The Legend of Korra: Out of the Past

As we rocket ever closer to the end of The Legend of Korra‘s first season, as every plotline and every character comes to a boil and the inevitable Korra vs Amon showdown starts to rear its ugly head, I’d like to take a simple step back from all that chaos and remember some wise words from Uncle Iroh.

Specifically, this quote in particular:

Aang: So, Toph thinks you give good advice. And great tea.

Iroh: The key to both is proper aging.

That may not seem like much (especially on paper- I feel like it loses a little bit of its potency without Mako Iwamatsu’s delivery), but there is a world of truth in that little seven-word nugget. Something that stretches far beyond great tea or good advice.

In fact, Iroh’s words pinpoint the one major setback that’s still plaguing The Legend of Korra.

But let’s backtrack a little bit and go into what The Legend of Korra‘s been doing right.

Nine episodes in and the animation is still as gorgeous as ever. The hustle and bustle of Republic City, the frost-bitten winds outside Tarrlok’s secluded cabin, even the warmth and calm in Tenzin’s bedroom- location after location all continue to impart just the right emotions to each scene, all while displaying an incredibly high level of artistry in the drawings themselves.

So that’s pretty great. So is the action. And the soundtrack. And Amon, who grows creepier with each passing episode. New information on Amon has been doled out in tiny little dribs and drabs, so the reveal of anything new (like this week’s especially creepy reveal that he can overcome bloodbending… somehow) makes him even more mysterious, while still retaining the feeling like he’s moving forward as a character.

But when The Legend of Korra works, it works purely on a surface level. It looks good. It sounds good. Once you start to dig deeper, however, more and more flaws start to become readily apparent.

And the biggest thing missing from The Legend of Korra is any kind of depth from the characters. We’ve gone through nine episodes of the first season, yet it only feels like we’re on episode two. There’s not a single character that feels as though they’ve gone through almost an entire season of character development. Some, like Korra, Tenzin, or Lin Beifong, have changed to a small degree- softening up a little from their initial, harsh selves. Korra’s also gained a little bit of Avatar training- she’s now a touch more spiritual and knows some new moves from pro-bending. Others, like Asami or Mako, seem to exist only as pretty faces that rarely say something with any real personality or meaning (take Mako, who’s switched back to Team Korra and now spends most of the episode pining after her, or Asami, who throws in a reference to her now-evil dad every so often to remind us that she’s supposed to be sympathetic).

Like Iroh says, tea or advice or anything else takes aging. It takes time. Both a tea leaf and a TV show need to endure good times and bad, and slowly start to grow as a result of both. For each fight scene, for each plot twist, for each comic relief moment, little bits and pieces should have added on to who Korra is and what the show is as a whole. And by the end of the season, all those little moments will hopefully have accumulated into something we can all connect to on a personal level.

Yet there’s not a single character on the show I’d genuinely miss if they were to disappear from the show forever.

Going into The Legend of Korra for the first time, one of the biggest things that excited me was the shorter season length. Without all those pesky filler episodes from The Last Airbender where the Aang Gang would travel to some town, save the inhabitants while also learning something about themselves, and then move on by the end of twenty-one minutes, we’d be able to focus on the big stuff. The massive battles and the sudden character twists and the changing of allegiances. All the big, climactic elements of the original show would be boiled down into one convenient package.

But, like Zuko learning a lesson from his wise old uncle, I’m now seeing the error of my ways. In going back and watching episodes from Aang’s and Korra’s adventures side by side, it’s instantly clear how much depth those filler episodes add. All we’ve really seen from Korra was how she responds to gigantic, city-destroying wars, heart-wrenching love triangles and big explosive sports championships. We’ve never really seen, outside of a few small examples, what Korra’s day-to-day is like. What she’s like as a person. What the inner rumblings of Republic City look like.

The Last Airbender overflowed with those little details. They made the characters seem more human, but they also fleshed out the four nations and filled them full of countless little stories and side characters that were lovable in their own way. So when Aang has to save the world, there’s real weight behind it. We’ve spent almost the entire show seeing the world on an up-close, intimate level.

The Legend of Korra, on the other hand, has been so intent on pushing the plot forward that we’ve never got anything near this kind of depth. So when there’s a standoff between Korra and Amon, it doesn’t really feel like a confrontation that’s been building from somewhere. It just feels like another in a long string of Amon moments.

It also doesn’t help that the show’s breakneck pace is creating more and more gaps in the story and in the basic logic of how our characters think and act. There was an entire episode devoted to developing Sato as a villain and get Asami into the group, but now that she’s in the group, Sato has been completely swept aside. Is he still out there? Is he still a prominent public figure, even though Tenzin and Lin know he’s an Equalist? Is anyone going to do anything about that? I have no idea.

It’s the same with Tarrlok. He’s built up as a big, creepy bloodbending villain, and then he’s neutralized in the very next episode (despite the fact that it’s never explained how Amon knew about Tarrlok’s evil hiding place, or whether his goal was to kidnap Korra or simply to remove Tarrlok’s powers). These characters almost seem like The Last Airbender-style villain of the week characters with how quickly they’ve been introduced as villains and then dispatched, but each villain has had irreparable consequences on the story and the setting as a whole. If these stories don’t all come together somehow in the near future, then Sato and Tarrlok may appear, in hindsight, to be nothing more than killing time until we got to the good stuff at the end.

Although, really, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. For all my complaining, The Legend of Korra is still an entertaining piece of action-adventure fun, even if it never captures the true spirit of what made The Last Airbender so remarkable. And I’ll still be parked on the couch next Saturday (June 23) for the two-part finale.

I hope it’s a good one.

Some closing thoughts:

  • One last large complaint: Flashback Aang. The Aang that I’m familiar with was playful, goofy and free-spirited, yet he seems to have grown up to be a stone-faced, humorless, emotionless action hero. I’m aware the Aang went through an enormous amount of war and strife as a child, and the stress of dealing with a bloodbender like Yakone couldn’t have helped, but adult Aang seemed to lack any kind of personality whatsoever. We’ve seen plenty of examples in The Last Airbender of older master benders who were personal friends of Aang and retained that same childlike craziness into old age (Monk Gyatsu, King Bumi, etc). Is there none of that left in Aang at all?
  • While none of the adult Aang Gang material really swayed me, at least Sokka felt close. He seemed a little too interested in hearing his own voice and I can completely buy that.
  • The comic relief characters seem to be the ones who’re the most likable- Bolin gets his fair share of good lines and Meelo gets to crawl all over his dad and answer the phone in a huff. More of that, please.
  • Where’s Pabu? He wasn’t in jail, as far as I can tell. Is he somewhere on Air Temple Island?
  • Also, how did Lin break Bolin, Mako and Asami out of prison without any trace of effort? How can run around the city so easily without any fear of being recognized as escapees?
  • And why did Tenzin and the rest instantly believe that Equalist when he said that Equalists didn’t wreck City Hall? Equalists are bad guys- maybe this one was lying. If Lin has her mother’s lie detector feet, it would have taken about a second to confirm this, yet everyone took him at his word.
  • How did the group instantly come to the conclusion that Tarrlok kidnapped Korra? Maybe she ran away or was hurt somewhere- there were other options besides the one that instantly furthers the plot along.
  • Just one more, I swear- how, if Korra was so inept at getting in contact with her spiritual side, was she able to instantly tap into her visions simply by sitting down and meditating on her first try? For all the buildup we had about Korra’s spiritual weakness, you’d never guess she had any problems from this episode alone.
  • I really wish that we could see Bolin and Sokka interact somehow. It probably won’t happen, though, considering that Sokka’s long dead.

Whelp, that about does it. I’ll see you all next time.

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5 responses to “The Legend of Korra: Out of the Past

  1. All that stuff you said about Korra sums up why I love the original series better. Still, like you, I will watch the season finale ( I’m praying Korra goes into the avatar state then if not in the next episode).

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that the Legend of korra is somewhat shallow. It’s good show to be sure, but it could have been so much better.

    My biggest problem with it was Amon, he was such a wasted potential, at the beginning of the season I actually supported him, I mean he does make a strong point, in the Airbender/Korra universe, if you’re not a bender, you are a second class citizen.

    It was a genius concept, a clash between classes not unlike the ones we have in real life, but instead of painting the show’s theme in shades of grey, they decided to go fully black and white, Korra is the good guy (or gal in this case) and Amon is pure evil.

    And the end annoyed me to no end, yes, Korra defeated Amon and made a pretty speech about social equality, but guess what? Speeches are not going to change one’s pre-conceived notions, people will still think of non-benders as second class citizens

    • This is absolutely true. For me, the finale had a cartoony, almost Scooby-Doo vibe to it, where the only thing that mattered was catching an arbitrary masked villain.

      Although I’ve heard that the creators are working with some new writers for season two, so my hopes are a little higher for next year.

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