I very much loved Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I knew Legend of Korra would have a lot to live up to. Though Korra’s adventures are a sequel to Aang’s, so the comparison cannot be avoided, I think Legend of Korra is very much separate from the original. Set in the same universe, at a definitively later date, and with a number of nods towards its elder sibling, but not the same.
There are commonalities, of course, such as how both shows do not shy away from exploring some rather heavy subjects in a “children’s show.” This is good, partially because it acknowledges a child’s ability to grasp these subjects adults can be prone to thinking are too much for them, but also just because these are important issues to be discussed. Korra generally revolves around a new subject for each season, though including others as well, all while focusing on the star character’s spiritual evolution.
The concluding season was particularly good at this, as it touched on everything that came before, including where the “villains” go wrong: it’s not what they want, but how they go out of balance in pursuing it. In season one, Amon and his followers wanted equality, but went about it not by building themselves and their community up, but by tearing others down. In season two, Unalaq sought to free the spirits, but nearly destroyed the world in doing so. In season three, Zaheer wanted freedom, but ignored the necessity of law and order in enabling that freedom. Finally, in season four, Kuvira wanted stability, order, and safety but decided to trample on everyone who disagreed with her. All four examples were of people who thought they were heroes, and they illustrated, particularly in the wake of Last Airbender‘s fire-themed villains, that each of the elemental powers can be misused. Fire burns, water drowns, earth crushes, and air can throw you around like a rag doll.
In both series, I loved how they incorporated bending into everyday life and how they used it in battle. The characters were always very creative, and rarely lethal, when they fought each other, and being able to bend was no guarantee of victory. For all the horror of war, lives were precious, capably defended and not easily taken.
Last Airbender has an intricate, overarching plot. It began the very first episode, flowed naturally throughout the entire series, and worked towards the resulting conclusion. Legend of Korra has no such organization. Yet the last season gave some semblance of order and purpose to what came before, and answered some good questions the fans have been asking. It was a lot like life, where things are not organized, but so much happens to us, and keeps happening, and the only thing that connects them is us. The show is about Korra’s journey. We see how she grows and evolves, often suffering stinging defeats, learning things she could never have imagined, even enduring trauma.
So, with all of this, it is rather disappointing when they fall short on some things.
What I’m thinking of right now is the women.
The Avatar shows have always had my admiration for their treatment of women in particular. In Last Airbender, we had female characters who were strong, clever, and compassionate (except the villain, Azula, who had zero compassion). I loved them all (even the villain) and had zero complaints!
In Legend of Korra, we started out with a similar set of strong women, and then their numbers grew. And grew. And grew. I like how they finally had a female villain on their final season, but by that point, most of the spotlight had long since been taken from all but a few men, and the women ruled the show. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it does make it all the more important to do them justice. And that’s where the big mistake comes in.
They apparently decided to pair Korra and Asami together at the very end of the series. While that is, itself, a decision that warrants debate, they didn’t really do justice to that idea.
After the final, climactic battle, and the wishy-washy treatment of the villain (which kind of undermined both her ideals and her flaws), there was a moment where Korra and her primary romantic interest, Mako, had a conversation. They weren’t together anymore, and they weren’t interested in becoming so again, but they remained very good friends and comrades. I liked that, because it was like, “This woman does not need to be defined by her romantic relationships.” Then they had that moment with Korra and Asami, as they planned a vacation, just the two of them, stepping into a mystic portal to the spirit world… and…
Yep. They are a couple. Without any words spoken or feelings expressed. They just… are.
One could argue that fans, like myself, read too much into it, and anything published is up to the audience to interpret however they will. Yet the show’s creators confirmed this coupling was what they wanted, and they sprinkled things about it throughout the last two seasons. Which blows my mind because 1) I did not notice this in the least, and was completely caught off-guard (at least Last Airbender wore all of the potential romantic relationships on its sleeves instead of going cloak-and-dagger on us!), and 2) we just had a moment where the female protagonists were not defined by their romances! It’s like they suddenly backtracked and said, “no, girls are always defined by this.”
Lin Beifong had one romantic relationship we know about and has since never been involved with anyone.
Jinora was barely a teenager when she met the boy who quickly became her boyfriend.
Zhu Li was utterly devoted to Varrick, even when she appeared to be betraying him, despite how he took her so much for granted that it was ridiculous.
Opal and Bolin’s relationship was made part of the last season’s conflict and proved pivotal to rescuing her entire family.
Korra and Asami both had failed relationships with Mako, and they still became great friends, a pair of strong women even in a show which, frankly, became overly saturated with them. And the creators wanted to put them together. If they had not done that, perhaps the other relationships would not suddenly seem so shallow, but these are arguably the two strongest women in the show, so the choice to put them together casts all the other women, and all of their relationships, into a new light. No wait, I amend that: it’s not just putting them together, but putting them together directly after a moment where they were not defined by who they were with. And at the last minute.
It’s a very sad note to end on, especially with all the other flaws which can be found, particularly with how they ended Kuvira’s story. She goes from being a cold, calculating dictator to being a scared little girl in a matter of minutes. Even more, exactly when she and Korra were having a conversation that was just getting good, they cut away to after that conversation, when Kuvira surrenders, humble and remorseful for her actions. Why? Yes, she was doing wrong, such as binding prisoners to the rail tracks to die unless they swore allegiance to her, but why does she suddenly regret it? And didn’t they have Su act a little cold when Kuvira apologizes to her?
There are other mistakes all throughout the series, including having a cast that was far too large, giving us too little chance to bond with Zaheer’s cronies (whose names I can’t even remember) in season three, making Unalaq’s motives very difficult to discern from an insane desire for power, and more.
All that said, I really did enjoy this series. Basically, they ran a very good race, and one I can enjoy re-watching, but they tripped at the finish line.
This show could have gotten an A, but I am giving it a B.
Four stars out o five.
Not bad, but it could have, and should have, been better.