Once in a blue moon, I get the hankering to watch some TV. It’s not exactly easy, what with me not having cable or a setup to stream onto my old cathode-ray box, but as Jeff Goldblum taught us, nature, uh, finds a way. My latest project took me to the world of children’s animation, where I spent the last half of April watching my way through the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender and its follow-up, The Legend of Korra. I’d heard about the two of them in sf/f fandom circles, of course, but I’d never really had much interest in exploring them. Still, curiosity (especially for one character in particular) got the better of me, and I took the plunge.
Truth be told, I don’t have a lot to say about A:tLA. It’s a kid’s action-adventure show that hits the standard beats of the quest story, but it does them well, and all the characters are genuinely enjoyable to watch. I’d recommend it even if kid’s shows aren’t your thing.
But Korra…there’s a lot for me to talk about with Korra.
Before I begin, some explanation of the setting is required. The world of Avatar is one populated by “benders,” people who can manipulate one of the four classical elements through a form of magical martial arts. These benders are generally associated with certain geographical regions, which has divided the world into four states: the Fire Nation (visually and culturally a mixture of Tokugawa Japan and Chin-dynasty China), the Earth Kingdom (pretty much Qing China), the polar Water Tribes (mostly Inuit), and the Air Nomads, who riff off of Tibetian Buddhists. To maintain balance in the world, i.e. to settle international disputes and mediate between the human and spirit worlds, there is the figure of the Avatar, an individual who can wield all four elements and who reincarnates among the various nations. Anyway, once upon a time the Fire Lord Sozin, perhaps looking at his research rate and deciding that Alpha Centauri was not going to happen this playthrough, decided to conquer the world. Since the avatar had recently incarnated among the Air Nomads, his first act was to launch a genocidal campaign against them. However, the young avatar, a boy named Aang, got himself frozen in a glacier and floated off undiscovered. The events of Avatar: The Last Airbender kick off with Aang being unthawed by the Southern Water Tribe a century later, starting him on a quest to master his role as the avatar, halt the Fire Nation’s conquests, and restore balance to the world. (Spoilers: he succeeds, makes some friends, fights some dudes, dies once or twice. A good time is had by all.)
The Legend of Korra picks up about eighty years after the end of A:tLA. The world has entered the great age of industrial modernity, with all the heartaches that brings. There are new states, new machines, and peoples are on the move. Most of the original cast has either died or retired from public life. The avatar has reincarnated once again as Korra, a young woman who’s more in touch with the martial aspects of her role than its spiritual side. Her quest in The Legend of Korra is to understand the more esoteric aspects of her duties and become the avatar the world needs.
Well, sort of. Not really.
Overall, I found Korra to be more of an uneven experience than A:tLA. Part of that could be explained by production issues. When Korra was first greenlit, it was only as a miniseries of thirteen episodes. After some positive buzz, Nickelodeon approved a second season of another thirteen episodes, eventually expanding the order to two more seasons. As a result, rather than having one continuous story arc over multiple seasons as A:tLA did, Korra has three arcs over four seasons. Another animation studio was used for about half of the second season, resulting in a noticeable drop in quality. The show was eventually taken off the air about two-thirds of the way through the third season and dumped online, and the fourth season had its budget slashed. However, all these are only proximate issues.
The Legend of Korra is a show that is trapped between two visions. It is set in a world developed for a children’s action-adventure series but wants to move beyond it. While the main cast of A:tLA were all children, Korra is a show of teenagers and young adults, with the few child characters being reduced to secondary roles. Violence is more intense in Korra than A:tLA, and the show makes more of an effort to let its antagonists speak for themselves and show its heroes in the wrong. However, there is often a feeling of restraint on the show, as if there was someone standing over its shoulders reminding them that, ya know, yer on Nickelodeon, so it’s gotta be okay for the kids. There’s a bit of “wacky” comedy that tends to rankle after a while, and the few child characters gain greater roles in the later seasons, for good and ill. There are also times where the show feels like it is holding itself back, whether by messing of the beats of an action scene to remove potential gore or by having an ambiguous antagonist character commit offscreen crimes to reaffirm their evil.
On a more fundamental level, Korra is a show straddling two different types of fantasy. If I may shamelessly pilfer Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, while Avatar: The Last Airbender was a classic portal/quest fantasy, The Legend of Korra is building an immersive fantasy in a quest fantasy’s setting. Naturally, these two different types of fantasies have very different approaches to narrative, description, and the reader’s relationship to the text. Portal/quest fantasies are stories like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings: protagonists leave their home and venture into the wider world, learning alongside the reader about the new world until they know enough to become part of it and change its destiny. These types of fantasies tend to be descriptive and authoritative; the protagonists will have to dig to uncover the truth of the world, but it will be the unquestionable truth. Immersive fantasies, by contrast, are set in completely self-contained secondary worlds that don’t rely on a quest element. The protagonists are a part of their world, and as such the fantastic appears mundane. Their stories often set these characters to consider their worlds critically, and the readers to consider them critically in turn. Overall, immersive fantasies are more akin to science fiction in their narrative strategies than quest fantasies, and as such present problems when transforming the latter into the former. It’s not impossible with different authors; consider The Wizard of Oz against Wicked. But for the same creators to drastically rework their creation in such a way is a daunting task, particularly under the constraints of a children’s television network.
The premise of the first season, “Air,” initially seems to promise a smooth transition. Korra, living in a guarded compound at the south pole all her life, has mastered all of the elements save air. When her teacher Tenzin, airbending master and son of Aang, is called away on business, Korra follows him back to his home in Republic City. Republic City is a novelty; founded after the events of A:tLA to resolve a colonial dispute between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, it has become the capital of a great new free state where peoples of every nationality can live together. Republic City is a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers and glittering lights, a commercial and technological powerhouse, essentially New York City with an East Asian gloss. (If I may be caustic for a second, when you have a setting that carefully omits any Western or Slavic influences, it takes some effort to recreate the United States of America, but damned if the creators of Korra didn’t find a way.) But Republic City has its share of problems. There’s income inequality, problems with organized crime, and growing tension between the bending and non-bending populations. Exploiting this tension is Amon, a masked revolutionary whose criticisms of benders quickly escalate to calls for ethnic cleansing, and Tarrlok, a waterbender on the governing council who uses Amon’s terrorism as a justification for his own power plays.
Now, from this summary, it’s quite clear that Korra is reimaging the world of A:tLA in the style of an urban fantasy, in the traditional sense of the term. A great city has been described, with various communities and enclaves for the protagonist to negotiate and explore. We have the high with Tenzin, Tarrlok and the governing council. As Korra gains an interest in pro-bending, a sport that emerged in the multicultural crucible of Republic City, we are introduced to the low with Mako and Bolin, two orphaned bender brothers (a firebender and an earthbender respectively) who try to make ends meet by pro-bending and other dubious activities. We have the corporate world with the introduction of industrialist Hiroshi Sato and his daughter Asami. As for the outsiders, we have Amon and his Equalist movement, growing ever more militant and militarized. All the pieces for a classic city tale would appear to be in place.
And yet that’s not what happens. There really isn’t much discussion about the relationships between benders and non-benders beyond the universal acknowledgement that Amon’s eliminationist policies are morally unacceptable. Korra’s interactions with Mako, Bolin, and Asami drop the social questions in favor of a love triangle. Republic City as a whole always feels indistinct, more like an idea than an actual place. Korra herself is really all wrong for an urban fantasy story; the protagonists of such places, like Discworld’s Sam Vimes or Thief’s Garrett, should be insiders, people who know their environment, who question the official stories and who can sense when something has disturbed the rhythms of urban life. By her nature as the avatar, Korra can never really assimilate into any one place, never become an insider.
The truth of the matter is that the urban fantasy is really a bait-and-switch. The real focus of “Air” is not the city, but Korra. While Korra projects a tough, confident exterior, in some ways she’s a bit of a mess. She reacts poorly to people who question her ability to be the avatar, even escalating to physical threats. She gets intensely angry when she struggles with airbending, and her greatest fear is that, if she is not the avatar, she is nothing. In this she stands in marked contrast to Aang. Aang was told as a young child that he was the avatar, prompting him to freak out over the responsibility and get himself frozen. His arc in A:tLA focused on him accepting and growing into his role. By contrast, Korra found out she was the avatar at a young age and spent all of her formative years training for the role. When we first meet her, the avatar is Korra’s identity. Korra’s story, one that could charitably be called the overarching arc of the series, is the process of negotiation she undergoes to define herself as something separate from the avatar, and in doing so become a healthier person. The point is driven home by the season’s antagonists, revealed in the penultimate episode to have been brothers who tried to escape the influence of their abusive father, only to find themselves emulating him. While the two of them believe themselves unable to escape their legacies and die by their own hands, Korra makes the first steps towards defining herself, literally pulling herself back from the brink.
Naturally, all this makes a complete hash of the Equalist social commentary. Furthermore, the psychological aspects of the storyline were not foregrounded, which led a lot of people to miss them entirely. Even I didn’t really pick up on them until looking over some commentary afterwards. Combined with some issues regarding pacing and questions of narrative focus, the first season is beautiful to watch, but takes some effort to process.
It does, however, have Korra hucking torpedoes at biplanes, which is rad as hell.
The second season, “Spirits,” though…what to say. The season starts by having the cast leave Republic City, even transitioning from oligarchical republic to representative democracy offscreen so Tenzin can go on a road trip with his family. The season begins with Korra returning home to the south pole, still irked over the slow progress she has made in learning how to interact with the spirit world. When her uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern Water Tribe, offers to train her, she jumps at the chance. She helps him in unlocking the great spirit portal at the south pole, only to be blindsided when he sends in the Northern Tribe’s military to occupy the south. Korra and company return to Republic City, trying to gain support for a military intervention, eventually escalating into an attempt to abscond with the United Republic navy.
And then things get weird.
One of the major issues of the second season concerns an increasing number of attacks by dark spirits on human settlements. Korra herself is eventually attacked by such a spirit, losing her memory in the process. While she gets it back, we are treated to a two-episode flashback that explains the great creation myth of Avatar universe which, to be fair, has some of the best animation the show has ever done. The important part of the episode is that, in the time before the before, two spirits, the light spirit Raava and the dark spirit Vaatu were ‘rassling with one another. A human, Wan, broke up the flight, prompting Vaatu to go on a rampage. To save humanity, Wan learned how to wield the four elements and bonded with Raava, became the first avatar, and sealed Vaatu away in at tree in the spirit world. Ten thousand years later, and Unalaq is trying to crack open the tree and enshroud the world in darkness for reasons.
My main issue with “Spirits” is that it’s such a departure for the show. Both shows had their metaphysical elements, but the comings and goings of the human world were the primary draw. Here, for most of the last half of the season, the human world of Avatar is irrelevant, which means you have to quickly invest yourself in something you just learned about an episode ago. The bigger problem, though, is that the spiritual conflict isn’t that compelling. Despite the visuals, at heart it’s just a dime-store Manichaeism. Unalaq himself never explains his motivations for wanting unleashing millennia of darkness, even though China, like the West, has a rich history of millenarian movements that could be used as models. Finally, the conflict is resolved with a magical kaiju fight, which is honestly the least interesting way to resolve a theological argument. (For further reference, please consider the example of First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was briefly disrupted when the heretical Arius of Alexandria arose from the Sea of Marmara and tried to destroy the synod with his heat vision. The better part of five legions were wiped out before he was taken down.)
The second major problem of “Spirits” concerns the rest of the cast. Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami formed the nucleus of a “new Team Avatar” in the first season, but in the second season the show struggles to find something for them to do. In A:tLA Aang gradually accreted a gang of friends that taught him the various forms of bending, becoming the show’s equivalent to the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s the sort of device that works great with quest fantasies, but in a more immersive story like Korra, such things feel rather arbitrary. What ends up happening, as happens in Korra, is that a bunch of people with lives of their own get sucked up into the protagonist’s adventure. Some attempt is made to avoid that here, but the results are decidedly mixed. Bolin gets the worst of it, first getting stuck in a stalker-with-a-crush plot that would probably have drawn more ire if the genders were flipped, and a rather more successful comedy plot involving him becoming the lead in a pro-Southern Water Tribe propaganda film. Mako, having become a cop between seasons, has slightly better luck investigating the activities of Varrick, an inventor-businessman from the south who seems to be up to something involving Asami’s company. Unfortunately, the shift in the middle of the season to supernatural power struggle means that the stakes in Mako’s story quickly become irrelevant.
There are some bright spots in the second season, though. Tenzin gets a wonderful story arc, showing him grappling with the legacy of being Aang’s son, accepting that he doesn’t have the connection to the spiritual that his father had, and patching things up with his older siblings, who still have some lingering resentments over how their respective childhoods went. (The fact that Tenzin is voiced by Academy Award winner J. K. Simmons is just icing on the cake here.) Varrick is one of the show’s comedic successes, a screwball comedy version of Thomas Edison that still captures Edison’s essential douchiness. As for Korra herself, she goes through a lot. We see at her worst when she attempts to purloin a navy and attacks Mako for doing his job by ratting her out. After the dumb amnesia incident (which literally lasts all of two episodes), she continues to grapple with her relationship with her role as avatar, indeed finding a great source of strength within herself after she is physically stripped of her role as avatar. She even begins to act in a constructive fashion, deciding to keep the spirit portals open after her uncle is vanquished. There are a few bright spots in the second season, but the other issues make it a difficult watch.
The third season, “Change,” is a bit of an odd duck. It’s probably the best season of Korra, but it achieves this by being the least ambitious. The story starts off with the discovery that, thanks to the reopening of the spirit portals, airbenders have started to appear in the world again. Korra teams up with the rest of Team Avatar and Tenzin’s family to travel the Earth Kingdom and encourage the new airbenders to join them. Unfortunately, one of the new airbenders is Zaheer, an anarchist terrorist who uses his new abilities to bust out of jail, free his old compatriots, and finish their old mission of creating a world without kings, presidents, or avatars.
After the experiments in genre of the first two seasons, “Change” plays it safe by shifting back to depicting a band of brothers moving through an exotic landscape. It’s the classic structure of a quest fantasy, and it’s the one A:tLA stuck to for the entirety of its run. Korra plays with the structure a bit by splitting the protagonists off into their own separate plots about a third of the way through. While Tenzin returns to one of the old Air Nomad Temples to train the new airbenders, Mako and Bolin trawl their way through the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se to find their family, while Korra explores Zaofu, a utopian city-state founded by metalbenders. Unlike the second season, once the ultimate conflict with Zaheer and his group is revealed, the three storylines slowly unify once more, with each set of characters seeing a different aspect of the conflict.
As an antagonist, Zaheer is an interesting evolution to the world of Avatar. While Amon’s revolution was done for psychological reasons and Unalaq’s motives were never really depicted, Zaheer is a quintessentially modernist figure. Despite looking like a brawler, he’s a soft-spoken man devoted to studying the wisdom of the vanished air nomads. However, rather than retreating from the world in philosophical contemplation, he refashions their ideas into an emancipatory political program, a classically modern way of dealing with existential ennui. At the same time, he cultivates a personal detachment from the world, appearing indifferent to the havoc he causes in the name of freedom. Like many political prophets, Zaheer is a fundamentalist who uses his texts to find justification for whatever it is he wants to do.
The events of “Change” eventually escalate into some of the biggest fights the show has ever done, with Zaheer threatening to wipe out the nascent Air Nomads unless Korra surrenders to him. Though Zaheer is ultimately defeated, Korra is put through the wringer, being put through some fairly intense (by the standards of a children’s show) torture. Overall the season ends under a pall, with Zaheer’s assassination of the Earth Queen having led to the Earth Kingdom’s descent into banditry and chaos, and with Korra confined to a wheelchair.
The final season, “Balance,” opens with a three year time skip. All the members of Team Avatar have drifted away and started living their own lives. The former Earth Kingdom continues to writhe in dissolution. As for Korra herself, she has disappeared from public life, still caught in the grips of the trauma she experienced at Zaheer’s hands.
Of course, when the old players abdicate their roles, new forces from the periphery enter the game. This time, the woman-on-the-spot is Kuvira. Formerly a guard captain in Zaofu, she left her post to pacify and reunite the warring states of the Earth Kingdom, ostensibly in the name of a dissolute imperial cousin. By the time the season starts, she sits at the head of a formidable military instrument, seeming too clever and ambitious to hand her state to a fool and return to the shadows.
The fourth season of Korra opens with so much potential. Given that her ambitions stretch no further than the borders of the former Earth Kingdom, Kuvira would appear to be a less serious threat to the world than any of the other antagonists seen thus far in the Avatar universe. However, Kuvira sits at the heart of a wealth of associations and questions. She represents a model of authoritarian modernity opposed to the liberal democratic humanism of Republic City and the show’s audience, but one that has had some successes in the rest of the world. Indeed, the show goes so far as to provoke the audience to side with Kuvira against the rest of the characters, showing how many of her actions are responses to outside imperialism and separatism. Kuvira is also twinned with Korra, depicted by the show as an echo of the take-no-prisoners Korra of the first season, if only more extreme and with the resources of Rommel’s Afrika Corps at her disposal. In a season about “balance,” it would seem that the two of them could learn from one another and reach some sort of new equilibrium for the modern world.
And yet…and yet…
In due course, Kuvira is shoved by the show into the role of an umambiguous villain. There’s a plotline about her putting non-earthbenders in concentration camps which is handled very strangely; despite much to-do being made about the camps, neither Korra nor Kuvira herself ever comment on them. Kuvira begins research into new weapons that are equated with nuclear arms, an analogy that falls flat when the weapons in question appear far less horrific than actual nuclear weapons. The season ends with Kuvira literally attacking Republic City while piloting a giant robot. Most damning of all, the last two-thirds of the season give plenty of screen time and substantial character arcs to several of the minor comedy-relief characters, but not Kuvira, the actual antagonist of the season.
Korra has her own issues. She eventually does recover from her PTSD enough to function, but seems to have had a great deal of her own innate aggressiveness and joie-de-vivre burnt out in the process. While on the one hand that can be read as a plausible reaction to the trauma she has suffered, it’s hard not to read this as a sort of “assertive woman must be made humble” situation on some level. Then there’s the final scene of the series…
The final scene of the series is of Korra and Asami walking off together hand-in-hand, strongly implying that the two of them are going to start a romantic relationship. There was a big to-do about this online when that aired that still provokes the occasional fight. Now, I started Korra knowing the show ended with that scene, so I was watching wondering how the show would build up to it. In the end, I did not like the scene because it literally comes out of nowhere. Asami suffered from the same problem that Mako and Bolin had of being a first season character unsuited for the rest of the show. Unlike the two of them, the show never really figured out what to do with her. There were some attempts to make her the financial backer and gadgeteer for Korra’s adventures in the third season, but that sort of role would have worked better with a close-knit group like that of A:tLA. Asami and Korra do develop a friendship in the third and fourth season, but there’s no real chemistry to the two of them, and it feels more like an attempt to get the show’s two female characters to interact with one another. The ending really only works if you were “shipping” the two of them to begin with, and I feel that, as both an ending to the series and as a depiction of same-sex romance on television, it will age very poorly.
Honestly, if it was revealed that the creative team was suffering from burnout during the fourth season and wanted to just end the show, it would not surprise me in the slightest. So much of the season feels like the team had great ambitions, but went for the material that was easiest to write just so they could get the show done with. Still, in spite of this, I rather like the fourth season for its ambitions, even if it was unable to achieve them. (You can rest assured that I will be revisiting Kuvira in the future, possibly more than once.)
Overall, I have to admit that Korra was an uneven show. It used the framework of Avatar: The Last Airbender to build something new, to experiment with different types of stories and characters, only to run into problems with the realities of children’s programming or by not being entirely sure how to achieve its own ambitions. It’s a shame it didn’t succeed, especially given the rarity of mainstream young adult/adult oriented animation in North America. At the end of the day, I rather liked it, in spite of its flaws. I liked the characters, I liked the martial-arts spectacle of bending, and I liked seeing modernity being reinterpreted in an alien environment. There’s certainly worse ways of spending a week in front of the television.
(Before I go, I’d like to throw in a link to ikkinthekitusne’s Tumblr page, Her writing on Korra has done a lot to help me organize my thoughts and understand just what the show was trying to do.)