If you haven’t seen the latest episode of The Legend of Korra, the series finale, be wary of major spoilers ahead. Or just re-watch Book 1.
Thursday’s season finale of The Legend of Korra saw the end of almost a decade-long journey of animation through the universe of bending elements, spiritual journeys, blends of eastern and western ideologies, and the avatar. It’s been a journey that I’ve been so personally invested in, and it’s been extremely difficult for me to say goodbye. It almost seems surreal that we watched the series finale. In fact, that’s exactly what it was. Surreal, unbelievable, and underwhelming.
Now before I go into why I thought that this show – my number one favorite show, the show that I dedicate a lot of my free time thinking about, the show with some of the most amazing characters, especially led by females and underrepresented minorities – was underwhelming, let’s backtrack a bit and start at the very beginning. Actual discussion of the finale starts after discussion of Books 1-3, but I’m going to try and make this review more of an ode to the whole show and not just the finale episode.
Books 1-3 Analysis
Starting off with Book 1, the dynamic of everything was on point. There were new, fresh characters apart from Avatar: The Last Airbender’s set, though some paid homage through subtle characteristics (Bolin/Sokka parallel is the obvious one). The setting of Republic City, a vibrant, San Francisco-characteristic city infused with eastern elements was incredible. The music, delivered by the glorious Jeremy Zuckerman, constantly took the audience into higher dimensions because it was (and is) just so darn amazing. And the storyline of having equalists as villains, non-benders that opposed the presence of the Avatar, was so different compared to the villains characteristic of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It wasn’t about taking over the world. It was about a deeper ideology and philosophy targeted right at the heart of the Avatar, our main character. Dismantling the strong, stable character narrative that we find ourselves in love with.
Considering that Nickelodeon was only intending on releasing one season to the public, Book 1 did an amazing job of being the spin-off to the show that so many people loved. Each episode had me gripping whatever was closest to me. Every single cliffhanger was unanticipated. Amon as a villain was so extremely terrifying (a lot of it had to do with the fact that he wore a mask), but I loved it so much. And the ending of the Book was satisfying and beautiful, with Korra entering the Avatar State, seeing Aang, and gaining the ability to give benders their bending back. It celebrated Korra as the Avatar, and Korra as a person.
Now let’s take a look at Korra. Korra is one of the best female characters in popular culture. She’s muscular beyond belief, extremely beautiful, hot-headed, bold, confident, willing to speak her mind no matter the cost, though simultaneously compassionate and so selfless in helping those around her. It’s an Avatar-inherent quality. Simply put, she’s a huge inspiration to her audience, myself included. I would definitely go so far to say she’s my favorite fictional character of all time.
Tenzin, Aang’s son, does a great job of being her father figure/confidante/teacher right from the start. I absolutely love and cherish the dynamic that the two have, and I’m so glad that this stays true till the end of the show.
The comradery formed between Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami was also written extremely well in Book 1. It starts off with just Korra, Mako, and Bolin as pro-bender teammates, sharing a competitive, quirky, and lovable dynamic. Considering that the main target audience is around the same age as those of our main characters, the “Krew” struck chords in our hearts as relatable people, our fictional friends whose journeys we live through vicariously, whose words we speak through vicariously, whose actions we try to demonstrate vicariously because it feels so natural (apart from the whole bending-fantasy environment of course).
I’m not gonna go too much into Book 2, as compared to Book 1 the story was a little bit more underwhelming with promise of spiritual journeys and revelations. It was additionally weighed down by relationship drama, which is a shame. One of the major highlights were the two episodes in the middle entitled “The Beginnings,” where we were able to see how the Avatar line was created with the very first Avatar, Wan (pun surely intended). We are introduced to the core elements of the Avatar: Raava and Vaatu. While Raava, the spirit that represents all that is good with the world resides with the Avatar, Vaatu is the opposite. Wan’s interference in the fight between the two spirits knocks the world in imbalance, thus creating the avatar’s single purpose of bringing balance and peace to the world, in addition to being the bridge between the spirit world and reality. The most significant result from the season is Korra unfortunately losing the connection to her past lives, following the aftermath of her fight with Unavaatu (combination of Vaatu and her uncle).
Moving onto Book 3, the terrorist organization known as “The Red Lotus” serve as the main antagonists. We learn more about the Beifongs and are introduced to the innovative setting of Zaofu. Because of the Harmonic Convergence of Season 2, a new era of Airbenders emerge. The biggest turnaround occurs at the end however, when Zaheer (leader of the Red Lotus with communist tendencies) straps Korra in crystal catacombs and poisons her. Korra is able to defeat Zaheer but is emotionally, physically, and mentally rendered unstable after the poison infiltrates her body. She yields to suffering and PTSD.
Book 4 Finale
Now Book 4, the last book of the show and of the universe, is where the story begins to be underwhelming, opposite to what its intended effect should be. Our new antagonist is Kuvira, the so called “Great Uniter” who, after the effects of Zaheer’s political agenda, has set forth in the Earth Kingdom, trying to rebuild the land under one flag. Like all villains, the power gets to her head and ultimately she refuses to hear “no” for an answer, answering to no one and making quite irrational decisions. For a villain who had the potential to be different and perhaps more trademark of a unique villain like Amon, Kuvira and the writers let me down. I’ll elaborate on this later.
Korra’s journey from start to end of Book 4 is extremely commendable. At the start, she is still paralyzed from the terror unleashed thanks to her battle with Zaheer. She is able to overcome the initial hurdles with Katara and her wonderful healing abilities, and later regains her fighting mojo and moxy with Toph in the huge swamp. This development is wonderful and so important for those going through similar transitions from PTSD/depression into recovery.
When it comes round to the finale, which is what this review really all is about, it just didn’t feel like the end of a show for me, which was so difficult for me to come to terms with. Yes, Kuvira and her army of Kaijus were raw, bold, monumental, and freakish, but the first half of the finale of the show was an extended battle scene of mostly everyone trying to take down the main Kaiju, named “Colussus,” with Korra barely involved. When we get to the second half, she alone is able to stop Kuvira, and with the monumental power in her, is able to bend the spirit energy away and creates an entirely new spirit portal. It truly stands testament to how amazing of an avatar Korra is. However, the actual spiritual meaning and grandeur of Korra’s actions was entirely missing.
Kuvira herself is not actually the villain I envisioned for Korra to have her final battle against. Right before Kuvira and Korra enter the portal, Kuvira is shown with the spirit arm shooting the spirit lasers at everything and anything, having lost total common sense and control. There was no lead in to her demise, no significant downfall. Her phrase “The Great Uniter” went all to waste because her fight in Republic City lost all meaning. She had no purpose or real motive to fight in RC other than proving to herself how strong of a warrior and protector of the Earth Kingdom she was. If we parallel Kuvira to Azula, Azula had significant moments towards the end of Avatar’s Book 3 where the audience could plainly see her downfall, what her motives were, what her hamartia was, why she ultimately lost in the end. The writers didn’t even allow Kuvira to have this type of complexity in the end, which is a disservice to how cool she was from the concept art to the beginnings of Book 4. When she is in the spirit portal with Korra, it takes her the span of a 2-minute conversation for her to realize that she was wrong. Outside the portal, her army men simply accept the fact that their leader says “I’m done! Avatar won!” Kuvira ultimately just feels super underdeveloped.
While Korra opening the portal is amazing, it’s just the start. There’s no discussion of how she was able to do it, no celebration of her efforts at the final scenes. Even in Book 2, which a lot of fans feel is the weakest of the four, the finale showcased Korra, in all of her spiritual potential and awe-inspiring power and determination, able to take down Unavaatu and transcend the normal tethers that Avatars share in the spirit world. In the final book of Avatar, Aang was able to share and soak in the glory of restoring balance to the world at Fire Lord Zuko’s coronation ceremony, yet Korra is sidelined at the marriage of two secondary characters. There is so little relevance to how important her actions were, and how important she is, that it’s a little disgusting. Yes, the ending is characteristic of a season finale, but truly not that of a series finale.
I wanted there to be more spiritual meaningfulness with the end of Korra’s story. I wanted her journey to be as large-scale as what she deserved. I wanted her to reach some resolution with her past lives and adventure as the Avatar herself. I wanted to see more exploration into how she was able to open the portal. I’m not here to compare Legend of Korra to Avatar: The Last Airbender, but let’s just say that the Avatar finale featuring Aang and the Lion Turtle completely wrecked me. It was so amazing and so bold. Being able to do the impossible and reforge her connection to her past lives would have made the ending so much more satisfying to me. There wouldn’t have to be any words spoken, just ethereal beauty as she realizes that she’s so powerful, confident, and compassionate that she was able to do the impossible. She silently stands amongst her lineage, spiritual family, soaking in their combined power and love.
When the final credits are about to roll around, the conclusion still feels a little salty. Her relationship with Mako, following their beginnings in Book 1 to the breakup in Book 2 to the awkwardness in Book 3, has seemed to reach a point of no return in Book 4. Their relationship is so formal, and not characteristic of any of the journeys they’ve been through. Hell, Bolin, the first friend she ever made upon arriving to Republic City, doesn’t even share a word with Korra, let alone a hug at the end. Bolin does officiate a marriage though.
And this is what really gets me. The writers totally pushed aside Team Avatar and their original friendship. Mako and Bolin cared so much about each other and about Korra and Asami, and we barely got a feel for that towards the end. There’s no acknowledgement of their past adventures and journeys. That Mako sacrificed himself in an act of selflessness that he learned from Korra so that he was able to protect them. That the two have comforted both Korra and Asami in the past when things started to go downhill. These friendships should undoubtedly remain true to the end. And if not in an explicit form (ie: group hug, going down to the portal together at the end), then at least more words shared. If I recall, Bolin and Korra barely spoke to each other at all during the extent of Book 4.
I get that the writers wanted to leave things open-ended in terms of how Korra’s journey would eventually take her post-credits. However, there’s a huge difference between leaving things open-ended and blatantly ignoring relationships and friendships between certain characters.
Korra’s last talk with Tenzin may have been redeemable, if it weren’t for the problematic undertones. In her conversation, she states a revelation she made: because she suffered, she was able to feel compassion, compassion for Kuvira especially.
This is where I feel that writing wavered specifically. There is a way of maturing a character so that they may not be as brash or hot-headed as before. I can definitely see how the writers intended on making a character mature, such as Korra, so that she can develop into a more thoughtful and respected human being. However, Korra’s last words to Tenzin (“The only way I could be compassionate was if I suffered”) left me feeling super uncomfortable. In my perspective, she was saying that the only way I could be compassionate was if I suffered” (this isn’t true at all, as there are plenty examples in Books 1-3 where she was already compassionate). So we are presented with Korra’s character flaw being that she was “irrational”. That she was “hot-headed”. “Non-compliant”. The list can go on and on. And when we are given the final version of Korra, it’s a subdued version of her.
My wish for Korra was for her to become a well-rounded character (which has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a strong female character, rather that she should become a well-rounded character, regardless of gender and of the word strength, especially since strength can come in many different forms). Someone who yes, has changed as a result of her traumatic experience, but says nothing bad about who she was prior to her suffering (a person who “didn’t take shit from anyone”). Basically, those specific qualities of being bold and standing up for herself were qualities that shouldn’t need to change. Those qualities are/were Korra being Korra.
Yet change they did. Her last statements with Tenzin detract from her being a *well-rounded character* (and again, not a “strong female character”), because they emphasized that she deserved to suffer, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to be compassionate, be more thoughtful and aware, be more of an improvement compared to where she was at before. They emphasized that she needed to change because of her original qualities. Her meek demeanor shouldn’t have to be her growing up. Her growing up and maturing should be a blend of all these characteristics, and not that she had to lose her bold and confident self in order to grow up. This is what makes a character a character because it gives them life and realistic qualities of being well-rounded and embodying varying amounts of specific qualities and characteristics.
I have thought about this long and hard and swung from case to case. I had convinced myself after writing the article that maybe the writers were intending on maturing her. And I get why. But here’s the thing: they matured her by making her lose some of her character. She doesn’t have to change her outlook on life without losing some of the vivacity that we see Korra embody between Books 1 and 2. She can be patient and empathetic without losing her mojo from Books 1 and 2. A person can change, but not be broken down. If that traumatic experience changed Korra, I feel like the final outcome from her experiences should have not been emphasizing that she deserved to suffer so that she could become a better person.
So yes, I understand that the writers wanted to mature her as a character. That she learned from her mistakes. But they matured her at the cost of her own characterization.
Now let’s get into the part that everyone wants to talk about. I’m not too heavily invested in shipping Korra with characters. Personally I ship Korra with herself as she is that amazing, hardly deserving of anyone else. But if we are going to talk about potential love interests, I would have to say that I most expected Mako and Korra to end up together. They shared subtle moments of romance throughout the last two books, in addition to the filler episode with Mako explaining his romantic intents with the avatar and later telling Prince Wu (one of the most useless side characters in the entire show and perhaps all shows in general) that he will never be with Korra.
Let’s take a look at Korra and Asami’s journey. Starting with Book 1 and Book 2, their relationship had always been a bit bitter, as they both shared the same boyfriend at different points. During Book 3, their relationship began to grow as they became closer, bonding as girlfriends. Asami helps Korra in the wheelchair at the end of Book 3, sharing a tender moment. Korra writes letters only to Asami in Book 4. They’re all very subtle nods to their budding relationship. But it was nothing monumental. So seeing their relationship culminate into a canon romantic relationship was quite surprising to me.
Don’t get me wrong, it is so wonderful that Korra can now be characterized as a POC and bisexual character thus giving a voice to not one but two underrepresented communities. It’s wonderful that Legend of Korra is such a progressive show, addressing all areas of social reform. It’s wonderful that this finale is truly revolutionary, marking a change and landmark for all animated shows in the future. If their relationship had been given more showcasing throughout the show, I would definitely be on board. Their romance is not, however, fitting to be the last scene of the entire show. Asami in fact barely had any lines in Book 4 (she herself was sidelined). If the entire series was supposed to end with a shot of Korra and another character, I would want that other character to be just as prevalent as Korra. From a character narrative point of view, there seemed to be more that could have been developed with Asami specifically.
Where is the applause for Korra? Where is the monumental change affected by Korra’s actions? Where is Korra recognized single-handedly for her passion and determination? Again, all we are left with is the image of a meek Korra, accepting that her suffering was okay in order for her to grow as a person. She absolutely did not have to go through pain and suffering to undergo “character development”. Her pairing with Asami somehow manages to erase all of the glory that came out of the last fight and potentially future stories. An alternate ending that I would have preferred would have been for her to yes, perhaps make her relationship with Asami canon with a kiss or something of similar nature, but then journey into the spirit world by herself (or with Mako, Bolin AND Asami by her side–no one can forget the bonds of the Fire Ferrets) and, as I mentioned before, see that by creating the spirit portal she somehow was able to reforge the connection to her past lives, and as she stands in the beauty of the spirit world she is surrounded by the lineage of her past lives. There shouldn’t have to be any words spoken. Just Korra embracing the warm touch of her legacy. This is her story about being the avatar anyway.
Also, where the hell was Naga in this finale? The idea of the avatar having an animal companion, especially based off of the relationship Aang had with Appa in A:TLA, makes the show even more endearing, and Naga barely having any scenes with Korra in the finale pisses me off beyond belief.
So here’s the problem. There are so many characters introduced by the end of Book 4 that Korra, the leading star of her show, has become sidelined. The writers disguised this with the incredible fighting scenes between Korra and Kuvira, the fact that Korra was able to open up a spirit portal, and that the hero ends up getting the girl.
The grandeur of the final episode, the disappointing character arc of Korra, the sidelined relationships between her and those that matter most to her, the lack of meaningful and spiritual undertones of the conflict between her and Kuvira, were all so underwhelming compared to what I would have expected from the series finale.
While the story and writing has wavered, I will give credit where it’s fully due.
To Studio Mir, the company responsible for the beautiful animation in the show, thank you for providing such rich imagery to complement this beautiful world and for beautifully animating all the characters. To Jeremy Zuckerman, thank you for creating, simply put the best soundtrack I could ever have the privilege of listening to, a soundtrack which never fails to make me cry (check out his Soundcloud here and his iTunes here). Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino, thank you for providing a show and outlet for me to escape reality into this fantastic and beautiful world of bending elements, with fun and relatable characters and tremendous storylines. The details on every single aspect of the show is clearly seen to be taken with the utmost respect, which is all that the show deserves.
So yes, Book 4 had its moments (mostly during the Beifong battle with Kuvira and the parts that feature Korra solely). But if I had to characterize my emotions coming out of the finale to some of the greatest stories told, I would simply say confusion, which is an extremely difficult way for me to say goodbye.