With the Northern and Southern Tribes at each other’s necks, Korra must remain neutral in the conflict and resolve the matter before it leads to a civil war.
Color me surprised. I was expecting Korra’s issues with her father to be dragged on for a few more episodes, but they resolved the whole thing almost immediately. I justified Korra’s behavior in the two-parter last time, but I know dragging a conflict that requires Korra to be continuously selfish and callous could potentially harm her character and make her unlikable. Thankfully, the show is much smarter than that and this episode beautifully analyzes the complication of family life.
Korra is caught between the Northern and Southern Tribe after Unalaq’s forces invade and landlock the Southern tribe. She’s tasked with ironing out their differences while remaining neutral, but that’s easier said than done for our fiery heroine. Korra may not be the most subtle person, but she’s not dumb; she doesn’t want a war. Despite siding with Unalaq (who continues to butter her up), she politely protests some of his more questionable moves and even steps in with a couple of good ideas herself. She largely remains on Unalaq’s side throughout it all, but the ending of this episode proves that his means are more problematic than she thought.
We the audience may think there’s something strange about Unalaq, but Korra doesn’t – not immediately, anyway. She has familiarity with Unalaq—he’s her uncle and his constant praise and close family ties is what keeps her at bay. But “Civil Wars, Part One” gradually builds up Korra’s concern that maybe her uncle may be a tad too obsessive without distrusting his methods. Then he accuses her parents of being conspirators in the assassination attempt on him, which could be the incident that completely flips Korra’s perspective. And what a flip this episode proved to be for him. It’s the apparently patient and poised Unalaq who moves to imprison his attackers without a trial before Korra persuades him otherwise, while the previously brash Tonraq opposes his brother but stops short of supporting the kidnapping because he understands how far is too far to go. Tonraq’s definitely not the man he was twenty years ago.
Incidentally this episode is reminiscent of “When Extremes Meet” when Korra was at her zenith point, equally championing both Benders and Non-Benders. This time around, the matter is far more personal. The Southern Water Tribe is her home and the current strife is among family. She and her father still have issues that hit their breaking point when Tonraq and Varrick start to rebel and look for a way to drive the Northerners away. Korra thinks her father is actually personally kidnapping Unalaq, until it’s revealed otherwise. Tonraq may oppose him like other members of the tribe, but they’re still brothers. This revelation and Korra’s relief leads her to tearfully reunite with her parents. Meanwhile we see Tonraq and Senna anticipated a time when Korra would outgrow the need for them as the Avatar, but it’s shown Korra can’t bear the prospect of being estranged from them.
Just what is Unalaq up to anyway? He claims Korra needs to open up the spiritual portal in the North Pole to connect the Water Tribes. His intentions could be the honest truth, but there are possibly details he’s not telling Korra: why does she need to open up a portal in the North if Unalaq claims his hometown is already spiritual? Does Unalaq mean to go into the spiritual plane to look for something specific? I feel he has an ulterior motive. That motive may not necessarily be “evil”, but I can’t help but get the vibe that there’s more to this guy than what we’ve seen so far. My assumption is he’s the best contender to be the major antagonist of Book Two, and this episode only strengthens that view.
The theme of family ties also extends to the Tenzin subplot when he and his siblings search for the missing Ikki. I like that it starts with a sibling fight where Jinora and Meelo teased Ikki away, eventually culminating with Aang’s children arguing over memories and issues from their childhood. I was expecting it to be a simple matter of Tenzin vs. Kya and Bumi, but all three of them have their own individual problems. Kya and Bumi cite their father’s favoritism to Tenzin. Bumi felt insecure about being the only Non-Bender in his family and sought to prove himself. Kya was a free spirit who ultimately gave up her nomadic lifestyle to take care of Katara after Aang died, a fact that leads to her getting cross when Tenzin claims that he’s the “responsible one”. I especially love the idea that Aang—this sweet kid we knew and loved back in the first series—wasn’t a perfect parental figure. There’s no denying he loved all his children, but showing favoritism to Tenzin makes sense. Aang was the last Airbender and had to live with the pressure of preserving his culture, something so significant that he likely emphasized the same to his airbending son. That certainly explains why Tenzin is so serious. All of them act like believable siblings as they vent about their issues with the others and get into their own problems. There is likely truth to their words, though they’re also clouded by their personal biases and point of view.
I talked about Bolin’s unfortunate role last time, but much like Korra’s apology I didn’t think they’d delve into this so soon. It’s a gesure that I appreciate; Bolin is sick of Eska and Desna’s treatment of him and he wants out, rather than stupidly trying to drag it on or make it work. Let’s face it, I doubt much could change those two. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the guts, so he turns to his brother. It’s funny he goes to Mako of all people for dating advice; talk about the blind leading the blind! It speaks a lot about Bolin though, he relies on his brother and can’t really muster the courage to handle his own issues unless Mako is practically holding his hand. Bolin hasn’t gained the independence that Mako possesses, but eventually he’s going to have to grow up. I like that he realizes he’s just a useless comical monkey and the show seems to hint that he wants to get out of that role, even if it’s just to end his “romance” with Eska.
I’m not sure what direction they’re taking with Mako though. Out of the main cast, he’s the one with the least complex issue to deal with. As the Avatar’s boyfriend, he occasionally has to put up with Korra’s anger. While that could largely be a plot in itself, it doesn’t seem to be a heavy burden that could carry an entire arc. Hopefully they’ll be something along the line for him; Mako’s the blandest character so far and he really could use a personality boost or an interesting story to set him apart.
“Civil Wars, Part One” ends on a gripping finale that could tear Korra’s life apart. The stakes are much more exclusive this time around and the idea of family looks to be a reoccurring theme. This episode explores strained relationships, heated sibling rivalries, brotherly guidance, and tearful reunions. I’m not surprised Legend of Korra is delving into such personal matters, Avatar: The Last Airbender did it all the time.