Since its first episodes, Legend of Korra has ached to be an hour-long show. With the production costs of animation and the standard block scheduling of Nickelodeon programming, it's not all that feasible, but the storytelling begs to be extended. Which makes the show's decision to double-feature it's remaining four episodes an absolute delight. This is how the show should be devoured.
With an invisible transition between episodes, the hour-long “Night of a Thousand Stars”/“Harmonic Convergence” gradually unspools the show's many character threads while still piling on more action than we've seen all season. An hour gives the story room to breathe. The show can spin plates like Game of Thrones. The episode opens with a brief, punch-to-the-gut coda to last week's episode, a tearjerking admission from Tenzin to Pema that their daughter Jinora is lost in in the spirit world. It's a blast of peril that keeps the airbender clan in the back of our brains as the episode drifts back to Republic City for a Bolin-centric half hour.
It's premiere night for The Adventures of Nuktuk: Hero of the South's epic conclusion and Team Avatar is stretched tauter than ever. Mako's in the slammer, Asami is subservient to the almighty dollar, and Bolin, for once in his life, is the star of the show. Even when Mako, his brother and trusted ally, spells out Varrick's involvement in his framing, Bolin sides with the innovator who made him a “mover star.” He's like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with Varrick as the White Witch and a rabid fan base replacing the Turkish delights. The nuance of the jail cell conversation takes the scene beyond Bolin's frustrating disillusion. Mako is in the wrong too, having landed himself in prison, the well-worn path for Asami's loved ones. She can't even bear to see him, unwilling to risk memories of her father flooding back.
Anyone missing the vibrancy of Book One Republic City should be pleased by Hero of the South's premiere, director Colin Heck channeling the glamour and grandeur of golden age Hollywood with the Eastern trimmings that make the show's production design so unique. It's a rare bustling location; as Varrick woos President Raiko and his wife, Buttercup (who reminded me of Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos) to back him with military spending, flashbulbs burst, onlookers cheer, and announcer plays Ryan Seacrest to the affair. The scene is alive, the minor details bending Korra from good to great each episode.
Inside the pro-bending arena — the city's makeshift Grauman's Chinese Theater — Heck and writer Josh Hamilton orchestrate the best fifteen minutes of the series (I wouldn't be shocked if Tarantino fans keeled over and died from joy during the extended sequence). Starting on an Inglorious Basterds note, we're treated to a lengthy passage from The Adventures of Nuktuk: Hero of the South, complete with the tragic death of Juji, the snow raccoon that can shoot lasers out of her eyes. The “film” works as both a parody and love letter to thirties serials, fundamental to the story yet completely entertaining in its own right (and if you're craving more, dig up old Flash Gordon installments on YouTube). Playing out in parallel action, Varrick's waterbending men prepare to ambush President Raiko. Not quite ripping Hitler apart with a machine gun, but tense as the assailants briskly take down his police protection under the background sounds of the movie.
Bolin catches wind of the plot fairly early on, Mako's words of advice clicking in his brain and booting him into action. Seeing Bolin rise to the occasion is tremendously fulfilling — more so when his confrontation with the waterbending kidnappers rolls down on to the pro-bending floor, where the ex-Fire Ferret never really found his footing. Simply put, he kicks ass. Ripping his sleeves off like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hamilton and Heck empower the runt of Team Avatar. He's blocking water strikes, flinging stone discs, and embodying Nuktuk. When the musical fanfare kicks, sounding like Heinz Roemheld or Sammy Timberg's music for the old Fleischer Superman cartoons, that's when we know Bolin really is the hero he's been pretending to be all this time.
With Varrick outed as a crime lord, Mako is released. And wouldn't you know it, just at the moment, Korra swoops in to wrangle Team Avatar once again. If you're out of the loop, the continued love triangle is sending Korra fans up a wall; Korra's impulsive lip locking upon setting eyes on Mako should act as another crank of the vise. To those full of rage: Resist hating on the hormonal teenager who just suffered from amnesia and go easy on the guy who is trying to save the world and discern the difference between friend love and romantic love. Judging from Asami's reaction to Korra and Mako's kiss and general we're-back-togetherness, this isn't simple, nor will it be over anytime soon. The milestone moments can only be judged when the whole thing resolves.
After President Reiko gives Korra a big “hell no” in terms of military support, she finds a solution from the now-incarcerated Varrick. “Harmonic convergence,” warring gods, bad guys helping good guys from inside a glass prison cell ... Did Thor: The Dark World and Korra writers share room last year? In Varrick's pimped-out battleship, Team Avatar jets down the Southern Water Tribe to stop the second coming of Vaatu, only to find Tonraq defeated and kidnapped by Unalaq. The fight is another great action beat, two waterbenders of considerable power duking it out with blocks of ice as boxing gloves. It's a mano-a-mano bending battle that earns its ridiculous slow motion force punch.
With Unalaq nowhere to be found, Korra plots a descent towards the Spirit Portal. It's surrounded by guards ... and primed for an epic set piece. Writer Tim Hedrick and director Ian Graham split the group into two factions for maximum effect: Asami swoops in with a biplane, Mako and Bolin flanking her wings, and Korra, Tenzin, Bumi, and Kya follow on Oogi the Sky Bison, ready to drop down for a second wave attack. The result is aerial mayhem out of Tora! Tora! Tora!.
The stakes and scope of “Harmonic Convergence” build exponentially. After Asami/Mako/Bolin are wiped out in an arsenal of ice bullets and Oogi is grounded by a swarm of dark spirits, Bumi gets his moment in the spotlight. Like Bolin, Tenzin's brother is another character challenged by constant defeat despite having the heart of a hero. Tenzin knocks him for talking a big game (“I remember when I was surrounded by pirates in the Hurricane Straights. We managed to capture them all with a feather, two eggs, and a barrel of molasses!") and the current situation only turns Bumi into more of a burden. But here he rises up to take down Unalaq's entire force in one reckless blow. What starts as a dark spirit fisticuffs blows up into a well-timed disaster. The percussive rhythm driving Bumi's madcap attack feels indebted to Cowboy Bebop in all the right ways.
The two-parter ends on a dour note. Despite blasting their way through to the Spirit World, laying on the element-assisted martial arts and nearly crippling Unalaq, Korra in Avatar State can't close the Portal before the planets align and Harmonic Convergence begins. With all the talk of spirtuality this season, it's hard not to connect the revival of Vaatu as a riff on the Biblical apocalypse. Darkness sweeps over the entire planet — a chilling sight that recalls the red-draped Water Tribe in the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender Book One — and Korra witnesses the closest thing the Spirit World has to a Satan rise up and proclaim victory. Vaatu may not have a Gog and Magog in his world, but surely Korra will find some way to lay a Godly smack down on the beast. Or Vaatu will merge with Unalaq to create the Dark Avatar and we'll get the Korra version of Jafar the All-Powerful Genie from Aladdin.
By the time you read this, Nickelodeon will have released the final two episodes of the season and all (most?) will be revealed. I'll be back to wrap up our episode commentary when the finale drops on TV next week.
Odds & Ends
- Tonraq's waterbending-to-ice-surfing is the greatest snowy descent since James Bond rode a cello case down a mountainside in The Living Daylights.
- The cops in this episode eat “Varri-cakes,” proving Varrick really does control everything.
- Pabu and Naga get their own box seats and catering at the Hero of the South premiere. As they should.
- Another demonstration of the Korra teams meticulous attention to detail: A few episodes earlier, we see Bolin filming Hero of the South's bird talon sequence. And then the scene appears in the finished film!
- It's amazing that animated characters can recreate the thrills of physical comedy, but that's exactly what Bolin does after slipping on a smushed Varri-cake. His stance is gold.
- Cameo by the “announcer guy” during the arena fight is the right kind of fan service.
- Poor Zhu Li. Even when Varrick goes to prison, there's no opportunity of freedom for his assistant. She deserves justice before the conclusion of the season.
- Bolin has a very Charlie Brown smile while pushing Mako's buttons on the battleship. Compare/contrast to Varrick's Grinch smile from a few weeks back.
- "I'm an Earthbender strapped to the wing of a plane hundreds of feet in the air, so, no?" Bolin dominated these episodes.
- Who else felt tingle down the spine when Unalaq dropped “Dark Avatar” into the equation? If this tidbit doesn't play a huge part in the conclusion of Book Two, it's hard to imagine it not coming back into play down the line.
- The look between Desna and Eska when Unalaq reveals his master plan tops the heartbreaking moments of this double header.
- Korra saying “yip yip” to Oogi immediately tethers her to the Avatar lineage. Whose mind didn't spring back to Aang? Tangible evidence that Korra is in tune with her past.