Retro Review: Carrie (1976): Were Carrie’s Actions Justified?

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for many years, but it was only recently that I read his first novel, Carrie (1974). Despite being his first published novel, I actually thought it aged very well, and is even better than some of his more recent stuff. King has a tendency to write bloated novels: he gets so absorbed in the minutia of his characters’ lives that he forgets about the overall plot arc, and usually ends his novels in some quick and cheating way.

Carrie, though, was short, sweet, and to the point. The premise of the novel made a perfectly fine horror movie, albeit some small changes to the story.

With the release of the new Carrie, I thought it time to watch the original myself. In this review, I don’t want to focus on the merits of the movie: that ground has been tread before. Instead, I want to focus on one specific question: were Carrie’s actions at the prom justified?

(Full spoilers below)

Retribution on the bullies

For those of you who haven’t seen or read Carrie, but are continuing to read despite knowing there are spoilers–here’s what we’re talking about. Carrie is a quiet, shy high school senior who has her first period while in the gym locker room. Carrie freaks out because, astoundingly, she has never heard of a period before. The other girls make fun of her, throwing tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie’s gym teacher stands up for her and punishes the girls. The focus of the story, though, is prom night. The girls want revenge on Carrie, so they set her up with a prom date and rig the voting so that she gets crowned prom queen.

Carrie's asked out by Tommy Ross

Carrie’s asked out by Tommy Ross.

Unbeknownst to Carrie, some of the kids slaughtered a pig, collected its blood, and stored the blood in a bucket above the prom stage. As Carrie is crowned queen, amidst applause and cheers from her entire school, the bucket of blood is dumped on her.

Ever since Carrie was first humiliated in the shower, she has developed telekinetic powers. Upset that she was so publicly humiliated on her senior prom, she exacts revenge on her classmates. She closes the gym doors telekinetically, electrocutes a couple students, which then starts a fire. She escapes the gym and keeps the doors closed while her classmates burn up inside.

Carrie closes the gym doors.

A white-eyed Carrie closes the gym doors.

After leaving the school, Carrie kills two more students who try to run her over. This is where the rampage ends in the movie, but in the book, Carrie takes it several steps farther. She wanders around, blowing up gas stations. She also breaks all the fire hydrants, releasing all the stored water into the streets, so that the fire trucks don’t have any water to use. The book mentions that over 400 people died during her rampage, including half her high school class.

Neither the book nor the movie make any suggestion that the bullying of Carrie is justified. She is innocent in that regard and has done nothing to earn the ridicule, other than being a quiet, slightly distant girl. There are a few in every school.

I return, then, to the central question: was Carrie, an innocent victim of bullying, justified in killing hundreds of people?

The sin of bullying: Treating people as objects

On the surface, it appears the answer is, “no.” While bullying is bad, the crime doesn’t fit Carrie’s retribution. Even if we found a way to justify Carrie’s punishment of those few students directly involved in the incident, do the hundreds of other people, who merely laughed at her, deserve death?

The nature of punishment, though, depends upon our foundation for justice. Who determines right and wrong, and who determines punishment? Before discussing Carrie’s actions, it’s important to understand why bullying is a sin.

Bullying can take many forms: physical, verbal, sexual, mental. A person can be bullied by an individual or a group, in private or in public, by a peer, by a superior, or even by somebody with less status, as in the case when students bully a teacher, for instance. Bullying is multifaceted, and the permutations of how the bullying happens can be thousands. But what is the essence of bullying? What is it really about?

Bullying appears to be about power, about one person having power–and using that power–over another. While there is an element of power to bullying, I don’t think power is the root. Power might be the root of war, assault, domestic violence, but bullying is a bit different. Bullying is more about pride. The bully thinks s/he is superior to the victim, and the bully objectivizes the victim by treating them as an object of humor. The bully takes pride in himself, and uses the victim for his own satisfaction. The bully dehumanizes the victim.

In a way, bullying is akin to idolatry. The bully puts herself in a position of dominance, one she actually does not possess, and she recreates the victim, turning the victim from a person into an object, an object to be used, enjoyed, and discarded. It’s similar to how an idolator fashions a god out of stone: the idolator does not possess this power to refashion and recreate objects in their own image, yet the idolator attempts the immoral recreation anyway.

The students at Carrie’s school think they are superior to her. They know something about a woman’s anatomy that she does not, and they use their knowledge and supposed dominance to recreate Carrie into an object of laughter and scorn.

In the second instance of bullying, the students are mad at Carrie for getting them in trouble. They cover her in pig’s blood, making her humiliation complete. What’s so devastating about this second instance of bullying is how fast Carrie fell: she was on top of the world, suspicious but appreciative to be going to prom, to be asked out by a cute guy, to be crowned prom queen: none of these things she expected. She’s never felt this good about herself in her life, and moments later, feels the worst she’s ever felt.

Carrie's school cheers

The masses cheer for Carrie the prom queen.

That immediate change from an object of admiration to an object of ridicule made something in her snap.

Carrie the prom queen.

Carrie’s perch at the top of the high school social order was short-lived.

The hand of the Lord

In Christian and Jewish theology, any sin is deserving of punishment. The Old Testament emphasizes justice for the downtrodden, and the New Testament confirms that any sin is punishable by death. Maybe not immediately: people are given second chances. But every sin earns a penalty, and that penalty must be paid before a person’s life expires. Because people cannot pay the penalty themselves–the debt is too high–Jesus steps in to cover the penalty. All He asks is for acceptance and obedience in return.

By this theology, then, the students at Carrie’s school, from the student who slaughtered the pig and set up the blood down to the masses who merely laughed at her, all deserve punishment.

The Old Testament is filled with examples of the Lord using rival nations to punish Israel for her sin. Israel is invaded over and over again. The Lord uses the armies of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Canaan, and more to punish the Israelites for their sin.

When Carrie tells her mother about her powers, Mama says the powers are from Satan. Carrie disagrees, saying the powers are her own. It’s certainly possible that in this worldview, the students are deserving of some kind of punishment, and the Lord is using Carrie to carry out that punishment.

Carrie covered in blood

A shocked and humiliated Carrie, covered in pig’s blood.

It should be noted that Stephen King is a Christian. While he says he’s not interested in “organized” religion, he does include a lot of Christian themes in his writings. I once heard somebody say that horror stories are modern day morality plays: the immoral masses (kids who drink, fornicate, bully, rob, rape, or commit any number of other sins) are killed off one by one by whatever monster is the star of that film. Usually the only people to survive horror stories are the “righteous,” those teens or adults who have a strong moral compass and don’t comprise like other characters.

Carrie in the burning gym

Carrie calmly walks through the burning gym.

In this worldview, then, Carrie’s actions may be justified, even if they seem harsh at first glance. Carrie’s story is a justice fantasy for anybody who’s ever been bullied: the bullies, from the greatest to the least, get the punishment they deserve. But our analysis doesn’t end here: we still must discuss the overt religious themes present in Carrie, most notably in her religious mother.

Mama: the religious “fanatic”

Carrie’s mother, called by Carrie “Mama,” is what many people term a “religious fanatic.” She prays a lot, quotes Scripture, preaches fire and brimstone, and evangelizes door to door. All of the reviews refer to Mama as a fanatic.

But what exactly does this mean? Just because somebody is devoted to their religion doesn’t necessarily make them a fanatic. Just because somebody spends a lot of time thinking about spiritual matters doesn’t make them a fanatic either. This term is meant as a diminishing term: it’s something reviewers use to look down upon Mama. Mama is the bad guy, the ultimate bad guy, even more so than Carrie’s bullies. Mama is not a character we are supposed to relate to.

What exactly is it about Mama, then, that makes her so hated? It’s not so much that she’s a devoted Christian: Carrie is also a devoted Christian, but nobody terms her a religious fanatic. Mama’s religion, though, seems to get in the way of common sense. Mama says that Carrie’s period is punishment for sin, the sin visited upon all women by Eve’s original sin, intercourse (in Mama’s theology: she quotes from some book that’s not in the Bible to back up this theology).

Carrie and Mama pray.

Mama prays with Carrie.

Mama also seems abusive to Carrie: Carrie receives not only verbal abuse from Mama, but is frequently locked in the “prayer closet” until she repents of her sins.

Carrie's prayer closet

Mama drags Carrie into the prayer closet.

While Mama’s sins against Carrie appear unforgivable, everybody has sin. At some point every family member sins against another. What’s most troubling about Mama, then, is not that she spends a lot of time thinking about God, teaching (her) Christian principles to Carrie, or even that she sins against Carrie from time to time. Mama’s sin is this: she’s missed the boat completely when it comes to Christianity.

Christianity is about forgiveness. Christianity acknowledges that sin is real, and certainly nobody is justified in their sin: all need repentance. But Mama does not know the word forgiveness. She only acknowledges sin, then seeks punishment. True Christianity is about acknowledging sin, acknowledging the punishment that we all deserve, and then acknowledging that Jesus took that punishment for us.

Mama seems only to have read the Old Testament, not the New Testament.

Carrie still believes in Mama

When Carrie returns from the prom, she washes the pig’s blood off then finds Mama. She cries before Mama, saying, “You were right: the people did laugh at me, just like you said they would.” At first, it appears that Mama is sympathetic to Carrie: she even hugs her daughter briefly. But then she lets go, and starts in with her theology again. Carrie requests over and over for Mama to hold her, to comfort her. And Mama does, but only until she can grab a knife and literally stab Carrie in the back.

Mama stabs Carrie in the back.

Carrie’s life is now in danger. She attacks Mama, defending herself and ultimately killing Mama. Carrie’s house implodes, and Carrie seeks refuge in the prayer closet, dragging Mama in with her. Carrie presumably kills herself, perhaps in recognition that she, too, is now a sinner deserving of death.

Carrie realizes that she’s become her mother. Mama could only see sin and punishment, not forgiveness. When Carrie snapped, she could only see the sin of her classmates. She knew they deserved some sort of punishment, but she took it too far. She also forgot about forgiveness. At the end, she decided the wipe the earth of her and her mother.

Bullying is a sin. That much we know. And all sin has some consequence, deserves some punishment. That we also know. But Carrie’s punishment went too far. Not because death was inappropriate for the crime, but because there was always a better option, a more difficult option, but a better option: forgiveness.

Movie rating:

4/5 (movie is worth owning and seeing again)

Best Big Bang Theory Moments: Sheldon Tells Off Penny

Season seven of The Big Bang Theory started off with a, well, a bang. Despite the first episode’s title, “The Hofstadter Insufficiency,” the episode really wasn’t focused on Leonard, but Sheldon and Penny. I’ve always thought BBT was strongest when focusing on these two characters. Sure, the jokes between them follow the predictable comedy trope of “putting-two-completely-opposite-characters-in-the-same-space-to-see-how-they-interact-with-each-other” but I don’t mind. It works because Penny and Sheldon have the most personality of any of the characters on the show.

Leonard is simply an empty vessel, a follower. I guess he’s supposed to be the Everyman, the character I relate to because he’s the most “normal” of the four geeks. He’s the straight man, the foil for Sheldon and Penny’s jokes. But the Hofstadter Insufficiency showed once again that Sheldon and Penny can carry scenes on their own just fine.

One scene in this episode was particularly moving for me. It wasn’t filled with laughs so much as development of Sheldon and Penny’s relationship. Even though the two appear to be mortal enemies, I think they like each other as friends more than perhaps any of the other friendships on the show.

Penny wants to get to know Sheldon better

The scene begins with Penny hanging out at Sheldon’s. They’d previously tried calling Leonard to see how his trip was going, but when the conversation was cut short, they find themselves with nothing else to do. Penny proposes something:

Penny: Come on, it’s still early. Let’s do something.

Sheldon: Well, I have been toying around with an idea for 4-D chess.

P: How about we just talk?

S: Alright. In 4-D chess–

P: No… Come on, let’s talk about our lives. Tell me something about you I don’t know.

S: I own nine pairs of pants.

P: Okay, that, that’s a good start. But I was thinking maybe something a little more personal.

Big Bang Theory Penny and Sheldon Something More Personal

S: I see. (pause) I own nine pairs of underpants.

P: How about I go first?

S: But I don’t wanna know how many underpants you own. Although based on the floor of your bedroom I’d say it’s about a thousand.

P: Okay, look. Here’s something people do not know about me.

Penny then tells a story about a low-budget horror movie she was in when she first arrived in LA, Serial Apist, which Sheldon coincidentally has seen.

S: But I see the type of personal revelations you’re going for. (pause) Okay. Here’s one I thought I’d take to the grave.

P: Okay.

S: Hmph… A while back, YouTube changed its user-interface from a star-based rating system to a thumbs up rating system. I tell people I’m okay with it, but I’m really not.

Big Bang Theory Sheldon and Penny YouTube Ratings System

P: (long pause) That’s your big revelation?

S: Yes. Whoo! I feel ten pounds lighter.

P: Okay. You know what? I give up. I’m going to bed.

Penny gets up and walks toward the door. Here we see Penny reacting to Sheldon in her usual way: condescension and confusion about why he is the way he is. Normally Sheldon doesn’t call her out on it. Most the time he doesn’t pick up on Penny’s criticisms (though Penny certainly isn’t shy about telling Sheldon to stop being so mean to her on numerous occasions).

But then Sheldon does something different. He stands up for himself:

S: Here’s something else you don’t know about me. You just hurt my feelings.

P: (confused) What did I do?

S: I opened up and shared something deeply upsetting to me, and you treated it as if it were nothing.

P: I, I didn’t think it was a big deal.

S: It is to me. That’s the point.

Big Bang Theory Sheldon and Penny It Is to Me

Even though the conversation was about a YouTube ratings system, Sheldon really could’ve been talking about anything. For years, Penny hasn’t understood why he’s interested in the games, science, television shows, or any other of his more eccentric passions. This scene is so interesting because Sheldon is actually airing his feelings, showing that he does have feelings and he does value what people think about him, even if his facade suggests otherwise.

Once confronted, Penny puts her hands in her pockets and looks at the floor awkwardly.

P: Sheldon, you are right. I’m really sorry. I should’ve known better.

Big Bang Theory Penny I'm really sorry.

S: Your apology is accepted.

P: Thank you. How about a hug?

S: How about a hearty handshake?

P: Come on!

Big Bang Theory Sheldon and Penny hug

Now, a lot of nerds don’t like BBT very much: they feel that the “nerds” in the show are simply there for the audience to laugh at. The audience is supposed to feel superior to the nerds because “nobody is that nerdy.” These nerds think that BBT makes light of their passions for D&D, video games, and Star Wars, that these passions are simply the butt of many jokes.

Other people don’t like BBT because they think that the show makes fun of people with mental illness. Specifically, they refer to Sheldon, who, although he insists his mother had him tested and he’s “not crazy,” some people believe has OCD, Asperger’s, and any number of other mental illnesses.

I don’t agree with any of these criticisms. As a nerd myself, I find Sheldon relatable, despite his exaggerated nature. And yes, the show makes fun of Sheldon, but he also makes fun of everybody else just as much. That’s what people do in sitcoms: they make fun of each other.

This scene is really what puts those criticisms to rest for me. Yes, the show uses a lot of nerd humor, but then scenes like this happen, and it’s as if the creators are saying, “You know what? It’s just fine that Sheldon is bothered by YouTube’s ratings system change. Don’t judge other people’s passions and concerns.”

Don’t just live your passion: Accept other people’s passions

And I think that’s one of the underlying themes of the show. Every week I see some vapid post on Facebook about “living your passions to the full, don’t let other people judge you, you keep being you, dance like nobody’s watching,” et cetera, et cetera. Living your passions to the full, that’s great and all. But are you capable of taking that idea one step farther? Can you accept others when they live their passions to the full?

That’s the question BBT theory poses to us, and it’s been posing this question for 7 years now.

(For another great example of this, check out “The Nerdvana Annihilation” in season 1).

There are a lot of things I don’t understand about people. I don’t understand our culture’s fascination with sports. I don’t understand why the latest fashions get some people’s motors running. I don’t understand people’s obsessions with reality TV, celebrity romantic relationships, or the fluctuations of Oprah’s weight. Those passions seem as foreign to me as my passions for HTML code, NES games, The Matrix, and polyhedral dice likely seem to them.

That’s okay. I don’t have to understand or like what other people like; but I am trying to accept that they have those passions and leave it at that.

~Dennis

Video Games as Art: Analysis of Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Maybe it’s because I grew up with video games, but I don’t really understand this thinking that video games are not art. History is replete with examples that when new media are first created, people look at them with disdain, then reverence. This isn’t to say that every example of a medium instantly becomes art. Grocery lists scrawled on florescent Post-It Notes should not be compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; a Walmart training video shouldn’t be compared to Back to the Future; and likewise, not every video game is a work of art.

Understandably it was hard to see video games as art back in the 1970s when we had very few competent examples of the medium (even a highly-regarded game like Pac-Man was shamelessly ported and remade dozens and dozens of times, and many of these ports diluted and degraded the vision of Pac-Man, like the disastrous Atari 2600 port). However, the video game medium now has thousands of examples of games, and it’s had enough history that it is now very easy for us to look back and identify which games are art and which are not.

What makes video games unique as an art form is their non-linearity:  the art is not static, like a painting, or linear, like a novel or movie. The game has to be played to be appreciated, and it’s in the playing that we experience the art.

Super Mario Bros.

The first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This game introduced millions to a fantasy world unlike any we’d ever seen before, a place inhabited by floating bricks, evil mushrooms, brainless turtles, and a mustachioed man who could jump many times his height with ease.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 Opening

The famous opening scene, featured in World 1-1, a stage many people have memorized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been creamed by that first goomba.

At the end of the first stage, you enter this castle and go underground, experiencing a completely different landscape.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 Castle

The first castle, complete with an ambiguous peace sign / skull flag outside.

The third level gets even stranger, placing us high above the clouds on the tops of mushrooms. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th day playing with the NES that my brother and I finally reached this level. I remember a sense of vertigo making these perilous jumps, and falling over and over into that great blue abyss. It was on this level that my dad introduced me to the word “suicide” because of my tendency to fall down the hole (though for years I thought the word was “sewer side” and it made me think of Ninja Turtles).

Super Mario Bros. World 1-3

Standing on those floating girders were the trickiest. To me, the two coins looked like eyes, and the girder moving left to right reminded me of a man playing a harmonica.

Once on this level, my brother and I experienced incredible difficulty. We died over and over, and as everybody back then remembers, these games had no save points: we had to start all over again (hence the memorization of those first few levels). At this time, our dad actually played video games with us, the first and last time. One morning, a week after we bought the NES, we awoke to a great surprise. Our dad woke us up at 6:30 and promptly brought us into his bedroom and turned on the 13 inch TV. He had made it to the end of the third level after we went to bed, and before completing the level, paused the game, leaving the NES on all night long. My brother and I were shocked to see the following image:

Super Mario Bros. World 1-3 Big Castle

What that castle held within filled us with wonder, and dread.

It is at this point that Super Mario Bros. became, upon reflection years later, a work of art for me. And the reason why is that our repeated playing of the game, of failure after failure until finally success, imbued the game with personalized meaning. If this image of a giant castle had been printed on the back of the box, it probably wouldn’t have been that impressive once we reached it. But we did reach it after hours and hours of play, trial and error. Much (digital) blood had been spilled and lost falling into holes and crashing into goombas. The fact that our dad paused the system over night (we learned later it is a bad thing to leave the system running so long), and had to show us this castle first thing in the morning added to the importance of this scene.

My dad played level 1-4, and promptly died in the fire, the final touch that added enormity to the castle’s sinister style.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-4

This castle’s imagery, plus the music, made this level a little scary to me as a kid.

The assault on World 8

The game would continue to surprise me over the years. The game was difficult, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens, probably 6-8 years after we first got the game, that I was finally able to beat it. I’d never made it to World 8 before. The assault on Koopa’s final castle caused fear in my soul.

Super Mario Bros. World 8 Bullets

Bullets, bullets everywhere.

The most dreaded enemy I’d faced in the game at this point was the Hammer Bros. And this level doesn’t just have 1 or 2 of them, but 8! It wasn’t just the unpredictability of their hammers that scared me. It was the fact that I’d never made it to this world before, after trying dozens and dozens of times, and I was low on lives. I didn’t want to die and have to do this all over again. I had to complete this world on the first try.

Super Mario Bros. World 8 Hammer Bros.

In level 8-3, the castle walls appeared, the last background change in the game. I knew I was getting close to something.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-3 Castle Walls

And then, the last set of stairs. Climbing the stairs shouldn’t really be difficult. It’s not like the jumps were higher than before. There were just some blocks missing. All of that empty space, those blocks precariously floating in midair, somehow made them feel unsteady, unsafe, forbidden.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-3 Stairs

Finally, the last castle, a maze of sorts that includes a brief water section. Koopa was the same as before, jumping and throwing fireballs, but he never ceased to amaze me with his eight hammers thrown all at once. What power! Look ye upon my hammers, and tremble.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-4 Koopa Showdown

After you defeat Koopa one last time, the quest is over. Instead of giving you a moment to catch your breath, the game immediately throws you into a second, more difficult quest, one I’ve only played for a few minutes. I must rectify this oversight in the future.

Super Mario Bros. Ending

“Aren’t you a little short to be a princess?”
“Huh? Oh, the dress.”

Of course, art is subjective, but I’m probably not alone in finding certain video games moving, not only because of their imagery, sound, or story, but because of the play experience. Have you had an experience playing video games that moved you in an artistic way? Comment on this post and share your story!

Game on,

~Dennis

Can God be Glorified by Playing Video Games?

Everyday, Ordinary Worship blog

A few weeks ago, my pastor mentioned Grand Theft Auto V in a sermon. He did so casually, and wondered if violent video games were linked to violence in the physical world.

He also mentioned that our congregation had a LOT of doctors and PhDs, and he wants to find ways of engaging with the scientific community on matters of faith.

These two thoughts cemented an idea I’ve had for a long time. After some consideration, I proposed a program to the pastoral team: a talk and discussion about video game concerns with parents. I’ve taught a class on video games before, so I’m familiar with all the research about violence, body image, sexuality, race and gender issues in games, addiction, fitness and obesity, and more. Video games have been controversial for 40 years.

In this program, then, I’ll talk about what the research actually says on these controversies, and explain to parents how the video game rating system works, giving them guidelines so they know how to choose games appropriately for their kids.

To help promote the program, one of the pastor’s asked me to write an article for his blog about how playing video games can glorify God. The following is an excerpt, with a link to the rest of the article:

Video games have been a huge part of my life ever since I was five or six. I’ve been playing for over 20 years and have spent countless hours mastering so many games I can’t keep track of them all.

A few years ago, I was trying to explain to my friend, a fellow Christian, why I enjoyed video games and how I thought they were beneficial to my faith. He dismissed my explanation and thought I was just trying to justify mindless entertainment. Maybe so. After studying mass communication in school for the past decade, it’s natural that I reflect a lot on my media consumption. As a Christian, I am constantly endeavoring (often unsuccessfully) to point my life to God.

I played video games for about 10 years before I found Christ. At first, my Christian faith didn’t have much effect on the kinds of games I played or the way I played games. But slowly, God has been molding me after His image, so I think it’s possible that at least some of the games I play are glorifying to God. If He were beside me on the couch, I think He might even like playing video games with me.

Read more

Game on,
~Dennis

The Legend of Korra: Beginnings Review and Analysis

01korra-beginnings-title

If you haven’t been watching The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon, you need to. While the show stumbled quite a bit in the first season, and has had a few missteps this season, it’s still the best animated show on television right now.

Last week Nickelodeon premiered the two-part episode “Beginnings,” which tells the origin story of the Avatar. In this episode we learn where the Avatar came from, and are given a preview of what Korra must do to balance the physical and spirit worlds. These two episodes were easily the best episodes in Korra thus far, and I’ll tell you why.

The beauty of animation

Before we talk about the story, let’s get this out of the way: the animation in these two episodes is–hands down, no debate needed–the best animation I’ve ever seen. This includes animation from classic Disney movies, which used to be higher quality than typical television shows simply due to the fact that when animators only have to animate 90 minutes of content for one movie verses hundreds of minutes of content for a full season of a television show, you expect the movie animation to be better. Korra has proven with every episode that a half-hour children’s show can set new standards in animation, and Beginnings kicked it up to 11.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Giant Frog Spirit

Legend of Korra Beginnings Tree

Legend of Korra Beginnings City on Fire

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit World

Legend of Korra Beginnings Avatar Wan

The story takes place 10,000 years before the current show. To emphasize the ancient setting, the creators did something unprecedented: almost the entire episode was animated in the style of classic Chinese watercolor paintings. The bending especially looks amazing, from the swirls in the fire and air to the bold white and blue of the water.

Each animation frame is a work of art on its own, but when laced together, we are treated with a tapestry of visuals unlike any other.

Fleshing out the Avatar world

A good origin story has to do several things: tell a story that can stand alone from the plot of the main show, teach us something new that is relevant to the current timeline, and add details to the universe. Beginnings succeeds on all three tasks. While this episode will obviously be relevant to the rest of this season, I really enjoyed learning little details about the Avatar world.

Take firebending. At the beginning of the episode, Korra is helped by fire sages. One of the fire sages attempts to heal Korra with fire, very similar to how Katara used to heal people with waterbending. I love that firebending now contains this healing property, as the original Avatar series made it quite clear that fire is almost always used for destruction. Aang learned from the Sun Warriors that fire can also bring life, and Aang remarked that his fire was like “a little heartbeat.”

Legend of Korra Beginnings Fire Healing

It makes sense that we never saw fire used for healing in the original series, as the Fire Nation was so disconnected from their roots that all they knew was war. Now in Korra’s generation, the Fire Nation has a chance to redeem itself by showing that fire can be used for more than destruction.

We also learn that when spirits possess humans, the humans are left permanently scarred and deformed. This man, Crazy Yao, is a bit difficult to look at, but I’m glad his character was included, as it shows kids that messing around with spiritual matters can have life-altering consequences if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Crazy Yao

This episode also reintroduces the Lion Turtles, one of my favorite creatures from the original Airbender. Lion Turtles are such a unique creature, and Beginnings shows us that Lion Turtles not only protect humans, but gave them bending to begin with.

We only saw the Lion Turtle in the last couple episodes of Airbender, and while it was an impressive sight, co-creator Bryan Konietzko remarked in the DVD commentary that he was extremely disappointed with how the animation turned out, and he’s never criticized the Korean animation house before. Hopefully he was pleased with how the new Lion Turtles came out.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Lion Turtle

Finally, the creators changed the story slightly about where bending came from. In Airbender, they said that the Fire Nation learned bending from the dragons, the Water Tribe learned bending from the moon, the Earth Kingdom learned bending from the badger moles, and the Air Nomads learned bending from the sky bison. It appears, though, that the Lion Turtles actually gave humans the bending powers, and then when they retreated from the world, humans were taught how to use their bending powers from the various sources. Perhaps the Lion Turtles also gave bending to the dragons and sky bison?

Legend of Korra Beginnings Dancing Dragon

Wan learns the Dancing Dragon, the same set of moves Aang and Zuko learned from the Sun Warriors.

An episode packed with symbolism

The Avatar world has always been full of symbolism, which is great for dedicated viewers, even if children don’t always understand what’s happening. While Avatar mostly borrows from Chinese mythology and culture, it does borrow from other cultures as well. What I’ve always loved about Avatar is that the show’s not afraid to leave things unexplained: it doesn’t talk down to you by pointing out every last symbol.

Here are just a few from Beginnings:

Legend of Korra Beginnings Wan Steals Fire

The first bending discipline to be learned by Avatar Wan was fire. Wan, however, stole the fire from the Lion Turtle and was allowed to keep it when caught. This story references the great fire myths of many cultures, including the well-known myth of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirits

Raava, the white spirit, represents goodness while Vaatu, the black spirit, represents darkness and destruction. Wan was deceived by Vaatu and severed the spirits, bringing about humanity’s fall. When confronted, he tried to deny responsibility. His deception and response, then, mirrors Eve’s deception and fall with the serpent.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Water Womb

Korra receives spiritual healing inside this watery womb and then is “reborn” as the Avatar.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Lion Turtle

Some cultures have myths that the entirety of the world rests on the back of a turtle. In the world of Avatar, each original culture resided on the back of its own Lion Turtle.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit World

In the spirit world, the southern and northern portals are apparently very close to each other. Notice the yin-yang pattern in the rocks: the spirits are supposed to be balanced with neither having supremacy.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Planets Align

Harmonic Convergence happens when the planets align, a common omen that something important is about to happen cosmically.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit Prison

Wan defeated Vaatu and locked him in a spirit prison of sorts. Korra learns, though, that the next Harmonic Convergence is only a few weeks away. Vaatu must be released again, and the cosmic battle begins anew. The Book of Revelation predicts, for instance, that Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire while Jesus reigns on earth for a thousand years, but even Satan must be released for a time at the end of the 1,000 year reign.

If you haven’t done so already, check out Beginnings on Nickelodeon.com. The videos likely won’t be up forever, so don’t delay.

~Dennis