Six months have passed since Amon’s invasion, but Avatar Korra has her work cut out for her. Spirits have invaded the physical plane and it’s up to the Avatar to restore balance once more.
The Legend of Korra started off very strong and largely kept a consistently compelling story. There were only two factors that I felt kept it from perfection: Korra’s unsatisfying character development given that her learning to Airbend and connecting to her spiritual side were unrelated things, and a needlessly dominant love traingle. If the show had ended after its first run of twelve episodes, I would have walked away thinking it was a fun watch, but also disappointed knowing that it could have been better. Thankfully, with three additional seasons on the way, this show may get that rare second chance to rediscover its missing spark. At the least, I can say with confidence that “Rebel Spirit” is a winner and a great start to season two.
Six months after Amon’s war on Republic City, Team Korra has separated and moved on. Mako’s venture into law enforcement makes sense when you look at it as a final ascension after he’d started out as a criminal street rat. Unlike his brother, Bolin isn’t quick to make such a drastic change in his life. Without Mako to guide and care for him, he’s in a stalemate and resorts to the one thing he’s familiar with: Pro-Bending. Asami remains optimistic of Future Industries’, er, future in public, but privately worries she’ll always be stuck under her father’s shadow. Without his job on Republic City’s council, Tenzin now has time to indulge in his family and plans to take his kids and Korra to every Air Temple to educate them on his father’s culture. Much to his annoyance he’s forced to also endure his elder siblings, Kya and Bumi, and the two aren’t shy about letting their kid brother know he’s a stuffed shirt. They’re all amazingly set up and are prime fuel for character arcs. Will Asami handle the stress of running an entire company that’s been tainted by her corrupt father? Can Bolin get out from under his brother’s shadow and rely on himself? Will Tenzin learn to just relax? And so forth. Let’s hope they’ll all be given the appropriate moment to shine.
Change is the defining theme of this show. The seventy year time jump from Avatar: The Last Airbender brings about a tremendous culture shock by turning what had been largely an Asian fantasy tale into, well, the Roaring Twenties. It’s wasn’t what you’d expect, yet it felt logical to see that level of progress within that timespan. On another point, there’s the Old vs. New conflict Ed Liu mentioned before that was specifically explored in “A Leaf in the Wind.” Both motifs play a larger role in “Rebel Spirit” and I would argue this episode can be taken as a companion piece to “A Leaf in the Wind.” The latter spotlighted the matter of change with its portrayal of the traditional Tenzin vs. Korra’s modernity, with Pro-Bending as the backdrop. It concludes with the two finding a middle ground by acknowledging their flaws and incorporating their best qualities to benefit each other.
This is why Korra’s behavior in “Rebel Spirit” is a tad regressive. Once again Tenzin protests and criticizes Korra’s style of Airbending, consisting of aggressive air punches. Korra redundantly retaliates like a spoiled teen and protests on account of her training being super boring. However, I think Korra’s behavior also has a good justification. “A Leaf in the Wind” addressed the differences between Tenzin and Korra’s while subsequent episodes during season one show Korra progressing nicely in her training. The problem is that this progress rarely occurred onscreen. The next time Korra really has a chat with Tenzin about her Spiritual deficiency occurs six episodes after “A Leaf in the Wind” and then nothing more comes of it. You could consider Korra meditating to interpret Aang’s message in “Out of the Past” as an attempt to put Tenzin’s lessons into practice, but overall this was an element that got little emphasis. After “A Leaf in the Wind”, we see no more of Tenzin and Korra’s bonding through spiritual / Airbending training. This is why I can believe and accept Korra acting stubborn and resistant — she hasn’t learned everything or come to terms with her potential yet. “Rebel Spirit” is exactly the cure I think this show needs to give Korra the development she lacked in season one.
I also think her attitude towards Tenzin and her father Tonraq also works under this pretense. She rejects Tenzin, but not her spiritual training. When she realizes she could have a better teacher, she jumps at the opportunity. When angry spirits are attacking her home, she immediately understands the weight of her role and doesn’t hesitate for a second to find a way to subdue them. She doesn’t ignore her need for spirituality at all and any attitude she cops towards her loved ones is simply because she lacks perception; Korra isn’t capable of subtlety or adept at seeing beyond what’s right in front of her face. She and Tenzin are constantly at odds, while her father condescends by trying to make decisions for her and only reveals a vital secret when pressed. Of course Korra is going to rebel. Now compare that to her Uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern Water Tribe. He’s poised and patient and treats Korra the way she wants to be treated, offering a pat on the back as he acknowledges and respects her role as the Avatar. Anything to boost that ego! This is utterly selfish behavior for her to sport, but that’s always been a key flaw of her personality. Korra’s callousness isn’t anymore in the right as Tenzin or Tonraq. Once again, like in “A Leaf in the Wind” no one is fully right or wrong and they’re left to deal with the consequences of their actions. Yeah, it is fairly clumsy all things considered, but if all this means a smoother character arc for Korra then I’m all for it.
However, I’m a little reluctant on accepting the idea that Korra can enter the Avatar State so easily. Whenever it happened to Aang, it was a subconscious defense mechanism caused by dire situations and traumatic emotional experiences. In fact, the only time he successfully activated it willingly took intense meditation and the release of strong material bonds. Granted, I’m fairly sure the Avatar state isn’t as simple as I’m making it out to be, but I find it questionable that Korra can just trigger it given what she lacks. I have noticed that when she does enter it, she doesn’t come across as a force of nature the way Aang did. If I had to whip up a quick theory, my guess is that this is about Korra’s prestigious mastery of three of the elements by the age of seventeen. It’s pretty clear she’s a prodigy; neither Aang nor Roku discovered their role or their abilities until they were told at a certain age, so Korra got a head start. This may play into how she taps into the Avatar State for a quick, concentrated boost in contrast to Aang’s volatile and unpredictable mode of destruction. If that’s true, it’s a humorous irony that a powerhouse like Korra would “sacrifice” raw power for something more refined and reliable. But then again you’d see the peace-loving Aang essentially become Mother Nature’s wrath personified during his state, so maybe I’m on to something.
To further emphasize the connection of “A Leaf in the Wind” to “Rebel Spirit”, the theme of change and Old vs. New are represented with the brothers Tonraq and Unalaq. Tonraq doesn’t mind the modernism of the Southern Water Tribe, but Unalaq caters to tradition and the commercialism and shallowness of the modern era insults him. I think the most telling thing on that shallowness would be the carnival game using Aang cardboard cut-outs. Unalaq might consider that sacrilegious, but the real Aang might have been amused if he saw it (see, there’s a balance for everything!) Their rivalry will be an interesting conflict to see.
Twins Desna and Eska have some amusing lines, but their time onscreen is limited to their creepiness and apparent curiosity over Bolin’s bumpkin nature. I love that they treat Bolin in this weird, morbid manner knowing this is likely how they naturally act in general. Varrick’s entrance is the opposite and his energetic personality is nothing short of infectious. His unpredictable behavior embodies every eccentric millionaire stereotype out there and heavily collides with Asami’s dignified manner. He is the best newcomer to the show by far. Plus, he invented moving pictures! What do you mean it won’t catch on?
This is a bit of a minor nitpick, but during the recap it mentioned the disbandment of the Council in favor of presidency. I can’t be the only one who wants to know more about the Benders vs. Non-Benders conflict, do I? Amon may have been off his gourd, but he had valid points: why were there no non-benders in the council seat? Given that the political issue was brushed off I don’t think we’ll be getting an answer and frankly, I think that’s a cop out. However it would be interesting if, after decades of Benders on the seat, President Raiko just so happens to be a non-bender. Wouldn’t that be something?
Legend of Korra looks as amazing as ever. The battle scenes are unsurprisingly top-notch and the Spirits truly invoke an otherworldly, alien feel. The characters do look a bit more streamlined than usual. I’m assuming this has to do with the new studio the show was sent overseas to. While it does lose a bit of detail in the process, it’s extremely subtle and the show barely suffers for it. As usual, Legend of Korra is packed with small details in its backgrounds and character tics that invites examination. Some highlights include a little doodle of Tenzin on his map (did his kids draw that? It’s cute) and Bolin’s team being composed of the same fans seen in “And the Winner Is.”
After season one’s slipshod ending, “Rebel Spirit” looks to kick things back into gear. There’s a wide range of possible character arcs and personal journeys, and the presentation is silky smooth. Heck, I even tolerated the Mako/Korra romance (I think Korra’s bluntness towards Mako is a jerk move, and I say this as someone who doesn’t like Mako) There are a couple of hiccups, but I feel there’s just enough good material to balance it out. I’m ready for more.