Because fans should be critical, too

Immediate Thoughts on the Book Two Finale

(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.


19 responses

  1. Wow, I thought you would have liked the ending to the season. But it does sound like you liked the buildup at least right? And what did you think about what happened to korra and her decision to keep the portals opened? I’m suprised you hated the ending this much, I’m really sorry :(.

    January 6, 2014 at 10:53 am

    • I’ve calmed down a bit since watching the episodes and writing my post. Before that last episode completely ruined everything, I’d planned a more balanced retrospective on the bad and the good of the last four episodes (for example, I loved Bolin’s heroics during the Nuktuk [sp?] finale). I’ll still post those more positive thoughts, but just as with Book One, it’ll take a lot of forgiving just to look back on the good aspects of the season.

      January 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm

  2. Fun fact- the last two episodes were finished a day before they were released online and books 2,3 and 4 are being worked on at the same time.

    January 6, 2014 at 11:36 am

    • At the same time, eh? All of the more reason not to subject myself to their iffy brand of storytelling for two more seasons.

      January 7, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      • Well, let me rephrase that. I mean they finished mixing the episodes before they were released not the writing. The scrips for this season were finished before book 1 even aired believe it or not.

        January 7, 2014 at 3:37 pm

  3. There’s a thing I think the book 2 finale did better than the book 1 finale, it actually had a message and payoff for some of the character arcs. I like how tenzin became the teacher he needed to become by the ending and I liked how korra became the avatar she needed to become with tenzins help by the ending. I also liked how the season left off, with the portals being left opened. I feel the finale had its weaknesses but was satisfying enough to see what’s going to happen next. At least that’s my opinion. Good review marshall.

    January 6, 2014 at 11:43 am

  4. rosemon

    In light of this finale, this might be an interesting read:

    I’m not sure exactly what you think of Korra losing her connection to her previous lives, but I’m a bit sad that we won’t get to see any avatars besides Wan and the previous four shown in ATLA. I was curious as to what other avatars were there and what they could teach Korra, but this loss of connection seems like an excuse to say that Korra no longer needs guidance because she’s already great the way she is. I don’t know, but if that’s the intended message, then blegh. It was a bit cringeworthy to see Mike D refer to Korra’s plight in the second finale as another “when you’re at your lowest point, the greatest change will come,” if for no other reason that it brought back some memories of the nonsensical line that led to the first deus ex machina.

    January 6, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    • What did you think of the finale rosemon? Did you hate it as much as marshall?

      January 6, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    • I was about to liken DiMartino and Konietzko’s destroying the past lives to the Nazi book burnings, but I don’t wish to give the wrong impression here. DiMartino and Konietzko, as far as I know, are not horrible people, but they’ve mutated into horrible, rather complacent artists without even knowing it. I want to do a post kind of analyzing the problem–such as how much of it was influenced by fandom behavior–by for now, this little passage from Billy West says pretty much what I want:

      At some point I realized many years ago—I was a teenager in the sixties, protesting with the long hair, running around with the hippies—I realized when I looked at all the guys we were supposed to hate so much and resent, I kind of analyzed what complacency was, and they seemed complacent to me. They reached a point in their lives where they felt good about themselves and just cause a bunch of kids come along that were popping drugs and accusing you of this and that and being the man and everything, you think your feelings states are never going to change. And I used to say they’re complacent. But the thing is that everybody that’s born pretty much has to reach that point where they’re looking down the barrel of their own complacency. You gotta like do a little gear shifting.

      January 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      • So I take it you didn’t like that decision huh? I was fine with it, I mean it’s not like they’re completely gone from existence. And it’s not like this was the end of the series. We’re still gonna see the progression and consequences of the ending.

        January 7, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      • And we still have wan she tongs library and plenty of other ways to learn about the previous avatars. The only difference is the avatars won’t be connected to korra anymore.

        January 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm

  5. JMR

    I was 13 when the original series first started airing, y’know, that time in your life when you want to assert what a “grown up” you are and how you’re totally past all that “kiddy stuff” like cartoons. As such, I didn’t watch A:TLA in more than the little chunks I might happen to catch every once in awhile until I found out a friend of mine was way into the series and he encouraged me to give it a try. We were actually on vacation when Nick aired the week of episodes leading up to the finale, and I remember sneaking off to one of the bedrooms in our hotel to try to snag whatever bits I could, and even then missing out on the finale itself, only eventually catching it a few weeks later when they re-aired it.

    God, I remember how much it made me feel, imperfect as it was, after all that anticipation. I actually had to just go outside and walk around our neighborhood for awhile just to sort out all the thoughts and emotions buzzing around. I was so emotionally charged from it I just couldn’t stay sitting down any longer.

    I remember eagerly awaiting Korra, at this point a Junior in college, getting a bit of a nostalgic rush waking up on Saturday mornings to make for the TV and catch the latest episode, feeling like a five year old again jumping out of bed on the weekend to catch some cartoons. And then it completely lost me with the whole “let’s take a complex and difficult situation and handle it with block-headed moral simplicity!” thing. And it just got worse from there. As time went on, that rush to the TV to see that new episode turned into “Eh, they’ll have it on the website in a few days.”

    Then we had this. This emotionally bankrupt non-entity of an ending. The Great Battle of Our Time is upon us… and it’s a goofy fight between a giant, spectral Amazon Korra and a monster (I call him Unaluu) so silly that it makes Koizilla look dignified, all for the fate of goddam Republic City, the most boring and personality free location on the map. The character’s motivations don’t make any sense, their thoughts and feelings are either completely erratic or non-existent (Poor Asami. She has all of about two lines in this finale). All the rules governing this universe have at this point somehow been broken or distorted and we’re left unsure of what’s even true anymore. Energybending makes it’s THIRD appearance as a Get Out of Jail Free Card for the writers.

    All of this, and then the show throws this “And now Korra has lost contact with her past lives! Isn’t that saaaad? As if now, with this… event that just flies right out of nowhere, NOW I’m supposed to feel emotionally attached. NOW I’m really supposed to care. Except I don’t. Because “Oh no Korra lost an ability that she’s used intentionally all of once! Oh dear!”

    Also, what the Hell happened to Unalaq? Just like with Book One we have this really interesting set up for a morally complex situation: The South has lost it’s spirituality and it’s connection to the spirits, abandoning what used to be sacred rites and festivals about fasting and reflection in favor of carnivals and feasts, and in a world where everyone knows the spirits they’re supposed to be connecting to are real to boot. Unalaq is disconcerted by this and thinks that it should change, and things should go back to the way they were. Is he right? Maybe. Does it matter in the end? No. Honestly, I had entirely forgotten that this was his initial characterization by the time the finale rolled around, because once again all of this turns into some war between good and evil, with Unalaq all of a sudden deciding he wants to take over the world. It’s only further alienated me from the series, and further convinced me that Bryke couldn’t write a morally challenging or complex story to save their lives.

    January 6, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    • I think you’re exaggerating a bit, we’re not even at the ending of the series here. This wasn’t supposed to be like the ending of air bender or return of the king. It was just a climatic ending that ended the season. The moment that made the finale for me was the scene with tenzin and korra, that whole scene felt earned for both people involved. Tenzin became the teacher he needed to be for korra and korra became the type of avatar she needed to become. The whole season had built up to that moment and I felt satisfied with that.

      January 6, 2014 at 9:37 pm

      • JMR

        All of the seasons are supposed to be able to stand on their own. There is no ultimate goal or overall objective, they’re all on equal footing, so why should I give this finale a pass just because it isn’t the last one? The whole season revolves around fighting what is essentially Avatar universe Satan, after all.

        And I’ll certainly agree there were emotional moments here and there (I was glad Korra finally got some manner of character development, but it was all marred by being all too aware it was all stuff she should have learned in Book One), but the season was far too scatterbrained and incoherent to evoke a genuine emotional reaction. For instance, as I pointed out, the Unalaq we see at the beginning of the season bears little resemblance to the Unalaq at the end of the season. This dissonance makes it difficult to understand his motive as a villain and thus it is difficult to care about whether or not he wins or loses.

        January 6, 2014 at 11:21 pm

  6. rosemon

    Maybe unrelated, but are you ever going to make a post about the original commentary for the Blu-ray version of Korra? Also, when do you think we can expect the Korranalysis fan service episode? I thought you meant that the whole video series might be finished before March.

    January 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

  7. Daniel Cohen

    Ah who are you kidding dude? This series had poisoned you. It doesn’t matter how bad you think it is or what it does to you, you’ll still come back for more 😉

    January 30, 2014 at 9:45 pm

  8. Dman

    Have you seen the new Korra Book Three teaser? It was released in the Netherlands for some reason…

    February 17, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    • He already said he’s not going to watch any further dude.

      February 17, 2014 at 7:44 pm

  9. Drew Drewl

    I wonder if Korra would have been any better if Mike and Bryan had known they were going to get 4 seasons the entire time?

    They could’ve devoted the first season to world-building and character development, maybe give Mako and Bolin a real arc involving their criminal pasts, use them to really explore the criminal underworld of Republic city while subtly setting up the conflict between benders and non-benders. Save Amon for season 2, not even bother with that watered-down spirit world/water tribe bullshit that occupied the original season 2.

    I’m still going to watch season 3, mostly because I’m just hopeful that they cranked out the script to season 2 in a weekend and have been working on season 3 and 4 for the rest of the many years that we’ve been waiting. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, though.

    February 25, 2014 at 9:36 pm

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