Book Two: Spirits Retrospective: The Legend of Korra

Book Two: Spirits has finished. It was a quick half-season, but a successful and innovative season in many ways.

As the season progressed, many websites gave reviews of individual episodes as they aired. This is fine, but mostly these “reviews” end up being half summary, half speculation about what it could mean going forward.

But now that the season has concluded, let’s take a retrospective look at the season in its entirety to find out what worked and what didn’t.

Full spoilers ahead. Obviously.

The world's eye opens

When Korra destroys Vaatu, it’s as if the world is opening its eye to light again.

Improvements over the first season

The first book of Korra had a lot of pressure to be successful. It was coming off the hugely successful Last Airbender, a show I easily regard as my favorite visual programming of all time (including television shows, movies, animation, and live-action).

The co-creators, Michale Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, decided to approach Korra differently than Airbender. In Airbender, DiMartino and Konietzko occasionally wrote some episodes, usually episodes that were pivotal to the story. So they had some direct influence on the story, but not complete influence.

For Book One of Korra, they decided to write all the episodes themselves, 12 total. At first, I was excited. I thought, “If those two are writing all the episodes, then Korra will be on its A-game the entire time!” But I was also leery. Remember when George Lucas obtained complete creative control of the Star Wars prequel trilogy? The prequels ended up being hugely disappointing compared to the original series. Why?

Well, there are many reasons, but I think the main reason is that audio-visual storytelling is a collaborative enterprise. One author can write a novel, but it takes a team to create a television show or movie. Give one or two people complete control over everything, and the audience loses out on the creative collaboration that (usually) enhances the final product.

While Book One of Korra was great, it was no Airbender, the audio and visuals being the exception: Korra hit that out of the park. But when it came to the story, Korra noticeably felt rushed.

Part of the reason Korra was rushed has to do with Nickelodeon. Korra was originally intended to be a one-shot 12-episode mini-series. Midway through production, they expanded Korra to 26 episodes, then 52. The creators decided: instead of telling one coherent story for 52 episodes (Airbender had 61 episodes), let’s tell four smaller, independent stories.

As such, Book One had all the makings of a long, drawn out series. In the final episode, Korra lost her bending, and I thought, “This is great! Book Two will be called Spirit [I almost guessed right; it’s called “Spirits”] and will be about Korra struggling as an Avatar without any powers, gaining them back, and eventually defeating Amon, who becomes an Avatar antithesis.”

Nope. About 5 minutes after Korra loses her powers, Avatar Aang appears “deus-ex-machina-style” and gives them back to her. She gives everybody their bending back, everybody is happy, the end.

For Book Two, the co-creators thankfully relinquished some of their writing credits. Dimartino still wrote, but only a few episodes. Book Two also had 2 more episodes to work with than Book One (14 compared to 12), so they had a little more breathing room.

The realities of war are left unexamined

The great thing about Airbender was that it showed children and adults the consequences of war. This was a fighting show, a violent show, to be sure, but it didn’t revel in the violence. It acknowledged that people died in war. People got burned by the Fire Nation and had permanent scars. Families were broken apart by war. The Fire Nation committed genocide of the Air Nomads. Aang wrestled with the morality of killing the Firelord. This was all very deep stuff, and Airbender was applauded for discussing war in an honest, adult way.

I personally think Airbender shows the realities of war better than any adult movie or television show that discusses war.

Unalaq sucks out Raava

Unalaq sucks Raava out of Korra. I think this scene is easily the most violent in the season, paralleled only by the violence of energybending at the end of Airbender. This is spiritual violence, destroying the core of a person. Not all violence is physical.

Unalaq destroys Raava

Unalaq’s destruction of Raava was just as violent. The line of Avatars is broken forever. It really felt like this was a loss.

Book Two of Korra introduced new aspects of war that Airbender had never explored before.

  • There was a civil war between the northern and southern water tribes.
  • Asami and Varrick became war profiteers, merchants of death, selling tanks and weapons of war to the southern water tribe.
  • Varrick crassly used Bolin to spread war propaganda.

These three issues had the potential for instructing children about even more facets of war. And yet, all three were shortsighted.

The civil war that never was

Something has always bothered me about the southern and northern water tribes: are they composed of only one city each? In Airbender, we see one giant city in the north and one tiny village in the south. In Korra, we see one tiny village in the south, and one pretty big city in the south, but nothing in the north. Are these three cities all that constitute the water tribe, or are there more cities we just never see?

It’s an important question: if we knew the full extent of the water tribes’ boundaries, maybe the civil war would seem more real. But because we have such a narrow view of the water tribes, the civil war also seems insignificant.

Korra ditches the southern water tribe just as war breaks out and doesn’t return until the end of the book. We have no idea what the civil war is doing to the southern water tribe. Are people oppressed? In what ways? We don’t know. We never see the effects of war.

Effects of Korra's civil war

We do see this small scene of wounded, Katara too overwhelmed to heal them all. But this small scene is only a few seconds long.

In Airbender, we clearly saw the effects the Fire Nation had on the people. We saw people in the Earth Kingdom who had burns: we know they got those burns from somewhere. We saw Fire Nation flags draped over the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu.

We don’t see such things in Korra. It would be interesting if waterbending actually left permanent scars on people the same way firebending does. I grew up in North Dakota: I know that ice and cold can burn you–it’s called frostbite. When waterbenders encase people in ice, do they not get frostbite? People who suffer frostbite often lose toes and fingers, hands and feet.

Tanraq battles

Tonraq leads a small group of insurgents against Unalaq’s army, but scenes of civil war are rare in Korra.

Korra missed a real opportunity in this regard. What if Korra had returned to the southern water tribe, only to find that not only were people injured, but many had suffered frostbite? What if many waterbenders had their hands frozen off and could no longer bend? Typing that out sounds very dark for a children’s show, but Airbender did it. The main antagonist of the first season, Zuko, was permanently burned on his face via his father. Can anybody say child abuse?

Is nobody bothered by Bolin’s propaganda?

Bolin becomes a mover star (read: movie star) as Nuktuk, water tribe warrior of the south. Varrick’s propaganda films were clearly influenced by real-life World War I and II propaganda films. Bolin was finally given a unique identity this season. His mover scenes provided a lot of comic relief, but also had something to say about the morality of stretching the truth for a good cause (supporting the southern water tribe).

Bolin acting out a mover

Bolin’s big fight scene in “Night of a Thousand Stars” was probably my favorite fight this season. The animators really went out of their way animating Bolin twice in each scene: as a waterbender and an earthbender.

But nobody ever raises any objections to the propaganda, which is unfortunate. Bolin is a blockhead, so maybe he fails to see the significance of the propaganda. But what does Asami think? She watches Bolin’s movers and says nothing at all?

What about Korra? Bolin impersonates a waterbender and basically “borrows” Korra’s polar bear dog Naga for weeks on end. Is Korra not bothered by it? Why doesn’t anybody say to Bolin, “Hey, do you think these movers are acceptable?”

Nuktuk poster

For some reason, Nickelodeon is really slow to capitalize on merchandising for Korra. This poster, though, needs to be made!

Asami: the merchant of death

Asami’s company Future Industries is on the verge of bankruptcy following her father’s actions in Book One of Korra. Asami has no money; her inventory is stolen at one point; and she’s in desperate need of doing something to save the company. So Varrick comes up with an idea: why don’t you sell your mecha tanks to the people of the southern water tribe? They are being oppressed: they need weapons. It’s a win for them and a win for you.

Asami immediately agrees, which is fine at first. She’s just a teenager and maybe is thinking in the short-term. But throughout the entire season, she never once considers: I am profiting off the destruction of life. People are dying because of my weapons. Am I okay with this?

Useless Asami

Asami doesn’t even hang around for the final battle. She’s only an ambulance driver. She’s sad because maybe she realizes there’s nothing special about her this season.

When Team Avatar returns to the southern water tribe, it would’ve been really interesting to get Asami’s reaction to the way her tanks were being used to kill people. When Korra led the assault on the southern spirit portal, mecha tanks, controlled by Unalaq, surrounded it. Did Unalaq (who’s from the northern water tribe, remember) somehow steal the mecha tanks intended for the southern water tribe? Where did he get them? Why doesn’t Asami comment on this?

Bolin certainly had no qualms about blowing up the tanks.

Unalaq says he will fuse with Vaatu

When Unalaq said he would fuse with Vaatu, Eska and Desna are briefly surprised. Korra’s non-verbal storytelling, at least, is on top of its game.

The problem with a “tight” story

The overall problem with Korra is this: by writing “tight” stories, seasons with no “filler” episodes, the creators thought they were enhancing their storytelling capabilities. In reality, Korra has proven that the “filler” episodes in Airbender really weren’t so filler after all.

Let me show you. Below is a list of every episode of Airbender. I’ve classified the episodes in three ways: essential episodes, filler episodes that become important, and straight up filler episodes. Korra was supposed to be like Airbender, but without any filler.

Book One: Water

  1. The Boy in the Iceberg (essential)
  2. The Avatar Returns (essential)
  3. The Southern Air Temple (essential)
  4. The Warriors of Kyoshi (filler that becomes important)
  5. The King of Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  6. Imprisoned (filler that becomes important)
  7. The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) (essential)
  8. Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2) (essential)
  9. The Waterbending Scroll (filler that becomes important)
  10. Jet (filler that becomes important)
  11. The Great Divide (filler)
  12. The Storm (essential)
  13. The Blue Spirit (essential)
  14. The Fortuneteller (filler)
  15. Bato of the Water Tribe (filler that becomes important)
  16. The Deserter (filler that becomes important)
  17. The Northern Air Temple (filler that becomes important)
  18. The Waterbending Master (essential)
  19. The Siege of the North, Part 1 (essential)
  20. The Siege of the North, Part 2 (essential)

Book Two: Earth

  1. The Avatar State (essential)
  2. The Cave of Two Lovers (filler)
  3. Return to Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  4. The Swamp (filler that becomes important)
  5. Avatar Day (filler)
  6. The Blind Bandit (essential)
  7. Zuko Alone (essential)
  8. The Chase (essential)
  9. Bitter Work (essential)
  10. The Library (essential)
  11. The Desert (filler)
  12. The Serpent’s Pass (filler that becomes important)
  13. The Drill (essential)
  14. City of Walls and Secrets (essential)
  15. Tales of Ba Sing Se (filler)
  16. Appa’s Lost Days (filler that becomes important)
  17. Lake Laogai (essential)
  18. The Earth King (essential)
  19. The Guru (essential)
  20. The Crossroads of Destiny (essential)
Korra's cosmic energy

I love the callback to Book Two of Airbender when Korra fuses with her cosmic spiritual energy.

Book Three: Fire

  1. The Awakening (essential)
  2. The Headband (filler)
  3. The Painted Lady (filler)
  4. Sokka’s Master (essential)
  5. The Beach (filler that becomes important)
  6. The Avatar and the Firelord (essential)
  7. The Runaway (filler)
  8. The Puppetmaster (filler that becomes important)
  9. Nightmares and Daydreams (filler)
  10. The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion (essential)
  11. The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse (essential)
  12. The Western Air Temple (essential)
  13. The Firebending Masters (essential)
  14. The Boiling Rock, Part 1 (filler that becomes important)
  15. The Boiling Rock, Part 2 (essential)
  16. The Southern Raiders (filler)
  17. The Ember Island Players (filler)
  18. Sozin’s Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King (essential)
  19. Sozin’s Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters (essential)
  20. Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno (essential)
  21. Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang (essential)
Black and White Pabu

I love that Pabu is briefly shown in black and white. Back in the early days of film, animals and objects were sometimes painted black and white to help them show up on the camera better. I’m glad Korra contains little details like this, even if they are never explained. Airbender was good at leaving small details unexplained as well.

We could quibble about the designation I gave some of these episodes: I’m not entirely satisfied with these classifications myself. But one thing you might be wondering is: why were some episodes deemed “filler that become important?”

Airbender had a very special way of taking episodes that seemed useless, pointless, “filler,” and making them important episodes in retrospect. Characters, locations, or ideas introduced in the early episodes are referred to in later episodes. A character who seems like a throwaway at first, like Suki, ends up becoming extremely important.

The number of “essential” episodes from Airbender is as follows:

  • Book One: 10
  • Book Two: 12
  • Book Three: 12

As you can see, about the number of essential episodes is about a half-season of Korra.

The number of straight “filler,” useless episodes per season is as follows:

  • Book One: 2
  • Book Two: 4
  • Book Three: 6

Most episodes in Books One and Two eventually became important: I think Book Three has the most filler episodes because they were nearing the conclusion of the series and didn’t have time to expand upon the themes raised in some episodes.

But Airbender was about more than just filler and essential episodes. As somebody who’s watched Airbender five or six times now, I’ve found that the filler episodes were never a waste. Characters were developed, and themes of war explored in more detail. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the character arcs in Korra in more detail, but for now, let’s speculate on what some “filler” episodes of Korra could’ve looked like.

Vaatu almost trapped

I also love the callback to Airbender when Korra bends all four elements to put Vaatu back in his prison (unsuccessfully).

Filler Idea #1

The southern water tribe, we are told, was repopulated following the Hundred Years War by people from the northern water tribe. What if a soldier in the northern water tribe fights in the southern civil war and ends up facing against his cousin, uncle, or even brother? How do the two relatives feel about being on opposite sides of the same conflict? This is what Union and Confederate soldiers had to deal with in the American Civil War.

Filler Idea #2

Asami realizes that her war machines are killing people and sees directly that the more tanks she sells, the more money she gets, but the more people die. Perhaps at the beginning of the episode, she’s living the life of luxury, buying new clothes, new cars, a new house. But when she witnesses first-hand how her money comes at a consequence, she has a crisis of conscious. Perhaps she sabotages one of Varrick’s own ships, which is bringing a fresh supply of tanks to the mainland, because she doesn’t want to profit off murder anymore.

Filler Idea #3

Desna and Eska go back to the north to take care of something. While there, they remark on how empty the northern city has become now that all the ships and soldiers are gone. Perhaps some rabble-rouser tries to take advantage of the leaderless and soldierless north and stages a coup. Desna and Eska realize that the civil war is hurting the north just as much as the south. They debate what to tell their father Unalaq. They want to support his goal of reuniting the tribes, but not if it means weakening the homeland in the process.

Maybe those aren’t the best ideas, but you can see how they might work. The good thing about Korra is that there are still 26 episodes to go. Hopefully plot points raised in Books One and Two are returned to later: there’s still time.

I really hope the creators don’t drop any of the ethical questions raised in Book Two the same way they dropped the ethical questions raised in Book One. What happened to all the anti-bender sentiment from Book One? Are you telling me everybody immediately abandoned Amon once he was shown to be a fraud? Didn’t the non-benders have real concerns about being oppressed? Why is there suddenly harmony in Republic City? Book Two never answers these questions, and Korra suffers for it.

Season rating: 5/5 (a story I live my life by)

~Dennis

Tenzin's family is reunited

Tenzin’s family is reunited in the spirit world.

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