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.
This review is going to be split into two parts, one for each episode and with the second part being much shorter than the first. There was a hell of a lot more for me to talk about in the first of these two episodes than in the second and that’s primarily because the second was far stronger. I apologise in advance to MrMazz for, effectively, squeezing him out of his word count and to you for having to read something written by me for longer than 6 paragraphs, but I really don’t want to have to short-change several of my opinions over others, this week.
Book 2, Chapter 11: Night Of A Thousand Stars
I equally loved this episode and was immeasurably frustrated with it, oftentimes at the same thing. “Night Of A Thousand Stars” primarily concerned itself with tying up loose ends for any plot that does not directly involve the release of Vaatu. Hence the quick reveal and arrest of Varrick, the re-uniting of Team Avatar, the crushing of the Southern rebels in the Water Tribe Civil War we hadn’t seen for… 8 episodes, I think, and the showdown between Unalaq and Tonraq that lacked emotional investment. I understand the necessity for this tactic, but it still led to an uneven episode that I’d likely have been much harsher on had it not been paired with the second episode. In fact, I’m going to go over the stuff I didn’t enjoy before I address the reason I still really enjoyed this episode, regardless.
Tonraq versus Unalaq and, in fact, the whole Southern rebellion completely lacked emotional investment for me, and the reason is simple. This whole Book has been overstuffed and, consequently, Korra hasn’t given this plotline any time or reason for myself, the viewer, to care. We haven’t checked in physically with the resistance since episode 4 and the entire concept of the war itself has barely been referenced since episode 5; instead tossed to the wayside to make room for the more pressing concerns of manipulative warmongers and evil 1,000 year-old spirits looking to destroy humanity. That’s understandable in a story context, but it means that when you eventually have to wrap up the plotline it’s not going to be very emotionally heavy, no matter how hard you try. I was only invested in the Tonraq/Unalaq smack-down on the base instincts of wanting to see Unalaq lose horribly (side bar: this week was a great showcase for evil Unalaq so I’m back on board for his being our baddie), even though it was visually stunning (the Studio Mir touch, ladies and gentlemen). I think back to the Azula/Zuko showdown at the end of Avatar, of which this had close parables with, and remember how that scene invested way more emotionally than just “KICK HER ARSE, ZUKO!” The whole plotline has been a wasted opportunity, is what I’m lamenting,
Elsewhere, I’d like to call shenanigans on Mako’s release from prison. Not the act of freeing him, instead how everybody immediately started metaphorically tripping over themselves to say how brilliant he was for figuring out that Varrick was evil despite the fact that, well, NOBODY BELIEVED HIM! Bolin was the one who exposed Varrick thanks to Mako’s hints. I get that the characters probably feel like they owe him an apology, but the ginormous amount of arse-kissing going on was incredibly distracting. “Great work, Mako! You’re one of our best detectives!” What? He came to you with hard evidence, theories with weight and was the only one who actually did some detective work this season, AND YOU THREW HIM IN JAIL ON AN ANONYMOUS TIP!! You don’t get to just have everybody go “You’re amazing, Mako!” and not throw a bone Bolin’s way or directly apologise to Mako for treating him like crap all season due to your selective amnesia!
Speaking of annoying bureaucrats, I also call shenanigans on President Raiko outright refusing to send troops to fight Unalaq. In the first half of the season, it’s understandable, Korra is being a jerk and there is no reason for Republic City to get involved because the war does not benefit or threaten them in any way. Now, however, Korra is essentially pleading and there is an immediate benefit and threat to Republic City (benefit: not being completely destroyed, threat: complete destruction) and yet Raiko still stands there and refuses to send troops for no good reason at all. It just reeks of artificial stakes raising, Korra and Friends vs. The World is a much bleaker situation than Korra and The Entire Republic City Army vs. Unalaq, rather than something that any sane human being would do.
I will cop to being legitimately disappointed that Varrick’s plotline was wrapped up so neatly, but that’s primarily due to my brain hypothesising an even better end scenario than what we got. For those that care: it basically goes down how it did except that Varrick isn’t exposed and the act plunges Republic City into the Water Tribe war; because I had come to expect Varrick to be that smart. This, after all, is a man who built his own personal prison cell because he had a feeling he’d be thrown in there someday. I do, however, appreciate the show taking time out to point out that, in the grand scheme of things, Varrick isn’t actually all that evil and, excepting Mako, he actually helped Team Avatar more than he hindered them. As a fan of Varrick and shows with very grey moral compasses, this kind of thing pleases me greatly.
But, despite all of my prior frustrations, I am still more than willing to give this episode a pass for one reason: Bolin. He, simply put, has been Korra’s butt-monkey all season long and he was way past due to establish himself as an actual character again, instead of a walking punch-line and oh, man, did Korra ever deliver! Not only did he get to kick all kinds of arse rescuing the President, but he also got genuine dramatic material as he dealt with the realisation that all of his friends have drifted apart, and he also got to crack wise. But that last part did not make up his entire character, like it has for most of this season. Bolin, like his Avatar counterpart Sokka, works best when his snark and occasional butt-monkey tendencies are being coupled with actual material beyond that, which is why we all fell in love with the guy and which is what Korra gave us tonight. For this much needed character course-correct, I’m willing to give this episode at least a B grade.
Book 2, Chapter 12: Harmonic Convergence
So, how can the finale top that? I don’t mean in terms of narrative and emotional stakes and all that jazz, that answer is plainly obvious to everybody with working eyes and ears, I mean in terms of action sequences. Quite simply, EVERYTHING seemed to have been thrown into that Act 2 set-piece. It looked stunning and was way more dynamic and inventive than most of the other action sequences on this show. I was strongly reminded of the assault on Future Industries’ compound at the end of Book 1, but this time with C4 and a flying sky bison and dark corrupting spirits and even more fire and… Throwing more amazing onto an already amazing set-piece isn’t a bad thing, let’s be frank, which is why the airborne attack was one of my favourite set-pieces from either show.
Only for Korra to go and top it barely four minutes later with Bumi Indiana Jones-ing his way through Unalaq’s compound. I have always been hard on the Bumi members of the Avatar/Korra-verse, though I’ve warmed to Korra’s Bumi a fair bit this season, because I have rarely enjoyed the style of humour they bring to the show; often too silly for the tone I feel the show tries to convey. Everything he did in the second act, though, was pretty much perfect; an excellent balance between levity (which was sorely needed, at that point) and awesomeness. I was laughing hysterically and cheering simultaneously when he flew into the tent, knocking Eska and Desna down in the process. Korra spends a lot of its seasons knocking its characters down and making their situations even bleaker, which makes what victories do arrive, even comparatively small ones like this, even sweeter and that set-piece was a perfectly deployed high.
Surprise, surprise, everybody! Unalaq wants to fuse with Vaatu to become the Dark Avatar! Hands up who honestly didn’t see that coming? Likely very few of you. Hell, even I called it two weeks back! And why is he planning on doing so? Er… cos he’s evil and stuff, I guess. Look, Korra gave very little reason for his wanting to fuse that couldn’t be boiled down to “Dude is cray-cray evil” and I do find that disappointing. HOWEVER, this strangely isn’t bugging me as much as I thought it would and, honestly, I think that’s down to Vaatu himself. The entity made such a strong impression back in “Beginnings” that I am actually fearing for the characters purely on the basis that Vaatu is about to get fused with somebody and become the Dark Avatar, regardless of who that person is and what their (lack of) motivations for doing so are. I was on the edge of my seat when Korra was trying to close the portal even though she obviously wasn’t going to be able to close it in time for obvious reasons; we don’t have a finale, otherwise.
As for the through-line between these two episodes (seeing as most of Chapter 12 was action), Mako and Korra’s relationship rekindling, I’m applying a wait and see approach, here. There is no way that this will end clean for anybody involved, hints are already being dropped that Asami is now completely done with Mako due to his buffoonery, and I am prepared to withhold judgement on Mako’s phenomenal imbecility upon his first reunion with Korra until the season is over. Right now, I understand his not breaking the news, Korra needs to be totally focussed on Unalaq and Vaatu and she’s not in the best of moods as is, and it’s offering up some extremely funny situations and lines as a result (I highly appreciate Bolin throwing Mako’s “relationships are like a blood-sucking leech” line from earlier in the season back in his face). I will admit to groaning when Korra’s amnesia turned out to be literal selective amnesia (as opposed to the figurative selective amnesia that most other characters have been suffering from all season long), but I’m willing to go with it for now, considering the head of steam that the season has suddenly built for the finale.
And make no mistake, in the past three chapters, Korra has roared into life and is speeding towards next week’s finale at a breakneck pace. Though this week’s episodes may have frustrated me, sometimes a lot, said frustrations are doing a poor job at dampening my hype levels for the finale. That’s how big the stakes are, that’s how strong the emotional investment is in the main plot and that’s how hooked I am on the presence of our villain, Vaatu. All Korra has to do now is stick the landing and this season as a whole could be totally redeemed wholesale.