How The Legend of Korra Let Me Down

| Friday, June 29, 2012
Today's Tune: Kiss With A Fist

The following post will contain SUPER MASSIVE SPOILERS for both the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series and its followup, The Legend of Korra. Also, this post will be super long. YE HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED AND STUFF.

When I heard Nickelodeon was bringing back the Avatar universe for a brand new series, I was ridiculously excited. Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the most beautiful, entertaining, and best characterized television series I'd ever seen. I anticipated the pilot of The Legend of Korra with a ridiculous fervor, and you might recall that I wrote a lengthy post about the first two episodes, what they might mean for the perception of female protagonists, and excitement for the development of the series.

In a few aspects, the first book of the new series contained the things I'd been hoping for. More great characters to love (LIN BEIFONG FOR PRESIDENT OF ALL THINGS), an interesting and updated setting that maintained the charm of the original, gorgeous animation, and fight scenes that absolutely blew me away.

Unfortunately, as the series progressed, I began to worry. The original series was an epic, sprawling thing with a grand quest and lots of character development over the course of months/years, as is typical of many Middle Grade fantasies. With this new series, the creators decided to go a very different direction -- a much smaller-scale setting (no traveling for months across the entire world), a more immediate threat, an aged-up cast, and a much shorter timeline (important events happen within days or weeks, rather than months). The season was originally intended as a 12-episode mini-series, rather than the usual 20-some episode season, so the storyline was written to be wrapped up by the end of Episode 12. Where the original series took three entire seasons to prepare the Avatar for the final showdown with The Big Bad, this series had to take it on right away.

All of these factors combined in a way that didn't give quite the same level of world-and-character building the original series had, which might have been okay if they'd spun it the right way. But then the romance struck.

The original series was not without its romantic subplots. Hardly! There were several. All of the major characters experienced crushes, or dated. There were a number of kisses and even some implied sexuality. The fandom, myself included, LOVED it, and the creators enjoyed relentlessly trolling us with the will-they-won't-they-who-will-end-up-with-who giddiness of it all. The creators and writers clearly took note of this fact and decided to up the ante and include a substantial romantic subplot throughout the first season of Korra.

Sadly, it fell woefully, terribly flat.

What went wrong? Why did a large portion of the fandom (myself included) have such an adverse reaction to the inclusion of the romantic plot between Korra and Mako? Well, to start, it felt to me that the writers were trying to recreate the much-beloved pairing of Zuko and Katara, but it didn't work at all. Although Korra is Water Tribe, her personality far more closely matches Sokka's physically-inclined bull-headedness than Katara's emotion and empathy. Likewise, Mako can't pull off tortured jerk like Zuko can. The potential backstory was there -- protective big brother who lost his parents young and had to make a life for himself and his younger brother -- but it wasn't developed enough to make me feel that Mako's occasional jerkass behavior was understandable. Zuko had to go through extensive character development and growth (BEST CHARACTER ARC OF ALL TIME I MEAN REALLY) before his motivations became understandable, even admirable. Mako didn't have that.

In fact, the place I felt this series stumbled the most was in character development. There just wasn't enough time dedicated to getting to know the characters' personalities as there was in the original. Some characters had an easily accessible personality (Bolin, Tenzin), while others were more stoic and difficult to get to know. In addition, characterization was spotty -- a character would display an interesting trait, only to have it forgotten about by the next episode. This may be improved upon in the next season. We'll see. Korra's characterization in particular bothered me. I liked the consistency of her physicality and hot-headedness, and that she was allowed some vulnerability -- she felt scared, she worried she'd fail. However, I just didn't buy her strong personality matched up against Mako's rather bland characterization. I couldn't get invested in their relationship because I didn't understand what attracted her to him beyond... his being a cute pro bender? Who was kind of a giant jerk to her the first time he met her? And a few times after that? And cheated on his girlfriend with her...? I don't know.

And then came the love triangle. I think this may have been the franchise's first legitimate love triangle (square)? I mean, there was some cross-crushing going on in the original, and a few of the major players dated multiple characters, but as far as I remember, there was nothing like the Mako-Korra-Bolin shenanigans. On that note, KORRA. Y U NO LIKE BOLIN INSTEAD. I almost (ALMOST. ALMOST.) can't blame teen boys for thinking that girls don't go for the nice guy they actually have something in common with. It's like writers intentionally write in a funny, cool guy who actually has a lot of chemistry with the protagonist, and then they go LOL NOPE SHE'S GONNA GO WITH THE HOT-BUT-BORING GUY, occasionally committing character assassination in the process (JACOB BLACK, I AM SO SORRY SHE MADE YOU DO THOSE THINGS).

See also: Asami got crapped on a whole lot. Why. I am incredibly grateful to the writers for giving us this really cool lady with amazing style and fabulous makeup who's also a whiz with the vehicles and completely not a jerk in any way whatsoever. This could have so easily gone over into "make Korra's rival for Mako's affection a stereotypical stupid/mean girl," but Asami is remarkably amazing. And for being genuinely nice and skilled and really awesome she gets... a boyfriend who cheats on her and loses her only remaining family and her home and basically life as she knew it. I MEAN REALLY. I ASK YOU.

As much as I absolutely LOATHE admitting this because I really wanted something more out of this new series, it really felt like The Legend of Korra fell into a lot of traps that YA often finds itself stuck in. The romantic subplot didn't feel organic and it took over valuable story/character time. The supposedly "meant to be" couple didn't seem to click (why do they like each other exactly...?). I mean, Korra had a lot of amazing qualities and I could totally see people being all over that, but Mako's reason for liking her was... I don't know, she's the Avatar and when she was kidnapped he worried about her? Or something? And her reason for liking him... I still don't know. But then they're in love? And they're talking about their non-relationship when there are waaaaaay more pressing things going on? I mean, sure, I am all for making out when you think shit's about to get real, but MAKO. YOU HAVE AN AWESOMESAUCE GIRLFRIEND. AT LEAST GO BREAK UP WITH HER FIRST I MEAN WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING. I am supposed to get butterflies when you kiss. THERE ARE NO BUTTERFLIES ANYWHERE IN MY VICINITY. GUYS. GUYS. WHERE ARE THE BUTTERFLIES.

Okay I'm done wharrgarbling about the romance now. Now I will blather about the finale because COME OOONNNNNN.

When I watched the original Avatar series, one of the things I loved the most was the way that show broke my heart and amped up the stakes with real emotional crescendos that were not easily fixed. At the end of Book 2, Aang almost dies, and in the process, he's blocked from accessing the Avatar state -- his primary source of power. It takes all of Book 3 for him to figure out how to deal with this and unlock it again. He's forced to go through a lot of introspection and deal with being an Avatar without his full power. There's some criticism of the original series finale being a bit of a Deux Ex Machina, and I get that, but at the same time, I thought it worked because it felt EARNED. Aang had paid his dues and he deserved the big showdown.

The finale of Korra, however... hhhhnnnngggg. It's one big magical Band-Aid. There were some BIG losses this season. Lin, who should still be President of All the Things, lost her bending in a heart-wrenching moment of sacrifice. Korra! Our heroine! Our Avatar! Lost most of her bending, too. These are really huge, emotional moments. So much of who they are and their sense of power and worth is tied to their bending. How would they deal with that? What kind of personal journey would they have to go on to rediscover who they are and how they fit into the world now?

OH RIGHT, NONE. BECAUSE THE AVATAR STATE CAN UNDO ALL OF THAT RIGHT AWAY. That's it! There's no growth or change or dealing with the loss. No denouement or resolution or time to absorb what happened. All better now! Like it never happened! Do not even get me started on Korra's sudden ability to access her spiritual side and immediately master the Avatar State. WHEN EXACTLY DID SHE LEARN TO DO THIS, WRITERS. Did she even train with Tenzin anymore after about the halfway point?

I whine about this all the time, but that's because an ending like this can just ruin a story for me: YOUR CHARACTERS MUST EARN THEIR ENDING. You can't just take it all back. You can't bring all the dead characters back to life, you can't shove the bad guy off a pier without a proper climax, and YOU CAN'T USE A MAGICAL BAND-AID TO RESTORE EVERYTHING TO ITS ORIGINAL STATE. AAAARGH.

Also: so, what's going on with all the unrest the non-benders were experiencing at the hands of the benders again? Are all their legitimate complaints brushed under the rug now that Amon is out of the picture? The Triads get to go terrorize innocent shopkeepers again? SEE THIS PLOT THREAD? DANGLING. I was really disappointed in this turn. The original series was so good at inclusion and portraying oppression in a really interesting way, and it felt like all of that took a backseat to more kissy-face time for Mako and Korra. This is a big deal! These people were ready to go to war because they felt oppressed! We're really just going to leave that there? I honest-to-goodness hope that they're planning on exploring that storyline more in the next season.

I realize I just went on a giant screed, but it's coming from a place of love. I'm so disappointed BECAUSE I love this show so much. Or rather, I loved the initial promise and potential of it. I love that Korra is undoubtedly female, but still displays incredible strength. I love the music, the animation, the choreography. I love the humor and adventure. I loved the promise those initial seeds of story planted. I only wish they'd come to fruition in a way that didn't feel like a hasty wrap-up. Korra was originally intended to be a 12-episode mini-series, and I know that. I know that it was entirely possible that there would be no additional seasons after this one, and they needed an ending that would satisfy their target audience, despite its implausibility. But I wanted MORE out of those episodes.

And, damn it, I hate that this is going to end up as one more example in the many examples of how a poorly executed romantic subplot can screw with the entire feel of a story. These writers can write butterfly-inducing, adorable romance. I know they can. I've seen them do it. I don't know if this was an attempt to appeal to the large female viewership or what, but seriously. STORY FIRST. Most of all, I'm pissed that people will use this as a reason to bash female protagonists and their wacky little girl hijinks like nonsensical lovey-dovey junk. DISPLEASED.

A note: you should also go read this blog post for a more in-depth exploration of the exact plot points that fell flat, the misused story structure, and more.

So, to end, here's my wishlist for Book 2.

1) If you're going to include the romance, pleasegodplease build the characterization up more and make me believe it.
2) Revisit the non-bending movement and explore their very valid concerns.
3) More Lin. Lin forever. Tenzin can be there too.
4) Throw Asami a bone. I mean really.
5) More Pabu and Naga hijinks.
6) More incredible fight scenes those are good keep them kthx.
8) More Sokka memories. All of the Sokka memories. Toph too. And Zuko. Just bring the GAang back okay.
9) Real stakes and struggles, dudes. No easy fixes.
10) More jokes. I like jokes. Episode dedicated to Bolin, maybe?

Yeah. So, these are all my Korra feels. Despite all of this, it was still thrilling to see more of the Avatar world and I loved a lot of it. There were times I felt genuine tension, sorrow, and joy. I'll continue watching in the hopes of feeling more.

So. Your thoughts?


{ Becky Mahoney } at: June 29, 2012 at 6:28 AM said...

Nothing to add from me - just ALL THE HIGH-FIVES FOR THIS POST. <3

{ Matthew MacNish } at: June 29, 2012 at 7:55 AM said...

I don't have time to read this whole thing, but I just want to add: remember that episode from Season Two of the original? When Zuko and Iroh and The GAang were all in Ba Sing Se? They had those mini episodes for everyone? That was awesome. They need to do that for Korra.

{ Phire } at: June 29, 2012 at 10:11 AM said...

Much of my issues with Mako here also apply to my utter disdain for the Ron/Hermione pairing. HERMIONE IS AWESOME. RON IS NOT. Switch for Korra names as applicable.

I pretty much agree with all of this. I will also say that there's some fandom overanalysis that makes the Aang Deus-Ex sliiiiightly more acceptable, but not really. Which basically:

Korra's entire identity is wrapped up in being the Avatar. Always has been. When she got her bending (except for Air) taken away and she runs out to the cliff and we see her tear fall all the way down to the water, that could be seen as a censor-proof way of implying suicidal ideations - both because she doesn't know how to live as "just" a bender, but also because her remaining alive but with blocked bending means that the next Avatar can't be ready to help the world out for another 16-18 years. Aang only showed up after she stepped away from the cliff - that is, after she decided to try and figure out how to cope with this, which is more introspective than we normally see her being.

That said, I think that theory is a bit facile, and there are still mounds of issues everywhere. For example, if that were true, it would've been sweet if the season ended with her going into Avatar state for the first time, and the next Book opened with her being all "I got into Avatar state why can't I bend". Her restoring Beifong's ending especially felt like a cop-out.

At the very least, I really hope they do something with the equalist movement. I will be sorely disappointed if this justified anger at being disenfrachised will be swept under the carpet as being "hey Amon's gone everything's fine again".

I did like how Korra's uniquely-feminine strength seemed to parallel Toph's, in some ways. She totally wants to be a girl and wants to be pretty, and struggles so much with not being accepted that it's totally heartbreaking.

Also: great post. ALL the high-fives is right.

{ E.Maree } at: June 29, 2012 at 6:07 PM said...

Commented on the wrong post before, so here's attempt number 2. xD

I was reading a lot of this like 'oooh I need to link Steph to Chira's blog!" and then you were waaay ahead of me.

I've speant this month marathoning ATLA and LoK, and oh man did I love ATLA. Especially Zuko. Zukozukozuko. I'm relieved to see Katara/Zuko was actually a thing the fans were behind, and I didn't just imagine all the romantic potential there.

I enjoyed Korra too, because of all the goofy references and awesome fight scenes, but the plot did disappoint me in quite a few ways.

- Asami was amazing and so understanding (I loved her "Of course I didn't know you two had a thing for each other. Not obvious at aaallll" regarding Korra and Mako. And I'm annoyed Mako was useless for her.
- BOLIN. Korra could have been so cute with Bolin, if she'd given him a chance. :(
- I am furious about her magical avatar healing abilities at the end. So furious. I was looking forward to Korra being stuck with only airbending.
- I really don't like them making Amoan's powers an ability of water bending. It should have been energy/spirit-bending like Aang mastered. Making it super-special-waterbending is less interesting than a non-Avatar mastering spirit-bending, and it blurs the line between spirit and waterbending too much.
- Amoan's character change was terrible, but Chira's blog already covered a lot of why it was so out of character.
- And the reveal about whose brother Amoan is felt completely out of the view, and a lot less fun than the hundreds of scenarios I had in my head. (A bitter sibling of Korra's was a favourite of mine).
- Every time someone lost their bending and it was shown almost as if they were dying, because OMG NO BENDING LIFE IS OVER felt so irritating. And completely against the whole theme of 'it's okay to not be a bender'.
- WHY ARE FIREBENDERS STILL DICKS? I just want some good Firebenders so that it resembles an actual geographical group rather than just typecasting. (That aren't Zuko, as much as I love him and his bloodline.)
- And last but not least, I wish they'd thrown us some info on the weirder changes: the siblings with different elements, the sky bisons.

{ Landra } at: June 29, 2012 at 6:13 PM said...

There was soooo much potential for this to drag out another season, make me sweat 3-4 months, etc.
But they didn't... you are right S. We needed better characterization. I needed Korra to earn her bending, to run scared a bit more and so us her skills. Train with Tenzin, give me a bit of Bumi, and let's love triangle Iroh- Mako- Korra without Mako cheating on the girl friend. Is it hard to believe she could sympathize or just see angst between Mako and Korra and decide to step out of the way.
Also the big bang could have drawn out.
This is spot on.

{ Landra } at: June 29, 2012 at 6:15 PM said...

P.S. @S. and @E why are we not on the writing staff? From the sounds of it we could knock this one out of the ball park!

{ Fiona } at: June 30, 2012 at 6:17 AM said...

As to the bison question, I believe early in the series in a very vague throw away comment that a LOT of people missed, Tenzin explained that after the original series ended Aang and the others stumbled upon a female air bison and a few lemurs which had managed to survive, and thus they mated and began to repopulate the species.

I agree with you, Steff. I felt incredibly bad for Asami. She was just a nice girl who chose the wrong guy, and it was horrible the way Mako treated her. Surely Korra deserves somebody who doesn't treat her friends so appallingly. I agree with your comments about Bolin too - yet another decent guy who will forever be put in the undateable category.

I too felt the ending was a cop out. As soon as they found out they were greenlighted for a second series, they should have changed that ending. It felt too rushed, and it didn't allow anything to sink it. It was instant gratification, and after the show ended I was sitting there thinking ' that it?' The original series was always known for its amazing cliffhanger endings - I don't understand why they couldn't replicate that with Korra.

I did feel like the ending was a bit of a disappointment. I will watch the second series, but I won't hold my breath.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: June 30, 2012 at 3:22 PM said...

Okay. I'm back. I read it. Man, I just have to say, I SO feel your pain. This show had so much potential. It SHOULD have been so awesome.

I mean, I never expected it to be as good as the original, but I definitely wanted more than this.

Personally, I really liked this one for about the first 9 episodes or so. Did they spend too much time on pro-bending? Yeah, sure. Did they introduce and the allow to disappear important characters? Sure. Tahno, anyone? But I really think it was working, even with the love square, at least for a while. But then when Mako turned his back on Asamai, I was furious! I would have been fine with all the cheesy romantic crap if he and Asami had stayed together, and Korra had either remained alone, or hooked up with someone else.

That being said, don't forget they did this in the first show. A huge portion of the fandom expected Kitara to end up with Zuko, and I'm not going to pretend I didn't agree. Don't get me wrong, I loved Aang, but Zuko and Kitara are two of the greatest characters ever written, and they would've been perfect for each other. It felt like they forced Kitara and Aang together at the end much like they forced Korra and Mako together.

Furthermore, I suspect that a lot of what ruined the show had to do with the fact that it did not get greenlighted for more seasons until late in the game. I'm not sure how TV works, so I don't know how far ahead the episodes were written, but it did seem like things went south fast in the last two or three episodes.

Finally, I read that article you linked to also, and I mostly agree with all her points, but I have to say: in spite of everything wrong with Korra, I still loved the show, and still look forward to watching more seasons.

{ linda } at: July 1, 2012 at 7:26 PM said...

I've never seen Avatar or Korra, but I read your post anyway and thought it was awesome. I think I have a thing for well-written, analytical rants, so I also enjoyed your Brave post (haven't seen that, either). Anyway, just wanted to say you're awesome and please write more of these kinds of posts. :)

{ Yael } at: July 2, 2012 at 7:51 PM said...

*Nods along*

Whenever Korra made progress with her airbending/Avatar-ness, I never felt like she really deserved it. She hardly ever seemed to make an effort to understand spirituality or airbender culture. Everything just showed up at the most convenient moments, without any conscious effort on her part (ie during the pro-beding match).

Also, Bolin was funny, but he wasn't Sokka. And I agree that Mako was incredibly dull.

{ We Heart YA } at: July 3, 2012 at 11:05 AM said...

Ditto to what Linda said. Although we haven't read the Brave post yet, because we're going to see that tonight!

{ lostinbelieving } at: July 10, 2012 at 2:36 PM said...

I agree with half of your points, which are good and well-spoken. I've discussed this series with my friends and I also believe the creators could have done so much more with Korra. But then I found out that the creators didn't believe this series would make it and only made one season and that's why things were so rushed. It makes sense why everything is what it is, but I wish they had done more. Now there is a second season in the making, but that's only because the series became as popular as the old one. We can only hope the second books shows a lot more...

{ Krispy } at: July 13, 2012 at 1:02 PM said...

I don't know how I wasn't following your blog before because OMG, YOU ARE A WOMAN AFTER MY HEART.

My friends and I whittled down the issues to CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and PACING. I think because this was originally ordered as a mini-series and thus confined to a smaller number of episodes, the character development suffered a lot, especially for our new Team Avatar. And I feel like they tried to put too many things into something too short. 12 half-hour episodes is not enough time to explore all the themes and characters that were present!

I absolutely love the A:TLA flashbacks, the whole Equalist movement and its themes of privilege and power - and how their being the antagonistic force is much more gray than the war-mongering/conquering Fire Nation of A:TLA, and I love the conundrum of Korra's inability to access her spiritual side. I even liked that they TRIED a love triangle/square, but it fell flat because other than Korra, the other players felt shallow. Even Bolin, who I adore, is superficial. He's sort of a Sokka-type character, but beyond his sweetness and goofiness, I didn't find any more depth. Mako is pretty much as you said, and Asami, while I wanted very much to like her, she felt too perfect. I appreciated that she was pretty and super nice/cool, but her character never came off as natural to me. Not in the way that so many of the badass females of the original A:TLA did. So I couldn't really like Asami, but I sure did feel bad for her because Mako turned into a terrible boyfriend.

I feel like the fewer eps constraint dictated this kind of shallowness w/new!Team Avatar because the writers had to give us characters that were easy to identify and sympathize with (Funny/nice boy & broody/hot boy who only have each other! Nice/pretty rich girl, who is also badass & a loyal friend), so that they could get to the romantic subplot and quickly assemble a team for the main plot. I felt like Bolin, Mako, and Asami were basically writer-shorthand characters. As a result, I could like them, but I wasn't attached to them.

On the other hand, I loved the older supporting cast, Tenzin (and his whole family really) and Lin (WINS EVERYTHING), and I thought they were established in a way that made me love them like how I loved the A:TLA cast. I feel like maybe they were given more authentic character-building moments.

As for pacing, things felt very rushed going into the end. There definitely was not enough exploration of why people were discontent with benders. Korra never seems to consider why people buy into this movement, and while I think she does have some character growth, I don't think she really has her spiritual growth. The end of the season was disappointing because it didn't feel like she EARNED getting her powers back & she gets them back too fast.

Someone wrote this great re-envisioning of the ending that I thought would've been perfect while still staying in the realm of what did happen. The person added that Korra should have realized that she still IS the Avatar, even without all her powers. She would have to cope with the loss, but that she could still do good as she was. She could strive to do her duty regardless. And in that moment of spiritual growth and understanding after hitting her lowest point, that is when Aang should have appeared to her and given her powers back because THEN she would have learned something - both about herself and about being the Avatar. She would have earned her powers.

This is a rambling mess, so I'm going to stop. But yes, there was much I loved about the show, but I'm also disappointed by it. I really think they just tried to have too many things for the short amount of time they had. Here's hoping S2 is better! Oh and more Iroh II, less Mako. :P

#1 on my wishlist for Season 2: Explore valid concerns of Equalist movement. No seriously, this needs to be addressed because I thought it was such a mature topic and complicated issue that was really, really under-served in 12 episodes.

{ Cory } at: September 18, 2012 at 12:27 PM said...

My thoughts exactly. I was epically disappointed with this season. It was like a complete let down from everything to the romance to the characterization to the antagonist. We didn't even get any Zuko flashbacks. I hope Korra/Mako ends. Soon. And I was a Zuko/Katara fan.

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