We should have expected this after last season: the moment when Nickelodeon screws over The Legend Of Korra…again. After the fiasco of Book Three’s early episode leak and rushed distribution schedule, it was clear that the network no longer viewed this series as a high priority, so why wouldn’t they slash the show’s budget for its final season? Faced with budget cuts, the show’s producers were left in a situation where they had to choose between losing an episode (and several weeks of wages for its crew) or producing a cheap clip show, and they chose the latter to give us this week’s episode, “Remembrances.”

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Executive producer/co-creator Bryan Konietzko details the entire situation on his Tumblr, making it very explicit that this was a situation where the writers tried to do their best when put it an unfortunate position. He knows that fans aren’t going to be happy when the story is interrupted for a clip show, and he starts doing damage control before the episode airs to make sure the show’s audience is aware of the context and the intentions behind the story. He needs to do this, otherwise the writing staff looks incredibly foolish for delivering an awkward, repetitive recap episode this close to the series finale.

I watched this episode before hearing Konietzko’s explanation, and I figured something was going on behind the scenes. I assumed that the last five episodes were so jam-packed with material that the team decided to build a break period into the season schedule with a clip show, which would have made “Remembrances” a deliberate decision that put the needs of the crew before those of the viewer. But would the show’s creative team really turn out such an inferior product in the middle of its final season? This has been a strong Book, albeit one that has operated on a smaller, more personal scale, and it didn’t make sense for the writers to interrupt the momentum they were building by turning out a clip show.

There are still some questions, though: When did the producers learn about the budget cuts? Were they able to decide where the clip show would fall in the season? “Remembrances” wouldn’t feel like such a roadblock if it had happened earlier in the Book Four when the narrative was building up steam. Those earlier episodes had the pairings needed to make this script work—Bolin and Varrick, Mako and Wu—and separated Korra and Asami, the pair that has the blandest, clumsiest interaction this week.

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Mako is telling Wu the story of his relationship with Korra, which makes sense because Wu knows nothing about his bodyguard’s past. Varrick and Bolin take major artistic liberties with their recap by pitching it to their shipmates as the greatest mover ever made, and they also don’t know this story, so it makes sense. Asami and Korra’s conversation takes the form of a pep talk that breaks down Korra’s failures and accomplishments as the Avatar in blunt detail, but they both know all this information, so it comes off as the clunky exposition it is.

This show has an outstanding voice cast that brings a grounded sense of reality to this fantasy world, but even they can’t sell the recap narration as anything more than descriptions of past events during the first two sequences. Mako, Asami, Korra, and Tenzin’s explanations of the past are just that, and even though the voice actors try to bring some emotional intention beneath the lines, it’s still just straight-forward recap, and that gets boring fast. It’s nice to see Korra opening up about her fear and self-doubt to her friends, but the clip show element just gets in the way of the emotional resonance of the scene. I want to see this moment the way it should have unfolded, with the actors given dialogue that serves the character relationships rather than the images on screen.

Mako’s scene deals primarily with his relationship with Korra, which should make Makkorra fans happy, but I’m still holding out hope that the writers aren’t building up to a reunion between the two. Korra’s a more interesting character without her romantic attachments, and I just don’t get that “meant to be” feeling from the pairing. Since they’ve broken up, I’ve felt no urge to see them back together; they really do seem to work better as friends than lovers, and I appreciate the show’s writers recognizing that despite the protestations of a considerable section of the show’s fanbase. Mako’s story is interrupted by chibi talking heads of Wu, Tu, and Grandma offering their comic commentary, but again, it’s just recap and that’s not particularly interesting or engaging.

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One of the things that makes “Remembrances” sting even more is that we’ve seen this show’s creators do an excellent recap in the past with Avatar’s “The Ember Island Players,” but that episode wasn’t a clip show. It depicted past events with a lousy community theater troupe that put a hilarious spin on everything. Recapping those moments opened up old wounds, which invited character development as the cast tried to figure out how to come to terms with the past before facing the biggest challenge of their lives. The Korra writers try to make “Remembrances” another “calm before the storm” story, but this show doesn’t have the benefit of Avatar’s longer season. You could fit an episode like “The Ember Island Players” in a 21-episode season, but it comes across as unnecessary filler in Korra’s 13-episode Book Four.

The influence of “The Ember Island Players” is what ultimately redeems this episode during Varrick’s segment, which plays fast and loose with the past because it’s not supposed to be an accurate retelling. Like any great mover producer, Varrick sees a true story as inspiration for a film that is bigger than truth, telling the story of Bolin: Hero Of The World as he faces off against a quartet of villains that includes Zaheer, Vaatu, Zombie Aman, and Unalaq, who is described as “the diabolical, but incredibly boring and unpopular wizard from the north.” Unlike the previous two sequences, Bolin and Varrick’s recap is presented as a performance, and that allows P.J. Byrne and John Michael Higgins to go over-the-top with their voicework in a way that brings more excitement to the scene.

The descriptive narration for the first two recaps sounds like actors reading lines on a page, but with Bolin and Varrick, there’s the impression that these characters are actually remembering the things they’re talking about for a reason. Bolin is trying to come to terms with the recent mistakes he’s made by siding with Kuvira and retreats into Varrick’s absurdly complimentary narrative, and Varrick just wants to come up with the craziest, most thrilling story possible, so he combines a bunch of different Korra plots into one madcap adventure. It shows that the writers have a sense of humor about the work they do on this show, particularly regarding the less than stellar reception of Book Two, and makes me wonder how much better this episode would have been if Bolin and Varrick were in charge of recapping all the stories.

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The last sequence of “Remembrance” delivers some solid chuckles, but ultimately this episode isn’t essential viewing unless you desperately need a recap of what happened in the last three seasons. It doesn’t move the plot forward, and while the writers try to use the clip show element to enlighten character dynamics, any relationship developments that do occur feel shallow because of the limitations placed on the episode from its conception. This creative team tries to make the most of their situation, but “Remembrances” can’t overcome the clip show hurdle and gets stuck in mediocrity.

Stray observations:

  • I miss pro-bending scenes. That arena is where I fell in love with this show.
  • This episode reminded me of just how scattered Book Two was. That season was all over the place. But it did give us Nuktuk and a crazy Avatar kaiju battle, so I guess that’s cool.
  • That purple sky during the Asami and Korra sequence sure is romantic.
  • Varrick doesn’t know what to call his supervillain quartet. Any suggestions?
  • Amazing body language from Varrick this week, particularly when he poses like a bird after saying Opal’s kiss gave Bolin the airbender power of flight. Varrick is just so goofy and adorable.
  • “Wu down!”
  • “You’re so weak, ‘Wu down’ is your catchphrase.”
  • “It’s your true story, but we’ll capitalize on the audience of the Nuktuk franchise!”
  • “I wasn’t singing, you were not levitating, and Asami is just a friend thank you very much.”
  • “Vaatu: the ultimate force of pure spirit evil in the universe. The biggest, meanest kite that ever flew!”
  • Zaheer: “Glad I caught you at home.” Vaatu: “Uh-huh. Very funny. Like I leave this stupid tree.”
  • “But it turns out the airbender recruits are a sorry lot, so Bolin brings them to a secret mountaintop training facility where he teaches them the ancient art of dodging fruit and balancing on sticks!”
  • “Opal realizes how much she loves Bolin, and forgives him for whatever stuff he was talking about earlier, which will probably not be in the final cut of the mover anyway.”
  • “With her help, Bolin turns Unavaatu into magic dust, and sprays him into the sky. And that’s where the stars come from.”
  • “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, kid!”

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