Both Korra and her titular TV show have been looking for purpose in the previous three seasons of the show. Themes are picked up and put down, plot lines changed for unclear reasons that can’t even really be called twists (Unalaq’s layers of villainy for example).
Book 3 introduced a new antagonist, Zaheer, who is uncharacteristically self-balanced. While he uses deceit, he’s presented as single-minded, cruel but also unconflicted. Korra almost fails to stop him and only succeeds with the aid of the new Air Nomads and the metal-benders led Suyin Beifong. Briefly introduced near the end of Book 3 is Suyin’s head of security, Kuvira.
The aftermath of her fight with Zaheer leaves Korra seriously hurt. Book Four skips ahead three years. Korra, having initially gone home to the Southern Water Tribe to recover has gone missing. In reality, she has abandoned her role as Avatar and is making a meagre living fighting cage matches (and losing), while struggling with PTSD, flashbacks to her final fight with Zaheer and the remnants of the poison she was inflicted with by Red Lotus.
With Korra effectively out of the main storyline initially, the show manages to set up a more complex political situation. It has been trying in each season to create a fantasy story with a modernist (i.e. industrial/post-industrial) setting with a realistic political conflict. Both Book 1 and Book 2 relied on villains whose apparent politics were simply covered for a more basic super-villain motivation. Book 3 had Zaheer’s anarchic extremism but aside from toppling all rulers and some sort of inner balance, Zaheer’s ideology was both unclear and also not intended to reflect a mass movement. Book 4 finally manages something more plausible.
After Zaheer in Book 3 murders the Earth Queen, the largest kingdom in the world of Avatar falls into chaos (implied rather than shown). The metal bender Kuvira emerges as a classic military ‘strongman’ style political leader for the Earth Kingdom. Making use of superior technology and a decisive approach, Kuvira is a genuinely nuanced attempt to portray a species of fascism. At no point, until her own plans spiral out of control, is Kuvira portrayed as ‘mad’ or motivated by a dark secret. Like Zaheer, she uses deception pragmatically but her hidden agendas are largely clear. She succeeds in obscuring her main objective (uniting the Earth Kingdom and making it a hegemonic power) primarily by the people around her (and Republic City) deceiving themselves.
Bolin, in particular, is positioned as a sympathiser for Kuvira, working for her directly and actively supporting her cause. Bolin’s role has varied in the series between comic relief and as an ‘everyman’ character. Having him work for Kuvira neatly serves as a way of establishing how she garners support and how people fool themselves about what she is becoming.
The dual track of supporting characters shifting into positions of opposition to Kuvira and Korra’s attempts to regain her role of Avatar give this final season a more interesting structure than the previous three. While Kuvira’s ambitions eventually do push her into a more overt super-villain scheme (a giant mecha to crush Republic City and spirit-based superweapon), the steps on the path don’t require any sudden reveals or psychic manipulation. Kuvira wants to control and Korra seeks balance, eventually enlisting the help of Zaheer to better understand herself.
An unfortunate clip-episode aside, the final half of the season pulls all the strands together into an epic fight that resolves most of the hanging threads of all the characters.
The ending has been much remarked upon. The love triangle between Korra & Mako and Mako & Asami is largely ignored in this season. The dynamic between Korra and Asami prior to the final episode had largely been either in terms of Mako or in terms of them all being part of ‘Team Avatar’ (although at one point in Book 4 Asami does reveal she was corresponding with Korra during some of the time Korra was ‘missing’). What is shown, is consistent with this: Korra and Asami are two people who know each other and have been through a lot together and decide to take a holiday together. The possible romantic connection is about as understated as it can be — partly out of deniability on Nickelodeon’s part but also because the show hasn’t really ever focused on Korra & Asami in any terms other than Mako. Looking back is it more than tokenism? Yes, I think so. Essentially having the two of them metaphorically walk off together into the sunset (or rather accidental new spirit portal created by a superweapon) resolves both a plot line from Book One and states that a romantic relationship between the two characters is a possibility. It is still pretty weak as an example of representing relationships other than heterosexual ones (even more so now that Princess Bubblegum and Marcelline get to kiss in the final episode of Adventure Time) but it is still an important one.
What the Legend of Korra had lacked up to this point was an interesting villain. Amon and Unalaq had superficially seemed different but underneath were rather similar: both water benders shaped by sibling rivalry and with hidden motives. Zaheer is quite different.
A sort of anarchist and a genuine revolutionary, Zaheer is not a person in conflict with himself. His agenda is revealed through the series but it is not a secret from his followers. Of all the characters in both The Legend of Korra and Avatar, he is surprisingly at ease with himself and this is matched with his powers. He eventually gains the self-discipline to be able to fly unaided using air-bending and he’s also portrayed as being at peace with the spirit world.
It’s an interesting choice but a clever one. Zaheer’s lack of inner turmoil is an unusual one for a pop-culture version of a fanatic. Henry Rollins gives the character an intimidating intensity which elevates the contracts with Korra. Her character has been one at odds with herself throughout and lacking a sense of purpose and direction.
Ba Sing Se remains a weak point. The worldbuilding has never been shy about its Japanese and Chinese influences but Ba Sing Se has always been rather too obviously a stand-in for Beijing. The parallels are intensified by making the Earth Queen resemble a stereotype of a despot and modelled on the late nineteenth century, Empress Dowager Cixi.
A more interesting city is Zafou: a technology-led model city that has solar-punk elements as well as hints of art-deco. Zafou his a clear indication of a world that has its own direction to follow rather than simply borrowing from history.
Books 1 and 2 both ended with resolved stories. They had open endings that promised new possibilities but Korra in particular ended in a better place emotionally and as a character then where she started. Book 3 changes that. The plot around Zaheer is complete but as a story arc, Korra’s plotline is overtly incomplete. There is a momentum for Book 4 that the previous seasons lacked.
[Spoilers for The Legend of Korra follow]
A season in three parts that doesn’t quite make a satisfying whole. Book 1 had delivered an innovative and complete story that still felt unfinished. Korra was shown as being a contrast to her predecessor: a person of action and quick temper but also essentially a figure of the establishment. Her victory at the end of Book 1 was helping maintain Republic City as it was.
Cleverly, Korra was also shown as lacking a key element of her role as Avatar in that she lacked a strong connection with the spiritual aspects of the role. With the ‘four elements’ of the Avatar world already used as titular themes, ‘Spirit’ was a logical next step.
Having said that, many aspects seem forced in Book 2. Korra now isn’t just from any old water bending family, her father leads the Southern Water Tribe and is from Northern Water Tribe royalty. As with Book 1, a central conflict (for the first section of the story anyway) is sibling rivalry between two water-bending brothers: Tonraq (Korra’s father) and Unalaq (Korra’s uncle and chief of the northern water tribe).
This first section sets up an interesting conflict: Unalaq wishes to reunite the two tribes of water benders and also bring about a return to traditional ways. Tonraq is a moderniser and the Southern Water Tribe, rebuilding itself after being decimated by the Fire Kingdom in the past, is following the lead of Republic City. Unalaq’s actions lead to a civil war but it is cleverly portrayed as being a conflict of some subtlety. While we are clearly intended to sympathise with the Southern Water tribe, the unwillingness of Republic City and some of Korra’s friends to get involved is understandable. The comic subplot of Varrick’s propaganda serial presents Unalaq as a cackling madman…
…and then it turns out that he is exactly that. It’s not that the third section of the story is bad, the epic conflict between Korra and Vaatu (the primal spirit of evil) is exciting in itself, it is just that the work put into creating a subtle civil conflict is simply abandoned. Unalaq is straightforwardly wrong and evil.
I’m guessing that the original plot line was hard to resolve in a satisfying way. Korra intervening as Avatar in a civil conflict would seem like an abuse of power and would elevate her to a benevolent tyrant. Korra not intervening would leave her standing by why injustice was perpetrated. There isn’t a good answer to this paradox of centralised power other than ‘don’t centralise power’ which would require the show to reject its own premise. Luckily, these ideas aren’t abandoned completely in the show but they are abandoned for Book 2.
In between these two parts are a pair of episodes unlike any other. Korra, having being attacked by dark spirits and washed up on an isolated island inhabited only by a fire-temple, attempts to re-connect with her Avatar past lives. In the process we are shown a flashback story featuring the first Avatar. On paper that sounds like a terrible idea but it is carried off with some finesse. With a different, more stylised animation style and a backstory that is genuinely original, the story of the first Avatar Wan is a very nicely done fantasy tale in a unique world.
The interlude into the past also marks a reset for the series. The concept that the Avatar is the bridge between the two worlds (human & spirit) was a throw-away concept in the original series. With the interlude, this theme now becomes the central theme of The Legend of Korra.
The final phase of the story sets the possible future direction of the world on a new path. Korra also shifts from being a figure of conserving to a figure of change. Her final act is to leave open the portals between the spirit world and the human world. As well providing a set-up for Book 3, this act makes the future ‘progress’ of the world more open. Republic City’s convergence in form with our own world (specifically some kind of capitalist industrial 1890s-1920s New York) is a temporary meeting with our world not a permanent one. Notably, the next two seasons of Korra shows technological progress but in ways that is more speculative and fantastical than Book 1’s Republic City.
A climatic battle between giant beings in the seas outside Republic City is just the icing on the cake.
What else is there to say?
- The love triangle sub-plot between Korra, Mako and Asami still feels forced. The eventual (ambiguous) resolution in Book 4 I’ll discuss when we get to it but at this point “dump Mako” is the obvious solution to all concerned. Even Mako doesn’t seem to be keen on the idea.
- Bolin as comedy relief works but undermines the character. Book 1 Bolin was less of a goofball. Luckily he gets a bit more complexity back later.
Where next? A successful fantasy series has built up a substantial following. Both writers and viewers (in this case but the same is true in abstract for readers) have invested time in world building and understanding the lore of the setting. Characters were engaging and the plot reached its necessary conclusion. It’s all done but fans would like more…
The pitfalls of trying to reproduce success are legion and there are dangers in simply producing more of the same and dangers in trying something different that builds on the past success. Personally I prefer bold failures to timid repeats and I think The Legend of Korra managed to surpass ‘bold failure’.
I didn’t watch any episodes properly when the series first aired but after recently watching the whole of Avatar:The Last Airbender, it was the right time to watch the follow up series. As with its predecessor, the show is scattered across streaming services in Australia and Book 2 is only available via iTunes. With some perseverance I managed to see all of the seasons without piracy.
[Spoilers for The Legend of Korra Book 1 follow]
Book 1 was a plethora of interesting decisions. The first being the obvious intent to pitch the show at an older audience – not that the original Avatar was purely for kids. The original Avatar had some episodes concentrated on older teenagers/young adults but these were focused on Prince Zuko and his sister. The new dynamic borrowed from aspects of popular Young Adult genre works, and the growing popularity of genre works that had featured young women in action roles.
The second decision was to move the world on. The world building in Avatar had been cleverly economical – a lot of the necessary info-dump could be done in the opening credits. The Legend of Korra was never going to match that elegance. Sensibly the writers followed through on the logic of the previous world show – a world that was both magical but also industrialising. The downside was that Book 1 enters a more familiar setting. Republic City is an parallel New York with a bit of 1920’s Shanghai thrown in. Where Avatar’s setting largely felt like their own places with inspiration from China and Japan, Republic City is a more overt borrowing.
An older audience also means a more morally complex plot. Instead of an epic fight against a tyrannical nation, Book 1 pitches Korra into a conflict with Amon, the leader of a quasi-left revolutionary organisation called the “Equalists”.
I finished Book 1 feeling not wholly satisfied. Amon is exposed as being not what he seems, the reveal of his backstory (and the backstory of the secondary villain) arrives by somebody simply explaining who Amon actually is (the child of a former gangster with blood bending powers). The love triangle, the threat to Republic City and late-in-the-story loss of Korra’s powers are then quickly wrapped up in the last part of the final episode. These plot choices were clearly made with questions about how many episodes the show would get. So interesting loose ends aren’t left to dangle. Understandable but a shame – Korra starting Book 2 with only her airbending intact would have given her a more pressing need to engage with the spirit world.
Eventually, the Spirit World will become the arc across the seasons but in Book 1 that was not apparent. We’ll get to that but for the moment, Korra’s world is not only more modern in a simple sense but it is also one more focused on modernity. It’s a show set in a city with inventors and industrialists and Korra’s powers, while psychic, are mainly physical.
By the end of Book 1, Korra is a defender of a status quo of technological change and capitalist progress. If the show had stopped there then it would be a nicely produced sequel but not terribly remarkable. The only clue that this was misdirection by the writers was that the shows theme of Korra being somebody who was trying to work out who and what they should be was already established. The end of Book 1 has an answer to that question but it’s not an answer that will stick.