Mark Watches ‘The Legend of Korra’: S03E07 – Original Airbenders

In the seventh episode of the third season of The Legend of Korra, Tenzin becomes increasingly frustrated with his students as he tries to teach them about the Air Nation. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The Legend of Korra.

I hesitate to call this a filler episode because that sounds so dismissive and negative. It’s certainly one of the slower episodes this season, but the narrative break it provides is absolutely necessary. Plus, I feel like this story really had to be told to us. In a sense, “Original Airbenders” felt a whole lot like a classic episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The struggle these characters experience is real, but it’s the kind of conflict that allows them to grow in twenty minutes’ worth of storytelling. It provides the audience with a chance to learn how to manage other people and one’s own expectations, too! Like, I know most of us are old as hell and watching a cartoon, but I do like to consider how a younger audience might learn shit from a show like this. And I think there’s a lot of value in “Original Airbenders”!

So, my initial concern once I figured out what this episode would address was mostly about repetition. If this was indeed going to cover Tenzin’s training of the new airbenders, how would this differ from what we’d seen of him in season two of this show? We already know what Tenzin is like as a teacher and how he often can be too much for others. So did he learn anything or grow from his experience in season two?

I think it’s very evident that despite his ongoing issues as a teacher, the Tenzin we see in this episode is absolutely a later version of himself. While he’s still strict and dry, we can see an enthusiasm that feels new to me. But is that enough? I personally found that excitement of his infectious; you could tell he was eager to share the world and culture of the airbenders with all these new recruits. However, his students did not share that enthusiasm, and Tenzin’s problem is his misinterpretation of what would interest people new to his culture.

I believe the biggest change in Tenzin exhibited here is his willingness to ask for help. I imagine that Tenzin will always be a stubborn individual, but I enjoyed that when Korra gave him advice, he listened. He respected her input, and he immediately tried to change! He sought help from his kids, who were all eager to assist their father, and he tried to get Bumi to help as well. To me, that is a sign of his growth as a person. I don’t think Tenzin would have done this last season!

Unfortunately, he’s so willing to adapt himself that he throws his weight behind absurdity after absurdity. When Bumi suggests that the students need discipline, Tenzin takes it far too literally. He goes from seemingly endless lectures on the Air Nomads to a rigorous physical training regime without any sort of segue. There’s no gradual change for the students, and it quickly overwhelms them! Even when Jinora points out to her father that he is overworking the recruits, he dismisses her concerns as nonsense.

What’s interesting to me is the way in which people react to Tenzin’s varied styles. The group goes from boredom and restlessness to exhaustion and trepidation, neither of which is a good atmosphere for learning. It’s why Kai’s attention wanders, so much so that he finds other ways to occupy his time. Unfortunately, he then coaxes Jinora – who is trying hard to maintain control and keep the students interested – into ditching her education, too. That doesn’t mean Tenzin is now responsible for whatever Jinora and Kai choose to do, and their mishaps with the air bison and the poachers are a result of their own decisions, not Tenzin’s. But Tenzin’s desire to be flexible backfired because he didn’t try nuance or subtlety. He went from one rigid system straight to another. And what happens to his students? They resent him. They try as hard as they can to get away from him. That’s not a good environment, you know?

I saw the air bison, then, as a metaphor for the relationship that Tenzin should have fostered. They are considered wild until they develop a trust for the airbenders who exist in a symbiotic relationship with them. That is how Tenzin should have approached this. He should have respected the dynamic between himself and his students by recognizing that he needed to build trust between himself and those he was teaching. It’s a mutual relationship, sure, but Tenzin knew everything here. He had all the power. And he never stopped to think about how that would make his students feel. When you overwhelm people with your knowledge and physical prowess, they’re most likely going to shut down. Just like when Kai overwhelmed those bison’s mother, the same shit is going to happen when you push people too hard or deliberately shove them out of their comfort zone.

Of course, part of this is because Jinora is growing up and Tenzin doesn’t want to accept that. After all she’s done last season and here in season three, it was time for him to acknowledge that she’s outgrown him in a lot of ways. It reminded me of his relationship with Korra in the last season, so I’m glad the two of them were able to get to a point of understanding here in “Original Airbenders.” Thankfully, I believe that the students will benefit from a better style of education in the wake of what happened here, and that’s the best we can hope for.

The video for “Original Airbenders” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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