Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. Binging on the whole series during the summer of 2009 was what finally convinced me to start writing my own book, An Autumn Veil, in October of that year. I consider myself a student of Avatar. I have studied the martial arts and philosophical roots of the show, the intricate backstories and relationships between the characters, and the perfectly plotted thematic structure (I am, of course, ignoring the ill-conceived “Great Divide”). Anyone who wants to learn to tell stories well should study Avatar: The Last Airbender.
So I was thrilled to hear of fans’ second chance to enjoy the Avatar universe with Avatar Aang’s successor, Avatar Korra.
Logo property of Nickelodeon.
Legend of Korra’s first season provided an intriguing new glimpse into the world we once knew in Airbender, but seventy years later. This twelve-episode first season was plotted as a miniseries and worked well as one, despite feeling a little rushed in the last few episodes with some of the gobbeldygook surrounding Tarlok and Amon (i.e., they should have been in cahoots; that would have made a lot more sense). Season one began and concluded pleasingly, leaving no glaring loose ends untied.
But a problem arose in season two: the story entered a metanarrative tailspin. I’ve been withholding judgment about Korra’s metanarrative in hopes that the series’s finale would amend some of the foibles of the earlier seasons and, perhaps, cast in a new light some of the things I believed to be insurmountably problematic. Now that the show’s proverbial curtain is down, I’m disappointed to say my hopes were not realized. While these disappointments were practically nonexistent in the sublime third season, they reared their ugly heads once more in season four and came to a head in the show’s two-part series finale, which premiered December 19, 2014.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the potentially controversial final minute-or-so of Korra, which has been making news for portraying a same-sex relationship on a kid’s show. Let me quickly address two things before continuing:
In a perfect world, I would review the entire series before composing this editorial to ensure I’m not missing a beat about this particular issue. I won’t bore you with a list of reasons of why that review isn’t happening. Feel free to comment with details I’ve overlooked, should you have interest.
In response to the following line of commentary I’ve seen, which goes: “The only reason you didn’t like the finale is because you’re a gay-hating, right-wing, fundamentalist bigot.”
My short response: Guess again.
My longer response: Legend of Korra’s writers don’t get a free pass to mishandle storytelling because they decided to out their protagonist’s sexual orientation as something other than “hetero” in the finale. My real beef with this aspect of the finale is that the actual plotting of the show after season two did not convincingly establish any character as a credible romantic interest of Korra’s… despite the fandom’s cries of “Korrasami! Korrasami!”
So here are my three big beef sandwiches with the finale of Legend of Korra:
EVERYTHING AFTER SEASON TWO’S FINAL CONFLICT WAS IRREPARABLY OVERSHADOWED or “EPIC SOUL-CRUSHING DEATH GIGAS IS WAY WORSE THAN ASSERTIVE, ATTRACTIVE DANCING GIRL”
This both is and isn’t a problem particular to the two-part series finale. It’s a pitfall the writers set themselves in back in 2013, when they decided to put the earth-shattering, cosmos-altering battle between the great spirits of good and evil – a battle of far greater import than anything Aang ever dealt with or anything Korra would ever deal with – into the show’s second season. This is the biggest thing I was hoping would be amended: that the writers would somehow unravel this clustercuss and give me a reason to believe that, yes, there was something that merited the premature appearance of the Dark Avatar. We get the cunning Red Lotus and the Great Uniter Kuvira, but the truth is, every threat after the Vaatu-infused Unalaq was political or ideological.
EPIC DEATH GIGAS VERSUS….
….Assertive, attractive dancing girl?
The Big Bad Vaatu, who would have banished the Avatar world to 10,000 years of darkness and misery, was introduced and neatly tucked away in fourteen episodes – and really, less than that, if you consider that Vaatu doesn’t truly come into the picture until halfway through the season.
There is another thing that bothers me, because it ties into the “lack of completeness” I’m going to address below. This other thing is the start of the new Avatar cycle tied to the conflict between Raava and Vaatu that ultimately led to Korra being cut off from her previous Avatar incarnations. This severance meant all the interesting backstory about Aang’s life – advice from Roku, Kyoshi, or Kuruk – all of it went down the drain in book two.
I understand a big part of the writers’ goals with Legend of Korra was to make it a distinct show from the Last Airbender – and it is. But I think they went too far. One of the things I was most looking forward to in Legend of Korra was seeing an older, wiser (yet still incurably goofy) Aang offering sage wisdom and humorous quips to an eye-rolling Korra. We were teased with this possibility with the visions of Yakone in season one, and it seemed like Korra was going to come into a new state of spiritual understanding in which the audience would be rewarded with occasional appearances of Advisor Aang. Instead, Aang makes a brief appearance to Tenzin, not Korra, in season two, before vanishing forever into the annals of Avatar history. The perfect segue to naturally integrate Aang into the story, while still having it be Korra’s story, was never employed. My heart.
My heart. Source.
Ultimately, harmonic convergence needed to happen. It’s a good idea, and it’s a foundational principle of the Avatar universe. But it came too early, and by coming too early, it ruined so many cool potentials fans of the original series had been eagerly expecting. More than that, its premature appearance imbalanced the metanarrative and ultimately subtracted from the series as a whole. Season two should have been season four, because season two was the truly significant conflict of this series, with the highest stakes and the greatest risks. Everything following it was small potatoes.
LACK OF SATISFYING RESOLUTION or “HOW AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA SHOULD HAVE BEEN PLOTTED”
If there’s one way I could summarize this objection, it’s this: “The Korra finale didn’t feel like the end of the series. It felt like the end of the Kuvira plotline.”
A show with such a diverse cast of characters demands a conflict that can bring them all together and see all of their respective character arcs satisfyingly tied up. Unfortunately, all of our characters were not brought together, and all of our character arcs were not satisfyingly tied up. What was this conflict that would have brought everyone together? I’m’a beat that dead horse: Vaatu.
And let’s not forget that placing Korra and Asami’s romance in season three would have given season four the space it needed to properly explore that aspect of the story.
Vaatu was the Big Bad that would have seen the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, the Air Nation, the Metal Clan, and the (in my proposed rewrite) remnants of the Earth Empire Army converging on Republic City – maybe even with the grudging assistance (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) of Zaheer and Kuvira, and maybe even with Katarra, Zuko, and Toph as advisors – to stand together against the truest threat to the world: not a political ideology, but an evil, spiritual reality that connects to the origins of the Avatar herself. And isn’t this one of the biggest themes of Avatar: the juxtaposition between the spiritual and the secular; the natural and the man-made; the material and the immaterial? What better way to personify that dichotomy than a battle between humans and an army of corrupted spirits under the sway of Vaatu and Unalaq?
Having to face Vaatu at the series’s finale would have forced Korra into a heartbreaking scenario in which she had no choice but to sever her connection from the beloved Aang, who would have been a recurring adviser, in order to preserve the seeds of peace Aang and his friends had fought to plant. It would have been a noble sacrifice that would have made us root for Korra all the more while mourning the final farewell of one of animation’s greatest characters.
What fans got instead was a climactic battle (and it was) that unfortunately had some notable faces missing and didn’t have the earth-shattering weight the battle with Vaatu should have had but also lacked.
I’m saddened by the complete lack of Katara after season two. I was hoping season four would feature a tasteful tribute to her via her peaceful death. Assuming my proposed rewrite, we would have just seen Aang “die” by losing his connection to Korra. This sets the perfect stage for Katara, already well-advanced (perhaps we could have seen her getting sick in the latter half of the series?) in years, to slip away. Korra, now a fully-realized Avatar with access to the spirit world, sees in the distance the forms of a young adult Aang and Katara finally reunited. The love of these two characters’ would, thus, have been eternally canonized. Korra catches just a glimpse of them as they turn to her and smile one last time. She knows it’s okay. So do we. Heartbreaking. Heartwarming.
If you’re not annoyed that didn’t happened, turn in your Avatard card on your way out the door.
Other gripes: Where was Kya in season four? Am I right in thinking Bumi had no more than five lines in all of season four? What of Eska, Desna? Did Kai, who was a major player in season three, and is presently the consort of Jinora, have a single significant line in the latter half of season four? Did Ichi speak at all after the Airbender kids found Korra? Why was Tenzin, who was such a pivotal character throughout the entire series and a mentor to the protagonist, relegated to a second-tier set piece who barely interacted with his protege?
These questions bother me. Legend of Korra’s finale didn’t have the completeness that the Last Airbender had. There were too many characters, too many knotted threads, too many frayed edges and dead-end turns that were left unresolved, and, ultimately, the conflict of book four, while significant, wasn’t enough. We needed something that was going to bring everyone, and I mean everyone, together. Because the Earth Empire’s blitz was so quickly resolved by the heroes present in Republic City (as opposed to the United Republic’s allegedly-existent military), there was neither the need nor the space for this grand, climactic collision. We were teased with the possibility of the Fire Nation redeeming itself by defending the UR. We didn’t even get that.
I love the rich world DiMartino and Konietzko created in the Avatar universe, but this series finale was sadly lacking. Plot holes, loose threads, and an unsatisfying conclusion unjustified by the content of the narrative. I was hoping season four would redeem the clustercuss that was season two and provide some justification for putting the earth-shattering conflict with Vaatu so early in the story. It did not. As with much else in Legend of Korra, save the stellar third season, this conclusion felt rushed.
NOBODY SHOULD HAVE WALKED HAND-IN-HAND WITH KORRA or ” ‘DEALING WITH IT’ HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH SEXUALITY”
My Papa was an oldschool Italian guy born in 1930s Bronx, New York. He had a lot of quips and one-liners. Here’s a good one: “If you’re not gonna do something right, don’t do it at all.”
As I said in brief above: no character convincingly presented themselves as credible romantic interests of Korra’s after Mako. We can all acknowledge that Korra and Asami develop a closer relationship in book three. So what? Asami as a character seemed to take a back seat after things melted down with Mako in season one. She needed some way to remain relevant to the show, as she hadn’t been shown to have a strong relationship with Korra up to that point.
“Korra and Asami spent time together. Asami took care of Korra after a fierce battle.” Therefore…they’re sexually attracted to each other?
Do I sound convinced to you, internet reader?
Well, do I?
Some commentators see the Korra/Asami pairing as natural and expected. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko said in a blog that if you didn’t see Korra/Asami, it’s because you were watching the show only through a “hetero lens.” Konietzko is suggesting that to really understand this aspect of the story, the audience should have come to his story with a different perspective. But everyone is biased. Every decision we make, every piece of information we interact with, is filtered through our experiences, beliefs, and knowledge. This is called a worldview. You see, people need to have a reason to look at things differently. If you don’t give them a reason, they won’t. We default to our worldview. And on that basis, Konietzko, in actuality, is reprimanding us for not sharing in a “non-hetero” perspective. I can forgive his ignorance, since he probably didn’t study much epistemology while earning his BFA degree, but this is telling nonetheless.
Western society largely prides itself on being “inclusive” while oftentimes failing to define what is meant by the term. Should we criticize the Avatar universe for not being “inclusive” of all possible cultural backgrounds? Should we rage that there are no clearly Hispanic, African, or, gasp, European characters? The answer is no. The reason? The context of two syndicated TV series made it clear the Avatar world is Asian-inspired. There is a clear “Asian lens.” On that basis, we knew to look for Asian (particularly Chinese) things. We would have freaked out if suddenly, in the middle of season three, a guy in a striped shirt and a beret holding a baguette walked by mumbling in French. Because there’s no reason from the content of the story or the context of the world to believe French culture is part of Avatar.
So: it’s not our fault for not seeing what you wanted us to see, Mr. Konietzko. It’s yours. You erred in your job as a storyteller.
Now that we know what the writers were thinking and doing with these characters, we can go back to these possibly-ambiguous romantic references and read into them the show’s epilogue. Respectfully to Mr. Konietzko, this is a cop-out. Your job as a storyteller is to give me a reason to believe, not drop a handful of possibly-ambiguous hints whose conclusion you’ll canonize on the very last page of your script. We should have known this was coming, not because of the existence of the LGBT movement, but because that’s proper storytelling.
I understand that politics make their way into writers’ rooms and CEOs’ offices when it comes to big-budget TV shows, and “what will viewers think” and “blah blah blah.” I get it. If you had wanted to put Korrasami earlier in the show, Bryke, you probably would have gotten nixed by the Suits. That doesn’t change the fact that this aspect of the story was not handled well. I take my cues from the content of the story itself. I don’t apologize for seeing the world through my own eyes, and I don’t ask you to apologize for seeing it through yours. All I’m saying is, as a fellow writer, as a guy who loves stories and thinks you did a fantastic job on Airbender, Korrasami didn’t jump out at me, and I think it does an injustice to your characters and to your story that this wasn’t made clear until, literally, the last possible moment. It bore narrative meat, and all we got was crumbs.
“If you’re not gonna do something right, don’t do it at all.”
The arc of season four leads us to believe that Korra has a lot of self-discovery and self-actualization to do. The natural conclusion and lesson, in my humble opinion, is that Korra learns to be self-sufficient as the Avatar and to truly step into her role as the Avatar, not to walk off into the new spirit portal (that is there for some reason, because… giant gun?) holding Asami’s hand.
So much love in her eyes. Image from season one.
(Here’s that full quote: “Look, I like Korra, but you’ve been keeping the truth from me this whole time.”)
I’m’a just leave this right here.
The finale attempts to demystify Korra and Asami’s sexualities by refusing to overtly acknowledge them as something worthy of narrative exposition. This is insulting to a fan base comprised significantly of older teens and young (and even older) adults; the themes being explored here are adult, but the execution is juvenile. Korra must have wrestled with her sexuality, since she was interested in Mako in season one and had a relationship with him in season two. At no point in those seasons was there any indication that the eventual dissolution of Korra and Mako’s relationship was tied to Korra’s sexuality, nor was there any credible indication that Asami, who also had a relationship with Mako, was dealing with the same or similar questions.
We need to discard the notion that Legend of Korra is a “kids'” show and that it’s thus exempt from such scrutiny. Most of the major characters are adults or young adults. Season one features a murder-suicide of the two main antagonists. Critics seem to think it’s anything but a kids show (see the “critical response” section of the show’s Wikipedia page). So that’s why I’m a bit unimpressed when Vanity Fair hails the finale as something worthy of special regard for portraying same-sex relationships on a kids show. Unless there’s a secret fifth season of Korra in the works, I’ll continue to be unimpressed.
“Why do you even care? Korra’s sexuality isn’t a big deal and it shouldn’t be.“
Dispense with the illusion that sexuality is “not a big deal” and that many in the American gay community don’t view their sexuality as a defining aspect of their personhood. Pretending that sexuality isn’t a big deal because the LGBT community is more socially acceptable in America now than ten years ago is to trivialize the very real struggles people with LGBT tendencies endure, whether from disapproving family members, religious institutions that seemingly hate them, or the fact that, maybe, they actually didn’t want to be LGBT and had to learn to accept that aspect of themselves. [Before you crucify me for implying that there is reasonable ground to suggest some LGBT people struggle with embracing their sexuality apart from outside social pressures, try reading a book on the topic.]
Barring the advances of modern medicine, same-sex couples are incapable of producing biological children. Do you think this doesn’t weigh on those same-sex couples who desire to start families? Do you not think there are a whole host of complex issues surrounding this burning, contemporary question? Many in our society parrot “progressive” social values without doing the hard work of thinking deeply about them, then present the cop-out that “sexuality isn’t a big deal.” I disagree. As a fan of DiMartino and Konietzko’s work and as a storyteller myself, I’m disappointed that they didn’t view this characteristic of their protagonist as worthy of examination. I know the show is about a lot more than Korra’s sexual orientation, but at the end of the day, the two of them walking off together didn’t feel justified by the story, and for that reason, it was an unsatisfying element of the series’s conclusion that ultimately subtracted from what the writers actually seemed to be trying to do: portray Korra as a fully-realized Avatar, not, as Tarlok called her in season one, “A half-baked Avatar-in-training.”
I’m disappointed to say that this aspect of the finale is a lazy portrayal of real things real people deal with, and tacking it on to the last few moments of the show without making it feel like a narratively-justified revelation should be called what it is: half-baked. Artists shouldn’t get a free pass just for doing something popular, either socially or within their fanbase. The storyteller’s job is to make me believe that this is a logical, natural step in the story’s progression. Nobody should have walked with Korra into that spirit portal.
“If you’re not gonna do something right, don’t do it at all.”
Speaking of romances….
There is a pretense to see Varrick and Zhu Li ending up together. Their relationship, in some ways, mirrors Tony Stark’s and Pepper Potts’s – the genius prima donna and the normally cool but sometimes flustered “assistant” he couldn’t live without. Yet, I’m not sure ending the show with their marriage was fully justified. While there was a pretense to their romance, we really didn’t get any hints of this romance until a quarter way through book four. (At least they were clear about it.) It seems a little hasty, then, to have the show end with their wedding since this dynamic duo barely played a role in the spectacular book three. It would have been fair to show Varrick and Zhu Li holding hands at the end, or to show them in an embrace. But a wedding?
Varrick/Zhu Li was fan service and a counterbalance to Korrasami. I think we all could have appreciated a more realistic appraisal of their relationship, even without the wedding vows.
IN THE END
In the end, Legend of Korra had an excellent soundtrack, wonderful voice acting by a star cast, spectacular action and animation, a great first season, and a really, really good third season. I’m disappointed that the story, while trying to relegate the conflicts to each individual season, failed to account for the shortcomings in the metanarrative. I also understand from some of my reading that the Nickelodeon execs couldn’t decide what they wanted to do with Korra, bumping the show back and forth from TV to internet. There were funding issues and harsh deadlines that probably kept the creators from being able to step back and really look at the big picture of the story itself, and there was even one point where DiMartino and Konietzko chose to cut an episode rather than fire a few of their staffers (big props to them for putting people over product). I wish they had hired an outside consultant to offer objective commentary on the metanarrative. Legend of Korra is fine as it is, but it feels like 80% of a show. I know it could have been so much better and done so much more, and that’s what really irks me.
With everything said of done, The Last Airbender was just better.
Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.
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