Legend of Korra Season 1: A Review
Before getting into the meat of this review I am going to address the elephant in the room, as it were: why am I reviewing Legend of Korra and not the original Avatar: The Last Airbender? While both shows are certainly good, it is the near universal opinion that the original series was far superior to its sequel, especially when comparing the earlier seasons. However, as you may have noticed by now, when I review popular culture it usually delves far more into the philosophical message and underlying theme than the pure entertainment value. The Last Airbender, while amazing, was very much a children’s show. It was a children’s show that managed to convey very interesting and deep messages at times, but this was always somewhat simplified given that the intended audience were kids. Legend of Korra also had a much more compact storyline. The Last Airbender had numerous monster-of-the-week episodes, which did manage to often convey an interest message but unfortunately makes the task of trying to review each of its seasons in entirely a near impossible effort. So without further ado, let us begin.
Legend of Korra is without a doubt one of my favorite shows in recent years. In addition to having both an excellent plot and highly interesting, developed characters it also can boast one of the most openly reactionary messages of anything to be seen on the starlit screen. I am honestly surprised this show ever got on the air, to be honest, and am half convinced it only happened because Nickelodeon (whose other claim to fame of course is a cartoon about a sponge that wears square pants) was simply too oblivious to pick up on the underlying themes being conveyed.
Korra is set in a fictional universe of four nations, each one possessing individuals capable of doing magic, called “bending”, based upon one of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. In each generation there is born one individual, the Avatar, capable of bending all four elements. The Avatar is far more than just a superpowered sorcerer, he or she also serve as a bridge not only between all four fields of bending but also between the human and spiritual worlds. The Avatar is a spiritual symbol, encompassing within themselves the accumulated knowledge, memories and wisdom of the Avatars past.
Korra, the show’s namesake, is the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, and the plot of season one largely centers on Republic City. Created by the previous Avatar following the events of The Last Airbender, Republic City is a United Nations style metropolis, where people of all four nations and all four bending abilities live together as one. When we are first introduced to Republic City, through the eyes of our main character, it is presented as an idyllic entity, but all is quickly shown to be not as it seems. Criminal gangs of benders, called triads, terrorise the city’s residents. The city is governed by an elected council that (much like the actual UN upon which is based) is largely incapable of actually doing anything. Underneath the bright sheen of the streets and buildings, a shadowy terrorist group lurks seeking to tear the whole city apart. The latter are the primary antagonists of season one, known as the Equalists. Led by a masked figure called Amon, the Equalists claim that bending is inherently oppressive, for it raises benders over non-benders, and seek to eradicate it altogether to bring true equality to society.
Let us reflect here for a moment. The antagonists are a movement called the Equalists who seek the overthrow of a society they see as hierarchical and privileging the few at the expense of the many. Replace “Equalist” with “Bolshevik” and “bender” with “capitalist” and you have the story of the October Revolution, with the revolutionaries rightfully cast as the bad guys. That is how truly amazing Legend of Korra is. Counter revolutionary theory taught via a cartoon.
Korra is mentored by Tenzin, a monk and the son of the last Avatar, and aided in her fight against Amon and the Equalists by Mako and Bolin, two self-made brothers who compete in a sport known as Pro-Bending (think MMA with fireballs), and Asami, a non-bending industrial heiress (again these are the protagonists on this show…a priest, a capitalist and two professional fighters). She also runs afoul of Tarrlok, the Water Bending member of the council, who seeks to utilize the Equalist threat to secure more political power for himself through a series of ever more draconian measures. Korra, mindful of her role as the Avatar of both benders and non-benders alike, opposes this as Tarrrlok’s true agenda is gradually revealed. This theme on the unreliable, self-centered nature of elected politics is found in all seasons of Legend of Korra, with democratically elected leaders and bodies of government proving again and again to be ineffective at best and concerned with nothing but the propagation of their own power at worst. Korra, as the Avatar, is the antithesis of this. Her mandate comes from no ballot box but from her inheritance of the title of Avatar, and she is guided in her actions not by constitutional precedent or checks-and-balances but by the inherited institutional wisdom of those who came before her.
Additionally, Legend of Korra makes it very plain that the first season is not a struggle of bender vs non-bender, but rather unity versus disunity. Amon seeks to pit society against itself by harnessing the forces of greed and resentment, while Korra, as the Avatar, represents the shared identity and history of all four nations and elements of bending. While the at times fearsome power of bending is displayed quite clearly, we also see strong non-bending characters such as Asami, who proves herself to be just formidable as her bender comrades. Indeed, one of the more heart-wrenching storylines of the first season is the conflict between Asami and her father, Hiroshi, who is revealed to be an Equalist supporter and Amon’s chief weapons manufacturer. Hiroshi, whose wife (Asami’s mother) was murdered by a bender, supports the Equalists out of a desire for revenge, but Asami rejects this without hesitation. She unflinchingly calls out her father’s actions for being the motive of revolutionaries throughout history, not love and compassion as he professes but hatred and a desire to lash out and cause pain to innocents because of the pain he suffered. In the finale, Hiroshi turns this aggression and hatred against Asami herself and the two confront one another in a battle she decisively wins (despite her obvious emotional pain at having to fight her own father), with her compassion and desire for unity symbolically triumphing over his hatred and spiteful envy.
That can be seen as a metaphor for the entire message of Legend of Korra’s first season. The antagonists on the show are those seeking to use division, envy and fear to further their own position as opposed to the protagonists, who represent unity and shared identity of history, culture and tradition. Korra is the living embodiment of the covenant between generations past, generations living, and generations yet to be born, and as such stands for all those generations against both Tarrlok and Amon who wish to only tear down and obliterate in order to place themselves on top of the ruins that will remain. That is a very powerful message, one that is seldom heard today.