Legend of Korra: The Next Airbenders

In the wake of the events of Civil Wars Part One and Two, we examine the history and culture of the Air Nomads, and their central place in the legacy and mythology of the Avatar universe!

It’s safe to say that “Civil Wars, Part 1 and 2,” is where Legend of Korra Book Two really started. Korra’s storyline was carried over well from the premiere, and the rest of Team Avatar got some great play as well, but what really stole the show these last two weeks was Tenzin’s storyline, the seeds of which were planted in the previous episode when he and his family arrived at the Southern Air Temple.

The enthusiasm and nigh worship with which Tenzin, Pema, and their children are welcomed by the Air Acolytes who live there make Tenzin a touch uncomfortable, but Kya and Bumi find it just plain off-putting. It doesn’t help that they’re mistaken for servants, a misconception they’re quick to rectify. Clarification only makes things worse. It turns out a lot of Air Acolytes don’t even know Aang had other children, and when it’s revealed they’re not airbenders, the reaction is profound disappointment and, one could infer, pity. Needless to say, this really rubs Kya and Bumi the wrong way, and with one shared glance, we already start to understand why they might have picked on Tenzin so much growing up. However great they were and no matter what they accomplished in their lives, Tenzin was special in a way they weren’t…and the whole world knew it.

This one brief scene set the stage for their entire storyline in “Civil Wars.” The play between Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi is one of the best sequences in either series. Aside from just being really well written and performed drama, it helps to fill in the 70-year gap between Avatar and Korra, specifically a subject the fans are eager to learn more about: what kind of parents did Aang and Katara turn out to be? Well, we certainly got a shitload of info on Aang this week, at least from the subjective memories of his children.

Kya and Bumi see a blatant disparity in the amount of attention they received from their father and the favoritism (at least from their perspective) that Tenzin was shown because he was an airbender. Tenzin insists their father loved them all equally. I think it imminently possible that both sides of this story are true, but before we go into that, it behooves us to take a closer look at the Air Nomads.

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Because the genocide of the Air Nomads set up Avatar’s entire premise—that Aang was the last—we didn’t really get to know much about them. Outside of a few flashbacks and what little exposition Aang was able to deliver, they were completely absent from the series, most of what we know about them coming from interviews and supplementary material. Here’s what we do know:

Though the Air Nomads were, as their name suggests, nomadic, there were four Air Temples where festivals were held on their sacred days. The Northern and Southern Temples were exclusively male, the Eastern and Western exclusively female, and children were raised by the monks or nuns presumably until they came of age. While it is never directly stated, it is implied that Air Nomads never knew who their earthly parents were. One can assume they are separated from their mothers as soon as they are weaned, perhaps earlier if there are wet nurses involved. Given their culture’s emphasis on freedom, it wouldn’t be a stretch to theorize that infants were nursed by several different women to prevent attachment to any one, while still giving the child the kind of physical love and affection to foster healthy emotional development. It’s entirely possible that Air Nomads had no concept of long-term partnership or marriage. They certainly had no family unit as we know it. Their sense of family was more abstract, and they considered themselves part of a greater cultural family.

In the Avatar world, air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from the world so their spirits could be free, and they were by far the most spiritual of the four nations. Due to this and their considerably smaller population, the Air Nomads were unique in that they were the only nations comprised entirely of benders. Makes sense. Living up on mountaintops and flying around on sky bison could be pretty freaking dangerous without airbending to break your fall. However, this has all changed. The Air Nomads are gone. Aang was the last. To see how he rectified this problem, at least to the best of his ability, we must turn to the canon (however sub-par) comics set after the end of the Hundred Years War.

[related article: The Legend of Korra: The Legend So Far]

Aang ended up attracting some airbender groupies who sought to learn the ways of his people and keep their traditions alive. Thus, he made them the Air Acolytes. They could never truly be Air Nomads; they weren’t airbenders and thus could not propagate the aspects of the culture to which airbending was germane. However, they were the next best thing. Ironically, they had made Aang’s culture more like the others, now consisting of a non-bending majority.

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So, it seems Aang had made his peace with being the last airbender. He had done great works, saved the world, married his childhood sweetheart, had two adorable and spirited children with her, and resurrected his extinct culture to the best of his ability. He was probably ready to call it a day, and then…Tenzin was born, and suddenly the possibility of repopulating the world with airbenders became a reality, a future that Aang doubtless felt a great deal of pressure to ensure. Which brings us back to our sibling rivalry.

Did Aang love Tenzin more than Kya and Bumi? I sincerely doubt it, but did Tenzin get attention and special treatment his siblings didn’t? Almost certainly. After all, he did have the future of an entire culture on his shoulders since childhood. Mastering not only airbending (for the sake of one day training his father’s next incarnation) but also the culture of the Air Nomads was of paramount importance, and so all those vacations around the world that were just him alone with his father were vital to his education. It gave him the experience of a nomadic life, of studying the contemplative and spiritual ways of his father’s people as well as the joy they found in freedom, worldliness, and just plain fun.

Now, one could easily argue that there’s no reason Kya and Bumi couldn’t be included in this, but actually there is. One, there’s a lot of things airbenders can do that other people can’t, like…you know…flying. What, was Aang going to take his kids on a road trip and then just let Kya and Bumi twiddle their thumbs while he and Tenzin glided over Lake Laogai? Sure, Aang could have made the activities accessible to his other kids, but how would that have watered down Tenzin’s education? Two, it’s been established that Tenzin’s siblings teased him a lot, and that would have been a major distraction. It’s kind of hard to experience the light-hearted wonder of an Air Nomad when your big sister is beating you up and your brother is making fun of you.

There’s been a bit of backlash of people professing their disappointment in Aang’s parenting, but I don’t see why. Aang was a good person. He was a world-saving messianic Buddha who ended a century-long war and united the Four Nations to an unprecedented degree. That wasn’t enough? He had to be the perfect dad too? I mean, taking one kid on vacation with you and not the others… flawless parenting? Perhaps not, but there isn’t a parent on this planet that doesn’t fuck up in one way or another. More to the point, Aang’s parental shortcomings are completely consistent with his character and his background.

Aang came from a culture with no nuclear family unit, and was likely working off a model of childhood he grew up with and very much enjoyed: adults are around. If you need help or attention, someone will give it to you. Sure, you might be closer with some adults than others—note Aang’s relationship with Monk Gyatso—but all of them are raising you. You always have someone there. Aang ended up making a nuclear family with Katara because that was the option, but loving her and their children didn’t just erase his entire cultural frame of reference. Odds are, he figured with Katara fielding Kya and Bumi, they were taken care of, and he could give Tenzin the extra attention he needed.

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Kya and Bumi do point out that they are part of Aang’s legacy too; they are half Air Nomad just like Tenzin is. That’s a valid point, but it’s also been established that in mixed marriages in the Avatar world, as we’ve seen with Mako and Bolin, a child tends to take more after one parent than the other. Kya is clearly Water Tribe. Aside from being a waterbender like her mother and having similar ethnic features, she seems to gel more with her mother’s culture. Bumi is a non-bender, which no doubt endeared him to his Uncle Sokka, and since there has been no mention of cousins, it’s very possible that Sokka had no children and formed a close relationship with Bumi, which would certainly explain Bumi’s Grade-A avuncular skills with Tenzin’s kids. And if Bumi was spending all that time with Sokka, he doubtless became more Water Tribe by osmosis.

One must also take into account that until Kya and Bumi were born, there were no people of Air Nomad descent who weren’t airbenders, so while Aang knew intellectually that they shared his heritage, he probably subconsciously placed them in another category and figured them more Water Tribe. So, no, Aang wasn’t the perfect father. He was a wonderful person who got a lot of things right and came across one area of his life where, due to his own upbringing, his immediate cultural priorities, and just plain circumstance, he made a few missteps. But he still loved his kids. Even Kya points out to Bumi that their father was proud of them for doing their best to help the world (her by being a world class healer, him by joining the United Forces) even if they weren’t airbenders like he’d understandably hoped. Which brings us back to Tenzin.

Three of Tenzin’s children are airbenders, and it’s likely his youngest will turn out to be one too. It’s nature’s way of restoring balance. For both personal and cultural reasons, having children was very important to Tenzin and was, in fact, a major factor in his backstory break-up with Lin Beifong, who, according to the creators, had no desire to be a mother. It is clear that Tenzin loves his children just because they’re his children, but he also sees their practical value. They are the future of his people and will hopefully go on to have airbending children of their own. However, it is still entirely possible that the Air Nomads as they once existed will never return.

The Air Acolytes do a good job of keeping the spirit of the Air Nomads alive, but they differ from them in more ways than simply not being airbenders. There are differences in style of dress, in the degree to which they shave their heads (some older men let their “horseshoe” grow out and women do not shave their heads at all), and they cohabitate. There are separate dormitories and living spaces for men and women, but they all dwell and work together at the various air temples. As for childrearing, well, we haven’t seen any Air Acolyte children, but it’s hard to believe that Tenzin would put the kibosh on fraternization and starting families when he went and got one of his own, which brings us to the final point: Tenzin’s own views on family.

Where the first part of “Civil Wars” was about digging up family issues, the second part was about breakthroughs. Kya and Bumi have their moment in the statue room, and Tenzin has his when he finally finds Ikki hiding in a cave, playing house with four baby sky bison (dear sweet Lord, the cuteness!) whom she has adopted as siblings in lieu of Jinora and Meelo. Tenzin, whom one would expect to go into a fit of frantic relief, actually displays some world class dadding here by joining Ikki where she is emotionally, rather than shaming her into compliance and dragging her off. Well done, sir. A shout out to Darcy Rose Byrnes, who voices Ikki, for delivering a completely unremarkable throwaway line (“No, he’s nice.”) with enough nuance and personality to make it hilarious in context.

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Neither Tenzin nor Ikki can really appreciate the flaws the other’s siblings nor the virtues in their own. Both father and daughter see the point very quickly, that being part of a family is hard, but they are people who will always be there for you (a viewpoint that I’m perhaps a little too screwed up to fully endorse, but that’s neither here nor there) and decide to go back to the temple together, where both generations of siblings make their peace. Tenzin admits that he’s tried so hard to celebrate Aang’s legacy that he’s perhaps overlooked his flaws, and Kya and Bumi apologize for taking their frustrations with their father out on their brother, who never asked for all the attention he got. Kya caps this shit by pulling out a photo Katara gave her of them all as children, their parents standing behind them, and once again this show destroys me emotionally. And there you have it: Aang and Katara’s loving family…and the eradication of the Air Nomads as we knew them.

See, while the family unit is all but non-existent in Air Nomad culture, it’s one of the defining traits of the Water Tribes, and it informed Tenzin’s upbringing. As demonstrated when Tenzin and Ikki wax philosophical on the value of family, Tenzin’s Air Nomad heritage was, in a sense, diluted by his Water Tribe roots. We can see from Kya’s photo that while they had their issues, they were a more or less happy family and loved one another, and this was the model upon which Tenzin built his own family, the model that his own kids seem to already be emulating. This concept of family is now intrinsically part of Air Nomad culture since all future airbenders (not counting future Avatars) will be direct descendants of Aang!

Thus, it’s entirely possible that even with the Air Acolytes doing their thing and Tenzin’s kids repopulating the world with airbenders, the Air Nomads as they once were will never walk the earth—or soar through the skies—again. Sad, perhaps, but cultures change and evolve, and as long as the history of the Air Nomads is kept alive, then Aang and Tenzin will have succeeded in preserving their legacy through lore, legend, and of course, the birth of the next airbenders.

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