Over the summer I finally watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and was delightfully surprised by how much I loved the show. It is anime-inspired high fantasy that draws from a wide breadth of Asian history and culture in truly meaningful ways. It tells a carefully-planned political story with likable characters that ultimately lands on the kind of hope I struggle to muster in my own life. Basically, it checked pretty much all my boxes.
I was thrilled to learn about Legend of Korra and excitedly began watching the first two seasons on CBS All Access before the full show even became available on Netflix. A brown woman avatar in the lead role? Was there anything more I could even ask for?
I hated it.
It felt like Legend of Korra took all my favorite parts of Avatar: The Last Airbender and ruined them. The world building lacked consistency within itself and with the world that had been established in Avatar. The United Republic of Nations and its capital Republic City were added as the glaringly obvious USA-stand-in in what was previously an entirely Asian-inspired world. The political stories were both obvious and nonsensical. Team Avatar turned into a group of your stereotypical teens in a love quadrangle, surrounded by your stereotypical middle-aged curmudgeons. The occasional cameos of Avatar characters changed their personalities and gave them new flaws that forced me to detest my once-beloved characters.
It was a long time before I could even muster the willingness to continue watching the show when I finally got access to the last two seasons. And when I did, I was more than a little blown away, particularly by that last season.
Legend of Korra’s greatest strength is, by far, the character of Korra herself. From the outset she’s shown as strong, self-assured and unrelenting – all characteristics we need to see more of in women on TV. Compared to her goofy, sweet and preternaturally hope-filled predecessor in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra is strikingly more human in a way that can be, at times, painful to watch but is ultimately, more relatable. That moment she gets mad during her airbender training? Yeah, I’ve been there. Her fawning over Mako because he’s the hot, popular boy? That’s a tale as old as time, as they say. Her nightmares after watching Amon take people’s bending away? While so rarely depicted in stories like this, that lingering terror would haunt my dreams too.
From that already-strong starting place, Korra’s character gets developed in unprecedented ways, particularly for the time the show was released. At the end of season one, Korra and Mako do start dating. Instead of going for the over-used narrative of the tough girl melting into a puddle of sweetness when she’s with her attractive boyfriend, pretty much the entirety of season two is spent showing us how even if two people feel that “spark” sometimes it is just an extraordinarily bad idea to actually be together. The show has no regrets about that decision and spends season three making jokes at awkward Mako’s expense and developing a friendship between his ex-ex Asami and Korra.
Asami herself is a bit of pioneering representation for American animated women. When we first meet her, she seems merely to be the beautiful daughter of a wealthy inventor. We quickly find out that she’s well-equipped to defend herself and, especially starting in season three, we see her for the brilliant engineer she is.
As I watched these two stereotype-defying women grow closer and closer in season three, I thought, “There’s a great power romance fanfiction in the making here.” Reader, you do not have to go looking for that fanfiction. Well, you kind of do.
The very closing scene of Legend of Korra shows the start of a romantic relationship between Korra and Asami in no uncertain terms, particularly to today’s viewer. As I’m sure everyone on this website who has watched the show probably feels, I do wish we got a little more. But, part of this is because Legend of Korra was a product of its time. Vox’s Aja Romano described the many ways in which sexism shaped Legend of Korra, from the show’s inception (when, as Romano writes, “Nickelodeon reportedly delayed the show’s production because of its wariness over a female Avatar”) through its lukewarm reception among Avatar fans, who hated Korra for many of the same reasons I loved her. On top of that sexism was the homophobia that eclipsed the show’s ability to fully develop Korra and Asami’s relationship. (The show’s creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko confirmed the network’s role in this in their statement about Korra and Asami being bisexual, writing, “while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it.”)
What is probably Legend of Korra‘s strongest storyline also serves to strengthen the romantic relationship between Korra and Asami. After a nearly fatal battle with season three’s villain du jour, Zaheer, Korra develops PTSD. Season four time-skips three years with Korra spending that time in the Southern Water Tribe trying to heal and the rest of Team Avatar going along their separate ways in their lives and careers. Much of season four follows Korra through her recovery from her PTSD, showing her step by step progress and setbacks, before settling on the true-to-life reality that the trauma will always remain but it doesn’t have to dictate one’s life.
During her time away, Korra struggles with what to say in her letters to her friends, but the one person she feels she can open up to – eventually – is Asami. While season four could’ve done much more to expand on even the friendship that was built between Korra and Asami in season three (they aren’t even together for most of the episodes in season four), that particular detail is one that, I think, can’t be overlooked. And, the friendship that was established between the two of them along with Korra’s self-journey through her recovery, helps diminish the sense that this is another story of two queer women trauma-bonding.
This entire arc about Korra’s trauma and recovery is definitely one of the best written storylines in the entire series. And what’s most striking about it is that it makes me realize how much we take trauma for granted, particularly in fantasy. Even just looking back at Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang settles into the reality that he has lost 100 years of his life with surprising aplomb, despite the fact that his closest friends and chosen family have mostly passed away. We get one episode – exactly one episode – where Aang grapples with finding out about the genocide of his people. At the end of season two, Aang nearly dies, and yet in season three his main struggle is with a fear of failure to fulfill his destiny rather than what should be a very real fear for his life.
As Romano writes, Korra’s vulnerability is what makes her unlikable to so many people, and yet it’s exactly that vulnerability that makes Korra the more human of the two avatars. In many ways Legend of Korra is more timely than ever because it forces us to examine our hero worship and the notion that one person will save us from destruction or that the simple removal of one villain will solve all of our problems. But, other than that particular theme, Legend of Korra largely struggles with its political storylines, especially when compared to its predecessor.
Avatar: The Last Airbender told a complex story of war, colonialism and genocide that, as Julia Shiota explains for SyFy Wire, is grounded in actual Asian history. Legend of Korra picks up seventy years later, but rather than addressing the geopolitical stresses left at the end of Avatar (which are discussed extensively by Shiota), Korra is more interested in following a separate narrative that adheres a little too closely to American propaganda. The obviously American-inspired Republic City is positioned as the paragon of society that all the other Asian-themed countries should aspire to, with its technology, capitalism and representative government. Somehow, in this imagining, industrialization and all those cars don’t take a toll on the environment (instead it’s the advent of spirit-vine-powered weapons in season four), and even the sleaziest of businessmen is allowed redemption.
In toeing the pro-America party line, Legend of Korra reduces its villains to mere caricatures of the actual political principles they stand for. What’s more, the series strives to show depth in its political stories but those attempts are at utter disconnect with how these issues actually manifest in the real world. This results in plots that don’t fully hang together and that reinforce lazy political narratives.
Starting with Amon in season one, the Equalist movement is about restructuring the balance of power between benders and non-benders in Republic City. But that balance of power is never clearly established in the first place. Political power is held by benders, but economic power appears to be largely held by a mix of benders and non-benders. Some benders have what are, essentially, low wage factory jobs to keep energy running in the city. The big reveal is that Amon has been lying to his followers the whole time and is secretly an extremely powerful bender.
At the end of this whole confusing mess, the movement fizzles and Republic City, without any explanation, becomes a democracy. And somehow the question of the representation of benders and non-benders never becomes an issue, despite the fact that who gets to be represented and how much has been the central recurring tension of democratic government around the world since its inception. All that this sloppy narrative does is reinforce the idea that marginalized, under-represented groups fighting for equal rights and representation are fabricating their concerns in an attempt to usurp power. That theme doesn’t exist in a vacuum: As Princess Weekes points out in her review for The Mary Sue, Legend of Korra came out the year Trayvon Martin was murdered.
Season two is a similarly jumbled story about environmental degradation, capitalism and colonialism. Jeannette Ng explains this best in a post on Medium:
“The Southern Water Tribe’s aggressive industrialisation, exploitation of their environment and creating pollution is very much part of this ‘inevitability of progress’ theme. It’s very uncomfortable given how the Water Tribe is based on indigenous cultures (especially the Inuit-Yupik culture). In the real world these are very much the people resisting imperialism, especially ecological imperialism (which they do in The Last Airbender), and thus to cast them as the polluting villains implies that given the opportunity these cultures would be ‘as bad’ as the West, that this is how ‘everyone’ is.”
Season three is probably the most personally upsetting to me, in this regard. The core team of villains is a group of brown anarchists, led by a man named Zaheer; throughout the season they are described as “terrorists.” For a show that was on air at the same time as Homeland, back when people across the political spectrum solely reserved the word “terrorist” for Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims, the choice in representation is deeply problematic.
Zaheer raises important questions about the political and geographic organization of the world, but these are undercut by his laughably simplistic anarchic beliefs. He asks why the avatar exists and holds so much power in the first place and argues for open borders, which are both meaningful lines of inquiry that don’t have to end, necessarily, in anarchy. And yet for all his understanding of politics, somehow, in season four he’s shocked that taking out the Earth queen left a power vacuum that was filled by a military despot named Kuvira. To put all of this together in the worldview of one anarchic terrorist deprecates these increasingly pressing questions about how much political power government representatives should hold and the obligations we have to offer refuge to people around the world displaced by catastrophes we’ve largely created.
Across all four seasons, the series engages in nonstop copaganda. While Avatar: The Last Airbender challenged our conventional notions of justice and capital punishment, Legend of Korra is an unexamined embrace of police and prison systems, with one of our central Avatar characters, Toph Beifong and her daughter Lin becoming police chiefs. The inconsistencies in the show’s logic become blatant by season four. Throughout we’ve been expected to accept the police as a force for good, but in the last season, when Kuvira applies the same logic to her military, that becomes evidence of her tyranny. This disconnect betrays the American political agenda that the show – intentionally or not – has been very explicitly pushing from the beginning.
Legend of Korra is a messy show, and it’s easy to point to that messiness and say, “Avatar: The Last Airbender was clearly better.” Much of the frustration with Legend of Korra is warranted, particularly around the political narratives it’s endorsing.
At the same time, Korra denies us the easy solutions that leave us feeling cozy after watching Avatar. That doesn’t always make for comfortable or even good TV. But now, more than ever, we need to be awake to the problems in the world around us and awake to the fact that there will be no simple or perfect resolutions to any of them.