Legend of Korra returns from its bye week respite by taking a deep breath. With Harmonic Convergence — in the running with Man of Steel’s “World Engine” for top geek phrase of 2013 — on the horizon and Unalaq revealed to be in cahoots with the ancient dark spirit Vaanu, sky bison poo is about to hit the fan. But before Korra can start laying the smack down on the duo of evil-doers, she needs to solve her season-long issue. “The Guide” doesn’t jump the gun, providing a calm prelude Book 2’s final descent that restores the Avatar and her rightful teacher Tenzin as wise servants of world order. Very little happens in this episode, but the small character revelations feel triumphant.
Young airbender Jinora’s connection to the spirit world, the Northern and Southern portals, and Wan, the first Avatar, has been lingering in the background since episode two. “The Guide” clears the mist. Jinora is like Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. What she sees as playing with fluttering dragonfly bunnies appears to others as a loony girl dancing by herself. She’s aware of the divide, but until Korra returns from the Firebender temple, it doesn’t dawn on her that the enhanced perception is a valuable skill.
With Korra still high on revelations from her encounter with Wan, this episode finds a clever way to cap Tenzin’s familial drama arc that’s casually weaved its way into the epic hero’s tale. Tenzin’s subplot recalls the good ol’ days of The O.C. season one, when parental figures managed to command the same attention as the teenage leads. He’s a man who should simply be the voice of wisdom, delivering a heart-to-heart when the main characters hit a road bump. But Tenzin suffers from massive confidence issues. Korra’s arrival at the Southern Air Temple invigorates Tenzin to face a challenge we learn he’s been facing his entire life: entering the spirit world. His father, Avatar Aang, tried and failed to push him there. He’s meditated for years in hopes of crossing over. He didn’t, but maybe the ticking clock of Korra’s mission is the boost he needs to finally realize the goal. It isn’t. Tenzin is that all-knowing professor who inevitably lets his guard down to become a flawed human. If you went through high school with a favorite teacher, this may be a well-known breakdown of emotion.
Jinora’s “gift” is troublesome to Tenzin, adding tension that nudges him into a downward spiral. Her dragonfly bunnies — including Bum-Jun, Bumi’s adorable new sidekick — lead Korra and company to an undiscovered circle of meditation, primed for entry into the spirit world. In a shocking moment, Tenzin lashes out at his daughter, calling her unfit for communication with the spirits. “She’s too young!” Tenzin blurts out, echoing every father on the planet when they find out their daughters have unique interests. He goes through every motion to set the stage for his perfect meditation session, to prove he’s capable: Kya burns incense, Meelo plays the drum, Tenzin even performs an elegant airbending dance (a stunning piece of animation). Nothing works. He can’t do it. And behind him, Jinora sits quietly, waiting for her cue.
Indie darling J.K. Simmons has given Tenzin a fatherly softness in the past. In “The Guide” he layers on new dimensions; we laugh with Tenzin, we root for him, and we’re saddened for the guy when he can’t realize his dreams. When a colony of dark spirit bats swarms out of the meditation circle, he can’t even fend off the attack — Korra takes care of it with her newfound “spirit bending.” Tenzin’s stubborn attitude kills his stamina. Simmons’s performance makes it gut-wrenchingly demoralizing.
Throughout Tenzin’s life crisis, “The Guide” jumps back to two threads that make the episode less than perfect. Unalaq is right where we left him, standing by the portal with his twins, Eska and Desna, and mumbling fearmongering one-liners. Under the impression that Korra was chewed up by an evil ocean spirit, Unalaq devises a new plan to open the Northern spirit portal: He’ll shoot water at it! While this opens the door for some ingenious new bending tactics — nice ice drill, bro — it also feels like a half-hearted attempt by a cunning villain that feels like a half-hearted attempt to weave Unalaq back into the show. The silver lining is a ruthless moment of tunnel vision from Unalaq. After Desna is catapulted backwards by a blast of portal energy, Eska cries out to her father that he needs a water healer stat. He brushes her off — cracking the portal is the number one priority. In Ghostbusters II terms, Unalaq is truly the Dr. Janosz Poha to Vaatu’s Vigo.
Meanwhile, Mako and Asami melt the brains of shippers everywhere by falling back into each other’s arms. Was it out of character for the perpetual lady chaser? Even Bolin loses his mind when learning the former couple reunited in the wake of Korra and Mako’s breakup (“Korra just left a week ago!”). Despite this Earth-shattering romantic move, rebounding with his ex did not distract Mako from his mission of outing Varrick as a war profiteer. When he confronts the business magnate in his fire pit lair, the suave Varrick promptly retaliates, offering to either enlist the whippersnapper for his secret police or drop his “protection” of Asami and Bolin. Mako declines, and like that, Lin Beifong arrives at his door accusing him of collaborating in the heist of Asami’s tank fleet (see: “The Sting”). Why the police chief never questions the musty stench of the situation is beyond logic. Clearly Mako is being framed, clearly Varrick is up to no good. It may take the Avatar’s return to snap the cast of Republic City back into reality. Let us hope that’s soon.
“The Guide” concludes with Korra and Jinora phasing into the spirit world, just as Unalaq returns to his dark spirit overlord for further instructions. “The Avatar still lives,” Vaatu rumbles, channeling his inner Star Wars Emperor. And now we’re in land of the spirits, a desert permanently stuck in aurora borealis mode. Praise goes to director Colin Heck for daring to balance the walky talky action of the episode with an indulgent use of grand wide shots, luxuriating in the stunning backdrops the Korra team handpaints for each episode. Like the revitalized Avatar, “The Guide” finds beauty in its slowest moments, where every detail can be soaked up, every nuance collected. Even if Mako insists on derailing his relationship status, we can enjoy the impeccable design of his apartment while it all goes down.
Odds & Ends
- Bumi barely factors into Tenzin’s realizations in this episode, but he walks away with the best lines. “I once beat an Earthbender in a rock throwing contest!”
- Bolin is still shooting silent “movers.” This time, his alter ego Nuktuk has been snatched up by the talons of a giant bird. Most of Bolin’s previous films have been references to classic silent era pictures. This one digging up any memories?
- “I’ve … never been into the spirit world.” Cue everyone popping their heads into frame like it’s Three’s Company. Time and time again, Korra manages to go sitcomy without ever damaging the dramatic beats.
- Even when Varrick is playing diabolical crime lord, he’s still Varrick. “Torture? The only thing I want to torture is this pesky foot fungus!”
- It took me until this episode to realize that “Book 2: Spirits,” like the books before it, is still a reference to the bending skill Korra picks up in the season. She’s bending the dark bats back to the side of good! Easily suspected throughout the first nine episodes, solidified by Tenzin’s word choice here.
- Even after Bolin calls out Mako and Asami for “dating” again, the big kiss took me off guard. It’s hard to blame Asami — everything in her life has gone wrong and here’s one glimmer of hope — but Mako slipping back into it so easily is unexpected.