After a long wait, the Book Two of The Legend of Korra premiered last night with two episodes. After the jump, I’ll be providing an episode recap, thoughts and speculation. Beware of spoilers!
Episode 1 – Rebel Spirit
Spirits are attacking the Southern Water Tribe. After a quick update about Team Avatar’s whereabouts (Bolin is still pro-bending, Mako is a police officer, Asami is running Future Industries, and Korra is still reluctant to master airbending or grow her spiritual side), the entire gang (Bolin, Mako, Asami, Korra, Tenzin and his family) heads to the Southern Water Tribe for the Glacial Spirit Festival. There, they’re greeted by Tenzin’s extended family, including his sister Kya, as well as Korra’s parents. A second ship arrives from the North Pole, carrying Korra’s uncle Unalaq (the Chief of both Water Tribes), and his twin children, Desna and Eska. Unalaq laments the South’s drift from its spiritual roots, suggesting the recent spirit attacks stem from this neglect. His goal is to more strongly unite the Northern and Southern tribes. He offers to instruct Korra on the ways of the spirits, but Tonraq (Korra’s father) is opposed, saying Tenzin should continue to teach her instead.
Meanwhile, Asami and Bolin head to an extravagant yacht to seek the assistance of Varrick, an eccentric businessman who is heavily involved in moving pictures. Bolin’s loud-mouthed honesty wins Varrick’s respect, and Asami finds herself with a business deal.
That evening, the festival begins with a feast. During dinner, Unalaq informs Korra that it wasn’t Avatar Aang who forced her to spend her childhood in a special training compound, but Tenzin and Tonraq. Feeling betrayed, she begins to question whether or not she wants to keep training under Tenzin. She’s so furious that even the carnival doesn’t cheer her up. Later that night, Korra’s polar bear dog Naga begins to howl, awakening everyone in time to see a dark spirit attack the town. Korra and her friends try to fight back, but even the Avatar State is no match for the angry spirit.
In the end, it’s Unalaq who tames the spirit. He uses a unique form of bending that engulfs the spirit in light, convincing it to leave in peace. This display convinces Korra that Unalaq is the only one who can teach her to master her spiritual side. After an argument with Tenzin and Tonraq, she declares that instead of training under Tenzin, she wants to train under Unalaq instead. So, Tenzin and his family leave to tour the air temples (with his sister Kya and brother Bumi in tow), while Korra and her friends stay behind with Unalaq.
Episode 2- The Southern Lights
The next morning, Korra shows up early, eager to start training with Unalaq. He informs her that he’s taking her to the South Pole. A permanent storm, the Everstorm, plagues the region, making it a dangerous journey. Unalaq explains that there is a spirit portal at the South Pole that once allowed spirits to dance in the sky as the Southern Lights; the portal is blocked, causing the Everstorm instead. Only Korra can open the portal, and it can only be done tomorrow, during the winter solstice. Tonraq is opposed to the journey, but Korra won’t be dissuaded, so he insists on coming along to protect her. Mako, Bolin and the twins join them.
After a day of travel, they set up camp. Unalaq prods Tonraq into confessing that he left the Northern Water Tribe not by choice, but because he was banished. When Tonraq was a general living in the North, he recklessly destroyed a sacred forest in pursuit of enemies, angering the spirits. The spirits began to destroy the city, until Unalaq intervened with his spirit bending technique. Korra is furious with her father for hiding this from her.
The next day, spirits attack, and Unalaq once again saves everyone with his bending technique. Korra arrives at the South Pole and, after battling dangerous tentacle-like spirits, she successfully opens the portal. The Southern Lights flood the sky again.
Triumphant, the group returns to town — only to see Northern Water Tribe warships pulling into the harbour. “There’s more difficult work to be done before our two tribes are truly united,” says Unalaq as ominous music plays in the background.
While all this is happening, Tenzin and his family visit the Southern Air Temple to learn more about their airbender heritage. His eldest daughter, Jinora, is enthralled by the statues of the previous Avatars, especially the statue of her late grandfather, Avatar Aang. She later chances on an old, weathered Avatar statue, wondering, “What Avatar is this?” If the trailers are any indication, this mystery Avatar is going to have a larger role in the story soon.
While I’m still optimistic that this season will pull together, I feel there are a few weak points currently holding it back.
- Pacing – The pacing of these episodes felt odd. The first episode could have easily been condensed to two minutes, giving us more time in the actual plot instead of awkward lead-up. The biggest problem was a strange lack of urgency. It felt like Korra’s trip to open the portal was an afterthought — “by the way, I have a task I need you to do, and it has be done tonight.” Imagine how much more compelling the beginning of this story would have been if a frantic Unalaq came to Korra with, “There’s no time!” and her dismissal of Tenzin/Tonraq came out of urgency, not just a disagreement?
- Everyone is angry – Speaking of disagreements, where did all this anger come from? Korra is angry at Tenzin for trying to teach her to airbend (an odd regression, seeing how their mentor-student relationship was so strong by the end of Book One.) She’s angry at Mako any time he opens his mouth. She’s mad at her father for far more understandable reasons, but because she’s already so angry the rest of the time, this instance of justifiable anger loses its impact. Tonraq himself seems to exist solely to put his foot down every time Korra wants to do anything; it’s a far cry from the supportive, soft-spoken man we saw in Book One.
- The animation – For scheduling reasons, last season’s amazing Studio Mir only animated a handful of sequences this season, leaving the rest to newcomer Studio Pierrot. The change in style is noticeable in the character faces, which occasionally slip off-model or lack expression. It’s also very clear this season that some shots were higher priority than others, with a tendency to have blank talking heads during long dialogue sections. Book One‘s animation was such an anomaly in the TV children’s cartoon genre, with its gorgeous animation and expressive characters, that this feels like a step back in comparison, even though it’s still high-quality for the genre. The backdrops are still as gorgeous as always, however, and the action sequences are still well-animated.
- Ladies? – Yet again, the story seems to be revolving around its male characters. Korra spends most of her time listening to Tenzin, Tonraq and Unalaq debate her future — to her credit, she wonders why no one asks her what she thinks, but the second she is given her own decision, she runs to Mako to ask what she should do, and gets frustrated when he won’t tell her. I’d really like to see Korra develop her own agency in this season, and I’d especially like for her to spend some time growing and bonding with other female characters in the cast.
- Bolin, Mako & Asami – While I love a good comic relief character, the things I loved most about Bolin in Book One were his enthusiasm and his humanity, particularly early in the season. So far this season, he only exists to be a running gag. His budding relationship with Eska is, quite frankly, creepy. Mako, on the other hand, has become Mr. Nice Guy, likely due to fan backlash in Book One. The result is a watered-down, bland version of the character. I think the writers misunderstood the fan criticisms of Book One — a character can be a jerk and still likeable, so long as he sees repercussions for his jerky behaviour and learns from them. Of the returning characters, I found Asami to be the most interesting. After her father’s arrest, she stepped up to take over Future Industries, and now she’s battling public suspicion to try to make the company profitable again. As the character with the most “grown-up” storyline so far, she has potential for a complex storyline that’s an allegory for grown-up problems (work-life balance, juggling priorities, etc.) I’m intrigued to see how her story will play out.
The show seems to be setting up Unalaq as the big bad this season. I hope I’m wrong, because I really like Unalaq, and the water-tribe-man-who-seems-to-be-an-ally-but-has-a-twisted-agenda thing already featured heavily in Book One. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that Unalaq set up Tonraq all those years ago. I hope something more imaginative is in store.
The show also seems to be hinting at a bigger plotline for Jinora, something I’m excited about. The injection of an optimistic, spiritual child into the storyline might lighten up some of the angst and anger that seems to be pervading this season so far.
Have speculation or thoughts of your own? Think I’ve misinterpreted something? Feel free to discuss in the comments section below!