Monday, December 22, 2014

Moments of Korra

The Legend of Korra has ended. I don’t expect to see a lot of coverage and eulogizing on many of the mainstream sites I frequent, which I guess means I have to take up that task. Often, such eulogizing takes the form of highlighted episodes, but that approach doesn’t strike me as particularly satisfactory for Korra’s heavily serialized, seasonal shifting style. So instead, I’m going to highlight particular moments I feel capture a character, attitude, execution, storyline or theme that made the show so great.

"Like the cycle of the seasons..."
Each episode of Airbender opened with young Katara narrating a prologue—“Water, Earth, Fire, Air,” she intones as figures demonstrate the quasi-magical martial arts that define both series, before she goes on to basically pitch the show. For whatever reason (mostly to allot time elsewhere), Korra only got one full prologue, with Tenzin explaining the new status quo in the first episode. The demonstrations, however, would open each episode, which Korra took as an opportunity to call back to the rich history of the show’s universe, using the latest cycle of Avatars—Kyoshi, Roku, Aang, and Korra—as the demonstrators. This first prologue establishes the intriguing new status quo, while re-establishing the philosophical underpinnings.

 "I'm the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!"
It’s hard to imagine a more delightful character introduction than chubby toddler Korra splashily displaying her power while boldly proclaiming her place in the world. But her proclamation also served as something of a mission statement for how the show would deal with its past—Aang’s time was over, it was Korra’s world now, which meant servicing new characters first and foremost, filling in backstory on old favorites only when needed. Korra wasn’t going to be a cavalcade of all Airbender’s tertiary characters, and fans would just have to deal with that.

"We have the numbers and the strength to create a new Republic City."
First season big antagonist Amon is perhaps the most perfect villain the Avatar-verse has produced. He’s got a killer design, he’s compellingly mysterious, and inventively terrifying. Until his big reveal, his abilities defy all logic in the series, lending credence to his grandiose claims of being chosen by the spirits. But he also has goals that cannot be dismissed, and employs a weapon more dangerous than any element—rhetoric. His attack on the pro-bending arena reveals just how effective he is at using that weapon, and leads to one of the show’s most spectacular fights.

"I love you, Dad."
One of the chief concerns of the Avatar shows is the cycle and heritage of hate. The show’s first Stand Up and Cheer moment comes when Asami is tempted by her father to join his mad and hateful schemes. Asami is the coolest (billionaire playgirl engineer racecar driver with great hair, come on!) and the uncertainty of what she would do was intense. Luckily, she answered in the coolest way possible—shocking her dad with his own tool of democratized violence and helping her friends escape.

"You and your playmates have no business here."
For one spectacular sequence, we saw a potentially much different version of Korra, where Team Avatar tools around Republic City by night in a hot rod, fighting crime with magic kung-fu and mad driving skills. But the team doesn’t get much of a chance to savor the criminals they return to jail before the series makes clear it has larger concerns in mind, pulling Korra between a rampaging police force insisting it must keep the peace and an aggrieved underclass assembled to demand justice. Sadly, the relevance of this sequence is a little too obvious lately.

"That lady is my hero."
Both Avatar shows distinguished themselves with a casual egalitarianism, particularly in matters of gender. It’s hard to think of a better example than Lin battling two airships single handed, an amazing display of power, prowess and ultimately sacrifice woman characters are rarely afforded on other shows, but Korra doled out all the time.

"I can airbend?"
One of Korra’s most appealing aspects is that it’s ultimately a story about learning, whether it’s Korra struggling to learn the skills she needs, or struggling to learn how the world works. Her inability to master air causes her a lot of frustration and even self-loathing, making it a pretty joyous moment, just after her darkest, when she is finally able to exhibit the power.

"It will be just like the good old days."
Korra’s first season is in part the story of two antagonists, brothers Tarrlok and Noatok (in the guise of Amon), both marked by a heritage of hate neither could escape, despite their best efforts, a story Korra calls the saddest she’s ever heard. S&P prevented the show from using words like “kill” or “die” all that often (leading to some genuinely silly dialogue at times), but it didn’t stop them from concluding the brothers’ story with equal sadness, as they indulge in a brief fantasy of returning to their youth. But both ultimately conclude there is only one freedom from their past.

"But you called me here."
Throughout Airbender, Aang would seek guidance and counsel from his past lives, most especially his immediate predecessor Roku, and so it’s fitting and right that he should appear to offer aid to Korra when she’s at her most hopeless, leading to her finally becoming a fully realized Avatar.

"Anyone want to ask me what I think?"
For a number of fans, the beginning of season 2 is marked by Korra being unreasonable as she distances herself from family, friends, and mentors. But I think a lot of these fans minimize how profoundly her trust has been violated, and how condescending at least her father and Tenzin are being as they continually talk around her.

"I'm real close to proving it."
Few moments are as simple or as chilling as Varrick turning his chair. For a long string of episodes, Varrick had been manic and comical instigator, possessing dubious ethics and with his own agenda to be sure, but one that had him hiding in a stuffed bear and doling out bribe money from its ass. But in one frame, it suddenly became possible that he was capable of anything.

"We will be together for all of your lifetimes."

The magnificent two-part origin story of the Avatar-verse culminates, as it should, with mysticism, sadness, hopefulness, and tragedy. As much as the Avatar cycle is reincarnation and rebirth, it is also Sisyphean, a struggle to rectify the mistakes of 40, 150, or 10,000 years ago.

"You two look lost."
The actor Mako voiced Airbender’s beloved Uncle Iroh, at times with gentle wisdom and at others with boisterous humor, for 31 episodes until his death, a profound loss that series acknowledged by dedicating one of its best episodes to him and keeping the character Iroh silent for much of season 3. It seems a welcome further tribute (in addition to giving a central character his name) to have the character offer Korra wisdom as well, the concept of the Spirit World allowing such a conceit. An appearance from Iroh was the last thing anyone expected, but very welcome. As much as Korra’s creators kept Airbender throw-backs to a minimum (what became of the swamp people!?), they were happy to include an old character when it fit.

"Please don't hurt me, Nuktuk!"

My favorite B (or possibly C) plot, Bolin’s movie star misadventures, culminates in one of the most amazing and funny action bits the show has ever done, with Bolin’s incredible duel against some goons (hired goons) mirroring the action of the primitive film being screened at the same time. We all got spoiled by this level of cleverness and fun being tossed out regularly. And special praise must be reserved for the Nuktuk theme song.

"He's got the Light Spirit!"
While Unalaq may not be the most highly regarded of the show’s antagonists, but he has one villainous accomplishment that will be tough to top—destroying elements of the show itself. Each of his strikes on the Avatar spirit causes Korra pain, but causes it for us as well, as we witness a past incarnation, beloved characters in their own right, vanish before our eyes. It’s one thing to not see Kyoshi because she isn’t relevant to current events, it’s another to not see her because the villain severed all connection to her.

"Thank you for not giving up on me."

The second season ends with some mystical gobbledygook. But it’s very appealing mystical gobbledygook, as, at Tenzin’s prompting, Korra gains enlightenment while meditating under a tree, gleans truths from the cosmos, uses this knowledge to restore order to the world, and finally ascends to the heavens on a stream of light to reclaim her role, her heritage, and a part of her very soul, before making a decision that will change the world forever. It’s beautiful and moving.

"Whatever happened with Mako, I'm glad it hasn't come between us.”

Lurv stories, that staple of youth-oriented fiction and beyond, can often be a bane, but I think Korra handled them right given the characters’ age and maturity, and more importantly showing the characters mature past their earlier pratfalls, allowing the four to all have important and distinct friendships with each other, instead of a constantly shifting net of chaste hook-ups.

"Who doesn't want a bison as their best friend?"
The montage of Tenzin’s failed recruitment pitches is very funny, and delightfully rendered, but also touches on a pretty deep theme—how do you maintain an ascetic culture in a rapidly modernizing world?

“To your people, freedom is as essential as air.”
I’ve avoided referring to Korra as a “kid’s show” because, generally, it displayed more thoughtfulness and had a better understanding of human behavior than a lot of alleged adult shows I’d watch at the same time. But it was, alas, often held to kid show standards, which meant a long list of forbidden words, including “kill,” “die,” and “assassinate.” So I’m not sure how they got away with Zaheer visiting a grisly, horrific death upon the Earth Queen, but it was an incredible shock, and a considerable raising of stakes, casting a palpable tension over everything that came after…

"As long as I'm still breathing, it's not over."
…Case in point, I spent a week, terrified and certain that Tenzin’s extraordinary last stand against the Red Lotus was the last stand he would ever make. That he does survive, however, does not detract from the power of his resolve to keep his student from harm.

“’Let go your earthly tether…’”
Zaheer is many things. A quasi-Zen Buddhist supervillain, a trademark Avatar antagonist who raises some good points, a dangerous escalator of violence, but he was also hilariously an evil Aang, a bald, philosophical ascetic monk who employed Aang’s abilities and even some of his gear. He even faces a dilemma much like Aang once did—to reach certain powers, he had to let go of all worldly connection. Unlike Aang, he does so, achieving impossible abilities as a hefty cost.

"Destroy the Avatar!"
Adversaries tend to underestimate the Avatar. Aang was, after all, a goofy little pubescent, and while Korra is more imposing, she is still only 18. But the show is quite clear that though they may be kids, they are still, in effect, gods, conduits of the power of the cosmos itself, and their antagonists had best hope they are defeated by the moral, often conflicted youth before the collective rage of an ethically indifferent universe is called upon. Zaheer is probably the wisest of all these antagonists, but even he is unprepared for the power that he unleashes (though admittedly he does come close to accomplishing his goal) in an awe-inspiring sequence that has Korra literally hurling mountains at her tormentor.

"I'm never going back to prison!"
It’s probably a bit much to spin too much of a discussion of indefinite detention from the show, but the facts are fairly simple: rather than be imprisoned again, Ghazan chooses death. A small but important moment of pathos.

"Now, let us anoint the master who will lead us on our new path."

One of the first rules of the Avatar-verse, established in the very first episode of Airbender, was that Air Nation was no more. A century before the show even began, a genocidal attack had killed them all. The loss of culture was a burden and sadness that hung over its hero and the show itself. The all-important balance was restored, however, and the sudden reappearance of airbenders drives much of the season. They don’t, however, become an Air Nation until the end, with a legacy and heritage passed on to a new generation, a powerful moment of restoration.

"Here. For your lackluster participation."

Even without her Avatar abilities, Korra had always been one of the best martial artists in the world. Seeing her get handily beat in a straight up fight (as she still struggled to recover from injuries) was a real bummer. That an action show would devote an arc to physical and mental rehab shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is.

"Nice to see you again, Twinkletoes."
One of Airbender’s best episodes poses the question: “Can friendships last more than one lifetime?” Korra answered Yes, as Airbender’s significant characters appeared from time to time, offering help to their old friend now in Korra’s form. Toph, probably Airbender’s most popular character, came last, but of course had to do so jabbing at our hearts, calling Korra by her trademark nickname for Aang.

"Worst coronation ever."
Kuvira was not Korra’s most dangerous or powerful adversary, but she was the most difficult, a political and social Gordian knot not easily cut, should such a thing even be advisable. Kuvira joins Korra’s major antagonists in fitting a modern or near-modern archetype, adding Despot to the gallery including Terrorist, Cultural Regressive, and Revolutionary, and brings along the necessary accoutrements, in this case, the despot’s best friend—control over a valued resource.

"I'm not sure I'll ever be able to forgive you, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try."

Of season 1’s baddies, Amon, Tarrlok, and Hiroshi Sato, Sato seemed the most vile—a foaming, sneering bigot willing to kill his own daughter. But he was also the only one who made it out alive, imprisoned and with four years to re-examine and regret, which the show’s generous spirit understood might be enough to prompt him to change. Still, the show also understands that it’s easy to claim to feel remorse and regret, and that redemption isn’t necessarily a given, but is a hard process for both the aggriever and the aggrieved.

"It's just a mover, don't over think it! It's like a ride!"
One of the many aspects that defined Korra was the Nickelodeon network’s dedication to fucking with it. Slashed episode orders, strung out renewals, pulling it from TV to online then putting it back, switched time schedules, the infamous pre-season 3 leak leading to the rushed premiere followed by a weeks-long episode drought, the creativity and thoroughness Nick showed in trying to screw its best show is really something. Thus, in the last season, they suddenly cut the budget, forcing the creators to cobble together a clip show rather than lay everyone off weeks early. There is some effort to make the episode more than a clip show, most successfully in Varrick’s crazed and cracked repackaging of events into the most epic mover ever produced. Triumph, however modest, over corporate stupidity.

"I have always been inside of you."
It took 9 episodes, several false-starts, lots of hard work, and the intervention of two beloved returning characters and the words of defeated adversary for Korra’s rehab to be complete. And what a relief it was when it finally happened.

“Zhu Li Moon, will you do the thing for the rest of our lives?”
What can I say? I laughed for a solid five minutes, and had to pause the episode.

I could have just lumped together all of the action beats in the last two episodes, but as astounding as it all was, really, it was just a prelude. The airbenders against the Colossus, the metal clan against the Colossus, the hummingbird mecha suits against the Colossus, everyone against the Colossus, Mako and Bolin against the engineers, Lin and Su against the weapon crew, these were astounding, but undercard matches before what we really came to see—our girl back at full strength, taking the tin-pot dictator to school. First, though, we get the inverse horror movie bit, with Kuvira and her cockpit crew waiting behind (or above, technically) the sealed portal as the righteous beast behind it smashes through.

“There’s so much more I want to learn and do.”

Going through the last two episodes, there were points where it seemed Opal, Jinora, Varrick, Zhu Li, Hiroshi, Lin, Su, Mako, Kuvira, and Korra could be killed. Mako even intended to. In the end, though, only Hiroshi actually did. Some out there, as the end got closer, thought Korra might, or even should die, something I disliked for a lot of reasons. It seemed to sad and tragic and even a cruel thing to happen, especially at the end of a season dominated by her struggles to overcome her injuries and ensuing fear of death. And I find the idea that death is the only way to create significance pretty cheap. So I was relieved when Korra was still around at the end to share a moment with Tenzin (their student-teacher relationship being, for my money, one of the most significant), wherein she gets to affirm she’s very young and wants to do so much more.

“Just the two of us!”  

There’s some just celebration over the show devoting its final moments to some pretty profound progressivism, and there’s been some homophobic whining and hemming and hawing, and even some distastefully juvenile “I support gay marriage when both chicks are hawt ha ha, bro, high five!” sentiment. What I care about is that it fits the show and the characters.

1 comment:

  1. The thing I love most about Korrasami is that it does indeed fit the characters perfectly and just makes sense, and romance stories really are best when a property's creators do them naturally and within the property itself. Fan pairings are nice and all, but nothing can top when the creators have the freedom to do what they want with their characters. Go figure.