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'Book Two' explores darker chapter of 'Korra' angst

Nickelodeon

By akse, Daily B-Side Editor
Published September 20, 2013

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. The “Avatar” world has always been branded by its divides. The Fire Nation, a belligerent, authoritarian entity, actively gravitates toward power as the Earth Kingdom erects massive castles to wall off outside aggression. The Air Nomads drift from one stronghold to the next like nomads while the Water Tribes embrace lifestyles anchored around a philosophy of harmony with nature. These divides, apparent dichotomies in culture and thought, are part of the reason the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” worked so well.

The contrasts were clearly evident and engrossing as we traversed the world with Aang on a single, unifying mission. Aang and his buddies, like ourselves, were new arrivals to this massive, continent-hopping stage and so their reactions, tinged with childish wonder, felt genuine and connectable. But what set the show apart were its darker themes. In the form of Fire Lord Ozai and Sozin’s Comet, there was an ever-present, impending notion of urgency hanging thick in the air. This urgency is what “The Legend of Korra” struggled to build in season one and still hasn’t found in the premiere of “Book Two.”

The premiere consists of the first two episodes, tied together into a 40-something-minute block where we find Korra (Janet Varney, “Burning Love”) continuing to understand her responsibilities as an Avatar. Tenzin (J. K. Simmons, “Jobs”) is still her by-the-book teacher, and she’s still the same rage-against-the-machine Korra we’ve grown to know and love, but one of the show’s strengths has always been the changing dynamic its writers are able to create between every single minor character.

The premiere is filled with quotable lines, coming usually from the mouths of Bolin (P. J. Byrne, “The Game”) or his newfound love-interest Eska (Aubrey Plaza, “Parks and Recreation”) (“Why are you initiating physical contact with another woman?” Never change, April), and the humor cleanly seals any gaps of just waiting around, of which there are plenty.

Around every corner, there’s an ever-present yearning to move on — to look for the next phase in life. That challenge presents itself in the form of unhappy water spirits wreaking havoc on the Southern Water Tribe’s ships and villages. The source of the problem, as explained by Korra’s uncle and enigmatic leader of the Northern Water Tribe, Unalaq (Adrian LaTourelle, “Boston Legal”), is the South’s perceived disrespect for tradition. The decay in the sister tribe’s regard for the supernatural has set the world out of balance. So in order to teach Korra how to better embrace her role as the bridge between the spirit and human worlds, Unalaq offers to become her new mentor.

It’s all very teenage-angsty. The need to grow up, not only as an Avatar, but as a woman, is a theme that has kept this show intriguing. In this episode, we get plenty of shots of Korra tussling with herself to come to the right decision, and when she finally decides, it appears in the form of that classic “I’m-going-to-enter-the-Avatar-State-and-fuck-shit-up” format. Like any other time people go into the Avatar State, the moment is oddly cathartic even if it may be slightly lazy story-telling, yet what keeps it interesting, especially in the context of “Korra,” is the knowledge that our new Avatar has a penchant for attacking problems head-on, without thinking things through.

It’s always been her greatest failing, one that threatens to dilute the relevance of what gives her her greatest strength. And here’s where this episode excels. It sets up the larger conflict that will likely guide the rest of the season, if not the rest of the series: Will Korra be able to confront the realization that, even at her physical strongest, she can be manipulated? As is evident in the episode’s excellent last scene, this season seeks to explore darker themes of naivety and forceful government in a way that was sadly overlooked in the last few episodes.

Rather than grand, more tried-and-true ideals of “taking on the world,” Korra’s facing the much more relevant challenge of growing as a person, something the show brilliantly underscores in meaningful connections back to Aang. And even if this premiere might not have been the perfect way to springboard us into the discussion, I’m sure as hell excited for what’s to come.


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