Man, even Zuko’s past never haunted him quite this literally.
After throwing us into the present-day action last week, this week’s episode sees us backtracking two years as we follow Korra through her recovery process. It’s something of a spiritual successor to A:tLA’s excellent “Zuko Alone,” as the episodes not only share a title, but also focus on a single character isolated from their usual group of allies.
Unsurprisingly, there are echoes of Zuko’s Book 2 identity crisis running through Korra’s struggles this week. Both characters deal with sustained physical injuries and psychological trauma. Both have been separated from the roles that previously defined them (as a prince, as the Avatar), and both have cut off their hair as a physical manifestation of those lost roles. Both meet people who make assumptions about them based on their titles, albeit very different ones: the villagers Zuko met treated him like a monster, while the ones Korra meets treat her like a superhero. And both try to hide their true identities from the world as they struggle to discover and understand themselves – to understand the “me” that exists beneath the official titles and public expectations. Of course, in the end, Korra can’t hide from her past anymore than Zuko could from his. It follows them like phantoms, and at some point they must turn to face it.
Which is great in terms of structure and thematic unity, but when we bring the camera a little closer and focus on the specifics of Korra’s story, I admit this episode left me a little cold, because I’m not sure we really needed it. Barring a few plot points that could have been easily covered in five minutes, did we learn anything from the flashbacks in this episode that we couldn’t have easily inferred from everything that’s come before? Put another way: When we saw the very powerful image of Korra in despair at the end of Book 3, and then met her struggling in an arena under an assumed identity at the beginning of Book 4, were there any dots we really needed the creators to connect for us?
Isolating a character from both the central action and the central timeline can be a hugely important tool, as A:tLA’s “Zuko Alone” showed us. It can give us a chance to see how the person reacts in a situation we’ve never seen before, such as Zuko being away from both his uncle and his title of “prince.” It can also give the writers a chance to reveal some new piece of personal history that casts the character in a different light. Basically, a character-focused episode should tell us something new about that character. It should surprise us. And I just don’t think I learned anything about Korra this episode that I hadn’t already figured out from previous ones.
Part of the problem here is that her journey is rather by-the-book. The physical therapy scenes felt like stock Hollywood footage, and every conversation between Katara and Korra was predictable in a way LoK usually manages to avoid. Don’t get me wrong: It’s incredibly important that Korra have this struggle, both physically and mentally, and I appreciate that the creators understand that the healing process is often slow, frustrating, and can result in a sense of isolation and being “left behind.” But when that struggle is painted in such broad, familiar strokes, it does little to expand on our understanding of either the recovery process or the person undergoing it.
I’m griping a lot here, I know, especially since I didn’t really dislike this episode. It’s just that LoK has set its own bar pretty high, and I felt a little let down this week.
Regardless, by the end of this episode we’d returned to the present, where things again start to move in unexpected directions. An adorable forest spirit, a “phantom Avatar” that may or may not have a physical presence, and the return of the older-but-no-less-saucy Toph gives next week’s episode a lot of exciting potential. Here’s hoping LoK goes back to feeling fresh and new instead of like something I’d seen a few times before.
This, That, and the Other
- In addition to being freaking adorable, that photograph of adult Aang was also a great example of the way the artists have aged the characters while still maintaining their primary attributes. Aang may have grown a beard, but he never lost that ear-to-ear smile.
- I loved the way last season portrayed Grandpa Zuko, and so far I’m loving the way they’re portraying Grandma Toph. There’s a sense that both have matured but that they’re still very much the same person (Zuko the awkward turtle, Toph the cheeky monkey).Which begs the question: Why oh why did they turn Grandma Katara into this bland “healing wise woman” figure? Getting Katara and Korra in the same room for half an episode should have been an amazing experience, but instead it was quite possibly the dullest, most stereotypical moment in the show’s history. Where’s her fire, her passion, her really bad jokes? If I had to pick one element of LoK that disappointed me the most, the show’s simplistic portrayal of my favorite A:tLA character just might be it.
- Bolin continues to steal the show, even when he only gets a few lines. Not only was his Civil War-style letter hilarious, but in an episode that should have been full of Katara/Korra Feels, his “Spoiler Alert: Pabu and I already miss you” proved to be the most heartwarming line of the week.
- And speaking of letters, I love that Korra only confided in Asami. Their developing friendship over the past couple seasons has been handled really well, and this was another great moment that showed just how close they’ve gotten.
- I wasn’t the only one having Kill Bill flashbacks during that whole “wiggle your big toe” scene, right?
- As soon as we went into the swamp I knew who was gonna be there, but I still squeed like an idiot when it actually happened. Oh, Korra, you have no idea what you’re getting into.