Legend of Korra Season 2: A Review
Having previously explained my admiration for Season 1 of Legend of Korra, with its unabashed reactionary message, I now turn my attention to Season 2. Korra’s second season is near universally considered the show’s low point. While still worth watching, it featured some of the show’s worst tendencies: the habit of advancing then regressing the development of its characters, too much focus on side plots and minor characters, and a horribly slow advancement of the main story. Despite this, the season did also have some remarkably good parts, including a quite in depth explanation of the originations of the Avatar and a fascinating exploration of what it means to fulfill the role of being bridge between the spirit and physical worlds.
Departing from the previous season, which occurred entirely in Republic City, a good deal of season two occurs in the polar lands of the Southern Water tribe (Korra’s homeland). We are introduced to Korra’s parents, and her uncle, Unalaq, the chief of the Northern Water tribe. From the moment we meet him, it is obvious Unalaq is this season’s villain; at least obvious to everyone except Korra, who is manipulated quite easily into taking Unalaq as her new teacher, shuffling Tenzin off onto a “family vacation” at the Eastern Air temple. Claiming that the spirits are growing restless, risking throwing the world out of balance, Unalaq and Korra travel to the South Pole where Korra unlocks one of two spirit portals (bridges between the human and spirit worlds). In our surprise “twist”, Unalaq’s army then invades and occupies the Southern Water tribe’s land (it is also revealed he cheated his way onto the throne, which should rightfully have gone to Korra’s father).
Unalaq might seem to be your typical arch-conservative villain, lamenting the spiritual decline of the South and warning that it will inevitably lead to disaster. Legend of Korra, however, continues its interesting trend of defying stereotypes and reveals that Unalaq’s rhetoric of balance and peace between spirits and men is actually a front and he is actually a servant of Vaatu, the dark spirit of chaos. From the first days of time, Vaatu has been longed in an unending struggle with Raava, the light spirit of order, for control of the world. It is interesting that even at its worst, the Avatar universe still manages to communicate very deep philosophical themes, for what is life but an eternal struggle between order and chaos. Too much chaos and you are left with anarchy. Too much order and you have tyranny. It is the quest for a balance between the two that has obsessed political theorists from the dawn of time. Indeed, in Legend of Korra it is revealed that it was that very quest for balance that led to the creation of the first Avatar, as a human named Wan merged with the spirit Raava to seal Vaatu away in a spiritual prison. Unalaq seeks to free Vaatu from this prison, which would allow Vaatu to finally defeat Raava and usher in a ten thousand year period of darkness and chaos across the globe; which would throw the world into the very unbalance that he claims to warn against.
Beyond the philosophical, Legend of Korra expands upon its strong critique of liberal democracy found in season one. Korra returns to Republic City seeking help for the occupied Southern Water tribe, but finds a lukewarm reception from its newly elected president waiting for her. President Raiko can be seen as a politician at his worst, completely disinterested in anything aside from his own popularity and domestic political considerations. He’ll jump at the chance to get his picture taken shaking hands with the Avatar, yet in the very next breath he outright rejects Korra’s appeal for help and dismisses her as a troublemaker. Even when Unalaq’s plot to free Vaatu is finally revealed, Raiko still refuses to even contemplate sending help, instead choosing to hunker down in Republic City with his forces to best defend his own hide.
Legend of Korra delves further into its critique of the shallow nature of modernity, however, by also examining the contrary nature of commerce. Following the revelation that her father, Hiroshi Sato, was an Equalist agent in season one, Korra’s non-bending friend and ally Asami has assumed control of her father’s company, Future Industries. All is not well, however, as lingering ill-will from Hiroshi’s actions has driven Future Industries to the verge of financial ruin. This introduces us to the character of Varrick, a Southern Water tribe shipping mogul that Asami partners with to try and save her company. Varrick, an eccentric, blustering self-promoter (he was clearly based on Donald Trump before the Donald suddenly went from figure of fun to right-wing hatemonger). Varrick can be seen as a perfect stand in for both business and capitalism as a whole. He is not an evil character, but he is an entirely self-interested one. He opposes Unalaq’s invasion of the Southern Water tribe, not really out of any sympathy for his fellow countrymen, but because he wants to protect his wealth and position. He tries to persuade both President Raiko and Republic City as a whole to send military aid to the South, through both propaganda and fake terrorist attacks committed by “Northern Water benders”, but openly admits it is because he would profit from a war. Varrick ultimately cares about Varrick, and the viewer is left with no doubt that he while he has no malice he would change sides in a heartbeat if he felt it was in his interest.
That is a key point when understanding the relationship between conservatism and capitalism. Progressive proles like to claim that conservatism is somehow just a front for the big business, and (to be fair) more than a few libertarian-inclined members of the right tend to conflate the interests of the two as being one and the same. That’s not true. Capitalism ultimately is an economic system where individuals compete and interact in the market to acquire more wealth (aka capital) for themselves. That is the only priority for any corporation or businessman; to earn more money or acquire a greater market share (in order to earn more money). The corporate world is certainly happy to accept lower taxes and fewer business regulations, but it also is perfectly willing to suckle at the government teat for more business subsidies or protections from foreign competition. Now, don’t take me for a socialist. I fully support capitalism (if only for no other reason than every other alternative economic system has proven to be a shambles), but I do so without any illusions. The business sector is certainly an ally to us on the Old Right, but an inconsistent one.
Season 2’s side plot with Varrick also explores the fickle and shallow nature of public opinion. Seeking to drum up public support for military action against Unalaq, Varrick commissions a series of “movers” (the Avatar world’s version of early movies). To star in these pictures, he casts Bolin in the lead role for Nuktuk: Hero of the South after seeing the public’s response to an interview he gives in the pro-bending arena. That particular scene is an excellent example of the superficial nature of public opinion as the crowd roars approvingly at Bolin’s basically nonsensical answers (he himself later admits that he just says “let’s hear it for Republic City!” or “let’s hear it for the fans!” whenever a question gets posed to him, knowing this will endear him to the public). These “movers” bear almost no resemblance to what really is occurring in the south, and are basically propaganda, but the public laps them up regardless. The comparison to modern “infotainment” is clear. The uncomfortable truth is that the public really isn’t interested in being informed about the world, they simply want a basic narrative with a clear good guy and bad guy, or a straight forward problem with an easy solution. People like to be told how special they are, and how perfect everything is, and that it will all be okay because the real world (which often has no easy answers or clear distinctions between heroes and villains) frightens them.
The second season of Legend of Korra certainly suffered from many problems. Trying to sum up an coherent message and theme for the entirety of it is difficult. Ultimately, it can come down to an argument for balance; between humans and spirits, between order and chaos, between both the Northern and the Southern Water tribes. This ironically validates the original argument made by Unalaq, the season’s main villain. While Unalaq himself is show to be an enemy of balance by siding with Vaatu, merging with him in the finale to become a Dark Avatar before finally being defeated by Korra, the point itself still stands. This is symbolized by Korra’s decision keep the spirit portals open and allow the free interaction of humans and spirits together for the first time since Wan, the first Avatar, closed them ten thousand years previously.