Legend of Korra Season 4: A Review
Concluding my review of Legend of Korra, I now turn my attention to season four, the conclusion. Looking back to the first and especially the troubled second season of the show, season four of Korra stands as a testament for how far the showrunners managed to come in a what was a very short span of time. While season three would have to stand as my favorite thematically and philosophically, from a purely storytelling perspective it still had some of the problems that plagued Legend of Korra in its earliest days (with both a slow start and a tendency to focus too much on side plots at times at the expense of the main plot). Season four has none of that, and still manages to also convey a very strong reactionary message, indeed it is best to see the last season as merely a continuation of season three, with the preceding season showing the immediate, raw damage of revolution and season four focusing more on the long-term consequences.
Season four begins with a time jump of several years into the future from where we left off in the last season. Republic City is thriving in a new era of peace, but unfortunately all else in the world is not well. In the aftermath of the Earth Queen’s assassination, Zaheer’s prediction proves prescient as the Earth Kingdom has fallen into total anarchy as each state sought to fend for itself while bandits and rebel bands ran wild across the continent. Mako has become the personal bodyguard of Prince Wu, the rightful heir to the Earth Kingdom throne living in exile in Republic City. Asami has successfully brought Future Industries to new heights of success and begun tentatively reconciling with her father, who has begun to realize the folly of his ways after years in prison. Bolin has become a member of the inner circle of Kuvira, a rogue metal-bender who has risen to power out of the chaos of the Earth Queen’s fall promising to reunite the disparate scions of the Earth Kingdom into one nation once again. Missing from all this is the Avatar (quite literally, Korra does not even appear in the first episode until the last few seconds – which largely went unnoticed by me the first time I watched it in a testament to the showrunners’ skill). Still highly traumatized by the events of season three, Korra has disappeared and is entirely absent from the brewing storm that is building.
When we first meet Kuvira, the antagonist of season four, on paper everything seems fine. She seems singularly dedicating to restoring order out of the anarchy that has gripped the Earth Kingdom, bringing food and protection to villages and towns that have been left isolated and alone. However it quickly becomes apparent that there is a nasty undercurrent to the wave that the “Great Uniter” (as Kuvira styles herself as) has been riding, and as she solidifies her grip on the Earth Kingdom she eventually deposes Prince Wu from the throne and declares herself ruler of the new Earth Empire. There is some debate among Avatar fans on which particular totalitarian ideology Kuvira represents. She rides around in an armored steel engine, fighting warlords that have sprung up in the aftermath of the fall of a somewhat antiquated monarchy (**cough**cough**Trotsky), and her rhetoric at times often takes a tone that would do Marx proud, arguing on the needs for all citizens of the Earth Empire to share their skills and talents equally for the good of the whole. She also shows a latent xenophobic bent, expelling or imprisoning non earth- or metal-bending residents of the Earth Empire, and pledging to reconquer the lands of Republic City (which originally had been part of the Earth Kingdom but were colonized by the Fire Nation in an ancient war before they were chosen as the site for the new United Republic by Korra’s predecessor Avatar Aang).
Ultimately, Korra makes the decision to not bother specifying whether Kuvira is a representation of either Communism or National Socialism, since the question is largely irrelevant. Both are simply different sides of the same coin; totalitarian ideologies that rose to power in the void that came about following the fall of the monarchies of Russia and Germany. Both prioritized the collective good over petty individual concerns. Both created scapegoats to whip up popular support amongst the confused masses (the Jews in one case and the elusive bourgeois capitalist in the other). Both were reactions to the rise to dominance of liberalism at the turn of the century, which ironically enough shared its fundamental flaw of assume an inevitable, progressive march forward to some utopian future. That is the evil of Kuvira; the evil of believing that anything can be sacrificed in the name of some glorious paradise on earth, the promise of which becomes an additive elixir when man is untethered from all that he once held as certainty.
In contrast to Kuvira’s slow reveal as a egotistical villain, Legend of Korra’s final season also presents us with the evolution of another character (in a markedly opposite direction) through the storyline of the aforementioned Prince Wu. When we first meet the rightful heir to the Earth Kingdom throne, Wu appears very much to be in the mold of his deposed and deceased aunt, except in his case he is if anything less intelligent and therefore more a figure of comedic ineptitude than menacing greed. The prince is entitled, shallow, and seemingly devoid of any concerns for anything beyond his own immediate comforts and pleasures. When Kuvira ultimately usurps the leadership of the Earth Kingdom – er – I mean Earth Empire, right out of under him at his own coronation, I’ll admit even I couldn’t help but feel she did kind of have a point. As a potential ruler, Wu as he initially appears is utterly unsuited for the role. However, what proves very interesting is that even as inept and bumbling as he is, Kuvira still sees him as a threat which she attempts to quite literally eliminate. She recognizes that so long as Prince Wu is alive his very existence poses the only real threat to her continued rule. Kuvira rose to power out of the void created by the fall of the Earth Queen, and the prince is the one person in existence who could challenge that by being the one figure which could serve as alternative symbol which the people of the Earth Kingdom could rally around.
For his part, the loss of his throne sparks the beginnings of a painful realization on Prince Wu’s part that he is undeserving of the throne he has simply assumed was his by birthright for his entire life. Following the aborted coronation the prince breaks down before Mako and admits that he cannot blame the people of the former Earth Kingdom for preferring Kuvira, and that he’s led most of his life shirking responsibility entirely. This is the beginning of a transformation of the character that unfolds for the remainder of the season. It’s not a particularly good transformation, I will admit. The character continues to mostly be played for comic relief, and the actor who plays him comes across as juvenile even when he is clearly trying to be serious and mature. However, for all the problems with its execution, it is clear that Wu’s storyline is supposed to be a coming of age where he gradually comes to terms with the realization that the people of the Earth Kingdom do not exist to give him his royal position, but rather his royal position exists to serve his people. This comes to a head in the finale where he personally takes charge of the evacuation effort of Republic City when it comes under attack by Kuvira’s forces, and risks his life to protect refugees from marauding Earth Empire soldiers. Of course this entire season’s worth of character development gets ruined in the last five minutes of the finale episode when Wu, having finally become the King he was meant to be, decides to simply turn the Earth Kingdom into a republic so he can pursue a singing career (where did that come from?), but I prefer to pretend that those last five minutes never existed.
So thus concludes, Legend of Korra, which for all its rough starts at the beginning – wait, am I forgetting something?
Of course I can’t conclude without addressing the final season’s biggest moment (which ironically lasted about all of five seconds), Korrasami! Legend of Korra officially gave us the first bisexual relationship on a mainstream Western cartoon. Predictably, this was controversial and I am actually a little surprised that Nickelodeon, home of the talking sponge with the square pants, let them go with this (in Japan, the ironic home of anime, I’m sure the reaction to the final would have been “eh, where are the tentacles?”). I’m not going to bother getting in to that in this review; suffice to say that those who have a problem with it will, and those who do not…won’t. Personally I’ve never cared much for identity politics one way or another. I’ll admit I’ve often rolled my eyes when television shows, seeking to be “progressive”, have made a big deal of stressing that a character is gay or Muslim or some other identifiable minority status only for it to ultimately contribute nothing to either the character themselves or the show as a whole. Such tokenism is ultimately pointless in my book. What I ultimately care about is that a relationship between two characters makes sense, has good chemistry between the actors, and contributes something to the story.
In the case of Korra and Asami, Legend of Korra manages to pass all three hurdles. Possibly because the showrunners were aware of the controversy this pairing would generate, the progression of their relationship is built very slowly and subtly over the course of the show and this works. It stands in stark opposition to the initial relationship between Mako and Korra; who from their first meeting are obviously intended to be paired off together with we the viewers left to try and piece together precisely why we are supposed to be rooting for two people who don’t work well together and seem to have nothing in common. With Korra and Asami, however, we are allowed to see their relationship actually develop as they face danger side by side, show increasing care and concern for one another, and ultimately come together as a couple. Indeed, given the overarching theme of balance that is emphasized over all four seasons of the show, the symbolism of the relationship between Korra, the ultimate embodiment of all four arts of bending, and Asami, who can be taken as an example of the abilities and potential for non-benders via creativity, intelligence, and bravery, forms an excellent conclusion.
So that is Legend of Korra. In addition to offering one of the most pro-reactionary messages I have seen on mainstream television, it was also highly entertaining. The show certainly had initial problems, but from its season two low point it managed to finally figure out how to make things work and from there on soared to phenomenal heights in my opinion. Indeed, its greatest strength was likely also its greatest weakness; its attempt to market itself to both a younger and older audience at the same time. The original Avatar actually had many of the same elements that were often complained about in Korra; an at times juvenile sense of humor, numerous side plots that had nothing to do with the main storyline, and a tendency for characters to regress and not show growth or development. However, since Avatar was quite openly aimed at children, older viewers were more willing to not see this as a problem but rather just par for course with a children’s show while in Korra, which marketed itself much more as a show for both adults and kids, they became flaws. I certainly at times wished that Korra was aimed solely at an adult audience, as it might have allowed the show to go places and do things with its various storylines that they simply couldn’t due to concerns about its younger viewership (am I alone in thinking Mako should have died in the finale as he took down Kuvira’s gigantic robot of doom? It might have been a kinder fate then leaving him to realize that two of his exes not only now prefer women, but each other). However, I also wonder if Legend of Korra could have been what it was if it were not a children’s show. Had it been a straight up drama, I cannot help but feel that some of its more stridently reactionary themes would have sparked a much greater backlash; whereas as a “children’s show” it was better able to simply fly under the radar, simply because the usual suspects in the SJW brigade probably were unaware of its very existence. Ultimately we will never know, but I still enjoy the show for what it is and what it stood for.