UPDATE (9/22): We've "resurfaced" this review to make it easier to find for Korra fans who waited to watch the Book 2 finale until it aired on TV. If this is the first time you're seeing this post, welcome! If you watched the finale last week after it was posted online in response to a fan challenge on Tumblr and you've already read the review, feel free to return to the comments for another round of discussion.
That was... underwhelming.
I'm not totally surprised, since "underwhelming" could describe much of Book 2 (along with a few other, less ambivalent adjectives). It also makes sense that I would feel this way, since it's how I tend to respond to any cosmic clash between good and evil. In this case, it just happened to be Spirit Kaijan Battle Extreme: Rumble in Republic City, which led to a personal event feeling impersonal at times.
However, I don't mean to suggest that the finale was entirely void of depth and emotion; it wasn't. The best moments focused on Korra and Tenzin coming to grips with their respective personal baggage—namely, the expectations they have for themselves and that they feel others have for them. Certainly this has been a struggle for Korra since Book 1, as she's never been entirely sure what her role as the Avatar means, beyond kicking ass and taking names. And with Tenzin, his insecurities came forward in in Book 2, spurred on by Korra's attitude toward him as a mentor, as well as by the arrival of Kya and Bumi back into his life.
So if Book 1 was about whether or not the Avatar is relevant in this secular age of the Avatar universe, then Book 2 was about fulfilling that spiritual gap, and how Korra wanted to do that. Unalaq offered the spiritual aspect that had been lacking in her training with apparently everyone, from those in the White Lotus compound to Tenzin in Republic City. It was the one aspect of her role as Avatar that was missing, one that Aang had become known for, and the aspect of being the Avatar that she struggled with the most.
Korra being Korra, she wanted to take the quickest path, hence the early manipulations by Unalaq. As Unalaq's malevolent machinations became clearer, though, Korra fell back into her normal approach to being the Avatar and peacekeeper: Punch-punch-kick. She was a saber-toothed moose-lion in a china shop, pushing her way around the structures of power because it was her duty to maintain the peace of the world, even to the point of isolating herself from her friends and potential allies.
Her experiences in learning about Wan and the events of the finale helped her realize the error of her ways, even if it ultimately reaffirmed that much of the fate of the world does rest on her shoulders. Her friends can only do much to help her, like when they distracted Unalaq and his children—I finally liked Desna and Eska in these episodes!—while she re-imprisoned Vaatu in the Tree of Time.
Once disconnected from Raava, however, Korra had to rely on herself—a startling development for her, even if it did feel like something of a rehash of her situation at the end of Book 1, when she only had airbending at her disposal in the aftermath of Amon energybending the rest of her skills away. In a similar fashion to the spirit of Aang showing up to restore her abilities, Korra managed to, in Tenzin's words, "Let go of your attachment to who you think you are and connect with your inner spirit.” Both times, Korra found herself at rock bottom, and in both cases, the spirits and the cosmos provided a way for Korra to solve the problem, which in this case involved a projection of her inner spirit as a blue giant.
For me, this was where the story started to feel impersonal, and also sort of dragged. Inner Spirit Korra's battle with Unalatuu, while cool in that we got to see two giant beings fight one another—and who doesn't enjoy seeing two giant beings fight one another?!?—caused me to realize that the show favored this sort of big resolution to a more intimate one. Unalaq was Korra's uncle. He betrayed Korra's father, manipulated Korra, set up a sham trial to make an example of her father, and took control of her home city. This family matter fell to the background of Book 2—another victim of the Varrick subplot, I guess—even though it might've elevated the intensity of Unalaq's plot beyond the whole "destroy the world" aspect.*
*Yes, I know that the idea of something more intense than "destroying the world" seems weird, but I like personal connections in my near-apocalyptic narratives. Destroying the world is such an abstract concept sometimes.
With the family angle removed, it also didn't help matters that the climactic battle was lacking in personality. Neither Giant Blue Korra or Unlaatu said or did much of anything to indicate a personal stake in events; they just fought as two demigod-like representations of the light and the dark would fight, while everyone else scrambled about like very tiny ants. Outside of its "giant beings fighting" level of "AWESOME!" it was surprisingly dull. Factor in Jinora's totally unexplained activation of what I can only assume was some sort of Raava homing beacon—seriously, what the heck was going on there?—and it just meant so very little while it was happening. The only upside is that, like in this past summer's Pacific Rim, the combatants avoided inflicting ridiculous levels of property damage by fighting in the bay.
So while the battle itself may have been a loss, the entire plot over the back half of Book 2 resulted in two interesting changes to the status quo of the Avatar universe. First was Korra's decision to leave the spirit gates open, allowing both spirits and humans to move back and forth between the two realms, eliminating herself as a bridge. In one way, it's easy to see this as Korra rejecting a choice and rejecting the part of her role as the Avatar that she's struggled with, by removing it as a factor. I don't feel that that's entirely accurate, though. Korra is making a choice to actually change the world by allowing humans and spirits to intermingle again, and that's a choice that—I hope—affects her in Books 3 and 4.
The other change, of course, was the breaking of the link between the past lives and the current Avatar. Watching those past Avatars disappear with each strike against Raava's physical form was a touch scary, and I'm glad that the show didn't just hand-wave a fix, as it did with the Raava-inside-of-Unalatuu thing with Jinora. I'm not sure what it means going forward, but it was a very solid representation of Tenzin's advice about Korra being true to her inner spirit instead of clinging to her past selves.
In fact, despite all its failings, Book 2's greatest success may have been Tenzin's development. I loved how his story this season was bookended by searches for one of his children while his siblings tagged along—I love narrative symmetry—and I liked how it developed the idea of Tenzin as a obsessive perfectionist, who demanded too much of himself and then pushed this onto others. We saw it in his training with Korra, in his interactions with Kya and Bumi as they searched for Ikki, and even in his attempt to help Meelo train the flying lemur.
It helped to explain why his teaching style with Korra may not have been as effective; he, too, was too focused on transforming Korra into Aang, in the same way that Korra was too focused on the weight of being the Avatar instead of being Avatar Korra. It shed light on his relationship with his siblings, both of whom he has generally dismissed as braggarts or aimless wanderers, while failing to see how both of them struggled with the same weight of Aang's legacy.
The Fog of Lost Souls sequence demonstrated more succinctly the weight of expectations, and with more clarity, than much of the rest of Book 2 was able to do. I might've liked more shading on Kya and Bumi's reactions, but I reveled in Tenzin's natural coping response to losing track of himself in the Fog—it's what you do in that situation, as so many narratives have shown us—and the sequence flipped that around by being the thing that triggered his collapse into so much self-doubt.
The spirit of Aang appearing before Tenzin in the Fog was a delight, and exactly the kick in the pants that Tenzin needed. His "I am Tenzin. I am Tenzin!" mantra finally meant that he was his own self, not a "reflection" of Aang. Even better was how this helped him to help Korra, to be the mentor that he always wanted to be, and that Korra needed him to be.
This theme about the weight of expectations, which became much clearer in the final few episodes, didn't really come into play until it was too late, though it has helped to clarify the portions of Book 2 that weren't directly connected to the Water Tribe civil war and the Spirit World. I'm not saying that it made everything work retroactively—plenty of it remains poorly executed—but now, I at least understand what the show's aims were. In the cases of Mako, Bolin, and Asami, they too had different expectations that they just weren't meeting. Mako was struggling to be taken seriously as a cop and as a partner with Korra; Bolin was struggling in pro-bending without Mako, to say nothing of being happy in his persona life, and Asami was trying to keep Future Industries afloat, but none of them were receiving any breaks in their respective endeavors.
So they jumped at chances they might not have otherwise. Asami and Bolin found ways to cover up problems by getting involved with Varrick, and with romance options that may not have been great choices, while Mako ended up throwing himself into a job no one respected him in after realizing that Korra wasn't taking him seriously, either. (To be fair, Mako was also a disrespectful partner, refusing to engage her out of fear.) They were all at their best as they worked together as Team Avatar, as Bolin gestured at in "Night of a Thousand Stars," and without that, they were lost.
The results varied. Bolin found great confidence and success, even if it was as a cog in Varrick's propaganda machine; I have no idea how Asami is faring, since the show elected to downplay her entirely following Mako's arrest; and Mako, well, Mako managed to stand up for himself when he realized what Varrick was plotting, and in admitting that he and Korra had broken up prior to her bout of amnesia. I'm certainly glad that Korra and Mako have reached a point where they realize that they're not good for one another as partners—putting aside the fact that I'm not sure anyone on this show is developed enough to be good for anyone else.
I'm less clear on how I feel about Bolin and Eska, and how things went with them. We were led to believe that Bolin was not acting as he confessed his love to Eska, but later she brushed all of it off as "Eternal darkness was upon us. I became caught up in the moment." As break-up lines go, it was very funny, but it also left me unsure of how that whole thing wrapped up. Does she see Bolin as incompatible? Is Bolin past the worst of his immaturity with his newfound confidence, or is he just still lonely? I have no idea.
The end of Book 2 has left us with a new world to grapple with, which is more than Book 1 did when its conclusion just restored things to the way they were. Book 1 had that resolution due to a collective expectation that it would be a single, isolated season of television. Book 2, armed with the knowledge that Books 3 and 4 are going to happen, ended with enough paths for The Legend of Korra to move forward on—and hopefully, they'll deal with the changes the characters experienced, instead of gently resetting things.
With any animated series, and especially with one that's as serialized like Korra, different seasons often overlap in their production schedules, so as to meet deadlines and give animators time to do their work. If you look at the credits for Book 2, you'll notice the absence of franchise creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. DiMartino wrote four of the episodes, but for the most part, it seems likely that he and Konietzko opted not to devote their attention to making this season, in order to channel their creative energies into the future installments. Perhaps this explains the rough going of the first half, where the creators may have had an idea and then handed it off to another set of creative types to flesh out? The distinct forward propulsion of Book 1 was missing, and this could be the reason.
As much as Book 2 eventually managed to right itself, there was still a considerable amount of haphazardness to it, and that ultimately resulted in a frustrating, lackluster viewing experience that the finale, not to mention the two episodes that preceded it, just couldn't escape. Perhaps, much like what the characters experienced in Book 2, our expectations based on Book 1 affected our reception of its successor? It's something to consider while we wait for Book 3.
– I assume that Vaatu will fully reform himself in 10,000 years when this cycle has to be repeated? Neither Vaatu or Raava can be completely destroyed, so as there must be light in the dark, there must be dark in the light.
– "I've seen that same spirit mushroom five times!" "That's not that same mushroom!" "Yes, I am."
– "Hello, my feeble turtleduck."
– So how brilliant was Admiral Zhao's cameo in the Fog of Lost Souls? Both funny and just the right note to illustrate the horrifying nature of the Fog.
– "I'm too young to live through 10,000 years of darkness!"
– "But I will not miss him at all. In the end, he became a deplorable man." So what happens to the Northern Water Tribe now that Unalaq's dead? Does Eska and Desna's mother take over?
– Best episodes of the season: "Beginnings" Parts 1 and 2 were hands-down the highlights of the season for me. If you pressed me to pick more, I'd go with "Rebel Spirits," "The Southern Lights," and "A New Spiritual Age."
What did you think of the finale? What about Book 2 as a whole?