Legend of Korra has a mystery problem. With the audience five steps ahead of the political terrorism whodunnit and characters blind to every red herring, Book 2 is entering its Killing season one phase. Still entertaining, sporadically fulfilling.
After being consumed in the middle of the ocean by an aquatic dark spirit, Korra is all but written out of “The Sting” — a bold and welcome mood. Writer Joshua Hamilton shifts the spotlight to Mako, the show's entry point to the seedy underworld of Republic City, for a contemporary crime story that riffs on everything from film noir to the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese to Starsky & Hutch. The pro-bender turned cop is still chasing his lead from “Peacekeepers;” While no one will listen, all the evidence suggests water benders from the Northern Water Tribe are being framed for the bombing of a Southern Water Tribe cultural center. This was painfully clear last episode ... and the episode before. But the sharp Lin Beifong won't hear it — her mustachioed lead detectives say it's an open and shut case. Yeah, so was the murder of Rosie Larsen.
In need of an ally — and desperate for anything to take breaking up with Korra off his mind — Mako turns to Asami, his ex. She's wading up poop creek too; her big opportunity to revive Future Industries, a conglomerate filling the void where her incarcerated father and dead mother once stood, failed when pirates seized Varrick's cargo ship Captain Phillips-style. With motivation to catch a grand conspirator and plenty of baggage in hand, Mako and Asami go outside the law to catch their culprit red-handed. Even though he's staring them right in the face.
Heroes turning to villains for help never makes sense — “We've been double-crossed!” No kidding — but it's also a time-honored trope of crime fiction that incites instant friction. Who can resist? Mako turns to his old gang, the Triple Threats, to help him pull of the episode's titular operation. They're a dangerous bunch (Scorsese would be proud) that bring along a gallon of mood. There's no question that the animation in Book 2, executed by a different studio, is a step down from Book 1. The designs are bubblier, there's less articulation when characters interact, and the hyper-detail of the backdrops flattened out. But atmosphere returns under the eye of director Ian Graham, who uses angles and lighting to turn Mako's investigation into something out of The Third Man. Plot contrivances be damned — Legend of Korra is still something to behold, even when production value works against it.
An inevitable discovery and an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade boat chase wake Mako and Asami up to the fact that they've once again been duped, their sting all a guise for another massive pilfering of the heiress' tank shipment. Mako does his best to comfort her, in that awkward way ex-boyfriends do, flooding Asami with memories. Fans are worried that Asami laying one on Mako is the beginning of another groan-worthy love triangle. Clearly, these people haven't been part of a high school group of friends who all hooked up with messy, emotional results. More likely than a revival of the Mako/Asami romance is an apology for Korra — if the two meet up anytime soon.
After spinning in circles for a handful of episodes, it finally dawns on Mako that Varrick, the slimiest business magnate in the four nations, might be the Lord of War stoking the civil war fire. You don't say! But hand it to the Korra crew: Varrick's reveal as a mastermind is deliciously evil. John Michael Higgins turned the character into an eccentric straight out of Best in Show and it pays off when Varrick spins around in a chair like a true villain and sports the grin of the devil incarnate.
Varrick is by far the greatest asset of Book 2. By “The Sting,” his wheeling and dealing is running at maximum deviousness — and he's still a riot, thanks to all the show's best lines. Bolin, Mr. Nice Guy, is the capitalist's great casualty, making Varrick the greatest turd of all. As wild as it is to see Legend of Korra pay homage to American WWII propaganda films and directly reference Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, the real sadness of the current plot is watching Bolin diminish with a false sense of heroism. If his “Nuktuk” becomes anything like Captain America from the 2011 film, perhaps he'll embody the role and start kicking actual butt. A good “Hitler punch” to Varrick's square jaw is in order.
Like many a Killing episode, “The Sting” ended with a cliffhanger that returns the action to Korra. She's alive ... and suffering from amnesia on the beaches of the Fire Nation. How convenient. As a character in need of a deep breath, a reset button , a rebirth, could help Book 2 unfold with an interesting twist. As the Avatar struggles with spiritual understanding, she now has the opportunity to start her training fresh. Or, the whole memory loss twist is just another bit of misdirection prolonging the inevitable. Let's just hope that, unlike The Killing, they decide to actually conclude this season.
Odds & Ends
- Eyebrows raised early in this episode when Unalaq makes his one and only appearance, emerging from the spirit portal to meet Desna and Eska. Why was he in there?! Does it have anything to do with Korra's survival of the dark spirit attack!? Maybe Unalaq is in cahoots with the attacking monsters after all.
- Juji and Rotan, the Pabu and Naga of the Nuktuk “movers,” spawn a catchphrase I'll be abusing until Book 3. “NUK-TUCKITY!”
- "That was my favorite ship. I named it after my mom. Rest in peace, Rocky Bottom." Varrick really does get the best lines.
- More high school flashbacks: The Triple Threats chastising and laughing at Mako for breaking up with Korra.
- “And that's why they call me 'Two-Toe Ping.' There was already a 'Twelve-Toe Ping'; on the south side."
- Later in the episode, Two-Toe drops the word “mook” when he's being interrogated by Mako. I believe this is a reference to Scorsese's Mean Streets, which rules.