Because fans should be critical, too

Finally, I Watched the Rest of Book Three

There’s a moment in one of the final episodes of Book Three of The Legend of Korra that epitomizes my core problem with much of the series. Before all the fighting begins in the Northern Air Temple, there’s a touching little moment between Zaheer and P’Li, his girlfriend and a Combustion Lady, in which they essential express their love and gratitude for each other. It’s a quiet, understated moment between two of the antagonists that, in being so quiet and understated, illuminates them as actual human beings with feelings and vitality.

Then, as if to provide a parallel, there’s a moment in which the protagonists all say their farewells and expressions of love to each other before the big battle. And yet this moment between our heroes rings false next to the moment between our villains. Perhaps it’s because the music suffocates the emotions with its bombastic emotional cues (has anyone else noticed that the music by the Track Team gets louder and louder every season?). Perhaps it’s because a moment like this seems forced and redundant given that we already know the bond between each of the characters. Or perhaps it’s because, throughout the course of this season, not one of the protagonists managed to emerge with the same degree of humanity that Zaheer and P’Li capture in their little moment of love.

And that was the moment that the series—or the season, at least—ceased to be known as The Legend of Korra and instead became The Tragedy of Zaheer. Despite my belief that Henry Rollins brought little of his natural intensity and charm to the role (which may have been intentional, considering Zaheer’s extreme adherence to Airbending detachment, but then why hire Rollins in the first place?), Zaheer usurped Korra as the main character in my mind. His passion won me over, as well as his cunning: he’s like a master chess player, swiftly and constantly evaluating every move he can make to eventually dominate his opponent. Ultimately, his heart was in the right place even if his head wasn’t: one can imagine a man of his intelligence and dedication being a great leader of peace and order if he hadn’t subscribed to the notion that true freedom meant pure chaos. The rest of the season grew to be about his demise rather than about Korra and company’s victory.

That’s when I started to get depressed, because I knew just how badly Zaheer and friends were doomed to fail. But they were defeated not by the wits and will power of their enemies, but rather by the conventions and necessities of the narrative. Zaheer has to lose because he’s the villain, and not only does he have to lose, he has to act like a villain throughout much of the series so that the audience gets without a doubt that he’s a villain. This involves borderline sadistic cruelty on his part.

For example, when he, P’Li, Ghazan, and Ming-Gua give Tenzin the beating of a lifetime, the focus is strictly on Tenzin’s willingness to suffer for his cause. If the filmmakers were smart, they would have added a close-up of Zaheer with an expression in which one could read “restrained respect.” Surely someone as headstrong and reverent (in his own way) as Zaheer would have a gleam of admiration for Tenzin’s choice to keep fighting against all odds (after all, didn’t he wait out thirty years of prison without losing hope of escape?). That moment never comes, probably because such complexity would potentially rob the climatic battle between Zaheer and Korra of the catharsis that comes from seeing the evil doers go down. It’s a bit unfair to needlessly rob a character of their humanity for the sake of the plot, wouldn’t you say?

Speaking of unfair, let’s discuss the nastiness involving the death of P’Li. And let’s be honest: we all saw her death coming from miles away. We saw it coming the moment she was introduced as a Combustion Lady, and we knew her death would involve turning her own power against her. Her Combustion powers also alleviated the filmmakers from having to develop her character too much: all Avatar fans know—they just know—that anyone with those powers has to be bad. Just like in Book One, where Bloodbending automatically makes you an evil person—I’m neither refuting nor affirming this, but clearly the filmmakers are—so too does having Combustion powers. P’Li’s death was destined before we even had a chance to recognize the person she was beneath her role in the story. Not that there were many opportunities, but once she and Zaheer had their moment, I believed that what they had was real. Nothing brings out the humanity of a character more than displaying their capacity to love and to suffer (you could even say that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive).

I had no feelings about P’Li before this moment; I was merely counting down the episodes until she’d be dead. But once it happened, I became sad for her, because no person deserves to die, especially not as gruesomely as she does. But alas, she was merely a pawn for the story, expendable once her usefulness was over, systemically betrayed by a narrative that refused to grant her anymore than a fleeting glimpse of humanity.

Not that it was totally for naught. When Zaheer realizes that P’Li is dead, his shock immediately gives way to passive acceptance. Like the master chess player he is, he concludes that the loss of one piece, even a very powerful one, liberates him to focus on the remaining pieces. And with P’Li gone, he no longer has an earthly attachment, so he can achieve the next level of Airbending enlightenment: flying. In a way, Zaheer becomes closer to God. And that’s the tragic element of his story: for all his studying of the past Airbenders and all his mastery of the forms, it was his love for P’Li that preserved his humanity and maintained his (admittedly feeble) connection to the needs of others; she balanced his intellectual pretenses and ambitions with emotional stability. Once that was taken away from him, his emotional side was consumed by his intellectual side, which demanded that he take his Airbending training to its logical conclusion: total emotional detachment. Zaheer has gained the world and lost his soul.

And here where it gets tricky for me. The final episode presents the deciding match between Zaheer and Korra, poisoned and in the Avatar State. The battle is brilliant executed on a technical level—once again, the filmmakers show themselves very adept at mixing traditionally-animated characters into computer-generated three-dimensional backgrounds—but emotionally, it’s a stalemate. Zaheer has just lost his last bit of humanity, so it’s no longer a question whether he should be terminated with extreme prejudice. Korra, on the other hand, never amounted to an actual human being in my eyes, so I’ve never cared one way or the other whether she succeeded or not. To exacerbate the issue, she’s now in the Avatar State, which by definition is her God-state. And since Zaheer reached his God-state once P’Li died, what we’re watching is the final battle between two individuals we’ve ceased to care for beyond the fact that one represents “good” and the other “evil.”

It’s the Book Two finale all over again (but with better visual effects)!

By the end, I just didn’t care. I didn’t care that Zaheer was brought down by the new Airbender recruits. I didn’t care that Korra was barely saved from death by poison. I didn’t care that Zaheer would probably never be in another episode of Korra for the rest of the run (though he did deserve a more conclusive arc). I didn’t care that Korra was rendered handicapped by her traumatic fight. I sort of cared about and was happy for Jinora’s promotion to master Airbender. Finally, I didn’t care about Korra’s single teardrop that closes the season.

I didn’t care much for anything at that point. I just wished I was dead.

Every episode following “Long Live the Queen” wore me out. Every succeeding episode got darker and darker. The amount of suffering handed to some of these characters bordered on sadism. If this was the filmmakers’ attempt to match the dark intensity of the Book Two finale in Avatar: the Last Airbender, it was a miserable failure (especially without Avatar head writer Aaron Ehasz to provide the necessary balance).

Or maybe they were trying to match the darkness of Game of Thrones, but in a kids’ show. Maybe this is the lasting influence that The Dark Knight has plagued contemporary filmmakers (don’t tell me “Long Live the Queen” wasn’t at least partially inspired by The Dark Knight Rises). I’m pretty sure creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are fans of Game of Thrones and other shows. (For the record, I hate Game of Thrones: its relentless, vomit-inducing, almost childish nihilism may have been tolerable in prose, but as a television show, it’s unwatchable.) I know for a fact that DiMartino loved Man of Steel, that pathetic attempt at adding grimness to a Superman movie. I’m not criticizing DiMartino and Konietzko for being influenced by any of these works, but I found the darkness in these final episodes to be uncomfortably excessive.

(Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the darkness in these remaining episodes was the real reason Nickelodeon pulled Korra off of television. Who wants to be depressed by an episode of Korra and then be depressed by everything else on television?)

It was this disconnect between the rigidness of the narrative and the attempt at grim realism that finally did me in. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for me to just accept the work of these two. I’m not that hard to please, I swear! I watched the movie Get Smart the other day. You know, with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway? I loved it! It’s one of the funniest movies ever made! You should check it out!

Sorry about that. I lost my train of thought. Writing about Korra is just as depressing as watching Korra, and I just wanted to talk about something that actually made me happy. I think the death of Robin Williams is finally hitting me. Fun fact: the day before he killed himself, I took a personality test, and guess who was one of the people the test said I was most like?

Sorry again. I’m done writing. I might be done with Korra, too. I don’t think I can stomach the disappointment of even one more season. I’m not angry, as I was with Book One and Book Two. I’m just tired. I’m tired of writing the same thing over and over again. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. I learned that from one of Robin Williams’ stand-up bits.

Good night, friends.

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9 responses

  1. Ian

    Dang bro… Sorry that this show does this kind of thing to you. I loved it however and found it to be a fantastic finale. The hug scene was very genuine in how each character does their hug in a different fashion (Asami’s is a lean hug, Makos is a full hug with his facial expression showing that of a deep friendship and not that of love, and Bolin being Bolin gets to smother Korra with affection and then Korra returns by laying her head on his) its all very well done and shows the character relationships this season well. In my opinion that is.

    As for the series being darker, I don’t really see this as a bad thing when murder suicide is in book 1. Besides these are some of the most powerful benders in the world, the only way to take these guys out without them getting beaten cheaply is to kill them off, which I think shows just how powerful these people were that they are not allowed to live. Im not saying I enjoyed their deaths in the sense that I morbidly wanted them to die,( I was very saddened by how P’li died and Ghazan’s last sentiment of never going back to prison came off as genuinely heartfelt and desperate). But these characters only way to be properly dealt with was either death of energy bending. These people followed their cause to the end and that’s pretty cool.

    I don’t know, I loved the season, but if you didn’t, that’s perfectly fine. I don’t understand your point of view very well as I think sometimes you overanalyze things to much. But hey, that’s why we all have opinions. I just hope this show hasn’t actually done any literal mental pain to you.

    Please reply, anyone.

    August 23, 2014 at 11:44 pm

  2. JMR

    The whole P’Li thing was probably the biggest disappointment for me in this finale. That scene with her and Zaheer in the cave is a study of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s a quite well executed and emotional scene. On the other, P’Li gets one of the most cringe inducing expository lines the series has to offer (which is really saying something) when she, apropos of nothing, spouts off about Zaheer’s saving her from some warlord or something. If they really wanted us emotionally invested in these characters, we should have found out about that earlier and in a better way.

    And then, of course, as she was doomed, P’Li goes on to join a long list of female characters killed off in order to motivate their male counterparts.

    I think overall though there’s a tendency on the part of Bryke to want to make these “heady” and “intellectual” plots, but then failing to force the characters to grapple with the concepts and ideas they raise. I’m of the opinion that if you want to do an “intellectual” plot, your villain needs to be defeated not only physically but intellectually as well. Zaheer may have gotten himself imprisoned again, but the show doesn’t do much to demonstrate why his underlying ideas about the only proper and natural order being disorder were wrong. Korra and the airbenders may have beaten him physically, but do they even really understand what it was he was fighting for? Do they have any opinions on why his ideas were wrong (at least beyond the most basic “because he’s trying to kill me in their name”)? There’s a real feeling that the true evil as far as this show is concerned is the simple act of opposing Korra. Everything else boils down to “they’re too extreme!”

    I think what Bryke have lost sight of to some degree is that this franchise has always risen on the strengths of its characters, not its plots. One of the reasons that I rather enjoyed this season was that, especially through the middle, much of that character based story telling came back to the front, such as with the Bei Fong sister’s feud. Even in the finale, the lynchpin for me was Korra’s decision to accept Zaheer’s ultimatum and hand herself over to him in hopes of an opportunity to save the others. The impact of her decision is lost a bit on Zaheer and Co’s inevitable betrayal, but it still showed that Korra is learning and changing as a character. Book 1 Korra would have had none of this and would have wanted to go in all guns blazing. Where Book 1’s lesson to Korra about self-acceptance got more than a little lost and muddled, Book 3’s lesson to her about self-sacrifice seemed to me to come through rather clearly. Several times through the season, she has to give up herself and put her faith in the people around her.

    While I do agree that they did get a little excessive with some of the “grimdark” elements, the end with Jinora’s ceremony was suitably uplifting to counteract the grimdark to a large degree, and I still thoroughly enjoyed the season. Perhaps my expectations are just too low now? Like, while there are things I didn’t like the simple fact that it didn’t completely shit all over itself right at the end like Season 1 did is now enough for me? I’m not entirely sure at this point. I think for me overall that episodes like Old Wounds are enough to say that this season is a good one in my opinion.

    You have to admit, for all their faults, Bryke sure are capable of making us ponder, even if it’s not in the way they perhaps intended.

    August 24, 2014 at 12:44 am

  3. Yeah I think you should stop watching this show lol it doesn’t seem to be getting any better for you. I enjoyed reading your thoughts regardless though even If I didn’t really agree.

    August 24, 2014 at 12:46 am

    • JMR

      I’d have to second. As much as I enjoy the discussion on this site, if the show is causing you this sort of emotional distress, well, nothing’s worth that. I know you’ve spoken about branching out into other areas of animation, so why not write up some pieces on your favorites instead of beating yourself down with Korra or Frozen? Give yourself a chance to gush for a change.

      August 24, 2014 at 12:54 am

  4. Clander

    I think you verbalized a lot about what made me edgy about this book as a whole. Not just it’s flaws technically but “spiritually” if you will. With it being excessively dark and all. I remember watching the book 1 finale and being like “what? Are you kidding me?” Then watching the book 2 finale. “What?! What the fuck is this shit?!” Then book 3 was almost complete indifference. I also disdain P’li’s horrible exposition. I have a feeling the writers scrapped a scene where Ming Hua went to that other guy she apparently likes and was like “I wish my arms hadn’t been burned off by a firebender 22 years ago when I stayed out late one night in a dark alley, so I could hug you right now”

    August 24, 2014 at 3:32 am

  5. I enjoyed the season as a whole. It had a cohesive throughline the second season lacked. The only season I was truly disappointed in was the second for numerous basic narrative missteps and critical flaws that stemmed from them. I still think you’re reading too much into the minutiae while missing the bigger picture, but for Pete’s sake this is only a piece of fiction. If the show is actually causing you emotional harm, then the only logical and sane thing to do would be stop watching it.

    Nobody will think less of you for it. Just stop doing the thing that hurts you. You are not obliged to suffer for the sake of critiquing a work of fantasy fiction.

    August 25, 2014 at 4:31 am

    • Don’t worry, I’m feeling much better now. Book Three was pretty good, but not particularly emotionally engaging. Intellectually, it’s heads and tails above anything else on Nickelodeon, but it doesn’t always balance that side out with good storytelling. We’ll see what happens with Book Four before we come to any conclusions on Korra as a series.

      August 30, 2014 at 1:13 am

      • I have a hunch based on what could be seen as a few big hints, about where it’s going that would tie all the seasons together thematically and make a big dramatic statement on acceptance which, if I’m right would make my gripes with season 2 insignificant.

        I hope I’m right. Even though if I am, it would kill the prospect of having any further series made in this franchises’ universe.

        August 30, 2014 at 3:14 am

  6. It seems that Korra poisoned you this time.

    August 26, 2014 at 7:48 pm

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