As the new season of The Legend of Korra approaches, excitement in the Avatar fandom is mounting, and before we launch into a weekly review and analysis of the show, here is a brief overview of the story so far to bring everyone up to speed. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. For the uninitiated, Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, the acclaimed animated series only tangentially related to the abominable big screen adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan. The less said about how that hack completely violated a much beloved work of art on every conceivable level, the better.
Both shows take place in a fictional, pan-Asian world comprised of four nations: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Within each nation are those born with the ability to manipulate or “bend” their native element, but only one person in all the world can—and must—master all four: the Avatar. It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain balance between the four nations and act as their liaison to the Spirit World. When the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated into the next nation in the cycle, forever maintaining the balance.
Set seventy years after the first series and seventeen years after the death of its protagonist, Avatar Aang, Korra follows its titular heroine, who, having already mastered water, earth, and fire, must now master air to complete her Avatar training. However, there is currently only one airbending master in the entire world, Aang’s son, Tenzin. This brings Korra to his home, Republic City, a sprawling urban melting pot where people from all four nations live together.
Korra’s airbending training proves to be a challenge. While the other elements all came easily to her, the evasive philosophy and physicality of airbending is so opposite her confrontational nature that she’s never made so much as a single puff of air. This is tied directly into her lack of spirituality, due to which she’s never connected with any of her past lives, something that, for an Avatar, is a pretty huge deal. The young Avatar’s greatest challenge, however, proves to be a class war she must face on two fronts. On one side are the Equalists, anti-bending terrorists led by the mysterious and charismatic Amon, who possesses the ability to remove a person’s bending permanently. On the other side is the smug, scheming Tarrlok, Tenzin’s fellow City Councilman and political nemesis, whose classist legislation plays right into the Equalists’ claims that benders use their powers to oppress everyone else.
Korra eventually confronts Amon, putting up a good fight until he gets the upper hand and severs her connection to water, earth, and fire. On the edge of defeat, Korra finally unlocks her airbending, defeating Amon, though at a high cost. In her despair over the loss of her abilities (and in her mind, her identity), Korra finally communes not only with Aang, but all her past lives, who restore her connection to the other three elements and enable her to, in turn, restore the bending of those Amon stripped. Thus, Book One ends with Korra stepping into her role as a fully realized Avatar.
While not perfect, Legend of Korra is pretty awesome. The art direction and animation are flawless, the music is evocative, the action sequences are exciting and inspired, and the characters are lovable and engaging, but its greatest strength is the balance it strikes between honoring its roots and establishing its own identity. There’s enough of Avatar present to provide a sense of continuity. Katara, a grandmotherly figure to Korra, sees the girl off on her adventure, echoing her exchange with her grandmother at the start of Avatar. Tenzin’s children, all novice airbenders, wear the same training garb Aang sported for two seasons. Even names provide familiarity; Tenzin’s siblings and Zuko’s grandson are all named for Avatar characters. There’s even a shout-out to the cabbage merchant.
With that foundation, Korra branches out and makes changes, starting with Korra herself, who was designed to be the exact opposite of her predecessor. She’s brazen where Aang was humble, earthly where he was spiritual, and grew up as part of a large, extended family where Aang was raised in a monastic culture where the concepts of parents and blood kin didn’t even exist. Most notably, Korra has never been able to access to the Avatar State, a powerful trance that the spiritually adept Aang would enter involuntarily as a defensive reflex.
Other legacy characters like Tenzin, General Iroh, and Lin Beifong, daughter of Avatar fan favorite Toph, are very much their (grand)parents’ children while still being distinct, compelling characters in their own right. Bending sub-skills like lightning and metalbending, once rare, are now common enough to be used by the electric company and police department, respectively. Chi-blocking, the striking of pressure points to temporarily disable an opponent (and the defining technique of Avatar’s Ty Lee) is now the Equalists’ weapon of choice. And, of course, there is bloodbending, the art of controlling people’s movements by bending the water in bodies. While little more than an episodic digression in Avatar, this disturbing and now illegal skill is a cornerstone of Korra’s plot.
Where the people of the Fire Nation were the clear-cut villains of the first series, this time around, the conflict is classist rather than cultural, pitting benders against non-benders, and the two major villains of the piece hail from the Water Tribes, the nation depicted in Avatar as the most sympathetic of the surviving three (following the genocide of the Air Nomads). This further explores the idea that good and evil are not ethnically or culturally systemic and that heroes and villains can come from anywhere, a viewpoint with a moral complexity that most shows, especially those aimed at kids, wouldn’t bother with. Thus, Korra manages to maintain the nuance and tonal balance of the original, while taking the liberty to explore different kinds of conflicts in its own way.
If Legend of Korra Season One’s greatest strength was the balance between old and new, its greatest weakness was its pacing. Unlike Avatar, the three seasons of which were planned from the start as an epic trilogy, Legend of Korra was originally designed to be a simple, twelve-episode mini-series, with creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino really hyping the idea that it would be one tight story with no filler. This did not prove to be the case. There was filler, all right, and plenty of it.
For one, there was a lot of pro-bending, a team sport that merges traditional bending with boxing, that was indeed fun but ultimately had very little to do with the plot. We were also subjected to not one, but two love triangles, first between Korra and her pro-bending teammates, brothers Mako and Bolin, then later between Korra, Mako, and his socialite girlfriend, Asami. Now, the fact that there’s filler is fine. I happen to like breather episodes that are meant to be fun and give the audience some time to regroup and catch their breath between stretches of darker, heavier material. The problem wasn’t that so much time was spent on worthy subject matter like romance and world-building, rather that it was done at the expense of far more important plot points that ultimately felt rushed, particularly the ending.
Korra defined herself by her bending skills so much that to be stripped of them was enough of a loss for her to contemplate suicide. However, when Aang’s spirit showed up to enlighten and heal her, she’d been depowered for no more than thirteen minutes of screen time. Dramatically, it felt like a bit of a cheat. Aang waxes philosophical about how being at our lowest point opens us up to the greatest change, and that’s all well and good, but it came too easily and too quickly, especially considering how the writers made such a huge deal in Avatar about the characters earning their development.
All said and done, Korra got off pretty light. She didn’t have to learn to adjust to being able to bend only air, an element with which she wasn’t terribly enthused to begin with. She didn’t have to re-examine how she approached life, how she approached her identity. Up to the last moments of her powerlessness, she was still hinging all her self-worth on her bending. She never made any kind of real philosophical breakthrough. She just got sad enough for the problem to go away.
Now, a lot of this could be chalked up to the fact that there were only twelve episodes, that the end of the first season was meant to be the end, period, and the writers wanted to tie everything up. And that’s totally fine, but if that were the case, I think we could have nixed an episode or two of pro-bending and love triangles to make room for things like Korra actually being forced to cope with a major trauma, like what happens to the Equalist movement now that Amon is out of the picture, and lest we forget about an entirely new class of people that this conflict has created: former benders. That is some meaty-ass drama right there. Where’d it go? What’s more, we didn’t see much of Korra airbending at all, odd considering the title of the season is “Air,” continuing Avatar’s tradition of naming each season after the element the Avatar is mastering.
Consider this alternate progression: Amon depowers Korra halfway through the arc, at which point she unlocks her airbending. As she learns to live without the other elements, redefining herself and training in the one element she can access, she is forced to take a more spiritual approach, to use her head before her fists, to think like an airbender, and then uses these skills to defeat Amon. This victory brings home to her the value of air and of the person she is without the other elements that have so strongly defined her in the past. Then, having unblocked herself spiritually, she connects with Aang, and those powers are restored.
The fact is that there are a few flaws in “Book One: Air” that an informed viewer just kind of has to let slide. Hopefully, since a second season of fourteen episodes was greenlit not long before yet another two of thirteen episodes each, the creators have taken the opportunity to think a little bigger like they did the first time around. Given how Avatar turned out, I’m optimistic that Korra’s pacing will improve, starting with “Book Two.” But what else can we expect? Well, here’s what we know so far.
Book Two is titled “Spirits,” and will continue to juxtapose the Avatar’s spiritual duties with Korra’s spiritual shortcomings.
About half of Book Two will take place in Republic City, the other half taking place in other areas of the world, as well as the Spirit World.
The premiere takes place six months after the end of Book One. Mako is now a cop, Bolin’s pro-bending career is flagging, and Asami has taken over her father’s company following his arrest as a key player in the Equalist movement.
We’ll spend more time with Korra’s parents and extended family, who play a prominent role in Water Tribe politics. We’ll also get to know Tenzin’s siblings, Bumi and Kya, perhaps shedding more light on what kind of parents Aang and Katara were.
The trailer for Spirits showed an image of Wan Shi Tong, the keeper of the Spirit Library, last seen in Book Two of Avatar. And just who encounters him? Tenzin’s bookworm daughter, Jinora. Perfection.
There will be an epic two-parter that will take us back 10,000 years to the origin of the first Avatar, Wan, and thus the establishment of the entire Avatar line. Hell. To. The. Yeah!
Lin Beifong won’t feature too prominently in Book Two, but the creators promise that she’ll be back front and center for Book Three. Given this, the industrial nature of Republic City, and Korra’s competitive drive to be the best bender she can be, it’s not a longshot to suggest that Book Three could be “Metal.” As for Book Four, it might be too much to ask Nickelodeon to greenlight “Blood” as a theme and a title, but hot damn, one can dream.
So, that’s what we’ve got. I don’t know about y’all, but my shorts just got a little damp…