Lowest Point: How Korra Taught the Importance of Personal Growth

Korra season four

“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.

Continue reading Lowest Point: How Korra Taught the Importance of Personal Growth

The Sad Ending to the Avatar Universe

No, I’m not talking about anything having to do with James Cameron.

The sequel series to Avatar: the Last Airbender ended last month. The Legend of Korra enjoyed a finale that many critics and fans loved, with some calling it “the best series finale of 2014.” For my part, I initially was not a big fan of Korra‘s final episode. While I liked the events of the finale, the – everything that happened – portion of it, I was disappointed in the ‘how.’ It just all felt rushed. From the two-minute “forgive me ’cause I’m an orphan” speech by Kuvira to the sudden and controversial final moments between Korra and Asami, I walked away feeling like the season could have really used another episode to explain and flush out the resolution.

We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.
We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.

I actually began writing a post that was dedicated to exploring the resolutions in “The Last Stand,” but my research compelled me to drop it (at least for now). The reality is that something far sadder than a series finale occurred last month. This very likely is the end of the Avatar universe, at least as far as creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are concerned.

The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.
The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.

There is a reason that season four of The Legend of Korra feels like it is missing an episode. It is.

After the immensely poorly handled fiasco that was season three, Nickelodeon felt compelled to interfere again with Legend of Korra. The show’s numbers had evidently fallen (surprise, surprise; when you yank season three off the air halfway through the season and then release season four a month later with little promotion). Nickelodeon must have been losing too much profit for their liking, so they responded by slashing Korra‘s animation budget.

Konietzko and DiMartino apparently received an ultimatum: lose an episode or some of their staff would be let go. Rather than firing anyone, the two came up with a compromise: a clip-show style episode that heavily reused animation. Nickelodeon got to save on costs, no one lost their jobs, and the series did not have to completely lose an episode…

Even Varrick's hilarity could not save Remembrances from feeling really useless.
Even Varrick’s hilarity could not save “Remembrances” from feeling really useless.

Well, they still did. While “Remembrances” (as the clip-episode came to be called) is not in itself completely terrible, it is by far the worst episode of both series. Simply put: not enough happens in it. It is hard, however, to be overtly critical knowing the limitations that were faced. Nothing could happen in this episode, they did not have the money.

This means that Legend of Korra, an extremely fast-paced and tightly written story, lost twenty minutes of storytelling. Audiences can only imagine what the original, uncut, season four storyline might have looked like. Talk about treating one of your highest rated programs with complete disrespect. That would be like if HBO cut Game of Thrones set budget.

Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?
Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?

As if the mishandling of season three and the mistreatment of season four weren’t enough interference, Nickelodeon was apparently very limiting in another aspect of the show:

They're bisexual - you gotta deal with it.
They’re bisexual – you gotta deal with it.

Yes, it turns out that (spoilers) bisexuality is not an identity that Nickelodeon promotes. In his comments addressing the show’s ending, Konietzko handled it as politely and publicly correct as possible: “while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it.” That’s the nicest way possible of saying they were restrictive. If you are at a table with someone who has cookies and you ask for a cookie, they can be as nice as they want… while still not giving you the cookie. They can support your decision to want a cookie til the cows come home but you’re still hungry at the end of the day.

What is more troubling is the timing of Nickelodeon’s mishandling of the series. Reading the creators words on the dubbed “Korrasami” relationship (isn’t the internet just so clever?), it becomes clear that the idea of the two having a romantic relationship become much more concrete after season two. Seasons three and four were meant to be the set-up. Hmmm, now what two seasons did Nickelodeon really interfere with? I am not accusing the corporation of homophobia, but it is a little unsettling to have these timelines line up.

Suicide? That's fine, just make sure the two women don't kiss!
Suicide? That’s fine, just make sure the two women don’t kiss!

Regardless of what happened, one thing is clear: Konietzko and DiMartino have grown too mature for Nickelodeon. Who can really blame them after everything that happened with Korra? It does not sound anything like the successful partnership that occurred with Avatar: the Last Airbender. You can bet the two have a future project planned, they have said as much themselves. The sad news is: it is not Avatar related.

The two are moving on, likely to a studio or network (Netflix, HBO) that allows more artistic freedom. While this is likely a great move and I eagerly await their next series, it is sad that this is how the Avatar universe ends. There will be more comic books, which is nice I guess… but it appears unlikely that Nickelodeon will ever produce another series (after some feel that they tried actively to kill Korra) and even less likely that it will involve the two creators. This was an incredible universe that spanned two extraordinary shows. Even if its “cartoon” status prevented it from earning the acclaim of Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black, both Korra and Avatar accomplished something truly special.

It is just a shame that this good-bye tastes so bitter.

"Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn't made a movie about us yet."
“Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn’t made a movie about us yet.”

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It's Actually Better the Second Time Around: Korra and Mako

Like many people out there, I am a huge fan of the Avatar: the Last Airbender animated series. Also like many people, I was really excited when the creator’s of said show announced their new, sequel project, The Legend of Korra. However, you may remember in another article that I wrote, that I expressed my feelings on some rather serious concerns with this new series. Much of the great character writing that had highlighted the first show was missing and The Legend of Korra suffered quite a few problems that held it back from being anything close to great, at least in taking the first season by itself.

And then there's these two.
And then there’s these two.

One of my chief problems was the relationship between protagonist, Korra and non-existent character, Mako. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here: I simply never felt the relationship worked. Mainly because Korra (being hot-headed, quick-tempered, loves-to-argue) did not make sense to match up with Mako (more serious, level-headed, dumps-his-first-girlfriend-as-soon-as-she’s-poor… didn’t-really-have-much-character-beyond-that). Yes, you could understand an initial attraction, but a long term relationship seemed a more outlandish idea than bending the elements.

Part of what makes this season an improvement is that they begin to define the character of Mako and give him some much needed personality.
Part of what makes this season an improvement is that they begin to define the character of Mako and give him some much needed personality.

So let’s get into season two, set a full six months after season one and Korra and Mako are still together… somehow. The audience gets the sense that not much conflict has happened in this time, which makes the idea of the two of them surviving together more believable. The peace is not long to last though as wild spirits show up and tensions arise between Korra and the two parental male figures in her life: Tenzin (her mentor) and Tonraq (her father).

In comes Mako to diffuse the situation… with expected results. Korra explodes at him and the two get into a heated argument, every time. Mako even admits that he doesn’t feel comfortable expressing himself around Korra, asking essentially if she would to hear his opinion or simply something she would agree with. The signs are there that the relationship is not in paradise but… it keeps going.

This is the common pose of the season for Korra and Mako.
This is the common pose of the season for Korra and Mako.

Meanwhile Bolin has entered into a relationship with Eska, Korra’s cousin from the Northern Water Tribe. Eska is very obviously manipulative, controlling, and all-around crazy so Bolin naturally seeks advice on how to end the relationship. He goes to his older brother and the two have a conversation that is one of the smarter scenes in the entire season. Mako advises Bolin to simply break off, that dragging out a bad relationship is like allowing a leech to hang onto skin. Great advice but the audience wonders if Mako should be listening to himself talk.

Poor relationships are actually a common theme in the season as it is revealed that Aang did not have the best relationship with his children.
Poor relationships are actually a common theme in the season as it is revealed that Aang did not have the best relationship with his children.

Here is where the great realistic writing reenters the series. Mako is communicating thoughts that he is already subconsciously feeling but having trouble expressing directly: his brother’s crappy relationship echoes his own but is not his, so he can see it clearer and be more objective.

It’s not hard to see where this is going: eventually Korra and Mako get into a serious fight and Mako announces that he is finished. Korra goes off and does some Avatar stuff (losing a chunk of her memory in the process… boy I hope that doesn’t arbitrarily create drama later) and Mako rekindles his relationship with Asami. Why Asami is so quick to take him back is beyond me but at least the two of them have some chemistry together.

The final argument that breaks up Korra and Mako. Told you it was a common pose.
The final argument that breaks up Korra and Mako. Told you it was a common pose.

But anyway, remember how I mentioned that Korra lost a bit of her memory? Guess which part exactly. So Korra comes back, thinking everything’s fine and Mako… rekindles that relationship as well, dramatically hurting Asami in the process.

Asami looking both hurt and angry at Mako's inability to be mature and decide his relationships.
Asami looking both hurt and angry at Mako’s inability to be mature and decide his relationships.

I know I prefaced this as “arbitrary drama” but I actually think that the writing staff deserves a lot of credit for accurately portraying bad relationships: sometimes they’re hard to get out of. Mako dodges the harder conflict in favor of an easier one but just ends up creating more problems for himself.

Korra, of course, regains her full memory at the end of season two and confronts Mako about the break up. Here is the first moment where Korra genuinely becomes the strong character she has been purported to be all series. She is the one to directly come out and state that they, despite loving each other, do not work as a couple and that they are romantically done.

“I think we both know that this… us… doesn’t work” – Korra “You’re right. I’ll always love you, Korra.” – Mako “And I’ll always love you.” – Korra

This is a powerful moment that shows how much Korra has evolved since the start of the series. She has matured and is learning to calm her temper, while also learning to trust her instincts as a person and not just as the Avatar. Mako, by contrast, is revealed as the less mature of the two: someone who still needs to learn how to be more direct with his feelings and take more responsibility for his actions.

Again, I cannot praise the romantic writing (at least in regards to Korra and Mako) enough this season. First and foremost: this is a show intended for all audiences and Korra is a wonderful role model this season. Too often media (television shows and movies in particular) goes only the dramatic route of ending relationships – just look at Disney’s Frozen for an example of that. The Legend of Korra takes the more complex approach: the idea that two people can love each other but not be right for one another. Korra and Mako are not done as friends and they are not done in each others lives.

There was no drama, no unnecessary turn of character traits. No one became evil. The Legend of Korra has started writing its characters as people, and that bodes really well for the remaining three seasons.

Also they brought back Uncle Iroh, that's just awesome.
Also they brought back Uncle Iroh, that’s just awesome.