Well! I’d like to talk as much about the series as a whole as the details of two finale episodes that aired today—hence, this got rather long. Korra was initially supposed to be a standalone miniseries, plotted out before the show was picked up for a second season. I went in, then, looking for resolution of the three big series-long story arcs: Korra’s spiritual problems, Amon and the Equalists, and makeouts. I’ll break this up a little by addressing one at a time:
Korra vs. her spiritual block / Korra vs. lack of identity outside of Avatar
Resolution: Highly satisfying, if you read it this one particular way
At first, I had “not so much” written down for resolution on both of these, as there isn’t a ton of obvious cause-and-effect in why Aang showed up like a god from the machine to restore Korra’s bending—other than the lame excuse of “You looked sad.”
But watching the end again, this way of reading the last five minutes popped into my head, and it makes more and more sense the more I think about it. Korra’s lack of identity and her block were actually the same thing, and they’re both resolved in a kind of great under-the-censor’s-radar way.
Korra’s just found out the best healer in the world can’t do anything for her. Her last hope to hang onto the identity she’s had since childhood is gone. Mako tells her he loves her; she tells him to go away, that she’s “not the Avatar anymore.” Her misery calls back to the dream she had in “The Voice In The Night,” where her own subconscious—dressed as scary Amon—tells her “Once I take your bending away, you will be nothing.” Korra goes out to a cliff, and walks up to the very, very edge—she’s close enough that from her looking-down POV we see a tear actually falling all the way down the side of the cliff, which means her head is leaning out over the drop.
I can’t think of a reason to use that specific shot unless it’s to imply that she went up there to throw herself off the cliff.
Supporting this theory: When she pulls back, sits down, decides to keep living as a person who isn’t inherently special, and starts thinking for real about what that means—that’s the instant Aang finally shows up to declare “You have finally connected with your spiritual self!” This all feels like fan-wanking, but the alternate explanation seems to be “He showed up then because she was… continuing to be sad? And that continuing sadness somehow resolved her spiritual block?” That’s unsatisfying, unearned, and also doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The more I think about the oddness of that POV shot, Aang’s timing, and, most importantly, how not okay Nickelodeon would be with showing a hero contemplating suicide, the more sense it makes to consider the final-final battle of the season as completely internal—and pretty damn dark.
Since Avatar: The Last Airbender ended its second season with its heroes getting schooled and running away, it didn’t seem obvious that the writers would end Korra’s first season on an up or down note. It’s almost greedy to go for an ending with both the “Whoa!” of The Empire Strikes Back and the “Yay!” of Star Wars. It’s also risky, as that sort of “J/K, they’re fine,” can feel unearned and detract from the weight of what came before; further, people try it often enough that it’s usually pretty easy to see right through the Empire Strikes Back ending. The Legend Of Korra handled the switcheroo ending about as well as you can: I found it plausible that the writers would leave her de-powered going into the second season; and, if you read that scene on the cliff as a big deal, Korra and Lin getting their powers back feels earned.
Non-benders vs. benders
Resolution: Not so satisfying
This one seemed like the most interesting out of all the arcs as the series started, so it’s disappointing that by the end of the season, the Equalist storyline had straightened itself out, going from ethical grayness into a straightforward heroes vs. bad guys deal. In the first few episodes, the Equalist movement doesn’t appear to be something that could be “fixed” by getting rid of Amon; it’s shown more as a grassroots movement made up of normal citizens. The writers practically yell “Dude has a point!” on multiple occasions by making Korra, Tarrlok, or the Council act like clueless, privileged dicks about non-benders. But those moments get rarer and rarer as the first season goes on, and Amon gets more and more tyrannical, until, at the end, the reveal that he’s a bender himself renders his earlier points invalid. Even the Lieutenant, who seemed to be a true believer in the cause, is shown to be entirely disillusioned as he pops in to get owned one last time.
“Character commandeers a grassroots movement with a legit gripe and bends it to serve his own sinister purposes” isn’t an unsatisfying story at all, but information that was dropped early on to make you feel like Amon had a point—the bending gangs, the most popular sport only being open to benders, the lack of non-bender representation in city government and law enforcement—those weren’t tiny details. They were a big deal early on, and if we’re treating this as a self-contained season, they weren’t resolved by Amon and Tarrlok skipping town.
Makeouts vs. makeouts
Hey, sure! I didn’t pump my fist in the air or anything when Mako and Korra got together, but I buy it. I don’t know how I feel about these two being at “I love you”; Mako, maybe for lack of time, felt more like a brass ring for Korra than a character we’ve watched slowly fall in love with someone who’s not his girlfriend and be troubled about that, which I think is what the writers were going for. He’s got a personality, but we haven’t gotten to know him enough to understand and empathize with why he’s behaving like an indecisive dick.
Mako got pumped full of do-awesome-things steroids for the finale, presumably to make up for the fact that his defining trait in recent episodes has been “well-meaning but kind of thoughtless and a crap boyfriend.” Mako gets the drop on Amon with lightning, and as if that wasn’t enough, the writers even have Amon talk Mako up, all, “Hey, way to get the drop on me! That was pretty badass, in case the audience can’t remember why our heroine is so crushed out on you. Too bad I have to take your bending!”
I’m curious what they’ll do with Korra and Mako next season—stable relationships are notoriously boring to watch, as are the repetitive fights of “fiery” ones. If I can take the parallel history of Tenzin, Beifong, and Pema to mean that the big message here is “sometimes people break up, and it’s sad but not the end of the world,” with a side order of “if your boyfriend appears to be checking out another girl, it’s his fault, not hers”—that’s actually satisfying as a rare voice of reason in entertainment intended for youth and adult markets.
- I added a list of questions I had going into the finale at the end of the last review, and had ’em next to me while I watched, and I found answering them interesting in how short and simple nearly all of the answers were:
- Might there be a reason aside from Korra just being a doofus that there’s a lot of static between her and the Spirit World? Nope, but “doofus” was defined in a much more satisfying way.
- Can energybending be used to do things other than taking bending away? Yep!
- What’s the significance of the slightly different methods Aang and Amon are shown using to remove bending? They’re not the same thing. Using bloodbending to block bending permanently came out of nowhere, but seeing as how I had no problem suspending disbelief for temporary blocking of chi via physical pokes and how healing was vaguely explained as waterbending chi points, I can’t really object.
- Where and from whom did Amon learn to do it? At the North Pole, from his dad.
- What does Amon have going on under the mask? A normal face; not one the audience would have recognized, but one that a high-ranking politician would have.
- How could Yakone bloodbend in the daytime with his hands tied? The show hasn’t always been consistent on whether you need to be able to move your hands to bend, or whether specific moves are always tied to specific, uh, bends. Plenty of characters are shown being incapacitated when tied up, but a lot of times bending seems to be uncoupled from motions—a whole bunch of people (including Uncle Iroh, Meelo, Korra, Mako, and Aang) who can shoot various elements out of various, uh, orifices without a specific motion. One specific example of bending sans motion is one of my favorite moments of Avatar: the end of the final fight when Katara freezes both Azula and herself in that giant block of ice. Katara can’t physically move any more than Azula can, but she can still bend while Azula cannot. I think we were supposed to take the explanation Sokka gives in the flashback, which was basically “You’re thinking too hard about this. Some people just can do weird things, who knows why?” to heart about trying to define specific parameters and rules for bending—like technology, it’s constantly evolving. If so, though, I could have done with less “NO FULL MOON?!” buildup.
- Why did firebenders kill, like, everyone’s parents? Well, they didn’t kill Amon’s, so we’re one example short of a trend piece. Whatever.
- Fun game for the finale: Drink every time there’s token evidence that a random combatant didn’t die, he parachuted out before the explosion/crash! Drink twice if you spot one without the token evidence (rare, but there are a few). Finish your beer when Tarrlok blows himself and his brother to kingdom come, because how great was that?
- It was a cute idea, but Zuko’s voice did not work coming out of another character, particularly because some of the line readings are oddly stiff. The character didn’t seem to be able to speak in contractions, it sounded very formal.
- Composer Jeremy Zuckerman did an amazing job last week with a quiet, understated score for a high-drama scene; here, he does a similarly excellent job with the big, dramatic return of the Avatar theme from the original show, which I don’t believe we’ve heard used for Korra before.
- Korra receives another compliment from a prospective suitor that, like the one in episode five, includes neither “nice” nor “pretty.”
- Even more variations on the theme of terrible fathers so present in Avatar, from Yakone’s abuses ruining and shaping Tarrlok and Amon to Bolin literally yelling “MR. SATO! YOU ARE A TERRIBLE FATHER!”
- A few final thoughts: It’s been really interesting watching this in a participatory way with you all, picking out details, seeing other people’s opinions—it’s completely different from the way I watched the original series, all three seasons of which I shotgunned over a period when I was stuck in bed with an injury last year—pure entertainment, consumed on some hard-ass painkillers. This series was all about pick-pick-pick-pick-picking it apartweek by week, discussion, theories, extra-show information about the production schedule—all this meta stuff that wasn’t present in my experience of watching Avatar. I can’t help but think it must have had a huge effect on my opinions. I’m genuinely curious about how much whether or not/the way people watched Avatar: The Last Airbender affects their perceptions of The Legend Of Korra. If you’ve got a minute, on your way out could you pop down into the comments and answer the survey? I think the aggregated answers could be illuminating.
- New things for season two: Bumi, who looks fun; baby Rohan, full-fledged Avatar Korra; hopefully zero Eskimo kisses; a now-unlocked door to the Spirit World. Still no word on when that’s going to première. Perhaps I’ll see you there!