By: Joshua Hamilton (story)

The Story: Once again, playing around proves more spiritually fulfilling than meditation.

The Review: After the high point that was the last two episodes, with their high fantasy setting and world-shaking stakes, it feels like a bit of a drag returning to the somewhat mundane affairs of the present story.  On the plus side, “The Beginning” has given two boons for the show’s use: a far bigger and more important mission in the impending Harmonic Convergence, and some new perspective for Korra after her recent trials.

It may feel a little weird at first to see Korra’s newfound patience, but it sure beats the dreariness of her prior petulance.  Besides, it would have defeated her whole reconciliation with Tenzin if ten minutes later, she reverted to her usual hissy self after he admits he’s never been to the Spirit World before.  In exercising remarkable self-restraint, Korra’s usually hidden compassion comes to the forefront, allowing her mentor to grapple with his own failings.

This season has been one of growth for several characters, but particularly for Tenzin, whose personality defects—pretentiousness, snobbery, and pride—have received far more exposure than in season one.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he’s always displayed these qualities, only they’re often overshadowed by Korra’s more flamboyant ones.  With his pupil reining in her temper, he can no longer use her provocation to excuse his own outbursts, and several times, he attempts to deflect his shortcomings on others, even his own son.

Eventually, he can no longer delay the inevitable admission that he has never been to the Spirit World, despite years of meditation.  The show has rarely sold its big revelations, but this one lands with quite an impact, mostly from the emotional turmoil it wreaks on Tenzin himself.  As his father’s son and the world’s sole airbending master, he must contend with all the spiritual responsibility that entails.  To find himself coming short in the one area where he must not fail, the guidance of his father’s successor, is clearly painful.

His limitations do call into question what it takes to have a connection to spirits and their world.  Why do his constant and sincere attempts to make that connection fall short, yet Jinora seems to make it with no effort at all?  Why do his rituals invoke the wrath of angry dark spirit-bats, while Jinora cavorts and plays with glowing dragonfly-bunny spirits?  It’s a reminder that we still don’t know much about how the physical and spirit worlds interact after Avatar Wan sealed them off from each other.  You’d wonder how a mean old bird like Unalaq* managed to gain his own spiritual mastery, if it weren’t for his revealed partnership with one especially prominent spirit.

Against this urgent backdrop, the political intrigue and white-collar crime (so to speak) going on in Republic City seem rather common by comparison.  The moment Mako identified Varrick as the mastermind behind most of the group’s recent troubles, you knew he was on a collision course with Asamai and Bolin, both of whom owe the grinning businessman their livelihoods.  Even so, you’re not entirely convinced that Varrick’s framing of Mako should be as effective as it is.  The episode just manages to sell the scene somewhat by hinting at Asami’s doubt that her ex-boyfriend would turn out to be some devious, vaguely motivated terrorist, which means she and Bolin have an opportunity to be more active players in the plot than they have been.

Conclusion: A much better effort out of the show than we’ve gotten most of the season, with important readjustments to the characters and the plot.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Not that it ever appeared as if he cared much about his kids, but shrugging off his son’s critical injury as a result of his own power-crazed plans, then telling his daughter to basically leave her brother to die, is pretty damn cold, even for him.