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.
So, what’s the headline that I should lead with, here? At the start of this episode, it was going to be “Studio Mir are BACK, BABY!” due to the absolutely gorgeous animation in those first few minutes, and conversations that were shot and animated with the same level of care and detail as the more obviously pretty sequences. Then, about 7 minutes in, it was going to be “UNCLE IROH, OH MY GODS! SQUEEEEEEEE!!!” because come on, people! At the 10-or-so minute mark, it was then going to be “Wan Shi Tong is still kicking around!” and maybe a secondary headline about how Iroh sounds waaay more off than I remember, even in Season 3 of Avatar. Then, near the end, I was going to lead by finally giving credit to Unalaq for doing dastardly deeds at long frickin’ last; but then JK Simmons, in essentially three lines, went and stole the entire episode by selling totally what was a clichéd yet still effective plot turn with utterly heart-breaking line-readings.
Yeah, you could say that I was a fan of “A New Spiritual Age”. Stripping back the show to focus on just the one plot-line this week, Korra and Jinora’s visit to The Spirit World, gave this episode a much clearer pace and sense of plotting that most of this season has lacked. I’m sure that we’ll get our check-in with the various Republic City antics in part one of next week’s doubled-up episodes and if that ends up being entirely focussed on those guys, like how this one was totally focussed on Korra and Jinora (which is just such a fun pair of names to say together, is it not), then I’m sure that that one will also be excellent. I don’t have too much of a problem with shows that have more than 2 or 3 plots on the go, but trying to keep them all going with screen-time every single week requires strong writing and, most importantly, an episode run-time longer than 22-minutes. The best episodes of Game Of Thrones, for example, are frequently the ones that pair events down to just one or two plotlines. It gives clear focus, gives plots time to breathe and develop, which is what happened here, to this episode’s immense benefit.
Plus, you know, STUDIO MIR ARE BACK, BABY! Of course it’s most noticeable during the more wondrous events in the Spirit World, the first of many “Wow!” moments for me came when Jinora touched the flower and it seamlessly transformed into a butterfly, but they also stamped their mark on the episode with the opening conversation. Notice how the camera occasionally moves as the conversation occurs, how Tenzin and Kya are more expressive when listening to and reacting to Bumi, how faces in almost every conversation don’t just stare stock straight 80% of the time. It shows care and effort and it helps make the more obvious “wow!” sequences pop that much more. My favourite of those “wow!” shots this week (and there were a hell of a lot to choose from) was relatively early on: the water sequences where Korra and Jinora were separated from each other. The slightly disorientating camera once they’re separated, the dynamic movement of the water coupled with the level of detail put into it, the layout of the caves themselves, Korra’s facial reaction when she sees that they’re about to be swallowed up… Studio Mir knows how to stage a scene, however mundane, and that helps lift the quality of the script tenfold.
Well, I’ve put it off long enough, let’s talk about Uncle Iroh. I have read complaints about his return in several other places (primarily the comments on The AV Club which I am slowly learning not to visit for shows that I enjoy), claiming that his inclusion here was fanservice and nothing more. Except that Iroh The First has always been inherently spiritual and cool-headed; it’s why his defection in Avatar, once he realises he’s been on the wrong side all this time, works and it’s what makes when he does lose his temper that much more impactful. So of course he would, essentially, ascend to a higher plane of existence once he felt that Earth had no more to offer him and it’s what makes him an obvious fit for teaching Korra to control her emotions. I mean, who else was going to teach her? Azula? Of course, some may still just cry “fanservice” in an attempt to nullify Uncle Iroh’s scenes of any impact, and to those people I say… so? Admit it, you freaked the frak out when his voice popped up before the commercial break, didn’t ya? And only the stoniest and most heartless of thugs weren’t moved to the brink of tears as Korra, and by extension Korra, said goodbye to him for, presumably, the last time.
Whilst I would love to talk about Korra’s journey this episode, as she seemingly cements the character growth into a calmer and less outwardly hostile Avatar that she’s been on these past few weeks, my word count limit is fast approaching and I would much rather use my remaining time to talk about that final sequence. The “bad guy captures somebody close to the hero, threatens to kill them unless the hero complies with the villain’s wishes and then goes about trying to kill both when the hero goes through with it, anyway” plot turn is, quite possibly, the oldest trick in the book. One of those plot turns that a predominately large amount of the more genre-savvy audience will audibly sigh and shake their heads at. Korra, however, for me, gets away with this for two reasons. The first: Jinora is a fantastic character who has managed to easily rise above the “she’s a child, WORRY ABOUT THE SAFETY OF THE CHILD” manipulative-emotional-lever-pull that other shows may have turned her into by this point. My fears for her safety, although it was quite obvious that nothing was going to happen to her, come on now (it’s one thing to directly show a murder-suicide, but child-killing is still considered taboo on pretty much every network), were down to strong character work up to this point.
The second is JK Simmons’ absolutely phenomenal voice work in that final scene. The writing of Tenzin’s panicked reaction to Jinora still being stuck in the Spirit World would likely have caused me to be worried, anyway. The facial expressions of Korra and Tenzin as they both try to and fail to comprehend what has happened to Jinora may have pushed me to the brink of tears with the writing. Simmons’ utterly terrified delivery, which gets every more terrified and broken with each line that passes, was the thing that set those tears off during the credits and would likely have done so even without the writing and animation. It’s the way that he delivers “What’s happened to my little girl?” that pushes that scene into the overload; the exact kind of panic and desperation that almost any parent would have in a similar situation where one of their children doesn’t come back from somewhere and the elder child can’t quite figure out how to break it to them. Just… phenomenal work, there, primarily from Simmons but also from everyone involved. They got me to cry on a Saturday morning, and that takes skill.
Even if this was yet another table-setting episode, it was still Korra operating at the highest possible gears it can reach. The tighter focus allowed the episode the luxuries of good pacing and breathing room; if this were a more crowded episode, like last week’s “The Guide”, for example, do you think Uncle Iroh’s tea party would have even been featured, let alone made for a nice, relaxing and also plot-and-thematically important 5-minute window? Studio Mir’s return gave us gorgeous animation in the most mundane of moments (look back at the framing and blocking of Korra and Iroh’s conversation where she learns how to control the mood of the Spirit World) as well as the more obvious (I love the visual trickery that went on when Korra separated from Iroh to go and climb the mountain). The callbacks were appreciated and unobtrusive, in that they actually added something instead of just being, “LOOK! DANTE BASCO IS BACK AS SOMEBODY CALLED IROH!” And, oh yes, it managed to raise the stakes in more immediate ways that elicited genuine sadness on my end. Never mind that Unalaq is still a barely defined villain with few motivations of his own, he managed to make an impact on his own this week for the first time in… ever. That alone is enough to make this episode A-grade worthy in my book!