About that Ending: The Legend of Korra (Season One)

After making some comments on M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, I figured it would be fun making serious comments on something actually Avatar-related. The Legend of Korra is the second show in the series, picking up roughly 70 years after the events of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Avatar Aang has passed and now the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of Korra, our new Avatar and central protagonist. I can still remember how excited I was when this show was announced: a new Avatar with a female main character? Anyone who knows the first series knows that this show is second to Buffy with how strongly the female characters are written. Toph, Katara, Azula, Suki, Ty Lee, Mai: every one of these is a flushed out and interesting human being. In a world where strong feminine characters are still evolving, it is nice to see that there is an animated series already doing it right. Creators/writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko should be proud of the work they’ve done. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked, back to Korra.

So naturally, with all that in mind, I was excited for the Legend of Korra. For the most part, I walked away from this first season happy. Twelve episodes is a short running time and it forces a concentration in story and in characters. Does Legend of Korra accomplish this while still being an entertaining series: yes. Was the season finale adequate for a first season: yes. Was the season finale adequate as a series finale (as intended by the creators): NO. What went wrong then? Ironically enough, I believe that the strengths of Avatar: the Last Airbender became the Legend of Korra‘s weaknesses. In short, Korra is not a strong female character.

Woah, bold declaration there. At first glance, this seems obviously wrong. Korra is  a confident, physically and emotionally strong woman. So how is she not a strong female protagonist? Warning: spoilers to follow.

Let’s focus on the last two episodes, the season finale of the Legend of Korra. In these two episodes a lot happens. Amon is unmasked and defeated, Asami confronts her father, Korra loses her bending ability, Korra becomes a full-fledged Avatar, Korra and Mako get together. Lots going on, most of it involving Korra.

First thing: Amon. I’m not going to debate whether his reveal (anti-climactic or not) was well-executed, I’m more going to focus on Avatar Korra’s role in it. Essentially, she has none. Yes, she outs Amon as a bloodbender but there is no earning of knowledge. We’ve already established Korra as a headstrong fighter, but how about an intelligent human being? Aang and his friends discovered truths in the first series. Here, Amon’s identity drops right into Korra’s lap courtesy of Tarrlok. Without him, Korra never would have figured it out and it’s not like Avatar Aang hadn’t been trying to help her.

Throughout the first season, Korra experiences flashbacks into Aang’s life. As she cannot directly converse with him until the end, these visions are all Korra has to go on. They deal with the character of Yakone, an especially powerful bloodbender whom Aang defeated years ago. Korra uses these visions to figure out the identity of Tarrlok (Yakone’s son) but fails to connect the larger dots that Aang is trying to warn her about Amon as well (Yakone’s other son). With such focus on the visions, it is bizarre to see them dismissed so quickly by Korra after the Yakone reveal. So Korra does not appear overly intelligent, but it does fall into the realm of realism.

Really this is a problem more with the show’s writing than with the character of its protagonist. As I said, we spend a good deal of time with the visions throughout the first season only to have them dropped immediately after Tarrlok’s reveal. If Aang was trying to warn Korra about Amon (and why wouldn’t he be?) the visions should have continued after Tarrlok’s defeat. Stopping them sent the message, to both Korra and the audience, that there was nothing more relevant about the nature of these flashbacks. Giving even one more would have given Korra an opportunity to think things out and not rely so heavily on Tarrlok for literally every crucial bit of information regarding Amon. She’s supposed to be strong yet there is a man solving one of her problems.

Next time a man solves her problems: Mako. Korra is defeated by Amon and stripped of her bending ability. Woah! Amon is powerful, and Korra cannot enter the Avatar state so this is believable. It loses me when Mako is able to best Amon in combat, allowing the two to escape. The whole first season has established two things: how strong of a bender Korra is and how unbelievably powerful Amon’s abilities are. In the finale, the audience is expecting to see these two forces clash. They do and Amon wins. Now comes in Mako, also established as a talented bender (although not so much as Korra) and he does more against Amon than the main protagonist. It is good to show Korra needing help, that’s fine. But how is Mako able to do what she cannot? Why does she need him to save her in that situation? Korra’s character has weaknesses and faults but her bending ability isn’t one of them.

Why did no one do this before?
Why did no one do this before?

True, Korra does deliver the final blow to Amon later, using her airbending to knock him out a window. How exactly the reveal of Amon as a bender defeats the Equalist Movement is beyond me (if anything I think it strengthens their case) but this is not an article focused on that aspect of the ending. We’ll stick to Korra and leave the (so disappointing) finale with the Equalists for another day.

Downfall of a man but not a cause.
Downfall of a man but not a cause.

So Korra defeats Amon with some help. That’s fine. Tarrlok ultimately kills Amon, which is also fine. Korra doesn’t need to be a killer to be strong. Yet at the finale she is weak, fragile. She has lost all her bending ability except for her airbending. This is huge. As stated before, Korra is a character who prides herself on her bending ability, it is central to her identity as the Avatar and as a person. Now, she has lost most of it. Will this begin a new struggle of Korra redefining herself and growing through loss and setback? Oh wait, Aang is going to appear and give her back everything she lost in two seconds… that just doesn’t work.

I can understand why the writers did it. They said before that they did not want the Legend of Korra to follow a similar story structure to Avatar: the Last Airbender. The audience has already seen a show about an Avatar learning the bending arts, I can understand not want to see one about an Avatar re-learning the bending arts. Nevertheless, Aang’s actions are simply too jarring. He does everything for Korra. She literally just cries and gets her way. Aang appears, restores her powers and everyone is happy. Did Korra grow as a person? Debatable. Being sad is not really character growth. This is yet another instance of a male character appearing to give great aid to Korra. She really has needed a lot of help and contributed very little to this season finale so far.

Avatar Aang: dead and still more capable than Korra.
Avatar Aang: dead and still more capable than Korra.

Let’s move onto the final thing: the kiss with Mako. This is probably my largest problem with both the finale and the series so far. Who the hell is Mako and why do they like each other? The romance between Aang and Katara in Avatar: the Last Airbender was sweet and, more importantly, developed with a very natural and believable flow. The romance between Korra and Mako does not possess these qualities. Yes, we get the Korra has a crush on Mako but why? Mako is honestly portrayed as a jerk in the season. He kisses Korra right after she dates Bolin, then leaves her to date Asami. He then leaves Asami for Korra right after Asami loses her father, her money and essentially all her identity. Wow, sounds like a winner so far. He has no real strong aspects to his character (having a scarf does not count).

The sole thing Mako does in the first season to institute a romance is carry Korra in his arms after finding her. Does this mean that Korra naturally develops relationships to male saviors? Does her character want to be protected after all? Is the tough girl attitude all an act? I don’t know but it warrants exploration. Exploration that I hope the rest of the series pursues. Exploration that is, at the moment, completely unsatisfied by a bizarre kiss and a declaration of “I love you”. Do they? I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is… and that shit ain’t it.

"Korra, look at my scarf. Look at my face. I'm gorgeous, you're gorgeous - we should date."
“Korra, look at my scarf. Look at my face. I’m gorgeous, you’re gorgeous – we should date.”

Despite all these problems, I do like the Legend of Korra. I enjoyed the season finale when I watched it and still think it’s fine. It’s saving grace is just that: it’s a first season. Hopefully the audience will get to watch these characters grow throughout the series and most of these issues will be addressed. If not, rest assured you will be seeing another one of these articles.

One last note and a bit of a side thing: when writing a tight story in twelve episodes: everything has to be essential. Pro-bending, arguably the most fun aspect season one, takes up several episodes before exiting halfway through the season. Was it awesome to watch: yes. Was it completely unnecessary to the plot: yes. Could that time have been spent better developing characters and avoiding the above-mentioned problems: sadly yes. Something to work on in the coming seasons.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

2 thoughts on “About that Ending: The Legend of Korra (Season One)

  1. The real problem with Korra as a “strong female character” (three words which are quickly becoming a short cut to easy critical acclaim rather than a meaningful signifier) is that at no point in that finale did she actually CHANGE for the better. There’s not a moment where Korra stops crying, stands up tall, and says something like, “I’m still the Avatar! I’ve gotta deal with it!” That would have been wonderful! That would have been that “biggest change” Aang talked about. Then MAYBE restoring her Bending powers would have worked better, because they’re being restored to a new, improved Korra.

    **Warning: My imagination got the better of me, so don’t take the rest of this post too seriously.**

    And then Korra turns around and sees Mako, but instead of jumping into his arms, she kicks him in the groin for his two-timing nature (how’s THAT for cartharsis?), thus successfully making the transformation in a strong independent black who don’t need no man! The rest of the ending remains the same. (Come to think of it, this actually sounds like the ending of “Observe and Report.”)

    Like

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