Avatar Korra’s first day on Air Temple Island has not gone well, first when Master Tenzin rejects her idea to see a pro-bending match and then when she utterly fails at her first Airbending lesson: navigating an obstacle course of spinning wooden doors without touching any of them. The tension between Korra and Tenzin only grows as Korra defies the spirit of his orders to eavesdrop on a pro-bending match radio broadcast (although, in true teenager spirit, she tries justifying this through legalistic wrangling), and then when her impatience disrupts a meditation session. Frustrated by her lack of success at Airbending, Korra sneaks off Air Temple Island to Republic City’s arena to see a pro-bending match herself. There, she meets two-thirds of the Fire Ferrets pro-bending team: Bolin, a gregarious and cheerful Earthbender, and his brother Mako, a gruff, no-nonsense Firebender. Korra reveals her identity as the Avatar after watching their victorious match, picking up a few tips from Bolin in the arena’s training gym while getting repeatedly brushed off by Mako. When her Airbending training still isn’t “clicking,” as Tenzin claims it will, Korra explodes (literally and figuratively), declaring maybe the problem isn’t with her, but with Tenzin’s teaching methods. She sneaks out to the arena again and ends up joining the Fire Ferrets when the team’s Waterbender fails to appear. Her pro-bending debut doesn’t go much better than her Airbending training, with her many mistakes leading to two lost rounds before Tenzin appears and demands that she return with him to Air Temple Island. Korra refuses, going as far as to suggest that she may not need Airbending training at all. In her last match, right at the edge of the ring, Tenzin’s teachings finally “click,” as she moves like an Airbender to dodge the opposing team’s attacks, aiding the Fire Ferrets to a knockout victory that earns them a berth in the playoffs. Korra and Tenzin apologize to each other for their mutual misunderstandings, and the episode ends with Korra dreaming of victory in the arena while Mako gazes cryptically towards Air Temple Island.
In re-watching “A Leaf in the Wind” to write this recap, it dawned on me that almost every major plot point so far in The Legend of Korra can be defined as a conflict between the Old and the New. Korra’s decision to leave the Southern Water Tribe lands for Republic City, Korra’s various misadventures once she arrives, the motivations of Amon’s anti-bending faction, every argument Korra and Tenzin have — every single one of them can be viewed as a battle between traditional, older attitudes and newer ones. The very existence of Republic City is even the resolution of an Old vs. New conflict rooted in the original series.
If you accept this theme, then it’s easy to see how The Legend of Korra refuses to take one side or the other, insisting on finding virtue and fault in both. The two major plot threads introduced in “A Leaf in the Wind” are pro-bending and Korra’s mental block in learning Airbending. Korra really wants to see pro-bending in action (the New), while Tenzin views it as a mockery of ancient traditions (the Old). The argument is fascinating to me as a (long out of practice) martial artist, since many of the points raised are brought up in the ongoing real-world debate on the role of sport and competition in the martial arts.
Korra also fails to learn from the old-fashioned Airbending training methods Tenzin first uses. Given what we know of Korra, it’s unsurprising to learn that her straightforward personality and bull-in-a-china-shop attitude have trouble grasping the gentler, more indirect philosophies that drive Airbending. Despite the explicit goal of avoidance in the Airbender obstacle course, Korra charges in heedlessly, thinking she can power her way through it just as she’s done for everything else. She earns only a battered body and an even more bruised ego. However, Tenzin is just as stubborn, insisting that she follow his traditional teaching methods even when it’s clear that Korra is gaining little from them.
I think it’s terrific how “A Leaf in the Wind” manages to tie these two seemingly separate plot threads together by the end. Both conflicts between Old and New are resolved in that blindingly sublime moment when the pro-bending match pushes Korra to fully grasp what Tenzin was trying to teach her. It’s an ending that manages to validate both characters/viewpoints and undercut their weaker justifications. Tenzin learns that pro-bending has value, especially to someone like Korra who needs to learn through doing (it should also be noted that he proves himself correct that the only thing she responds to is force). Korra finally grasps the value of Tenzin’s teachings and refutes her own accusation that Airbending has no value to her. In terms of the “Old vs. New” theme, the conflicts are resolved by finding the point of balance between them rather than treating them as mutually exclusive polar opposites. “Balance” was something used a lot in the original series, and it’s been thrown around a lot as justification in the new one, but here we get to see it in action and truly understand why it’s important.
It’s kind of amazing to me how well that one plot twist ties everything together in the episode.
I have no idea if this overriding theme of “Old vs. New” was placed there deliberately or if it’s just meaning that I’m placing there, but either way I think it’s an interesting way to look at the show. I’ll probably be examining most or all of the forthcoming conflicts of the show through this prism, and we’ll see how well it holds up. If it was deliberate, I think it’s a great message to embed so artfully in popular entertainment today, when Old vs. New conflicts seem to be driving a lot of current events and balance seems to be less valued than ever before.
I’m out of room to talk about how much I like Korra’s believable reactions as someone with tremendous natural gifts suddenly confronted with something really challenging, the way Tenzin fundamentally alters the Avatar dynamic by being responsible adult supervision that most of the original show’s characters never had, how much I appreciate the way the show embeds all its philosophical thoughts as plot elements, or the marvelous acting performances of Janet Varney as Korra and J.K. Simmons as Tenzin. So, uh, I guess those passing mentions will have to do for now.