Legend of Korra: A Flawed Show for A Flawed World

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.

Korra looks around at the 2000-year old airbending training device that she has destroyed in her anger and frustration.

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.

Together, Korra and Asami are leading a make-shift sand-sailer through the desert. Asami steers and Korra airbends in the background.

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.

Korra fights with a vision of herself as she struggles with her PTSD.

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.

Korra confronts Zaheer, who is chained up inside a prison.

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.

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Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 53 articles for us.


  1. I’m almost done with Season 4 and this is such a great summary of the extremely frustrating ways the show engages with cops/power/politics. I really wish the plots were worthy of Korra’s character!

  2. Controversial, but I didn’t like Avatar at all. Aang is terribly possessive, entitled, and selfish, and all those flaws were rewarded in the end. The villains were absolutely Terrible. Ozai? We saw him, throughout there seasons, only a handful of times. He had zero motivation outside of “evil”. Character growth didn’t actually happen for anyone outside of Zuko (fight me on this. Sokka learning the sword isn’t fighting, it’s a trait he can just Now Do.). The first two seasons are actually bad and I didn’t like it until season 3 were I at least didn’t hate watching it. Aang won against Ozai with more than one Deus ex machina (he just HAPPENED to fall asleep on a lok turtle, he got into the Avatar state because of a rock hitting him EXACTLY where it should). My list of what I liked about Avatar is very small.

    Korra on the other hand… I liked her in season one right off the bat. I liked Amon a lot. Outside of that, not really. Season 2 was watchable, but no the offense people say. I actually liked the Mako and Korra storyline because it shows the realistic deterioration of a relationship. Then season 3. Nothing wrong with season 3. It was chef’s kiss and the best season of either show. Zaheer was great. I loved loved loved the fights. I loved that they touched on what happens when you don’t give colonized nations reparations and just expect everyone to forgive the murderous nation. I liked the relationships. It felt they knew what relationships finally worked (Bolin and Mako, Asami and Korra).

    I’m in season 4 right now so I can’t comment but Korra’s PTSD arc is better than anything either show has done so far.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      We might have to agree to disagree on Avatar. What I will say is that part of the reason I loved it is because of its really thoughtful Asian representation — like so many of the underlying themes that were happening were things that felt familiar to me and also really resonated with me in terms of world views I was raised with in my own family and also exposed to via the copious amounts of anime I watched growing up. Some of the things you mention as deus ex machina definitely can be viewed as deus ex machina. But they can also been seen through a Hindu/Buddhist lens of “no encounter is by chance” and the tension between destiny being a moving force of life while life also being something over which we have control. As to Ozai, I guess I’ll just say, I think we see a lot of power-hungry dictators around the world who lack any compelling motivation other than accumulating wealth and power. What I found more interesting was how Ozai influences and shapes the people around him, namely Zuko but also Azula (although there’s definitely problematic gender stuff going on in her story too) and even Iroh.

      When it comes to Korra, I think the biggest “what is going on…?” moment for me is really the fact that Republic City becomes a democracy, in passing, between seasons 1 and 2. Like… that’s not something that happens so easily or overnight, ever. They could’ve made a whole, really interesting series just about that story and made Amon a real character without de-legitimatizing him and the Equalist movement.

      With Zaheer, I really feel conflicted. I agreed with parts of what he was saying but it really felt like the show oversimplified what are really complex and nuanced views around power and open borders, etc. And his pseudo-Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern “terrorist” representation is deeply problematic. Personally, I can’t overlook that.

      The PTSD storyline is definitely the strongest one in Legend of Korra.

    • First off, Repuplic City is based off 1920s Asian architecture and not off of early American cities. Specifically, New York which it doesn’t even resemble in the slightest. If you look up 1920s Japan, China or Singapore you’d see some of inspiration for a lot the style and theme of the city.

      Secondly, the creators weren’t granted the knowledge that they’d be back for a 2nd season, that’s why the first is finished so neatly. Same goes for season 2. They got both the 3rd and 4th season at the same time so they were able to create a more consistent storyline that wouldn’t just abruptly end at the end of the season.

      And lastly, the show doesn’t praise cops. Toph became chief,then realized she couldn’t stop crime forever and promptly went to go live in a swamp. Lin is only a cop because of her mother and not to fulfill some weird hero dream or to bully others.
      This show finished in 2015. I doubt the creators had any intention of creating a Pro-Cop show. They were just representing what major cities have done when it comes to controlling crime.

      Zaheer and his crew were by far the best villains besides Kuvira. I got zero feels that “Oh, noes! The bad guys are are evil Muslims or Middle Eastern folk! They’re continuing American propaganda that everyone who looks like them is a terrorist!”

      It sounds like you’re trying to push a narrative that’s not there.

      • Yeah, I’m honestly offended that people saw big cities and went – of course this is based on the US! As if there weren’t thriving, vibrant metropolises in Asia in the 1920s.

        I also agree with the original comment that Korra Season 3 is the best season from either show. Absolutely astounding work. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion of Zaheer on my rewatch, but he never read to me as “evil Muslim/Middle Eastern person!” either. From what I remember he was the most developed and sympathetic villain in the series.

        I have a lot of conflicted feelings about Korra as a series overall, and think (like most people I presume) that the original is the stronger show overall. But for me, the highs of Korra are SO MUCH higher, and if I’m being honest, I would easily give up all four seasons of the original Avatar for one more season of Korra, if it’s of the quality of the last two seasons.

      • So, obviously there are different ways to interpret things, but I don’t think this is just my immigrant-self being America-centric here as to why I made the comment about Republic City being a USA-stand in. Part of it is geographic; I really encourage you to check out this article, written by another Asian person, who breaks down the architecture and world building in some depth: https://medium.com/@nettlefish/the-inescapable-whiteness-of-avatar-the-legend-of-korra-and-its-uncomfortable-implications-debc76bbf7f.

        The other part of it is about the political narratives that the article I linked goes into to some extent as well. I’ll speak a little bit about how I see the use of democracy and representative government really giving RC an America-like feel. When I think about different forms of government in different parts of the world, particularly in the 1920s, democracy with a president (as opposed to a prime minister, for instance) does not come up in the parts of Asia where I am more familiar with the history, including the South Asian subcontinent (which was obviously under colonial rule at the time), Cambodia (also under colonial rule with a monarch), or Japan (monarch). I’m less versed in Chinese history and I believe China did have a president during this time but it was also a time of great political instability due to that transition from empire, which is not the way government in Republic City is depicted, either.

        Obviously, I don’t know all of Asian history since there are so many different countries and cultures encompassed in that very large continent. But in this context, the way the government is presented in Republic City does read very American to me.

        And obviously, as a South Asian person with a deep love for a lot of East Asian cultures, I’m not trying to say democracy is a “better” form of government or that only Western countries practiced democracy.

  3. Another weird plot line, the whole Varrick story. An immoral capitalist who is happy to start wars but develops a conscience because he realizes building the avatar equivalent of the atomic bomb is maybe a bad idea. Then he marries the president who is his ex-personal assistant who he’s been awful to since we’ve met them.

    I’ve never been sure if the message there is supposed to be that even billionaires can be reformed and develop ethics, that Varrick is getting his just deserts by being the inconsequential “partner” who is now ignored for work related purposes, or if they just figured yeah that seems like a legit happy ending for those two.

    • OMG yes, so much yes to this! I wanted to get into it but I was like “I’m already over 2000 words so I’m gonna have to let this lie.” But I HATED the Varick storyline so much. Like wtf with his assistant marrying him at the end….???? Like he gets a redemption he’s done literally nothing to deserve. The show is so obsessed with capitalism through and through. It has multiple opportunities to take a different position on that and actively chooses not to.

  4. Apparently I wasn’t done thinking about this,

    It was so weird that Toph became a cop. Her story line in the last airbender and later in the comics is really centred on her NOT being a rule follower. At all. Ever. She’ll step in to stop something that she personally feels is wrong but otherwise she’s not interested in following rules/laws/customs enforced by society. And she was frequently presented as antagonistic against Aang’s pacifism.

    Everyone who encounters Toph for more than two minutes comes away knowing that she a) does not care about your rules, b) she’s down to cause a ruckus, and c) she is essentially unstoppable. So how they came to the conclusion that Toph Beifong would be a good candidate to enforce the law is beyond me.

    I think it would have made a lot more sense for Toph to have become some kind of vigilante type figure where eventually they had to give her an ultimatum, Aang removes your powers or you can go live out your life as a bog witch. It would have lent way more to the bender vs non-bender story line to have Toph being exiled for essentially being batman.

  5. I don’t really see any of the themes of Avatar being all that complex to be honest. Well, I guess the themes themselves are complex, but they aren’t really explored in a complex way. Sure, it touches on war, colonialism and genocide, but they are painted with very broad brush strokes and since it never takes a deep dive into any of them, we’re impressed that a kid’s show tackled the issues at all. Its simplicity protects it from too much criticism.

    I think the reason some of The Legend of Korra’s storytelling flaws are more obvious is that it does at least attempt to dig a little deeper into politics, the motivations of villains, and the flaws of our heroes. So, when it doesn’t dig quite deep enough, as adults, we notice it. We’re left with questions and arguments. Legend of Korra comes much closer to being entertainment for adults, but is still a victim of its format. In the end, it’s still a 20-ish minute show with shorter seasons than its predecessor and is still a kid’s show (albeit one that was aiming for a slightly older audience than Avatar).

    I think one of Avatar’s greatest strengths is also one of its biggest weaknesses. Its longer seasons gave its characters more room to breathe and I think we really got to know them as a unit. Their Team Avatar truly felt like a team. But with those longer seasons, it occasionally loses focus and feels a bit meandering. Lots of episodes are essentially one-off morality plays. The Legend of Korra has the exact opposite issue. It’s seasons are nearly laser-focused so that each season feels like a cohesive whole, but it also means that each of the main characters has to spend a great deal of time away from the others, fleshing out a different aspect of the story. For me, Korra’s biggest flaw is that Korra and Asami aren’t allowed to spend as much time together in season four as they should have. And I realize that they had to contend with Nickelodeon’s influence, but like himani said, we could have at least gotten more of their growing friendship so that the conclusion could feel a bit more natural.

    Neither show is perfect and I wish The Legend of Korra could have had more time to further explore and examine the world it created, but I admire both of them for doing what they could within the limitations of the studio environment of the times in which they were created. But Legend of Korra will always be more special to me, mostly because of how much I love the character herself, but I also find the show more interesting as well.

    • I completely agree with you about the pacing issues in both shows. Korra was really trying to do a lot more in much less time compared to Avatar.

      I think there are some interesting moments in Avatar where they dig a little deeper, like the episode about the blood bending. It does meander and have some pointless episodes, particularly early on.

      One of my favorite parts of Korra is the whole back story about Wan and the first avatar. I think they really hit the pacing just right in that sequence and it would’ve been awesome if we could’ve had more of that.

    • I love this comment.

      I always felt, if Legend of Korra, had even 5 more episodes a season (I mean in Season 4 we got a useless summary episode), it would have been perfect.
      Well, maybe, I think with the network pressuring on certain points, it would have been hard to get perfection, but it still would have been better.

      I think there is just not quite enough time for the characters to connect or the more serious story points to get discussed.

      Though I have to say the comic continuation, in general, has been good. Reading it, you can tell the creators were not done with this story.

      I wanted a season or two more of Korra more than another live action attempt or more Last Airbender episodes.
      Dreaming big, it would be nice if the creators could go back and flesh out some of the previous seasons.

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