Why I Will Not Be Watching Book Three of “Korra”
Last Friday, Book Three of The Legend of Korra premiered. Before that, the first few episodes were leaked. And even though the television premiere was yesterday, one could easily search the Internet for a few quality videos of the episodes. That I neglected to take advantage of any of these resources should tell you just how little Korra matters to me at this point. What plot elements I’ve heard of weren’t terribly interesting, nor were the casting choices. No, not even the choice of Henry Rollins as the main villain could make me start watching Book Three–besides, as much as I love the man himself, his choice of roles haven’t always been the best (Wrong Turn 2: Dead End being one of the happiest of exceptions).
After two less than satisfactory seasons, the good will created by the show’s predecessor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, has officially run dry for me.
No doubt this is the kind of reaction that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko would relish. As evident in many of their interviews and commentaries, they seem to take many of the criticisms hurled at their poor storytelling choices in stride. Moreover, they are fully aware of the most polarizing aspects of Book One and Book Two, and frequently defend their choices on purely artistic grounds. For example, Korra’s appalling behavior in the first half of Book Two was allegedly supposed to help demonstrate her character development by the end of the season when she becomes a more mature person. Sounds kind of reasonable, except…where was the character development? Where were the consequences for terrible actions? More to the point, who is the character? Despite being the titular character, Korra has never emerged as a character independently capable of thought and emotion; anything she did could only be attributed to the writers and not to Korra’s personality. (I sometimes raised the same complaint with Aang, but periodically he showed sparks of true humanity, and when he didn’t, Zuko was almost always around to pick up the slack.) Korra and the rest of the characters seem to exist for the sole purpose of inspiring fanart and cosplays.
One can conclude that DiMartino and Konietzko are either oblivion to their own shortcomings, or they’re deeply in denial. Based on a few notes taken from the commentaries of Korra‘s Book Two, I also have a third theory that potentially presents the two in a more sympathetic, if not tragic light: DiMartino and Konietzko are simply too smart for their own good.
Apparently, after the Book Two finale of Avatar, the two were criticized for having Zuko join forces with his sister Azula, thus allowing the bad guys to win for the time being. These criticisms must have been deeply confusing to them, as they were doing what was best for the story (and indeed, the Book Two finale is one of the best and most effective moments in the entire series). They should have taken these reactions as a compliment that their choices as storytellers really got under the skin of their audience to the point that they had to verbalize their feelings in an attempt to understand them. And it’s not as if they said they’d stop watching the show: with one more season to go, the grief established at the end of Book Two would have to eventually payoff by the end of the series (which it did). Instead, DiMartino and Konietzko seemed to take an extreme position on the matter: that no matter what they did, some people–most likely the more rabid and vocal minority of their fandom–would be angry at their decisions.
To this extent that this is true for any artist (you can’t please everyone, after all), using that grain of wisdom as an ever-conscious, guiding principle is dangerous. What matters is not just that the choices made are essential to the message and development of the story, film, art piece, music, etc., but also that those choices and their impact on the piece are clear to the audience. Receiving a piece may not be as grueling a process as creating a piece (as Konietzko loves to let fans know concerning the hard work that goes into Korra), but it is still a process, and one that is aided as much by the audience’s own experiences as it is by the artists themselves. So regarding the audience, even a small minority of it, with an attitude that could potentially (though not inevitably) lead to full-on contempt is not a good idea.
Did this happen to DiMartino and Konietzko? I can’t say for sure, and I’m not going to pretend I know what precisely occurred in their heads during the productions of Avatar and Korra. But one could argue that whatever artistic and critical judgment they had certainly loosened up between Book Two and Book Three of Avatar. Book One may be shaky, but it can be forgiven since DiMartino, Konietzko, and company were still trying to find their way. They found it in Book Two (objectively the best and most consistent season), only to lose it a bit in Book Three. Despite the occasional lapses of quality, there are rarely any fatally superfluous moments in Book One and Book Two, as they all contributed to the story or the worldbuilding. Book Three, on the other hand, contains “The Ember Island Players,” the single most baffling and useless episode in a series that also contains “The Great Divide” (which, for all its failures, was at least a sincere effort). The episode’s sole purpose (as said by Konietzko) was to recap the show and make fun of its flaws and oddities before anyone else could.
In principle, an episode recapping the series up to that point using a poorly researched Fire Nation play as a framing device could be pretty clever and funny. “The Ember Island Players,” however, takes the laziest approach by having the play make direct references to specific episodes and moments that no one besides the main characters could have possibly been witness to. This sort of meta-humor (sadly way too prevalent these days) is completely inappropriate for Avatar, which, up until this episode, was fairly well-grounded in a reality that was painstaking pieced together over the course of three seasons. Putting such a self-referential and self-mocking sensibility in the middle of an otherwise serious story robs the rest of the tale of its emotional credibility. In a story world that stops to point out and laugh at how silly and weird the characters are, how can we take their actions and desires seriously? (This is actually a central problem with most animation, and something I’ll address in greater detail in the Frozen review.)
Such a blatant, world-breaking display of self-mockery only served to reveal the fragile egos of the show’s creators. The praise and accolades given to them after the completion of Avatar (including a Peabody Award) coupled with the critical and commercial failure of M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of their show could have only exacerbated things. To compensate, now they had to prove themselves as real artists to a world that, to this day, asks why they never told them what happened to Zuko’s mother. This could explain explain the fatal decision to write the spin-off of Avatar all by themselves. While on Avatar, they had the input of fellow head writer Aaron Ehasz and many other writers to help maintain quality control. DiMartino and Konietzko must have taken this outside help for granted: did they even consider the possibility of keeping at least one or two of the writers on to help them out? Perhaps by that point, even those very writers who helped develop the Avatar we know and love (for example, it was Ehasz who suggested Toph be a girl, and Zuko came to exist thanks to the practical corporate concerns of executive producer Eric Coleman) were as convinced of DiMartino and Konietzko’s singular genius as everyone else was.
It didn’t help that the Nickelodeon executives essentially gave DiMartino and Konietzko carte blanche on the new project, a decision that famously created tension when the executives grew worried that audiences wouldn’t accept a female action hero. Unfortunately, this silly concerned was apparently the only true challenge to their artistic and critical judgment. (Even when developing the show alongside directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu, the collaboration that would spawn the patchy, underdeveloped story of Book One of Korra only inspired one bout of creative difference: how to draw an ear.)
This subtle contempt for their own audience and their weakened their faith in their own abilities, combined with the need to prove themselves as artists and the creative freedom given to them for Korra, proved to be a recipe for disaster.
While Book One of Korra remains notably takes to its impeccable technical qualities, visual aesthetic and animation, it fails miserably as a story. That the show was critically and commercially successful anyway merely serves as a tribute to how good their artistic and critical judgment used to be when they made Avatar with a little help from their friends. It’s doubtful that DiMartino and Konietzko would ever interpret the situation this way. This is only further emphasized by their general reaction to the more damning criticisms of their show, particularly regarding Korra’s lack of character development, the inexplicable love triangle, the unfortunate implications in their treatment of the Equalist movement, and especially the Deus ex Machina ending. Having deduced those critiques as coming from “angry fangirls who disliked Makorra” shows a gross underestimation of their audience’s intelligence and what they demand from a story. (Besides, who’s to say angry fangirls don’t know a bad story when they see one?)
Unfortunately, the downward spiral continued into Book Two of Korra, even with the addition of several returning writers from Avatar. Maybe, as I speculated earlier, they underestimated their own contributions to that show’s success and simply came along to bow down to the genius that brought that show into existence.
The result? More of the same, except with worse animation (meaning that the most commendable aspects of Book One no longer justify the show’s existence), and a finale that is surprisingly more infuriating than that of Book One. Book One’s finale at least had the decency to end shortly after pulling the rug from under the audience. In Book Two’s finale, the episode reaches that point early on, meaning we have that much more to watch as we seethe in anger over how severely our emotional connection was snapped in half. This fury makes the rest of the viewing process miserable because, despite the story having destroyed its reason to exist, it continues on with a logic that slips into the impossible. It’s a horrifying sight, an onslaught of almost inhuman cruelty.
Thanks to the Book Two DVD commentaries, I’ve learned this psychological disturbance was the result of severe laziness and, perhaps, even a silly attempt to match or outmatch the nihilistic intensity of Game of Thrones, but in a children’s program. The creators excuse this neglect with the following quote: “You can sit around and like, nit-pick it. And maybe there’s stuff that doesn’t make sense on the physical plane, but on the spirit plane it totally makes sense.”
What actually does that mean? Are they measuring spirituality by how willingly the audience accepts a final battle that has no build up, no discernible logic or symbolism, and no story crucial element that would make it cathartic and meaningful? Are the people who refuse to accept poor choices in storytelling simply not spiritual enough to comprehend the genius of DiMartino and Konietzko? (I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that by “spiritual,” they actually mean “emotional.” Even then, their presumptuousness is alarming.)
I simply cannot comprehend how anyone can watch the finale of this season and get any emotional satisfaction out of it. Am I simply out of touch with my peers? Or are my standards too high to accept the arbitrary nature of what’s occurring onscreen? Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko are benefactors to the more extreme fandoms who are capable of seeing past critical flaws if only the work provides them with an easily digestible “message” and something to cosplay and vicariously live through in its innocent simplicity.
As for myself, I simply have no more time and patience for the careless and condescending work of two pretentious, megalomaniacal “artists” that seek to activate eliminate those previously beloved elements of their tale without providing anything resembling an acceptable alternative. That this embarrassing art school behavior was able to make its mark on an American animated children’s program makes it a fascinating and easily accessible case study in how not to develop as an artist in any medium.