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The Legend of Korra S02E01 & S02E02: "Rebel Spirit" & "The Southern Lights"

People! People! IT'S FINALLY HERE!!! Book 2 of The Legend of Korra has begun! 

SQUEE!!!

Ahem. 

I was fully prepared just to copy and paste "SQUEE!!!" a few hundred times, but Jen told me I wouldn't get paid if I did that, so I guess I have to come up with some actual thoughts about the premiere beyond expressing my fannish glee now that one of television's best programs is back on the air.

Book 2 hit the ground running, and that's a very good thing. The quick snippets that filled in the six-month gap between Book 1 and Book 2—the Republic City council was disbanded and a president was elected, Bumi retired from the United Republic Forces to hang out with Tenzin, and Mako and Korra are still an item—provided just enough context for the second round of context-providing scenes: Mako's a cop, Bolin is struggling with a new Fire Ferrets team, Asami is trying to keep Future Industries afloat, and Korra's still on Air Temple Island. It was all quickly established, entertainingly so, and then we were whisked off to the Southern Water Tribe for what will constitute a considerable portion of Book 2's narrative.

Do I wish that we had maybe spent some time seeing and working through the fallout of the Equalist movement? Yes, absolutely, as I can't imagine that getting rid of the council and electing a president solved all the strife Amon managed to stir up, but since I'm guessing we'll circle back to Republic City a bit later in the season—Mako has to go back to work at some point, right?—I'm okay with it.


I'm also okay with it because both of these first two episodes—but particularly "Rebel Spirit"—had a lot of place-setting to do, and including more extensive epilogue-y scenes for Book 1 would've made the premiere feel unnecessarily crowded. Both episodes did a very fine job of introducing so many new characters and setting up both the central struggles within the Spirit World and Unalaq's aims on the Southern Water Tribe, all while still allowing room for Korra and Mako to be young people in love and Desna and Eska to get into Bolin-related silliness. In all, I'd rather have moments like Korra water-bending a squirt-gun carnival game, Varrick's little boat party, and Bolin in an inflatable parka balancing out Unalaq's very ominous speeches than just having Unalaq's very ominous speeches.

Speaking of Unalaq, two very nice extensions from Book 1 are already playing out in Book 2 and are worth thinking about, especially given that Unalaq's Northern Water Tribe forces arrived to bring spirituality to the heathens of the South at the end of "Southern Lights." On just a surface level, I like that Korra has again found herself caught in a struggle between two brothers. Whereas in Book 1 no one was aware of the cross purposes that Tarrlok and Amon/Noatak were working at until the end of that narrative, here, the struggles between Unalaq and Tonraq were made apparent from the get-go, from Unalaq being chief of the Northern Water Tribe when it should have been Tonraq to the spiritual conflict between the two men. The family aspect ups the personal stakes considerably, and that should hopefully create some meaty dramatic tension.


The other extension is that Book 2 will continue to complicate our ideas of this world, and our assumptions about it based on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Korra Book 1 played with our perceptions about the power dynamics between benders and non-benders, both literally and politically. Book 2 seems to be priming itself to expand our sense of the Spiritual World, and how it relates to the Physical World. We know from A:TLA that the Spiritual World is both a realm of danger—hello there, Koh the Face Stealer!—and a realm of enlightenment, and that nothing happens in the Spiritual World without it having an impact on the Physical World, and vice versa. 

Already, we're getting a different sense of how spirits manifest in the Physical World than we did in A:TLA. The spirits here move differently and with more of a purpose, and they aren't taking on the forms of related spiritual creatures, but they're still able to cause both property damage and mischief in the Physical World. They're a different sort of manifestation than what Aang and Team Avatar I dealt with. 

But the most intriguing element of this is the tension between spiritualism and secularism. While Aang's absence allowed the Fire Nation to wage a century-long war, it also threw the balance between the two worlds out of whack. His return, and subsequent profile as a world leader, probably helped to rejuvenate an interest in the Spiritual World. However, in the same way that Book 1 used the Equalists and technology to call into question the value of the Avatar and its place in the world, rapid modernization and secularism have raised questions about the value of the Spiritual World to the Physical World's residents.


So the show has inverted our supposed comfort zones again. In Book 1, we were aligned with Korra as seeing bending, and by extension the Avatar, as a positive for the world; it seemed that Amon's Equalist rhetoric would bring harm. The show gradually forced us to reconsider those notions, between an all-bender ruling council and a police force seemingly comprised entirely of metal benders. With Book 2, we have the privileged position of knowing that the Spiritual World is a vital component of this narrative universe, but we, as both viewers and people who are living in a fast-paced, technologically connected, planned-obsolesce society, can both thrive on and fall prey to the very secularization that's causing trouble for the Southern Water Tribe on the show.

What do we value? How do we balance it in our lives? Yes, it was a very funny moment when Varrick introduced Whacky Woshu's Dancing Otter Penguins—goodness knows I love me some otter penguins—but Korra made a very pointed commentary by having those instances follow one another: A serious speech about spirituality, one that generated whispers among the gala attendees, was immediately undercut by some goofy entertainment. What's important, and how are we making that determination? Are we getting distracted by cute animals when we should be focused on our spiritual selves?


If there's one other place we see this struggle playing out, it's in, appropriately enough, Korra herself. Korra's never been one for communing with the spirits, or even her past selves. Aang had to reach out to her in dreams and times of crisis to guide her, and it wasn't until she was at her lowest point that Aang was able to actually manifest in front of her. For all her talk about being the Avatar and the bridge between the worlds, especially in these two episodes, Korra hasn't made much progress in her ability to connect with the Spiritual World.

Consider, as just one example, her use of the Avatar State in "Rebel Spirits." Sure, she employed it to win an air scooter race, but she also entered the Avatar State shortly after confronting an angry spirit. Where Aang, once he gained control of the Avatar State, used it both as a last-last resort (with violence already being Aang's last resort) and as a spiritual bridge, Korra treated it like she was activating the Super Sayian transformation in Dragon Ball Z. She didn't enter the Avatar State to talk to the spirit, as Tenzin attempted to do in his non-Avatar way and as Aang likely would have done, but instead in an effort to blast it to smithereens. It was a physical response to a literal spiritual problem

Of course, her bending as always been more physical than spiritual. From her very first appearance in the series as "I'M THE AVATAR AND YOU GOTTA DEAL WITH IT!" to her expression of mastering air-bending as "Punch punch punch," Korra simply isn't in tune with that aspect of being the Avatar. This entire situation, the Spiritual World's crisis and Unalaq's spirituality-by-force, could be prove more daunting that Amon and his anti-bending ever were.



LEAVES ON THE WIND

– Tenzin's map is just the best thing.

– Oh, Mako, and your cop one-liners. "Looks like you guys should put more 'try' in 'Triad'." YEEEEAAAH!

– "From now on, it's 24/7 BUMI TIME!"

– "I'm not scared of you. Anymore."

– Allow me to express how much the film nerd in me loved the Muybridge reference in Varrick's moving pictures demonstration with the ostrich horse. Even the idea of Ginger striking poses is in keeping with film history, as it wasn't uncommon to film women—often in various stages of undress—striking poses, exercising, or doing mundane tasks. Such films were shown under the guise of "medical" films, but we all know better.


– "You amuse me. I will make you mine." "You mean like a boyfriend? ...Or like a slave?" "Yes. Win me prizes."

– You may or may not be aware of this, but between books, Korra changed animation studios. Book 1 was animated by Studio Mir, and Book 2 will be animated by Studio Pierrot with Mir in a supervising capacity. If you watch anime, chances are you've seen at least one Pierrot series at some point, with Bleach and Naruto being their two recent big huge  ginormous profile productions. I only bring this up because I think there's been a slight shift in the Korra's style, and it looks a bit more like Pierrot's style, particularly Bleach

That's neither a positive nor a negative in my book as the show still looks good, and the characters are all on-model based on last season's designs—it isn't like Batman: The Animated Series, where you could see a stark difference between Sunrise and TMS episodes—but I feel like there are some subtle differences, especially in the face and eyes. And I could just be making it all up. This seems just as likely.

– I know it's early and there are lots of new people and situations to introduce, but, folks, I already miss Lin

– I didn't touch on a ton of stuff, from the glut of new characters and voice additions like Lisa Edelstein (Kya), John Michael Higgins (Varrick), and Aubrey Plaza (Eska) to the show's apparent move to give Jinora an expanded role (I am fully on board with it). But that's what the comments are for! What'd you think or the premiere? Who are your favorite new characters? What are you most excited about? LET'S COMMENT BEND!

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 11/22/2013

Season 2 : Episode 14

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