The series premiere wastes no time at all, delivering a tight episode with a whirlwind of character introductions and scene setting, along with a hefty dose of thematic setup. It’s an efficient half-hour that manages to intrigue and excite, entertain in the moment, and avoid standard premiere episode pitfalls.
I don’t need to sing the praises of the show’s animation; it’s one of the most beautifully drawn shows I’ve ever seen, and it speaks for itself. The bending is more fluid, more dynamic; the form of the benders and the element being bended are far more synchronous than in the previous series. The water looks more alive (for lack of a better term), the fire is more vibrant and animated, and the earth is more crisp and staccato, reflecting the more deliberate and rough nature of earthbending. It’s just a joy to behold. But as I said: this stuff speaks for itself, and I am not going to dwell on it. For the rest of these reviews, I have no intention of speaking about the animation save for a few critical moments that are exceptionally fantastic. Otherwise, you can see how gorgeous the animation is for yourself; no need for me to wax poetic about it.
Instead, I’m going to wax poetic about the characters and themes that this series plays with. More so than the original show, which began its life quite securely in the kid’s show corner, The Legend of Korra has thematic concerns on its mind. “Welcome to Republic City” sets up these thematic concerns by establishing a clear dichotomy between the idyllic White Lotus compound where the episode begins and the industrial, bustling metropolis that is Republic City, where our intrepid young Avatar winds up by episode end. Though this dichotomy is demonstrated a multitude of ways – visual design, musical scoring, even cinematography (in an animated show!) – it is most strongly enforced through the strict divide between spirituality and secularity.
The original show featured an Air Nomad Avatar, Aang, and had a more spiritual bent to bending as a result. Aang’s background was heavily spiritual, having been in effect raised by Monk Gyatso as a monk himself even prior to learning he was the Avatar, and his bending was very spiritually informed from the outset. Sure, he used it for silly things like spinning two metallic balls around between his hands, riding around on an airball, and impressing the youth of Kyoshi Island, but ultimately Aang was a very spiritual person. Korra, however, is quite clearly not, and the show explicitly states this. Even before the White Lotus chastise her lack of spirituality, Korra is shown being quite headstrong and brash about her bending abilities – as a child, no less. Her training with the White Lotus has not softened that edge, and her bending is rather rough as a result. Though she gets the better of her firebending examiner, her form is not perfect, and her style is quite unrefined. It’s a brute force and strength game, contradicting the tenets of firebending as we saw in the original show.
This isn’t necessarily to Korra’s detriment – having an unpredictable fighting style will serve her well, as we will see throughout the show – but her imprecise form is a key thing to note going forward. What is most important about Korra’s stay in the White Lotus compound is the way that she clearly is at odds with the Lotus themselves. She several times has to put on a façade of sorts of being spiritual; it doesn’t come naturally to her, and she tells the Lotus this, but rather than dedicate time and effort to that side of being the Avatar, she focuses exclusively on the physical. The Lotus know this, but Korra remains at odds with it, and plays along for as long as she can. It’s the sense of being restrained – a sense that is literally echoed when Korra has to ask permission to leave the compound to take Naga for a ride – that marks her time at the White Lotus compound, even though she has a fairly large degree of freedom.
The feeling of restraint vanishes immediately upon Korra’s arrival in Republic City. Korra is shown as quite clearly being liberated. She walks around the city freely, catches and cooks fish from a pond, openly confronts criminals, and even addresses an Equalist barker. Everything she does in Republic City demonstrates a notable lack of spirituality. Her defense of bending has nothing to do with the spiritual or cultural aspect of bending, but rather because “bending is the coolest thing in the world!” She cooks fish because she needs to eat – a utilitarian use of bending. She confronts the Triple Threat Triad members – themselves using bending as a method of intimidation – but her bending here is less a use motivated by altruism and more one motivated by the desire to display power. She never actually approaches or acknowledges the shopkeepers being menaced by the Triad, and indeed chases after the Triad members after they were fleeing. If it were solely about the shopkeepers and protecting them, she would have stopped. But instead, she chases after them and gives another violent display of bending in order to dispatch them.
This is clearly Korra unbound, so to speak. Unleashed from the spiritual ideas and focus of the White Lotus, Korra is a maelstrom of physicality and force. Even though this unbridled fervor results in a few run-ins with the law, Korra’s attitude is one of pure ecstasy, her liberation total and invigorating. She wants to stay in Republic City despite the trouble she caused and got into with both the law and Tenzin because even with that trouble comes the attendant dominion of secularity over spirituality. Thus is the dichotomy: the White Lotus compound is a place of restrained physicality and secularity in the name of a façade of spirituality, whereas Republic City is a place of unrestricted physicality and secularity, with spirituality tossed aside.
The episode sets up a couple of smaller thematic points that will crop up later: the introduction of the bending triads and the Equalists begins to move the pieces of the complex political drama into place. The show smartly presents us with the Equalist barker and Korra’s altercation with him prior to the incident with the bending triads. Our experience with the first show, mixed with our adoration of the spectacle and novelty of bending, leads us to quickly dismiss the barker’s claims that the bending elite oppress the non-bending majority. But immediately after that scene we are presented with exactly that: the bending triads use their bending to oppress the non-bending shopkeepers. Because the show presents us with a premise that we reject immediately based on prior experiences, and then gives us a situation where that premise appears to be true, we either overlook that fact and remain blissfully ignorant of the truth behind the barker’s words, or we become somewhat uncomfortable with our self-assurance that bending is not oppressive. In either case, the episode smartly sets up that central political conflict, which will be explored in greater detail in the coming episodes.