How the Finale of “Korra” Ruined the Entire Series
Four days later, my reaction to the ultimate conclusion of The Legend of Korra is no longer violent, but no less angry. I haven’t been this infuriated by the end of a story since watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village*. Incidentally enough, both endings have the exact same problem: they are both completely catastrophic letdowns that rob all that preceded them of its excellence.
I’m not the only person who thinks so. I’ve gone through several negative fan reactions, and they raise the same problems. There are, however, a few opinions that differed slightly from mine that had to do with unanswered questions (e.g. just how could Amon take people’s Bending away?) and the back story of Amon and Tarrlok.
Personally, I thought the tragic back story of Amon—his real name is Noatak—and Tarrlok was just fine. And I didn’t mind that Amon’s great power was left a mystery, among other things (e.g. how come Amon failed to take away all of Korra’s Bending? Why is that process so selective?). No, my issue has to do almost exclusively with the Deus Ex Machina of a denouement: when Korra gets her Bending back thanks to Avatar Aang.
I have to admit, I was greatly enjoying the finale up until that point. As far as I can remember, the action scenes and the more emotional sequences were handled incredibly well. Some things were a little ridiculous, like General Iroh’s Iron Man flight.(And the giant Amon mask on the Aang statue’s face was just dumb.) However, the back story of the brothers Tarrlok and Amon was probably the most effective aspect of the entire series, and Tarrlok’s murder-suicide was the most shocking, most tragic, and most moving moment.
In fact, re-examining Tarrlok’s suicide only makes me detest Korra’s “resurrection” even more. I’ll discuss that later.
Not “If,” But “How”
To understand my absolutely disgust for the moment Korra receives her Bending back, it’s best that you know where my mind was right before it happened.
The instance Amon took away Korra’s Bending was, aside from Tarrlok’s murder-suicide, the most unexpected yet properly set-up moment in the show, and I was surprised that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were able to go through on it. When I saw that she could Airbend, I was momentarily confused, but I accepted it: in a childish sort of way, it made sense. After that, everyone kept going on about how there was absolutely no way they could heal Korra and restored her Bending. Not even Katara, the greatest healer in the world, could do anything for her.
That sort of made me sad, but in the back of my head was always the same thought: she’s going to get her Bending back eventually. She’s the Avatar after all, and the world stills needs their savior. Besides, we all know that there’s a Book Two in the works.
With the idea of her gaining her powers back an inevitability, the big question followed: how will she get them back?
That’s when my expectations got the better of me. The possibilities of Korra truly going on a spiritual journey and becoming a wiser, stronger, and more emotionally stable human being who didn’t need to always depend on physical strength before anything…well, that struck me as the most daring thing these guys could do!
One could argue that such a storyline would merely be a revised version of the story of Avatar: the Last Airbender: the Avatar-in-training who only knows how to Airbend must learn (read: re-learn) the other elements in order to bring balance to the world. But since Korra already has the aggressive temperament that Aang lacked (which was part of Aang’s struggle, and which was a big part of Korra’s appeal), it would be interesting seeing her somehow regain her once native abilities by other means.
Remember back in Avatar how Zuko temporarily lost his Firebending because his motivation (CAPTURE THE AVATAR!) had changed? Then he needed to go back to the original source of all Firebending (dragons) to regain it? Certainly something similar could happen with Korra and all the other elements. (Of course, an antagonist bent on world domination will be needed to give Korra an opposition and to keep the action fans entertained through all this inner journey crap.) Not only does this plausibly set up a solution to Korra’s Bending problem within the laws and boundaries of the Avatar universe, it keeps in line with the show’s theme of the learning process: sometimes you must completely unlearn previous skills and habits in order to truly become a master.
Which brings me to my basic point: by giving Korra her Bending back at the very last minute, DiMartino and Konietzko unwittingly severe the possibility of a much richer and much more mature storyline. The possibility for which they carefully set up for in their own damn show.
Setting Up for Disaster
Korra is established as an aggressive, abrasive, arrogant, and all around macho person. Her image of herself is strong and fearless, never willing to back down from a fight. And why would she be? She’s the fucking Avatar, so she’s probably the most physically powerful person on the planet. One then has to wonder if her arrogance is the direct result of her being the Avatar and having the upper hand on people, or if that part of her personality was merely there all along? Frankly, there is no evidence of the latter: we never see her before she discovered her Avatar abilities. Hell, the first time we see her at all, she’s around five-years-old and already abusing the Hell out of her powers.
The scene with her as a wild child is cute and funny, but also damning: right away we see the tragic flaw of Korra. Her Bending has been the foundation from which she’s built her entire personality on, and to have that taken away from her would be the most devastating blow to her very existence.
And who better to pose a threat to that identity than someone who can take Bending away from people? Enter Amon, the leader of the Equalists and the only man in the world who knows how to do that very deed. Upon witnessing this evil first-hand, Korra naturally reacts with fear. And it’s quite possible that this is the first time in her life that Korra has ever truly experienced fear, for this is the first real threat to her image and way of life. (Forget that she’s the Avatar, the duty for which Bending is an automatic prerequisite.)
Naturally, Korra tries to hide this fear from everyone, because the last thing a macho person wants to appear is weak. In “The Voice in the Night, ” this leads to her even challenging Amon to a one-on-one night fight, probably the stupidest thing she ever did in the show. Of course, coming that close to losing her Bending—since Amon spares her as part of his master plan—should have taught her to pick her battles more carefully, but no: for the most part, she still insists on going after Amon herself to face him. Those lessons about “patience” are still secondary to her image as a tough guy**.
Ultimately, that attitude costs her her Bending. Suddenly, our protagonist, who spent her entire life trying to appear strong, is rendered weak and vulnerable for the first time. From a physical standpoint, that is, which is crucial because it reveals just how little inner strength she had, having compensated it with her undeniable outer strength.
Here’s the catch: the show seems to imply that if Amon hadn’t taken away her native Bending abilities, then Korra would never have been able to awaken her Airbending and her spiritual side, which was the catalyst for the entire series. She was just fundamentally unbalanced. But now she can Airbend and get in touch with her spiritual side. That, above anything else, should be the first step towards her truly becoming the Avatar.
But there is yet another aspect of Korra’s character that would have made a spiritual/re-learning journey storyline much more endearing: for most of her life, she has been a very privileged girl. Except for Airbending, she is born a natural Bender—not necessarily a prodigy—and has been trained, looked after, and taken care of by the Order of the White Lotus for most of her life. If she had any major conflicts during her childhood that shaped her, then the series sure doesn’t let us in on any of them.
Korra, despite being a generally nice kid, may have grown up under the impression that being the Avatar gives her free reign to do whatever and get whatever she pleases. It doesn’t, as the first episode “Welcome to Republic City” carefully demonstrates. She can’t get free food, she can’t fish in the city park, she can’t go stopping crime if it’s going to result in major property damage, and she can’t just have the charges dropped against her (including resisting arrest) simply because she’s the Avatar.
A major part of Korra’s character development seemed to revolve around the idea that life comes with certain rules, and to break them only generates setbacks and dire consequences, whether they are the rules of Pro-Bending or the rules of relationships (e.g. knocking an opponent out of the side of the ring is just as foul as moving in on another girl’s man). Basically, you can’t always get what you want, which is something Korra appears to come to terms with by “The Aftermath,” when she tells Mako that Asami will really need his love and support in light of recent events. It’s an extremely mature gesture on Korra’s part. [A gesture that is subsequently made pointless by the fact that she and Mako get together in the end anyway, but that’s a whole other discussion (besides, it’s not the last time DiMartino and Konietzko rendered a previously noble gesture completely unnecessary).]
It’s also worth noting that Korra’s life of relative privilege contrasts sharply with the harsher lives of Mako and Bolin. In a revealing conversation in “The Revelation,” Korra mentions that she never had a need for money, as she was always taken care of by others. As a result, she was never exposed to the more brutal realities of life that the brothers experienced after losing their parents as kids. In fact, Korra seems to have very little exposure to the world outside the Southern Water Tribe, making her a tad bit naïve, to say the least***.
The contrast in Korra’s lifestyle—in which nearly everything was given to her—and the brother’s—in which they had to work for everything—established yet another possible direction for Korra’s development. For the first time in her life, she had to really work for and earn the things she wanted. Airbending wasn’t just going to come easily, she had to rework her entire way to thinking. And gradually, she kind of did. Even if Amon was the ultimate reason for her unlocked Airbending, she probably couldn’t have knocked him out of that window without at least some lessons in Airbending etiquette.
Finally, the prospect of her having to earn her other Bending powers back would have cemented the validity of that theme. Her ability to Airbend and the newly acquired spiritual guidance from Avatar Aang and the other past Avatars would certainly be of help. She could finally get in touch with those aspects of herself that received no attention because her initial aggressive personality would not allow it. She could rebuild herself from there.
But it was not to be. Aang shows up, says something about hitting rock bottom doing something, and just gives Korra her Bending back. She even goes into the Avatar State, because that’s what everyone was waiting for, right? Once again, Korra didn’t have to work for anything, learn anything, or sacrifice anything. She’s simply handed what she wants because she was at her lowest point. With literally seconds of story to go, DiMartino and Konietzko successfully create a domino effect which destroys the significance of nearly everything that came before.
(A quick note on Aang’s Energybending: now it certainly makes sense that he would be able to take away and give back the Bending of others****. My gripe with Energybending is how it’s used both in Avatar and in Korra as an all-too-convenient Deus Ex Machina for our heroes. I don’t think it ruined Avatar‘s story too much, but in Korra, the damage is beyond repair.)
For example, doesn’t the fact that Lin Bei Fong gets her Bending back after she very nobly sacrificed herself to save Tenzin and his family take away that moment’s power? (On top of that, Tenzin and his family got caught anyway, but never mind: Lin still gets an “A” for failure.)
And what about this: seconds after Korra goes into the Avatar State, she sees that Mako is behind her, happily goes to him, and says, “I love you, too.” Moments before Aang showed up, Korra had a difficult time accepting Mako’s love because she was no longer the Avatar, but now that she’s the old Korra again, she can be with him. I’m sorry, but am I the only one who sees that as kind of fucked up? It’s almost as if she’s saying, “Now that I’m the most powerful person in the world again, I accept your love, loser.” (At least, that’s how it comes across to me.)
Originally, I figured Korra refused Mako’s confession of love because of his clumsy timing***** and wording. In Korra’s mind, he might as well have said one of two things: 1) “I love you [because you’re a loser]”; or 2) “I love you [in spite of you being a loser].” (The latter is slightly better, but you get the idea.)
Now, however, that “I love you, too” really just puts Korra in a very negative light during those scenes. She seems motivated more by pride and self-pity than anything else. If it’s true that she was contemplating suicide on the edge of that cliff (more on that later), then she was simply being immature and melodramatic. (Then again, she is a teenager!) Maybe her first step to real maturity would have been to realize this contemplation as such. That would have been an interesting direction.
I also must address the idea that this is supposed to be Korra’s “rock bottom.” Why is that? Because she lost her sense of identity and contemplated suicide? From my experience, that’s called being depressed. On the other hand, attempting suicide—actively taking the necessary steps to end your existence—is much closer to “rock bottom.” This is most especially true in fiction: how many times do you see a character merely contemplate the act? Most of the time, they either go through with it—success rates vary—or they come pretty damn close only to either be saved and/or to find the inner strength to keep living******. (Hell, I think The Avengers has a quick line about how Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk, tried to commit suicide when he “got low.”) But of course, they’d never show a character trying to commit suicide in a kids’ show.
Now, if I just happened to be on the writing staff for Korra—a writing staff which never existed because DiMartino and Konietzko wrote every episode themselves*******—this is when I’d say to them, “Come on, guys! Don’t bring up the subject and expect us to accept your pussyfooting around it next time! Go ahead! Let her try to commit suicide!
“Actually, better yet: have her try to commit suicide and fail. Why does she fail? Because she inadvertently activates her Avatar State, saving her life. See? Not only does is this plausible within the Avatar universe, but if she can still go into the Avatar State, then doesn’t that let us know that there’s hope for her after all? That there is she a way can still become the Avatar? Cue the spiritual journey!”
And regarding Aang’s line about “rock bottom”: “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” That line would have some actual heft to it if, you know, we actually got to see Korra change. Which we don’t. And more importantly, we don’t see the change—if they even was one—come from Korra herself.
The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few
I completely buy into the idea that Korra was contemplating suicide on the edge of that cliff, and that she didn’t have the guts to go through with it. The filmmaking does just enough to drive that point across. But here’s why it still doesn’t work.
After Amon’s true identity is revealed, he frees Tarrlok and they both get away on a boat. Amon goes on about how they can start a new life together, “just like the good ol’ days.” Tarrlok, however, will have none of this, opting to kill himself (and his brother with him) rather than live with Amon/Noatak.
The reason this moment holds such power is because of Tarrlok’s motivation. He clearly regrets how his life has turned out, and how his genuine aspirations to make the world a better place were so misguided thanks to his father. (I’m paraphrasing, but this is sort of goes along the lines of, “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the children.”) This separates him from his brother, who has the same aspirations, but lacks the recognition that his means to that end are horribly flawed, and only make things worse. Deep down, Tarrlok probably realizes that, even if he somehow got away from his brother and rose to power again, he would never be able to achieve his goal. He just doesn’t have the mindset for it. Of course, his brother doesn’t realize that and wants to try again. This, Tarrlok cannot abide, and so his solution to kill himself and his brother is actually as noble as it is tragic: in a world where neither of them is capable of doing good, the best thing they can do is no longer exist in it.
Suicide is often referred to as “the coward’s way out” probably because people are horrified by the notion of it sometimes being the only way out. When the best contribution you can make to the world involves the active eradication of your own existence, that is truly “rock bottom.”
Additionally, the fact that Tarrlok had the guts to go through with it and Korra didn’t…well, that just goes to further show what a pussy she really is. (I’m kidding, but still….)
Let’s go back to Korra on the edge of the cliff, where suicide is no longer a far-fetched speculation. What if—and this is a big what if—her contemplation was primarily concerned not with herself, but with the world? That is to say, what if she was willing to kill herself not out of self-pity—which would be typical—but out of a recognition of the greater good? Remember, when the Avatar dies, he/she is reincarnated in a whole other person. The world still needs their savior, and since Korra is clearly in no position to be that savior, her suicide would allow that responsibility to go to someone who would be. That would be the ultimate self-sacrifice.
That would have been a real ending! It would have been a brave, challenging ending. It would have been one of the most remarkable endings in all of television.
But alas, Korra is still very much a kids’ show. (This is a show that won’t allow a pilot to die if his plane blows up. Could you imagine if Star Wars wouldn’t allow that?) Death, let alone suicide, is not something reserved for the main character, no matter how noble such a death would be. No need trying to depress the little ones, now is there?
But then, they wouldn’t have to. The possibility I proposed earlier in which she inadvertently activates her Avatar State could have worked.
But I might as well stop pondering such possibilities, for they are no longer such. Instead, they shall be mournfully labeled “what could have been,” if only Nickelodeon was brave enough and/or DiMartino and Konietzko were persuasive and uncompromising enough.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A lot of people are wondering: where exactly can The Legend of Korra go from here? What new adventures can Korra and friends get into next now that Amon is no longer a threat? Will there still be Equalists to deal with? Or will a new villain emerge? With Korra given all four elements now, how will she develop as a person and the new Avatar?
Personally, I could care less what Book Two will be about, because, unless they surprise me with something truly new and stunning, nothing DiMartino and Konietzko come up with will ever be as intriguing and rewarding as the potential storyline they destroyed with Book One’s last-minute happy ending.
Objectively, the series still has undeniable merits. Tarrlok’s back story and suicide-murder will probably remain the most emotionally affecting aspect of the series, and the series as a whole is beautifully drawn and cinematically kinetic (episodes like “And The Winner Is…” still stand as excellent showcases of wonderful animation filmmaking).
But in the end, the emotional connection to this material has been severed. I was betrayed, let down, and cheated. The wonderful drama that was so real and involving turned out to be nothing more than a fake and manipulative rouse. I suppose my feelings towards DiMartino and Konietzko are the same as the lieutenant’s towards Amon after he witnessed him Bloodbend. “How could you do this to me after I invested so much into you?” (Besides, what inspired this blog anyway but a lot of disappointment and a lot of love?)
Quite possibly the most disillusioning part of this whole ordeal is what it says about DiMartino and Konietzko as storytellers. They seem to be masters of hooking you in, but when it comes to paying everything off, they sorely disappoint********. I guess I was more forgiving towards Avatar‘s Deus Ex Machina because: 1) I never cared too much for Aang’s story anyway (I never thought I’d use that as a positive attribute of that show); and 2) the show’s success was never that dependent on its ultimate conclusion.
Avatar was more like a collection of short stories barely held together by an underlying plot and the world they took place in. Episodes like “The Southern Raiders” were free to stand alone as pieces of self-contained brilliance. Sadly not the case with Korra, where every episode built on each other in a more coherent and thematic way. If this is what these two plan to do with all of their stories, then consider me less than enthusiastic for the inevitable Book Two. I’ll certainly still watch it out of morbid curiosity, but I sure as Hell won’t be investing myself in it.
And so I close with a direct address to Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko themselves: you guys have certainly inspired me in my own creative endeavors, and your positive contributions to animation and storytelling are greatly appreciated, but this ending is unforgivable. You’ve ruined your show, your fan base, and my faith in you as reliable storytellers in a world where so few exist.
In the words of Greg Focker, I just have one question for you: “Can you deal with THAT?!”
*I realize the irony of comparing DiMartino and Konietzko’s work to that of M. Night Shyamalan. Considering the two never speak publicly about The Last Airbender, I wonder what they would make of this comparison.
**I say “guy” because I believe Roger Ebert is on to something when he called the heroine of Brave an “honorary boy.” That label is certainly applicable to Korra.
***Didn’t the Avatar used to have to travel the world in order to master all the elements? The show seems to imply that she was stuck in the Southern Water Tribe all those years of her training. Why? Was the conflict in Republic City that bad that no where else in the world was a safe place to train the new Avatar? I know DiMartino and Konietzko wanted to set Korra in one general location, but I feel like they didn’t think this all the way through.
****Someone brought up a very important point: in Avatar, Bending is impossible to do in the Spirit World. So Aang shouldn’t have been able to Energybend Korra’s powers back even if he wanted to. Good Lord, this show just keeps getting worse!
*****Interestingly, everyone silently scolds Bolin for looking on the bright side when he says, “At least you finally unlocked your Airbending!” Mako tells him, “Bro, not the time.” So, there’s no time for positive thinking, but there is time for goofy love proclamations? I don’t get it.
******For a great example of the latter, see the film Umberto D. No, I’ve spoiled nothing for you. Watch that film now and you’ll still be crying your eyes out.
*******Perhaps one of the problems with the writing is that they didn’t have the expert guidance of Avatar head writer Aaron Ehasz, nor did they have a John O’Bryan to use as a scapegoat.
********I was on the verge of labeling them as unreliable as screenwriter David Koepp, but that’s taking the criticism a little too far.
All screenshots taken by me.