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After more than a year of absence, The Legend of Korra returns. Last season blew fans, critics, and even its own network executives away with how popular and powerful the show became during the season. What was originally supposed to be a 12 episode mini-series has been extended to a four season epic. It’s Nickelodeon’s highest rated show, and the CEO hopes it takes away the flagship cartoon mantle from SpongeBob. Seriously, this show is good. And if you already knew that already, skip the next two paragraphs.
The Legend of Korra is the sequel-series to Avatar: the Last Airbender. If you’re only vaguely familiar with the franchise due to the horrendous M. Night Shamalon’s adaptation that not many people saw, erase those awful memories from your brain immediately. Avatar: the Last Airbender created epic narrative within a dense universe, inspired by both Japanese animation and Eastern folklore. It showed the progression of Avatar Aang, who grew from a goofy little kid to a powerful god that walked the Earth. However, you do not have to watch Avatar to appreciate Korra. In fact, you don’t even have to watch Korra‘s first season to understand the new season; every season is standalone. Also important to mention: Korra is not a kids show. Kids probably dig it, but it’s like Harry Potter. The characters are so well developed, the plot so surprising and complicated and even sometimes controversial (not crudely, but rather anti-capitalist), and the universe is so massive – anyone could (and should) love it! I, without hesitation, call it one of the best scripted dramas on cable TV. It’s also got the biggest budget on Nickelodeon and showcases cutting edge animation every week.
Korra lives in a world where many people can control elemental magic. Earth, water, air, and fire powers are essential to maintaining the balance of elemental tribe’s civilization (industry, healing, transportation, more, and of course, fighting). In season one, Korra can bend earth, water, and fire, but not air. To learn air-bending, she moves to Republic City (a steampunk paradise), so Tenzin (Avatar Aang’s son) can teach her how to air bend. Korra meets her two best friends, Mako, a fire bender (Korra’s now-boyfriend) and Bolin, an earth bender (Mako’s brother and the show’s comic relief) at a professional bending game (professional bending is a sport where you heave clay discs at your opponents with elemental magic). Korra, Mako, Bolin and Tenzin end up fighting a revolutionary uprising led by a necromancer-esque dictator named Amon. They win, it’s amazing, and Korra learns how to go into the Avatar State (basically, god mode).
Enough context! Let’s talk about the amazing season premiere. It’s hard to believe it, but the hour long two-parter makes me think this season will be even better than the fantastic season one. It sets up season-long conflicts, adds new characters, and it also answers a question that’s been lingering since season one of Avatar: the Last Airbender (2006): What the heck is the spirit realm?
The season is titled, “Spirt,” so we’re going to find out. These episodes showed lots of angry spirits; they look kind of like vicious shadow monsters. We also find out why the spirits are so angry. The southern water tribe (Korra’s home country) has been neglecting the spirit realm. After turning a yearly religious festival into a carnival, spirits are attacking the south pole. The spirits are a lot like spirits in Myazaki movies (hmm…another of the show’s big influences): they are tied to the earth and must be respected. This type of cartoon spirit provides a pretty apt metaphor for over-industrialization and consumerism; the cool part about Korra is how the show addresses this head-on, right out in the open! Hardly any cartoon on TV right now addresses issues like these. Korra’s journey, this season, will be to better understand the spirits of Earth and nature.
But in edition to setting up the season, these first two episodes are exciting because they catch us up on what the characters have been doing for the last six months. Bolin is pro-bending, despite losing Korra and Mako from his team. Mako is a police officer. And Korra is still…training in air-bending so she can be the Avatar. Korra doesn’t want to keep training, she wants to go out and do stuff – typical teens! But what’s untypical is that Korra has super powers that can save the world…so she makes a good point.
This seems to be the strongest theme in these first two episodes: when is a person ready to make decisions fully on their on? I think the answer might be never, but we’ll see. Korra’s uncle, Unalaq, is the leader of the Northern Water tribe. Unalaq wants to teach Korra how to cajole spirits, but both her father, Tonraq, and teacher, Tenzin, don’t want her to go to the north pole. Korra is rebelling against almost every person in her life. But, doesn’t she have some right to? She’s practically an adult and practically a god. We’ll see as the season goes on…
We also learn that Korra’s father, Tonraq, has a strange and shameful past. As a Northern Military leader, he accidentally chased an opposing army into a spiritual forest. He destroyed the forest and set about the wrath of spirits. Then, his father banished him and gave his brother the throne (Unalaq). Tonraq does seem to ignorantly ignore the
Tenzin’s attention is occupied elsewhere now that Korra’s training with Unalaq. This also allows the inclusion of Tenzin’s family. While mostly comic relief in season one, it seems Tenzin’s oldest daughter, Jinora, has a special connection to the spirit world. Jinora appears to be about 10 years old but her power seems very unique. This is another interesting aspect of Legend of Korra: the age spread runs from newborn infant to 100 year old tribal elder. Yet more evidence that this is not a kids show.
Weirdly, the “relationship” I’m most interested in watching develop is between Korra and Mako. Season one ended with the two “dating” (contrast this with A:tLA, where Aang finally dates Katara in the last episode). I’m curious to see how a cartoon that plays to a lot of different audiences will treat a full-on teenage relationship. We’re off to a good start, Korra. I love that Mako tries to be supportive, but Korra misses it at every turn. Granted, Korra’s problems are literally the most complicated problems in her world. Without exaggeration, she is responsible for maintaining not only world peace, but also peace between this world and the afterlife. That seems pretty stressful. The show always manages to make the characters relatable, but still understandable. Every main character really is super-human, be it in bending skill, knowledge, or sheer power of will. These characters are ones I’m glad little kids can aspire to, as the characters themselves all actively try to become better people.
The episode ends with a journey into the spirit realm (at the center of the south pole) and a shocking reveal: Unalaq’s plan is to unite the Northern and Southern water tribes by military force. As seen last season, Northern Water tribe leaders are quite brutal in their leadership. I’m certain this will cause a civil war, as the next two episodes are titled Civil War pt. 1 & 2.
Korra is one of the best shows on TV and these two episodes are truly some of the best yet. Catch up now and let’s finish the season together. See you next week!