Fans of the series Avatar: the Last Airbender really aren’t hard to find, particularly here on the internet. I consider this a good thing, and as far as I’m concerned the show is entirely deserving of the praise that has been heaped upon it. Which is what makes the hot mess that was the first season of its sequel The Legend of Korra, so damn depressing.
Don’t get me wrong, Korra is fun to watch. The animation is beautiful, the voice acting is well done, the characters are compelling, and the story’s premise is interesting. It’s just that the execution of that story is so amazingly lacking that it’s left me stunned and somewhat perplexed on how to analyze it.
The season starts of strongly, with a good setup of the central conflict of the tensions between the bender and non-bender population of Republic City. There are even some nice complexities touched upon in the early episodes; the contrast between Korra’s upbringing–carefully monitored and cared for as Aang’s successor–and Bolin and Mako’s hard-luck childhood on the streets of Republic City after the deaths of their parents. There’s also a nice character moment between Korra and Mako in the third episode “The Revelation,” when Bolin is taken captive by Amon and the Equalists. Mako, the elder sibling who is used to having no one to rely upon in his life, insists that it is his responsibility alone to recover Bolin. Korra puts a hand on his shoulder and says kindly, yet playfully, “Hey tough guy, it’s okay to let people help you” (or something along those lines, I can’t find the full quote right now). Mako, realizing she’s right, relents. It’s a nice beat to hit–Mako isn’t berated for his attitude, after all it’s his very real experience that has taught him to behave that way–but he also instantly recognizes that he no longer needs to cling to that mindset. With early subtleties like that, it’s so easy to get excited about the show’s potential.
Where it all falls apart, unfortunately, is after the introduction of Asami.
I’m not going to hate on Asami here, I think she’s one of the most fascinating characters of the show. But, for some unfathomable reason, as soon as she’s in the picture, Korra’s creators seem to come to the astonishing conclusion that the only way forward for the story is through a love triangle that promptly pops up between Mako, Asami, and Korra. For the rest of the series, the ridiculous will-they-won’t-they of Korra and Mako’s relationship takes a front-row seat in plot development, to the detriment of everything else. The whole thing is so hackneyed that I almost suspect that someone, for some reason, decided that the show couldn’t possibly sell without a love story, that’s how tacked-on and inorganic this particular plot seems.
There are many infuriating things about the love triangle, which I shall briefly try to list. Bullet points, if you please:
- It reinforces the notion that two women have to compete over a man (Korra makes no romantic overtones toward Mako until Asami comes along, and then she’s consumed with jealousy).
- Building on that theme, it thoroughly sets up Asami and Korra as rivals rather than friends whose abilities and backgrounds compliment each other. The dichotomy is obvious: elegant, refined, wealthy, and traditionally-beautiful Asami versus tomboyish, provincial, and blunt Korra. This is somewhat deconstructed as the series progresses and we discover that Asami is a talented martial artist and racing driver, but the damage has already been done.
- It slots Mako neatly into the “tall, dark, and brooding eligible bachelor” stereotype, and again, while there are legitimate character reasons for Mako to be brooding and distrustful, the fact that he is so clearly held up as the only viable romantic interest for anyone in the show completely steamrollers Bolin, who is relegated to the roll of Cast Clown. This is unfortunate, because Bolin repeatedly demonstrates himself to be a thoughtful, kind person. What message does this send out about what kind of man is worth pursuing, to both young men and women?
- It makes it inevitable that Mako is going to behave like an asshole at some point, because he will be forced to “choose” someone by the season’s end. At first I assumed this wouldn’t happen, both because I figured the writing team on Korra was smarter than that and because it also seemed that Korra was mature enough to realize that actively trying to take Mako away from Asami would make her a jerk. Korra is understandably hurt when her crush starts going out with someone else, but she does back off and let them be. Instead it’s Mako who has the realization that he actually loves Korra, and he unceremoniously ditches Asami, treats her like dirt, and behaves terribly. My sympathy for Mako had essentially dried up by the end of the season, as a direct and sole result of the love-triangle plot.
- Lastly, this plot makes Asami’s behaviors at the end of the season totally baffling. Earlier, when Asami and Mako were involved, it was fairly simple to see why Asami might choose to aid the benders over the Equalists–she didn’t want to see someone she loved taken away and harmed. After Mako dumps her for Korra in the worst, most immature way possible, that reasoning evaporates. Firebenders have now both murdered her mother and broken her heart. How can she not see her father’s train of logic? Where does her loyalty to Korra come from? This senselessness is completely captured in Asami’s line to her father, “You don’t even feel love for mom anymore, you’re too full of hate.” The preceding line from Hiroshi is “How can you aid the people who took your mother away?” It’s a fair question, given what Asami has been through. That she has no answer for her father, only an assertion that he can’t love his late wife anymore, is an indictment of the writers. They don’t know her answer, either. Or rather, the answer is: “because the plot demands it.”
There’s so much fodder in Korra for better things. The show could have spent its time really exploring the roots of the bender/Equalist conundrum–and indeed, the way the early episodes are set up, that’s what I expected it to do. Korra could have learned over the course of her time in Republic City what the real heart of the discontentment was, and a way to address it. None of that happens. It’s clearly shown that the Equalist movement is popular among non-benders, and no one in the cast ever seems to wonder why. Are non-benders treated as an underclass in Republic City? Is their outrage justified? I suspect the answer is yes, but the writers don’t have the courage to go there. Doing so would require them to really take a good hard look at the system inherent in the world. Benders can, by definition, do things that non-benders can’t. In an industrialized (or industrializing) society, how does that affect the structure of the culture? Korra, once she really understood the vast power that benders wield over non-benders and the ways in which she (as a bender) is complicit in her privilege, would likely face a crisis of identity. She would have to ask some extremely difficult questions of herself, her friends, her perceptions. That’s tough storytelling, but it’s also the stuff of good storytelling, and the creators of Avatar don’t even try. Instead they set up the question and sidestep it. The biggest tragedy of this is the way the Amon story plays out. With Amon revealed as a bender in disguise, it essentially reinforces all the things he was saying about the benders in the first place! Did a bender exploit non-benders to his own selfish ends? Yes! Did a bender treat non-benders as expendable tools, rather than people? Yes! Amon being a bloodbender doesn’t undermine the Equalist movement in any way, it reinforces the necessity of such a cause. Benders clearly don’t think twice about abusing their powers. If the show had really dealt with the question of the Equalists the way it should have prior to Amon’s reveal, the twist about his true nature would have been the perfect moment for Korra to be able to win over the non-benders in the city and bring the two sides together. “Look,” she could have said, “You have been deceived by Amon, but I make no deceptions. As the Avatar, you know who I am and you know to what purpose I exist.” Through both the transparency and power of her position, a dialogue could have been opened.
But there is none of that complexity in the actual season. I can’t help but feel like the writers chickened out. It’s as if they realized the daunting storytelling task they had set themselves up for, panicked, and got cold feet. For me, it’s highly disappointing. One of the greatest things about the original show was the way it refused to sacrifice its nuance, even in the closing episodes when you knew the final showdown was at hand. Even Azula, one of the show’s most cruel and ruthless villains, is given a breath of humanity at the very end which makes it extremely difficult to simply despise her. Without that same uncompromising complexity, Korra just falls apart. It is such a shame. It could have been so much more.