[Preface: These reviews are written after having seen the first season in its entirety. Down-the-road spoilers are avoided. My focus is on the writing, not music or animation.]
In the first episode, we see Korra feel like an outsider in Republic City. The city does not make space for her as an Avatar. In this episode, we see Korra carve out a space for herself within the city.
We know from the first episode that Korra is no master of the rhetoric. Unlike Aang, she is unable to address the public without nervousness. Nor is she a fully realized Avatar as she has no mastery over airbending or the spiritual connection. And she does not see herself as a proper airbending student since she keeps rejecting its principles just as she feels that it keeps rejecting her. Overall, she feels like there is no place for her in the city. So what is a girl to do?
Enter pro-bending. Pro-bending is a celebration of the physical side of bending, something over which Korra has complete mastery. Even though she has to change her style to be a pro-bender, she is completely at ease with the ruthless nature and physical duress that pro-bending demands. When the referees allow Korra to continue participating in the pro-bending match, it is a symbolic moment for Korra because the city has finally accepted her, even if only as a pro-bender.
Of course, connecting to a city means connecting with its people. Korra meets her first truly Republic City friends in the form of Bolin and Mako. Since they are of Korra's age group, she finds herself able to let her guard down. The dialogue between Bolin, Mako and Korra contains the most snappy and humurous lines in the episode.
Trouble arises when Korra, having found validation via pro-bending, changes her attitude towards airbending from indifference to outright rejection. In the end, though, she realizes the importance of airbending forms and she does so via pro-bending. The moment of this realization, the moment when she starts avoiding and evading attacks in the match, is one around which the entire episode hinges. It resolves her issues with airbending and reconciles Tenzin's purist attitude with pro-bending. So, given the importance of this moment, it is unfortunate that it feels really cheap and not well-earned. With the blink of an eye, Korra goes from showing no skill whatsoever with airbending forms to being perfectly patient and evasive. A few flubs here and there and a bit of aggression would have been more realistic.
Other than that one niggle, the episode does a good job of accomplishing what it set out to do. It compares and contrasts airbending with pro-bending and by having Korra reconcile the two, it has shows her grow closer to both Republic City and her teacher Tenzin.
[As of December 2012, there exists a video on nick.com in which Bryan Konietzko explains the rules of pro-bending very comprehensively. If it is still up, a Google search of "Pro Bending Rules Explained" should take you to it. Also, a shout out to Daniel Floyd of “Extra Credits” as I used his one insightful observation in this review.]
Part two of the Korra premiere cements Korra's bond with her Airbending master, Tenzin, and establishes her place in the world of pro-bending alongside the Fire Ferret brothers, Mako and Bolin. Mostly, this episode is full of character development and introductions, coupled with comedy, less action, and some very nice moments of ab-so-lute-ly beautiful artwork and music.
Following the end of "Welcome to Republic City," this episode begins with Korra's wish to see a pro-bending match with Tenzin, yet he dismisses pro-bending as "drivel" and wants for Korra to stay put and focus on airbending. This difference becomes the source of conflict of the episode as Korra's focus is increasingly on pro-bending the more she fails to do well at airbending practices. From reading about pro-bending in the paper, to staying up late to listen to matches on the radio, to sneaking away at night to go to the arena, and to volunteering herself to play on a team, Korra resolutely sends the message that she needs an outlet from the stress of being bad at airbending.
The Airbending gates scene is full of comedy, but this one scene really fleshes out Korra's character in her approach to the lesson. Headstrong and straightforward Korra is no match for the evasiveness and non-confrontational attitude needed to traverse the gates. Likewise, mediation proves to be a difficult task for Korra. Besides highlighting the differences between student and teacher these scenes are helped along by Tenzin's kids providing loads of humor.
I've got to take a moment to say seeing Korra sneak out at night and leap off a cliff while waterbending a smooth landing has got to be the defining moment where her kick-ass character status was engraved in my mind. I must also say the artwork of Air Temple Island and Republic City at night deserve to be framed and hung on walls.
The introduction of the Fire Ferret brothers to Korra was a delight. One friendly and flirty and the other full of false assumptions and reserve. Both brothers are charming in their own unique way, but it's clear that Bolin will start out as the fan favorite and comedy guy while Mako is left with the task of being exposition and plot driving guy. Pro-bending is a creative spin on MMA and the 1920's boxing fervor even if it feels a tad gimmicky, but it's main function here is to help Korra befriend Bolin and Mako and to give her a newer perspective on the bending arts.
"A Leaf in the Wind" bookends wonderfully when Tenzin and Korra do find themselves at a pro-bending match together, except Korra is a participant and not a spectator and Tenzin, while initially there to discipline her, ends up cheering her on after he's barraged with her grievances towards airbending. Overall, a solid episode that that brings in new characters and further develops the people and places Korra will be involved with in Republic City.
The artwork and music continue to wow and greatly impress. The voice acting is top-notch, also.