The first Avatar guides an amnesiac Korra to find a way to stop the Dark Spirits.
Wow. Just wow.
“Beginnings” is a masterpiece. I’ve been anticipating this one for a while, but it still blew me away and exceeded all my expectations. Its story, the characters, and the animation are in top form and everything about this origin story is perfect. I want to end this recap right here and just tell you to watch the episodes yourself because it left me speechless. It’s that good.
Struck with amnesia after her encounter with a Dark Spirit, Korra is tainted with dark energy. She is taken in by the Fire Sages where they prepare her for a spiritual quest to rediscover herself and find out just who this “Raava” person is. If she doesn’t, the Dark Spirits will dominate the world and the Avatar line will end. As she delves deeper into her spiritual subconscious she meets the first Avatar, Wan, who can help her on her mission.
Wan’s life is a whirlwind of self-discovery and suffering. His story is handled with great pace and Wan has layers to his character that prevent him from becoming a two-dimensional cutout. He starts off as a cocky young man who strives for a better life, free from the oppressive Chou family that governs them. He is determined and hasty, but kindhearted and self-sacrificial. He’s likable, but has a long way to go.
A raid in the Chou stronghold eventually gets him kicked out of the city and with only the element of fire on his side (provided by the Lion Turtle), Wan falls down the rabbit hole and enters the “spirit wilds”. They did a great job emphasizing the strange and downright abstract world of the spirits and Wan’s fear is genuine. Despite it, he sticks by the spirits’ side and learns their ways, having grown a bit disillusioned with humans. This is best expressed when he has no trouble driving off the hunters from his city in the forest. It’s not a complete abandonment though and once he’s mastered fire and protected the friends he made over the years, he leaves to seek out other Lion Turtle cities.
He eventually meets Vaatu and Raava, respectfully the Spirits of Dark and Light. Their eternal struggle has kept the world at balance. Vaatu tricks Wan into freeing him from Raava and their separation spills the end for mankind and spirits. Vaatu plans to bring full chaos for the next ten thousand years at the Harmonic Convergence. Wan is wrecked with guilt for his mistakes and he travels with Raava to stop Vaatu’s malice. Although Raava is initially distrusting of Wan, the bond the two eventually form brings out the best in each other. In the end they merge to become the Avatar we know and love today, vowing to stay by each other’s side for many lifecycles.
The two spirits greatly recall the yin-yang concept and these episodes emphasize the need for balance by establishing that the two are symbiotic with each other. One cannot destroy the other because they’ll just come back; their struggle is likely an eternal one. It’s one of my favorite concepts in storytelling, but it does fall a little flat when you realize Vaatu is depicted as a blatantly evil malevolence. The episodes seem to state that Wan and Raava must ultimately strive for light and peace instead of something more harmonic between the two forces. This is further emphasized when Wan and Raava seal Vaatu in-between the spiritual planes instead of connecting the two back together to maintain a more philosophical balance. I guess you could say Vaatu’s actions are simply the result of him being chaos in physical form and the overall message isn’t necessarily contradicted, but it could have used a bit more nuance. Still, I think Raava and Wan’s permanent bond is a clever way to form the Avatar.
We do finally get an idea of who Unalaq is after. I assume he wants Vaatu for something. Does he simply wish to conquer the world with him or does he think he can benefit mankind through Vaatu? Does Unalaq foolishly think he can control the Dark Spirits? If you want to really go out there, maybe Unalaq wants to bond with Vaatu like Wan did with Raava and create some sort of Anti-Avatar.
I do love the series’ habit of deconstructing archetypes and narratives. What’s great about Wan’s tale is that he became an Avatar not because he was chosen by a greater being, but through his valuable lessons and experiences. He underwent a journey and willingly took up numerous tasks and issues by himself. He made mistakes and suffered greatly, but grew stronger for it. He gains an understanding of both the humans and the spirits, but is not a part of either world. He achieved a state of pure self-sacrifice after finding his inner balance and devoted the rest of his days trying to do the same for others. Wan volunteers to take on the planet’s burden and will continue to help it, even if it will last countless lifetimes.
I can’t talk further about “Beginnings” without mentioning the distinct art style that they used for Wan’s flashback. It was an ingenious move to use wood block and ink wash paintings to divert itself from Korra’s time; Wan’s world stands out so much more. If this is the only time the artists gets to use this particular style, I’m glad they took advantage of it; they created some magnificently gorgeous backgrounds. Even the characters possess a lighter shade of color. The elements the people bend are equally majestic, as we see with the circular swirls for fire and clouds. It’s a unique and visual wonder to look at. The creators of Avatar are also not shy in their love for Studio Ghibli and they especially pay homage here. The design of the spirits at the oasis evoke the ones from Spirited Away, including a scene where they march to the lake to replenish themselves. The cat-deer Wan rides is similar to the one Prince Ashitaka owns in Princess Mononoke.
I was worried about Korra’s amnesia plot, but I think it was necessary. It’s possible she had to lose everything about herself in order to gain the necessary spiritual boost to discover who she is, what she is capable of, and the inspiration she needs to stop the Dark Spirits. In short, she needed a full spiritual cleansing.
I’ve been enjoying Book Two so far, but I’ve always had a certain amount of doubt for most of the episodes due to some questionable plots and characterizations. I have no such hesitation with “Beginnings.” It’s been a long time since I felt Legend of Korra captured the sense of magic and wonderment that I felt when I first watched it. The callbacks to Avatar: The Last Airbender are plentiful: the lion turtles, the dance of the dragons, and even the comical pig farm first seen in “Zuko Alone” are all here – it’s a massive treat for old fans. However, it also serves to expand on the greater mythos of the world and everything they introduced feels organic and true to it. Most importantly, it made me feel. Wan’s first venture into the Avatar State isn’t just an epic moment, it left an overwhelming sense of emotion and reassured me of why I love this show and the universe it’s a part of. I was struck with awe when the Avatar theme song started to play during the final battle. The “Beginnings” two-parter is among the best that both shows have to offer. Whether you love Avatar: The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra or both, these are a must-see.