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The Legend of Korra - Recapping Book 1

The main reason for my disappointment in The Legend of Korra‘s season 1 finale lies firmly in two events: the Mako/Korra romance and sudden Korra Airbending/Avatar State developments at the end. The mental gymnastics required to justify the latter especially made me feel like I was trying to win a Marvel No Prize, trying to cover up openly contradictory or non-sensical story elements by linking together entirely disparate elements to fabricate a plausible explanation.

I’ve expressed my disapproval of how the Mako/Korra romance was developing in earlier recaps, and the final resolution of it is entirely unsatisfying. I’m not sure if Mako’s actions are just sheer, willful male ignorance or if he was aware of what he was doing and didn’t care, but in either case I think he treated both Korra and Asami pretty terribly. I can get behind the idea that fiction has a license to show that romance is messy and doesn’t work out the way people would like. People miss connections, misinterpretation of motives is frequent, and we don’t always end up with the one we want. People get hurt. I get all that. My issue is that there are consequences for those kinds of actions, and neither Mako or Korra seem to be paying any of them. It’s all been dumped on Asami, and while I could justify her non-reaction from the stresses of the moment, she still ends up as a far lesser character as a result. She was another strong woman in a franchise full of them and I was quite happy to be proven wrong that she wasn’t an Equalist spy, but the way her portrayal won me over during the series is exactly why I feel like she got a hugely raw deal for some really bad reasons. We’ll see if this goes thread goes anywhere next season, since Seychelle Gabriel has already confirmed she’s recorded new episodes as Asami.

Speaking of Asami, I’m also wondering if she’ll turn out to be as brilliant as her father. If you consider his achievements, Hiroshi Sato is a combination of Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Nikola Tesla, and the numerous early innovators in tank and aviation warfare during World War I. He’d be a major world-changer for achieving any one of those, so Asami has some mighty big engineering and business shoes to fill. I think it’d be pretty cool to see her filling them next season.

Asami and Hiroshi Sato also got me to notice a “horrible fathers” theme common between Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Both series have a surprisingly heavy reliance on really terrible fathers who set plot threads in motion. The best of all of the major father figures is Sokka and Katara’s father (whose only failing was being absent as his kids grew up), but then we hit characters like Firelord Ozai, Hiroshi Sato, and Yakone, all of whom do enough horrible things to their kids that a parent/child break is inevitable. The characters who get or choose surrogate fathers seem to do better: Aang and Monk Gyatso, Zuko and Uncle Iroh, and Korra and Tenzin. In contrast, mothers are almost always benevolent, with Zuko’s mother being the emblematic instance, but there’s also Sokka and Katara’s mother, their Gran Gran, and Pema. I’m not suggesting any deeper meaning to this, but it is an interesting trend.

Korra’s sudden ability to Airbend during the climactic battle with Amon and her later achievement of the Avatar State have struck many as contrived, out-of-nowhere plot twists, and fundamentally, I agree with the assessment. Like the Mako/Korra romance, the moment when Korra finally Airbends successfully feels unearned and driven mostly by plot convenience. Her big moment at the end of the episode also feels rather sudden, and Aang’s explanation that, “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change” is tossed off so casually that the fullest implications of the statement are mostly lost (especially when all it really means is that Korra gets back everything she’s lost and more). Some have already interpreted the final scene (and specifically the held moment with Korra’s teardrop) as a heavily veiled suggestion that she was contemplating suicide (best expressed so far at the Onion AV Club, and thanks to Chaos Yoshi Mage for pointing it out). If that was their intention, it really needed a bit more time to play out than what it got. If I pushed, I could try to argue that it’s a depiction of Buddhist principles of anatta/anatman (no soul) or of the Zen concept of “sudden enlightenment,” but the first is directly contradicted by the enduring nature of the Avatar itself, and the latter is an even more wild stab that I can’t believe was their intent.

There is one last plausible interpretation I thought of if you’re willing to take a very long view and notice the one consistent thing across all Korra’s spiritual advances. Her first breakthrough with Airbending was during a Pro-Bending match. Her first contact with the Spirit World and Aang happened immediately after her fateful first encounter with Amon in episode 4, which was stressful enough to nearly break her. The subsequent spirit visions hit in episode 6 (after getting shocked into unconsciousness at the Pro-Bending Arena), in episode 8 (after getting Bloodbent into unconsciousness by Tarrlok), and episode 9 (when imprisoned by Tarrlok with no hint when, or if, rescue would come). She gains Airbending at a moment when she’s lost her own bending and is about to witness the man she loves losing his, and she becomes a fully-realized Avatar when she’s hit such a low point that she might be contemplating suicide. It seems the only way Korra makes spiritual breakthroughs is when she’s getting her ass kicked, physically or emotionally.

I’m not really sure how I feel about that, except that even if that’s what they were aiming for, they still didn’t do it right.

I could try to argue that this is some kind of “spirituality through suffering” theme. Russian novels (and more than a few Russian novelists) have deep roots in spirituality through suffering, to say nothing of their original inspiration in the New Testament. However, on some level, these indelible characters must make a choice to suffer for the sake of their own souls and spiritual development, and that suffering must seem to be more than can be borne by one person. If Korra is suffering her way to Enlightenment, it is never by her own choice and it is not the kind of suffering that can crush one’s soul to reforge it anew. Only her last moment of suffering comes anywhere close, but for her to have earned her Enlightenment moment then, she would have had to fully accept the burden of losing her bending for good and suffered a lot longer before getting it back. If that was what the show was aiming at (and I’m not at all convinced that it was), the communication of that idea was cursory at best and not articulated as well as it should have been for something that deep. There’s a reason why those Russian novels run to hundreds of pages.

Korra’s spiritual breakthroughs also ring hollow compared to how Aang grappled with his dilemma of whether he could bring himself to kill the Firelord in the original series. The idea cropped up around the middle of season 3, becoming a major weight on his shoulders as the finale neared. Watching him going back to numerous past lives to search for an answer effectively communicated his prolonged spiritual struggle. Even if he comes to his moment of Enlightenment because of the coincidental appearance of the Lion Turtle, it’s easy to believe that the Lion Turtle only appeared as a result of Aang’s deep spiritual unrest. There’s even a “character traits through fighting style” moment when Aang has a clear shot to redirect a lightning bolt back at Firelord Ozai and very pointedly does not do it. This was a real struggle for Aang, but that struggle was exactly what strengthened his spiritual muscles so that he could stick to his guns and avoid Ozai’s corrupting influence during the Spirit Bending scene.

Don’t misunderstand: I did love The Legend of Korra‘s first season and I’m looking forward to the next one, but that love is also why I was so disappointed that the plot points in this season’s finale felt so rushed and unsatisfying in comparison to the rest of the season. However, just so it doesn’t look like I’m only beating up on the show, let’s take a look back at my own track record for predictions in earlier recaps:

Episode 2: The “Old vs. New” theme didn’t end up holding true as strongly as it appeared in these first two episodes. It was there if you looked, but I think it was primarily something driving the early part of the show. Call this one a miss.

Episode 3: I was expecting Amon to be connected to someone in the original series, but also hoping that he’d be just who he said he was. Obviously wrong in the first but mostly right in the second, so this one’s a wash.

Episode 4: I have to admit I was expecting Korra to have to sacrifice much more personally as this season progressed, and I’m not sure that her character flaw of hubris has been dealt with in any significant way. I did successfully predict the meaning of Korra’s first spirit vision, but got it wrong that Amon was chi-blocking to take away people’s bending. I won’t say that the other comments about a Tarrlok/Amon connection or Hiroshi Sato owing a debt to someone were anything other than blind guesses, though, so they don’t count against either total. One hit and one miss.

Episode 5: I did predict something really awful would happen to Asami, so even if it wasn’t what I was expecting, I think finding out her father was an evil mad scientist counts. A hit on technicalities, but I’ll take it.

Episode 6: If I hadn’t been quite so specific, I would have scored a hit on this one for figuring out a Sato-Equalist connection. I had guessed everything correctly except the identity of the Sato involved, overlooking Hiroshi Sato entirely. Big miss.

Episode 7: I had guessed a fracture in the Equalists between Amon and Hiroshi Sato, which obviously did not come to pass. Lin Beifong going after her soldiers also turned out not to be a trap (or, if it was, it really sucked as a trap). Two more misses.

Episode 8: The guess at a connection between Amon and Tarrlok was correct, but the idea that Tarrlok was trying to stoke a Bender/Equalist war wasn’t. One hit and one miss.

Episode 9: Mako did, in fact, turn out to be a totally insensitive jerk, so a hit I wish I was wrong about. However, this was also when I confidently predicted that Amon was some kind of cyborg or automaton, so there’s a miss.

All told: I turned out to be right 5 times and wrong 8 times. That’s actually a little bit better than I thought. If you’re still here, thanks for reading along and we’ll see you next season!

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