Korra, welcome to “college.”
Book One of The Legend of Korra was a lot like high school. Our teen hero owned her identity, formed strong bonds, learned what the worst type of people looked like, and pursued goals that required the hardest fights of her life. By the finale's closing credits, Korra had taken out Amon and restored balance to Republic City by finally entering the “Avatar State.” She graduated.
And like post-grad life, the actual discoveries and hardships had yet to come.
The first two episodes of Book Two: Spirits move like lightning, catapulting the story ahead six months and cluing us into the Avatar version of summer vacation. Bolin is still duking it out in the pro-bending arena, with a makeshift Fire Ferrets worthy of the Bad News Bears. Mako is a hotshot cop, patrolling the streets of Republic City on assignment from Lin Beifong. With her inventor father in jail, Asami is testing planes and formulating a plan to restore Future Industries to its former self. And then there's Korra, burnt out from her summer-school airbending lessons with Tenzin. Airball-racing with 7-year-olds is a lot more fun than studying. “The Avatar State is not to be used as a booster rocket!” Tenzin complains. Like many 17-year-olds, Korra is aching to leave home.
So is the show. While Book One took its time to soak in the evolved setting, as much an origin story for Korra as it was the Roaring Twenties-inspired Republic City, Book Two whisks the ensemble away without looking back. It's hard to imagine the story circling back (so savor that name drop, Beifong fans). What aren't disappearing are the relationships. Korra and Mako are still an item, and “Rebel Spirits” plants the seeds for that romance to be tested. When complaining about Tenzin's overbearing ways, Mako can't help see eye-to-eye with the mentor. Bad move, bro. Korra stomps off, and while it's a minor quibble, her transitional phase over this season will only add more pressure to the relationship.
Running with our extended metaphor, the airbender clan's vacation to the Southern Water Tribe is the exciting, terrifying college drop-off scenario. Korra's family is even around for the event; writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko introduce us to a slew of new characters in rapid fire succession. James Remar (aka Dexter's Dad) plays Tonraq, the teenage Avatar's dad and patriarch of the tribe. Before he can get two words in, Tonraq's brother Chief Unalaq (Adrian LaTourelle, Officer Craft on Sons of Anarchy) arrives from the North. He's a traditionalist; while everyone in the South is partying into the night at the Glacier Spirits Festival, Unalaq bemoans the peoples' lack of spiritual connection. “This festival used to be a solemn time of fasting and meditation.” Remind me not to bring this guy to secular Christmas.
For Korra, Unalaq is that college professor who waxes intellectually at just the right moment in life. He cares about deep thoughts, not just the grind of learning. His connection to the Spirit World also calls Korra into action. Turns out, demon-like specters from the other plane of existence are intruding into this world and attacking people. If Korra is going to beat them, she has to ditch Tenzin and her father for Unalaq's Spirits 101. Tonraq urges her to stick with Tenzin, which may be the right decision (a testament to the animators, who can make a cartoon character silently weigh options). What to do? “I support whatever decision you make.” Thanks a lot, Mako.
When a spirit attacks the Southern Water Tribe, Korra realizes how little she knows. The spindly beast rampages through the snow, every element Korra bends hitting it like raindrops. Compared to the martial arts precision of Korra's first fight in Book One, her encounter with the spirit lacks fluidity — as it should. It's a set piece where chaos and fear are more important than thrills. It frazzles Korra, forcing her to say goodbye to Tenzin for the only sensible option: Unalaq.
There isn't much time for comedy or auxiliary characters in the back-to-back episodes, even for folks like Bolin and Asami. Their subplot with Varrick, an eccentric businessman with a love for the moving pictures, keeps the vibe of the twenties era setting alive and injects a bit of levity into the serious, aggressive plotting. Whether the sidetracked scenes are an effort to feed material to Bolin voice actor P.J. Byrne is yet to be seen, but it's funny enough justify it. “He gave me this fancy snowsuit … if I get lost, I can survive in this thing for a month!” Same goes for Bolin's new “girlfriend” Eska, voiced by Aubrey Plaza and her signature deadpan. The ball is in Bolin's court to top "Why are you initiating physical contact with another woman?" as the line of the season.
Episode two acts as a swift road trip to a greater conflict. Unalaq wants to train Korra in spiritual meditation at the South Pole, where an “everstorm” clouds a portal directly to the spirit world. If Korra can gain access to the portal, she can balance light and dark, and quell the angered beasts. Simple enough.
Along the way, Tonraq drops a bomb that only drives Korra further under Unalaq's wing. As a younger man, he was banished by the Northern Water Tribe. During an attack on their village, Tonraq and his army drove barbarians back to a sacred forest hideout, a land ripe with spiritual activity. Thirsty for blood, Tonraq swept the land anyway, destroying both man and nature. The spirits rightfully retaliated. It's all very Thor like.
Cutting through the murky mythology filling episode two are the many spirits Team Avatar encounter and dispel along the way. DiMartino and Konietzko let their imaginations run wild here; its a Kaiju parade with beasts that mirror velociraptors, Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, and The Maxx. It's weird, it's wonderful, it's perilous for a freshman like Korra.
Korra manages to break through the ice, and the setup of Book Two, with ease. “The Southern Lights” caps with plenty of balls in the air: When Korra opens the spirit portal, she triggers a connection to an Avatar bust stored in the Southern Air Temple. At the same time, Tenzin's daughter Jinora stumbles upon decrepit, wooden statue. Whatever effect breaking through to the spirit world will have — and if Ghostbusters has taught us anything about ghost-filled jets of light shooting into the sky, it could have consequences — Jinora and the Avatar lineage will tie to it.
Even more terrifying is Unalaq's bigger scheme. He wants to put the Southern Water Tribe back in touch with their spiritual side, but judging his fleet of Northern Water Tribe warships, he's okay doing it by force. The look in Korra's eyes is that what-did-I-sign-up for look. Another college staple.
Odds & Ends:
* The opening newsreel mentions that Republic City elected their first president. Democracy for all! Political history buffs, go to town on that one.
* "Looks like you had some car trouble. Good thing the police are here." Mako, you've done CSI: Miami proud.
* Bumi and Kya, Tenzin's brother and sister, are great additions to the show, and one can only hope for more of their family dynamic. Tenzin did not have a great childhood, and we see that in the eyes of Katara, their mother.
* In other relatable emotions: Tonraq jabbing Mako for dating his daughter and the scared-as-hell look on his face was priceless. If their relationship is thrown a loop, Tonraq may be knocking at Mako's door (or giving him a pep talk, seeing as he doesn't have a father of his own).
* I could hear GIF-makers rejoicing at the appearance of dancing Otter Penguins.
* A nice little nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender at the Glacier Festival carnival. Aang water contest, stuffed Appa prizes.
* Both episodes embrace a radical style of camerawork, which must be painstaking for the guys drawing every frame. It's loose, like a handheld news camera. I don't know if it works in the technology-vacant world outside Republic City, but I appreciate the experiment.
* Eska and her twin brother Desna ice-shoeing down a slippery slope is the new penguin sledding. Their complete disinterest in life makes it a thousand times better.