Korra has had many teachers throughout her stint as the Avatar. From the bending masters at her compound, to Katara, to Tenzin, to Unalaq, and Suyin. Many powerful people have stepped in to assist our heroine in the process of making a suitable messiah for the world. But in all the ways they helped none of them were truly suited to Korra’s disposition and problems. Katara is a smidge too tentative, Tenzin is too burdened with keeping the tradition of the Air Nation alive, Unalaq was evil, and Su saw metalbending as a lark that Korra could pick up. So it comes as no surprise that out of all the old masters, that Korra would find wisdom from Toph.
The lesson that Toph can impart is one of certitude. For as much strength and power Korra has, she has never been able to fully reconcile the two parts of her identity, that of Korra the person and The Avatar. This tension has led to most of her bullheaded errors and mistakes. Mistaking the force she has for the ability to smash her way through a problem. Now these two parts of her personality are totally stripped from one another, the title of Avatar and the human Korra are almost completely separated.
Even in Airbender Toph was never in doubt of who she was, or what she was capable of. Yes she was a blind girl from a dithering rich family, but she was also an awesome earthbender and the person who created metalbending. She has never had to fully question her identity or purpose in the world, she can ascertain and literalize her position. This flows into a unique form of teaching, yes she’s a belittling hard ass with both Avatars, but this is a quasi put on to force an issue from her pupils. With both Aang and Korra she needs to wipe out the fear and uncertainty that exists.
This starts out with a few pessimistic words from Toph. She blatantly says that the world doesn’t need Korra, that her accomplishments have not wiped away whatever damage may be done in the future. It’s a slick piece of negging from the old woman, baiting the Avatar into realizing what she is truly afraid of, that her actions are pointless and only more pain will come down the road for our messiah. Their little brawls with one another are once again here to demonstrate that Korra is more her enemy than Toph is at this moment. That she needs to move forward and not back to fully heal.
And a part of this process involves removing the wee little bits of poison still stuck inside Korra’s body. Toph snidely remarks that her movements are slow because she’s weighed down by the metal inside of her. Looks like Su didn’t get every last drop out of there. A physical threat still lingers within the body of The Avatar, one that has made a full recovery nearly impossible. It seems like Korra has found an answer to her pain.
Unfortunately it’s not going to be so easy to get the rest of the metal out. When she lays down and asks Toph to extract the poison the experience is so excruciating that Korra can’t go through with the process. She’s too knotted up and worried about what might happen that she isn’t allowing herself to move forward. This is the moment where Toph identifies a more pernicious aspect of Korra’s trauma, that somewhere inside she doesn’t want to get better. That to heal means facing new, and unexplored, dangers rather than the pain she has become familiar with.
Korra actively denies such a statement, but the audience can see through the ruse. Korra cannot admit to herself that she is frightened of getting better, as much as she bemoans being replaced by people like Kuvira or the Air Nation, that maybe, just maybe, it would be okay for her to remain in the fighting pits and tilt at her own sense of self. It’s a prickly idea that the writers have located, but one filled with sharp thematic material. The trauma of surviving a heroic battle might be what the hero tacitly wants to keep. To know they’ll live despite everything. Korra needs to hang up her past battles if she wishes to keep on the path to returning to the world.
Because Toph is kind of wrong about the world not needing Korra. As demonstrated in the season premiere much of the political tension so far has been driven by her absence. The vacuum of power she created making space for dictators like Kuvira or idiots like Wu. The events of the rest of “The Coronation” clearly demonstrate why The Avatar should be present for matters of critical international affair, because things can quickly spiral out of hand.
Wu’s coronation day is at hand, and while the ceremony will surely lack the gaudy flash that the idiotic royal expects, the political elites of Republic City and the rest of the world are hopeful that his rise to the throne of Earth King will tamp down the roiling troubles in the Earth Kingdom and finally cut Kuvira off from consolidating even more power. So all the leaders of the world have gathered in Republic City for the event. We get some familiar faces (Eska and Desna pop in, and Zuko and his daughter Izumi are here, though they don’t speak), peppered with some amusing reunions. Varrick is pleased to be pardoned by the president (though it was at Kuvira’s behest) and the bending brothers finally get to catch up after years away.
Mako’s impressed by Bolin’s appearance and high rank within Kuvira’s military, but as a detective he smells something rotten. He knows that Bolin can be insecure, and even his powers of lavabending can’t hide the fact that he wants to step up as a figure of importance and virtue. He’s seen the transformative powers that Kuvira has, and she sings sweet words to him in private to soothe his fears about unending power. This tension between Kuvira’s grooming of Bolin to a fascist force, and his personal relationships with people like Mako and Opal put him in a difficult place so he lashes out and winds up with Kuvira for the time being.
Which isn’t great, because during the titular ceremony Kuvira enacts a swift and slick power grab. After being award a medal and prodded to step down, she simply refuses. She cites Su’s thoughts on power as the main reason. A monarchy is an outdated system in a modernizing world, and what do you know things have lined up in just a manner for a flourishing imperial power to rise in it’s stead. So with a whiff of Napoleon and Mussolini Kuvira proudly proclaims herself the leader of the Earth Empire and dares the other heads of state to stop her. Since Korra’s not here the world is left at a loss on how to contend with a situation. A fascist just defied the nominal structures of government because they could and that’s that.
This event sends our cowardly prince into a depressive spiral. I must contend that Wu’s antics here verge awfully close to the irritating. I get that’s the point of his character, but the tonality is pitched a little wrong considering the seriousness with how most everything else is treated. Mako and Wu’s romp through a Ba Sing Sae shopping center slathers the final indignities on our overthrown prince and bodyguard. Luckily the writers correct for this at the last moment. Mako finally loses it and yells out his frustrations with Wu. He shouldn’t be a ruler, he’s a shit person, with a terrible sense of propriety. For all the danger that Kuvira presents, she knows how to work the system, bring the people what they want and effectively quash dissent. Indeed she would perhaps be a beloved leader because, and not in spite of her, her dictatorial qualities.
Wu has to agree, his lineage put into place the forces that would lead to a tantrum in a buffet, being chased by fascistic Green Shirts through Republic City. Kuvira has been a shrewd leader, exploiting a destabilized world for her own gain. So much so that Tenzin has decided to force Korra out of hiding. Now’s the time for The Avatar’s return, and he recruits Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo as his special task force to find Korra while he deals with the situation in Republic City. The question is, will Korra be ready when the world comes knocking?
Odds and Ends
- The Ba Sing Sae mall, complete with royal palace food court, is one of those consistently clever pieces of world building. Of course another culture would take a historic city and turn it into a trite place of convenience.
- Some of the older characters from Avatar (barring Katara) have had merely serviceable voice performances, Toph is another exception, as her reading of “I’m the original Beifong” gets a giant snort from me every time.
- Looks like Varrick is cooking up something with those spirit vines. If Kuvira is interested will probably be bad news.
- Desna apparently sleeps in the bathtub.
To answer the question I just asked, sort of. Though Korra takes a huge step this episode to overcome the problems that plagued her for the past three years, there’s still a huge question mark that hangs over her. Will she be ready to handle the mess the Earth Empire has created? We’ve seen both the personal ability of Kuvira, and the support she carries with her, and Korra is still out of practice despite the removal of the final bits of poison from her body. It’s tough to say, but drastic times have the need for all the reinforcement the world can get.
“The Calling” is a near perfect recitation of the structure of the previous episode, with Korra working through her process with Toph and an adventure with our changed characters on top. It is both quite moving and a touch irritating, for as important as Tenzin’s family has been in undergirding the movements of the Air Nation, an episode with the sole focus on them is a bit much when your running through the thick of it. That is right until the very end, because the concluding minutes beautifully pull together these elements into something greater. Tenzin’s kids being the first to interact with Korra since her disappearance feels right and natural, these are characters with unconditional love and care for our heroine, and do in fact do everything they can to reconnect with her.
The troubling adventure of the airbending trio highlights how Tenzin’s kids are kind of always at odds with each other. Jinora is aloof, Ikki is chattering, and Meelo is boorish. Without the presence of a greater authority figure like Tenzin, Pema, or Korra, they kind of dissolve into a mess of contradicting goals and interests. They want to find Korra, but they are also a rowdy bunch of children and tweens who also see this as an opportunity to prove themselves in some manner.
Jinora is positioned as leader, and her anointment as a master certainly bestows prestige upon her, but this doesn’t really mean a lick to her siblings, as Ikki and Meelo continue to distract and belittle her spiritual process. So Ikki and Meelo take in the brother’s shockingly good drawing of Korra into local towns and villages. In this sequence we get a bit of an inverse immersion into the world without the Avatar that we saw in “Korra Alone.” People are generally aware that Korra exists, but she’s quickly moving out of mind, especially for the residents of the newly christened Earth Empire.
The search isn’t helped by the disintegrating relationship between the siblings either, seems like their a chip off the older generation, letting personality clashes guide themselves more than actual instinct and information. So in a move of dastardly, rugged individualism, Meelo tosses the food they received from Pema into the river to prove himself a master of the wild. This cause Ikki to storm off in a rage, and Jinora to sit and meditate.
While Ikki’s out and about she gets captured by some Empire mooks, and they bind the girl and begin to question her. The guards cotton pretty quick that Tenzin’s kids are out and about, and their quest to find Korra might be leveraged into a promotion from the Great Uniter herself. So the guards egg on Ikki, and try to get some info from her. But Ikki’s a pro at this talking game, and turns the tables by extracting info from the guards, using the homemade treats from Pema as a prop.
Ikki is able to eke out that Korra may be in The Swamp, it is after all a vast spiritual hot spot with no permanent living quarters. Seems like the perfect place for The Avatar to hide out, but before she can confirm this info Jinora and Meelo bust in and incapacitate the guards. Ikki’s a bit peeved, but at least, through a jumble of contradictions, they have somewhere to look for Korra.
Korra’s lessons with Toph, however, are not continuing apace. After losing a few rounds of sparring matches, Korra has settled down to ask Toph about some war stories. Toph barely obliges (in an amusing manner) and sends Korra out to get food for dinner. Though this again is a ruse. For The Swamp knows of Korra’s pain and sorrow, and begins to reflect it back at her. Korra is treated to a parade of losses on her end. It’s harrowing, but there’s a lesson here.
Toph knows that she sent Korra out to see what has happened to her, and use it as an opportunity for a teachable moment. You see Korra is so concerned with the fear of her experiences that she blocked information that could be gained from her enemies. Do not see her failures as merely failures, but lessons to carry forward and incorporate into her guidance as The Avatar. Equality, spirituality, and freedom are all things needed in the world, and instead of reliving the losses, Korra should take them as path to move forward upon.
Toph notes that Korra is stuck because she’s currently unwilling to give up the last fight. This sentiment goes hand in hand with what Toph told her in the last episode. She is holding on to the poison because it’s a familiar pain, it’s something she can expect and reckon with, and a crutch on which she can lean when she fears what might happen next. But the time has come to lift that burden and move on.
For when Korra steps onto the roots of the Banyon Grove Tree she realizes that she’s been deliberately sequestering herself away from too long. Korra has always been stronger with her friends and comrades, and while personal space was needed for her recovery, it is time to break out. She touches the roots of the tree and makes a connection with Jinora. The Air kids fly to Korra, and she hugs them with much love and care. A reunion most needed for our heroine. Their plea for her returns finally gives Korra the motivation she needs to remove the remaining poison.
So she stands, focusses, and concentrates. The memories will come, but they are only memories, they cannot hurt now as they once did. And bit by bit small drops of poison are removed, Korra works through this trauma with her own body and mind. The physicality of her life does not have to be hindered any more. With the mercury removed and safely tucked away her eyes glow once more. She has overcome this step in the process, and feels much lighter because of it. Now the Avatar’s return is ensured, and already she faces a steep challenge ahead.
Odds and Ends
- The big break for the kids comes from the fishmonger with his wall of Avatars. Looks like that guy is going places.
- Toph’s description of teaching Aang to earthbend: “What’s there to tell? I threw some rocks at the Avatar, he got all whiny and Sokka fell in a hole.”
- Toph’s description of stopping Ozai: “It was hot. I was on a blimp. And I think a giant turtle showed up. Wow. What a day.”
- I like Korra looking upon her memories as a neat visual motif, wish there was more of it.