“I guess everyone is growing up.” - Tenzin, “Original Airbenders”
Tonight’s two episodes are about siblings learning to put their personal issues aside in order to mature their relationships, but it’s not the younger characters that need to grow up. The adults are in the spotlight in “Old Wounds” and “Original Airbenders,” and putting the focus on the children of beloved Avatar characters roots these two chapters in the world’s rich history, making them especially rewarding for long-time viewers.
Toph fans have a lot to love in “Old Wounds,” which concludes the Lin and Su Beifong story from last week with emotional chats, dynamic fight sequences, and flashbacks to the events that led to the sisters’ estrangement. As I mentioned last week, a big part of this show’s appeal for Avatar fans is seeing how the world and characters have changed, and including flashbacks to the time that passed between series is one of the easiest ways of exploring those shifts in the past.
After being warned about the potential health risks of her bottled up emotions, Lin Beifong sees an acupuncturist who helps her confront the memories that are driving her resentment. Via flashback, we learn that Suyin was a rebellious young teen dabbling in criminal behavior while Toph and Lin were working on the force, and when Lin discovered her sister driving the getaway car for two thieves, a wedge was driven between the two siblings. The major reveal is that Su is responsible for Lin’s facial scars, left by the metal cord Su cut when she resisted arrest, and suddenly Lin’s anger makes a lot more sense.
The physical damage isn’t the main reason Lin resents her sister, but every time Lin looks in the mirror, she’s reminded of the damage Su did to their family. A police chief with a daughter facing jail time, Toph chose to cover up Su’s actions rather than face the public shame, destroying the arrest report and sending Su away from Republic City. Toph would retire the following year because she was guilt-ridden over what she had done and didn’t feel worthy of her badge, and Lin has never forgiven her sister for destroying her mother’s career. After reliving her painful memories, Lin is ready to “talk” to her sister, but she really just wants to kick Suyin’s ass and make her feel the pain that she’s been living with for the last 30 years.
Lin unloads the reasons for her anger on Su, but Su counters by telling her sister that she worked out her issues with Toph years ago. Lin was invited to join, but she
declined the invitation because she’s still the same stubborn, self-righteous person she was when she got her scars. Lin is mad about what Su did to her face and her mother, but I love that the show didn’t shy away from Lin’s jealousy. All Lin wanted was to please her mother, so she followed in her footsteps and ended up a bitter loner. Su did the exact opposite, brought shame on the family, and yet still has a better relationship with their mother and an extravagant life with a fancy house and a fancy cook. Lin wants her sister’s life and she’s pissed off that she doesn’t have it, but once she gets her aggression out, she’s able to move forward.
The big fight scene in “Old Wounds” is the earth and metalbending Beifong ballet, an outstanding sequence that reflects the characters’ emotional states through action. Metalbending requires more focus than earthbending, and there’s a tightly controlled fluidity to Su’s movement that contrasts with Lin’s more wild, aggressive choreography. As a huge Lin Beifong fan (largely thanks to Mindy Sterling’s excellent voicework), I love seeing the character cut loose this week, and it’s even more fun when the action has so much feeling propelling it.
It’s remarkable how much emotional weight the Lin and Suyin story has after only two episodes. The dynamic between the two sisters is so complicated, tied up in years of repressed emotion and unresolved conflict, but it’s also a relationship that is incredibly familiar to anyone with siblings. The sisters’ feelings for each other are tangled up with their feelings for their mother, which ties together beautifully with the subplot involving Opal’s fear of disappointing Su by leaving to train at the Northern Air Temple.
After cleansing herself with battle, Lin is ready to be a part of her sister’s life again, and starts by apologizing to Opal for being needlessly cruel. Bringing everything full circle, Lin offers her niece valuable advice about trying too hard to please her mother, convincing Opal to leave Zaofu behind to pursue a future with the New Air Nation. Everything clicks together perfectly at the end of this episode, bringing three generations of Beifong women together for one of this show’s most poignant chapters. “Old Wounds” is the first Korra episode written by Avatar writer Katie Mattila, who is also the story coordinator for this season, so I wonder if Mattila’s influence is a major reason for Book Three’s success at this point.
Mako is basically absent from tonight’s hour, and that’s no big deal. The show’s writers know who the real star sibling is here, and Bolin gets a lot of screen time with a subplot in “Old Wounds” and a quick appearance in “Original Airbenders.” There’s absolutely no need for him to show up in the second episode, where he interrupts Korra’s phone call with Tenzin, but his declaration of love for Opal on the phone is an adorable addition that shows how aggressive his affection has become.
P.J. Byrne and Alyson Stoner have great chemistry as Bolin and Opal, and their strength as voice actors is a big reason why it’s easy to become invested in their relationship. Bolin and Desna’s relationship never really clicked—which was intentional, but didn’t make their pairing very fun to watch—so it’s nice to have a new romance that feels completely comfortable. There’s nothing forced about this pairing; Toph is Bolin’s hero, and her beautiful, level-headed airbending niece is just about the most perfect match he could want.
This season has actually spent very little time on the lead character, but seeing her interactions with those around her shows how much she’s growing as the avatar. When Su learns that Korra can’t metalbend, she immediately takes Korra under her wing and helps her become the first metalbending avatar in a matter of minutes, giving Korra a gift that will come in handy when she faces off Zaheer and the Bad Benders. And that showdown is coming soon, because Zaheer knows that Korra is with the Metal Clan.
How does Zaheer know where Korra is? I’m going to guess spirit projection based on his meditative stance during that scene. He’s already proven an exceptionally gifted airbender; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already mastered spirit projection. The Bad Benders are also living inside the spirit neighborhood of Republic City, so it’s safe to assume that Zaheer has a strong connection to the spirit world.
As “Original Airbenders” shows, education is a big part of mastering bending, and Zaheer’s memorization of the words of Guru Lahima shows that he’s been doing his homework. His knowledge of airbender history and philosophy is probably why he’s been able to master airbending so quickly, which explains why Tenzin is so obsessed with teaching the members of the New Air Nation. Unfortunately, none of his students are as enthusiastic as he is, especially Bumi, who has established himself as the disruptive class clown.
Tonight’s second episode ignores the Zaheer plot to show the growth of the New Air Nation, which expands by a few members when the rest of Tenzin’s family flies up from Air Temple Island. (Kya and Pema inform Tenzin of Zaheer’s attack, but otherwise the Bad Benders aren’t involved in “Original Airbenders”.) It’s a fun diversion from the main action delving into Tenzin’s relationships with Bumi and Jinora, delivering more of the character insight that has made this season such a delight.
Korra’s power is expanding, but so is her wisdom, and after dabbling with teaching in last week’s episode, Korra proves that she has a talent for educating and leading when Tenzin phones her for help in “Original Airbenders.” The first thing Korra tells Tenzin is that he needs to take a break and let Jinora and the kids help him out, and that advice is echoed by Pema, who emphasizes how difficult this transition is for the new airbenders.
Korra also suggests that Tenzin take advantage of Bumi’s military experience, saying that he may have some tips about getting people motivated. Bumi likes to organize others, so if Tenzin asks him for help, he can trick him into taking more responsibility by making him think the whole thing was his idea. It’s a classic strategy for dealing with petulant children, but Bumi isn’t a child, despite acting like one, which leads to some problems.
When Tenzin asks his brother for help, Bumi tells him that he needs to break down the new recruits before he can build them up, and the only way to do that is by ruling with an iron fist. Tenzin takes the advice and forces the airbenders to wake up at dawn, go on a 10-mile hike, and undergo a treacherous obstacle course while on the brink of exhaustion, which doesn’t motivate the students in the slightest. Bumi is too old to be back in boot camp, so he storms off in a huff, and Kai says that their experience is no better than being in the Earth Queen’s army. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s not very far from the truth.
Tenzin isn’t a bad teacher when it comes to one-on-one training, but he hasn’t prepared for the challenge of working with a group. Bumi was awarded two leadership medals during his military service, so he has the ability to be the example Tenzin needs, but he needs to focus his energy in the right direction. At the start of “Original Airbenders,” Bumi is goofing off with Bumju and entertaining fellow students with swashbuckling tales of the past, but he gets his act together when Kai and Jinora are captured by air bison hunters, uniting his fellow airbenders to lead the New Air Nation’s first coordinated attack.
As Jinora’s first crush, and a bad boy at that, Kai is having a major impact on Jinora’s emotions, both positive and negative. Because Jinora is attracted to Kai, she agrees to join him when he asks if she wants to get close to the wild air bison that graze near the Northern Air Temple, even though she knows it’s dangerous and against her father’s orders. That leads to trouble when an angry mother bison attacks Kai, but we see Kai’s positive effect on Jinora when she rescues him. Given her aerial ability and relationship with the spirit world, Jinora has proven herself a master airbender, and Kai convinces her that she should own that. His words spark a streak of self-confidence in Jinora that leads to her lashing out at her father when he condescends to her, setting her on a rebellious path that ends in a poacher’s cage.
Thankfully, Jinora has snazzy spirit powers that allow her to send a message to Bumju via a different cuddly bird-rodent-spirit, and the day is saved by the rest of the airbenders, who show that they’ve learned quite a bit in their time with Tenzin. The airbenders’ attack is an appropriately triumphant battle sequence, and it’s inspiring to see how well the New Air Nation has come together in a short period of time. This season has really captured the gravity of the airbenders’ return, and when they all jump into action, their unit starts to really feel like a nation instead of a classroom of students.
The New Air Nation comes together under Bumi because he’s a leader instead of a teacher. Those two roles aren’t mutually exclusive, but Tenzin is better at educating while Bumi is better at organizing and motivating, and a budding nation needs what Bumi offers. Tenzin realizes this by the end of the episode, and confesses to Bumi that he’s reminded of their father when he sees his brother’s natural leadership and connection to the spirit world, which is exactly what Bumi needs to hear. As a non-bender, Bumi never felt like a true member of the Air Nation even with the Avatar as his father. Now that he can airbend, he’s showing just how much he belongs.
Tenzin spends a lot of time apologizing this week, and after his conversation with Bumi, he goes to Jinora to say that he was too harsh with her earlier and that she’s just as skilled as Kai says she is. In a clever connection to a real-world father/daughter problem, a lot of Jinora’s frustration is based in her father not letting her get tattoo, but it’s not an aesthetic statement, it’s a status statement. An airbender tattoo is an indicator of an airbending master, and as long as Tenzin denies her the ink, he’s denying her the respect she deserves. Jinora really just wants her father to appreciate her skills, so his words of support at the end of the episode are almost as good as a blue arrow. Everyone’s growing up, from baby air bison to grey-haired siblings, and the maturation process has made this a phenomenal season of animated television.
- Visuals I love this week: the acupuncturist with needles in his head after Lin’s freakout, Korra and Tenzin’s faces when Bolin gushes about Opal on the phone, Kai slipping away when Jinora is yelling at her father, adorable baby bisons.
- Varrick has created a magnet suit. Why do I feel like that is going to come into play later?
- Maria Bamford gets some considerable screen time when Pema gives her husband advice on teaching the new airbenders, and more Bamford is always a great thing. The timing couldn’t be better, because The New York Times just profiled her!
- I demanded more Bumju last week, and this week we get more Bumju! Huzzah!
- The Earth Queen eats air bison. She is the evilest.
- Where’s Asami?
- “I’m more of an earth guy. The dirt, rocks. You know, maybe some light gravel. That’s really where my heart is.”
- “You know, I thought something was chewing on my ear. I’m probably gonna need to get a shot. Pabu has a sort of a venom. A venom…”
- “Just thinking about my body…and…mustaches I might have in the future.”
- “Look at us! Talking about our feelings, supporting each other.”
- “You don’t have any siblings. Fighting is all part of the healing process.”
- “Conflict resolution: it’s what I do.”
- “Ignore the lemurs digging into your ears. Concentrate on your breathing and you won’t even know they’re there.”
Tenzin: “Shaving your head is a personal choice.” Daw: “Wait, what?!”
- “Look to your left! Look to your right! One of those people will not make it out of here alive.”
- Recruit: “You are able to communicate with the spirits?” Bumi: “More or less. I get the gist.”