On the eve of the Pro-Bending playoffs, love is in the air as Mako has eyes for Asami, Korra has eyes for Mako, and Bolin has eyes for Korra. After being rebuffed by Mako, Korra goes out with Bolin for a fun (and innocent) evening in Republic City. This draws an strong reaction from Mako, who says is only protecting his brother. Korra counters by saying he’s jealous. They can’t stand each other, so of course they’re in love. An impulsive kiss between Mako and Korra is witnessed by Bolin, triggering a falling out between the Fire Ferrets that is resolved as the siblings realize their fraternal affection is more important than any girl and Korra realizes how foolishly she’s been acting. Meanwhile, the Fire Ferrets advance to the finals and Korra meets their competition: the three-time Pro-Bending champions Tahno and the Wolfbats.
From the start of the series, the least interesting sub-plots to me were the teen romance and the Pro-Bending, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wasn’t terribly impressed with “The Spirit of Competition,” since it focuses purely on advancing both of those plots. Judging by the amount of digital ink spilled on relationships in the original series, I’m sure there’s a bunch of Avatar: The Last Airbender fans out there eating this stuff up, and there’s lots of squee-worthy moments to be found here. I don’t mean to take away from the shippers who might have loved this episode. I’m just not one of them.
The good news first: the spectacular animation from the earliest episodes continues in this one. The Legend of Korra is definitely one of the best looking animated shows on TV right now, and even if I’m not as impressed with the plot of this one, there are still lots of beautiful little touches sprinkled throughout, like the body language that makes plain when what people say isn’t really what they mean. I like the subtle hint that Tahno is playing dirty pool, trying to use Korra’s hotheaded reputation to get the Fire Ferrets booted from the tournament. I also love how Janet Varney’s little halts, wavers, and hesitations feel really authentic for someone who’s acutely uncomfortable in dealing with matters of the heart. My only (minor) gripe is that Bolin ends up feeling a bit too much like a duplicate of Sokka after this episode.
There’s “where are we going?” stories and “how are we getting there?” stories. Most screen romance falls solidly into the latter category, where knowing the final destination isn’t so bad as long as you have fun getting there. I did have fun getting to the end of “The Spirit of Competition,” but not as much as I’d have liked and almost none of it was because of the teen romance sub-plot. The whole thing felt very paint-by-numbers, with the twists and reversals played out exactly as one would expect them to. The emotions generated by the “(s)he loves me/(s)he loves me not” love triangle also feels remarkably lightweight compared to the emotional backblast from last week’s revelations. I can get behind the idea of a lighter, less serious episode after that kind of heavy downer, but I think the pendulum swung a bit too far in the other direction a bit too quickly. I feel like there should have been an extra scene where Tenzin explicitly tells Korra to step away from the Equalists for a while to focus on her Airbending and Pro-Bending (in the iTunes episode, J.K. Simmons is credited but does not appear, making me wonder if something like that was scripted but deleted along the way).
I will happily admit that I enjoyed the Pro-Bending sequences a lot more than I thought I would. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a viewing list of top sports movies that were required viewing for the senior production crew, because the Pro-Bending matches are exciting and rousing exactly when they need to be. I found this “how are we getting there” to be a lot more interesting than the romance. Sure, the matches are pretty obvious manipulation (as most sports movies are), but when they’re this fun and exciting, I don’t mind being manipulated. Even so, this is also something of a letdown from the more serious combat bending matchups peppering the last two episodes.
However, my major beef with “The Spirit of Competition” isn’t how by-the-numbers it is, but how entirely inconsequential it feels by the end. The only thing that seems to have any long-term importance is the Fire Ferrets advancing to the Pro-Bending championship. Beyond that, it seems that the Fire Ferrets have made peace with each other, with no hint of lingering feelings or bitten tongues or things diplomatically left unsaid. Bolin and Korra are back to being pals and Mako seems free and clear to be with Asami. I accept (and hope) that I might be proven wrong, but this episode feels like season 2’s “Avatar Day”: an episode that is reasonably entertaining but can be removed entirely from the larger sequential narrative with little to no impact.
I’m also left with the sneaking feeling that something really, really awful is going to happen to Asami. I also wonder if Tahno’s careful mispronunciation of “Avatar” is a subtle meta-commentary dig, although I can’t think of what it could possibly be targeting. I’m sure I’m reading too much into that, of course.