Legend of Korra: A Retrospective

Due to conflicts with Nickelodeon, the fourth season of the Legend of Korra is being released on October 3rd (FRIDAY) with almost no promotion.

The show is airing only on the internet and Nickelodeon has made it quite clear that they really just want to be finished with the series.

However, because it's an amazing show and lots and lots of people like it, I thought it would be nice to do my part by promoting it here on my lil corner of the web. The best way to get people pumped for Season 4  would be to look back on all the great moments from the past three seasons.

I must warn you that there are going to be MASSIVE SPOILERS from here on out. So if you plan on watching the series, I'd advise you to stop reading.

When book one was announced, fans of The Last Airbender were chomping at the bit. Save for a few comic books, it had been four years since any new material was written for the Avatar universe.

Fan's reaction when they realized there was gonna be a whole new series.

Fan's reaction when they realized there was gonna be a whole new series.

Rumors were floating around like crazy. While Aang was a well-loved avatar, everyone was excited to meet the next one in the cycle.  They were even more excited, however, to meet Aang's children. 

This first season definitely lived in the shadow of its predecessor. It seemed like in the beginning, everyone cared more about what happened to the gAang than meeting this new avatar. 

The writers were clever about how they were going to introduce audiences to this new cast though. They started with a familiar (albeit significantly aged) face. Katara. 

Katara at the age of 85.

Katara at the age of 85.

It was smart to have her serve as the bridge between series because it accomplished two things. The first was that it rooted the series in the familiar. Katara was a well-liked character from The Last Airbender. It would make logical sense for Korra to meet her, since Korra is of the same nationality as her. The second thing is more practical- it gave fans that taste of The Last Airbender that they were dying for. They wanted to see the old cast grown up, and were almost immediately rewarded. 

The writers made sure to use a light touch. A show fueled exclusively by nostalgia could only go so far. They wanted audiences to focus on this new cast and get invested in these new characters, so they promptly ripped Korra out of the Southern Water Tribe and planted her in an environment that was new to both her and the audience: Republic City.

Welcome to the thunderdome, bitches.

Welcome to the thunderdome, bitches.

The introduction to Republic City is the first real indicator that the Legend of Korra was going to be different from its predecessor. The Last Airbender always had an ancient, almost pastoral feel to it. Industrialization was just beginning in the first series with the Fire Nation's war machines. The Legend of Korra, set decades later, takes this industrialization to its logical conclusion: a booming metropolis reminiscent of the roaring twenties.

With that sense of modernization comes something else that The Last Airbender lacked. There's a certain seediness that exists in Republic City. Gangsters roam the streets shaking down shopkeepers. Tensions are high as non-benders are getting tired of being browbeaten by benders.

What viewers didn't realize at the time was that this darkness was going to extend to the series as a whole. Not even just stylistically. The themes of violent revolution and punishment bring this series to a more elevated plane of maturity that The Last Airbender lacked. Especially with the role of the first season's main antagonist: Amon.

The face of the Equalist Movement: Amon.

The face of the Equalist Movement: Amon.

Amon was different from the Fire Lord of The Last Airbender. In many ways, Fire Lord Ozai fit into the tropes of the Romantic (note the capitalization) villain. A power hungry monarch, he was basically the dragon Aang needed to slay in order to bring balance to the world.

Amon is a different sort of beast. He doesn't want power. He doesn't want to take over the world. He's more complicated than that. Amon wants to bring equality to Republic City. He wants to take bending away from the people that are oppressing those who can't defend themselves. In many ways, Amon could be compared to revolutionaries like Che Guevara or Malcolm X, who want to change the world by any means necessary. 

However, the writers of the show have always advocated peaceful revolution. We saw this in the first series with Jet, who was a similar kind of revolutionary that eventually (arguably) saw the error of his ways. We saw this with Aang in the finale, who did not execute the Fire Lord but instead took away his tools for destruction. It makes sense that Amon is portrayed as a villain in this universe as he is not advocating peaceful revolution.

In direct contrast with The Last Airbender, where viewers don't even see Fire Lord Ozai until the second season, Amon gets a lot of screen time. And for good reason. The writers wanted to communicate how dangerous and capable he was. He was a brilliant orator, able to whip crowds into an anti-bender frenzy. He was able to beat the Avatar in one on one combat just to show her that he could. There was a sense of danger with Amon that didn't exist with Fire Lord Ozai. It actually felt like there was a chance Korra and her friends could fail, and they nearly do.

The new Team Avatar: (L to R) Asami, Bolin, Korra, Mako, Tenzin

The new Team Avatar: (L to R) Asami, Bolin, Korra, Mako, Tenzin

The new Team Avatar had a different dynamic from the gAang. They were older. More mature. Post-pubescent. Basically, there was more sexual tension in this team than there ever was within the gAang. This, again, reflects how Korra is a more complicated show that meditates on more mature themes, like the consequences of dating within a group of friends.

Korra first meets pro-bending (another invention of the new series and a great example of the cultural prevalence bending has) brothers Mako and Bolin. She soon becomes a member of their team, the Fire Ferrets. Very shortly after that, it becomes clear that a love triangle has formed: Bolin likes Korra, Korra likes Mako, Mako likes Asami (and Korra). The fact that they're teammates complicates things further. An entire episode is devoted to exploring these complications and how their interpersonal relationships affect their team dynamic. Basically, Korra rejects Bolin and makes a move on Mako, who reciprocates in spite of his budding relationship with Asami. 

At the time, fans were not pleased with this wrinkle in the plot. They felt it was distracting and a waste of time. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. They wanted to know what was going to happen with the Equalists. They wanted to see Korra airbend. They wanted flashbacks to her past life. They wanted the avatar state. They didn't want to see teenagers and their petty emotional problems. Looking back, however, this nuance adds emotional depth and substance to an otherwise plot-oriented program.

Bolin gets his heart broken by Korra

Bolin gets his heart broken by Korra

Overall, the first season was well received. Some people were disappointed with the lack of character development and made the claim that it didn't stack up to The Last Airbender. These people fail to remember that The Last Airbender was a series whose plot arc occurred over 61 episodes and three seasons, while The Legend of Korra had to introduce a new cast and setting over the course of only 12 episodes. 

What nobody could deny was the fact that the Legend of Korra was much darker than its predecessor. Unlike Ozai, Amon is not spared a peaceful resolution. Instead, he dies in a murder/suicide initiated by his own brother.  

Amon killed by his brother, Tarrlok

Amon killed by his brother, Tarrlok

Even Korra is not spared a completely happy ending. Having lost everything but her airbending, she too, considers suicide, as her entire self-image is centered around being the Avatar, something that was taken away from her. 

Korra inches away from killing herself.

Korra inches away from killing herself.

However, still technically a children's program, Korra gets her bending restored (and the Avatar state unlocked) by a visit from her previous life, Aang. The first season ends on a happy note, as Korra is shown to be able to undo the damage Amon did by restoring the bending of Chief of Police Lin Beifong (Toph's daughter).

Other stuff from season one: 

"Be the leaf"

"Be the leaf"

Friends for life: Pabu and Naga 

Friends for life: Pabu and Naga 

There's an entire subplot about the failed relationship between Lin and Tenzin and the awkwardness between them.

There's an entire subplot about the failed relationship between Lin and Tenzin and the awkwardness between them.

"Asami, did you know that Korra likes Mako?"

"Asami, did you know that Korra likes Mako?"

Book Two was highly anticipated because it took almost a year to come out. Book Two wasn't even supposed to exist. It was only after the tremendous response to season one, which was supposed to be a mini-series in itself, did Nickelodeon decide to capitalize on Korra's success. Korra was so well received that they greenlit three more seasons of the show. 

Picking up a little bit after Season 1, Season 2 focuses on the Avatar's relationship to the spirits and their role in a modernized world. If Spirits were to be summarized in one word, that word would be "expansion."

Nearly every aspect of the Legend of Korra is expanded upon. The audience meets her immediate and extended family. We meet Tenzin's siblings, Aang's other children. The world itself is expanded upon as we see other parts of the world (some familiar, some new). Even the mythology of the show grows as the story of the first Avatar is told in a two part episode called Beginnings.

Unlike the first season, Spirits definitely has more kinship with The Last Airbender. There wasn't that gritty, noirish feel that permeated Republic City. Rather, there was a sense of adventure and exploration that defined the first series.

Tenzin and Korra with Aang's other children: Kya and Bumi 

Tenzin and Korra with Aang's other children: Kya and Bumi 

However, Season Two still maintains its bond to the first season by featuring another morally ambiguous antagonist, Korra's uncle Unalaq. Unalaq has a connection to the spirits that the other characters lack. He is the only person who is able to "purify" the dark spirits and revert them back to their normal state. He offers to teach Korra how to do this herself.

The writers were smart to include this detail, as it allowed them to explore the relationship between Korra and Tenzin. Tenzin grows jealous of Unalaq's connection to the spirits and Korra's enthusiasm to learn his techniques. It allows Tenzin to be fleshed out as a character with his own expectations and insecurities as he tries to live up to his father's legacy. 

Unalaq, on the other hand, is completely confident in his abilities as a spiritual leader. He is a zealot, similar to Amon in that he wholeheartedly believes that he is doing the right thing by trying to get rid of the Avatar. He believes the natural order is chaos, and that chaos must rein for there to be balance in the world. But, like Amon, he is misguided in his beliefs, as chaos only leads to destruction and pain.

Unalaq, the main antagonist for Season 2.

Unalaq, the main antagonist for Season 2.

This was a lesson that was reinforced to the viewer in the interlude Beginnings, where Korra learns the origin of the avatar.

Beginnings was a huge hit with fans, as it answered a question that people were wondering for some time: how did the Avatar come to be? The way they chose to tackle this in the context of the show was clever. The avatar has show the ability to communicate with their past lives, so Korra goes back 10,000 years to the very first avatar. She doesn't speak with him directly, rather, she merely relives his memories, which are directly portrayed to the viewer. This shift is marked by a change in the art to reflect ancient Asian art. 

The First Avatar: Avatar Wan

The First Avatar: Avatar Wan

Wan's story borrows elements from the Trickster format. Wan is an outsider in his society and is initially driven by his appetite, his literal hunger. He is exiled from his village into the land of the spirits for attempting to steal food. It is there he meets the spirits Vaatu and Raava, the spiritual embodiments of chaos and order, respectively. They are locked in an eternal struggle until Wan severs their bond and allows Vaatu to run free, spreading chaos among the spirits.

Wan realizes that his actions have consequences, as humans and spirits began to fight each other. Realizing he needs to rein in Vaatu, he bonds with Raava, allowing him to control all four elements instead of just fire. He then uses this power to seal Vaatu away and separates the spirit world from the human world, creating a era of order. 

Raava battling Vaatu

Raava battling Vaatu

Korra's relationship to her own past isn't the only thing that's explored in this season. Bolin gets a good deal of character development as well, as he gets a love interest of his own in Korra's cousin, Eska. Eska is reminiscent of The Last Airbender's Azula- she's an extremely powerful bender but also mentally unstable. Their relationship is meant to serve as a source of comic relief, as Eska basically claims Bolin as a pet and Bolin is unable to reject her advances.

Team Avatar is also introduced to Varrick, a smooth talking industrialist who always seems to have a scheme up his sleeve. Varrick is a great source of comedic relief, similar to Breaking Bad's Saul Goodman, as he is eccentric and fast-talking and burdens his assistant with various tasks. Varrick meets Bolin and decides to make him a "mover" star. Bolin, already a character with a blown up sense of self-worth, develops a massive ego. Interestingly, he becomes part of another love triangle involving his co-star, Ginger. That is, Eska wants Bolin, and Bolin wants Ginger, and Ginger wants to be left alone. Parallel to the love triangle in the first season, Bolin comes around and returns Eska's advances only to find that she's moved on. 

Bolin the movie star

Bolin the movie star

Season 2 definitely has stronger ties to The Last Airbender, as the season finale is much more climatic and reminiscent of the fight between Aang and Ozai. It's a battle between two literal giants: Korra in her Cosmic Avatar State and Unalaq after he has bonded with Vaatu, becoming the Dark Avatar. Things end on a positive note, as Korra vanquishes Vaatu and brings about another 10,000 years of order. However, she makes the choice not to separate the spirit world and the material world, which creates consequences that are explored in Season 3.

The climatic battle between Korra and Unalaq.

The climatic battle between Korra and Unalaq.

Other stuff from Season 2: 

After all the drama in season one, Mako and Korra break up. They still remain friends, though and have a lot of mutual respect for each other. 

After all the drama in season one, Mako and Korra break up. They still remain friends, though and have a lot of mutual respect for each other. 

Tenzin's eldest daughter, Jinora, is shown to have an affinity with the spirits and saves the day in the season finale.

Tenzin's eldest daughter, Jinora, is shown to have an affinity with the spirits and saves the day in the season finale.

Bolin scorns a woman.

Bolin scorns a woman.

UNCLE IROH LIVES IN THE SPIRIT WORLD AND MEETS KORRA ASLD;ASD,QWOPDFWPE

UNCLE IROH LIVES IN THE SPIRIT WORLD AND MEETS KORRA ASLD;ASD,QWOPDFWPE

Season three is called Change and picks up soon after where the second season left off. True to its name, season three marked a shift in the way the network handled the show. Many fans weren't aware that the third season was even coming out, as there wasn't much promotion at all. Then the first four episodes leaked, causing Nickelodeon to scramble to make a legitimate release. Then halfway through the season, Nickelodeon decided to stop airing the show on television and stick to exclusive digital release.

Fans were in an uproar. They felt (rightly so) that the network was snubbing the show. There's a history of strife between the writers of Avatar and Nickelodeon, as the writer's strike of 2007 caused there to be production delays between the second and third seasons of The Last Airbender. Because of this, there's a lot of bad blood between fans of the show and Nickelodeon.

Season Three is about the consequences of Korra's choice to not separate the Spirit World from the Material World. The most dramatic of which is the fact that a percent of the population has gained the ability to airbend, including Tenzin's brother, Bumi. 

Bumi showing off his new skills.

Bumi showing off his new skills.

Team Avatar's mission in this season is to find all of the new airbenders in order to help Tenzin rebuild the Air Nation. Of all the seasons thus far, Season Three most resembles The Last Airbender. There is more travelling than previous seasons, with Team Avatar visiting familiar places like the city of Ba Sing Se and The Northern Air Temple along with new places like the Metal City of Zhu Fu (founded by Toph's other daughter). There are more familiar faces in this season as well, as Zuko makes an appearance as an aged and wizened adviser to the Avatar.

"I hired an assassin with the same ability to take out the Avatar." Beat "Didn't work though."

"I hired an assassin with the same ability to take out the Avatar." Beat "Didn't work though."

 

The writing in season three is so strong that it retroactively improved the plot of the previous seasons. In season one, Korra was shown to be living in a highly secure compound patrolled by White Lotus guards. It was never explained as to why she was living there, save that it was Aang's wish that the next avatar master the elements in safety. We learn in season three that there's a more concrete threat- the Red Lotus had made an attempt on Korra's life when she was a child. We also learn that Unalaq was a member of the Red Lotus as well, and that their ultimate mission is to bring the world into a state of political anarchy by killing off all of the world's leaders, including the Avatar.

The Red Lotus are a unique group of villains because they are a group that mirrors Team Avatar. There are four members of the Red Lotus: Ghazan, Ming-Hua, P'Li, and their leader Zaheer. Each of these four are exceptional benders and have powers that are unique to them. Ghazan, the earthbender of the group, has the ability to phase change earth into lava and spends the majority of season three melting rocks down and sending waves of lava at his enemies. Ming-Hua is a waterbender who doesn't have any arms. Because she's such a powerful bender, she merely bends herself a set of arms out of water. P'Li is the firebender of the group and is possibly the most dangerous of the four. P'Li has the ability to combustion bend, meaning that she can shoot explosions out of her forehead. This ability is often used by the Red Lotus to provide suppressing fire from long ranges, allowing the other three members to gain a tactical advantage on their enemies. Finally, there is Zaheer, the air bender. Initially, before the events of season 2, Zaheer was a non-bender who had studied the culture of the Air Nomads. Then, like hundreds of others around the world, he found that he was an airbender after Korra merged the Material and Spirit worlds and used his new abilities to break himself and his friends out of prison. 

The Red Lotus (top, clockwise): Ghazan, Zaheer, Ming-Hua, P'Li.

The Red Lotus (top, clockwise): Ghazan, Zaheer, Ming-Hua, P'Li.

Season three goes back to the darkness that started The Legend of Korra, as we are shown once again that the Red Lotus are a real threat. They are competent and willing to further their goals by any means necessary. They work seamlessly as a team and are able to bring down the most powerful of enemies. The audience sees this early on as they effortlessly break out of prison, tearing through the White Lotus guards (and Zuko) without batting an eye. They are arguably the most dangerous threat Korra has faced in the entire series, as Zaheer is shown to be a remorseless killer, using his airbending to suffocate the Earth Queen to death (something that fans were pleased to see possible after long-time speculation).

The relationship between the four member of the Red Lotus is also explored in passing. It's clear that there is some sexual tension between Ming-Hua and Ghazan. The romantic relationship between P'Li and Zaheer is made obvious and actually serves as an important piece of the plot- Zaheer's love for P'Li keeps him tethered to the earth. It is only once she dies, he is able to "enter the void and become wind," giving him the ability to fly.

Zaheer assassinates the Earth Queen with Airbending.

Zaheer assassinates the Earth Queen with Airbending.

The villains weren't the only thing that made season three so great. There was a great deal of character development across the board for Team Avatar. After a lifetime of living as orphans with no family besides each other, Mako and Bolin meet their extended family in the slums of Ba Sing Se. Mako has a touching moment with his grandmother where he gives her his trademark scarf as a keepsake, as it belonged to her deceased son. On the whole, Mako matures a great deal in this season, behaving like an experienced detective with a job to do instead of an angsty teenager pining over his girlfriend.

Bolin also grows as a character this season. In Zhu Fu, he finally gets a love interest without any drama- Lin's niece Opal, one of the new airbenders. Still, Bolin struggles in this season as he tries to learn to metalbend, something that Korra learns to do with ease (to his chagrin). We are surprised at the end of the season to find that while Bolin will never be a metal bender, he is able to lavabend in a similar way to Ghazan, which allows him to tip the scales in his favor during their final duel.

Bolin winking at Ghazan after revealing he's also a lavabender.

Bolin winking at Ghazan after revealing he's also a lavabender.

Even the secondary characters get a massive amount of growth. Tenzin gets a chance to show the audience how powerful of a bender he is, as he fights all four members of the Red Lotus to protect his family and the new Air Nation. He is also shown to struggle with his new leadership role, as he isn't quite sure how to lead the new airbenders and must come to terms with the fact that sometimes he needs to defer to others, namely his brother Bumi and his daughter Jinora, both talented tacticians and benders (respectively) in their own right.

Lin Beifong also gets the spotlight. In the Metal City of Zhu Fu, we learn that she has a half-sister named Suyin. (We also find out that Toph is still alive and roaming the countryside, hinting at a possible appearance in the coming season). The audience are shown Lin's history in the form of several flashbacks, giving the audience some deep insights on why she's the grumpy, duty-bound chief of police she's been for the course of the series. There are deep-seated issues of sibling rivalry, mirroring the story of the Prodigal Son, as Lin was the straight-laced daughter working to be a cop like her mother, while Suyin was the free-spirited wild-child who wanted to mix up with criminals instead. We learn that Suyin was actually the one who gave Lin the scar on her face, showing the audience that Lin is constantly reminded of the strife in her family, something that she eventually lays to rest.

The Beifong half-sisters reunited

The Beifong half-sisters reunited

Asami probably receives the least amount of character development over the course of this season, but she is still shown to be a hyper-competent engineer, as she oversees the repair of an airship and later builds a vehicle from scrap parts in order to aid their escape. The writers chose to expand on Asami's relationship with Korra (causing some fans to romantically link the two, dubbing them "Korrasami"). The two have a complicated history, as they both dated Mako. However, they still have a very close friendship in spite of this overlap, as they are shown to support each other both emotionally and physically.

Korra is shown to adapt to her role as the Avatar. She's no longer the hot-headed teenager we saw in season one. Instead, she's the keeper of balance. However, this role is challenged by Zaheer and the Red Lotus, who nearly succeed in killing her with a special metallic poison. While Korra is able to resist the Red Lotus' attempts at her life, it comes at a great personal cost, as she is shown in the final scene of the season to be wheelchair bound and severely depressed at her condition. Asami attempts to provide her emotional support, but its clear to the viewers that Korra is in a deep despair in a haunting final shot of the season. 

Overall, season three is characterized by its high stakes. It was the first time since season one where it felt like anything could happen. The Red Lotus were a deadly group of terrorists, unwilling to stop until they met their goals. It was clear that the only thing that could stop them was death. And again, we see that the writers aren't afraid to tread in that territory, as three of the four members of the Red Lotus die a violent death- Ming-Hua gets electrocuted by Mako; Ghazan brings down a cave in an effort to take Bolin and Mako along with him; and P'Li is hoisted by her own petard and ends up blowing herself up with the help of Lin and Suyin. This was possibly the most shocking death of the season, as it happened so abruptly that many viewers weren't sure what happened at first. 

Suyin and Lin kill P'Li

Suyin and Lin kill P'Li

The third season of Korra was the best so far and gives many viewers high hopes for the season to come, which should wrap up the series in a dramatic and conclusive way.  

Other stuff from Season 3:

Everyone's favorite businessman has a cameo in the Metal City

Everyone's favorite businessman has a cameo in the Metal City

Jinora gets a love interest- a rascally urchin turned airbender named Kai.

Jinora gets a love interest- a rascally urchin turned airbender named Kai.

Phew. That's my recap of the first three seasons of The Legend of Korra. Make sure to check out season four on October 3rd on nick.com! (Here's the trailer again).