(Fair warning before we begin: this is going to be an intensely nerdy post talking about The Legend of Korra, so if you haven’t watched the show, not much of it is going to make a lick of sense.)
Today’s post is one inspired by an essay Robert Jackson Bennett wrote on his blog back in January about how he would rework the Star Wars prequels. In the introduction to his piece, Bennett mentioned that most everyone has a “hobby story” in their minds, some fanfiction version of a story you liked but just had some flaws that you’d like to see ironed out. I’ve certainly tinkered with a few over the years; one of these days I should write about my dumb Star Trek reboot idea that involves time-travelling Cardassians, the destruction of the Klingon Empire, and Kirk sacrificing himself in the third act and being replaced with an Andorian lady as captain.
However, there is one story that has exercised my imagination the most for the past two-odd years: the final book of The Legend of Korra. It’s a season of television for which I have such a frustrated affection. The basic premise, that the decadent, fractious Earth Kingdom has collapsed and is being reunified by an modernizing autocrat, is fantastic, and the autocrat in question, Kuvira, is my favorite character in the entire Avatar franchise. There’s a wonderful buildup in the first half of the season, as Kuvira begins to push back against international opinion as she establishes her new state, culminating in a showdown with Korra at the gates of Zaofu that both women narrowly survive. And then…
Well, then it all becomes a bit rubbish, which is where I step in.
As I see it, Book 4 was a season compromised by a number of issues. Some of these were issues that cropped up during Book 4’s production, while a few others were endemic to Korra as a series. There was a budget crunch mandated by Nickelodeon, which necessitated the production team to throw together a clip show to make a thirteen-episode total for the season. Many of the story decisions, particularly the focus given to secondary characters (particularly the Airbabies and Varrick/Zhu Li) and the whole issue of Kuvira and the prison camps, strike me as decisions being made by a team running on fumes, one burnt out by the stress of writing three seasons of television and just turning to whatever ideas came first or were the easiest to write. Other issues, such as the ever-expanding cast of secondary characters and the awkwardness of trying to fit everyone in, were side effects of Korra‘s irregular growth from a miniseries into a multi-season show, and couldn’t really be resolved without reworking the whole show from square one.
Additionally, my opinions on Book 4 are colored by my own political views. I don’t know the showrunners personally so I naturally can’t make any judgments, but Korra always struck me as a centrist-liberal show. There is a golden mean to which all must strive, and those whose beliefs run contrary to this must be brought back into the fold, preferably with negotiation, but also by force should the need arise (and suffice to say, those outside the mean always strike first). As for me, I’m more of a realist in the political science sense; everyone follows their self-interest, but different personal philosophies produce difference interests. I’m also a bit of a Hobbesian, so I’m more comfortable than most in ceding rights to a higher “leviathan” if I receive personal security in return. As a result, I always preferred the idea of Kuvira as an ambivalent antagonist rather than a straight-up villain.
So, how would I have written Book 4, if given complete creative control? (If you haven’t memorized Book 4, you can follow along here.)
First of all, I would trim the show down to the essentials. That means I would bite the bullet and go with a twelve-episode season. I would also cut most of the subplots involving the spirit world, the Airbabies, Prince Wu beyond “The Coronation,” and (much as it pains me because I love John Michael Higgins’ performance) all the Varrick/Zhu Li shenanigans.
Secondly, I would keep most of the first half of the season the same as broadcast. As it stands, it’s a good setup for the season’s story. You have the three-year timeskip, the introduction of Kuvira and the central conflict of the season, and Korra’s recovery arc, and you have enough time to familiarize the audience with each of them. The only major changes I would make would be with Kuvira, mostly to edge her away from appearing as a pure villian. Instead of an “Earth Empire,” she would rule a “Union of Earth States.” The fourth episode of the season, “The Calling,” would be reworked to focus on both Korra’s recovery and a day in the life of Kuvira and Bataar. It would be a great opportunity to humanize her, showing her interacting with people both within and without the shell of the “Great Uniter.” Additionally, I would dig into her relationship with Bataar, showing them working as a unit (she the decisive woman of action, he the planner who takes the long view of things) as well as digging into what makes Bataar tick and what he sees in Kuvira. The episode would also be used as a way to show more similarities between Korra and Kuvira, as well as give us a few hints of just what Kuvira’s new Earth Union actually looks like. The first confrontation between the two would go down in the next two episodes much as it did, but again I would try to soften the depiction of Kuvira. During their first meeting, Kuvira would offer to show Korra some of the new Earth Union herself, and after Su’s assassination attempt, I’d play Kuvira’s attempt to kill Korra as more a panicked reaction, of someone who’s suddenly realized they’ve made a tactical error and are desperately looking to regain control.
This then brings us to the second half of the season, where things would become drastically different. I won’t break down how things would go episode by episode, but in essence there will be two separate plot threads running through the next four episodes. The main one will be the story of the United Republic and the Earth Union falling into open conflict with one another. For this, I imagine President Raiko reacting to the events of the season by declaring that the United Republic will back any city or state that wishes to separate from the Earth Union. In due course, he gets some calls for help from the “legitimate” governments in the provinces bordering the United Republic, and sends the army in. Naturally, Kuvira responds in kind, and soon agrees with her more radical advisors that the United Republic can no longer be trusted and keeps pushing her military into the Republic itself. I’d keep the raid Opal, Bolin, Lin, and Toph launched in “Operation: Beifong” to rescue Suyin and her family in this stream of episodes, using it as another event that pushes Kuvira to war. There’s plenty of skirmishes and feints, but the final two episodes are set on the outskirts of Republic City itself. There’s no giant mech, no spirit cannon, just two nations fighting with all the power the elements and WWI-era military hardware can bring to bear. It would be very different from anything seen in the Avatar universe; I’d be pushing more for a war film aesthetic than the normal fantasy fights both series had dealt in before. In essence, I’d want to push The Legend of Korra to the limit, just take it about as far as I possibly can..
At the same time, we have Korra’s story, which I have to admit I have not thought through quite so well. My general idea is that, while initially invited to be part of Raiko’s war council, she becomes progressively more disenchanted with his handling of the conflict, perhaps even going so far as to leave the Republic and traveling through the Earth Union herself. I always believed there was great potential in Book 4 to draw parallels between the Korra/Kuvira conflict with the Roku/Sozin conflict in the original Avatar that started the whole story in the first place, so I have this idea of Korra studying their conflict and ultimately deciding that she has the opportunity to break a new cycle of violence and war before it can begin, and can do so without demanding the world be locked in a permanent stasis. In the end, what I want to happen is for Korra to break up the Battle of Republic City and essentially impose a peace on both parties. Kuvira stays in power, but the Earth Union will respect the territorial integrity of the United Republic. Raiko will exile her from the Republic again, but Korra will have grown and decided that her role as Avatar precludes her from permanently allying herself with any one nation. As the series ends, the world is a more conflicted place that before, but there is change, there is growth, and in the Earth Union, the first hope in generations for a new beginning. As for what the future may hold, not even the Avatar can say.
Now, even I have to admit this is a threadbare skeleton of a story pitch. There’s a lot that needs to be done, a lot that needs to be workshopped and expanded. Still, I feel that this idea has more potential than what we got in the actual show. It’s a conflict that pushes away from the basic good vs. evil paradigm of the original Avatar and more towards something messier and ambivalent. You can actually pick sides in this conflict and make reasonable arguments for and against the choices the characters make. There wouldn’t be a real sense of closure to the story, but then the show itself is set in a period of history that was more about radical new beginnings in our world. Certainly it would feel more honest than the tidy “happily-ever-after” the show gave us instead.
And finally, there would be no songs about badgermoles. I mean, what in the hell was all that supposed to be about?