The Legend of Korra: Beginnings Parts 1 & 2

Review Michael Mammano 10/25/2013 at 7:26PM

A thorough explanation of the overall Avatar mythology that may still have some pacing issues...but all of that can be forgiven considering how much crazy information we get out of it!

We open with a deliriously amnesiac Korra moaning about someone named Raava. Serena Williams (no, seriously, it’s her) and a few other fire sages take her to some fabulous firebending Shaman crone who, as it turns out, is voiced by Barbara Goodson. Apparently, part of Not-Rita-Repulsa’s strategy to heal Korra involves dunking her in some geode water (multiple elements; nice touch), which brings Korra face to face with an image of herself that regresses through several Avatars, all of whom we’ve met, before skipping about a hundred of them to get to a scrawny guy named Wan, who tells the story of how he became the first Avatar.

So, it turns out that back in the day, all humans lived in cities on the backs of lion turtles, each of whom were aligned with one element and could bestow it upon those humans whenever they ventured into the Spirit Wilds to hunt and gather food. In this particular city, which is aligned with fire, one family seems to have all the wealth, food, and power, and Wan is the light-hearted, Robin Hood/Aladdin-esque, noble thief who steals from them, but only to feed his starving friends and...random animals which exist completely outside human economics. Whatever. So, Wan gets this idea to get some fire from the lion turtle by volunteering for a hunt, then “chickening out” and returning to the city without checking his proto-firebending at the door. The goal is to use his fire inside the city to level the playing field for himself and his peers, but it doesn’t quite work and he gets banished. He is, however, permitted to keep the fire to protect himself in the Spirit Wilds.

Wan barely survives this experience and not very well. Spirits don’t have much affection for humans, whom they see as ugly, destructive, and lacking any respect for nature, but he manages to get on the good side of a few when he rescues a cat deer from being eaten by his former countrymen. The spirits take him in and teach him their ways, and he learns how to use the fire as an extension of his mind and body and not just a crude weapon, basically developing the art of firebending. But, wait…what about the Sun Warriors? Fuck it. I’ll get to that later.

After two years in the company of the spirits, Wan sets off to find other lion turtle cities. In his travels, he comes across two massive spirits battling and mowing down a forest in the process. One of them pleads for his help, claiming that the other has tormented him for ten thousand years. Wan, being a good guy, gives the spirit a hand and firebends it out of the other’s grasp. The formerly captive spirit thanks him and flies away, and Wan feels pretty damn good about himself until the other spirit tells him he just fucked up but good. Her name is Raava and she is the force of light and peace…and until Wan interfered, she had held in check her nemesis, Vaatu, the force of darkness and chaos. Well done, Wan. You’ve just let chaos into the world and set all humans and spirits on a course toward certain annihilation. Nice job breaking it, hero.

Wan, feeling like a dick for kickstarting the apocalypse, offers to help Raava hunt Vaatu down, but she blows his mortal ass off and flies away. It’s not long, however, before they meet again in another lion turtle city inhabited by a mellow folk who will one day become the Air Nomads. Vaatu shows up, starting all kinds of shit by turning the spirits with whom these people live in harmony (note that even in ancient times, air folk were the most spiritually attuned) into vicious dark spirits. Raava comes along just in time for Vaatu to gloat that he’ll destroy her at Harmonic Convergence, which is not, in fact, the Avatar version of Lilith Fair, but rather a kind of ultimate smackdown between the two great spirits that comes once every ten millennia. The more spirits Vaatu turns dark, the stronger he becomes and the smaller Raava gets, and while one cannot ever exist without the other and Raava would eventually rise again, by the time she did, Vaatu would have destroyed the world as we know it, so waiting it all out is not an option.

Wan asks the lion turtle to grant him the power of air, but no human has ever held two elements before, so it’s kind of a big deal. Raava must hold the power for him until he can master it, at which point she has to pass through his body and merge their energies. They eventually do this, then lather, rinse, and repeat with water and earth until Wan is a master of all four elements. Along the way, he learns that all the conflict between humans and spirits is due to the fact that spirits trespassed upon the mortal plane en masse via the two polar spirit portals, which forced humans apart and are under the protection of the lion turtles.

Just as Wan and Raava are starting to get along, they happen upon a stand-off between Wan’s old human friends and the spirits who took him in. He tries to make peace, even urging Raava to enter his body to increase his power (displaying a precursor to the Avatar State), but he ultimately fails when Vaatu corrupts the hearts of both the humans and spirits and they kill each other. Raava has diminished to the point where she can fit in Wan’s hand. Harmonic Convergence is near, so they travel to the South Pole and into the Spirit World to fight Vaatu together. Wan takes Vaatu on and gets his ass roundly kicked despite putting up a good fight. Vaatu gloats, revealing that he was the one who broke down the barrier between the worlds in the first place. He’s just a dick on so many levels. Wan’s Hail Mary is for him and Raava to merge, which will kill him, but if Vaatu wins, he’s dead either way, so they do it. It’s a great fight, but Vaatu pins Wan just as the planets align and Harmonic Convergence begins. It’s at this point, when the forces of light and dark, yin and yang, material and spirit are merged, that Wan reaches into the bow of energy and is bonded to Raava forever. Wan becomes Raava’s Avatar, and as the Avatar theme rises (and I get chills), they ladle up a steaming cup of metaphysical whoop-ass and get their Ferngully on by sealing Vaatu inside a tree.

Wan then makes peace between humans and spirits by insisting the spirits return to their own realm and teaching humans to respect them so that balance will be maintained. He then seals the portals so that no one can ever release Vaatu and declares himself the bridge between the two worlds. The lion turtles then declare that the world is entering a new age and they will no longer bestow the power of the elements upon mankind. Wan takes up his new mission: to use Raava’s light spirit to guide all the tribes of man toward peace, but it’s a goal he fails to achieve in his lifetime. As an elderly Wan laments this failure with his last breaths, Raava assures him that she will be with him for all his lifetimes until their work is done. She leaves Wan’s body upon his death, and the Avatar cycle begins.

Korra wakes up amnesia-free, learns from Not-Rita that Harmonic Convergence is only weeks away, and sets off for the South Pole to close the Spirit Portal that she opened in “The Southern Lights” before it’s too late.

Wow. Okay, here we go.

Let’s start with a shout out to the art direction in this episode, which was breathtaking. The color palette and the style of everything except for the character designs was made to resemble Chinese ink wash and Japanese wood block art as a way of depicting the antiquity of the era; this is a different time and in many ways a different world. Even a burst of flame is animated differently, and the music employs a simpler, more stripped down instrumentation. Just a fucking brilliant artistic direction, truly inspired and well done. As for content…

While it is perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between Korra and Avatar, it is nonetheless inevitable, and this episode in particular felt like something of a companion piece to “The Fire Lord and the Avatar,” in which Aang and Zuko learned the story of Fire Lord Sozin and Avatar Roku. However, Roku’s story focused much more on the whole of his life, from his calling, through his mastery of all the elements and eventual falling out with Sozin, and ending with his death and reincarnation into Aang. Wan’s story, on the other hand, was much more of a snapshot of one particular chapter of his life. Where Roku’s tale touched lightly on his training and focused on his life as the Avatar, Wan’s tale is the yin to its yang; focusing on his establishment as the Avatar, then skipping all the way ahead to his death, the event that initiated the Avatar cycle.

I’ll admit that I was initially a little disappointed with this episode for not spending more time on Wan’s works as the Avatar, but upon viewing it again, I found this criticism to be unfair on my part. The story we were promised was the story we got (how Wan became the first Avatar) and it was a tale well told. It’s a testament to Bryke that I wanted to learn more about Wan and his stint as the Avatar, but I suppose in the grand scheme, it’s not that important. We got what we needed: a massive mythology dump. And it was amazing. The story of Wan, Raava, and Vaatu finally established the nature of the Avatar spirit and the origins of the Avatar cycle, as well as made perfectly clear what the central conflict of this season is really going to be. And I think I pretty much called it: odds are Unalaq is somehow connected to Vaatu and will release that Eldritch abomination upon the world for Korra to battle. With the establishment of Harmonic Convergence, this story parallels another Avatar episode, “Avatar Roku,” in which Aang first learns of Sozin’s Comet, the great cosmic event to which everything will come down.

So, in many ways, “Beginnings” is a triumph. It gave us a massive mythology download while connecting to and forwarding the current story and the characters.  It brought into focus the ultimate conflict of this season and recontextualized a lot of what came before. It does restore my faith in Bryke a bit and reminds us that they are more likely than not to tie things in and pay things off. This does not, however, let them off the hook for their pacing issues, which I still think they need to work on. Avatar Roku’s story was only one episode and told just as much story, having just as much of an impact. “Beginnings” spanned two episodes and yet it feels like a lot of time was spent dragging our feet in the first half through a lot of stuff that was frankly not very interesting, and perhaps if little fragments of Wan’s story had been exposited in other ways (perhaps in the statue room at the Southern Air Temple?) the way that little bits of the Yakone conflict was seeded throughout Book One, we could have better hit the ground running.

There is also something problematic about the way the episode seems to undercut a lot of established Avatar mythology, which I would happily handwave if this were about a throwaway line here or there, but we’re talking major stuff. For one, the lion turtle that we met in “Sozin’s Comet,” most likely the last of its kind, talked about how “In the era before the Avatar we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves.” Whether this refers only to the lion turtles or all creatures is open to conjecture, we clearly saw people using elemental powers…bestowed upon them by the lion turtles. It looks like elemental bending to me. And since when were lion turtles in the business of playing elemental Santa Claus? I always assumed that when that lion turtle touched Aang, he didn’t give him the ability to energybend, but rather made him conscious of a power already within himself. Also, are the lion turtles spirits or what, because they are far more wise and powerful than the average platypus bear.

Seeing Wan learn to move like the dragons was a nice reference to the Sun Warriors, who supposedly invented firebending. But if Wan’s fellow citizens also wielded fire, if only temporarily…wait, let me back up a bit. The Sun Warriors had this whole Aztec/Mayan thing going on. If they’re the ancestors of the modern day Fire Nation, how did this people go from Wan’s East Asian influenced city to Indigenous Mesoamerican culture, then back to East Asia? And what about the Air Nomads? They supposedly learned to airbend from the Sky Bison, the Water Tribes learned to waterbend from the moon, and the first earthbenders, who learned from the Badger Moles, are actually named in-universe: Oma and Shu (secret tunnellllll!). Mike and Bryan went to great lengths to detail how the bending arts evolved amidst their respective cultures and now suddenly they’re chucking all that because OMG MOAR LION TURTLES!?!? I mean, it’s possible that the truth of elemental powers in the era before the Avatar was lost over the ages, but come on. The lion turtle was there, and he told Aang about this no elemental bending before the Avatar schtick, so was he bullshitting?

Just…what the fuck? If there were some kind of explanation that reconciled these ideas, preventing a complete breakdown of the series’ mythology, I think that would have been something worth spending a couple minutes on rather than wasting precious screentime futzing around with Wan and his pre-Avatar, street urchin shenanigans. And sure, it’s entirely possible that we’ll learn more about the evolution of bending, but it’s just as likely that we won’t, making this just a big honking hole in the mythos, which…no, thank you.

However, as a self-contained story, it was pretty damn cool, and the relationship between Wan and Raava is like nothing we’ve seen before in the Avatar universe. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of it and how it evolved over the years. Did Wan ever marry or was his bond with Raava too intimate for anyone else to get close to him? Perhaps that’s why Raava doesn’t present as a distinct entity to Avatars now. Or does she? Is cultivating a bond with her just a part of the Avatar journey that we haven’t learned about yet? With Vaatu poised to return by the end of Book Two, I remain hopeful that this will be addressed.

All in all, I’d say this was a bang-up job. It was, as promised, the flashbackiest of flashbacks. It was artistically inspired, entertaining, and brought the season into focus. I will say this: if this is the point where shit got real and it’s just a ramp up to the finish line from here, then the weaknesses of the first half of Book Two may be forgiven in time, but if Mike and Bryan backslide into a slower pace and less-focused storytelling while still professing an infatuation with these “tight stories” we keep hearing so much about, it’s not going to be pretty.

While “Beginnings” was presented as a double-feature, I’m rating each episode individually. Three stars for Part 1 just for its interminable set-up, and four and a half stars for Part 2, marked down for creating some pretty gaping holes in the canon. Even if those questions are answered later, they weren’t answered here, and there are just too many contradictions to ignore. But overall, bravo, Team Avatar! Keep it coming like this and I will be a happy guy.

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4/5