When they announced that The Legend of Korra was coming back in just a few weeks, I was surprised; now that they’ve aired, I’m ecstatic. The fact that the debut of the new season was three episodes long means I’m going to leave my excitement at the door, put it aside and jump right into the thick of it, because Book Three: Change starts off strong with big ideas, nostalgia, momentum, new characters and multiple plotlines. I quite liked last season, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit that there weren’t mistakes made. But three episodes into this newest arc, I think I can say with some authority that it seems this new story doesn’t share the same problems. Plus new airbenders, an evil airbender, and Zuko!
First off, let’s talk about airbenders! Interesting choice to make Bumi one; I think it is a more interesting direction than leaving him as the Sokka, the Xander, the Zeppo. An old dog learning new tricks, learning to bend for the first time, that’s new ground for the series. It also makes me think the gift of airbending wasn’t as random as it later seems to be. I am wondering if Tenzin will go back to the people who didn’t want to move and ask if the other Air Nomads can travel on a route to visit them during their migration, making them part of the new, “changed” nation that has flexed its traditions.
I really want to talk about where the show has finally started “clicking”—in the relationships. The universal demand for this season was for Korra and Asami’s relationship to move more to the front, and boom, there it is, just like I wanted. Their triangle with Mako remains but has completely moved into comedy, as he acts appropriately awkward around the both of them (and Tenzin exits, stage left).
Mediating the whole thing is Bolin, and this season looks to be featuring their dynamic as brothers and as members of various extended families. Favorite single moment? Bolin does his hair up like Mako’s at one point to make fun of him, and it was an Orphan Black worthy performance from P.J. Byrne and the animators.
Relationships are the backbone to these three episodes, and that’s why they work: because relationships provided the skeleton for all of the best stories in Avatar: the Last Airbender. Relationships aren’t static—this is the book of “Change” after all—so we get to see here how they’ve evolved. Tenzin and Korra are a team now, actually listening to each other; his gratitude that Korra’s actions during the Solstice has caused airbending to return is a truly wise piece of counsel for her to hear while she is stressing about other people being endangered or inconvenienced by the choice she made. (What is the deal with that, anyhow—only Republic City seems to have the vines and the spirits? Are we waiting for them to travel south from the poles?) Then of course, he does a spot-on impression of Fullmetal Alchemist’s Louis Armstrong, too…
Even the villains are defined by their relationships, though we don’t know what they all are yet. Plus Henry Rollins! I didn’t expect that but I’m all in; this “supervillain jailbreak” plot is working for me. Next is…wait, wait, does that guy have the Glaive from Krull when it is still in the lava as his “power?” A magmabender? Then there is tentacle arms…voiced by Grey DeLisle?! That can’t be good. The last one is Sparky Sparky Boom Woman: she had to be.
Details like the return of the “combustion” school of firebending add a sense of continuity to the series without being too on the nose. (Still waiting on more Kyoshi Warriors, now that you mention it. You can almost pretend that the Kyoshi Warriors in Avatar: the Last Airbender were a callback to the hypothetical series before that, Avatar: The Unconquered, which was all about Avatar Kyoshi.) I wonder if the criminals have ties to Noatak? They sure seem to hate the Avatar, and if they are as dangerous as it seems, why wouldn’t Aang strip them of their bending? My theory is rather dark; I think these are the ones who killed Aang, and that Aang’s peaceful death is a White Lotus fiction, propaganda to continue the myth that the Avatar is invincible.
Kai is the big wrinkle in the group dynamic, but you know, Toph and Asami were both late additions to Team Avatar, so I’m pretty optimistic that he won’t be the Cousin Oliver. More to the point, I think he’s got a lot of characters to bounce off of in interesting ways: he does mirror Bolin and Mako’s background, and their relationship to him in equal parts over-protectiveness and suspicion are well done, more of a light touch than exaggerated for comedy. Jinora’s flirtation with him is my favorite because as you might remember, anything Jinora is involved with is my favorite because Jinora is the best. Kai’s attitude is going to give us our requested quota of Tenzin bluster and sputtering, and the pre-requisite “why, your Aladdin-esque ways are just like the true spirit of freedom, only upside-down!” scene. Then I’m thinking he’ll betray the group, apprentice under Zaheer, and either be the one that saves Team Avatar in the end or that he’ll then go on to be the next troubled anti-hero.
One of the things previous seasons The Legend of Korra did well was show the growing class struggles of the world. Avatar: the Last Airbender had less ambiguous setting, with the colonialist Fire Nation being led by a dangerous psychopath as a clear-cut menace, but even that show dealt with a more nuanced grey in Ba Sing Se. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is one of my favorite episodes after “The Beach” (up there with “The Ember Island Players,”) so I really hope the series revisits that format, and that if they do one that the 5-7-5 Society show up again. I mean, we’re already re-visiting some of the central themes of Ba Sing Se; plutocracy has segregated the city into levels, and aristocracy has gone ahead and made it official.
I have to say, I don’t know why anyone let the useless Earth King retake his throne in the first place, but then, I’m an American. I don’t “get” aristocracy, so it’s no surprise that I think we’ll see the Queen deposed this season. Speaking of royals, we see Old Zuko, complete with an Uncle Iroh beard, hanging out with other monarchs, the twins Desna and Eska from last season. As I said earlier, I’m always happy for unexpected story continuity; the show could have safely ignored them forever, their story “complete,” but instead we see that the world exists even when the focus of the protagonists is elsewhere. The actions Korra took have consequences, on every level from the spiritual to the emotional to the political.
I’m really looking forward to this season. The cosmic scope of last season is going to pay off here: Korra changed the world in a meaningful way. The return of airbending is one major facet of it—for good or ill, as in Bumi or Zaheer, each returning balance to the world immaterial of their villainous or heroic intentions—but others like the vines and spirits and economic inequalities remain as well.
We have concrete villains, we have concrete goals, we have vibrant characters bouncing off each other in rhythm, all set in a complicated and reactive world…it’s the recipe for a hat trick of top notch episodes. Each of them were lean, mean entertaining machines; I want more of this. I keep saying that the rule of verisimilitude is details, and The Legend of Korra is nailing those; Mako giving his scarf away even continues the great tradition of having a character’s stylebook evolve with their personality, much as the Gaang’s look did when they went to the Fire Nation. Fine work. It really feels like with these three episodes the series is hitting its stride.