By: Tim Hedrick & Joshua Hamilton (story)

The Story: I don’t suppose holy water and crosses work on these kinds of spirits.

The Review: For most of Korra’s first season, it strove to replicate the beautiful balance of humor and pathos as its predecessor, but ultimately fell short. The Last Airbender achieved its powerful blend of childish enthusiasm and adult sensibilities by virtue of its characters naturally possessing both qualities.  The cast of Korra started out older, warier, more given to sobriety than silliness; it could never have the innocence and wonder that made Airbender so easy to love.

In many ways, the second season seems to embrace the show’s maturity a little more firmly than the first.  Aside from the irrepressible Bolin and the hyperactive antics of Tenzin’s youngest children, the tone of the show is now quietly grounded in grown-up concerns.  Even as Korra expresses her affection for the Southern Water Tribe’s yearly festival, she does so with a kind of distance, her fondness coming more from nostalgia than real pleasure.  She carries that same reservation throughout the season premiere, sometimes in a strange and stark contrast with Tenzin’s emotional regression once reunited with his older siblings.

That’s not to say that Korra has entirely gained the self-reflection she’s always lacked.  Though the traumas of the first season have noticeably mellowed her out, her attitude hasn’t changed very much at all.  At some moments, it seems like she learned nothing from her past experiences.  In her abuse of the Avatar State and her resentment of Tenzin, Korra shows that she’s as power-focused and resistant to authority as before.  Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of the season’s overarching plot, Korra clearly is still prone to being manipulated.

It’s only one of the many reasons why Korra remains the least likable character in her own show.  After getting strung along with Tarrlok for nearly ten episodes, you’d think she’d be a little skittish around smooth-talking, obscurely motivated waterbenders, but it doesn’t take much on her uncle Unalaq’s part to drive her away from her loyal mentor and even her own father.  It’s possible that Unalaq’s spiritual zealotry is genuine, but as made obvious by the arrival of military ships from the Northern Water Tribe, of which he is chief, politics often underline the most sincere spiritual motivations.

If you can shrug off the somewhat manufactured tension of these episodes, there’s a lot to like about them.  I particularly like the idea of Tenzin off on a family road trip not only with his wife and kids, but with older sibs Bumi and the heretofore unrevealed Kya as well.  In many ways, there’s a greater sense of adventure and unpredictability to this side-plot, especially where Jinora, Tenzi’s eldest daughter, is concerned.  And with Mako trapped in relationship drama with his temperamental girlfriend, Bolin is free to generate humor on his own time for his own sake.  While Eska, Unalaq’s daughter, is an even drier clone of Airbender’s Mai, her monotone delivery of emotionally charged lines makes for a hilarious contrast with the more frenetic Bolin.*  Freaked out about the prospect of evil spirits, she reassures him emotionlessly, “Don’t worry; I will protect you, my feeble turtle-duck.”

“Thank you,” he whimpers, clutching her shoulder.

In one respect, Korra has made great strides over Airbender, and that is in the animation department.  That opening sequence of Mako using both motorcycle and firebending tricks to shut down a group of bending crooks should give you a heads-up on just how sophisticated, fluid, and breathtakingly beautiful the visuals of this series has become.  Expressions are more keen and subtle than ever, easily matching the delicate work of the best anime.  However the story turns out, we’re in for an artistic treat this season.

Conclusion: A cautiously solid first outing.  Although traces of first season flaws appear, the second is shaping up to be a much wiser, smarter kind of show.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * One of my favorite moments of the episodes is when Eska remarks, with a chilly smile, “You amuse me; I will make you mine.”

Even the dense Bolin can’t fail to be a little perturbed by the ambiguity of that line.  “You mean like a boyfriend, or a slave?” he asks a little nervously.

“Yes,” she says, grabbing his collar.  “Win me prizes.”