Chapter Forty-Four: “Enemy at the Gates”
“I know people have been angry about the decisions I’ve made.” – Korra
This line of dialogue is uttered in the middle of the scene in which Korra attempts to dissuade Kuvira from attacking Zaofu. It might as well have come straight from the mouths of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and directly to its loyal yet ambivalent viewers. Watching The Legend of Korra, especially as a fan of its predecessor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, is a sometimes delightful, mostly disappointing experience in which the viewer constantly wades through wasted opportunities and bizarre choices made by its creators. The elusive charm of Avatar may have been missing as early as Book One, but what’s more troubling is that they never found a satisfying alternative to it.
The promise of a more mature and more intellectual show was nothing more than a put-on. Certainly Korra is more heady than Avatar on a thematic level, but emotionally and formally, it’s actually less mature and less engaging.
Part of the problem may be the negative stigma of the “children’s show” label. Since the beginning, Avatar was primarily geared towards children, and rather shameless about it, too (sometimes too shameless, as “The Great Divide” demonstrates). They probably didn’t become aware of their much older fanbase until after Book One or Two of Avatar. Maybe they felt pressure to make something consciously darker and more mature than Avatar, yet still functional as a Nickelodeon children’s show.
Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t really worked. The dramatic possibilities created by the thematic material are savagely undercut by the constant reminder that their primary audience should be the average child, and not the vocal and fickle fandom. Whereas Avatar took a simple story and embellished it with complexity, Korra took a complex story and neutered it with simplicity. And that doesn’t even get into the issues of fandom appeasement.
While the average child these days is pretty savvy about certain things, especially pop culture (hence why The LEGO Movie was even remotely conceivable as a good idea), expecting any new viewers to take in all the specific references and callbacks to a whole other series–in addition to heavier story material–is asking way too much. There isn’t a stable point of entry that would make Korra accessible to the unsuspecting viewer looking for a new television series to tune in to (you could watch any random early episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men and get the gist of it even if the specifics are unknown; that’s hardly possible with even the first episode of Korra). Korra has always been too dependent on the goodwill created by Avatar for its own good. (This is the part where I’d like to dissect Avatar as a “modern” show, and Korra as a “post-modern” show, but I have neither the time nor the wit.)
In this sense, Korra‘s banishment to the Internet was probably inevitable. It lacked its own internal infrastructure necessary to survive the time slot shared by it’s far less ambitious, far more horrid, and far more accessible competition on Nickelodeon. Considering that most older and more hardcore fans probably watched Korra online by default anyway, the switch was highly appropriate.
Before I actually discuss the actual episode, I’d like to draw your attention to a comment by JMR, who makes an extremely interesting point:
My issue with this episode is one that I’ve had with the series for a long time: the fact that it’s a straight up action adventure series attempting to teach it’s protagonist a moral about non-violence. The action adventure format’s demand for, well, action and adventure consistently trumps any attempt by the characters to solve problems in a non-violent way. As such, all of Korra’s character development in this direction, here and elsewhere, has always rung very hollow to me.
After all, this is the series finale. Do we really believe that the conflict here is going to be solved at a Diplomatic Summit over tea and biscuits? Of course not, it’s going to come down to a fight in the end, likely involving Korra going into the Avatar State and beating the crap out of Kuvira.
As such, this episode wherein the central plot element is Korra attempting to solve the Kuvira problem diplomatically doesn’t really know what to do with the idea of actually solving a problem diplomatically. Because of this, the entire episode revolves around the weak exchange between Korra and Kuvira that boils down essentially to:
Korra: “Hey Kuvira, would you please leave the city alone?”
Just like all of the previous seasons, we have to set up Kuvira as this extremist who won’t listen to reason and so needs to be put down violently. We need Kuvira to justify any violence committed against her. At best, we can hope for this sort of limp, half-hearted nod to non-violence while knowing that in the end, violence will be the solution to the problem. The episode is all about saying, “Hey, look, we did the non-violent thing! Can we get to the fighting now?” Yes, you can show. And in doing so you will again undermine Korra’s character development because violence is always the answer to your big conflicts, no matter how much you may bluster to the contrary on occasion.
I completely agree, sadly. In fact, it’s easy to see how Avatar had the opposite problem: it’s an action-adventure show whose protagonist is a pacifist who learns that sometimes fighting is necessary (which both satisfies the action quota and provides an interesting morality play). Ending that show with Aang sparing the Firelord’s life—but taking away his Bending—was nothing short of genius (how it revolved the morality play, though, is debatable). Korra, in contrast, wants to fight all the time. But there’s no balancing act with a morality play this time. Instead of growing and learning to find peaceful solutions, every season of Korra has ended with a giant battle between good and evil. The few scenes where she appears to be growing up are just plot place holders masquerading as “thought-provoking” dialogue and character development, the equivalent of playing a video game in which a cut scene or a power-up must be unlocked before y couan go on to fight the final boss.
JMR’s condensed version of the conversation between Korra and Kuvira is spot-on, as it perfectly captures the insipidness of most of the dialogue in Korra, as well as reduces her moment of “development” to what it really was: bullshit.
I truly hope DiMartino, Konietzko and company have some trick up their sleeve that won’t be pulled until the finale, because the rest of Book Four isn’t looking too hopeful.
Now, about the episode itself.
It’s fine. It’s about as good an episode as we can expect this late in the game. That doesn’t mean a true stand-out episode can’t sneak up on us like it does every season (Book One’s “And the Winner Is,” Book Two’s “Beginnings,” and Book Three’s “Long Live the Queen”); it just means that expecting any real nuance and faith in the audience’s intelligence on a consistent basis isn’t a smart strategy if you want to gain any satisfaction from watching a new episode of Korra.
Take the scenes with Asami and her father Hiroshi, for example. The conceit is that Asami, after three long years, has finally decided to visit her father in prison. Hiroshi seems resentful for his actions—as well as proud of his daughter for doing well for herself—but Asami won’t accept his apology. However, she does want to at least try to rebuild their relationship, even if it means just a few games of Pai Cho, the game he taught her to play as a little girl.
Someone on the writing staff must have realized that Asami never really got a chance to develop as a character after three seasons, and they concocted this moment with her father to set things right. While I appreciate the attempt to give Asami something meaningful to do—and the notion of father and daughter reuniting over a shared childhood game is quite potent—it’s too little too late. And it really doesn’t help that their reunion is filled to the brim with the sort of on-the-nose and expository dialogue that became acceptable ever since Christopher Nolan became successful. The scene in which Asami returns to her father for a game of Pai Cho has her explaining the intentions of her first visit (“To hurt you the way you hurt me!”) when all she needed to do was show up and ask him to play some Pai Cho. Every single emotion at play here—Hiroshi’s surprise and then joy at his daughter’s return, as well as Asami’s reluctant determination to make things a little better—could have been made explicit by the character animation, thus saving the writers and the voice actors the time and effort of telling us things they could, more effectively, be showing us.
(That said, even showing can be trite. Did we really need to see Asami see that father and daughter in the park playing Pai Cho themselves? Were the writers afraid that Asami’s return would seem unmotivated without such obvious symbolism? Come on, guys! Have a little more faith in your remaining audience!)
The rest of the episode is marginally better, though. Any scene with Kuvira is bound to be entertaining in one way or another, especially since the writers have gone out of their way to assure us that, yes, she is crazy, and like all crazy dictators—fictitious or real—she has the potential for a very scary and very funny character. Her funny side hasn’t gotten too much action, sadly, but it’s there, particularly in her scenes with Bolin. Those scenes—in which our earnest hero catches on too late that his superior office is a nut job—felt very reminiscent of a similar scenario in Dr. Strangelove (without any of that film’s subtlety or humor, but still). Poor Bolin’s attempt to escape with Varrick and Zhu Li ends with him being sent to a concentration camp of sorts. We’ll have to wait patiently to see what that entails.
By the way, that escape and subsequent action scene has Bolin and the others fighting in giant mech suits. Those mech suits are among the most embarrassing and horribly animated CGI ever featured in this show. Perhaps they’d be more acceptable in the Korra video game that came out recently, but not in the television show (though, to be fair, even Book One had trouble animating giant mech suits).
I’ll refrain from discussing other details from the episodes (I’ve repeated myself enough for one review), but I will say that, against all odds, I’m still eager to see what happens in the next episode. Whatever course of action Suyin plans to take on Kuvira—and whatever Korra tries to do to prevent that—will likely result in an exciting action-filled episode. Those kinds of episodes have always fared much better than those dealing with ideas and/or emotions. Besides, getting through another episode of Korra brings us that much closer to the end, and once that finally happens, we can go back to watching Avatar!