Well this episode of The Legend of Korra was a lovely treat, and not just because we saw you-know-who. You might think it strange to call an episode that focuses entirely on Korra’s painful physical rehabilitation and distressingly empathizable post-traumatic stress disorder a “treat,” but “Korra Alone” really was.
What I didn’t want was a whining, emo, “feels” episode. I’ve sort of had my fill of them for a bit, not that they don’t have their due time. I was hoping for, at best, a recovering montage. What I got was something like I was talking about when I discussed Kuvira last week: neither one option nor the other, but a new, third path. We got Korra on her own self-motivated Hero’s Quest. She’s neither sulking nor recuperating: she’s proactive.
The first thing I wrote down was “broken mirror (punched?)” and sure enough, the episode wrapped all the way around itself to come back up to that moment, even though it doesn’t answer my question. It’s a tidy little piece of non-linear storytelling, and it’s great to see it used with no fanfare. This isn’t the show attempting to be clever; this is clever people making the show. It neatly unpacks our assumptions: no, Korra hasn’t been brawling in the ring for six months, this is her first time, a random snapshot of her mendicant quest. She’s down and out but she’s fighting. Or better than fighting, she’s proceeding. Korra’s not defeated; she’s defiant.
We do get a little bit of that recovery episode, and mostly with Katara doing her best Beatrix Kiddo impression. “Wiggle. Your Big Toe.” There are healing baths and physical therapy and as a guy three-quarters of the way through a year of physical therapy for a rebuilt shoulder, I’m ready to identify with this suckitude. Luckily Mako and Bolin write perfect letters, and we get just enough prose between Asami and Korra to fuel the shipper’s engines, so it’s not all a down note. Eventually, we even get a little of the old montage magic, and Korra’s back in the game—Avatar Spirit AWOL, not quite 100% and struggling with her inner demons, but up and at ’em.
You know where I’m going with this. Korra’s chasing Avatar Korra—or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it—and to me this just comes back around to my pet theory. I predicted before this season started that this book would be called Balance, and I predicted long before that that Korra would unify the yin and yang of Raava and Vaatu. I think this plot line—especially as Korra walks in and out of the Spirit Worlds in a dreamlike Miyazaki quest—is still sizzling on the griddle.
And so we get to Yoda. Toph. Yoda. It’s fitting to find her in the swamp, as that is where Aang saw the flying pig that guided him to Toph in the first place. See, even before Korra re-aligned the Spirit World and the Physical World, these places overlapped. That’s concise, cohesive worldbuilding, with the closing of a thematic loop thrown in for good measure.
This episode is just so tightly written; when the Nick.com commercial break kicked in I thought it was the end of the episode, there’s so much storytelling jammed in there. And get Toph out of the way early in the season; like the flashbacks to adult Aang, there is a part of us that wants to see this, but this is a new story. Or heck, surprise me; maybe Toph will just stick with the show the rest of the way. That’s what she did in Avatar: the Last Airbender, after all.
While I’m admiring technical proficiency, how about the animation in this one, huh? When Avatar Korra goes all T-1000 on Korra? Oh, yikes, that poison is nasty. Here I thought the Creepy Avatar manifestation was cruel but perhaps ultimately benign…but this calls that theory into question. But the whole Exorcist Korra thing is really great, right? Perfectly in time for the holidays. Fits in with the first series’ Bloodbender episode in the “Horror” genre.
Then there are all the little easter eggs scattered throughout. Goofy adult Aang, still in touch with his sense of whimsy, caught in a photograph. Toph’s distinctive body posture reminds me of how on the nose they are with adult Zuko’s slouch as well. Plus Avatar Kyoshi fighting a sharksquid, one-handed—have I mentioned lately that if there ever is another Avatar cycle, I think they should do a prelude about Kyoshi?
What we got this week was pleasantly surprising. Spooky Korra Zombie isn’t Korra out of control on power or sick with poison, but a restless shade playing Scrooge. Nor has Korra flaked out on her friends or abandoned her responsibilities; no, Korra’s operating on the thin sliver a twilight between fear and hope. Her mental trauma is mixed in with…what, the Avatar’s connection to the spirit world? Wandering Raava? Who can say, yet. Still, she turns away from Republic City not to hide, but to seek. For me, that makes a world of difference.
I’m finding it very easy to root for her right now, and coming from a place of trepidation about that, thinking we would get a Debbie Downer episode…well, it looks like last season wasn’t a fluke. This show has smoothed out all of the road bumps…just in time for Nick to dump it. I am not heartbroken about that: we still get the show. Everything comes to an end, and the alchemy of creation, between showrunners and writers and animators and directors and producers and yes, even the network, it’s all part of it. Avatar: the Last Airbender was so good in large part because it had a proper ending, it wasn’t milked or dragged out undue seasons. The Legend of Korra might not be ending as organically, but I trust them to end it as well.