Back in my teen years, I had friends who were a lot like Korra (minus the power to bend the entire spectrum of elements). Like the Avatar, they were hungry for spiritual understanding and fresh companionship. So they turned to the local church's weekly youth group, where investing a little belief provided a wealth of warm, fuzzy, do-gooder feelings.
But like everyone who slowly steps into the world of organized religion, Korra is about to hit a spiritual crossroads where casual religious expression doesn't cut it. At the end of episode two, her youth group leader Unalaq revealed an armada of ships docking on the shores of the Southern Water Tribe. “Civil Wars, Part 1” picked up seconds later, Korra looking a wee bit worried about her blind actions of opening the South Pole's “spirit portal.” Unalaq, the man with all the answers, reassures her that all is well. “We have to protect [the South] from people who would do the spirits harm." Right.
Unalaq's “protection” involves waterbenders creating a frozen blockade across the ocean. No one can enter or exit, nullifying the city's trade industry and effectively transforming the Southern Water Tribe into a police state. He also gives Korra another mission: She must travel to the Northern Water Tribe to open a second spirit portal, which will allow members on either pole to travel to the other end of the world in mere seconds. It's essential to “unifying” the tribes, which sounds a lot more like forceful conversion when coming out of Unalaq's mouth.
The premiere episodes of Book Two blew through a ton of introductions and plot to plant Korra in a sticky situation. “Civil War, Part 1” slows down the pace dramatically to size up the big decision Korra will face in episodes to come: whether she can be a believer or a Believer. The latter is rubbing other members of the Southern Water Tribe, including Korra's father, the wrong way. He sees his brother's spiritual training as misguided and destructive. Korra can only regurgitate Unalaq's words with blind faith, praying that forcefully reintroducing spirits into the Southern Water Tribe is a needed move.
Korra and Unalaq's greatest adversary in the rebellious heathen department has become Varrick, the debauched shipping magnate who looked like simple comic relief in the premiere and now appears to be the Gaius Longinus of a scheming group of Southeners. John Michael Higgins still brings the laughs, lamenting cargos of stinky fish rotting away in his ships, but he's a vocal opponent with a pretty good point. Why is living “spiritless” such a bad thing? In response to the outcry, Unalaq gives Korra a piece of advice that won't win her any support: “As the Avatar, you must remain neutral in this conflict.” And like that, two months worth of U.S. world politics headlines come flooding into Legend of Korra.
Books One and Two aren't expected to have connective tissue plot-wise, but the complexity of superiority, both overt and unspoken, continue to be an obsession for Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Last season saw non-benders and benders clashing; Book Two has Unalaq's religious righteousness as well as Tenzin's familial issues. As we learn during his vacation to the Southern Air Temple, many of his fond memories with his dad Aang don't include his siblings, Bumi and Kya. They weren't there for elephant koi riding at Kyoshi Island nor sand temple building Ember Island. Being Aang's only airbending son (Kya is a waterbender like her mother, Bumi can't bend at all) made him a clear favorite. As the trio dominate the episode's B-story, the instructor becomes the instructed.
DiMartino, who penned this episode solo, has an ear for the dysfunctional family dialogue that's especially humorous coming out of the mouths of these fantasy characters. After Bumi takes a nasty spill down the side of a waterfall, Tenzin and Kya go at it.
“You think you're the responsible one? Where were you when Dad died and Mom was all alone? I was the only one who packed up my whole life to be with her!” Kya screams.
“Says the girl who spent her life flitting around the world 'finding herself!' Tenzin snaps back.
Add a turkey and this is every Thanksgiving dinner ever. The three are searching for Tenzin's daugher Ikki but we don't have much of an idea of where or why she's gone. Which is nice — the characters are breathing and the scenes cut the parental figures down a notch. Newsflash: No one in reality ever has all of their life together.
With Korra's political woes — which veer dangerously close to Star Wars: Episode I “Trade Federation” with daredevil skill — Mako and Bolin find themselves sidelined for most of the episode. Their choice moments are snort-worthy funny; if their entire purpose this season is to demonstrate the hardships of boyfriend life, so be it. After Mako suggests Bolin “rips off the bloodsucking leech” that is Unalaq's daughter Eska, Bolin jabs him back. "I'm lucky you're so good at breaking girls' hearts." That'a boy.
The third episode caps with a bit of intrigue and action ... which may not be enough for adrenaline-starved fans, but serves the pressure-cooker scenario. After an intimate conversation with her mother, Korra worries that her father is behind an assassination plot against Unalaq. An investigation leads her to discover a band of Southerner kidnappers and snaps into action, spinning ropes around foes like Spider-Man and cutting her “father” off at the pass with a well-timed ice ramp. But it's not her dad. Unalaq's fear-mongering got the best of her and she walks back to her family's embrace in shame. They may not see eye to eye with her newfound spiritual drive, but they're not the enemy either. Except to Unalaq. They're definitely the enemy to Unalaq, who arrives in the final moments of the episode to call for Tonraq's arrest.
After months of living the youth-group lifestyle, many of my friends bailed from youth group and religion completely. Others stuck around and continue to practice to this day. A few found a comfortable agnostic existence between the two poles. With her father figure aiming to incarcerate her actual father, Korra is being tugged in both directions. As civil war brews between factions, the Avatar, a inherently spiritual being, may need to find that balance.
Odds & Ends
- Baby Rohan makes an adorable appearance early on in this episode. Part of me hoped for some indication of whether the newborn was an airbender or not. That doesn't seem to be clear but could have a major impact on all the familial drama. Perhaps we'll see Rohan let a powerful baby sneeze.
- "LAUGH AT MY HUMOROUS QUIP!" We all did, Eska.
- While fans love pointing fingers in hopes of being first to declare a “Big Bad,” I'm not convinced Unalaq is our guy (even if he does sound like Emperor Palpatine when he says things like “Tenzin lacked faith in you”). We didn't see any spirits in this episode, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's Unalaq's endgame. It's not just about being a missionary for the spirit world, it's about helping an all-powerful spirit return to the physical world.
- Speaking to that, with the episode title going so far as to declare “civil war,” how much will Unalaq's campaign have in common with the Taiping Rebellion? There's a can of worms for you.
- Where did Ikki wander off to? Obvious answer would be somewhere tied to Jinora and the glowing statue many believe to be Wan, the first Avatar. Judging from early looks at Book Two, all the airbender children may be taking a ride to the spirit world in the near future.