I’m Feeling Better Now, So Let’s Actually Talk About Book Three
First of all, I want to apologize for my last post. It was not written under the best of circumstances. The past week of work was extremely stressful thanks to college move-in week. I’d also been having an existential crisis, particularly regarding my last year of school and what I was going to do once it was over. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but I just had to get hit with the heavy stuff during the weekend. If anything, that should tell you that my depressive state of mind at the time had more to do with my conclusions on Book Three of The Legend of Korra than the show itself did.
But I wanted to be timely about it. I had to write something about Book Three and its finale while it was still fresh in people’s minds. If that meant binging on the last eight episodes I hadn’t seen yet before another long, long shift at work, so be it. I’d rather be a day behind than a week.
Given the circumstances, though, I should have waited a week, or at least a few days. I was in no proper position to write about anything, let alone a series whose quality fluctuates more drastically than my mood. But write I did, and the results weren’t just embarrassing, but downright unprofessional. Whatever point I was trying to make was definitely obscured by my cloudy mental state. I sincerely apologize, and will work hard not to have it happen again.
Now that I’m a little more clear-headed, let’s talk about Book Three.
For a lot of people, this season was a triumphant return to form for creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Some of you have even said it matches Avatar: the Last Airbender in terms of quality. Some still have bold enough to say it surpasses it! Some have been disappointed, too, saying that it was just another lackluster season. Pretty much everyone agrees, though, that it’s better than Book Two (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much: they could have re-run Book One slowed down and backwards and it would’ve been better than Book Two).
I’m a bit ambivalent on this one, even though there’s actually a lot to like. The storyline and main villain were much more intriguing than last time. While Zaheer could have been more memorable (he’s played by Henry Rollins, for Christ’ sake!), he’s still a formidable opponent: a devout Airbending student convinced of his own intellectual and moral superiority, and believing that true freedom was total chaos. I liked returning to Ba Sing Se, and then seeing it destroyed by the orderless populace. I liked Bolin’s issues with Metalbending, and how it turned out he was actually just a Lavabender all along. I liked the increasing friendliness between Korra and Asami, especially now that they’re no longer after the same man (or any man, for that matter, which is something else I highly approve of). I liked the tension and resolve between Lin Bei Fong and her sister Suiyin. From time to time, especially near the end, the expert mixing of traditional animation and CG animation made for some thrilling visuals.
All these positives, and Book Three was still something of a disappointment. There were a lot of improvements since the first two seasons, but they never fixed what I consider the single most glaring flaw of the entire enterprise: Korra.
After three seasons, I’ve yet to be convinced that Korra is worthy of my sympathy, let alone worthy of being considered a living breathing character with the capacity for independent thought and feelings. I felt this way about Aang, too, so I’m starting to suspect that I just don’t like the way DiMartino and Konietzko handle their title characters. For every moment in which either Aang or Korra displays genuine humanity, there are about five more where their characters seem unfocused and dictated by the needs of the plot. Perhaps the problem is that their personalities are rarely challenged by the obstacles and situations presented by the narrative (as they should be in any worthy fiction). Just how often has Korra’s abrasive and questionable behavior been rewarded rather than punished?
In Book Two, Korra threatens the life of a judge. Sure, it was to find out that the court case against her father was rigged in Unalaq’s favor. Honestly, the problem is not what Korra did; it’s that she gets away with it without any lasting consequences (except progressing the plot, of course). This girl committed a felony in broad daylight, and they really except us to believe that that judge didn’t immediately tell the police, who then put Korra on the Water Tribe’s most wanted list, and made her appear to be a criminal in the eyes her own people? Because that would have been cool and it would have shown the most likely consequences of threatening the life of a government official. (Come on, DiMartino and Konietzko, if you want this anti-government streak of yours to have any positive effects on children, you might as well do it well.) But no, this unsavory act goes unnoticed as such. I guess sometimes heroes have to play dirty to win. (A fair enough moral for children, but again, you might as well do it well!)
To make things worse, the rest of the characters have really lost their luster after two seasons, surely a consequence of keeping them forever bound to their original, defined shtick from Book One. Tenzin gets more neurotic every season, Bolin gets more annoying, Mako gets even more boring, and the writers haven’t given Maria Bamford (the voice of Pema) anything funny to say since Book One. Why insist on casting such talented folks and not utilize what makes them so talented? (This goes back to my problem with the casting of Henry Rollins.)
At least Book Three boasts a very interesting plot, which has been more than enough to compensate for the lack of character development. As commenter JMR noted, though, this may be part of the problem. DiMartino and Konietzko have steadily made their plotlines very intellectualized and complicated each season. The overabundance of plot over the course of a thirteen-episode season surely suffocated the amount of character moments and development they used to have in the twenty-episode season of Avatar. Interestingly enough, of all the overarching plotlines in the Avatar universe, the one for Avatar is the simplest: stop the Firelord from destroying the world. Not very complex—and borderline cliché—but, as it turned out, the perfect springboard on which to develop interesting characters, explore Eastern teachings, present a few complicated moral dilemmas, and create a show for kids that was, for once, different and substantial.
Intellectually, DiMartino and Konietzko may have grown beyond Avatar, but artistically and emotionally, they haven’t, and this definitely had an effect on Korra. Their willingness to tackle tougher and more complex morality tales is admirable, but their reach barely but surely exceeds their grasp. Their ambition to explore the dark sides of humanity is suppressed by their (or the Nickelodeon Studio’s) need to cast all ambiguities away with a happy ending. It’s the same problem that many say often plagues Steven Spielberg’s more mature works (most notably in Schindler’s List).
Book Three is different, though. By the end, Korra has been in a wheelchair for two weeks with no sign of true recovery. She’s also probably in a depressive state because, as some viewers have theorized, the importance and significance of the Avatar is coming to an end. I sincerely hope this is true, because it builds on character possibilities that presented themselves in the finale of Book One (before those possibilities were shattered by the cheapest, narrative-destroying resolution possible): when the one thing you thought defined you is taken away from you, how do you go on living a meaningful life? This was the question facing Korra when Amon took away her Bending (except Airbending, naturally), and this was the question the narrative refused to answer, instead providing a flimsy Deus ex Machina, and justifying it with the notion that Korra had reached “rock bottom” and thus deserved her powers back. I’ve already elaborated on my problem with this, so I shall end this train of thought now.
But now at the end of Book Three, the problem re-emerges, the only difference being the details: if the world no longer needs an Avatar, and that’s the ideal and identity that Korra has defined herself by, what good will her existence be anymore? No Deus ex Machina to push away the question this time: instead, the last shot shows Korra with a single tear running down her face. (Perhaps this is the same shot and the same tear that Book One should have ended on.) Now I’m eager to see if the final season actually addresses this question by actually challenging Korra to find her own solution to this question rather than have the narrative give her yet another easy escape. Will Book Four be the season where Korra finally grows up? If the Avatar is rendered obsolete, will she find a reason to keep moving on? Or will DiMartino and Konietzko shoehorn another reason to restore her to her original, obnoxiously bland self?
I’m willing to find out. Whichever way it goes, it’ll finally bring a close to this discussion of whether Korra is overall a good show or not. As for now, I can say that Book Three is better than Book Two, but not Book One. Yes, Book Three is more satisfying overall, but nothing has ever matched the thrill and anticipation of watching Book One unfold (before the very end, of course). There’s not a single episode can even match the visceral excitement of an episode like “An the Winner Is…”
Wait, what am I saying? Yes there is! It’s called “Long Live the Queen.” My next post will be completely devoted to that episode!