Legend of Korra Season 3: A Review
Having cover both season 1 and season 2 of Legend of Korra, it is with relish that I now turn to my favorite season of the series, the third one. As I’ve said before, Korra truly stands out not only for excellent entertainment, but also for an openly reactionary message. If season one was a conservative’s version of the October Revolution, the culmination of the great devolution of the West, Legend of Korra season 3 ups the game by critiquing the very foundations of it, with a storyline that can be taken as a thinly veiled analogy to the revolution in France that would do Burke’s reflections proud.
Our story begins with the aftermath of Harmonic Convergence still playing out throughout Republic City, and all is not going well. Spirits now walk among men once more, but the reunion has been rocky to say the least. Spirit vines grow rampant throughout the metropolis, causing havoc and damage, and Republic City’s residents have quickly decided to blame all this on the Avatar (oh how fickle the public mood is). President Raiko, who as a politician is ever a follower of public opinion and not a leader of it, responds by showing his gratitude for Korra having previously saved the entire world from ten thousand years of darkness under the rule of Vaatu, the spirit of chaos, by banishing her from the city.
Korra takes this rejection quite well, however, as she discovers that another side effect of Harmonic Convergence has been the spontaneous emergence of the near extinct art of air-bending amongst the general population. Tenzin, her mentor who (along with his family) believed himself to be the last air bender in existence, is overjoyed at this knowledge, and together Team Avatar embarks on a quest to gather together the new air benders to rebuild the Air Nation.
Sadly, all is not as easy as it would first appear, as Tenzin discovers to his sadness that rebuilding a culture almost wiped from existence is not as easy as it appears. Not surprisingly, many of the old air bender customs and ways (such as shaving one’s head or eating a vegetarian diet or forsaking all personal possessions) are not particularly popular with many of the new air benders. Tenzin slowly must come to grips with the fact that while a new Air Nation may indeed have been created, it is one that will bear very little resemblance to the old one of his father whose legacy he was entrusted with keeping. This is quite a bittersweet storyline to watch the evolution of, and one that the previously mentioned Edmund Burke would heartily applaud. One of Burke’s central observations was that each culture is as unique as a snowflake; created by past history and the passing down of traditions and knowledge from one generation to the next. Like a snowflake, culture is also fragile and once destroyed impossible to recreate. People may indeed once again possess the ability to air bend, but the Air Nation of old remains as dead as it was before.
If this particular challenge of trying to preserve some trace of a lost culture was not challenging enough, season three also includes of Legend of Korra’s most sinister villains, the shadowy Red Lotus. Led by the icy cold sociopath Zaheer, the Red Lotus see it as their duty to free humanity from the oppressive yoke of government so they may embrace true freedom. Having previously critiqued both the violence of communism and the fickleness of democracy, Korra now turns its sights on the chaos of anarchy. As always, the show is very fair in its treatment of the villains. We are allowed to truly understand where Zaheer is coming from, and indeed are even allowed to see the legitimacy of some of his motives. In one poignant exchange between himself and Korra, the Avatar, it is conceded that he does have a fair point that many world leaders and governments are corrupt, oppressive or incompetent, but she unwaveringly counters that his proposed solutions of toppling the entire system will simply throw the world into chaos. With the conviction of a fanatic, Zaheer proclaims that to be his very goal, as chaos is the natural order of the world and the only way true freedom can be achieved.
Such convictions have been common enough throughout history, ever since the great fool Rousseau first speculated on his idyllic state of nature. Legend of Korra confronts them head on, however, in a very cleaver fashion. Another new character introduced in the third season is the Earth Queen of Ba Sing Se, ruler of the Earth Kingdom (yes, one criticism you could make of the Avatar world is that its names are not always the most imaginative). If there was a perfect stereotype of how republicans view monarchy, the Earth Queen would fulfill it. She’s petty, cruel, selfish, and utterly unconcerned with the welfare of her subjects; in fact she makes President Raiko of Republic City look like the ruler of the year. Indeed, Ba Sing Se can be see itself as a criticism of the hierarchical system the Red Lotus seek to destroy, with the city divided into three rings (Upper, Middle and Lower) for the three classes of the city, with nobles dwelling in the Upper Ring, artisans and merchants in the Middle, and the great poor masses in the Lower.
It is obvious from the first moment we see the Earth Queen that we are supposed to dislike her (although interestingly enough there is a scene where Bolin and Mako meet with their relatives in Ba Sing Se, who are poor peasants of the city’s Outer Ring, and discover they keep a picture of Her Majesty in their living room which their grandmother makes reverences to every day….a cleaver nod to the fact that while bourgeois intellectuals have led every revolution throughout history in the name of the masses, the poor masses themselves have quite often been monarchy’s staunchest supporters). However, as dislikable as she is, Legend of Korra quite cleverly uses her ultimate assassination by Zaheer and his followers to demonstrate that whatever legitimate criticisms of her reign one can make they pale in comparison to the horror that comes from her fall. The city immediately descends into chaos as the Red Lotus level the walls dividing the three city rings, and the poor masses descend on the royal palace and houses of the elite and wealthy as the city guards, who no longer possess any reason to do otherwise with the death of their Queen, cast aside their weapons and either flee or join in the looting of the city. Chaos is indeed brought about by the Red Lotus’s actions, but it is the chaos of reality and not that of the utopian vision of intellectuals and thinkers.
Anarchy is shown as it truly is, and when freed of the confines of authority the people of Ba Sing Se are shown not to be the solitary and peaceful fictions of Rousseau’s imagination or the rational market traders of a libertarian paradise but rather the spiteful and dangerous beasts of reality. Joseph de Maistre, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, argued that man is not inherently good but rather nasty and violent by nature, and it is through the authority of throne and alter we are made to be fit to live among. As much as the Earth Queen is a lacklustre leader, even her inept and selfish rule is better than the mad anarchy that comes of her reign, and in another quite telling scene as Bolin and Mako rescue their family from the collapse of the city their aging grandmother chooses to rescue only one item from their burning hovel, the image of the Earth Queen who she makes reverence to afterwards while praying for her soul to find peace.
Edmund Burke’s great argument against the French Revolution was that hasty, violent action should never be advocated, for once a course is taken it might easily destroy the fragile snowflake that is society. We are ultimately spiteful beings only constrained from acting on our baser impulses by the fear of the hangman, moral judgement and the continuity that is the assurance that authority shall always be there today, tomorrow and the next to punish those who deviate from the acceptable way. When that is removed the result is not paradise and freedom but the terror of the arbitrary violence of anarchy; it is Somalia or Libya not the promised land.
Legend of Korra’s third season quite effectively delivers this message, that the revolutionary (while well meaning) ultimately brings the edifice of civilization down upon both himself and those around him that he wishes to aid. Take away authority, custom, tradition, and law and what is left behind is a void, and that is the most dangerous thing of all. When you take away assurance and continuity from people, they are left with nothing but the fear of randomness and uncertainty. Living in such a state is intolerable, and the desire to escape it opens the door to all kinds of ugliness. A Sicilian corporeal can become an Emperor. A Georgian gangster can become a man of steel. A failed Austrian artist can be seen as a mad messiah. It is a lesson we have stubbornly failed to learn throughout history, and one driven home most excellently by this season of Legend of Korra.