During the second season of The Legend of Korra, Mike Mazzacane and I teamed up together to provide weekly recaps of the season for Screened. These posts contain my half of each entry.
Do you know what I felt like I was watching whilst “Beginnings” was running? An episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. That’s not meant as an insult, far from it; what I mean is that that sense of wonder and discovery that Avatar had returned for this special two-parter. The colder and more cynical edge of Korra was stripped away for a less morally-complex and more straightforward tale of good fighting against evil, but with the slightly darker tone of later Avatar episodes (though there’s levity, there’s nothing as annoyingly childish as King Bumi from that series, for example). It’s a very nice change of pace for an hour of television that was both a completely separate and fascinating origin tale for the Avatar/Korraverse, and a way of finally giving this season a true sense of direction and clear purpose, in much the same way that Sozin’s Comet gave Avatar direction and purpose (what is this “First Half Of Season 3” you’re going on about? I don’t remember no such time-killing).
But before I dive into gushing madly over an episode that managed to get me completely and totally invested in a final battle that we all knew the outcome of anyway (which is a trick that requires the kind of masterful writing these episodes displayed in droves), a word about the animation. A frequent complaint that I’ve read and heard about with this season of Korra is that the animation quality has had a noticeable step down, yet I’ve gone all season without mentioning it. See, that’s because, due to being a filthy resident of England (I swear, you colonise a country one time…), I can only watch these episodes in standard definition on my crummy laptop, so I’m personally not noticing a massive difference because I’m not watching the show in optimal conditions. This season has looked pretty great all the way through, for me.
Yet even I noticed the huuuuuuge step-up in animation quality for “Beginnings”. This is clearly where Studio Mir have been sinking their budget into all season long because this episode looked phenomenal! Which was your personal favourite moment to look at? The lion turtle rising out of the ground? The oasis guardian possessing one of the hunters? The first time the Avatar state was activated, even if it only lasted for a few glorious seconds? The final battle? It was probably the final battle, wasn’t it, which (even with my laptop coughing up blood by that point) should have dropped the jaws of anybody who loves gorgeous animation.
Raw animating power wasn’t wholly responsible, though; the specialised art-style for this episode was equally as important. The simplified yet still detailed art-style, heavily inspired by classical East Asian paintings (and I didn’t even have to look that up; be impressed), imbued the new world with life even before the surprisingly well-developed characters came along and created the sense that you were watching paintings come to life. If the supposedly lower-quality animation in prior episodes was needed to make this episode a reality without blowing the budget, then that is perfectly fine by me. Hot damn, I need this episode on Blu-Ray, stat!
So with at least a B+ grade guaranteed based on the art and animation alone, Korra could have coasted through a bog-standard origin story with a collection of one-note and dull characters in an episode that was a nice way to spend an hour but didn’t really add anything to the series at large. But such half-assery is not the Korra way of doing things! What we ended up getting was, whilst admittedly predictable, an extremely compelling origin story full of wonderful characters and an absolutely stunning final battle that easily rivals anything in the upper echelons of either show. Steven Yuen, out of all of the voice actors in particular, was fantastic as Wan, nailing every single line reading, although he was helped by a script that kept Wan likable throughout and made his character development feel natural instead of compressed and rushed, like it could have.
Of the story turns, most of which are basic but still work thanks to the actual writing of the episode being that strong, having it turn out that the Avatar is actually an atoner rather than a Chosen One is by far the most interesting. Due to Wan’s one mistake, thousands of years ago, the world is perpetually out of balance and Avatar after Avatar after Avatar, plus himself during his lifetime, is essentially having to clean up after him. It also finally, finally, gives a true descriptor to the Avatar’s purpose to “bring balance to the world”; to build up the power of the Light Spirit Raava enough that, when the Harmonic Convergence arrives once again, the Dark Spirit Vaatu can’t swallow the world in total darkness. After all, Light can’t exist without Dark, but Dark is far more destructive than Light so it helps to try and keep Darkness to a minimum. That’s how I’m reading it, anyway, I may be wrong (as you may probably have gathered from reading my other reviews this season), but it’s a strong turn to take by giving us a clear Big Bad. A Big Bad, may I add, who was far more menacing and memorable in about 14 minutes of screen-time than Unalaq has been this whole season.
(Incidentally, yes, I am now firmly on the “Unalaq is being controlled from afar” theory bandwagon. Thanks for making the inevitable reveal mean a lot less, everybody.)
This episode just plain worked, folks. In the space of about 42 minutes, Korra established an entirely new set of characters, 95% of which we will likely never hear from again, and got me to care about every single one of them. It’s what made that final battle so extraordinary and why I was on the edge of my seat throughout even though Wan wasn’t going to lose (because we don’t have a show, otherwise). It’s why even some extremely clunky dialogue in Part 2 failed to pull me out of the episode (I don’t think anybody needed Raava to spell out that the Avatar and the Light Spirit are now linked for eternity by stating it out loud; even when I was at the age of 7, I could have figured that out). I was hooked on “Beginnings”’ ride from start to finish and I highly appreciate the show now having a clear endgame for this season in mind.
At the end of last week, I complained about the “Korra has amnesia” story turn as just blatant cliffhanger bait. And, well, yeah, it kinda was; she gets her memories back at the end of the episode. It’s a testament, though, to the quality of the episode that I am almost willing to let it slide. If Korra had to get amnesia to make an episode of this quality happen, I am almost willing to let the show’s writing staff off the hook for it. Whether I completely do so depends on how next episode ends up, when Korra returns to the main cast, possibly a changed woman. If Korra doesn’t screw up Korra, I’ll forgive them for the plot turn. But next episode is next episode, the here and now ruled and that’s what matters for now.
(The Legend Of Korra is taking next week off, for some reason, so our review/recap/things will be back on November 2nd, the day after the show returns!)
Callum Petch went to the store to get more fire to start the war. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!