Episodes One and Two: “Rebel Spirit” and “The Southern Lights”
Set six months after the end of Book One, the first two episodes debuted with tons of action and new characters. We see Korra at Air Temple Island, and she seems to have a much stronger handle on air bending. She can also comfortably enter the Avatar state, but still does not fully grasp the depths of her spiritual side.
One major theme shows up immediately: politics, family, and the messy ways they mix. Korra’s uncle Unalaq is the chief of the Northern Water Tribe, and he pays her a visit. “But Korra is from the Southern Water Tribe!” you exclaim. Well, it turns out her dad was originally from the north, but fled south after being banished from his tribe! That made dinner awkward.
To complicate matters even further, dark spirits are attacking people in the south because, according to Unalaq, they are too secular and disconnected with the spiritual world. These are scary beasts straight out of Guillermo Del Toro’s and Hayao Miyazaki’s combined imaginations, and they kick major ass. Not even Korra in the Avatar state can fight them effectively.
If you may recall from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang had a gentler approach with spirits: he would ask them what is wrong and how he can help them. Tenzin, his son, tries that route, and gets thrown against a glacier. None of that divinity-in-me-acknowledges-the-divinity-in-you crap, these spirits are out for blood! All hope seems lost until Uncle Unalaq appeases them with what can best be described as spirit-bending. According to him, these dark spirits were once light, but are trapped in the human realm due to spiritual impurity in the south, and just need to be massaged a bit in order to relax enough to go home.
It becomes apparent that Unalaq seems mighty obsessed with spiritual purity. Zealotry much?
Another complicated family dynamic centers around Tenzin and his siblings, Bumi and Kya.
Bumi and Kya pick on Tenzin, and it seems cute at first to see buttoned-down Tenzin act like such a baby brother.
However, during a family “road trip” via flying bison, we begin to see deeper tension beneath the teasing. As they arrived at the Southern Air Temple, home of their father Avatar Aang, Bumi and Kya experience prejudice. The air monks dote over Tenzin, so much that they never even knew he had siblings! That is because Bumi and Kya are not air benders: Bumi is in fact a non-bender, albeit an accomplished commander of the United Forces, and Kya is a water bender like her mother. We will probably see more of the three siblings’ resentment-filled histories in later episodes.
This brings us to the second major theme: powerlessness and how different characters handle it. Tenzin’s powerlessness with his siblings inspires him to retreat in order to re-center himself. Asami’s desperation to save her family’s company from bankruptcy leads her to consort with wacko entrepreneurs. Mako’s futile attempts to be the perfect boyfriend to the Avatar paralyze him. Korra having to stand by while well-meaning-but-controlling men argue over what’s best for her without consulting her leads her to angrily reject them all…but her powerlessness against the spirit animals causes her to hastily put all her trust in Unalaq, the one person who seems to have any control in that situation.
As her new teacher, Unalaq takes Korra to the South Pole to deal with the dark spirits.
We also discover why Korra’s father, Tonraq, was banished from the tribe: in order to vanquish a military foe, he destroyed a gateway to the spirit world. The angered spirits almost killed his entire village, until Unalaq spirit-bended them back. Due to his carelessness, Tonraq was banished by his father, abdicated his rights to become chief, and Unalaq became chief in his stead. Korra is understandably pissed at her father, and rejects his attempts to “protect” her further with his lies.
Korra is tasked with sending these dark spirits back into the spirit world by finding a portal that only she can open, “the light in the dark.” She finds the portal, but has very little time to figure out how to open it, as she is being attacked by hundreds of snake-like spirits. The snakes actually help her out, as she feels threatened enough to go into the Avatar state. Then she opens the portal with a touch of her finger. The southern lights dance in the sky once more. Korra saves the day!
And just as everyone is best friends again, a crap ton of northern military ships are seen headed towards the capital of the Southern Water Tribe. Apparently Unalaq wants reunification of the two water tribes…and only on his terms. Not good.
The first episodes were chock-full of awesome throwbacks:
- Bolin gives a pep talk to his hapless new Fire Ferret teammates much like those in The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks.
- Mako has a Spy Hunter police chase, complete with fog, ice slicks, and smarmy cop one-liners.
- Eska and Dezna, Unalaq’s creepy twin children, look like the Grady twins in The Shining, and according to Korra, “smell like a grandma’s attic.” (Hat tip to fellow Nerd Shawn Taylor for making the connection!)
- Unalaq and Tonraq’s story line is straight out of Thor.
- Asami’s new business partner invented moving pictures he calls “movers,” and his demo was a running eagle-horse hybrid, an homage to Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion picture:
- Korra plays a carnival game featuring a baby Aang, and she wins a stuffed Appa.
- Bolin and Eska seem to have a relationship very much like vampire-human relationships in True Blood. Eska even says “You fascinate me. I will make you mine.”
- Korra and Mako’s relationship is painfully awkward. Mako used to be this emo dreamboat badass, but seeing him as a blubbering lovefool was embarrassing, and Korra’s verbal snaps and mood swings make me wonder if there was even one woman looking over her lines. I half-expected Mako to break the fourth wall and say, “Take my girlfriend… please!”
- Actually, all the characters seem to be a bit cardboard-cutout in these opening episodes, hopefully only because there was a lot of plot to lay out and not a lot of time left for nuances.
- Guess what? I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Beifong! I gotta have more Beifong!