The Legend of Korra: Book 2

“You have light and peace inside of you. If you let it out, you can change the world around you.” 

Now we move on to what many fans say is the weakest of all four TLoK seasons. I can’t speak for the next two seasons, but was it better than Book 1 for me? No. Was it still pretty good? I think so. Just heavily, heavily flawed.

Book 2: Spirits

The title of Book 2 alone already gives us a pretty good clue of what we're in for. Korra was never able to fully tap into her spiritual side nor travel into the Spirit World in Season 1, so it looked like this time we were about to see Korra get a lot more, well, spiritual. I liked that we got something different from the revolutionary politics of Book 1. What I didn’t expect was a civil war, a quirky entrepreneur turned war criminal, a cop mystery subplot, more relationship drama, the beginning of the film industry in the Avatar universe, a major look into the history of the Avatar, an Alice in Wonderland-type introspective journey, more brother-on-brother conflict from our antagonist, and a final gargantuan spirit boss battle literally involving spiritual giants.

Whew.

That was a lot. So much so that I felt a little drained after finishing the final episode. I don't envy the viewers who had to watch one episode a week when the show first came out. I think Book 2 benefits from a bingewatch, because it sets up so many plot points and introduces so many characters, but it takes a pretty long time before we see how everything pays off. And I think it all does pay off quite well in the end. But the journey to get there was tough, and I imagine TLoK might have lost some engaged viewers along the way.

This season did have a gorgeous color palette.

I don’t think this was a completely terrible season. I just think that it could have been a lot more focused and done away with several story beats so it could center on its most compelling one – the spiritual essence of what it means to be an Avatar. That, and they could have taken the time to really develop several characters that we haven’t really grown as attached to as I think we should be.

Let’s take this one by one. Luckily, Book 2 gives us one of its best arcs through its most important character.

Korra


Six months after the end of Book 1, Korra is back to her usual stubborn self as she has now mastered the four elements as well as the Avatar state. She grows impatient and restless under the protective and restrictive guidance of Tenzin and her father, Tonraq. A spirit attack on the Southern Water Tribe drives Korra to “fire” Tenzin as her mentor, abandon her father, and fall right under the hands of her uncle Unalaq, this season’s mustache-twiddling baddie.

Korra’s journey through Book 2 is about finding her own path as the Avatar. Her decision to turn her back on the two men who care about her the most was insensitive, but in retrospect, I think it was what she needed to find her own way. Korra’s been told what she’s needed to do her whole life, and this season we finally see her get to be her own person. And it all ends with her making her first fateful decision on her own as the Avatar that will definitely have some serious repercussions moving forward.


What I loved about Korra this season is how flawed she truly is. She fails over and over again. She fails to see past Unalaq’s (obviously) nefarious fa├žade, she unknowingly becomes complicit in a war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, she fails to gain support for her father and home tribe, she fails to protect Jinora in the Spirit World, and perhaps most crushingly of all, she loses her connections to all the past Avatars, from Aang all the way back to Wan. In that long final battle against the Dark Avatar, we see her get beaten up and lose multiple times, even as she gets into the Avatar state.

And yet, as I mentioned, Korra is stubborn. She never gives up. And as Tenzin and Iroh remind her, she has light in her because she is Korra, not because she is the Avatar. It was a lovely arc. One of my favorite episodes for Korra's journey this season was the wonderful A New Spiritual Age. It seemed fitting that while Korra was lost, who should give her wise wisdom than the same man who did so in her previous life? We only got him briefly this season, but every second Iroh was on screen was wonderful and had that kindhearted feel ATLA often did. It felt like a return to the emotional core of why the Avatar series are so engaging and why, elemental bending and spirit chaos aside, this is a show which can resonate with anyone.


It’s interesting that Korra has more control over the Avatar state than Aang did. She gets into it quickly, and at times it’s not even that clear when she's activated it or not, because there's a thinner line between her normal power and the super power it provides her. We also don’t have the airbender tattoos to visually signal to us that we're in for some extra glowy action. But it isn’t until Korra realizes the importance of her connection with Raava and fully accepts her spiritual awakening that this season really shines. It took a few episodes in Season 1 to warm up to her, but now I’m fully behind Avatar Korra, even if she is now the only Avatar in this new cycle. It will be very interesting seeing how she’ll handle whatever future seasons hold without the guidance of Aang.

Korra’s personal journey of spiritual recognition was mirrored by another fantastic arc this season.

Tenzin


I loved Tenzin this season. While it was a sad way to start his arc, I think Korra letting go of Tenzin as her master was completely necessary for both of them to fully develop. I really loved the fact that we got to know Tenzin as a person a lot more as opposed to him just being Korra’s reliable mentor. Despite his calm and collected exterior, there are many interesting personal conflicts bubbling beneath the surface. We have Tenzin the father to four precocious and hyper children, Tenzin the brother to the much less collected Kya and Bumi, Tenzin the teacher and guardian of the Avatar, Tenzin the son of the great Avatar Aang, and Tenzin the last hope for the future of the airbenders.

One of the most poignant moments of the season for me came with the reveal that despite his intensive training, Tenzin has never been able to venture into the Spirit World. It’s sad but very believable that he would feel the crushing pressure of being Aang’s only airbending son and bear the guilt of thinking he couldn’t live up to his father’s legacy. All of this caving in on him made his realization at the Fog of Lost Souls all the more rewarding, where he finally accepts that he never had to be Aang. Like Korra, he’s had so many inherited responsibilities placed upon him, and they both learn to forget what those roles expect them to be and instead choose to shape those roles themselves. Tenzin goes from not being able to enter the Spirit World to single-handedly overcoming one of its deadliest inhabitants to save his daughter, not to mention inspiring the Avatar to defeat Vaatu.

Mako


Mako does actually improve over last season. And while he gets the most inconsequential subplot, he is at least given more agency as a character this time, as the rookie cop pursuing his case against Varrick despite no one, not even his brother, believing him. I thought it would have been interesting to delve deeper into why he made the shift from pro-bending to being a cop.

But instead of exploring Mako's motivations, we get to – hooray – see more of him as the clueless jerk boyfriend. I'm so glad he and Korra broke up for real at the end, and even quite amicably, too. I hope we can finally get to know Mako the character and not just Mako the love interest.

My thoughts exactly, Bolin.

And if they have to explore Mako’s relationships, let it be his and Bolin’s. I'm not a fan of Mako’s forced romances, but I love his relationship with his brother. We’ve never had a firebender and earthbender duo who work together as well as they do, and it’s really cool to watch. And seeing them fighting side-by-side in the final battle against Unalaq finally sold me on Korra, Mako, and Bolin as a trio. The two brothers couldn’t do as much in the end, but they at least tried their best to come to Korra’s aid despite the chaos surrounding them. Brotherhood has been a major theme these past two seasons, so I hope they explore this brotherhood more in the next two.

Bolin


Bolin continues to endear himself as this Team Avatar’s caring and naive comedic relief. And while I know it paid off in later episodes, I think Bolin’s story grew a little tiresome toward the middle of the season. His cartoonish shenanigans of nearly wedding a vicious animated Aubrey Plaza to becoming a star of the “movers" were amusing, but became too drawn out.

I wish these had been shortened, because the payoff for these subplots gave us three of my favorite Bolin moments and overall moments this season: his arena fight against Varrick’s guards simultaneously playing out with Nuktuk's (very realistic) waterbending heroism, confessing his love to Eska to get her to free him and Mako, and confiding in Asami about how he missed his friends. He may be silly most of the time, but he pulls through in the end. Bolin is the beating heart of this foursome, and he quickly became my favorite among our supporting trio.

Jinora


It was lovely that Jinora ended up becoming Korra’s spirit guide. It would have been easy to dismiss Jinora and her siblings as just “the kids.” But it’s easy to forget that the future of the airbenders rests not only on Tenzin’s shoulders, but on Jinora’s as well. And she’s already proving herself a very worthy successor to the spiritual legacy of Aang and the ancestral Air Nomads. Her last minute save during the spirit kaiju battle, bringing with her Avatar Wan's shining teapot, may have been quite the deus ex machina, but I still loved that she ended the season as one of the strongest members of our group. I hope we get to see Jinora grow as an airbender and in her connection to the Spirit World.

Kya and Bumi


I’m glad we got to see Aang’s other children. I’m also glad that through them and their banter with Tenzin, we got to know more about Aang as a parent. It humanizes him a lot to learn that he wasn’t exactly a perfect father. Bumi feeling like a disappointment to Aang because he wasn’t a bender really sheds light on how bending isn’t just an ability in this world, but a sacred legacy. And the idea that you may have already forsaken that just by not being born with it is quite crushing. But like his wacky namesake, Bumi spectacularly proved his worth with nothing but a flute. His and Kya’s moment in front of their father’s statue was so sweet, and I hope we see their characters develop in further seasons.

Asami and Lin

It’s a little disappointing that two of my favorite characters from last season were benched for this one. Lin had barely anything to do. And while I understand her devotion to her job and to Republic City, I was also hoping she’d help Korra, seeing as Korra was the one who restored her bending.


Asami fares better. I like that she deals with some very practical issues, namely trying to keep her company afloat. But in the end, I feel like what could have been a pretty good follow-up arc of trying to rebuild Future Industries serviced the plot more than it did Asami’s character. I understand that there wasn’t that much Asami could do in this apocalyptic final conflict, but what she did contribute - flying in a bending-powered fighter jet and devising the attack plan - was pretty badass.

Varrick


If there was anyone who lifted up the slower first half of this season, it was Varrick. He has the same unpredictable nature that made the original King Bumi so memorable. He also unintentionally made any time I paused an episode on his face a hilarious screenshot. John Michael Higgins did such an amazing job bringing him to life. Varrick could very well have been a good major villain. He’s clever, gets into our main group’s heads, and he also stands for a good cause but is willing to go to great lengths to see it done. I suppose having him be a questionable force lurking on the periphery has the potential for some pretty exciting stuff in the future. Also, Team Avatar discussing their plans to a stuffed platypus bear that poops out money was one of the best moments of the early episodes.

Unalaq


Here’s where Book 2 is much weaker than Book 1 – the antagonist. You could argue that Vaatu was the real threat, but it was Unalaq who set everything into motion. The scale of the conflict Unalaq presented was much larger than Amon’s, but in the end, Unalaq just became another generic take-over-the-world villain. It would have been so much more interesting to explore the personal conflict Korra would have with fighting her own uncle, but by the end of the season, I completely forgot they were related. His motives were poorly fleshed out. He wanted to fuse the Spirit World and the world of humans because he believed they shouldn’t be separated. But why? The only explanation we get as to why Unalaq himself would want this is because of how connected he is to the Spirit World. So why would Unalaq manipulate and poison the very spirits he wanted to live amongst? And I don’t imagine a man who would threaten to take a young girl’s soul is all that spiritually sound, either. Nor is someone willing to put his own children in danger to achieve his goals.

I think that this season wouldn’t have felt so disjointed if they just stuck with the Southern-Northern Water Tribe civil war. The Varrick subplot was drawn out so long I completely forgot about the tribe conflict by the time we finally got back to it. This storyline would have had more personal significance to Korra and made Unalaq more of a commanding antagonist. Unalaq was a suspicious figure from the beginning, but with the reveal of his spirit controlling powers and political cunning, I was expecting something much more nuanced. Vaatu being a villain with all-encompassing world domination goals felt more understandable than with Unalaq, considering he is literally evil itself. By the end, I couldn't even remember what Unalaq's initial motivations were.

Raava vs. Vaatu


I was expecting Raava to be an actual human being, not a giant age-old kite spirit. I liked how unique the designs were for what were essentially good and evil. The fact that we were dealing with good and evil though, I wasn't super into. I liked the initial idea that Raava and Vaatu could not exist without the other, and this was very in keeping with the core Avatar philosophy of balance. Instead of light against dark, we could have had a more compelling conflict between chaos and order. In a show that’s been pretty nuanced with its portrayals of morality so far, it felt like such an oversimplification to revert back to the classic good vs. evil fight. Lost was the potential to make this a fight between opposing beliefs, which would have put Korra into a more interesting dilemma than just “how do I stop the giant devil creature from Fantasia from destroying the world?”

The idea that the Avatar state was the union between two beings was a pretty huge revelation, and I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, I liked that it made the Avatar state less of an otherworldly external force and something more personal, since it was borne out of the trust that grew between Wan and Raava. But at the same time, I feel like the Avatar state didn’t really need any demystifying. Especially in TLoK’s world, where everything is so modernized, it would have been nice to preserve the cosmic origins of the Avatar state and instead make the focus about Korra’s personal journey. Well, at least there were no midichlorians involved.


The fight between Raava and Vaatu and Team Avatar against the dark spirits made for a pretty cool final showdown. But at the same time, I felt like the ideological relevance set up at the start of the season was completely lost because of the scale of everything. What began as an interesting debate about the loss of spirituality – something that would have been very appropriate for this modernized successor of the more mythological ATLA – devolved into a kaiju spirit battle. A lot of the personal stakes were lost as well, except perhaps for Tenzin. Everything was exceedingly epic and the battleground in the Spirit World looked amazing, but I felt like the danger for our supporting characters wasn’t really emphasized even though they were all willing to die protecting Korra. All we got is them being knocked over a lot. Compared to the very high personal threat of losing one’s bending in Book 1, I felt less like Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, and the rest were in mortal danger, and more engrossed in the spectacle. That lightning-air-water-earth charge against the oncoming dark spirits was pretty cool, though.

Least Favorite Episode


Episode 6: The Sting. This episode stretched the detonator hunt subplot a bit too long and only picked up in its last few minutes. Normally I like episodes that let their main protagonist take a back seat, but I just don’t think TLoK has developed their supporting cast enough to carry an episode on their own, especially one that felt as ultimately insignificant as this.

Why would Mako expose Korra for something illegal then be so willing to do some illegal activities of his own after she leaves? You could argue what Korra was planning was a lot more extreme, but he at least could have noticed the irony in his actions. The whole detonator mystery really went nowhere, since all that revealed was the shadiness of Varrick’s character, which was interesting as far as Varrick was concerned, but quite inconsequential to the rest of the season. I think this episode might have been an attempt to show Mako’s detective skills, which would have worked much better had it been on a case more instrumental to the overarching plot. This might have at least been a good way to show that Mako and Asami make a good team, but then I was outwardly groaning when they kissed. If they needed filler episodes to pad the run time, I would much rather have had backstory on Mako, Bolin, or Asami… Or have a whole day of them going shopping or something.

Favorite Episode(s)


Episode 7-8: Beginnings Part 1-2. For all the lows of Book 2, there are very high highs. This two-parter wasn't just one of the best episodes of TLoK, but one of the best episodes of the Avatar series in general. Normally an episode on a completely new character right in the middle of a season would be bothersome, but by the end, I was completely invested in Wan’s story. He went through a season-long journey within the span of two episodes. Everything about this episode was so beautifully done – the animation, the spirits, the storytelling, the characterization of Wan, and that gorgeous fight against Vaatu that marked the first igniting of the Avatar state. In the context of the rest of the season, this episode didn’t really fit, and may even be considered filler. But it still told a really good story that came full circle by the end.

A Season of Highs, Lows, and the Change to Come


Korra losing her connection to her past lives felt like TLoK severing its ties to ATLA. I’m pretty sure this left a lot of fans devastated and probably ready to sever ties with this show. But I do think this was a very interesting move that could allow TLoK to grow into its own show, separate from its predecessor. Many will mourn no longer being able to see Aang, but as it is, the tall monk in Korra’s Avatar visions isn’t the Aang we know and love from ATLA. Having Korra be guided by Aang the way he was guided by Roku would have been cool, but that student-mentor journey has already been taken by Aang. Now, I would much rather see Korra with Tenzin. I like that Korra’s now able to forge her own path forward. And while the choice to keep the Spirit World open was a strange one, I don’t think we can fully judge her decision without seeing the ramifications in Book 3, aptly titled Change.

All in all, I don’t think this season was terrible. The first few episodes were pretty slow and at times a little boring. The studio troubles that led to a lull in the animation quality didn't help, either. But this first half set the stage for some pretty great moments in the latter. We had wonderful character arcs for Korra and Tenzin, and the lore we learned about the Avatar and the nature of the Spirit World was an awesome expansion on what we already know of this universe. Some of the visuals of this season were amazing, specifically the episodes that took place in the Spirit World.

Book 1 was still better and told its story in a much more cohesive way. But given the trouble Nickelodeon gave the creators in putting this season together, I still think they were able to tell a very good story. And at last, I believe the terrible romance subplots are finally behind us.

I’m giving The Legend of Korra Book 2: Spirits three out of five feeble turtleducks.

Mara Fabella is a visual artist, writer, retired martial artist, yoga practitioner, booper of cat noses, and lifelong lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Out of all of the Book 2 reviews I've seen, I don't think I've ever agreed with one as much as this. Book 2 was a mess, but I don't agree with the consensus that it's some irredeemable dumpster fire. It had some really high points and overall got a lot better once the animation quality bumped up again.

I also love the design of the spirits. They feel like they're right out of a Studio Ghibli movie!

Mara Fabella said...

Thanks for taking the time to read my review, Anonymous! And yes, Book 2 definitely has a lot of redeemable qualities. If the creators hadn't been given so much trouble from Nickelodeon, I think this could have been a really good season.

And yes, I loved how the spirits were designed! Each one had so much character!

Billie Doux said...

"Well, at least there were no midichlorians involved." Lol, Mara.

I haven't seen the series, but I have to say the screencaps are undeniably gorgeous.

Mara Fabella said...

I would have had a lot more issues if midichlorians were involved.

Grabbing the screencaps is one of my favorite parts of doing these reviews!

sunbunny said...

Varrick and Bolin saved this season. I ADORE Varrick. He's one of my favorite Avatar-verse characters full stop. He's genius, he's funny, he's diabolical. LOVE HIM. And I loved the whole Bolin becomes a "mover" star plot.

I actually didn't love the two parter about the origins of the Avatar. It felt so intrusive. I don't know. I didn't love it.

I also hated that Aang wasn't a great father to Kya and Bumi. I'm disappointed in him. And Katara for letting that happen.

Given what you've said here, Mara, I'm desperately curious to see how you'll like Season 4. It hits some very different notes. Season 3 is fun too, don't get me wrong, but Season 4...

Joseph Santini said...

Great review. I have loved Jinora since her first appearance and think this season was truly fantastic for her. She’s almost toooo good!

Mara Fabella said...

sunbunny - Varrick is SO MUCH FUN. John Michael Higgins is fantastic. I almost wish Varrick was the well-meaning but still spiritually blinded villain this season instead of Unalaq, but I'm glad he's sticking around. You could also tell the writers had a lot as much fun writing him as it is watching him. The Bolin mover subplot dragged a little for me, but I think that was also the point where the entire show started to drag. But the payoff with his premiere and full on mover (complete with Juji/Pabu's "death") was too good.

"Beginnings" was the episode that stuck out to me when I finished this season. I took the time to let the whole season sit in and realized that yes, it definitely doesn't fit. It's filler, and all the information it presented could honestly have been summarized in quick exposition. But after revisiting the season, this two-parter was still the one I really wanted to watch again, and I think that says a lot about how this season as a whole was.

I actually like that Aang wasn't the best father. Given how easily influenced he was by all the pressure put on him in ATLA, I think it felt natural that he would also feel the pressure of continuing the airbender race and have it impinge upon his duties as a father. Similar to Tenzin, who couldn't help but feel jealous that Jinora could get into the Spirit World so easily. I think Aang and Katara didn't alienate their two other children consciously. Both after all didn't experience having constant parental figures in their lives growing up. And given Kya's kindheartedness and Bumi's fun ingenuity, I'd like to think they didn't totally fail. I would have liked to have seen some form of emotional resolution on this for both Bumi and Kya, like maybe them also seeing visions of Aang in the Fog. But I like that not even Avatar Aang was immune to the complexities of parenthood.

I'm actually already done with the show! Just sloooowly getting my thoughts out on the next two seasons. :D


Joseph - I love Jinora and the other airbender children! I love how different they are and that each of them, Jinora specificaly, got some attention this season. The kids bring that element of childhood fun into the show that was so present in ATLA.

lazybasterd said...

More development with Lin? Bumi? Jinora?
You're going to LOVE season 3.