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Friday, April 10, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 2- My 10 Favorite Episodes of Avatar: The Legend of Korra

            In Part 1 of Avatar Month, I lamented over the difficulty of having to cut out a lot of great episodes in The Last Airbender when formulating my Top 10 list, as nearly all of them are at least very good, and many more than the arbitrary 10 are truly great.  The Legend of Korra, sadly, does not present quite so much difficulty.  Korra was, to put it mildly, a much more up-and-down affair than The Last Airbender was, with several particularly rocky moments in Books 1 and 2 that held the series back before the last two Books righted the ship and finished everything off proper.  Ergo, you will notice a much heavier preponderance towards the second half of the series in this list than in my last one, although there were a few moments in the first two seasons that still managed to shine. 

            Before we begin, two brief dishonorable mentions, episodes where Nickelodeon’s terrible mismanagement of the franchise had a direct and visible effect on the quality of the show itself.  The first is “Endgames,” the final episode of Book 1, which was perfect right up until the aggressively unnecessary deus ex machine of an ending, apparently written in only because the show at the time was limited to just two short seasons.  The second is the infamous “Remembrances” in the final season, where the ham-fisted budget-cutting of Nick’s upper management got so extreme that it prompted the creators to formally apologize for the episode online before it had even aired.  Ugh.  And now that those two old scars have been itched, let us speak no more of this. 

            As always, spoiler warning for those fools who are reading this without having already seen all four seasons.  Seriously, why are you even here?  Think about your life, man.  Think about your life. 

Honorable Mentions: “Welcome to Republic City,” “The Revelation,” The Ultimatum,” “After All These Years”


10. “The Battle of Zaofu” (Book 4, Episode 6)


            Korra’s first dip back into the action following her 3-year odyssey to recover from her battle against the Red Lotus at the end of Book 3, and just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong.  Even though she has fully recovered from her battle with the Red Lotus physically, and (she had assumed) mentally, we learn that that is not the case, and Korra still has a great deal of spiritual healing to undergo before she is ready to stop Kuvira.  This functioned as a great fakeout climax, centering on an incredibly tense and intimate fistfight between Korra and one of the best villains in the entire franchise.  Kuvira proves definitely that she is far, far more than just talk, willing to go toe-to-toe with the Avatar even though she had no way of knowing, at least at first, that Korra was still emotionally crippled and unfit for battle.  That takes stones.  Immense, weighty stones. 


9. “Operation Beifong” (Book 4, Episode 10)


            The last great hurrah for Toph Beifong (at least, within the shows), “Operation Beifong” is the ultimate dream episode for any fans of Toph, Lin and/or Su, or just Earth/Metalbending in general.  With Su and her family imprisoned, Lin, Bolin, Opal, and Toph herself join up for one of the franchise’s best prison-breakout adventures, sneaking everyone out right under Kuvira’s nose, and then going all-out against her best forces to save Zhu Li from a gruesome, spirit-bomb-style execution.  Even if parts of it do feel rushed, it’s also a last bit of closure for Lin and Toph, a chance for them to smooth over the roughness of their relationship as best as any Beifong could.  In retrospect, it’s not that surprising to see that Toph ended up being so abrasive as an adult that she estranged herself from her entire family, but that made having a hint of possible closure between all the more important. 


8. “When Extremes Meet” (Book 1, Episode 8)


            I liked Book 1 a lot more the second time around than the first, particularly because the mix of traditional Asian instrumentals with 20’s-style jazz in the soundtrack is inspired, but given it’s uneven start and the frustrating nature of its finale, it ultimately still fails to hold the same weight that the last half of the show.  Nonetheless, it was not without its high points, and for me, that came roughly two-thirds of the way into the season when the political and personal tension between Korra and Tarrlok broke out into a brutal bending fight inside the council building, concluding with the (literally!) blood-curdling reveal that Tarrlok (and, we learn later, his brother Noatak/Amon) has psychic Bloodbending abilities far exceeding those that Aang, Katara, and Sokka bore witness to in “The Puppetmaster.”  Nothing in the season up to that point had really pulled me into the thick of the action.  This did. 


7. “Out of the Past” (Book 1, Episode 9)


            Continuing to up the ante from “When Extremes Meet,” “Out of the Past” starts off with Korra being locked away in an abandoned shack in the mountains.  Up to that point, it was easily one of the darkest moments (at least in terms of tone) we’d seen in either series.  She gets away, but not before the stakes are raised even higher when Tarrlok and Amon go head-to-head, and Amon throws off being Bloodbended like it was nothing.  This was, of course, explained later on when we learn that Tarrlok and Amon are actually brothers with the same Bloodbending abilities, but at the time, no one knew that (or guessed, but couldn’t be sure).  Which, for a brief few episodes, raised Amon’s character to whole new levels of terrifying.  Plus, we get to see adult Aang!  


6. “Enter The Void” (Book 3, Episode 12)


            Book 3 was an absolute thrill to experience from start to finish, much of that stemming from the fact that the last few episodes of the season tossed off some of the best, most intense, and most shocking bending we had yet seen.  “The Ultimatum” (which just barely missed making this list) featured the first-ever airbender-vs.-airbender fight in the entire franchise, and things get even more insane in this penultimate episode to the grand finale; Bolin learns to Lavabend, an entire commando squad takes on P’Li (aka Combustion LADY, thank you very much) on top of a cliff, she herself later dies in the most horrifying fashion, and Zaheer.  Learns.  To FLY.  The only that could have possibly topped this episode in terms of its utter bad-assedness was…..well, we’ll get to that soon. 


5. “Korra Alone” (Book 4, Episode 2)


            Mirroring the similar path taken by Zuko in his search for spiritual enlightenment in the equally great TLA counterpart “Zuko Alone,” this was the episode that made me forget all frustrations with Korra’s roundabout emotional development in the first two seasons.  Finally, we see her take stock of her errors up to that point in her life, and really delve deep to discover what she needed to about herself in order to heal from her battle with Zaheer.  The many issues she uncovers, including depression and PTSD, are not fully resolved until later in the season, but this journey is the first step.  Like its Last Airbender counterpart, it is a contemplative episode, breaking from the action for a bit to let us sink further into the Avatar world, and into the twisted mental struggle of our much-beleaguered protagonist. 


4. “Day of the Colossus” (Book 4, Episode 12)


            The merits of this episode are very straightforward and simple- its 22-minute jamboree of every major character left teaming up to use all 4 elements (plus a smorgasbord of technical gadgets, laws of physics, and even paint bombs) to take out the Avatar equivalent of the Walkers constitutes one of the best, most fist-pumpingly awesome bending face-offs of the entire franchise, including both Korra and Last Airbender.  There is no further need for narration.  The key emotional arcs of the season have been (mostly) resolved.  There is just the threat, and the instinctive, desperate response.  If I had to pick a favorite moment, it would be Bolin literally bending a building in half and dropping onto Kuvira’s proverbial head.   But only if you pointed a gun to my head and really pushed.  Because honestly, there are too many cool moments to choose from. 


3. “The Venom of the Red Lotus” (Book 3, Episode 13)


            For all the fantastic bending we get in the Book 3 finale, what makes this episode stand out far more than the also-impressive finales of the previous two Books is the very final scene.  There is no rushed deus ex machine to fix everything like in Book 1.  No Book 2 platitudes of “Well, we killed the bad guy, so everything is now okay!”  The villains have indeed been defeated, but this time things are so out of whack it barely counts as a victory.  The world leaders are openly fretting about the disintegration of the Earth Kingdom, and despite the emotional and visual beauty of Jinora’s induction as an Airbending master (if induction is the right word), there is no pretense that putting all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together will be anything but long and hard.  The final touch is an incredibly tearing final shot of Korra’s face; she seems so much older, so much more broken down than before.  She is finally experiencing physical and emotional wounds that no one else can fix.  No past Avatars will give her the answer.  Katara’s healing powers can only do so much.  She has finally reached a point where she clearly no longer knows where to turn.  It is a poignantly bittersweet ending that fits well with the more ambiguous tone of the entire season, and perfectly sets up the pieces for the conclusion of her tale (or at least, the first part of it) in Book 4. 


2. “The Last Stand” (Book 4, Episode 13)


            And what a conclusion we got.  Much like the wondrous several-part end to The Last Airbender, this final episode of the series (and, for now, of the entire franchise), “The Last Stand” has some of the most starkly impressive bending in the entire show, but also ties together the key character arcs of our main heroes in ways both sensible and satisfying.  This is nowhere else more important than in the completion of Korra’s arc, which, as I’ve already written before, successfully turned one of the show’s biggest problems into a saving grace.  It is in her final exchange with Tenzin that we see her as a fully-realized Avatar, ready to embrace the world in all its complexity, and not merely try to punch it. 

            All that, and to top it all off, the creators snuck in Korrasami in the very final shots, a last act of barrier-breaking daring by a franchise that has made a name for itself out of pushing the boundaries of children’s television.  Was the execution flawed?  Yes.  Does it diminish either its significance or the quality of the series as a whole?  Hell no. 


1. “Beginnings Parts 1 & 2” (Book 2, Episodes 7-8)


            Diving into the origins of the Avatar within the Avatar world is the sort of challenge that could easily end disastrously.  The deep past of the Avatar, a sense of time endlessly stretching back, remained a shrouded mystery throughout The Last Airbender, which of course left such origins up to individual interpretation.  Pegging down the world to a specific story ran the very real risk of either bogging down audiences with too much information (ala Star Wars), or simply ending up too boring or uninteresting to leave an impression. 

            Once again though, Mike and Brian proved more than equal to the task, giving us not just a wonderfully animated and fascinating explanation as to how the Avatar as a being itself came into existence, but also giving us the absolute highlight of the entire show, a pair of episodes equal to the very best of the original series.  Wan, like Aang and Katara, is quickly revealed to be a basically decent but still very flawed person, someone who initially just wants to ensure his own survival.  It is only through struggle, and more than a little suffering, that he finds his way, and in a singular act of daring changes the human world forever.  Even as a short microcosmic story set within a vast narrative, it glows as a brilliant piece of both animation and simply great storytelling.  It is, without contest, my favorite of all the episodes in The Legend of Korra


            Part 3 is now complete!  Coming up next, Favorite Battles and Favorite Characters, this time with the best of both shows mixed together.  Stay tuned! 


-Noah Franc 

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