Because fans should be critical, too

Retro: Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Bolin likes Korra, but Korra likes Mako, but Mako’s with Asami, but Mako actually likes Korra, and nobody likes Bolin.

Key Points:

  1. As is well known by now, Messieurs DiMartino and Konietzko have a weakness for teenage romantic melodrama, love triangles, and all that jazz. They attempted to fit it into Avatar—there would be a love triangle between Aang, Katara, and a boy named Toph—but that idea was annexed after head writer Aaron Ehasz argued that Toph should be a girl. That brilliant move saved us a lot of grief and created one of the most memorable characters of that series.
  2. With Korra being written solely by DiMartino and Konietzko, and with no Ehasz around to turn Bolin into Boleen or Mako into Makorina, they were free to inject all the corny romantic nonsense they wanted in their twelve-episode mini-series.
  3. They certainly go all out. Instead of the traditional love triangle, we get a love square, between Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami. Korra has eyes for Mako, but he’s already in a relationship with Asami. He does like Korra a bit, though, but for the sake of the Fire Ferrets, he refuses to date a teammate. This doesn’t phase Bolin, who sees no problem with trying to get Korra’s attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that she’s only into his brother.
  4. Korra gets some “healthy” advice from Tenzin’s wife Pema on how to properly confess your love to a man who happens to be in a relationship with someone else. Here’s the catch: you have to make sure that, through no fault of your own, the relationship in question isn’t actually working out. This is bad news for Korra, since Mako and Asami seem to like each other just fine (although Mako does make an off-hand comment that suggests he’s only in it for the money).
  5. When Mako rejects Korra’s advances, she gravitates towards Bolin, whose own affections border on desperation. They do seem to have a great time on their “date” together, and apparently have a lot in common. Mako knows better, though: she’s just using Bolin to make him jealous (which he disguises as concern for his brother’s feelings being hurt).
  6. All of this comes to a head when Mako somewhat timidly admits he has some affection for Korra, so she moves in for a kiss. Unfortunately, Bolin catches this and runs away crying like a little girl.
  7. All of this romantic mischief nearly costs them their chance to play in the Pro-Bending finals. Before, they were a pretty darn good team, not stepping on each others’ toes, and even doubling each others’ efforts to be an unstoppable force. Once Mako and Korra start going at each other’s throats, however, the team dynamic falls apart, and Bolin, unaware of the romantic tension, steps up and wins them the next match.
  8. Unfortunately, after the infamous kiss, no one’s heart is in the game. Mako even seems ready to give up and try again next year (which is a great attitude to have when your girlfriend’s largesse is the reason you made it this far in the first place). Mako and Bolin get knocked out of the ring, and Korra saves the day with a miraculous three-in-one knock-out. Looks like our heroes are going to be in the championship match after all.
  9. That means they’ll be up against Tahno and the Wolf-bats, the reigning champs for three years straight. Tahno is a pretty boy who comes complete with a set of fan girls and cronies whenever he hits the town. If he’s a parody of someone or some character, it’s lost on me. In any case, it’s a good thing the Fire Ferrets have resolved their romantic differences, because they’ll need to stay focused to beat Tahno, who wins his Pro-Bending match off-screen and in less than a minute.
  10. Asami remains oblivious to all of these romantic antics going on behind her back. She’ll find out soon enough.

High Points:

  1. The Pro-Bending sequences, as usual, are well-executed and pretty entertaining, even when the romantic antics begin to eat away at the team dynamic of the Fire Ferrets.
  2. It was nice to see Bolin, who usually doesn’t have anything substantial to do, step up and win the tie-breaker for the team, especially since he notices Korra and Mako just aren’t on their A-game that match.
  3. For as little screen time as he gets in the episodes (and the series as a whole), Tahno is an amusing character. Did you know he was voiced by Rami “Mr. Robot” Malek? I didn’t!
  4. Korra and Bolin’s date was short and sweet, even if it ultimately ends with Bolin being heartbroken. And while we’re on that subject, I’ll admit that Bolin’s crying fit, while mean-spirited, was pretty funny. Maybe not as funny as Charlie Kelly’s reaction when his beloved Waitress revealed she slept with Danny DeVito instead of him in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but still pretty funny.

Low Points:

  1. Funny as it is in its own right, in the context of the episode and the series as a whole, that moment is intolerably cruel. It may be the lowest point in the series, on par with the moment when Aang suddenly appears and gives Korra her Bending back, and for a similar reason: Korra is as undeserving of this act of mercy as Bolin is as undeserving of this act of cruelty.
  2. The comparison to the similar scene in It’s Always Sunny is no accident. Charlie wasn’t exactly innocent in that whole ordeal (which is why his tearful reaction is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious), whereas Bolin was completely innocent: he genuinely liked Korra and was totally committed to starting a relationship. Asami is also innocent in this reckless game, but for more nefarious reasons (which won’t be clear until episode seven.)
  3. Contrast this with Mako, who the episode implies only started dating Asami for her money. And Korra’s attraction to Mako never receives an explanation of any kind, unless DiMartino and Konietzko were fully committed to the “all girls like bad boys” train of logic.
  4. Also consider the scene where Korra discusses her romance problems with Jinora and Ikki (which should let you know the maturity level we’re dealing with here), and eventually Pema. While both younger girls dish out their own versions of “love conquers all” wishful thinking, and Pema relays her own anecdotal advice, at no point does anyone ever ask Korra why she’s so in love with Mako. Nor does anyone discuss the ethics of pursuing a man in a relationship. (Both of which I’d almost expect from Jinora, since she’s apparently the smart one.)
  5. Instead, we have Pema essentially give Korra license to confess her “love” to Mako, since it worked for her and Tenzin. Of course, for no other reason than dramatic effect, she doesn’t outright say who she stole Tenzin from (nor what her lot in life was before meeting Tenzin, but never mind), just so they can surprise us in the next episode when we find out that it was Lin Bei Fong.
  6. By the way, what was the point of casting someone as uniquely funny as Maria Bamford as Pema, who has absolutely nothing worthwhile to do in the entire series (let alone anything funny)? Granted, Bamford has been a Nickelodeon staple since the 90s (ex. CatDog), so it makes some sense. Then again, Bamford was funny in those shows. This is just a waste of talent. (Jill Talley, another very funny lady, was similarly short-changed in The Boondocks.)
  7. The worst part about all of this is just little Korra herself suffers as a consequence of her poor decisions. By all accounts, she’s the absolute worst offender and the main instigator in this romantic nonsense, from leading Bolin on with their “date” to antagonizing Mako with lines like, “…when you’re with [Asami], you’re thinking about me, aren’t you?” This is the behavior of a sociopath, not the protagonist of a children’s program.
  8. But Korra faces no repercussions for any of this. She does apologize to Bolin after their last Pro-Bending match, but his reaction is so nonchalant that she might as well have said nothing at all. More to the point, the time to apologize (to Bolin and Mako) was in the Pro-Bending ring, when their lack of team work damn near cost them the game. Then they could have set their differences aside and won together as a team again, which frankly would have been the much more positive message for children.
  9. Instead, Mako and Bolin are booted and Korra wins the match on her own, because she’s such a Strong Female Character™. I’m not opposed to this victory so much as I’m frustrated that it came with no character growth or introspection of any kind. Imagine if they’d given Korra a moment to examine how her attempt at a forced connection with one teammate at the expense of the other drove both men away from her, leaving her and her alone to fix the problem, and in her determination to face the music, would have found the inner strength and resources to knockout all three players at once!
  10. It wouldn’t take much extra work. Just one of those cool 360 camera shots (which they do twice in this very episodes) showing Korra all by herself facing the three other players and ending with a determined expression on her face (similar to Katara’s shining moment of maturity back in “The Desert”). But I suppose that’s a bit too simple and too sophisticated a solution for a couple of writers who allowed their fans’ obsession with character relationships to poison their own intuitions as storytellers.

Random Points:

  1. And frankly, I think that is really what this all comes down to: DiMartino and Konietzko, and their turbulent relationship with their own fandom. And a lot of that has to do with shipping, a topic I’ve tried my best to avoid, which is all but impossible when you’re dealing with Avatar and Korra.
  2. Long story short, back in the days of Avatar, you had fans wanted Katara and Zuko to be together instead of Katara and Aang, and you had fans who wanted the opposite. The feud apparently bled into the writers’ room, with DiMartino and Konietzko and others aiming for Katara and Aang, and Aaron Ehasz and others aiming for Katara and Zuko. The series’ finale made it clear which side won, but just in case it wasn’t clear, for the following comic convention, the crew made a special video mocking any bizarre character pairings, including Katara and Zuko.
  3. Does any of this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Not in the slightest, and DiMartino and Konietzko should have known better than to have taken so seriously what should have only been a fun topic of discussion among fans. Not only did they take it a little too seriously, but they allowed it to negatively influence their writing process.
  4. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m willing to bet that the forced pairing of Mako and Korra was an attempt to pander to those fans who wanted Katara and Zuko to be together, and—in its negative impact on the rest of the characters like Bolin and Asami—prove once and for all what a “toxic” influence the two have on each other.
  5. In any case, it didn’t work. No one liked the pairing, no one tolerated either character’s terrible behavior, and frankly, no one cared whether Korra got with Mako or Bolin or Asami or Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice. All anyone wanted was a good story well-told, and the forced and unnecessary romantic antics were nothing but a drain on everyone’s time and energy, be it the audience or the animators. Unfortunately, DiMartino and Konietzko were still flying high on the good will created by Avatar, so whatever they wanted, they got.
  6. And let’s be absolutely clear about something: Korra was supposed to be DiMartino and Konietzko’s bid to be taken seriously as filmmakers. After the fiasco with M. Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender, Korra was their chance to prove that they could still provide the goods and be true players in the Hollywood game. Lord knows they got major support: from major acting talent like J.K. Simmons and Steve Blum, to the often brilliant animation from Studio Mir of South Korea, to the utmost enthusiasm from the Nickelodeon executives—to the point that they got the go-ahead for four seasons right  after Book One finished airing—DiMartino and Konietzko had everything going for them.
  7. And they blew it. All for a few low blows at the fandom that helped create their success. Such self-destruction tendencies would lead to lower ratings, and eventually to Korra being taken off the air entirely before the end of its run. And meanwhile, Shyamalan has recently managed to make something of a comeback with The Visit and Split, movies that managed to connect with audiences in a major way, thanks in large part to their sheer commitment to telling their story in the most effective and entertaining way possible. If only DiMartino and Konietzko had the same discipline.


I can remember watching this episode back when it first aired, and afterwards feelings like it was a completely pointless episode in a series with only twelve-episodes. In hindsight, maybe for DiMartino and Konietzko, this episode and all the ilk spilled from it was the point, and the vastly more interesting Amon and Equalist plot was just a means to that end. Pretty sad really. Needless to say, it’s all downhill from here. At least we get one last gasp of brilliance before the series completely derails itself.

Next week: Avatar: “Winter Solstice, Part 1 & 2”


9 responses

  1. Rosemont

    I think Bryke should’ve taken Peter Paltridge’s piece as their bible when developing these romances. He would’ve told them: “The truth is, you can’t decide two drawings on a piece of paper will fall in love if you barely know who they are, any more than you can walk into a bar, point to someone and demand they be compatible with you. Pairing people up that early in the game is a common practice, and it’s also a mistake, and it’s why most TV romances are not engaging enough.”

    What’s the point of introducing a love triangle when Korra & Mako were foreshadowed as “destined for each other” even before Asami showed up, as early as the 2nd episode? What’s the point of doing a “Will They, Won’t They?” tease when the show’s answer is so obviously “They will!” ? We have no reason to want our heroine to get with her crush. All we know at this point is that Mako is “hot,” poor, and brooding – all the better to presumably to get the gut reaction out of teen girl viewers, “Aw, poor baby. I can nurture him, so sexy!” Even some fans were already shipping Mako with Korra as soon as his character design was leaked before the show aired. I guess the creators consciously designing him to be conventionally attractive was them telling viewers “This one will be the protagonist’s love interest.” I’m pretty sure that the writers subscribed to the “Korra loves Mako because he’s handsome” line of thinking, as is shown by the airbender daughters describing Mako using words like “handsome” and “dreamy.” It’s a pity this show didn’t come out in our current post-bad boy era on TV:

    Some choice passages include:

    “The death of the bad boy character after decades also represents a new wave of feminism. No longer is there a heroine taking a walk on the wild side to be with a brooding and pained artist, instead there is a confidant woman making choices that are respectful of her own worth as a person. The history of bad boys highlights a troubling issue for how women see themselves. The bad boy often belittles and mistreats the girl, all while claiming to be mysterious and angsty as justification for their abuse. When young women see the heroine fall for the bad boy, it can make a girl feel like mistreatment and being undervalued in a relationship is okay. That is not a message that women need to be told. Getting rid of the bad boy helps women see that being treated with affection and respect are far better options than being left to deal with a brooding man-child.

    Furthermore, getting rid of bad boys help set positive role models for men. When a guy sees an emotionally constipated, semi-abusive, selfish guy get the girl. It encourages young men to mirror those actions. It sets social standards for men by the use of screen-based media and that in turn hurts not only how those young men view themselves, but how they view the actions of other men. Allowing men to be kinder and more open on screen sets a positive and helpful model for men offscreen that allows for more men to feel comfortable not being a ‘bad boy.'”

    Had Korra ended up with Bolin back in episode 5, her show could’ve deviated from that tired cliche and sent out a more positive message. ‘Tis a shame the nicer man was turned into a pathetic punching bag and then into a comedic domestic abuse victim + sexual harasser, killing any affection I might have had for him.

    May 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm

  2. lukepearson

    I completely agree with you on Pema and how she has nothing to do, I thought that she was going to be the mother figure to Mako and Bolin or something like that, also way do they bother bring up that she wants a non-bender baby I though that that was going to go somewhere but it doesn’t. Now when I think about it what the hell was the point of the baby though the hole series it is never mentioned if he is an airbendrer or not, even in book 4 when he is 3 years old it is never said and he is only in the background for one scene in the first episode and then in the last episode. It just shows that they didn’t know what to do their.

    May 16, 2017 at 5:51 am

    • lukepearson

      Something I forgot to mention is that Rohan is named after Konietzko’s nephew I’m starting to think that is the only reason why he even existed.

      May 23, 2017 at 3:09 pm

  3. edbva

    It’s not for nothing that this episode fractured the fandom irrevocably, never to recover. This was a major misstep, and I think it showed up Bryke’s storytelling inadequacies in a couple of ways.

    When I say this episode broke the fandom, it is ironic in that the fandom itself had a hand in that. Shipping occurs in fandoms, and for some strange reason it was really predominant in the AtLA fanbase on the internet to the extent that neutral observers might have mistook the show for romance drama. In any case, whatever one thinks about shipping in fandoms, it should not be happening within the actual show. Relationships are what we should see in the show, romantic or not – interesting interactions that arise naturally from the setting and enhance our understanding of the characters – and it’s really disappointing that Bryke were naive enough to be misled into a serious misplacement of priorities.

    Speaking of priorities, what else does this episode accomplish? Does it tell us something new about the characters? Does it explore Republic City a bit more? Does it advance the Equalist plot? Why not? Efficient and effective visual storytelling requires scenes and episodes that accomplish different things simultaneously, and given the miniseries format, this really should have have been LoK’s MO. Instead this episode does one thing for one reason and otherwise lacks depth. This is particularly egregious when one recalls how the previous episode ended: Korra finally acknowledging her fears to Tenzin after her terrifying confrontation with Amon, and the Aang visions in between. This should have been the springboard for serious action and character development, but all that momentum was undercut for no good reason. I’m not sure how Korra can be all lovey-dovey after getting scared half to death in the previous episode? And look at this episode’s cliffhanger: the Fire Ferrets have to face off the bullies/jocks in the probending final. Why should I care about this? We’re almost halfway through the season and the main conflict is still not fully integrated with the setting!

    To conclude, this is the worst episode of the Avatar franchise so far. It is poorly conceived within the overall narrative and poorly constructed; as such the first concrete evidence that Bryke were immature storytellers at this level. For me this was a sad harbinger of things to come in that this show was neither conceived nor executed in the same spirit as that of the original series. With this episode I got the feeling that we had exchanged the fantastical Asian civilizations and Eastern spirituality of AtLA for suburban high school teen drama in a generic Western setting. Why would Bryke choose the latter over the former?

    P.S. The shipping-relationship dichotomy is an apt description of a fundamental difference between AtLA and LoK. While the former was very much about relationships between characters and peoples, the latter ‘shipped’ character pairings and people groups.

    May 16, 2017 at 9:27 am

  4. JMR

    Whenever discussion of the possibility of a third Avatar series comes up, the immediate, overwhelming consensus on every fansite I’ve ever been to is that there’s simply no way that any series could be made without Bryke’s participation because no one else could possibly “get” the Avatar world the way that they do. Episodes like Spirit of Competition leave me a bit mystified by that sentiment.

    What this episode makes immediately clear is that at the very least those two need someone with a strong, steady hand in the writer’s room to keep their more ridiculous whims and self-indulgences in check. At the very worst it lays bare that not only can other people write great stories in the Avatar world, but that in many cases those people can write better stories than Bryke are capable of.

    Now, I highly doubt that we’re ever going to get a third series. This has more to do with the studio and network likely being entirely uninterested in producing it than anything else though. However, this episode never fails to make me wonder what an Avatar series helmed by someone like Aaron Ehasz could have been like. I’d also go to bat for Katie Mattila, who was brought on as Story Coordinator for Season 3, but also wrote my favorite LoK episode, Old Wounds. It’s really kind of a shame we’ll likely never see anyone else’s take on the franchise on screen.

    May 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    • lukepearson

      I completely agree on that, I’m always thing the better stories people could do with this universe, a good example of a show being better then anything the creator would be Star Trek The Next Generation when it got better after the first season because the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write a dam.

      May 17, 2017 at 4:53 am

      • italianbaptist

        This is why I can for the most part see fanfiction as a good thing (I was going to say “only” but let’s be honest, everything has a dark side). I believe it was at this blog where I was recommended the Azula trilogy by MasterGhandalf. It’s a little hard to divorce it from what I know is canon in the comics, but I believe this story is a better follow up to the show, especially the first book in the trilogy.

        May 28, 2017 at 5:25 pm

  5. Rosemont

    The new Samurai Jack romance episode (Season 5, #8) may have been just as controversial as Korra’s season one, episode five, if not more so, because it reduced its female deuteragonist to a blatant, juvenile male fantasy and introduced a badly-timed romance out of nowhere. I wondered if you had heard of it?

    May 25, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    • italianbaptist

      Hoo boy – Jack and Ashi. That’s an incredibly dangerous topic to bring up 🙂

      It’s worth noting though that the pairing could have possibly worked had they given it more time. What’s with these miniseries wanting to force something that just doesn’t happen in real life?

      May 28, 2017 at 5:27 pm

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