If for some unfathomable reason you’re starting your journey through the world of Avatar with the The Legend of Korra Book Three premiere, you could probably use a crash course in this world. And I suppose those of you who aren’t as freakin’ crazy as I am, who haven’t watched both series straight through multiple times, could probably use a little refresher as well. So, before the new season begins, let’s take a look at the legend so far. Naturally, HERE BE SPOILERS.
But you asked for it.
Both The Legend of Korra and its parent series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, 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, The Legend of 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.
After three seasons of Avatar spent vilifying and then deconstructing said vilification of the Fire Nation, Book One: Air set out to depict a different kind of story. Rather than lay all the antagonism at the feet of any one nation, Book One’s conflict was between benders and non-benders, tackling questions of class, privilege, and the social inequity that arises from both. While fighting this class war on both fronts, Korra struggles to unlock her airbending and communicate with her past lives. She ultimately does both, finally entering the Avatar State and preparing her for Book Two: Spirits.
As its title suggests, Book Two dealt with Korra’s relationship to the Spirit World and its inhabitants as well as the greater significance of the Avatar’s role in spiritual matters. As part of Korra’s spiritual journey, we learned the story of how the Avatar cycle began when a young man named Wan fused with Raava, the great spirit of light and peace, to defeat Vaatu, the great spirit of darkness and chaos. Ten-thousand years later, Vaatu’s chance to even the score presents itself as the cosmic phenomenon known as Harmonic Convergence draws near. Vaatu is able to extract Raava from Korra and destroy her (or as close as either can ever get to destroying the other), severing Korra’s connection to her past lives.
Without her Avatar spirit, Korra sees no chance of defeating Vaatu until Tenzin reminds her that she has her own spirit as does everyone, and it is into that mortal essence she must pour her faith and her strength. It is only by finally tapping into her individual spiritual identity that Korra is able to defeat Vaatu, free the last spark of Raava that exists within him, and bond with it, becoming the Avatar once again. However, her connection to her past lives is not restored; they’re gone forever. A new Avatar line now begins with Korra, and with it the dawn of a new age in which humans and spirits will live together once again.
Book Two had a lot going for it. It had a fascinating premise that built very naturally on the events of Book One. New characters were introduced, allowing us to delve into Korra and Tenzin’s family backgrounds. Korra’s spiritually adept uncle, Unalaq, was the perfect villain for this story, both deluded and sincere, which pretty much describes religious extremism to a T, and his increasingly hostile interactions with his morose children, Korra’s twin cousins Eska and Desna, were the perfect means by which to show the full extent of his madness.
As for Tenzin, his siblings were not only perfect foils for him each in their own very different ways, they were exactly who the children of Aang and Katara would be, and every scene of these three interacting, down their divergent points of view on their upbringing, never failed to entertain. I found it both realistic and satisfying to learn Aang and Katara were not perfect parents. They loved their kids and did their best, but made some mistakes consistent with the personalities and values of the characters we came to know and love. This was all mirrored in Tenzin’s own children, who began to develop individually, particularly Jinora, whose natural affinity for spirits shone a harsh light on Tenzin’s failings in that area.
Much like in Book One, we enjoyed some political intrigue with the revelation that Unalaq manipulated events to have his brother banished from the Northern Water Tribe, ensuring the title of Chief would pass to him instead, leading to a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. This spilled over into the political scene in Republic City when the Howard Hughes-esque eccentric entrepreneur Varrick, the funniest addition to the Avatar universe since Sokka, turns out to be a war profiteer who manipulates the public with staged bombings and propaganda films.
There were more callbacks to the original series with the revisiting of key locations like the Air Temples and the Spirit World. There were even some very welcome cameos by Avatar alumni. Seeing Uncle Iroh made me literally squeal with glee (much to the confusion of my co-workers), and a mad, ranting, eternally lost Commander Zhao wins the award for most unexpected cameo ever.
As for the story of Avatar Wan, it was both narratively and stylistically like nothing we’d ever seen before in this setting. Aside from being a fun episode and a welcome shot in the arm of mythology, it was a welcome note of reassurance that the creative team still had plenty of juice and inspiration to mine for material.
And, as always, the action in the show was spectacular.
Yes, sir, Book Two certainly had a lot going for it. That said, it was not without its problems.
A lot of character development from Book One was either undone or forgotten completely for seemingly no other reason than to revisit it, specifically with Korra. Sure, she would still be hot-headed and stubborn — you can’t expect someone to change overnight — but by now you’d think she’d have learned to give Tenzin the benefit of the doubt. Speaking of which…
What the fuck, Lin Beifong? You spend an entire season bonding with Team Avatar, working with them, getting to know their strengths, getting your bending restored by the Avatar after it’s been taken away, and then you go right back to treating her and her friends WITH WHOM YOU FOUGHT SIDE BY SIDE like incompetent morons because… plot? The ways in which several characters arbitrarily backslid into old habits came off as repetitive and contrived solely to move the plot forward. It seemed like in many of their cases, the writers simply didn’t know what else to do with them.
Mako moves on from pro-bending to become a cop, which in all fairness did contribute to the plot when it came to discovering Varrick’s true colors, as did Asami’s tedious business ventures and Bolin’s ridiculous and at times rapey movie star subplot (what the fuck was that?!?), but ultimately Mako’s beat cop blues only made Lin Beifong look like an incredibly clueless and inefficient police chief by tolerating corrupt, borderline incompetent cops (which she wouldn’t) and not exploiting a valuable resource like Mako in the name of doing things by the book. I’m all for flawed characters, and Lin certainly is an stickler for law and order, but she spent a good chunk of this season veering into Lawful Stupid territory.
A lot of thematic potential was set up in the conflict between spirituality and materialism with the contrast of Unalaq and Varrick, each at one extreme on the scale, but never paid off. Unalaq still got a nice, complex motive and storyline, and Varrick stole every scene he was in, but it still feels like an opportunity to pit these two against each other narratively was passed over in favor of devoting time to… oh, gods… I hate to be a broken record, but…
More. Relationship. Bullshit. Like… tons, and not even new stuff. Just a rehash of the same tired love triangle from Book One.
Listen, I love me some romantic angst subplots. That is, when they’re well done, but what started out as a mature, nuanced look at how Korra and Mako, two people with very different values and temperaments, behave in a relationship rapidly devolved into standard, clichéd, make-up/break-up tripe that just bored the hell out of me. Then, of course, there’s Bolin’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pairing with Eska, followed quickly by his endlessly uncomfortable pursuit of his co-star Ginger. Just… no. No, no, no, no, no. None of it felt natural or in character. None of it.
Look, I want romance on Korra. It has its place. All I ask is that it’s handled better.
Then of course, there’s the overall pacing. Book One unfolded at a pretty good pace until the end, which felt rushed with several loose ends left unresolved or even completely unexplored. Book Two had the opposite problem. The ending was grand and mythic with a nice steady lead in and a satisfying payoff, but the road there was bumpy and broken. So much time was spent on tedious, unnecessarily convoluted, and ultimately unimportant plotlines that entire episode veered on boring while others were practically a revelation of animation and storytelling. The highs and lows were pretty extreme. Here’s hoping Book Three will even this out.
So, on that note, what do we know about Book Three: Change?
Korra’s decision to leave the spirit portals open has created a new world where humans and spirits must now, for good or ill, coexist side by side.
One result of this spiritual shift is the appearance of airbending abilities in people who were previously non-benders, allowing Tenzin the opportunity finally rebuild the Air Nation, starting with his own brother, Bumi.
Book Three will focus more on the Earth Kingdom, earthbending, and metalbending.
Korra will learn to metalbend.
Grey DeLisle-Griffin, voice of Princess Azula, will return as a new recurring character who is not a firebender.
Team Avatar will travel to Ba Sing Se, where we’ll meet the Earth Queen and see the return of the Dai Li.
After spending most of last season on the bench, Lin Beifong steps back into the spotlight, playing a major role in this season. We’ll learn more about her past and her family.
On a dragon.
More development for Jinora, including a possible romantic subplot. Don’t get squicked. She’s just about as old as her grandfather was in Avatar.
Several very-interesting looking criminals will escape their prisons and band together, among them a waterbending amputee with water for arms and a woman with similar (possibly the same) powers as Combustion Man.
Tenzin will continue to be frustrated by everything. Bless him.
Zhu Li will do the thing.
And that’s just what’s been confirmed. Okay, that last one’s not confirmed, but we can hope, can’t we? For some wild speculation as well as a few educated guesses, check out the detailed analysis of both the fan-made and official trailers for Book Three as well as our coverage of the extended sneak peek of the premiere on Nick’s website.
Keep up with all our Legend of Korra coverage right here.