Last week I wrote a bit about the television series The Legend of Korra and its issues with pacing and conflict, and how writers can learn from it. Today, I’m going to write about its biggest problem – Korra itself.
When I first heard about the idea for Korra, I was instantly sold: this time around, the Avatar is a late-teens, super confident girl set in a steampunk-ish world. I liked this setup, and still do – everything about it is new! The Avatar’s a waterbender, she’s older, and she’s a she – something we hadn’t seen before much, either in this series or on television, period.
And in the first episode, it was clear that the writers very much were trying to do something new with Korra: rather than being the tropey reluctant Chosen One boy, she’s a tough, impetuous, brassy, cool, buff girl who’s eager to take on any challenge – mainly by kicking it right in the face.
This, too, is a cool idea.
And that’s where the problem is – it’s a cool idea.
This isn’t a person. It’s an outline of a person, a series of objectives that the writers set out to accomplish: a strong female character who’s aggressive, rebellious, and confident. It’s good that they did this, and I was sold on the idea from the very get-go. But in order to make the actual character work, it needs to be in dialogue with the plot and the other characters – and Korra repeatedly struggled to accomplish this. The character of Korra herself often felt isolated, detached, and superficial, only as deep as the image itself.
So you’ve got a cool character. Now what? Now, the character has to engage with and be tested by the plot. The plot (usually) needs to speak to some problem within the character, forcing them to change or grow. But Korra remained largely unchanged by the plot of the first season, which was:
Korra: Bending is awesome!
Amon/normal population: Bending causes inherent inequality and leaves many of us voiceless and powerless.
Korra: But… uh…. Look at me airbend!
I spoke to this a little bit in my previous post – these conflicts aren’t resolved and are mostly just dropped in the second season – but it’s valid on a character level, too. How does Korra engage with the arguments of her opponents? What’s her answer? Does she think about the problem at all? What parallels are there between her and Amon? How are they alike, how are they different, and what does this say about their individual stances?
None of this is explored, partially because the show doesn’t explore Amon at all. We never really get to know the man behind the mask, so it’s not possible for he and Korra to be in a dialogue. I don’t think she ever has anything even close to a heart-to-heart, or any kind of discussion at all, with her main adversary. All in all, Korra is in conversation with no one and no thing in the first season, and as such she doesn’t learn much. You can’t learn if you’re not listening.
And that’s my main issue with Korra: the character is very, very slow to change, if it changes at all. Because she isn’t in dialogue with the conflicts in the first and second seasons, there’s no opportunity for her to learn and grow. At the start of the second season, she brags about how she “kicked Amon’s butt” – even though her victory was largely an improbable, lucky shot. But she doesn’t think about being less headstrong, less aggressive, and more contemplative in her actions, despite these same characteristics causing her considerable punishment in the first season. And this doesn’t change much throughout the show, until the very final season.
This was an issue with the final conflict in the Avatar series as well: Aang wins because a spiritual outsider teaches him a previously unknown method of bending. In the first season of Korra, Korra wins because she miraculously learns airbending at the right moment, and then she gets her full bending back because she suddenly learns how to contact her past lives – again, the spiritual outsider swooping in to help her. In the second season, she was victorious by using some kind of crazy-ass energy-bending/projection thingy to defeat Unalak – something we didn’t know she could do. And in the fourth season, she was victorious by using the Avatar state to absorb and redirect spiritual energy – something we didn’t know she could do.
Some of this is justified, but there’s a real tendency toward escape-hatch logic here: there’s always a spiritual or mystic “out” that allows the characters to get around a hard decision. Korra gets her ass kicked right up until she finds that “out,” which causes her to instantaneously win. It’s often not an “earned” out – it’s not part of a larger character arc, requiring her to change, grow, or compromise in other to achieve it – it’s just an out. It’s not satisfying to watch, because it feels like a weak person using a technicality to win.
And that’s another feature of Korra that started to wear thin pretty quick: throughout Korra, the Avatar’s default state is one of weakness. Korra gets her ass handed to her regularly by Amon, her uncle Unalak, and Kuvira. She starts out each season (except for season three, which smartly kept her fully capable and confident) as being incapable of doing something – airbending, spirit soothing (or whatever), and then finally fighting at all – and she slams into problem after problem until finally someone comes along to either show her how to do it or to help her through the transformation.
This gets old, and it also undermines the show’s position that Korra is a “strong” female character – she is constantly outmatched for most of the show’s run, frequently by men. This was an inherent problem the show was always going to run into: how do you write a series about an adult, fully-powered Avatar, a person that’s more or less a living god? But by making Korra constantly weak, it suggested that the issue was one of character – Korra wasn’t good at being the Avatar because she basically just didn’t have her shit together. She didn’t think things through and she didn’t listen to others.
(This also sheds light on some problems inherent in the Avatar universe: it’s a pretty shitty system if, every time an Avatar dies, the whole world has to wait 15-20 years for its cosmic referee to come back. I imagine the citizens of the world thinking, “Oh, man, I can’t wait for the Avatar to stop going through puberty and pitching tantrums every goddamn week.” In some ways, this was a structural problem the show never really thought its way around.)
There’s also the issue of Korra being constantly marred and traumatized specifically by men: Amon took her bending away, Zahir poisoned her and crippled her spirit, and I never really quite understood what Unalak did but it seemed to screw her up plenty, too. There’s a running theme here that I find distasteful, these men making war literally upon her body, taking control of it and using it against her. In a lot of ways, the real conflict in season four isn’t between Korra and the show’s first female villain, Kuvira: it’s Korra trying to deal with the emotional scars inflicted upon her by men who have taken control of her body.
Was this intentional? It’s tough to say, but I don’t quite think so. If the show wasn’t willing to intelligently investigate the problems of its own world – the inequality of bending and the Avatar itself – I’m not willing to give it enough credit to say that the show was trying to make some kind of searing statement on the treatment of women in contemporary society. It could have – but I don’t think that’s what the show set out to do.
What’s rough is that the show did have a way around these issues, and it used them in its strongest season, Season Three. The way that Season Three succeeded was that it stopped making the show about the Avatar, and more about the world she lived in.
In season three, Jinora has a marvelous, well-thought-out arc that leads to what might be one of the show’s most beautiful moment. The entire Air Nation plot is probably one of the most emotionally involving ones the show ever achieved. In fact, Tenzin’s whole family, which were previously just comic relief in season 2, all play terrific, emotionally honest and engaging roles. As does Lin Bei Fong, one of the show’s standout characters, who is finally forced to deal with her huge issues with her own sibling – another strong, terrific female character the show does quite well.
And Korra actually grows in this season: she chooses self-sacrifice in order to save the lives of Tenzin’s family over her usual method, rampaging in and wracking havoc. She behaves differently. She does something new. And she isn’t saved by some spiritual trick, she’s saved by all the works she’d done before: finding, building up, protecting, and freeing the Air Nation. She’s saved by the friends she’s personally fought to empower. Korra is saved by her own love for others – something that, as a literal nation builder, should happen more often to the Avatar.
In all, Korra succeeds in the same places Avatar succeeded: as a family saga show. When it comes to old family grudges, bad history, and pent-up-emotions for your loved ones, Korra performs beautifully. This is likely why, for many people, Zuko’s arc in Avatar is the most compelling one. The world and magic are interesting – but when they intertwine with intimate, personal relationships, the show flings its wings out, and takes flight. This is also why Season Two was so terrifically disappointing for me: for the first time, we get to learn about the Avatar’s living family, and the show just kind of blows it.
And this is partially why I found the fourth season’s bigass reveal – that Korra was, if not gay, then at least bisexual, and was about to embark on a relationship with Asami – actually kind of disappointing. These shows are really good at emotional relationships. And while there have been suggestions of a close relationship for some time, it wasn’t quite as set up as well as, say, Jinora’s arc in Season Three. For a long time Asami, like Mako and Bolin, was a character the show just wasn’t sure what it wanted to do with. Her arc with her father, introduced late into Season Four, felt a bit rushed to me, as if they needed to find something for Asami to do.
When writing a relationship, you need to ask – how did these characters grow to achieve this relationship? How have they changed, either of their own initiative or in reaction to an event in the world? How is this earned, by the characters or the plot?
For Korra, I found myself asking if the final moment – one of mutual understanding and sympathy, a profound sense of harmony – was really earned. Because Korra and Asami seemed to have little do with one another for a lot of Season Four, mostly working alongside each other, but never quite connecting in the way that, say, Zuko and Katara did in the Avatar show – a relationship that was platonic, but still came to a surprisingly emotional height in the final conflict of the show.
In the Avatar series, Zuko and Katara butted heads and talked about their feelings – their relationship really mattered, as a comment on what was happening in the show. They had histories and problems, they were both screwed up people who kind of knew that they were screwed up. Korra and Asami never really quite connected on that same level, much like how the show’s previous matchup – Korra and Mako – also lacked connection. It was, again, rife with disconnection – much like how Korra was never fully engaged with the conflicts of this show, I struggled to believe that the characters were ever fully engaged with each other.
I don’t know if the makers of Avatar and Korra will get a shot at another show. It seems unlikely. But if they do, I hope they plan it out more. I hope they know the endpoint they’re shooting for, and all the structures and arcs they need to put in place in order to reach that endpoint in the most satisfying way possible. And if they don’t make another show, I hope writers and readers and audience members will learn from what they saw, and use what they learned to measure and consider what they’re reading, watching, or writing.