“When we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
The spirit of Aang speaks these words at the end of the first season of Legend of Korra. At the time, I remember thinking it was a nice quote, but perhaps not fully earned. Korra had suffered a defeat – losing her bending and her sense of identity. The loss, however, seemed very minor. I know weeks were supposed to have passed in the show but, from an audience standpoint – it had only been a couple minutes. We didn’t have time to see Korra’s suffering – to understand the pain she was going through. While Aang’s words were poetic, they would have had much more impact had they come at the end of season three or the beginning of season four.
As some of you may know: I’m a huge fan of the Avatar universe (to the point of being an admitted fanfiction writer). Avatar: the Last Airbender may be my favorite show of all time – I just can’t name another work of art in that medium with the same level of consistency, that managed complex tales in family-friendly methods in a twenty-minute time slot. It’s damn impressive. While I also love Legend of Korra, I must admit that, to me, the show did not have its predecessor’s consistency.
Case in point: season two of Korra was kinda rough. Aang’s words of wisdom appear all but forgotten. Korra, who was established in season one as headstrong and brash seems just as willful as ever. She’s arrogant and emotional, prone to making split-second decisions without thinking it through. In other words, she’s a teenager, one who still reeks of immaturity (despite her supposed trauma at the end of season one).
Not going to lie, those first couple of episodes were spotty – especially on my first viewing. That said, there is a basic rule of writing that states “you have to beat up your protagonist.” The reasoning behind this is simple: No one wants to watch a cakewalk. If Korra overcame every challenge in her life with calmness and maturity – handling and processing each issue and resolving it in turn, how interesting would that be?
To hook an audience, you need to raise the stakes. If you have a high-flying protagonist like Korra, this means making her fall. How do you make the fall more impactful? Build it up first. I make the argument that seasons two and three of Korra exist precisely for this moment. Korra is at her highest at the start of season two. She’s defeated Amon, regained her bending, and is in a seemingly happy relationship with her crush, Mako.
But not all is what it seems. I’ve already written how Korra and Mako’s season two relationship is a refreshingly adult take on unhealthy couples – so let’s talk about her other strengths…and how they are seemingly turned against her and used to drive her fall.
First off: Amon. Korra has overcome her first major threat and acts like she is in the clear. This shows that she doesn’t yet understand that, as the Avatar, she’s going to likely have more than one enemy. She is naive to her world’s darker turnings, not seeing the plans of her uncle and not anticipating how the ongoing struggles of the Earth Kingdom will lead to…serious ramifications.
The result is Unalaq’s plans develop further than they have any right to. Had Korra been more mature, she could have better handled her relationship with her father and seen through her uncle’s flattery and manipulations. But, since she doesn’t, Unalaq is allowed to fuse with an evil spirit and sever Korra’s connection to her past lives.
Meaning no more words of sage wisdom from our old buddy, Aang. Don’t get me wrong – Korra is a good protagonist. She learns these lessons in season two, but it’s a case of damage done. She learns because she must, not because she is looking to develop herself. I think this is true of a lot of people her age (at least, I can relate). When you’re a teenager, the last thing you want to hear is admonishment from an imperfect authority, lecturing you on how to do better (Korra’s season two relationships with both her father and Tenzin represent this rebellion). It doesn’t matter if they’re right.
Next, let’s talk about her bending. With her bending back, Korra is seemingly invincible. She’s a fully fledged Avatar, right? She even has control of the Avatar State. While this is true, Korra is still inexperienced and (stop me if you’ve heard this before) immature. She fights with blind emotion, rushing into battles without a thought for strategy or consequences.
As the series goes, Korra begins to pull back on this behavior. However, it takes her savage defeat in season three to fully allow the lesson to sink in. For all intents and purposes…Korra is violated. She is trapped, chained, and has foreign liquid forced into her body without consent. It’s nothing short of brutal.
For a series that has many real-world ties, Korra’s treatment at the end of season three can be seen as nothing less than a rape sequence. Korra is forced to go through a profound, devastating trauma. Her strength is made irrelevant, her agency is removed. It’s…yeah. And even after she “triumphs,” we finally see that Korra will never be the same. In a truly heart-breaking scene, we see this:
Korra is confined to a wheelchair. Trapped both physically and mentally. All of her illusions of power and self have crumbled. She is truly broken. Her fall is complete, and we – as her audience – are devastated.
Showing the Struggle
“When we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
These words were hollow as season one transitioned to season two. This is not the case as we enter season four. Korra truly has no one. She is isolated from her friends, her past lives, pretty much every form of help. Even when she has aid – like her family – she can’t open up to them.
Korra begins season four with literally nothing, and her position does not improve for much of the season. Unlike in season one, we see her smashing her head – figuratively and, in some cases, literally – into the wall. We watch as she travels the world and tries to reinvent herself, all the while desperately seeking to restore that sense of power, that sense of agency, that sense of identity, that she lost throughout the previous two seasons.
From a storytelling perspective, this is a hell of a lot better than having some concerned adults stand around and say “she’s going through a lot right now.” We don’t need that type of scene at all – we’re seeing it. This all goes back to that piece of age-old writing advice: Show, don’t tell.
In season four, we see Korra’s struggle, and this makes it all the more satisfying when she finally restores not just her strength, but her happiness. Korra, like the best heroes, fully earns her “happily ever after” moment.
How Korra Teaches Us to Cope with Mental Illness
So yeah, as the above video mentions – one of the complex issues handled in the Legend of Korra is mental illness. It can be strongly argued that Korra, at the start (and through most) of season four is suffering from PTSD. However, this is not the only way to read this. As someone who suffers from panic disorder (an extreme anxiety condition that occasionally produces panic attacks), I saw a lot of my own condition reflected in this season.
For starters, Korra is searching for her strength. Anyone with anxiety can relate to this. The condition, by its nature, makes us feel weak. Panic attacks are just an example of this helplessness manifesting itself. It can also work through stress, hypochondria, and other symptoms, all of which are disruptive.
And this disruption is evident in Korra. She has to leave Republic City – her life, her friends – all to try and heal herself. Korra’s mental condition has deteriorated to the point that she can no longer function as an adult. Again, panic attacks – especially when you first start experiencing them – can have this consequence.
And like many victims of mental illness, Korra blames herself. She sees it as a sign of weakness, a block she cannot overcome. Like many, she lashes out at the world. In particular, Zaheer.
Now, Korra has ample reason to hate Zaheer – after all, he tried to kill her, violated her, and created an unstable imbalance in the Earth Kingdom, paving the way for Kuvira to rise to power (nice job). She is well within her rights to assign him blame.
That said, not all blame is healthy. Eventually, a traumatic event can become a crutch – an excuse to justify stalled personal growth and repeated unhealthy behavior. In Korra’s case, she tells herself that she can never be well until she faces down Zaheer, until she proves she is stronger than him.
This is faulty logic as it continues to give Zaheer an unnatural amount of power/control in Korra’s life. She is bound to him when she should be focusing on her. Zaheer is gone, defeated, and yet – like so many traumatic scars – Korra can’t let it go.
In mental illness, we can usually point to something, an event or a person, that we feel may have helped “create” our illness. But this is not always healthy. Yes, it may be true, but what does it matter? Dwelling on the past just means giving it control. If you focus too much on why you are the way you are, then you’ll find it hard to move forward.
This message is exemplified beautifully in my favorite sequence from the show (both series):
Sorry for using a clip with a redub, but Nickelodeon has decided it doesn’t want any Korra stuff on YouTube anymore (wish I could say I was surprised).
Point being: This one sequence handles mental illness better than any other piece of television I have seen to date. Season four in general should be commended as it takes its time processing a journey in mental health. Too often, media brushes aside the impact of trauma – using it only as a plot device and then dumping it when it’s no longer convenient (Iron Man 3 and Thor: Ragnarok both do this).
We all struggle, we all have our demons. I think it is very helpful to see this battle in our art, reflected in a way that is true to its nature. Korra, as a protagonist, does a terrific job underscoring some of the painful realities of growing up. There will be struggles – she doesn’t end up where she thought she’d be, with who she thought she’d be with, but she seems happy. That is the journey of a true hero and proof that, when life knocks you down with a villain like mental illness, you too can win if you just keep trying to live your life, and refuse to let what happened define you.
So, in the words of Avatar Aang (sorry again for crappy YouTube quality – enjoy it before Nickelodeon takes it down):