people be swarmed by lemurs), and it points to Tenzin’s uncertainty as a leader. He’s so scared of making a wrong move, that he rarely makes the right one.

Hard-ass Tenzin does little to increase the moral of his troops. Instead they feel like they’re back in the dungeons under Ba Sing Sae. His constant pushing leads to alienation amongst the ranks, with Bumi declaring himself out of the community and Jinora feeling isolated from her father. Jinora wants a little more respect and authority, she did help save the world after all, but Tenzin is still to stuck, and can’t see her as anything but her daughter. As things unwind Tenzin turns to Pema for advice, and she reminds him that this is an extraordinary event, but people won’t just be able to conform to an Air Nomad life immediately.

This insight comes right as Jinora and Kai run into some trouble. While out and looking for more bison babies to ogle at, they come across a nasty surprise. Turns out there are poachers in the area, and they’ve been capturing the bison to send them to Ba Sing Sae for food and clothes. A troubling development that turns the pair red with fury and set on a quest to save the babies. Unfortunately the two get captured, but Jinora is able to send out a message through a spirit to Bumi.

This finally gives something the swaddling Air Nation to rally behind. Bumi takes his military skills and leads the new airbenders as a unit to stop the poachers and save Kai and Jinora. Through these actions we can see cohesion and unity appear among the green footed members of the new Air Nation. They are able to outwit some of their earthbending opponents due to their unables lack of preparedness to fight with an airbender. Daw, the man we met in the premiere, had his head shaved earlier in the episode. Then he was concerned, but now he learns the virtue of bare skin as he is able to feel a net and knock it away before seeing it.

This cohesion and control from the recent airbenders demonstrates that they can pull together and rise to the challenge when needed. Tenzin notes that Kai does indeed have some slick moves, Bumi is a natural leader, and Jinora is probably old enough to receive her tattoos when the time comes. So with the current problems resolved the new nation spends the evening with baby bison, and watch as they float into the air for the first time.

Odds and Ends

  • My favorite small character piece here is that Kai refuses to stop saying bisons even after Tenzin corrects him.
  • I’m trying to recall if split screen has been used in the show before, I’m drawing a blank, but the use here is another example of more modern film techniques in the show.
  • Seems like the Earth Queen ate Bosco. That poor bear. Also bear meat is apparently not very appetizing.
  • Seeing the poacher with a bison pelt is surprisingly shocking.
  • Meelo’s militaristic attitude from season two continues to flourish here.
  • Kya is only vaguely familiar with the works of Gurur Lahima.
  • “Conflict resolution, that’s what I do.”
Spoiler

  • The light hearted nature of this episode also belies an amazing amount of foreshadowing happening.
  • Obviously the Northern Air Temple will be the setting for the final three or so episodes, and this week we get a really good sense of its layout and soon to be destruction.
  • Jinora’s Air Master ceremony is also the concluding moment of this season.
  • The debates about how to handle the new Air Nation resonate clearer when we see what happens to them in season four. They act less like Aang, and more like the group that stops the poachers here.

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The Terror Within

One of the most delightful things about experiencing a serialized story is realizing the pieces that have been setup that are all of sudden being knocked down. It’s the satisfaction of ideas and threads coming together, of wrapping the narrative in a box and handing it to the viewer with a nod an a wink.

I previously noted that the tenor of this season has been much lighter than the first two, and here we finally see that the more jovial tone was used as a slick way to prepare the audience right for the moment when things start to come crashing down around our heroes. We knew from the first episode that conflict between Team Avatar and Zaheer was inevitable, but the deployment at this particular moment is quite clever. It is both later and earlier in the narrative than one might expect. Indeed it seemed like Korra might not meet her airbending foe until the finale, but instead Zaheer swoops in at this exact moment to send our story careening off in a new and thrilling direction. It’s an incredibly exciting wrench to throw in the story, and one that leads to the show’s hot streak from here to finale.

From the moment the title flashes on the screen the audience is cued to know things are gonna go haywire, but the show keeps things smartly tense by providing a few frivolous moments at the top of the half hour. Korra working on her metalbending is a delight, as she consummately whips around Su’s son. Bolin is not so lucky, but hey he’s still got his athletic precision from his time as a pro-bender. Opal’s going away dinner is also a cavalcade of amazing jokes. Her and Bolin’s emotional response to Kale, Varrick’s uniquely inept airbender detector (you have airbend into it), and Mako being sidelined from all the normal shenanigans with Su’s family and staff. It’s the silly side of the series at its finest, and a stark tonal contrast from what happens immediately after.

Late in the night Zaheer and his crew sneak into Zaofu. With a bit of poisoned darts and an eye to secrecy they are able to pacify Korra before she can retaliate, they pull her limp body from her room and make their escape. Luckily Pabu is able to alert the rest of Team Avatar and the security of Zaofu swings into action. What follows is one of the franchise’s finest action sequences, though not for the usual reasons. Instead of the usual quick, tightly choreographed battle we are treated to a methodical skirmish of attrition. Where each side must strategize to reach their desired outcome.

So what we have is a series of power tests for each of our characters. Zaheer and company need Korra, so they can’t just go all out and smash and grab in this scenario. The same applies to Team Avatar, a full court press might be dangerous to The Avatar, so the situation must be approached with careful consideration. That needle gets tighter to thread when Ghazan creates a moat of lava around Zaheer and company. This forces Team Avatar and the metalbenders to be incredibly careful in how to approach the situation. So the plan is two-fold. While Zaheer is out managing some guards, Team Avatar will split into two units. Su and Lin will repel down to grab Korra right as Bolin stuns P’Li to stop her as things start blowing up.

It’s a tense moment, especially as the radio communications get garbled, but Bolin is able to pull of the shot, and Su and Lin are able to swoop in for the rescue. It’s an exciting sequence because each one of our bending characters are able to demonstrate their skills and abilities. Biden hits his mark in an impressive slo-mo shot, while Su and Lin whirl above like acrobats. The technical display from the direction and animation is, as always immaculate, and the action all feeds the way characters respond to the moment.

The moment also leads to some serious consternation between Su and Lin. Su promised Team Avatar that everyone would be safe in Zaofu, and that was obviously not the case, and it appears that the only way Zaheer could have snuck in is with help. The whole thing was planned and coordinated by a ranking member inside the city.

This leads to a bit of the mystery as Su and Team Avatar try to suss out the true perpetrators of the events that went down. In all seriousness this is a pretty open and shut case from a viewer perspective. Of course it’s gotta be Aiwei, the one man in the city who can lie and deceive others with his evasive maneuvering. Luckily the writers catch on to this pretty quick and allow Mako to use his detecting skills for something useful for once.

As soon as the interrogations wrap up Mako smells a rat, and Team Avatar’s quick convo with Varrick confirms the situation. Someone is setting up a minor guard as a patsy, and Mako cottons that it has to be Aiwei. He suggests scoping out the truth seer’s house, and Team Avatar is on the case. Once inside they notice a few knickknacks but nothing immediately suspicious, until Mako finds scuff-marks next to a book case and a secret passage.

Unfortunately Aiwei is on his way home, and when he finds Team Avatar on side he knows his time is up. He offers a few final, menacing words and raises a metal wall to help with his escape. That’s not all, he’s a got a bomb rigged in the basement, Korra’s quick reflexes are the only thing that saves the group from incineration.

Where to go from here? Lin insists on holding back, while Team Avatar wants to pursue Zaheer and Aiwei. Su’s in a odd spot because of her deference to shady characters led directly to the current situation, so she seems to defer to Lin. But once the chief is out of the picture Su gives Team Avatar the keys to a car and time to chase after their enemies. Su still remains a slippery character, even when nice, but Korra appreciates the effort. Now with our story shifted, and our heroes on the move, and villains closing in, things are about to get pretty intense.

Odds and Ends

  • Pedant Alert: Su references multiple vehicles as Jeeps, which is odd because Jeep is a brand not a specific type of car. This is what I like to call the Dumpster problem.
  • Shirshu poison makes its return in dart form.
  • I quite enjoy that Zaheer knows to get out of dodge right as things turn south. This isn’t a fight to the death and thus the crew does not need to remain.
  • Mako notes that it wasn’t that great when Varrick framed him, but then again it’s in the past.
  • I like that Korra struggles a bit with taking out a metal wall, she can do it, but she’s new to the art form.
Spoiler

  • One little gripe is that I wish the Red Lotus conspiracy was a smidge bigger. Aiwei’s threat here is completely true, but it still mostly boils down to Zaheer and his troop.
  • Slow roll on ramping up the reveal of Bolin as a lava bender and P’Li’s ultimately gruesome death.
  • Kuvira talks a whole lot in this episode.

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