Two years and four seasons, with plenty of bumps along the way, and here we are at the end of Korra’s legend. At least the part that’s animated. We’ve seen Korra grow in so many ways – as a person, a woman, and as the Avatar. From adorable prodigy to well-intentioned, though naive and hot-headed, teenager to mature adult, Korra’s journeybook four has been fraught with multiple crises. But in her persistence and resolve to prove herself Korra, and by extension her creators, have given us a story of triumph over insurmountable odds; one that embraces mature themes of class equality, spirituality, revolution, and the price paid for being guardian to an advanced world. While The Legend of Korra owes its very existence to the popularity and fantastic storytelling of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the sequel series has, in my opinion, exceeded the legacy of its predecessor, carving out its own space as an iconic piece of Western animation.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko in 2012, Korra was originally a one season exploration of the world created in Avatar: The Last Airbender through the eyes of the next Avatar in the cycle, a girl from the Southern Water Tribe named Korra (Janet Varney). Had the show only run for the one season, I’m sure we would have looked at it as a fun trip back into the realm of fantasy where people bend the elements and the Avatar thwarts yet another nefarious plot in order to restore balance. The subsequent seasons, however, became the show’s proving ground. After some backtracking in season two, Korra forged ahead with an agenda that challenged the status quo of storytelling in animation and what is ostensibly viewed as “children’s programming” while still being an entertaining and engaging action-adventure fantasy series.

korra-all-the-avatarsThe Legend of Korra is a multifaceted show that defies simple categorization. Over the course of four seasons we’ve seen this work to the show’s advantage as it essentially grew up under the scrutiny of a generation steeped in internet culture. Avatar: The Last Airbender began and ended before Twitter, Tumblr, and a number of websites were in heavy rotation, but Korra was born within the epicenter of social media and the blogosphere, a place where representation and visibility were, and still are, of the utmost importance. But even with a woman of color as the lead, Korra wasn’t a guaranteed success especially in an environment where anything with a female lead was considered “tricky” or some kind of magical unicorn never to be seen twice. Two years later and the attitude of viewing audiences have towards properties like Korra has changed for the better and yet remained frustratingly the same. DiMartino and Konietzko, or Bryke as they’re affectionately called, aren’t responsible for all matters concerning representation, but they still took it upon themselves to make certain that Korra resonated with her audience despite consistent network interference. By ending the series with Korra and Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) holding hands and staring lovingly at each other as they enter the Spirit World for a much-needed vacation, The Legend of Korra solidified itself as a program indicative of its time and place. Having a queer woman of color in the lead role of a Korrasamifantasy action series put Korra in the unique position of taking a small, but still huge, step forward in the nuanced portrayal of women of color and the LGBTQ community in Western animation and children’s programming. Yes, I’m well aware that anime has been doing this for quite some time.

The uniqueness of the show also stems from a combination of storytelling and character development that, again, isn’t seen a lot in Western animation. For instance, the show follows patterns reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”, but goes to even greater lengths to examine those tropes through the lens of Eastern storytelling. From the beginning, Korra has been a character who embraced the call to action. In fact, it was the central conceit of the pilot and the starting point for the series as a whole. Korra is a more proactive character in her approach to being the Avatar; where Aang tried to find the peaceful route first, Korra was always ready for a fight and the storytelling reflected those traits. Avatar: The Last Airbender was all about the overarching plot of Aang and friends going up against the Fire Lord while The Legend of Korra had contained arcs for each season, which allowed Korra to go up against multiple villains. The advantage for Korra lies in the character growth achieved through her battles with Amon, Unalaq and Vaatu, the Red Lotus, and Kuvira. It’s also another means of showing that the hero’s journey is hardly a linear model with a definitive beginning and end. If legend-of-korra-series-finale-korraanything, the hero’s journey is an ongoing process with multiple starts and stops along the way. The destination is still important, but the journey matters more in the long run and Korra’s journey has been all about growth and change in a world going through the same process.

As a character, Korra has an inherent connection to the struggles of the world she protects. Throughout the series her internal doubts and conflicts are reflected externally. Season one was about elitism and equality in a technologically advanced world, season two the lack of spiritual connection as a result of these advancements, season three the chaos of adjusting to rapid change, and season four the need to control in order to combat the turmoil of chaos. All of these hardships belong to Korra but they are just as present in Republic City, the four elemental nations, and in her enemies. This grounds Korra and gives her personal stakes in the fate of the world regardless of her position as the Avatar. Even if she turned away from the problems facing the world they still live within her. That’s incentive enough to act, but Korra’s peace of mind only appears to be fulfilled when she and the world are in balance.

Season four was a dense playground of themes and ideas, the most poignant being the Buddhist philosophy of suffering. At the end of season three, Korra is poisoned and nearly killed by Zaheer (Henry Rollins). She survives but is broken by the latest in a long line of battles. For three years she attempts to regain her strength and force herself into readiness, but only by accepting the trauma, and learning from her enemies, does she truly begin to heal. Suffering leads to perspective¬†and wisdom, which ultimately allows her to triumph over Kuvira (Zelda Williams); not through the awesome power of being the Avatar but through sympathy and empathy. It was the worst kept Legend-of-Korra-The-Last-Stand-10secret that Korra and Kuvira were reflections of each other. Hell, Bolin (P.J. Byrne) practically spells it out for the audience and I’m fairly certain that the name Kuvira was chosen to be just similar enough to Korra so we wouldn’t miss it. The point being that the similarities between the two in attitude and demeanor forced Korra to go beyond her training as a fighter and find another angle of approach. While the two have some intense and amazingly animated battles thanks to Studio Mir, their conflict ends only when Korra offers a sympathetic ear, something that season one Korra wouldn’t have considered because she didn’t have the experience needed in order to understand Kuvira’s position or her plight. By resolving the situation as peaceably as possible, Korra comes into her own as the Avatar, and the person, she wants to be.

What is specific to Korra, but still a point of connection between her and the audience, is the idea of relevancy. The entire series hinges on a single question: Does the world still need the Avatar? By series end, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” All the mecha suits, spirit kaiju, and political haranguing aside, Korra is still relevant, still necessary to the world around her. But just as importantly, Korra and other shows in the same vein are needed and necessary to the viewing audience. Korra offers something we don’t see as often as we want in the television landscape: a place where women are valued.

beifong womenI’ve written before about the amazing cast of female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but the final season of Korra presented a plethora of women offering sage advice or kicking ass – both in Toph’s case. While Korra had plenty of male teachers and enemies, seasons three and four tipped the scale in favor of the show’s female characters. It doesn’t make Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), Mako (David Faustino), Bolin, Bumi, or Kai irrelevant, but it shows that the creators wanted to celebrate women as heroes, villains, mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, leaders, scientists, spiritual guides, and everything else under the sun. The fact that Bolin’s hero is Toph still makes me happy because it isn’t often that we see male characters on television, animated or otherwise, showing unabashed hero-worship for a female character. Bolin, more than any male character in the series, has been the ultimate cheerleader for women. He’s the first to believe in Korra, laying out all of the qualities that make her amazing, he worships Toph, and he defends Kuvira’s cause because he wants to see the good in it before the reality of his situation sets in. Through Bolin, Bryke found their own surrogate to tell the male audience that the Avatar universe is a world of celebration for women and men. Yes, it’s a realm of fantasy, but fantasy has a way of influencing reality.Bolin and Mako

Is it a feminist agenda? Of course, but the seeds have been there since Avatar. Making the next Avatar a woman as well as the reveal that the Avatar is a literal avatar for Raava, the female spirit of light and peace, are choices on the part of the creators to enrich their world as they see fit. By emphasizing the importance of the feminine spirit alongside the extensive female cast, DiMartino and Konietzko have crafted a realm where girls and women are equal in every way. The Legend of Korra accomplishes this without ever having to explicitly state the obvious in-universe compared to the first season of Avatar that went a long way to get the point across that women could fight just as well as men. The women of Korra are, without question, active agents in their world. Youngsters like Ikki and Jinora make just as much impact as the older Lin (Mindy Sterling) and Suyin (Anne Heche) Beifong. Age doesn’t denote skill or importance, giving girls of all ages in the viewing audience a contrasting image of how to define their own value and self-worth as they grow up.

So what’s next for Korra? Not sure. Hopefully a comic book is in the works a la the continuing adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender that bridged the two series. After the series finale and the ending that will definitely be talked about for some time, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unexplored territory to cover. As Korra says to Tenzin, she’s not done learning. But if this is the last we see of Korra and company, then it’s definitely a legend worth telling.

Cast-edited

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