Full disclosure. Avatar the Last Airbender is my favorite TV show ever. Period. Its animation is stunning. Its characters are some of the most memorable I’ve encountered. Its story, while not exactly ground breaking, dares to explore territory and themes few shows care to –let alone ‘kid’ shows. I was legitimately sad when the credits rolled on the final episode; not so much because I felt the experience was incomplete (it most certainly was) but because I had witnessed something so rare and I craved more of it.
When I heard that TLA was renewed for a fourth season, I was quite skeptical. The first run had been perfect, in my opinion. There was nothing more I felt those characters could offer. But when I discovered that it was centered on a completely new Avatar, almost a century in the future, I became much more optimistic.
Korra seemed to be the perfect foil to the original Avatar, Aang. Rather than a peace-seeking, fun loving child monk; she was a hot-headed, pent-up young adult. Instead of facing off against the world-ending threat of the insane Fire Lord Ozai, however, her challenges would be more political (thus lending frustration to her character).
Upon viewing the first season, however, I was… much less enthused. I didn’t find myself glued to my seat like before. The itch for the next episode was not nearly as strong. But to find out why, I had to watch it all again.
I had to binge.
Bending is the ability to command the primal elements. Usually one is born with an affinity for only one (Earth, Fire, Water, Air) unless they are the Avatar (who can do it all). So what’s it like to be a non-bender in a bender’s world? Between all the Fire Lords, Earth Kings, Air Nomads, and Avatars shaping history, it’s got to be real easy to feel helpless. How do you stand up to a pack of benders threatening your family? How do you make your voice heard when nearly all cultures world-wide are fixated on bending and benders?
When LoK begins, we see a hapless shopkeep being menaced by a group of bending triads. Korra intervenes, but the ensuing fight (with earth, water, and fire being tossed around in a wonton display of excessive and undisciplined force) utterly wrecks the block; a sobering demonstration of the dangerous power certain individuals can wield and the utter helplessness of those who cannot. From start to finish, the entire affair is instigated by benders; from the Triad, to the Avatar, to the police pacifying the situation.
How could a few people *not* feel discontented with this state? It is little wonder why some would throw their lot in with Amon, the charismatic leader of the ‘Equalists’ with the mysterious power to take a person’s bending away permanently. This provides an interesting moral quandary for people on either side of the conflict. On the one hand, removing someone’s bending has proven to be the only effective means of pacifying otherwise unstoppable forces (short of killing them, of course). Avatar Aang himself employed such a technique to halt the genocidal advance of Fire Lord Ozai. One could argue that depowering the benders simply ensures that men like Ozai and Chin the Conqueror can never truly threaten the world again.
On the other hand, bending has done and continues to do much the help the world despite technological advances slowly outpacing their abilities. Who needs a cast when a water healer can fix a broken bone in minutes? The arguments for and against the Equalist movement go far beyond this, but one thing is clear: the answer shouldn’t be simple.
Except the answer IS simple: Amon is a fraud. He’s a secret water bender. For all of his rallying and pontificating; his sole aim was to be the only bender in business. As soon as his con is exposed, the Equalist movement implodes almost instantly with no further protest.
It seemed the script for the show had decided that the Equalists were totally in the wrong and never once swayed from that opinion. Without exploring why the Equalists were motivated to do what they did beyond simple bigoted prejudice, any complexity they had to offer as villains was wiped away. Compare this to the original TLA: the show took great pains to demonstrate (in direct contradiction to statements by one of the heroes, no less) that not everyone in the Fire Nation (the antagonists) was evil. In fact, they were just as oppressed by their own government than any of the invaded nations –more so, perhaps, as there would be no one to help them should they decide to fight back. In fact, by the end of the show, a few fire benders or fire nationals who began as villains become heroes in their own right. Zuko, the Fire Prince, has perhaps one of the most complicated character arcs outside of Shakespeare; thus demonstrating that simply being in the wrong does not negate a character or his motivations.
But perhaps the biggest issue with the ‘Praestigiator ex Machina’ resolution is that it denies Korra the ability to realize her role as the Avatar. In the eighth episode of the season, as non-benders are being rousted by the bender police, one of them cries out to Korra “You’re our Avatar, too!”. It feels as if this quietly powerful plea went completely over the writers’ own heads. See, the whole point of the philosophy of the Avatar (or so I thought) was to ‘bring balance to the world’, not just smack down the bad guys. If Amon hadn’t been a charlatan, what reconciliation would there have been for his army of loyal supporters had Korra simply beaten him into submission? How have their grievances been muted now that their leader is fallen?
Asami Sato. In original drafts of the scripts she was designed as an Equalist spy who had infiltrated Team Avatar. In the final version, they dropped that sub-plot and I think it was a damn good thing they did. You see, without Asami literally ALL of the heroes would have been benders, lending some credence to the idea that benders are somehow naturally superior in morality as well as ability. While, as I said, the Equalist issue is vague and someone joining in with them does not necessarily make them evil, I feel that there would have to be more than a few non-benders who are plainly against them. However, every plot critical non-bender is an Equalist save for Miss Sato and thus, for her being there, the show is spared the intellectually stunted ‘us vs. them’ dynamic. What’s even better is that Asami has more reason than most to join the Equalists (her father is a major financier of the movement), thus making her conviction all the more potent.
Lin Beifong. The daughter of the unforgettable Toph Beifong is a far cry from her mother. Severe and stoic, I think she is meant to be portrayed as a minor antagonist to Avatar Korra…however I found myself agreeing with Lin in almost every instance. When she chastises Korra for being reckless in the fight with the Triads, she is correct. When she snipes at Korra for doing nothing to help the city, she is correct. Beifong seems to be the only person in the main cast treating the Equalist crisis with any seriousness, going so far as to stand her ground and lose her own bending than let innocents be harmed.
Apart from the afore mentioned, I seriously have very few nice things to say about the supporting cast of LoK. Now Sokka and Katara are really tough acts to follow -that’s a given- but even having mainlined an entire season of the show, I came away with very little from the sibling duo Mako and Bolin. I don’t mind that they were different, but they lacked the big character moments we got in the original. Where our heroes would once stood their ground; the odds be damned…
…Now we have this.
Yes. This was played for laughs, and there were moments in the original series that were played for laughs too. But the key difference is that the supporting characters in the first series were necessary to resolve the plot of an episode on multiple occasions; from inventing war vehicles to rallying the oppressed. Not once did the brothers Mako and Bolin provide the critical insight to resolve a plot.
So what’s wrong with the supporting cast being nothing more than foils for the main? Well, nothing per se so long as the main protagonist can carry the story on her own…
If I had one complaint about Aang’s story in the original TLA, it would be that the ‘Journey of Self Discovery’ thing has been done to death. His mistakes can be predicted from miles away. His growth follows a nice, smooth, very familiar arc. Korra, on the other hand, is no child and well versed in bending by the time we meet her in earnest. Her journey is not about figuring herself out, but figuring the world out. When she arrives in Republic City, reactions to her appearance are immediately mixed. The political landscape she finds herself thrust upon is jagged and treacherous as she quickly learns that trust is a valuable commodity that can be very painful if misspent.
I suppose the strongest element of Korra’s character is how much she gets smacked around; how utterly and completely out of her depth she is despite having excelled in nearly everything she’s tried before coming to the big city. This isn’t to say that I like her getting beat up for its own sake, but that every time she makes an uninformed assumption; it costs her. The first time she steps into the pro-bending ring, she gets schooled like any amateur should. The first time she faces off against either of the villains; only sheer luck sees her through. This disparity between physical strength (of which Korra has plenty) and mental and emotional discipline (of which she is much in wanting) is an excellent theme and very appropriate given the demographic targeting of somewhat older viewers than the original TLA.
It’s too bad Korra never seems to learn anything from her many screw ups. Throughout the season, she barely resolves a single plot through her gumption and abilities alone, resulting in what is -overall- a weak character (for THAT season). My first complaint is that she treats the Equalist threat like a minor inconvenience that gets in the way of her sports career. While I understand that she was applying the principles necessary to compete in pro-bending with her air bending training (though, come to think of it, that story element is never used for that purpose); her outright refusal to even consider joining the Anti-Equalist task force without being coerced was a fairly glaring abdication of her duties as Avatar (and lest we forget: she WANTS to be the Avatar). What troubles me, however, is not the refusal itself; but rather that she is proven correct in her refusal as the leader of the task force, Tarrlok, is in fact just as big a charlatan as Amon.
If, perhaps, Tarrlok wasn’t written as a scuzball from the start and his treachery was a genuine surprise, I might have found it forgivable, but he was written as such a bad apple from the start that it’s clear that we as the audience are meant to care more about Korra’s inconsequential pro-bending circuit than about the real problems plaguing the city. Which I can’t help but find to be a completely backward sentiment. However, this pales in comparison with Korra’s final confrontation with Amon. Now I’ve already outlined how his character was essentially undermined by the fact that he’s a con, but at the very least; his power is real. He can excise a person’s bending ability and the Avatar is no exception…kinda…
See, Korra was never able to master (or, really, show any promise at all) air bending. So when Amon defeats her and suppresses the energy that allows her to perform the other elemental techniques (fire, earth, and water); her latent talent for air bending is awakened by this…somehow. She is then able to use her newly revealed abilities to defeat Amon and expose him for the fraud he is. While the sheer convenience of this is worthy of an eye roll; it’s not damning. After all, she started the show being able to do everything but air bend…now it’s all she has. I could have accepted that as a well intentioned -if clunky- lesson in sacrifice and finding new opportunities in spite of loss. But then Avatar Aang literally returns from the dead to not only give Korra her powers back, but gives her the power to restore bending to all those who have lost it.
I don’t think I’ve ever bellowed ‘Bullshit!’ at a cartoon before…but I have now. My problem, in retrospect, was not the fact that Korra’s issues were solved in a Deus ex Machina; many convenient solutions plopped into the laps of the heroes from the original show, after all. I took issue with the fact that nearly ALL of Korra’s dilemmas were solved *for* her. When captured, she never once escapes on her own. She never even shows potential for air bending until plot contrivance allows it. She never has to face the concept of Equalist philosophy head-on. And, most importantly, she never has to cope with loss. Korra could have spent the entire season doing basically nothing (and arguably did just that with pro-bending) and not have made the least bit of difference in terms of how it played out.
But who cares? It’s a kid’s show, right? Well…I can’t argue with that. I certainly wouldn’t get so worked up if the same dubious themes were present in, say, Spongebob… but I think this proves as testament to how rare the original TLA was (and, credit where it’s due; how far Korra’s later seasons have come). I say TLA is my favorite show, regardless of who it was meant for, because it sought to challenge its audience. It wasn’t about whether the characters would survive their trials, but what parts of themselves would have to grow…or be left behind… to do so. Watching Aang coming to grips with the loss of his lifelong animal companion are some of the most heart-wrenching moments on television. Watching the maternal and sympathetic Katara actually come within inches of killing a man in cold blood is a character moment forever burned into my memory.
It isn’t that Korra is unable to match the original in scope or execution that’s so frustrating…it’s that it comes so close and falls short for all the wrong reasons.
Ryan J. Hodge is a science-fiction author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment US (His opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook & paperback.
You can now follow Ryan on Twitter @RJHodgeAuthor