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The Legend Of Korra: “Civil Wars, Part 1”

Illustration for article titled iThe Legend Of Korra/i: “Civil Wars, Part 1”
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Apologies for this one going up so late, there was some miscommunication about a screener. But here we are! I didn’t love this one, although I liked it more on second watch.

The thing I’ve always liked about the way the Avatarland writers roll is that their characters feel like real people with opinions and personalities who often do unexpected things rather than chess pieces on a board being moved around in service of the plot. And they’ve usually been dedicated to undermining my least favorite serial-TV plot conceit, the Lost-patented “continual, dragged-out dramatic irony because the writers refuse to let the characters just ask the obvious questions or fucking talk to each other about stuff like real people would.”


One of the reasons I loved the first series is how the writers seemed to take great pleasure in setting up little dramatic-irony bubbles, then instantly popping them by… having someone ask the obvious question, or just fucking talk to the other person. There were some elements of the first season of Korra that had that feel, too (for example, the down-to-earth, human way teenage romance was handled), but the second season is starting to feel a little cartoonish. Uh, so to speak.

For example, Bolin’s story has had no surprises since he quickly forgave Mako for stealing the girl of his fancy (other than the terrifying, hysterical noises the twins make to approximate laughter), and neither has Mako’s. I’m talking “Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that character to do that!” surprises, not “This is an interesting plot development” surprises. The two are even more adrift outside the context of Republic City and pro bending, with Bolin having been boiled down to “I am Xander in an early ‘Xander Accidentally Dates A Monster’ episode of Buffy!” and Mako to “I am Boyfriend!” Neither of them have had many laughs, either.


The two did get one neat moment in this episode when Mako uses the unfortunate metaphor of blood-sucking leeches to refer to unwanted girlfriends, something even Bolin recognizes as kind of a dickface mindset — “I’m lucky you’re so good at breaking girls’ hearts! Korra better watch out! Uh, I mean…” I hope the writers have something better planned for those boys.

Korra’s done some surprising things this season, what with freezing out her dad and Tenzin, but not in a way where it was both unexpected and understandable. Until this episode, her primary motivation for being so so pissy and seemingly unreasonable with her male mentors weren't super clear, so to me she was just coming off as a bit of a brat.


I did like that it’s more understandable in this episode: When she goes to talk to her mom (who is still alive!) about things, her number-one grievance is clearly that they kept her isolated at the South Pole for nearly her entire life.  She mentions shortly after meeting Bolin and Mako in the first episodes of the series that her only friend up until this point has been a polar-bear-dog, and though as I recall it was played for a joke at the time, that’s pretty fucked up.

Were I a 17-year-old girl who just found out that she grew up friendless because of a couple people’s paternalistic instincts (“We don’t feel like you can protect yourself, so we’ll make sure you never have to”) rather than some concrete threat, I ‘d be real pissed at those people, too. Especially if all they had to offer was “Uh, we thought it was the right thing to do.” No apology, no explanation why. If you trust that someone’s a grown-up, you don’t give them “Because I said so,” answers.


Tenzin and Tonraq were all, “Because I said so,” about Unalaq, too. They never really answered the legit question of “Oh, hey, there’s this weird imminent spirit thing going on that only one guy has any idea how to solve. What’s the reason I can’t just take a month off airbending training to have him teach me Spirit Valium?” It seemed like their answer was “Because we said so; and besides, look at him, he has a weasel face.” I’d probably be more inclined to hang out with someone who’s constantly saying he trusts me and I'm going to be the greatest Avatar in history.

However, that got barely a mention in the previous two episodes, compared to much more time spent on the reveal of her dad and uncle’s backstory. It seemed to me, then, that her big problem was with her dad for neglecting to mention that 20 years ago he made a bad decision in the middle of a fight and got kicked out of the North. That was not a very sympathetic position for Korra — who’s the queen of bad decisions in the middle of fights — to hold the line on. Her being mad about not being treated as enough of an adult to make her own decisions about what the Avatar should be doing right now is more so.


There’s also kind of a lot of stuff going on that I feel like I don’t have enough information to judge on — like, the Water Tribe governmental system and geopolitical history? I’m not sure when both tribes became a single monarchy, or whether that was technically the situation in the first series, or just what Unalaq is to the Southern Water Tribe at all. (I’m sure there are answers out there in interviews with the writers somewhere, but no matter how fanatical one’s audience is, writers don't get to assume the person on the other end has read outside material, so I am not going to look it up.) It seems like the tribes would have merged in the Aang era because there were only, like, five guys and one waterbender left in the South. But they still were enough of their own thing for each to have its own seat on Republic City council?

God, I feel like such a nerd writing this stuff, because these are the nitty-gritty world-building details that are usually only sprinkles on the ice cream for the biggest superfans. But in this case, those details are key to how just plain old fan watchers perceive this Water Tribe conflict and Korra's reaction to it: Is Unalaq a straight-up invader, or a legitimate ruler who’s just really bad at PR? Is Varrick a kind of foolhardy freedom fighter, or just a rich guy inciting a civil war so he can offload some fish? Is Korra being an indecisive idiot, or has she just picked up some caution?


It's obviously still really early in the season, though — the writers have barely had any time at all to get things started. I think patience with a show is inversely correlated with how closely you analyze it and talk about it. What do you think?

  • So I guess portals are like clogged pores? I am not at all buying that opening them is necessarily a good thing to do, as we’ve never gotten any reasoning for that point. It’s all been video-game logic — just do it. Why? Because that’s your mission. Go on, now!
  • So if this portal, if it works the way Unalaq says it does, would explain something that always bugged me about the world that I’ve never bothered to complain about because it’s so dumb. If for a long time the Water Tribes could just pop instantly between the North and South poles, it would not be completely ridiculous that two branches of a tribe living as far from each other as possible would be nearly genetically and culturally (betrothal necklaces, hairdos, waterbending forms, etc.) identical.
  • Maybe this portal thing is part of why water is the only element with all the weird spiritual mumbo-jumbo attached in the form of healing, chi, whatever, etc., — some water tribe person wandered into the Spirit World a really long time ago and figured out how to get to the South.
  • Questions: How’d the portal get closed? When? How? What will the world look like with it open?
  • Rohan is super cute.
  • Bumi and Kya never went on those great vacations to ride the elephant koi on Kyoshi Island. It appears they had reason to resent their little brother a little bit. (It ties back to them being semi-dissed by the Air Acolytes last episode, this clearly was not even close to the first time this has happened.)
  • Divisions among Aang’s children can be any combination of two against one — two city boys vs. one tribe girl, two benders vs. one nonbender, two non-airbenders vs. one super-special airbender.
  • I did like that the sibling banter got legitimately mean, with Bumi taking the poke of “That’s probably why the Avatar fired you” and Kya basically accusing Tenzin of being a bad father.
  • Meelo and Bumi are friends. Not loving Bumi’s writing, though.
  • Zhu Li scratches Varrick’s rashes? “Rhetorical question, Zhu Li, you gotta keep up.”
  • Best of the week, audial: Far and away, the twins’s totally creepy laughs.
  • “There we will live the rest of our lives together in icy bliss.”
  • Korra apologizes for interrupting her uncle when she goes to tell him that the Southerners are unhappy, a very weird moment since what she’s interrupting appears to be him sitting on an ice throne completely alone in a dark room like a crazy person.
  • And she then buys some more unconvincing “the spirits will be super mad if the Southerners don’t do what I say because of balance and bullshit and blah blah because I say so” from Unalaq. Tenzin, you didn’t even have to make up a good excuse; Korra will clearly believe anything if you at least put in the tiniest bit of effort to hide the “Because I said so” part!
  • Kids throwing snowballs are a callout to how nasty this situation could get, a la Israel and Palestine.
  • Dolphin-piranhas sound awful.
  • “DO SOMETHING, AVATAR!” Break up with my girlfriend for me.
  • Korra still fighting very physically, which is sort of to her detriment — it’s a cool fight seeing her use the banner and rope to tangle people up, but if she were better trained, she could have just blown everyone out of the way and retrieved her uncle much faster.
  • Ikki: still lost?

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