(Warning: These ramblings were not written in a particularly positive and/or stable state of mind.)
I’m ashamed to say that the final episode of Book Two of The Legend of Korra brought tears to my eyes. These tears were neither of joy nor of rage. In fact, the emotion from which these tears surfaced is a specific sort that can only be summoned by a particularly terrible narrative ending. I’ll try to explain it as best I can.
I don’t think I’ve ever been left so emotionally out of the loop by a narrative climax in a very long time. Actually, let me rephrase that: I haven’t been left so emotionally out of the loop by a narrative climax since the ending of Book One. Now imagine the impact of that ending, but extended over the course of a whole other episode so that eventually all your rage and yearning for a catharsis that will never come becomes nullified and replaced by an emotional numbness and depression, so that all you can do is simply wait for it to be over or to kill yourself. That Book Two’s ending in a nutshell.
I’ve encountered this kind of ending and reaction only a few times before, and I’ve noticed that it’s typically within the epic fantasy genre. After so much build up and development over the course of several episodes, books, films, or levels, one’s expectations for a spectacle, cathartic climax can become impossibly high, especially if you’ve actually been invested in the story and characters the entire time. If the ending doesn’t deliver something big, then all your time and emotions will have been wasted on nothing.
This is one reason I’ve always been reluctant to actively indulge in anime, manga, video games, television series, book series, and other certain long-running mediums: the risk of disappoint is too great, and it’s even greater when your level of active investment (as mine was in Korra after Book One ended) is already fairly low.
This is not to say I haven’t encountered a satisfying climax within these genres. My interest in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy had more to do with its technical prowess than anything, and yet the destruction of the ring packed a pretty powerful emotional punch for me. Whether it revolved around the tragedy of Gollum (the single character in the entire trilogy that truly moved me) or the joy in Gandalf’s eyes when he realized that good finally concurred evil in his lifetime, I knew what was going on, why it mattered, and was able to relate to it just enough to join in the catharsis.
Contrast this with both the finale of both seasons of Korra. I’ve ranted enough about the failures of Book One’s ending (and will continue to with the completion of the Korranalysis), and now the Book Two ending only exacerbates the issue. At least in Book One, I was able to follow the logic of the plot before it completely imploded. In Book Two, there is too much exposition and too little investment; whatever emotions we’re expected to feel are telegraphed rather than organically evoked. (In this context, the music of the usually reliable Track Team sadly becomes a liability, as their monotonous, yet majestic scores can’t hope to be matched by whatever happens onscreen.)
All of this comes to a head when the final battle between Korra and Unalaq takes place. Through some witchcraft that the exposition surely explained, both Unalaq and Korra become towering figures that duke it out in the bay of Republic City. This profoundly silly image is expected to carry the emotional weight of the ending, and yet we don’t know how or why it came to be this way, nor do we really care.
And then the fighting goes on for at least half the episode, which did the disservice of reminding me of the overlong, mind-numbing robot battles of the last Transformers film. Even worse, it reminded me of Pacific Rim, the only giant robot film I’ve seen that made me care about the fight scenes. Even if you find the protagonists of that film simple and maybe even cliched, at least you could understand their motives and relate to them. That little bit of narrative clarity went a long way when it came to giving those robots vs. creature battles some real excitement, and it’s precisely that clarity that Book Two of Korra seemed, for whatever reason, incapable of providing.
And yet, as the climax carries on and the fights go on forever, you sense that maybe you should be feeling something, but try as you might, the emotional synapses in your brain just won’t fire. In fact, the harder you try to feel something, the worse it gets.
Gradually, you begin to feel cheated, unwelcome, left out; as if the narrative has deliberately excluded you from being able to share in its catharsis; as if it’s your own fault, like you walked into the story halfway though, despite having stuck around since the beginning; as if you don’t deserve to revel in this purportedly glorious moment of triumphant. There’s definitely something going on here, but you don’t know what it is. This is what it feels like to be Mr. Jones.
This is why I cried, and this is why I will forever feel contempt for creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. As storytellers, they are pretentious, contemptuous of and disrespectful to their audience, to no avail. Did the pressures of television animation production finally get to them, or did the pressures of trying to appease a specific fandom? Whatever happened, they’ve lost touch with the general audience, which should not be a source of pride when dealing with mass art. Even if another podcast invites me to provide commentary, you can count me out for the reminder of Korra‘s run.