Beyond Pictures: Humanity and the Legend of Korra
In my pontificating about animation for the last couple of years, it’s natural that one show has crossed my path more than enough times- Avatar, once The Last Airbender, now the Legend of Korra. It’s a show that brought a sense of classical maturity to western animation, and truthfully, it’s one of my favourite creations. Recently, the second season has just passed for Korra, and I thought I’d give my two cents on what’s gone down.
Korras’ final two episodes for season 2 have been absolutely stunning. I’ll just put that out there because for the most part this series has been one heck of a roller coaster in quality.
I mean, it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the ride. Having been a fan since The last Airbender, season one’s strong opening episodes had me hooked from the start. I lost faith roundabout the halfway point however when it appeared that character development and empathy had been sacrificed in favour of masses of plot dumping, mostly about characters we’d not been given any chance to really know. It culminated in the most disappointing reveal of the villain and Deus ex machina I had encountered within the series since TLA’s third season- and with Korra having remained the same from the beginning to the end of season 1, I remained rather unimpressed.
Season 2 felt more like a step in the right direction- new writers were brought on to carry the workload and the humour the series was well known for began to return. More focus was put on the ideological values actually affecting the characters story arcs and even the role of the avatar itself was explained. Heck, the prominent use of the 1920’s flavour was properly utilised within the world building leading to some great new characters and ideas. The pacing was much more thought out than the previous season, even if at times it felt as though they were dragging their feet (particularly with Unaloqs’ goals and ideals which seemed reasonably predictable from the start.)
And then the final couple of episodes kicked in. Characters began discussing how their spiritual power could only be matched by their personal power and sense of identity. They suddenly began being multi faceted (and the humour became less about Bolin being annoyingly unfunny.) It culminated in a rather impactful ending- Korras’ connections to her past selves were severed and her entire demeanour changed. You’ll noticed that as her failures finally stacked up from the start to the end, she became more morose, more internal, and far more neutral in her approach to objective thinking. The finale raises a great deal of questions as to how the series will progress into the future- which we know it now will. Nickelodeon has insisted on optioning more seasons, the only proviso being that they must be self contained in case the viewership tanks halfway through. It’s fair game in a sense as it means that the writers can attempt a satisfying ending if the whole series shuts down.
As a series it was a far more interesting experience- and by the end it had me feeling genuinely surprised at how things would turn and what might happen next, a simple but always clear indicator that something has you invested. While there are still elements i’d love to see explored (the mafia are always fun when they’re involved, and there’s even a lot of undercurrents of bitterness from them towards both Amon and Asami in their personal vendettas, which we don’t know enough about) I think it covered a lot of interesting ground in the condensed time it had.
But you know what? There’s something missing. Something the original series had. It’s not just about the world building, the semantics of how things worked, the ideological and political stuff. I mean we had a lot of that in TLA but that was never why the series was as good as it was.
I feel in some instances, we’ve lost the humanity that made Avatar so special. The sense of empathy, the ability to truly relate emotionally, the power the series had in depicting strong observational truths.
The point of TLA was not to show another magical world that dealt with more serious issues, but moreso the impact upon the people surrounding it. War was not about one side vs the other, in Avatar it became about how countries cope through war in their own various ways. Themeing was important from the very start, every character throughout that war was themed around the idea of choice. Some individuals wanted to see the fire lord selfishly crushed by the avatar just to end the war and move on. Some turned a blind eye in the hope of maintaining power. We were shown how ordinary people, even soldiers belonging to the fire nation, had been affected by the war. In humanising these events with both humour and natural happenstance we were able to be more affected and given a stronger desire to see how it would all wrap up. There’s a particularly beautiful moment when we experience Iroh’s loss in Tales of Ba Sing Se- the once proud dragon of the west grieves over his son in a very raw expression of loss. It’s a simple slice of empathy we haven’t really seen in Korra amongst all its other characters, though it often borders on expressing it.
A better analogy is how Aang experienced spiritual growth versus how Korra received spiritual growth. When Aang visited the Guru to learn how to control the avatar state, he went through a series of Chakras to achieve different elements of control. Now, on the one hand, these could be seen as arbitrary notions that simply allow him more power, akin to a character learning about a new state of power in Dragon Ball Z and then taking forever to use it- but instead they are actually part of Aangs’ character development. The Guru forces Aang to pay attention to what he must do in his own life to achieve each Chakra, and explains through each stage how Aang will evolve as a person through completing that process. In some cases Aang is reluctant, but both he and the audience now understand the necessity of what he must do, and we see Aang truly change as a person through these kinds of training. It’s much more than getting stronger. Conversely, Korra in season one becomes spiritual only to access plot dumps. Not plot dumps that challenge her view on her role as the avatar such as when Aang contacted the past to figure out a peaceful solution to his plight in ‘avatar day’, but a simple plot dump so that she knows who the bad guy is. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The same can be said of Korras’ airbending- all the other elements had been covered in the previous season. We had seen how Water bending could actually be more than a gender-specific healing tactic, how fire became an extension of ones body and required a looseness to the characters personality, and how earth represented a rigidity that the user had to embrace. There was even a point of Aang finding Earthbending tough as it was the polar opposite of his laid back, air bending style. In each case the characters were presented with a mental problem as much as a physical one, and by overcoming it, they changed as people. Korra never really went through this with airbending- she learned how to do it but without any real understanding of why she needed it or how it could benefit her. To use an ability to its fullest extent, we know that the avatar must understand it in every sense. By doing so, their personality and problem solving abilities are affected. Why was this so difficult to write for Korra?
The writing has definitely lost that very balance that Aang tried to achieve all those years ago- the conflict between the characters desires and their duties. It’s really basic storytelling stuff, but its part of why that original series had such a wonderful response from viewers. People recognised these behaviours and felt more invested in them. Your gut twisted in a knot when a more powerful individual managed to stop Aang from doing something over horribly arbitrary reasons. Heck, we had a blind twelve year old girl depicted as one of the strongest warriors in the series and rather than making her utterly perfect, her disability was actually discussed alongside her prowess. The level of depth shown there was really remarkable.
It’s not to say that season two has not exhibited such progress. Wan, the first avatar, ends his life feeling totally and utterly unfulfilled. It’s an emotionally charged and relatable moment because it rings true of what real people go through when they try to get their affairs in order, at any stage of their lifetime. He has spent his entire life attempting to bring peace, yet even then he is not done with his time on earth, and it’s utterly heartbreaking that Raava has to leave him to continue the cycle. Korras’ realisation that she must find her own character traits as a strong willed person in order to create a light force against the darkness is another well conceived moment- a moment that might have been stronger if the series had truly built upon her self loathing as being detrimental to her power. Again, it’s a simple change but much like the way spirituality is affected by emotion and character growth in the first series it would have been a lovely bit of themeing.
The show can be a real force for good. I still hear people criticise the original series because Aang didn’t murder the fire lord- deus machina or not, I loved that the show stuck to its guns of finding a middle way, and because the build up to that conclusion had been so strong I truly didn’t mind seeing it happen. Such arcs have not been experienced in Korra, particularly in season one when it was truly squandered. With Season 2 ending on such a strong change, there is all the potential now for season 3 to truly ramp up the storytelling power and deliver us something more challenging in the nature of character depth and dialogue. Yes, the religious argument was compelling but sadly never expressed strongly enough amongst the entire populace. There was a strong opportunity here for religion amongst the people of Avatar to be discussed to further the heroes goal, much in the same way that Aangs’ vision was shaped by how he saw people dealing with the war.
In the end I think it’s good that the show is still pushing new ideas and methods out there. Some things are sticking with audiences, some aren’t. What truly matters is that they’re trying. The level of risk in children’s animation, which is becoming increasingly more family friendly and allowing adults to revel in its quality, is increasing and each time the boat is pushed out to be enjoyed by others. It will inspire creators to go on and take similar risks. It will certainly inspire networks to do the same if it continues to be popular. Ultimately it will get people to raise their game regardless of whether or not they think it works- because it has enough to it to be discussed so that we can, effectively, use it to measure what we can and can’t achieve if we also choose to push the creative envelope.
Here’s to hoping later seasons improve upon these thoughts. On the other hand, I could easily go for an entire show of Verrick pooping money to compensate.