Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Legend of Korra: Season One Ending Thoughts (Spoiler Lite)

I just watched the finale for the first season of Legend of Korra, and I have to say I truly have mixed feelings about it.

As I mentioned in my previous review, Korra is a heck of an impressive show. It’s been a great series in so many ways, and I think this is what makes the finale such a let-down for me. Over the course of the season the creators have taken such care in developing the characters and nuturing the story along. The pacing of the show, and the themes they’ve been weaving have been a beautiful display of animation artistry.

Then it’s like they suddenly noticed they just had 2 episodes left and panicked.

“Oh crap! We’re out of time! We have to end this!”

And suddenly all that artistry went out the window in the name of just getting the darn thing finished and the major plotlines resolved.

Now, there is a possible reason for this. When Korra was originally planned, it was supposed to just be a single season, or at least that was the official announcement. I have a slightly different theory based on what I just watched.

I think the producers wrote this show to be the first of several seasons, and the pacing and presentation clearly represent that. But, somewhere during late production on the show, Nickelodeon (the company paying for it) suddenly decided that it was only going to be a single season show. (This was very likely around the time that the Avatar live-action movie bombed horribly in the box office.) I think they decided that the whole Avatar franchise was done, and basically decided to cut their losses.

So they told the producers to wrap it up, and suddenly there was a mad rush to get everything done story-wise before the last episode. This would explain a great deal of the way the show is paced and presented, and that there seems to be a lot of unfollowed threads in the show as presented. (For example, what happened to Mokko and Bolin’s coach? The guy they clearly intended to be a major character and likely alternate mentor to Korra? He just vanished after an episode or so.)

So the producers scrambled, crammed the whole thing into a single season, and then presented it to the suits at Nickelodeon. It was only then that the suits actually realized that they had a huge potential hit on their hands, and their reaction was –

“Make more!”

“But, you just forced us to finish it!”

“I don’t care! Make more! Here’s money!”

So, they’re making more. Although lord knows why, because they tied things up at the end of the first season so well and tightly there really isn’t a whole lot of room left. Maybe they’ll do a time jump, I don’t know.

All I know is, that last episode was a mess, and I’m sorely disappointed in the sheer amount of wasted potential. For example, the Equalists actually did have a point, and they clearly also had a large social following among non-benders who were tired of bender rule. (However beneficient they are.) They could have at least given us a look into what life was like for non-benders, or even better, worked toward an end where Korra helped bring benders and non-benders into a more equal relationship. (She is supposed to bring balance to the world, after all. Wouldn’t that apply to non-benders too?) Amon’s real goals were selfish, but his stated goals were noble in their own way.

At the end of this story, Korra and Amon may as well never have come to Republic City, and if they hadn’t both come the world would have been almost exactly the same as it is. Think about it. Nothing has really changed in this setting, not a single thing. They both came, did their thing, and left. But had no effect on the setting at all, except for their few friends. Ang literally reshaped his world, what has Korra done?

Maybe they’ll fix that when they get to second season. Who knows?

Rob

Review: The Legend of Korra

So this week I finally took the chance to catch up on the serial The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, which is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender and airs on Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings. Originally intended as a mini-series, even before it aired the channel upgraded its status based on just what they’d seen of it, and there’s no question why- it’s probably one of the best animated shows North Americans have ever produced.

The original Avatar: The Last Airbender, was an impressive show, but took a little while to find its footing and was perhaps a little too young-oriented for its own good at first. It wanted to be a show for all ages, but because of the channel I personally found the early episodes hard to watch and a bit too kiddy-oriented for my tastes. I strongly suspect this was the result of Nickelodeon suits screaming “make it funnier” behind the scenes, while the production team was just trying to make a balanced adventure series. My evidence of that is that as soon as the show got popular (and the producers had more power), it slowed down on the humor and became more steady and balanced as it went.(Which made it even more popular.)

The Legend of Korra is a completely different beast (if you’ll pardon the pun), if for no reason than because the producers were more experienced the second time around and they also had more say in things. As a result, they have produced something that is both unique and fascinating on so many levels that I almost don’t know where to begin to describe it. So first, for those who many not know what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at the preview trailer:

Want to know something scary? That trailer doesn’t even do justice to how visually beautiful and well animated the show is. It’s like watching a weekly movie, and one done by experienced hands at an A-List studio who know exactly what they’re doing and what they want to achieve. The life this brings to the characters and the setting is amazing, and when the action kicks it, it becomes pure poetry.

And action there is! But before I go on, I should probably explain the plot.

The story is fairly simple- Korra lives in a fantasy world where people called Benders have the ability to control and shape elements telekinetically. If you’re a Bender and you’re attuned to Water, you can make water fly around and do tricks, the same with Earth, Air and Fire. They can’t create the element, but they can shape what’s there, and there are sub-specialties under the main categories, like Metal-Bending and Blood-Bending.

Each generation, there is a single Bender born called the Avatar, who can control all the different elements, not just a single one like most Benders. The original series was about an Avatar named Ang, who was the last of the Airbenders (duh!) and who helped bring peace to the setting and ended a hundred-year long war.

At the start of this series, Ang has already passed away, and a new Avatar has been born to the Water Tribe named Korra. She’s good with water, but her command of the other elements is spotty at best, and her particular weakness is Airbending, so as a teen she goes to live with Tenzin, Ang’s son, in Republic City. (A city founded by Ang, which is now a roaring metropolis.) Shortly after her arrival, she hooks up with a team of sport-benders called the Fire Ferrets, and ends up joining their team. She also runs afoul of the Equalists, and their leader Amon, who claim to be working to promote rights for non-Benders (most of the population) who live under Bender rule.

And, it’s these last two points that make this show both unique and surprisingly deep at times for what is technically a “kids show”.

Half of the show is a “sports drama”, as Korra becomes involved with the Pro-Bending League and bonds with her teammates Mokko and Bolin. The sport itself is surprisingly well thought-out and presented in a way which is both dramatic and easy to follow for the audience. The rules to the sport are almost intuitive, so even those who missed the episode where it’s explained can understand it.  Also, watching the teenaged Korra learn and develop through sport is fun and a real inspiration for getting youth involved in sports and physical activity. I wish we had more sports shows for kids like this.

It’s caught on to the point where people are actually trying to create real-life versions as well:

The other half of the show, the Equalists, shines just as brightly. They could have been simple bad-guys, but instead they’re presented as real people who live under the yoke of Bender oppression and believe in their fight for freedom. This is surprisingly heavy for a youth-oriented show, and the producers don’t shy away for what this means and the implications involved. Is Korra really working for the good of all people? Or is she the “savior” of an overclass who dominate those who can’t bend?

Fan Made Equalist Video:

The other nice thing is that their leader, the masked and mysterious Amon, is also portrayed as both extremely smart and capable. His plans almost always work, and all the positive thinking and determination of Korra and her allies mean almost nothing against his intelligence and foresight. She’s not even in his league, and the show makes that clear from the start. There will be a long journey before Korra could even hope to face Amon, and Republic City likely doesn’t have that much time left.

Which brings me to the other shining jewel of the show- the setting!

Where the original show existed in a sort of low-tech steampunk Victorian setting, Korra’s setting is an evolved version of that which bears a striking resemblance to the Roaring Twenties. The city is alive with culture and style to the point where you almost believe its a real place, and they draw heavily on that period to give it authenticity. In fact, I would argue that Republic City is basically an idealized Shanghai of the 20’s and early 30’s during its glory period, with Bending thrown into the mix.

Even the “previously on” segment that catches the audience up at the start of each episode is presented as an old black and white newsreel, with an old-style announcer’s rapid play-by-play patter of the events.

The characters themselves are all well thought-out, nuanced, and generally quite likable. Korra herself is a seat-of-the pants headstrong country girl in the big city, and unique in American TV in many ways, for example, from her “date” with Bolin:

How many other shows would let their heroine do that?

The drama in the show isn’t especially deep, but it’s not meant to be, the show is a coming of age show mixed with an action show, and it plays both of those cards quite well. The mix of humor and drama is almost pitch-perfect, and it really lets all the characters have their moments and show their humanity, so that you really feel for them when the bad stuff goes down.

Overall, I give The Legend of Korra an A+, and highly recommend watching it if you get the chance. It really is a premium show, and deserves the accolades it gets.