OK, first: Can we all take a second to get in the mood?
So I assume all of you now also have the song from The Sting stuck in your head and a dream of attending the World Chamionship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in your heart? Then we’re on the same page! Let's go!
“Who’s Avatar Korra?”
I don’t remember, either! This is the first episode where we spend barely any time with our title character, and it’s kind of amazing what a relief that is—this is the most enjoyable episode so far this season.
It’s only partially because of how unlikeable Korra the character’s been lately; just juggling fewer characters makes everything feel a little less like it’s been packed into a sardine can. We don’t check in with Tenzin and his family at all this week, and barely touch on the war, the spirits and Korra; nearly the entire time is spent with Mako and Bolin in Republic City. It’s nice, because not having to squeeze three plots in three different settings into 23 minutes appears to leave time for things like the provenance of Two-Toed Ping’s nickname and sweet-ass extended speedboat chases.
So bad things keep happening to Future Industries—it’s almost as if someone was setting them up from the inside! So Mako stages the titular sting, which nobody seems to think is a great idea right from the beginning. What was even supposed to happen, again? They and the gang members were going to capture some of the people attacking the ships, and bring them to police? And Mako the Cop had to hire gangsters as backup because… the Guards Union is on strike? And they had to do it as a sting rather than just hiring a shitload of guards and going along on the next shipment themselves because… it would somehow be less bad getting killed, kidnapped or marooned by pirates if the pirates didn’t get the loot? I’m not really clear on how it makes sense.
And, indeed, it backfires, and Asami ends up losing everything she has left. Poor Asami—voice actress Seychelle Gabrielle does a very good job throughout making her sound completely beaten and hopeless. And then, in that moment of despair, Asami kisses Mako! (What was that? It sounded like the … Internet exploding? As if millions of Tumblrs suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced?)
But as with all the teenage romance stuff, my reaction is “Sure, OK! I buy it! Whatever! Not super invested in the love lives of a bunch of teenagers, and don’t think I'm supposed to be!” I may be ascribing intent where it does not exist, but I see Korra’s treatment of teenagers in love as a counterpoint to the sort of High Stakes True Love usually found in adventures like this. (Including A:tLA.)
How many of you are still with the person you were in love with when you were a senior in high school? How many of you look back at yourself in your late teens and think, “Oh, hell yeah, that there is a person ready for a grown-up, committed relationship”? I’m guessing not many. And yet teenage romances are often treated dead seriously, because True Love! And it’s a story being told from the perspective of teenagers!
(I’m actually hoping now that Korra’s in the Fire Nation, we’ll find out that Zuko and Mei broke up after a year and he married some nice girl he met when he was 30. It would be interesting if Aang and Katara were the only couple from the original show that actually stayed together, and that being why we’ve heard very little about any of the others as adults.)
I think the story not so much being told from the perspective of teenagers is part of why Mako’s been so much more likeable this season. Last year, Mako was seen pretty much only in the context of things that make him look like he’s got the power—he’s a semi-celebrity pro athlete, and he’s in the position to pick between two ladies that are into him. Nobody likes that guy. We like to see people work and earn their power.
But now we do get to see him have to work for things, because teenage power doesn't transfer to the adult world. Because the power of a cute teenage boy over teenage girls? Though it feels immense when you’re one of those teenage girls, it is not a real power, and it evaporates in the light of adulthood. (Any grown-up men in the readership feel threatened by Justin Bieber? My guess is no.) Like, imagine someone trying to explain Mako’s romantic woes to the people in his new, adult life—the mustachioed detective duo, or Beifong. They would laugh their asses off.
Speaking of, Beifong’s been serving mostly the “get out of here, idiot rookie” tough-boss role, but though it feels like a waste, it’s understandable because Mako is legitimately being a dumbass. If I were a detective and a random beat cop wandered into my interview room and started yelling stuff, and was then followed in by two random civilian friends, I’d be pretty irritated, too.
Bolin’s still written as a lot stupider and more cartoonish than I wish he was, but at least it’s shown to be coming from a place that’s more understandable for him as a character—he throws “Figure something out!” back in Mako’s face from his hot tub, making it clear that he’s both still hurt and desperate to show Mako that he has indeed figured something out by flaunting his new movie-stardom.
I don’t know if I’d find that particularly interesting on its own, but Bolin’s story has finally gotten to an immensely entertaining point. His adventures in propaganda as Nuktuk (my brain refuses to hear this as anything but “Nut-tuck,” especially in conjunction with his Daisy-Duke Inuit costume), Hero of the South, are packed with really fun details.
There’s silly stuff, like someone (probably Varrick) deciding that Nuktuk’s animal sidekicks should talk in dopey voices and high-five. There’s the movie-making details, like the cuts and camera tricks used to fake Nuktuk’s waterbending, the low-budget, uh-we-just-figured-out-how-to-do-this-two-weeks-ago sets and props. And then there’s the propaganda elements — obviously “Unalaq’s” makeup, giant-pointy-cowl costume and evil laugh are over the top, but there’s also some neat, subtler details, too.
For example, nobody ever says “Unalaq” without it being preceded by “the evil”—so “the evil Unalaq” is repeated over and over, even though the movie is ridiculous. “Unalaq’s” look is reminiscent of Ozai’s (real Unalaq definitely doesn’t have a beard, for example), and the theme song includes a throwaway slur we haven’t heard before: “Battlin’ Northies up there in the snow!”
As Varrick says (as ominous diagetic music from the Nuktuk score plays in the background) “You can’t force monkey-marmots to do anything—they got to want to do it themselves!”
Things like that music cue hinted all episode (and probably, if I go back, in past episodes) that something was off about Varrick, until finally he swivels around in his big chair after buying a controlling interest in Future Industries, and the look on his face is straight smug about having suckered everybody with his goofball act yet again—maybe how perfectly he conned everyone is why I still have the Joplin stuck in my head.
I think a lot of watchers really welcomed Varrick as a fun character in a cast that had simultaneously hit dour spots, and that makes the reveal doubly neat. He’s gonna be a much more interesting villain than Unalaq, for sure, and this sets up an even grayer area with what the Avatar's job is here. Aang had to take on an evil dude bent on world domination. Korra has to… you know, I don’t have the slightest idea where she’d start with this mess. It’s unclear what the endgame plans of Unalaq, Varrick or the spirits are, if any of them are working together, or if any of them are what we’ve been told they are. It’s a big, complicated mess. I like it.
- When Korra wakes up to find herself surrounded by fire sages, her brain-stem impulse is to use air. Interesting! Or maybe that’s just because she’s been training in it so much lately.
- Amnesia is… one way of not having to hang out with Obnoxious Korra for the rest of the season. I’m into it! Whatever!
- At the very beginning, we check in down at the South Pole, which now has a fence around it, and Unalaq walks out of the portal. (Entertainingly, Desna’s “Were you just in the Spirit World?” is delivered with the inflection of “Were you just picking your nose?”) Given that the next and only other time we revisit the main Korra/spirits plot this episode is at the very end, with Korra washed up on the beach with no memory of who she is, it seems like the one thing is related to the other. But Unalaq seems genuinely pissed when the twins say they didn’t manage to pick Korra up.
- Who is the twins’ mom, anyway?
- “All this stress is going to turn old Black Beauty gray.”
- Mako Mockery tally: Detective Tall Guy (“Oh! That’s embarrassing!”), Detective Black Beauty (“Yeah! Let’s all listen to the rookie!”), gangsters (“Right, you broke up with the Avatar! Like that happened! Hey, Shady Shin, Viper — Mako says he broke up with the Avatar!”).
- Line reading of the week: tie between “For I am Nuktuk! Hero! Of the South!” and Asami’s badass scream as her speedboat gets tossed into the air.
- Visual of the week: The moment where Mako realizes the connections between the “pyrotechnics” and the bombs was well done, as was the shift in Varrick’s look from goofball to oh-shit-there’s-a-lot-going-on-under-there as he turns around in the big chair at Future Industries. But though this episode was more dynamic than the last few (the speedboat chase in particular had more life than any fight this season), it still feels very dead to me.
- But next week we get a double episode that apparently was animated by the Korean studio that animated the first season, though?
- “Ow, my instrument!”