When we last left The Legend of Korra, our eponymous hero struggled between the Northern and Southern Water Tribe as the two nations engaged in a civil war triggered by her power hungry uncle, Chief Unalaq. He later teams up with Vaatu, the spirit of Darkness, to become the Anti-Avatar, nearly bringing an eternity of darkness. During the chaos, Korra unfortunately lost her connections with the past Avatars. It took a spiritual journey to find her inner self that gave her the necessarily boost to counter Unuvaatu. In an effort to restore balance to the world, Korra decided to leave the spiritual gates open so humans and spirits could live side-by-side.
Two weeks have passed and the effects of change have already taken place. Mystical vines cover every inch of Republic City and its civilians are not pleased. President Raiko takes every opportunity to denounce the Avatar and Korra is up to her neck carrying that weight. “A Breath of Fresh Air” masterfully analyzes the pros and cons of this changed world, ensuring both sides of the conflict are given equal limelight. Raiko may have thrown Korra to the sharks, but you understand where he’s coming from. The spirits are equally stressed as they make the most of an unfamiliar situation. Both sides are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own and poor Korra is stuck playing the middle woman.
The only good to come out of this is the sudden reappearance of Airbenders and even that’s wroth in complication. The show impressively tackles a number of different reactions on this new phenomenon. Some view it as a divine gift and use it for selfish or deadly means (like the child thief Kai or the antagonist Zaheer), while others like Bumi embrace it with innocent joy. There are people who humbly choose to live as they were before Harmonic Convergence altered them. Others are in a state of confusion; how do you cope when life throws you a curveball like this and there’s no guidance? That issue is specifically highlighted in “A Breath of Fresh Air” when a man is driven to panic by his inability to handle his new Airbending ability, and nearly gets himself killed.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bumi. He is absolutely giddy to be a Bender. Bumi spent most of his life with an inferiority complex because he lacked the bending prowess that came naturally to the rest of his family. Now that he can manipulate wind, his self-esteem gets a major boost. He can equally stand side-by-side with his sibling without feeling like a load. He can live up to what he believes are his father’s expectations without compensating, though I actually think he’ll push himself harder now that he has Airbending. I admit a part of me is reluctant to accept him among the Airbending ranks. I think it demeans his role as a skilled warrior in spite of his non-bending status and offspring of Aang, but I’m curious to see where this will take him.
I’m relieved to see Bolin back in his original role as the lovable comic relief. Book 2 really laid it out on the poor guy when they made him the world’s plaything. Both episodes here retain his lighthearted, goofy tone without sacrificing his dignity. He’s still outgoing and open, but equally savvy and optimistic. “Rebirth” display this best when he uses his charms and experience as an entertainer to put on an Airbending show to recruit members. While they only managed to snag one, it’s one more than they had at the start.
As usual, Mako contrasts against his little brother. After the love triangle fiasco he’s avoided both Korra and Asami, preferring to run away from his problems. It’s a terrible recurring habit, albeit one Mako is fully aware of. He has to confront this issue at some point, but I like that he rejoins Team Avatar when Bolin brings up the possibility of finding extended family in Ba Sing Se. Family is a huge theme in The Legend of Korra and it looks like Mako and Bolin are getting their turn to discover their roots. They get a head start when Team Avatar picks up Kai, a young Airbending thief. Bolin eagerly laps up the idea of playing big brother to him while Mako swears to keep an eye on the little brat because he knows how criminals like him think.
Kai is kind of a mixed bag. His cleverness and ability to spin lies at the drop of a hat ensures he’ll play an unpredictable wild card for Team Avatar, but his selfishness and mischievous nature means he’s easy to dislike. Either way, I think we’re stuck with him. Jinora’s visible crush on Kai clearly indicate he’ll be a regular guest star if not a main character.
Tenzin has the biggest advantage among the wave of new Airbenders, but is simultaneously at his worst when he tries to coax them into joining the monk lifestyle. Tenzin’s recruiting skills is comically inept as he goes door-to-door, advertising all the “benefits” of a nomadic lifestyle. The man isn’t trying to swindle anyone, everything he says is spoken with enthusiasm and love for his culture. To have fellow Airbenders shun that must seriously put a damper on the man’s pride. He’s a small fish in a big pond despite the massive shift that’s happened.
I’m unsure what Jinora’s role will be in Book 3 outside of her obvious puppy love for Kai. I’m crossing fingers she’ll be given a role besides swooning over a boy.
Romantic subplots have been a constant plaque in the first two books, but “A Breath of Fresh Air” deals with the elephant in the room by getting rid of this altogether. Korra and Asami have a long talk concerning Mako and proceed to bring up the wrongdoings they did behind each other’s backs, apologizing for that and deciding that none of it will be a factor in their friendship. I’m glad they finally addressed this because it was a lingering issue I assumed the show would never get to. Their conversation is mature and to the point, and it sticks. The remainder of these episodes have the girls focusing on the task at hand and routinely sticking up for each another. There’s none of that petty jealous girlfriend nonsense here, so kudos to the creators for abstaining from that negative stereotype. I doubt this will be the last we’ll see of the love subplot, but I am all for it being a minor blip in the greater narrative.
The biggest complaint about Book 2 was Korra’s attitude problem. She was a vengeful force of nature that refused to back down to the annoyance of both main characters and the audience. I felt her reactions were justified, but enduring her constant screw-ups did get old after a while. Delightfully, Book 3 Korra is nowhere near reproachable. The show portrays her genuinely as someone who legitimately learned her lessons from the first two books, without betraying her core personality. She’s agitated about the negative opinion of her in Republic City, but never displays fierce anger about it. The only time she’s truly forceful occurs when she clumsily tries to recruit a basement dwelling Airbender, which is a scene played for laughs in any case. Korra understands the people’s frustration and apologizes for their troubles as she tries to fix them.
There are two particular scenes that stood out for me as things that capture Korra’s maturity. The first occurs between her and Tenzin. Desperate for answers, Korra mediates in the hope of reestablishing a connection with her past lives. She confesses doubts to Tenzin about her decision to leave the spirit gates open and questions her chosen role. This is a major contrast to the girl who proudly proclaimed her status back in Book One. Now that she’s experienced some of the responsibilities that come with the job, she’s no longer as naïve as she once was. Tenzin provides a poetic answer to her dilemma: change is a double-edged sword, but he supports her choice for the future.
The second scene comes up near the end when Korra tries to talk down a frightened Airbender who’s stuck on a bridge. She offers solace by relating her personal insecurities, using calm words to soothe the man instead of her usual brand of tough love. These moments signify Korra’s growth and highlight how these episodes don’t sugarcoat the consequences she has to deal with. Even her Airbending has improved in spades, as she’s bending with elegance instead of just punching out air. I love the inclusion of an Airbender glider to her repertoire as well.
By far the best reveal here is Zaheer and his group of antagonistic Benders. Unalaq was a terrible waste of character. He had potential as a powerful man crippled under towering expectations between his older brother and Korra, but they threw it all away for generic villainy. It’s too early to say if Zaheer’s group will wind up in the same path. He does carry a grudge against the Avatar and the Order of the White Lotus and personally states his path is “righteous”. From what little we know of him, he sports deep philosophical thoughts and is familiar with Airbending lore, which may be how he was able to master Airbending in a short time.
I love the idea of an Anti-Team Avatar and anticipate a potential battle between Zaheer’s team and Korra’s. I applaud the creators for constantly thinking up new ways to bend, such as when Ghazan earthbends a couple of rocks into a molten lava shuriken. But my personal favorite has to be Ming-Hua, the armless Waterbender who substitutes her appendages with whip-like water and performs acrobatic feats that put Spider-Man to shame. Their prison escape is beautifully animated and clearly demonstrate why they were locked in tight, remote locations in the first place.
The appearance of Zuko is equally enticing and not once does it feel like pandering. He seems to be the head honcho of the White Lotus, and his previous involvement with the Avatar ensures he has a reason to be in the main plot. I look forward to see what he brings to the table.
I’m amazed at how fluently the creators were able to establish new content and story ideas for each of the chief protagonists. “A Breath of Fresh Air” and “Rebirth” are vastly rewarding episodes that manage to capture the poignancy of an average Avatar episode, and Book 3 manages a strong feeling of continuity by starting out as a direct follow up to the ending of Book 2. In fact, these episodes are so good I’m worried the rest of this season may not live up to expectations. But if these two episodes are a sign of things to come, my hopes are high.