Korra Takes a Midseason Detour de Force in “Beginnings”

Avatar Korra is a frustrating character, which is part of what makes The Legend of Korra a frustrating show. The show’s original release sounded like a godsend: brand new adventures set in the same world as Nickelodeon’s superb mid-2000s fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender?—count me in! Yet the story of the next Avatar has largely failed to live up to Airbender’s legacy. That’s not to say it’s a bad show; the first season successfully expanded on the original series’ themes of moral complexity, and the central conflict over equality between benders and non-benders made Korra far more than just an empty dose of nostalgia. But the fault lies with the characters: whereas Aang, Katara, and Sokka were a pleasure to hang out with in Airbender, Korra and her friends, despite being slightly older, are somehow less relatable. These teenaged leads range from boring to angsty to annoying to stubborn. Frankly, they can be kind of a drag to watch.

Korra’s first season finale did suggest some character growth, so I was excited to see where the second season would take the Avatar and company. Yet almost immediately it was clear that Korra had regressed to her old big-headed self, and with the exceptions of a devilishly funny businessman caricature and an adorable family of flying bison, season two’s first seven episodes were largely mediocre. Then came “Beginnings.” Leading up to this ambitious two-part episode, Korra has been left without her memory—after yet another needlessly rash decision—and now she must reconnect with her “Avatar spirit.” “Beginnings” takes us back thousands of years before the events of either series, to define and connect all of us with this “Avatar spirit” by bringing us the origin of Wan, the very first Avatar.

With the exception of a few brief framing scenes featuring Korra and some monks who are helping to heal her, the episode is almost entirely set in the time of Wan, 10,000 years in Korra’s past. We are instantly clued in that this episode is something special not by the events but by the animation style: as Wan races through a city, it is as if he moves through a painting. The scenery behind him is conspicuously static, with washed-out colors that evoke ancient East Asian art. The events obtain a mythic, timeless quality, and we forget we’re watching a Nickelodeon cartoon (except for those goddamned toy commercials).

The outline of Wan’s story is easily identifiable from the religions and fantasy stories that pervade our own real-life human culture: in an epic battle between spirits of light and dark, a battle whose result controls the fate of both the spiritual and material worlds, a human champion must join together with the spirit of peace to (temporarily) defeat chaos. In this iteration, Wan literally fuses with the good spirit “Raava” to defeat the evil spirit “Vaatu.” But it is not the end result that makes this story interesting—it’s the characters. What sets “Beginnings” apart is Wan.

We meet Wan as he is stealing bread from the Chous, a tyrannical family that controls most of the wealth of his city. Wan is cocky and flippant until he is caught, and returns to the broken-down shanty he shares with two friends with little to show for his efforts. He tosses each friend a roll and gives much of a third (and final) roll to some colorful birds. “They need it more than I do,” he explains.

This is our first hint that Wan is a paradoxical creature, a selfless power-seeker. He steals and lies to get what he wants, and he wears a smirk on his face while doing so. The Chous may deserve what they get, but they are not his only victims. When Wan, like so many mythic heroes before him, takes the gift of fire dishonestly, he shows not even the slightest indicator of guilt. However, his arrogance does not coincide with self-centeredness: all of his antics are carried out with a genuine desire to help both humans and animals. He is ultimately too gentle to seriously harm the Chous, leaving an attempted uprising unsuccessful. “Even when you have the power, you’re afraid to use it,” spits the ungrateful Chou whose life Wan just spared. Wan is banished from the city with nothing but his firebending to protect him in the dangerous spirit wilds. He is not expected to last the night.

He does, naturally, because there is still a story to tell. The story is essentially one of Wan losing his humanity. Fusing with Raava is really only a formality, for Wan is already something different. He befriends spirits and animals alike, repeatedly assuring them he’s not like other humans; in turn, they repeatedly comment that he is unique among his species. The message of this show is blunt: most humans suck. They “think only of themselves”; they are “ugly, destructive, and lacking any respect for nature.” Wan, on the other hand, can’t even bring himself to murder a captured cat-deer for food; instead he protects the animal against his fellow firebenders—a moment that deeply endears him to this vegan reviewer.

Later the episode makes a subtle addition to the anti-imperialist ethos of the first series: Wan, from an urban firebending settlement, is responsible for the destruction of a peaceful airbending village that, until Wan interfered, had coexisted happily with the spirits. Wan learns the error of his ways more quickly than his fellow firebenders, who burn down the forest and openly war with the spirits, but the damage is done. While the scene is tragic, the show’s respect and concern for non-Westernized ways of life is refreshing; such cultural consciousness is rare in American media.

It is hard to refer to Wan simply as a firebender, though, and not just because he learns to bend the other elements. Not only his humanity but also his individual identity is suppressed throughout the episode. Wan loses his connection to both his home city and his entire species: “I’ve had enough of humans for a while.” When he interferes in an early struggle between Raava and Vaatu and is told it doesn’t concern him, he replies, “It does when the lives of spirits and animals are in danger!” Wan has lost sight of his own private interests and has become a public servant in the most complete sense of the phrase.

We demand our heroes to forego their individuality; all public figures (fictional or not) must not belong to themselves, but to their idolaters. We want our family and friends to protect and care for us above others, but the protagonists of lore must put aside such selfish preferences for the good of all. Wan easily sheds his self-interest because he sees all life as connected and equal. He is set apart by the fact that he sets no one apart.

“It doesn’t matter (if I die),” he tells Raava, “We have to finish this.” This declaration doesn’t even count as a display of generosity; the humans, spirits, and other animals that would be threatened if Wan fails are as much a part of his self as is his own body. His victory isn’t final—after all, there have been 10,000 years of Avatar successors who have had to deal with other conflicts—yet by devoting his life to trying “to guide the world toward peace” he succeeds in establishing a precedent for what the Avatar can be.

Which brings us back to Korra. She may be impetuous, but it is this recklessness that made Wan the Avatar in the first place. In understanding just what Korra’s life is about, just what is guiding her, we understand her, which makes me like the character and the series that much better.

“Beginnings” packs an impressive number of ideas into forty-five short minutes, and I’ve only begun to assess them here. Whether you own every season of both shows on DVD or you’ve only seen a scattered handful of episodes while channel surfing, Wan’s path is now an indispensable part of the Avatar mythos. His tale is not just pertinent to Korra and Aang’s world; in an era of shortsighted industrial nations engaging in rampant environmental destruction, our world could use a little more Wan, too.

Episode Grade: A-

Season Grade: B

Dayton Martindale is a junior in the astrophysics department.