Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Avatar: The Last Airbender just had too many things going for it. It started out as a relatively childish show which had a really mature story about the cost of war, which not only developed and grew as the series went on, but its character writing was so unbelievably strong that it could essentially work with just the dynamic between Iroh, Zuko, Ozai and Azula. That is why, when Legend of Korra came out, I was much more forgiving of it.
Well, that is not strictly true. I saw it first when I was about 12, so naturally, I kept comparing it to Avatar: The Last Airbender and not liking it that much. ATLA appealed to everyone while the sequel was designed for the late teens and adults to enjoy. Well, after 8 years, in my latest rewatch, above anything else, I see it as a tragedy of creation, especially after learning how much the writers had to compromise. Not delving much into that, it is still important to know that the vision Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko never truly came to realisation. Ever since then, I have wanted to make a series of articles where I give my positive reflections towards this show and see how their shortcomings can be re-written if no such barriers existed for me as a writer. Be vary that this is my opinion and purely subjective.
Narrative and characterisation goals
Before going into it book-by-book, I want to see TLoK as a whole. I cannot promise I will keep comparisons to ATLA minimal. Firstly, ATLA managed to keep the entire saga of Aang cohesive through the plot of the war. When watching every single episode, we are fully aware that the story will end as soon as Aang defeats the Firelord. Through this one simple and flexible goal, the show changed the world and the characters, most notable of which are Aang becoming a fully realised Avatar, Zuko becoming an honourable leader, Aang fighting for a compromise between the legacy of airbenders' pacifism and his selfless duties, and my favourite one of all, Iroh guiding Zuko towards his true legacy after losing his son to awful parenting that would send a child to fight in a war, one he tries to protect Zuko from.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing your story as you present it. It gives the writers more flexibility in character exploration and facilitates a soft-magic system. Something like ATLA has a plot endgame with whatever characterisation necessary, However, TLoK should at least have a character endgame with whatever plot progression necessary. If I get to rewrite the show, I would ensure I have character goals for Korra, Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, Asami and Jinora, the central characters of the show. Working backwards, Jinora's character arc is concluded perfectly with her earning her tattoos. Asami is the perfect character who can explore the moral ambiguity of the business world and can be a "lead by example" character for ethical and creative businesses. The show never takes Bolin seriously, which is one of its biggest shortcomings. A character's goals should match with her history and personality, and I think that Bolin's judgement is the characteristic to fix. From kissing an actress when she didn't want to be kissed to supporting a dictator, Bolin can make a great arc about independent decision-making and how he needs to grow.
Mako's a tragic character since his character arc was fulfilled right after the second book opened. Mako, a kid whose parent's were killed by firebending gangsters and who spent a part of his life working for similar gangs to support himself and his brothers deserved a redemption. He should have ended up in law enforcement. With his strong judgement calls and great bending prowess, he ensures that he can arrest people before something similar happens to another family, we have a Batman up here. After he became a cop, Mako remained an unchanging character for the remainder of the show. Tenzin had the impossible task of balancing the responsibility of carrying the legacy of an entire culture while discovering who he was independent of who Aang was.
Korra's character arc is the most difficult one to create. Unlike ATLA, which could create two entirely opposing character arcs and have two protagonists, Korra stands alone as the sole protagonist. To create her arc, we need to understand her past and her responsibilities.
After the Hundred-Year War, the world became rapidly industrialised, which created more and more friction between people in terms of their bending abilities, societal structures and class. While the world remembers Aang as having managed to overcome all obstacles and complete his part towards serving the world, the aftermath became Korra's responsibility. We learn that since Zaheer created an environment of fear around Korra's caretakers, Tenzin kept her as far from Republic City as possible. Korra was extremely skilled in three of the four bending forms and never learned of the political conditions outside of the Southern Water Tribe.
This also created a situation where the world became independent of her in a negative way. Without the hope of an Avatar to maintain balance, turmoil went relatively unchecked between different classes of people, and all of it comes crashing down on Korra once she reaches Republic City.
Korra, better than anything else, should be defined by choice. After losing her choice to the terror created by Zaheer, Korra's arc can be that of constant choice-making. As the Avatar, every choice she makes has major ramification and it is up to her to change the world in a way which will be faced with constant backlash. This will perfectly cumulate into one selfish decision she can make to make time for herself and get away with Asami.
One last thing I wanted to talk about is what I call the "Iroh eye test", and it originates from the fall of Ba Sing Se. Is there a dynamic in your story so strong that I can feel the level of heartbreak I felt when Iroh refused to look Zuko in the eye? If so, congratulations, you have created a piece of media which I will talk about forever, something that transcends fiction and affects the audience as strongly as it affects the characters. We will get to this later, first, let's start by looking at Book 1 of the show: The Amon arc.
Book One: Air
Out of the four seasons of the show, this is the one I have least to criticise about. The story does almost everything right when establishing Korra, and the story is perfectly linked to her character. Throughout her childhood, she has been hidden from the world and been made into a perfect fighter. After training with the three bendings over and over, she came to respect that power. Once she broke out of her monotonous routine and escaped to Republic City, she realised just how unprepared she is as an Avatar. This not only enforced her respect for her bending prowess even greatly, but it allowed her to realise how truly difficult it had to be for Aang to be the Avatar.
After associating her entire worth in terms of her abilities as a bender, the first true antagonist of the show felt the strongest since it played off of her greatest fear. Amon had the ability to take away bending, which would, according to her own belief, would turn Korra into absolutely nothing. After being crushed by the structure of Republic City, her physical strength is what allows her any control. Once she loses that, she can go back to hiding in the Southern Water Tribe.
I think it was a good decision to ensure Korra never even tries to go NEAR Amon. This idea was less about who a superior fighter is and more about how much Korra is unprepared for such a threat. While it perfectly seemed to handle confrontations really well, the show managed to create one of the biggest misuse of an ability: Chi-blocking.
Chi-blocking is an example of my biggest issue with the show: Escalation. While ATLA only had one chi-blocker, they characterised her as such a skilled fighter that it always came down to using creativity to defeat her. Now that every henchman is a chi-blocker, the creativity associated with countering the ability diminishes every time they go out like expendable fighters. If you want to keep chi-blockers as the henchmen, that's fine, but they should show respect for that power by defeating them in more creative ways.
You know what else is expendable? The love-triangle. I understand that Nickelodeon tried to target the show to teenagers, and they are suckers for romantic comedy and drama, but it did not lead anywhere either in the season or in the remaining show. It's removal also portrays how hollow of a character Mako is. The triangle should be replaced by some worthwhile characterisation for him and Bolin, while Asami can factor into Team Avatar through another avenue, perhaps as a fan of the Fire Ferrets, and the daughter of Hiroshi Sato afterwards. The show has some other characters which could be better used to explore the dynamic of romantic relationships, but that comes two books later.
Another storyline that seemingly went nowhere worthwhile was the pregnancy of Pema. While it could be that this was just for worldbuilding, given more episodes, an exploration into the dynamic of Tenzin's family could have been done. It is clear that Pema is an air acolyte but her responsibilities are more of those of a traditional mother. The show can afford to characterise her better, from her reason to becoming an air acolyte to how her studies as an air acolyte, responsibilities as a mother and her pregnancy are not an easy thing to balance, especially when Tenzin is also wrapped up with Korra's training and the instability in Republic City. The solution here is making more episodes, which is not just something the creators had any control over.
The most surprisingly likable character towards the end was Lynn Beifong. She didn't seem to be a deep character when the show started, but through character dynamics, backstories and her decision to sacrifice her bending to save Korra and Tenzin's family redeemed her as one of the finer characters of the season.
When I saw the season as a kid, I remember being far more invested in the lives of these characters, but not this time. This was because the episodes aired weekly, and I used to rewatch the episodes that had aired multiple times. That means that before the final third of the arc, I had seen the gang dynamic work many times through the same interactions. This time, however, I see that they wrote very few (albeit really well-written) dynamics between the cast. These character's need time to know each other, and we need time to see how they interact.
Not trying to make a hobby out of this, but ATLA not only had the advantage of far fewer characters, but also a lot more episodes per season. We KNOW just by watching season 1 that Sokka sees Aang like an annoying little brother whom he grows fond of overtime and even advices him smugly. We know this because we saw him giving relationship advice in The Fortuneteller, and we saw him return for Aang after feeling betrayed by him. We cannot establish a good relationship between Korra and Bolin.
This is just an example, there are many more character dynamics that need to be explored: most importantly, that of Korra and Asami considering that is our endgame. These dynamics are the heart of any story, whether it be The Twelve Labours of Haracles, Harry Potter or Star Wars. Of course, the show did explore the most interesting relationship, that of Korra and Tenzin. Tenzin is pretty much responsible for creating such an impatient teenager who is untalented in airbending and a spiritual failure. It was his responsibility to teach all of that to a young Korra, but he was never around. Now, he has to teach her airbending while also keeping her and his children protected from Amon.
The ending of the story is a mixed bag of extremes for me. It was pretty well-established that Amon has the intelligence to take over the entire city and plan for the upcoming war. The show even did something for it which I wish had been a pattern: gave him a really well-written backstory. The story established three characters: Yakone, Noatak and Tarrlok. All three of them had a single goal: take control of Republic City. Yakone used his natural gift of bloodbending to establish a criminal organisation in republic city and gain dominance. He was defeated by Aang who took his bending away. This created the motivation for Noatak to take over Republic City through what he knows to be the most absolute degree of power: taking away someone's bending. He became the revolutionist Amon who would purge away the power of benders and become the strongest force himself. This created an opportunity for Tarrlok to defeat Amon and rule the city by becoming its hero. The way these characters created opportunities for each other is some top-notch writing.
As far as the confrontation between Amon and Korra comes, I don't buy it. Absolutely nothing had changed between when she last saw Amon and then which should lead her to believe that she can confront him. I want to believe that Korra as a person changed and let go of her fears, but I don't think so. Korra hasn't become less reliant on her bendings, she hasn't acquired any other assets such as airbending, connection to the previous Avatars or the Avatar State. Through some more episodes of the Team Avatar, we could have witnessed Korra working better and better with Mako on her side, and have a stronger reason than a "feeling" to confront him, such as prior knowledge that Tenzin's family has been captured.
What I do appreciate the finale for is to actually fully disarm Korra. While the next scene may seem to be an ex-machina, I don't fully buy it. The previous show established through the earthbending training that Aang, after witnessing Sokka in a critical situation, managed to overcome his block and act like a real earthbender. Similarly here, Korra had the training and the form, what she needed was the push over the edge so that she could save Mako.
Now, as she seemingly drowned Amon, I thought this could have been her moment of growth, and a perfect one at that. She is face-to-face with a crowd that hates her and her bending has been stripped away. Much like in ATLA, Aang got his moments of impatience where he refused to compromise what he thought was right, this could have been the moment the ill-tempered Korra channels understanding and compassion as she addresses the crowd about how she, through her experiences over the last few weeks allowed her to understand the importance of balance, and how she WILL take the responsibility to ensure that benders stop bullying and victimising non-benders. A lot more could be done here to create some personal growth for Korra, but we don't have anything here. This finale has been a rollercoaster of writing quality.
Jumping back to what something that was done well, we see Amon losing his people and his title and returning to the brother that he has abused, disarmed and jailed. Not Amon, Noatak comes to his brother, believing that the two of them together may plan a more successful takeover later. Tarrlok, however, is tired. He accepts his brother's offer to run away on a boat, where they reminisce about the time when their live were perfect, the "good times" as Tarrlok remembers them. Bringing a tear to his brother's eye through the overwhelming rush of positivity and nostalgia, Tarrlok ends his family legacy there.
Back at the Southern Water Tribe, Katara fails to heal Korra to bring her bending back. She responds to Mako to tell him to go back to Republic City now that he has no merit following her orders, while implying that he has no reason to be with her romantically now that she has lost all her value. She runs to a secluded place to cry, only to have Aang unlock energybending.
I remember thinking that this was a copout ending and she shouldn't have gotten her powers back, but now, I think that is not the problem. Korra's character arc should have been about how she is much more valuable than her bending abilities in the three forms she has mastered all her life. Korra is defined by her bravery, her leadership, her self-sacrifice, her compassion towards her friends and family, and her newly developed patience. This idea was not explored in this ending. While it is absolutely understandable that Korra mourns her former abilities here, without a closure to the arc she should have had, we will always find this ending to be worth criticising.
The next arc has a lot more fixing to be done.