Re-Avatar State: “Beyond the Wilds”

In Which, Despite Everything, It’s Still You

In my opening piece about The Legend of Korra I offered a singular thematic idea that I believed served as the overarching structure of the show, even through the tumult of itss production. That if Airbender is the story of Aang becoming The Avatar, than Korra is the story of The Avatar becoming Korra. In “Beyond the Wilds” we finally see that theme resolved, as the trial and tribulations Korra has gone through reveal something important to her. She is both Korra and The Avatar. She is one person with great power, and each part of her identity can’t function without the other.

From the first moments of the series we’ve seen Korra so thoroughly identify herself with the position she holds that it’s hard to view her as anything else. “I’m the Avatar, and you gotta deal with,” was at the time a cheeky line of meta-commentary welcoming the audience to a new program, but as the series went on it has become a Sword of Damocles for our heroine, the defining feature for her life that has caused her so much trauma. Indeed it’s the trappings of the Avatar: master of all elements, bridge to the spirits, being a part of a greater cycle, and uniting the world, that have been specifically targeted by her opponents. Her enemies, while eventually defeated, each contributing to the turmoil that we found her in during “Korra Alone.”

Here the identities of both Korra and the Avatar unite, she is both. Most of her problems arose from viewing herself in separate parts instead of as aspects of single person. She learns that the pain and trauma will always be with her, but that doesn’t mean she should let those things stop her from moving forward, and she gets this push from her greatest nightmare: Zaheer.

“Beyond the Wilds” fits neatly into one of my favorite types of TV episodes. Ones that seem just like another piece of the season until the unravel and reveal themselves to be greatly impactful. “Korra Alone” with it’s title and placement in the season announced that it was a big and important episode, same with finales and premieres. From the episode description and title one wouldn’t immediately grok the scope of importance found here. Yet all aspects tie neatly into one another, the inciting events here are tied to the larger machinations of the plot, even if they are mostly just a springboard for Korra’s character growth.

Indeed the events in the first act of “Beyond the Wilds” feel almost case of the week. Nebbish Ryu is currently the tour guide for the Republic City Spirit Wilds. He takes a group of people through the overgrown vegetation, but the gaggle is surprised by a sudden attack by the vines. The growth swirls and grabs the hapless tourists and whisks them away to some unknown location.

On Air Temple Island Jinora is puzzled by the sudden surge of energy from the city. So Korra and Opal join her on an expedition in the wilds to see what’s going on. After a bit of poking around Korra once again uses her “all is connected” powers and gets a front row view to Kuvira’s current desecration of the Banyan Grove Tree. The Spirit Vines appear to be acting out against such an attack.

Korra zips on over to city hall to discuss the situation, but discovers that a meeting is already in progress. Once again her counsel as The Avatar is discredited by the powers that be, even Tenzin seems more worried about her presence than willing to listen. Raiko discusses possible moves to contain Kuvira, but the current Fire Lord rejects all pre-emptive strikes out of hand. The situation is turned up even more when Varrick and Bolin arrive with information about The Earth Empire’s newest weapon technology. Korra and Mako are glad that Bolin is both alive and seemingly doing well, but Opal will need more convincing.

All the while Jinora is still poking around the Spirit Wilds when she too is captured by the vines. She sends a SOS to Korra, and The Avatar sets out to try and find where everyone went. And again her judgment is questioned, both Mako and Tenzin are unsure if Korra is capable enough to handle the issues presented by the vines. Tenzin even suggest Tonraq going on an expedition in the Avatar’s stead. It seems that the world still has no faith in Korra’s abilities, and it seems that she still lacks them as well. For as soon as she finds a grotesque pod filled with bodies she’s immediately stonewalled in finding a solution.

First she tries a bit of the spirit calming technique, to no avail. Then she tries to meditate into the Spirit World, and is once again met with a vision of Zaheer. She can’t get their battle out of her head. So she turns to Mako and states what must be done, a parlay with Zaheer.

So deep into the mountains Korra descends, chamber after chamber of imprisonment to find Zaheer. The man who could fly is now bound in chains and underground. Zaheer is not above noting the irony of the situation, and expected Korra to arrive some day. Korra states that she wanted to look him in the eye and say she isn’t scared, Zaheer knows that isn’t true, and spooks our heroine in a petty manner. Korra is just using Zaheer as a crutch for her own problems, she is unable to recognize that despite the trauma she has suffered that she has persevered.

“I’m not holding myself down, but my powers have limits!” Korra announces. Ah, but Zaheer has a canny retort, “You’re wrong. That poison should’ve killed you, but you were able to fight it off. You think your power has limits; I say, it’s limitless.” You see Korra has been viewing her experience all wrong, as a series of failures that have damaged her, instead of procession of difficult battles where she still was able to come out and change the world, frequently for the better. So much of this is tied up in how she’s been hurt, the pain of the identity of the Avatar that she can’t see the progress she’s made. The bridging of the spirit world, the return of the airbenders, and all of the people she has saved. So much of her problems with legitimacy is because she has been frightened about the losses to come instead of recognizing the success she has already had.

So Zaheer offers support, for the moment he would rather help The Avatar destroy a fascist than do nothing. So he helps her to the Spirit World. When again Korra views her near death experience Zaheer offers another nugget of wisdom, “Accept what happened to you. Don’t fear what might have been.” Korra realizes that the past is the past, her trauma will continue with her, but it doesn’t need to define her every waking moment.

Now within the Spirit World Korra is able to again reach the spirit within her and set the captured people free. She has not returned to her power, but found a new sense of purpose in her existence. She is no longer either Korra or The Avatar, but both. As she tells Mako, she is whole.

Elsewhere we see Bolin try to reconcile with Opal, and it’s not happening. The airbending Beifong is rightfully pissed that Bolin allowed Kuvira to capture the rest of her family with seemingly little consequence, and with Raiko doubling down on non-aggression she’s been left in a lurch. But Lin has provided an opportunity for redemption, Opal will let Bolin back into her good graces if he can help save the rest of the Beifong clan from Zaofu.

Odds and Ends

  • The one and only time we see Izumi speak. She just wants to stay out of international conflict because the  tinge of the 100 Year War is still seared into the Fire Nation legacy. If there’s one thing I truly wish Korra could have explored it’s how the Fire Nation operates in the modern world. Alas this isn’t the direction the show went in.
  • Bolin’s final costume design is an explicit lift of the outfit The Rocketeer wears sans the helmet and jetpack.
  • Asami and Varrick are once again paired to do business, though it seems Asami is much more on top of things this time.
  • “I own that building! A man has a right to blow up his own property!”