Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 1 Review

Recently, I started watching The Legend of Korra.

And I love it.

So, in the interest of writing about things I love - I’m endeavoring to jot down some of my ideas as I watch. At first, I planned on a casual liveblog, as a new format that encourages brevity and faster updates… but then I consumed the entire first season way too quickly to give any kind of play-by-play.

The good news is that I’ve pressed pause between Seasons 1 and 2 so that I’m able to write a season review! Half live-blog, half-analysis, I intend on it being a bundle of my thoughts and feelings in season-long batches. Those of you who have seen the whole show can point and laugh at all the things I don’t know yet, and all the emotions that haven’t yet destroyed me. (I do know the final shot though. I don’t live under a rock.)


A dear friend of mine introduced me to Avatar: The Last Airbender maybe four years ago, and I’m embarrassed to say it took me a stupid amount of time to get through the show. (Three of those four years, basically. I told you it was embarrassing.) For some reason, I needed time to adjust to the world, and my fondness for the characters was a slow build - almost as slow as me getting around to watching each next episode. But eventually, something hooked, and I started snowballing. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I love the show dearly. It does very lovely things with its characters and themes, and there’s so much heart and humor at its core.

I tell you about my experience with Avatar not because it’s particularly interesting, but because it’s necessary. At first Avatar was presented to me on the mere premise of I think you will like this show, but then Korra premiered, and the recommendation leveled up to you must watch this show because Korra is waiting for you. And after just one season of Korra, I can say that this is true. Korra feels like a heart-and-soul show for me, but I can’t imagine loving it as much without the foundation that Avatar built.

This is absolutely part of the show’s construction, though. Korra picks up 60 years after Avatar left off, giving itself perfect opportunities to cash in on the immediate questions the scenario entails. What happened to each of our kids? Where are Katara, and Sokka, and Zuko, and Toph? What kinds of lives did they lead? What kind of world did they help create? How do the events of Korra relate to the events of Avatar? Katara shows up in the first five minutes, as if to say, “Don’t worry, friends. You’re home.” Then we meet Tenzin, and Lin, and eventually Iroh, and we have connections to the old world that immediately draw us in and make us want to learn more. The mere premise of the show invites devotion, and as it marches on, the showrunners employ this emotional engagement with panache.

Have I mentioned I love the art of this show?

But it’s not like Korra relies solely on its history without creating anything of its own. The show wastes no time expanding its world in one swift motion - and oh, what a world it is. Republic City is brand-new and bustling, gleaming with art deco extravagance and looming threats of danger to come. (I love the STYLE of this show. It’s so unique and dynamic and textured.) There’s organized sports, organized crime, social unrest, and a well-orchestrated police force - all introduced and made breathing within the first two episodes. Korra takes its pre-existing world and isn’t lazy with it; rather bursting it forward with its own life and unique conflict.

With this distinct world comes distinct differences, mixing uniquely with distinct characterizations. The role of the Avatar in Korra is not the same as the role Aang played. Aang, as a hero, functioned in the narrative as an “only hope,” with extinction behind him and a long path to rebuilding a world of promise. This is a classic hero’s journey - he is chosen, to vanquish an evil and restore balance to a burning world. But by contrast, Aang’s emotional journey isn’t as archetypal. As any hero, he has to overcome internal obstacles, but unlike most heroes, these fears are connected largely to guilt and grief.

Korra, on the other hand, is inverse. She is not chosen in the embers of a once-great civilization - she inherits a vibrant world that may still be too new to stand strong. She is burdened not with building, but with maintaining, and where Aang was tasked with staying hidden, Korra must exist in the spotlight. The Avatar is a public position, and she is in full view of an entire civilization, with its own political strife, criminal robber barons, and social division. Her mistakes are on display for all to judge, next to the expectation of her status and the yet-developed mastery of her skill.

Korra smash!  Korra has archetypal Hero weaknesses!

What makes this even more interesting is that Korra is the one with the classic hero’s flaws - her emotional obstacles align more closely to archetype. She is impatient; she has a temper; she struggles to connect with the spiritual world. She is fearful of her mortality, headstrong - maybe even a little arrogant - and she occasionally rebels against the teachings. This is the Young Hero as we know him - which is why Korra is even more unique; this is the Young Hero as we know her. Plug that into her context of maintaining a civilization instead of building one and we’ve got ourselves a fresh and dimensional take on the typical tropes we’ve seen before.

Between Korra’s role in a fully-developed new world, and the conflicts created by the Equalist movement (Amon), the government (Tarrlok), and the corporation (Hiroshi Sato) -- Korra excels at dimensionality right out of the gate. What’s frustrating, then, is the one part of the show that is disappointingly flat: the love triangle.

Love triangles are tropy, risky business. They are often sexist, boring, trite, and oversimplified. Rarely are triangles a worthwhile endeavor, purely because there’s little to do: Character A likes Character B! Character B likes Character C! Character B is confused! Character A’s feelings are hurt! Character C feels awkward! Character A doesn’t hate Character C, but maybe a little bit! There’s no easy resolution, and yet that doesn’t necessarily propagate compelling drama along the way. Triangles are best when no one’s a bad guy, everyone’s developed, and all the relationships are earned. (Bonus points if the relationships connect thematically to the narrative. But not too much. They’re supposed to be people, not ideas.)

The love triangle on Korra is not ship-shape (no pun intended) with this criteria, frankly. Yes, no one’s really a bad guy. Two-thirds of the characters are developed. But… none of the relationships are earned.

Asami knows a bad triangle when she sees one.

Let’s start with Asami and Mako. They just seem to be paired off because they had a nice meet-cute and two hot people start dating, right? Especially if it will anger the main character. (Sucks to be you, Character A!) They have a mildly charming date, sure. They seem to like each other, sure. But nothing’s really constructed for them. They’re just… there.

But hold your sky bison: Mako-and-Korra is equally left-field-adjacent. Mako’s original brooding-grumpy-guy facade fades into… generic attractive talented guy? Korra’s a catch because she’s… the Avatar? There’s not enough to support the relationship. There’s not even a moment where Mako makes a choice to help Korra fight the Equalists. At first he needs to save his brother. Then, after that, he just… does.

So both suggested sides of this triangle suffer from a complete lack of deservedness, and during most triangle-related scenes, I found myself chanting “you haven’t earned this” at my screen. Thankfully, I know how this all ends, so my patience wears a little stronger than it would otherwise. (The anticipation also helps.)

There’s the fact too that Mako hasn’t quite earned his place as the Romantic Lead and Alpha Male that the show has tried to bequeath him. This wouldn’t be so bad, except he’s the hinge Character B, which frankly is the load-bearing element of a Love Triangle. Character B has to be well-developed and sturdy. We need POV, we need motivation, we need backstory, we need empathy. With Mako? We have little. He has the typical orphan origin story, but the show didn’t find any reason to give us more information. He makes no real choices that define his character, and the only time he’s shown any exceptional pluck was fighting off blood bending to save Korra’s life. (In episode 12 of 12. We waited awhile.)

Same, guys.  Same.

Meanwhile, supporting characters are far outshining. Namely, Asami Sato, daughter of the city’s richest businessman. The city's richest businessman who also happens to be funding the bad guys, and a super terrible dad to boot. When Asami forsakes her relationship with her father and chooses instead to fight directly against him - well, this kind of choice skyrockets her one step down from Main Character status, impeded from full target mostly because the show is called The Legend of Korra, not The Legend of Asami. She defies stereotype, is sharply-defined, and makes a Big Choice. And, awkwardly, she’s the other leg of this triangle. Character B, our load-bearing character, is officially the weakest.

But even despite the flaws of the triangle, Season 1 deploys a well-developed, richly-detailed, and emotionally-resonant batch of episodes. It has a strong point of view, fleshed-out characters, and the same brand of heart and humor that its predecessor embodied. Both connected to its past but rumbling towards its future, The Legend of Korra stands on its own as a series, with a fantastic Hero at its center. I’m endlessly curious about where things will go from here.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have more episodes to watch. But first, a Season 1 Round-up:

To quote several text messages that I sent during the course of my viewing: LIN BEIFONG IS MY EVERYTHING. Set up as both curmudgeonly and heroic, Lin is a badass pillar of noble stoicism and justice. She steps down from Chief of Police not because of injury or shame, but because she needs to pursue her enemies without the restrictions of her position. DAMN, WOMAN. And even though she gruffly dismisses Korra and keeps Tenzin’s family at arm’s length, she ultimately throws herself headfirst into danger to protect them. What a lady. 
For a serious answer, probably Tenzin and Korra, or Lin and Tenzin. But I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch a show where Asami drives around the city while Bolin creates ramps for her to speed off of.
Moments of choice will always be one of the most powerful tools that you can include in a narrative, and the biggest choice in Book One goes to Asami. That beautiful airless moment where she seems to accept her father’s offer to join the Equalists - only to refuse, and turn his electrified glove back on him. DAMN, WOMAN. This moment tells us everything we need to know about Asami, and jettisons the character into a new realm. Someone give this lady more scenes. The emotional content is too good to be left alone.
  • FAVORITE SCENE (Look, I’m cheating. So sue me.)
What I love so much about the final scene is the message communicated about the role of the hero in this narrative. So often, heroes, as Chosen Ones, experience a burden of isolation. From Buffy to Harry Potter, a destiny of greatness has long signified emotional alienation and disconnection. No matter the Rons or Willows, Gileses or Dumbledores - the Hero is the Chosen One. When the chips are down, he or she walks alone.
For the Avatar, however, deep personal challenge results in spiritual connection. When Korra is faced with her Dark Night of the Soul, she doesn’t have to be alone to weather the tumult. Instead, she has the full lineage of Avatar history at her spiritual disposal. When she is in the crucible, so are they, and our Hero is not truly alone. She is connected to power through solidarity, not isolated in her power from normalcy. What a comforting expression to impart to the audience; what a thing to show young people about enduring pain and finding strength.


  1. Hi Dr!
    I have this burning question: see, for some reason, even though I've heard wonderful things about Avatar, I've never felt like watching it. Yet, for some reason, I do want to watch Korra. Maybe it's the setting (a bit more modern-day, it seems), maybe it's the Korra character herself - she sounds more interesting to be that her previous male counterpart. Who knows.

    So my question is: is it possible to watch Korra without having watched Avatar? Maybe some quick summary on Avatar will do? what do you think?

    PS I know this is a lost cause, but this final season of Glee is turning out to be be, generally, much better than the last few, and the writers finally seem to be paying (most of) the characters some respect. Would you consider continuing your wonderful recaps once again? Pease? :)

    1. Hi Hugo! I totally understand that feeling - Korra does have a more modern setting, a female hero, and older leads, which makes it a tad more appealing at the start.

      To answer your question - sure, it's possible! I think a quick rundown of the events of Avatar would be helpful, as well as an understanding of the mythos of the Avatar role in that universe. There are some things from Avatar that are carried over to Korra without too much ground-floor exposition, so doing a little reading would probably help.

      As for enjoyment - I think Korra is more rewarding to watch if you have Avatar under your belt, just because you have more emotional engagement going in, and the tie-ins to the previous series will have more meaning. But! I'd be curious to see someone's perspective on Korra without having watched Avatar, for sure.

      I'll think about Glee recaps! There's definitely a part of me that would love to have a complete set... but then I think about how much time that would take... and I get lazy.... haha. I'm glad to hear the writers are doing less infuriating things to their characters though! :)


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