Looking back, I don’t really know how to feel about Book Two of The Legend of Korra as a whole. I supposed I’m mixed, but the ending makes me reconsider things because it’s just so magnificent. Book Two is better than Book One. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the Benders vs. Non-Benders equality issue, it was an interesting topic of discussion. But, it largely concluded without a definite answer to the situation, however open-ended it could have been. In contrast, not only does the whole Dark Spirit issue get a finale here, it completely and utterly changed the rules of the world of Avatar. It rewrote everything.
This isn’t a bad thing whatsoever. Somebody decided Status Quo needed a leg up and proceeded to alter the very nature of the world. That raises a platoon of questions begging to be explored: How will the role of the Avatar work now that some of her burdens have been lifted? What measures will she take to ensure peace between both species? Are we going to see Koh the Face Stealer lurking in the shadows (That would be an amazing episode!)? How will the modernity of Republic City and its citizens clash with the traditional Spirits? Will we see Zhao the Conqueror wandering around in the background shouting like a lunatic? This is a huge gamble to make, but it’s clear the creative team finished Book Two with the knowledge that they have the room to toy around have all this pay off. Never has the theme of Old vs. New felt as appropriate as it does here. The idea of spiritual reconnection between Spirits and Humans and the ensuring struggles and complication that will arise is something I am dying to see.
Unfortunately, if there is a major failing in Book Two, it is its pacing issues and a lot of them stem from lackluster character development. Sadly, this is a repeated offense from Book One, though I think that book handled things better. It probably helped that Amon and the Equalists carried a leaner tale than the elaborate narrative we got in Book Two.
Not that Book Two is a total slouch. The sibling rivalry between Aang’s children remained tantalizing from start to finish. Korra may had some rough edges at the start, but this was intended to show that she needed a huge spiritual cleansing and self-realization to understand the chaos she caused. The time Tonraq and Unalaq have is short, but for the both of them the point largely gets across; I would say Book Two has been spot-on when it comes to family matters. Eska and Desna have a decent subplot where they struggle between siding with their father and what is morally right. And then there’s Varrick. Everything about him is amazing. He’s an exceedingly complex character, he’s an amoral manipulator whose eccentricities and charisma enhances his unpredictability. Even when he tricked the heroes into doing his goofy bidding, he ends up being so likable. His fate is left ambiguous for the moment, but I really hope he returns in future Books. So far, he’s the closest contender to being my favorite character.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Bolin’s character arc. This was generally satisfying, but annoyingly clunky at the same time. It’s hard to feel sorry for Team Avatar when the same group barely has any moment together and composes of people I have serious mixed feelings about. I think Mako’s story would have been better if everybody weren’t so clueless. You’d think that after seeing her entire shipment get stolen, Asami would have been kind as to at least consider that Mako’s suspicions might have been on to something. Meanwhile, Lin’s only acute moments coincidentally occur before and after Mako’s investigation. Those two dumb cops further emphasized how idiotic the entire police force had to be in order to drive the plot, resulting in a portrayal of a level of competence that only Mako seemed to possess. Asami had an interesting dilemma concerning her father’s company, but they barely spotlight it and simply solve the issue in one episode.
Speaking of which, I feel Asami gets a raw deal compared to everyone else. It took her a while for her to confront Mako back when they were dating in Book One. Then he unceremoniously dumps her in favor of Korra, then callously plays her like a violin for the rest of Book 2. Neither of them think to ask if she’s all right with any of this. A part of this is on Asami’s end, since she keeps foolishly going back to Mako. At least Book One compensated with a great father/daughter story rifle with tragedy. I think there was mad potential to continue that when Asami assumed command of Future Industries, but any issue she might have had living under her father’s shadow is nil. Every so often we’ll see a reaction out of her, but never with the kind of emotional impact it needed. The only time she mentions her father in Book Two is because Bolin brings it up. She doesn’t even join Team Avatar in the final battle, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with that subplot in “Night of A Thousand Stars.” What’s the point of getting the team back together if they’re just going to split up again? I know Asami can’t do much with Spirits, but if they can do something with Bumi then the same goes for Asami.
Several character arcs jumble around in Book Two. While Korra’s arc had a gradual progression that enhanced her maturity in the process, I can understand some of the criticisms about of her anger issues in the first five episodes. I think one of the reasons why I was drawn into Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi’s issues is because they gradually play out over the course of Book Two. Imagine, though, if things were different and we had five straight episodes of them bickering about their daddy issues. That said, I don’t know how wise it would have been to rearrange Korra’s arc; certain episodes would definitely have to be placed elsewhere and they’re perfectly fine where they are.
On another front, Bolin seems to vacillate between his “love” for Eska, his yearning for acceptance and the loneliness plaguing his heart. It takes nearly five episodes before the show finally starts to take it anywhere, only to truly pick it up at the last minute. I didn’t perceive a steady evolution of this like I did with Aang’s children. The three of them didn’t always have equal focus, but the show explored just enough of their idiosyncrasies and feelings to help us understand them and how they react to each other.
On top of the uneven characterization, many characters seem to be too often stuck between two modes: they’re either jerks (Korra, Bolin) or moronically perplexed (Asami, Lin, Bolin again) unless Mako is holding their hands. It’s an utterly contrived and baffling way to drive conflict. And this isn’t getting into the deplorable romantic relationships, which are built on lies and bad choices and even abuse. There is solace to be found here because they all break up at the end, which makes me think perhaps the creators were aware that we’d had enough of the madness. My hope is that they’ll dial down the love subplots during Books 3 and 4.
Looking back on Book 2, I want to say the creators are better writing one, long serial than four smaller, self-contained stories. Yet outside of a couple of missteps, the Spirits plot is absolutely amazing and proceeds uninterrupted for the duration of the Book. A few of the character arcs are just as solid, even as others are lacking. Book 2 bounces between the kind of high quality the Avatar franchise is known for and sloppy, lowest common denominator writing. On the plus side, the show is gorgeous to look at and it still finds time to sprinkle in tiny character tics and humorous moments (who doesn’t love the Spirit Mushroom?).
I’ve always maintained the philosophy that characters make the story because they’re the heart of it and the driving force behind it. We watch for the story, but stay for the people. Granted, both elements are equally important, but I’m always going to place a heavy emphasis on the cast. The Legend of Korra may an exception in my book because I really like the story, but can’t care for the characters nearly as much. I love the spirit subplots and the narrative. I love the subtle themes and interesting revision of Eastern culture, philosophies, and beliefs. They’re the reasons I’m excited for Book 3 and the reasons I still watch. But this show has to find a better balance for Team Avatar. I don’t really expect a full 180 degree turn, and I get the gist that they’ll gradually mature over the course of the show. It seems each book has an individual issue for them to solve that will (hopefully) contribute to their personality as a whole, but the viewer’s mileage may vary. I won’t yet say the show suffers the dreaded Eight Deadly Words (“I don’t care what happens to these people,”), but it dangerously risks crossing that line.
So ultimately, Book 2 is the definition of two steps forward, one giant step back. The uneven characterization and oddball plot progression results in a chaotic arc that’s kept back from becoming a true masterpiece. Yet a good portion of the second half and its consistent theme and messages, as well as the incredible finale, does a lot to make up for its mishaps and the issues with the beginning of the book. (and the incredible finale) validates a lot of the mishaps, sometimes retroactively making up for beginning woes.
I have every confidence the story will blow me away in Book 3, but everything else I’m holding my breath over. We’ve officially reached the halfway point of The Legend of Korra, and Book 3 has a lot riding on its shoulders. This is the point of no return and what it does could make or break the show for a lot of fans. But since the creators these seasons well in advance, there is sufficient space for them to further expand the overall story and smooth over lingering issues from the first two books. Yes, each book of The Legend of Korra is said to involve a self-contained story, but there are also hints of a broader narrative that connects them all. That’s what I look forward to the most.