How it All Began
For the first 6 episodes of Korra, the titular character and the rest of Team Avatar were made out to be unlikeable and foolishly naive. Almost like they had all didn’t realize they’d been pulled into a story where the stakes are the fate of the world (Damon Lindelof would be proud). Korra has been made out rightly as an egotistical sheltered schoolgirl who has been told she is the Muhammad Ali all the time and only knows how to problem solve with brutish action. The rest of Team Avatar has been pushed to the side by naive trust in adults who are wacky. The only one who isn’t is Mako, which has been consistently shown to be the most wait and see/mature member. This season and last really upped the ante on complex morally gray stories with socio political slants. Of course this bunch of teenagers are in no way prepared or capable of navigating much less solving these problems. It all isn’t their fault the worst thing they’ve done is be youthful in a now modern world. They couldn't know any better and none of them have Aangs innate sense of character. “Beginnings” does a lot of knowledge dropping and explains A LOT (so much so that I’m pretty certain I’ll end up leaving stuff out) but it does so by going back to story telling roots.
When The Last Airbender aired “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” (Book 3 Chapter 6) the show was in about the same spot as Korra Book 2. Around the middle part of the book that needed to set up the endgame and do some explain and pay off those allusions. We had always had these vague allusions to a connection between Aang and Zuko from a story perspective but “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” gave them a very real in universe connection. The prequel episode also explained a heck of lot of stuff from the failings of Avatar Roku and how that allowed for the Hundreds Year War and The Last Airbender to happen. But it wasn’t like a needless prequel like The Thing(2011) that explained was wholly tied to the things that would happen. Instead it informed the present by showing us the story of friendship broken by duty and a lust for power. “Beginnings” does this on a much grander scale, explaining the motivations of Unalaqu, Korra’s amnesia. All of which is wrapped in to the heroic journey of Wan as he becomes the first Avatar.
The story of Wan and his journey like all of Avatar is eastern mysticism wrapped in western myth. “Beginning” transitions from the Prometheus and the Theft of Fire myth into Pandora and her box. With what appeared to be a bit of the old Persian religion, Zoroastrianism and the battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. It is a basic story structure from the roots of Western storytelling. Not to be all fanboyish but there is also plenty of references to plenty of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away mainly). All of this gave “Beginnings” more power and sway than if it hadn't had these textural references. There was areal beauty in the simplicity of it’s structure..
In a world before the Avatar man and spirit lived in the same realm in disharmonious circumstances. The spirits unknowingly driving humanity from their home and atop the giant Lion Turtles (one of many o shit moments). These Lion Turtle cities are like the proto versions of what would become the Four Nations. The one housing what would become the Air Nomads greatly resemble the modern ones. Wan, lived on the Lion Turtle that would be the Fire Nation. Which looked a lot like the Fire Nation as we know it, an absolute monarchy under the House of Chu with an aristocracy within the walls of the Lion Turtle city. Wan was not an aristocrat or royal, he was a peasant (who is introduced straight up Aladdin style). Sick of his meeger standings he steals the gift of fire from the Lion Turtle and is banished from the city and forced to live in the spirit wilds.
From there he slowly becomes the proto-Avatar, learning to be the first true Fire Bender and not just a “Fire Tosser” and listening to the spirits. That journey doesn't really begin until he comes across a pair of great spirits fighting in the valley like a pair of Kaiju. Wan jumps to conclusion and breaks the two beasts apart, freeing Vaatu - spirit of eternal chaos and darkness - from the control of Ravva - spirit of harmony and light. Pushing him on an eternal quest to bring balance and save to world from his misdeeds. You’ve heard it all before.
What is perhaps most interesting to this proto world is the treatment of Spirits. Up to this point they had always been shown to be wise all knowing beings. Here they are made out to be no better than humanity in the ignorance and intolerance of others. Their in ability to share the physical world with humanity put i out of balance. The Spirit Wilds as they are called are overgrown and deadly. Making the Lion Turtles give humanity to bend an element in order to protect themselves. All of them though were part of Vaatu’s long term plan to take power by introducing hate and distrust into the worlds of Spirit and Man when he opened the portal between Physical and Spiritual. An interesting take on the fallibility and selfishness of man.
“Beginnings” wrapping the larger issues of Book 2 into a larger eternal struggle between harmony and chaos doesn't take away from the morally gray areas (Varrick) has gone. If anything it seems to give them a more titanical feel and different spin on how to view them. Varrick isn’t “evil” but is his actions are certainly part of a large movement into disharmony.
I’m leaving out a ton of stuff but I need to leave room for Callum. I’ll probably end up writing something more in depth about this episode anyway later when I have more space. I’ve rewatched it now two and a half times and can really tell I’m to close to it for proper thought. Something should be said though for the aesthetics of this episode. Bluntly: IT LOOKED FUCKING BEAUTIFUL (also it makes me want them to announce a Blu Ray release yesterday). The cell shading mixed with the woodblock art created a wholly unique but familar take on the world. It is worth noting that Studio Mir, the people who did last season did these two episodes and man can you tell. Not in the action sequences but in the dialog moments, something about more key frames (read more here) Everything felt so alive and vibrant.
Having read the Damon Lindelof feature on Blockbuster screenwriting, I can’t help but wonder what they have planned for Book 3 and 4. It can’t really get much bigger than a climatic every 10,000 year fight between the forces of eternal harmony and chaos. Then I remember there is still 5 more episodes left in this Book. I wouldn’t mind a return to the more social problems brought up Book 1.
The Bits At The End
- To quote Emily Guendelsberger “Oh, man, there’s so much to talk about! I’m going to have to leave a lot of things (in particular the super interesting ways in which, by seeing the way the pre-bending society worked, we can extrapolate how bending has made for a pretty egalitarian society in which the genders are basically equal and situations in which an upper class oppresses an underclass are much harder to sustain)” That’s how I felt as I plugged away at what this has become last night and this morning.