CHAPTER ONE: REBEL SPIRIT
Six months ago, Korra defeated Amon, and the Republic City Council was disbanded, affording Tenzin the time to focus on his family and Korra’s training. However, before he takes her on a tour of the Air Temples to heighten her spiritual awareness, everyone heads down to her hometown in the Southern Water Tribe for the Glacial Spirits Festival.
The main focus of “Rebel Spirit” is the philosophical conflict between Korra’s father, Tonraq, and her visiting uncle, Unalaq, Chief of the Northern Water Tribe. Unalaq is immediately a wet blanket, deeming the festival a frivolous perversion of an ancient and hallowed tradition, while the secular-minded Tonraq argues that traditions change. Unalaq offers to instruct Korra in the spiritual ways of the Water Tribe, but Tonraq insists that she first must complete her training under Tenzin. It’s clear, though, that Unalaq is not about to let this issue go.
In the night, a dark spirit attacks, and all including Korra are powerless against it, but along comes Unalaq who performs some kind of glowing, spiritually charged waterbending that mellows the spirit out and sends it on its way. This is enough for Korra to decide to train under Unalaq for a while, much to Tenzin and Tonraq’s chagrin. The episode ends with Tenzin and his family (including his siblings, Kya and Bumi) departing for the Southern Air Temple, and Unalaq telling Korra he has great plans for her, which, even through his avuncular smile, is hella-creepy.
CHAPTER TWO: THE SOUTHERN LIGHTS
Korra and her uncle set out for the South Pole, the spiritual center of the Southern Water Tribe, so that she can open an ancient, long dormant portal to the spirit world. Unalaq believes that by neglecting the spirits, the people of the south angered them, thus the recent increase in spirit attacks. He notes that while happy, peaceful spirits are the source of the northern lights, there are no southern lights because the south was thrown out of balance during the Hundred Years War. Opening this portal should help restore that balance.
When they reach the South Pole, after a tussle with some testy ophidian spirits that merge into one big spirit snake, Korra manages to unlock the portal not with the physical elements, but with the Avatar State, restoring the southern lights. Everything seems great until Korra returns home to find Unalaq’s troops docking and marching onto shore. Apparently, opening the portal was just phase one of Unalaq’s plan to “unite” the Water Tribes. Dude seems like he means well, but… yeah, I’m seeing a lot of hellbound infrastructure on the horizon.
The other storyline in this episode follows Tenzin’s family to the Southern Air Temple, where Tenzin takes eldest daughter Jinora to a room that houses statues of all the past Avatars, and she has a quiet, profound, almost trance-like moment with the statue of Avatar Aang. Later, she wakes and heads back to the statue room, drawn to a statue of some unknown Avatar standing within spirals that resemble both Unalaq’s spiritbending and the snake spirits that attacked Korra. The statue glows just as the southern lights are restored. Hmm…
I didn’t think it possible for the animators to improve on the visuals of Book One, but somehow they found a way. The characters move naturally and fluidly, especially during action sequences, which are as inspired and dynamic as ever. Also of note is the use of color. Book One was rooted in Republic City, and all the greys and browns that dominated that palette were fitting for that dark, gritty, noir feel. But this premiere was filled with vibrant blues, purples, and golds, and from the look of the trailers, Book Two will be a lot more colorful overall.
Korra’s character development is handled realistically. She’s finally eager explore her spiritual side but is still approaching her education with her typical impatience and rebellion. She’s seventeen, a grown woman in the Avatar world (at least of marrying age in the Water Tribes), and yet she’s still being coddled and handled by—as any feminist worth their salt will point out—the men in her life.
When it was first stated in Book One that Aang had decreed Korra be sequestered and raised under constant supervision, it was certainly a sensible decision, but it didn’t sound like the Aang we all knew and loved. Sure, he had to grow up and level out at some point, but I doubt that even as a mature, responsible adult he would have condemned his next life to a stationary, lonely, isolated existence that he would never have tolerated himself. The revelation that it was not he, but Tonraq and Tenzin who ordered Korra’s isolation makes perfect sense, even if it is likely a bit of retcon thought up long after Book One was in the can.
Korra was already pissed off that the two kept cock-blocking Unalaq’s efforts to mentor her before she even had a chance to choose for herself whether or not to give him a shot, but this revelation dealt a major blow to their credibility, laying the foundation for her eventual rejection of them both. This pulls the rug right out from under Tenzin. His entire function in the story is to be Korra’s teacher, so what is he now? The answer is awesome. He is awesome.
Without Korra around to take up all of his time, we get to see a clearer picture of who Tenzin was before the series started, how he related not only to the family he made with Pema, but the family he came from. He was Aang and Katara’s youngest and only airbending child, putting the responsibility of repopulating the world with airbenders on his shoulders. At birth. No wonder he was such a serious kid, which likely made it all the more tempting for his lighthearted siblings to pick on him, and while Kya and Bumi are laughing about it now, it’s obvious that Tenzin, now in his early fifties, still hasn’t entirely gotten over it. Those sibling dynamics never completely go away, and while I know his pain all too well (having been the baby of my own family until I was nearly ten), seeing his siblings push his buttons is enormously entertaining, bordering on cathartic, and just goes to show how built his character is for comedy. I love seeing these three together, so when Katara suggests he take them along to visit their father’s childhood home (Aw… Aang feelings!) because when they get to be her age, they’ll come to appreciate the time they had with their siblings (Aw… Sokka feelings! This show is trying to destroy me!), I legit clapped. For real. Ask my friend Shamus. He was there.
On the subject of Kya and Bumi, they rule. I get the feeling that while Tenzin took after his father spiritually, Bumi—a non-bender—ended up inheriting more of Aang’s actual personality. In fact, if his father and his namesake could be genetically merged into one person, Bumi would be the product. As for Kya…oh, my wonderful Kya. She is totally the cool aunt that would catch you getting high and then scoff with disapproval at how much you probably paid for such low grade weed when she would have given you the good shit she grows in the backyard for free. I have loved her from the moment I saw her character design over a year ago, and I only love her more now. I want to hang out with her so badly I can’t even put it into words. I have to say, no other show has made me identify with and root so fervently for not one, but multiple post-menopausal women. In fact, I would pay good money for a show just about Kya, Katara, Lin Beifong, and Zuko’s daughter hanging out and being all sassy and, you know, beating each other up. Avatar Golden Girls, Bryke. Make it happen.
It wasn’t lost on me that at the same time Tenzin began reconnecting with his siblings, his daughter began breaking away from hers. Jinora’s about eleven now. She was already rather serene and mature for her age, but now that she’s just a few cramps and a mood swing away from adolescence, she’s about the age Aang was in Avatar, giving Korra that tween hero vibe it has heretofore been without. It makes sense that she’d be the first of Tenzin’s kids to get her own storyline, especially being such a bookworm and touring the Air Temples, where her ancestors were raised and educated for thousands of years. Now, of course, I’d love to see Ikki and Meelo get their own material as well, but judging from the trailers, it doesn’t seem likely to happen in Book Two, and you know what? I am totally fine with that. We’ve already got enough going on, speaking of which…
Mako and Bolin seem to have each gotten a character makeover between seasons: nothing radically different, but it seems the writers have finally gotten a handle on their personalities and voices. Bolin’s humor has been toned down just a shade, and he seems to be edging more toward being the awkward, social faux pas guy, rather than just Sokka 2.0. It’s implied that Mako’s not taking care of him anymore, which would force him to step up and become a man so that they can both finally have their own lives. Solid in theory, but without Mako or Korra on the team, pro-bending just isn’t the same for poor Bolin, and he seems more lost than anyone in this premiere. It looks like he’s got a lot of soul-searching ahead of him, which should be fun to explore.
As for Mako, poor dude received a lot of criticism from the fans during Book One for being bland and wishy-washy, and that criticism was not entirely undeserved. While Mako was a fantastic character in concept, in execution I don’t think he quite came off as the writers intended. While we got some backstory on him, and his scenes with Bolin really showed the core of their relationship, his character was almost entirely motivated by his feelings for Korra. Now that he’s with her, we’re starting to see who he really is and possibly who he was supposed to be all along. He’s retired from pro-bending, joined the police force, and seems to not only be thriving in that career but genuinely enjoying the work. According to Beifong (whom we sadly do not see), he’s on a steady track to making detective.
Ironically, now that Mako isn’t focusing solely on Korra, I’m far more invested in their relationship. They’ve been together six months, and the smoldering attraction of Book One has given way to a casual intimacy that is just a pleasure to watch. They hold hands, they have fun together, and not only do they fight, they fight about character-specific problems. I’ve long decried the prevailing wisdom that once you get two characters together, you’ve got nowhere left to go. That’s only true when you have boring, one-dimensional characters. Otherwise, coupling is where the interesting stuff begins. As with Zuko and Mai, who were far and away the most interesting couple in Avatar, Korra and Mako’s relationship conflict is totally legit, and the writers don’t waste time on pedestrian garbage like jealousy, petty slights, or any other hackneyed, Saved By The Bell ridiculata.
Korra is going through a lot, she’s emotionally volatile, and she’s taking it out on Mako. Nothing he says is right, leaving him completely confused as to what Korra really wants, an indiscriminately supportive boyfriend or someone who will be honest with her. In the end, he realizes she’s having a hard time trusting all the other men in her life and what she needs is to trust not in him, but her own heart. He supports her in believing in herself and finding her own way. She recognizes this gesture and makes it clear just how much she appreciates him. I would like to state right here and now that this little mini-arc—hell, just the initial two-minute tiff—is infinitely more interesting and satisfying than all eleven episodes of Book One’s interminable, bush league, will they/won’t they bullshit. By a longshot.
There’s also a sub-plot in “Rebel Spirit” about Asami meeting with an eccentric business mogul to restore some prestige to Future Industries after her father burned a whole bunch of bridges by being a PYSCHO TERRORIST. Varrick certainly makes an impression as a fun, vain kind of character we haven’t seen before in this venue, and given how much spotlight he gets, I’m sure this will all turn out to be very important down the road, but right now…honestly? No one cares. However well written and acted this corporate drama might be (and is), it’s just a chore to sit through with all this epic, mythic shit about spirits and temples and the threat of religiously motivated civil war brewing just offscreen. I can’t help but feel the writers did this storyline a massive disservice by starting it here in the premiere, where it is dwarfed by a lot of material that’s frankly just a lot more interesting. Then again, I very well may eat those words before the season is done, so I reserve all final judgments until then.
Worthy of note is the introduction of Korra’s twin cousins, Eska and Desna, who are kind of like Mai, only with less personality, which sounds bad, but they’re great. Desna doesn’t really get a lot of play in these first two episodes, but Eska’s every line, delivered with the glorious deadpan of Aubrey Plaza, absolutely kills. Though Desna is a guy, he and Eska are practically identical, which leads Bolin (not hip to what Desna’s packing under his robes) to comment on how cute they both are. And even once he knows, he still needs to be told who’s who. And there we finally have it, folks. Canon bi-curiosity in the Avatar universe! Slash writers, start your engines! Incidentally, Eska claiming Bolin as her bitch initially seems to be completely cold and selfish, but she does end up showing some genuine concern. She saves his life (with an expressionless face) and later assures him in a moment of fear that she’ll protect him (also with an expressionless face). I’m not quite sure how much mileage the twins have or where the vibe between Eska and Bolin will go, but I’m definitely on board to find out.
And, of course, there’s Tonraq and Unalaq. While Tonraq did appear briefly in Book One, it’s likely his entire Northern Water Tribe backstory was invented after the fact. And that’s fine by me. If you’re going to retcon, this is how you fucking do it. Turns out Tonraq was banished by his father the chief when his unwitting desecration of a sacred arctic forest (in the process of hunting down a horde of raiders) enraged the spirits, inciting them to rampage on the capital. Luckily, Unalaq was there to calm them with his spiritbending, but the collateral damage was so extensive Tonraq got the boot and his birthright passed to his brother.
This goes a long way toward explaining Tonraq’s militant secularism—if he wasn’t very reverent before, this whole banishment thing would seriously nail that coffin shut—as well as the spiritual block Korra has struggled with her entire life. Just look at the household she was a product of. And that’s now coming back to bite them both in the ass as Korra’s spiritual awareness grows. Well done, writers. That is some seamless retcon if I ever saw it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the parallels between Tonraq and Avatar’s Zuko. Bryke do seem to favor variations on themes, and this is an interesting one. Both were crown princes who were banished and had their birthright usurped by a younger sibling. However, Zuko’s exile was a cruel and unjust punishment for acting in good conscience and something he strove tirelessly to undo. Tonraq, on the other hand, pretty much deserved what he got, and while he wasn’t thrilled with it and still has something of a chip on his shoulder, he took his punishment like a man and moved on with his life, one he seems quite happy with so long as Unalaq isn’t around to rub salt in the wound…which brings us to Unalaq.
It really is fantastic how much moral texture the Water tribes are getting in Korra. It should be apparent to anyone that Unalaq has ulterior motives and is poised to be a major antagonist. Does anyone else find it kind of fishy that these spirit attacks started increasing in frequency just weeks before his big visit to the Southern Water Tribe, a problem his unique spiritbending could conveniently solve? For that matter, it sure is “fortunate” that he was there to urge Tonraq to follow those raiders into that forest, precipitating the spirit onslaught that would ultimately put him in the position to become chief of the Northern Water Tribe. My, that’s convenient. I wouldn’t be surprised if he told the raiders about that forest, setting the whole thing up.
It’s impossible not to compare Chief Unalaq to Councilman Tarrlok from Book One. Both are political figures, both are ambitious and expertly manipulative, and both are Water Tribe, specifically Northern Water Tribe, but I don’t think Bryke would be so lazy as to repeat themselves and I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. Despite the similarities in their methods, I think the key difference between Tarrlok and Unalaq is their motives. Tarrlok was purely self-serving. He was ruthless, cruel, and wanted power for its own sake, what it could do for him and him alone. Unalaq might be equally devious, but I think he’s ultimately altruistic. Like any well-intentioned extremist he believes he knows what’s best for everyone, which is arrogant as fuck, but the point is he honestly believes he’s acting in the best interest of his people. He may have a spiritual agenda visible from space, but from his point of view, making the Water Tribes more in tune with the spirits will benefit everyone, so if that means forcibly assimilating his sister tribe, well, it’s for their own good, right?
It’s for this reason that I don’t think Unalaq will be the big bad of Book Two, as is the current popular theory. Not that a religious fanatic’s descent into madness wouldn’t be fun to watch, but I see a lot more mileage for his character in going the Dr. Frankenstein route. I see Unalaq more as a catalyst whose hubris will open the door to a threat far greater than he could ever be, and either the guilt will drive him completely insane or it’ll give him the perspective to pare it back and unite with his brother (representing the willing union of North and South) against a true threat. Plus it would be really satisfying to see some guy who’s spent his life drowning in spirit-wank to have his life completely fucked up by the Spirit World. So, no, I don’t know who or what the ultimate threat of Book Two will be, but I don’t think Unalaq’s it. At least I hope not.
So, point blank, was the premiere good? Yes and no. All the necessary elements were there: character, humor, a solid setup for the arc, and the introduction of its key players. It had an epic scope with loads of scenery porn. It delved deeper into the mythology (more on that in future reviews) and showed us more of how the world has grown and changed between the two series. The performances were strong. The action was flawless. And yet…somehow the finished product failed to be more than the sum of its parts. It was quality work, but it just wasn’t as…I don’t know…kinetic as the show can be. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a Season 1 episode of Babylon 5; it’s well written, it’s entertaining, it’s certainly time well spent, but you just know it won’t really gain purchase until you’ve completed the entire arc. Only once you can step back and see the big picture for which this opening chapter lays the foundation can you truly appreciate its value. On its own, it’s good but it’s not Korra at its best.
That being said, the parts that didn’t quite work for me very well may in hindsight, and the parts that did work have me lusting—lusting, I tell you—for more. Bring it on, Bryke. I’m keeping the faith and I can’t wait to see what kind of clusterfuck Unalaq has in store next time in the ominously titled “Civil Wars, Part 1.”