Not-So Surprise Post: Legend of Korra: Change

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So, you may remember the first special post I did, which was at the conclusion of Season 2 of Legend of Korra last year. In short, I expressed my concerns that the series had become aimless and had ceased on trying to deliver satisfying fights, storytelling prowess and character evolution that the franchise has been so renowned for, so much as it was trying to be a Michael Bay movie for kids.

Season 3 seems to indicate that this will indeed be remembered as the fluke of the series, as this season, “Change”, was a return to…well…practically the classic series.  So much felt like the original series, that I think for the first time they finally managed to capture that this was indeed the EXTENSION of the old series.

Not that I’ve ever been one of those who feels that Korra needed to be “like” the first series.  Season 1 was different and I was cool with that.  My problem with Season 2 was how it failed to live up to the barest amount of scrutiny.

I think now a more complete picture of the show itself, and the behind the scenes jackassery that this creative team has to put up with, is starting to give us a general picture, and it seems like it’s been corrected for.  My hunch is, as of now, that seasons 3+4 are going to be a much tighter story arc along the lines of Earth and Fire in the original series if they were condensed to 13 episodes each (making them even more tight). Be warned, ye head into spoiled waters.

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Adaptation

Now we’ve known for a while that Seasons 2-4 were only greenlit JUST as production of Season 1 had finished.  This left them in a bind and the decision was made “Fuck it, we’ll do it live.” and the Amon arc wrapped up neatly.  If the finale of Season 3 proves anything, though, it’s probably that they would have liked to have left Korra powerless if they could go back and do it again.

Season 2, from the looks of it, is a bit of a rush job. As there were probably some huge plans made for Season 4 (because, really, the climax is always the easiest part to sort out), getting there seems to have been the struggle.  And I can sympathize with that.

But this season, we got a nice…well…change.  Change was about more than just how Korra had changed the world with her decision, it was about the characters.  Almost everyone got to have a few good moments.  Even Mako, of all people, stopped being such an annoying sack.  Mostly, his cop background made him a great foil to Kai, again playing to this strength in the Avatar franchise of the ensemble.

It certainly must have been going through the creators heads in Spirit that the conflicts needed to be bigger and bigger, as that is our gut reaction.  But Change scaled back, yet felt far heavier.

We went from Black and White god battles to conflicts which have no clear-cut answers.  That’s tough.  And arguably why the show moved online-only.  Moral ambiguity, terrorism, on-screen murder, these are heavy themes.  Season 1 of Korra pushed the limits of what was permissible in children’s television by addressing suicide twice, to varying degrees, in its finale.  And it looks like Season 4 is going to go after equally difficult emotional issues.

And we finally, finally, dumped the fucking love triangle.  Korra has never been able to handle romance well, and it’s a relief to see it absent from the series. Particularly because it FEELS like a cheap way to milk the Aang/Katara/Zuko ship wars.  They were smart to take their licks and forget about it.

…Or…did they?

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The Good Ship Korrasami

Yep. I’m bringing this up, too. Allow me a moment to summarize my feelings before tackling this in depth.

IT’S REAL! IT’S REALLY REAL!

…ahem.

Strap on them Yuri Goggles, kids. We’re diving into this.

Apart from the subtle nods throughout the season, as it has appeared that Asami has become Korra’s closest confidant at this point in her life, the big thing is that final bit of Episode 13.  It is Asami, not Korra’s family, taking care of her after the injuries sustained with Zahir.  A big eyebrow raiser as, you’d think Korra’s mom, whom we KNOW is in town, would be better at formal water tribe dress.  And the hand holding, and the declaration she’s there for Korra for anything which lacked the “because we’re friends” disclaimer.  And, a nice touch, Asami refers to herself and Korra as a unit, saying that “we should try to enjoy ourselves”.  All little nods.

Because, hell, this is still Nick.  It’s probably the best we’re going to get.

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….Barring an up-swell of popular support!  Raise the flag on the good ship Korrasami and load all batteries!  Let’s bring this show to the convention circuit. Most people I know, and most reviews you find on the internet, will always ascribe that Mako has been the weak link in the love triangle.  Well.  Jettison Mako and problem solved! They’re signaling for us to save them, people! We just have to throw them the rope! Let nothing stand between us and Season 4! Hey, even Rob Walker joined the ship this season, that’s a good endorsement.

We already missed one chance. That of Korra losing her powers.  Of course they were still playing the Mako thing up at the time, so maybe that’s for the best.

But, as I’ve mentioned (as have others), Korra is very much like Azula, and I believe that moment, at the end of the season, her entire despondency, is the realization that she was beaten.  The Avatar cycle almost ended. This is coming RIGHT on the heels of the fact that Korra has been sheltering guilt that SHE lost the previous Avatars.  This is her Tony Stark moment, where she has come to see her mortality in the bleakest terms as someone who has, through her brilliant talent, been able to out-muscle any problem she’s faced.

In that case, who better than Asami to tread the path with her?  Do I need to bring up this gag again?

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Who better to know how absolutely depressing life can seem? Who better to walk that path from self doubt and depression back to the light?

Because that is the true enemy for someone like Korra.  Her own mind, her own doubt.  She has always been so sure of herself, so when those thoughts turn from “I am the greatest” to “I am the worst”, she TRULY believes them.

I’m gonna get more into this when we start speculating about Season 4, but for now, I’ll leave this at the fact that an Asami/Korra pairing just feels natural to me. I know, I know, I’m not exactly objective in my views, but if I was completely objective I wouldn’t still be watching cartoons.

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Re-Birth of a Nation

It did strike me as rather racist that the Air Nomad Crusade seemed to want to impose its culture on the new Airbenders.  While that was addressed a LITTLE it still felt a bit incomplete.  It would have been much more interesting to see Tenzin struggle with the idea of “betraying” his father’s legacy should Korra bring up that the new Air Nation might need to be dictated by its people.

…On the other hand seeing how people cried so much as pro-bending, claiming it ruined the “beauty” of bending, making such a drastic change to the universe probably wouldn’t have been received well.

Bringing back the Air Nation was a magnificent move. It is, ingeniously, the one thing we’ve never seen in Avatar.  And because so many stories ducked in and weaved around this plot thread, it can feel like we didn’t get a lot of resolution to many people’s stories.  Kind of true, but also kind of how something like this would actually play out.  They had mini-arcs and left.

We got to meet a lot of the new Airbenders, and seeing their arcs play out was fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the poetry that Opal, Toph’s granddaughter, needed to learn to be assertive, so she could go become an Airbender, where her natural passivity will probably make her a quick study.

The Air Nation also represented something about Korra, but I’ll get to that when we address some criticisms of the season.

Finally, seeing the Ascension ceremony was fantastic.  I had a slight fear that Tenzin might die, leaving Jenora to be the new leader of the Air nation. This way’s fine, too.  Tenzin’s declaration at the end has some interesting implications as well, we’ll get to those.

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A Return to Bending

I have never bought into the idea that the pro-bending style of Air somehow polluted the bending arts.  It just moved from the martial arts, ritualized schooling and boot camps, to more of a street-fighting style.

But there WAS something that was missing: expansion on the principles of bending.

And we saw many examples in Change.  The best and most genius being Gazan’s lava-bending.  It is such a natural extension of Iroh’s words, “studying the other elements can make you more powerful”.  Waterbenders have been changing state of their element for centuries.  It only makes sense that someone, someday, would apply the principle to Earthbending.  The lava itself, as always in this franchise, followed some pretty goofy physics, but it was ingenious.  Applying this same principle to Airbending should produce concussive explosions, so can’t wait for that!

And…um…uhmmmm….tentacle girl…damnit…was impressive in her own right, as if we remember Waterbending 101, the arms are the most important tool of a Waterbender.

But this was sadly the only contribution they made, really…

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BANE SUCKS. HE ALWAYS SUCKS. ALWAYS HAS, ALWAYS WILL SUCK.

Oh my god when will fiction leave this idea ALONE?

I call this the “Guy Fawkes Fallacy”.  Everyone looks at Anonymous and says “I want to create that guy. A man who can inspire anarchists for centuries to come.”  Avatar has embraced this principle at least twice, and Unalaq could fit a certain frame of it.

Absent, of course, from this creative idea is the harsh reality that neither Fawkes, nor his modern counterpart Che Guevara were terribly bright individuals.  It is only the laughable ways that college kids generations later interpret their messages that gives these figures any meaning.

Much like creating “the best ____ ever” will only end in disaster, you can’t just make “charismatic anarchist icon” and hope it works.

I will credit that Zahir’s establishment as a credible threat by bringing in Zuko was a great move.  It brought a sense of scope that our old hero and former Fire Lord would involve himself directly.  And seeing this skilled group of bandits with unique power was definitely intriguing enough to get our attention. At first.

But sadly the villains remain Korra’s weakness.

I’m willing to say that including a bonafide terrorist cell in a family cartoon? Ballsy. Making them anarchists when this world approximates our world in 1910? I’d go so far as to say that’s pretty clever. And I did like the venom symbolism, and the idea that they are off-shoots of the White Lotus seems a little odd but it piques my rural interest, as Tom Sawyer would say.

There needs to be more to a man than philosophy and love interest.  The romance with Pu Li might have saved Zahir’s humanity in a different show. But as we’ve established, Korra is awful at the romance thing.  It felt very tacky.  I appreciated how he could only achieve detachment when his love perished, but it felt so…without weight.  It didn’t influence him at all, it seemed.  If Zahir had gone from animated, enthusiastic crusader to monotone, no-nonsese flat voice after Pu Li’s death, that could have been heartstringy. But he was always flat and detached. We didn’t see his struggle internally.

I think a big reason Gazan was the best of the Red Lotus was because of that scene with Bo Lin in the van.  It’s cute, and hilarious as fuck, but it also shows us the human side of the man.  Not to mention leaving the guessing game in our heads as to which two Bo Lin got right? Genius. The more you can make us think about a character in our off hours, the better that character will be.  From that moment on, all of his fight sequences are tainted by that bonding he had with Bo Lin.  It makes us smirk, even if only internally, and we wish right up to the end that he would switch sides.

Many are calling the new Metalbender, Kuhira, as a Red Lotus and possibly the new villain.  Maybe.  Whatever the direction Season 4 goes, I think Korra needs to learn that the best villains are the human ones.  Again, and again, and again, Korra tries to make the antagonists faceless, mysterious figures, and it is worthless for our engagement as the audience.  Especially when it feels like the series is trying to suck Zahir’s dick half the time. I’m just not feeling it, guys.  And I don’t know anyone who did.

Ozai and Azula may have been cartoonishly evil, but they were the Avatar’s enemies for the very reason that the job description says: the were imbalanced, and brought imbalance to the world.  Aang’s duty was to restore order.  Much like fire itself, Ozai and Azula raged out of control.  Forest fires are a good thing for the environment.  But if they rage too strong, they threaten entire ecosystems. Azula was raised to be a bad person, and it was implied that Ozai was the same, but they symbolized this imbalance as its leaders.  Much like “repairing damage” is a no-brainer, but “upkeep” is something we often let slide, this made them greyer than a bunch of radical terrorists trying to overthrow the government.

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Korra, the First Lama

Last season I mentioned how it would have been interesting to see the Avatar’s transformation from living god to secular political figure, and we seem to have entered that looking glass in Change.  From the President throwing her out of Republic City, to the emerging political drama that seems to be at play.

Korra’s victories this season weren’t necessarily the realm of combat, but as the Avatar as a political figure.  It is why I don’t see that final fight with Zahir was Korra needing “rescuing” from the plot level.  That may be what’s happening in action, but symbolically, she is saved by the Air Nation that would not exist without her.  Korra planted seeds, and they bore fruit when the chips were down.

This in fact seems to be going even further, this first battle with Zahir a preview of how the Air Nomads will become an extension of the Avatar’s will throughout the world.  This was a political drama victory.  It can feel cheap in an action series, but I like that the show is re-interpreting the Avatar in this new, big picture way as much as she’s about kicking ass.

The Avatar has, in lives past, been a showstopper.  She still is, in a sense, but with technology leveling the playing field, both in the weapons it employs and the new communication age integrating the world in an exchange of information so that the average bender is drastically increasing in power, it’s going to be more about the Avatar as a figurehead.

We see the big moments about the past Avatars.  Kiyoshi creating her own island, killing Chen the Conqueror.  Roku’s duel with Sozin, and Aang’s defeat of Ozai, these are big, single acts and statements by past Avatars.  Let’s not forget Yang Chen, who pacified the world so thoroughly it was 100 years before anyone was willing to war again…which resulted in Chen, thus proving the theme of balance. I digress.

Korra’s era will not be like this anymore.  She had her big boss battle, and got shit on for it.  And from the looks of things, Korra is going to have a journey on how to cope with this new role.

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And I do not think it makes Korra weak. It makes her human.  I know that lots of people trying to “get” feminism believe that “strong = infallible”, but it doesn’t.  If you go that route…well…you get Captain Crazypants Janeway. We don’t want that shit here. Though the tin foil hats come out when it looks like Korra will battling a form of depression, with Zelda Williams voicing Kuvira…rather eerie, isn’t it?

I like that the show realized it was trying to eat its cake and have it, too.  Korra seemed to master her spirit-based powers with ease, even though she seemed nothing like the way Aang was taught he would need to be to achieve such balance.  We seem to have rolled the clock back a bit, hence why I think Korra wasn’t just hopping into the Avatar state every fifteen seconds like before.  While it was cool to see, as I said then, it did not feel genuine.  I argued why Korra felt as if she did not deserve to be the Avatar last time.  This season, by her growth, and her willingness to approach problems in ways other than her fists, she feels worthy again.  And we like it as an audience to say “I would back this person up as my leader”.

And of course, in doing so, she becomes vulnerable. Which I think is what we’re going to see.  All these arguments I see people making about how “Korra should be able to punch her enemies to win flawless victory fight after fight”, I think THEY are the point. These are thoughts Korra herself would have.

A good comparison that’s been made is: if Aang’s story was building a world, Korra’s has been about tearing that world down.  And that is definitely true to a degree.

Much like the tao te ching might teach us that the block of wood is more beautiful than the finished product because of the infinite possibilities of the block, so, too, do we see that happening in Korra.  A sturdy table is nice, even necessary for our civilized life, but does a tree not have to be destroyed to obtain it?  We’re seeing that in Korra’s world.

Change is hard. And it will be hardest on Korra.

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5 thoughts on “Not-So Surprise Post: Legend of Korra: Change

  1. This was definitely my favourite season of Korra so far – not only do I think it was objectively better than the first two (albeit still not perfect), but it also got me emotionally involved in a way that neither season one nor two managed to do. I still enjoyed the earlier seasons, but they mostly felt more fun than ‘serious’ viewing, and so I’m glad that the fourth and final season looks like it’ll be more of a continuation rather than a completely fresh story. (I’m also hoping we’ll be seeing some new characters. Zuko apparently has a daughter, so that could be pretty cool.)

  2. Season 3 is definitely the best so far, but I still think they’re trying to squeeze ATLA-level stories into too few episodes and some things just get left out. The Red Lotus felt like a group that would stick around for a while, but I guess not.

    Anyway, Korrasami is real and true. It’s been there since season 1, but not many people saw it back then.

  3. Pingback: Completely Predictable Post: Legend of Korra: Balance | Dataport Doll's Anime Reviews

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