First of all, let’s establish what was great about Legend of Korra: the setting was great, the voice acting was great, the music was good to great, and the animation was great. Most things about this show were great. I don’t regret watching it. But it was such a letdown in what I consider to be the most important aspect of shows I watch – writing – that I have to comment on why I think that.
A year or so ago, I heard the Legend of Korra was only featuring the two creators, and not the entire staff of writers. Fans took this to be good news, as it would trim the fat from TLA, which the other writers were responsible for. I saw a huge red flag. You don’t fix something that isn’t broken. If any other show said, “OK, we’re coming back, but we’ve lost over half of our stupendous, award-winning writing staff” I would be more than highly alarmed and skeptical. Writing is a process, and you never know what that process is until you’ve seen the dynamics in person. Even novels, which are highly personalized works (and of which I’ve published nine), require other sets of eyes before they get published. A good novelist doesn’t trust their own opinion. They’re too in love with their work and if they’re good, they know it. Group writing or television writing often requires, for sustained work, a tremendous number of voices, even if some of those are just sounding boards. I’m not saying TV shows can’t be written by two people, I’m just pointing out that TLA wasn’t.
When I was in love visually with the first two episodes, a more skeptical friend of mine (also a career writer) pointed out a major problem in the narrative: it didn’t compare to the more exciting but less polished opening to TLA, and he lost interest. In many ways, he was right.
“The Boy in the Iceberg” – Over 44 minutes, we’re introduced to the things we need for the rest of the series: the main characters, the setting, and the plot. In a world where some people have magic elemental powers, the evil Fire Nation has tried to take over the world, and has almost succeeded because the Avatar has been missing. Two downtrodden Water Tribe kids find a mysterious boy. Over the two episodes we learn that the boy is the Avatar, that he’s being hunted by a mini-boss, whom he defeats, and he begins his quest after this small but memorable victory, aided by his two friend who have distinct personalities. There’s a tremendous amount of world-building to do, but it gets done in this mini-movie, and we meet the majority of the “good guy” cast that we’ll be rooting for in the finale, even though we don’t know it yet. Most importantly, the two conflicts of the show are established:
- Aang must master all four elements
- Aang must defeat the Fire Nation
Things will come up over three seasons. There will be more characters to care about or dislike. People will change sides, develop, and mature. There will be so many story threads that in the massive final battle, things will be spread out over four distinct locations and take four episodes. But in the end, Aang masters all four elements (enough of them anyway) and defeats the Fire Lord. If you came in for the last episode after missing everything but the first, you would understand what was going on. You would recognize people.
This is called good plotting.
“Pilot/A Leaf in the Wind” – I’m counting this as the 44-minute premiere because they aired together and also were leaked together, though I do acknowledge it was two stories over two episodes.
The basic structure of the first episode rests on our knowledge of TLA. The narrator makes references to awesome events that happened in the past in the opening segment, and characters continue to reference somewhat obscure things (like Zuko’s mom and the Bei-fong last name) that are going to pass by new viewers. We’re introduced to Korra, and a lot of other people whose origins aren’t explained (the White Lotus society, Katara) for newcomers. We learn she is not in touch with her spiritual side and must master airbending, but there’s only one airbending teacher in the world, and he lives in Republic City. He reveals that he’s too busy to train her because of some tense situation that is never fully explained at any point in the episode or arguably the series. Korra travels to Republic City, where she learns about various plotlines that we think are going to be important but are not – the Triads, the angry policewoman who’s going to constantly watch her back in a bad way but isn’t, and the non-evil, politically-relevant Equalists who are definitely going to stay that way.
Amon is introduced. This is giving a lot of credit, because he actually isn’t. We don’t learn anything about him and he’s not part of the episode except to clue the viewers into there being a bad guy in town. Korra doesn’t learn about him and won’t for another two episodes. Nobody knows about him and he hasn’t done anything yet. Then he’s not even in the second episode.
Speaking of the second episode, Korra is so bored with the one conflict she has so far (she must master airbending) that she runs off to watch sports. Because that’s what we want our main character to be – bored, instead of being involved in a conflict. We are introduced to pro-bending, a sport we’re going to have to sort of figure out on our own (or read about the rules on the complex Nick website), and two character we’re assuming are going to have arcs, Bolin and Mako. Mako’s arc – that he’s going to eventually be in love with Korra after initially disliking her – is revealed in the final shots. Bolin, as it turns out, has no arc.
So we’ve gotten as far into the show as TLA, and what are our conflicts?
- Korra must learn airbending
Seriously, what is the main conflict of the show? Clearly Amon, but we don’t know that yet. We also don’t know who he is or what he’s really doing or how he’s really doing it until the finale. Are the Triads a main conflict? No, they get taken out in the third episode Is airbending? No, that seems to do nothing and then resolve itself. Is corruption a main conflict? That’s not something Korra can really fight, even if she was a fully-realized Avatar. Is it inequality? No, that turns out to be another red herring, as inequality is never actually shown to be a problem. We’re just told about it and then we find out the equalists are terrorists. I’m not even throwing bloodbending in because we’re going to have to wait half the season to even hear about it.
To be fair to Korra, she bumbles through the entire show from fight to fight, usually losing, because she has no clear goal. The world hasn’t provided her with one on a show that’s about martial art mixed with magic, so should essentially be fighting-based. But she’s also pretty stupid. Even when there are hints of something, like Amon visiting the spirit world, or blood benders in the past, she doesn’t research them to find out more. Neither does anyone else who should know better. No one ever discusses where Amon might come from and how he does what he does. They just shrug their shoulders and say, “But nobody can do that!” and keep fighting. No wonder they lose all the time. They’re amazingly idiotic characters.
Let’s address the central problems of the rest of the show:
Amon remains an unclear villain, and no one attempts to address this. I’m not saying that Ozai was astoundingly complex and Aang’s choices didn’t all involve somehow beating Ozai into a pulp with bending, which is what he did, even if it wasn’t his finishing move. He didn’t need to be. Lots of villains who are heads of large empires that have unfinished wars want to rule the world, in real life and in fiction. Aang knew enough about him in the pilot, and anything he learned along the way was because Zuko was a character. Clear conflict is good writing. It gives the main characters and the audience something to hope for. Legend of Korra establishes early that Korra isn’t ready to fight Amon, but it isn’t clear why, or what she would do if she fought him. The only reason he schools her in the fight battle is because he cheats rampantly. What does Korra have left to do? She’s mastered three elements. Is airbending really going to help her that much? If he needs to be pushed off something, can’t she do it with another form of bending? Nor does anyone else try to provide her with another answer. No one discusses if he’s a bender or not, if he should be arrested or killed, if there’s anyone in the city could give them more information. The police raid a couple houses but sure don’t do a lot of investigating. In the end, Korra learns Amon’s backstory only by running into someone who knows it on another mission and defeats Amon only by luck.
The equalist conflict is not well-definited. The main “shades of grey” of the equalist argument is that benders are oppressing non-benders. We’re never given any evidence of this. In fact, we’re given plenty of evidence in the opposite direction. In the TLA universe, a lot of hierarchies were filled with non-benders. Hakoda was not a bender. The chief of the Northern Water Tribe was not shown to be a bender. The Earth King was not shown to be a bender. Two high-ranking members of the fire nation, the old women, were not benders. In the Korra universe, we see that council membership is not based on being a bender, as non-benders are in previous councils. The richest man in the city is not a bender. Meanwhile, we’re shown examples of bender poverty – Bolin and Mako living on the streets and not being good for anything other than bending. The Triads essentially being people like them who choose to do crime using bending because it’s their only economic opportunity. Benders also contribute tremendously to society with actual bending, with the power plant, and I’m assuming the construction of every stone building everywhere. It seems that if you took away bending, you wouldn’t change the social structure but you would lose more than you gained. Plus, getting rid of the current generation of benders via Amon wouldn’t remove the next generation, as non-benders and former-benders can give birth to benders. Bending is something that naturally occurs in the universe. That’s going to be hard to get rid of. Amon’s long-term evil plan, which is what the equalist movement is revealed to be, has no long-term potential unless they don’t allow anyone to have children.
Most of the character do not have arcs. In TLA, every important character had an arc, even if it was only to go from an ambitious firebending noble to being totally insane. I don’t recall a character we met for more than a few episodes who didn’t have an arc with challenges that they either met or were defeated by. In Legend of Korra, the arc of most characters seems to be “learn how to avoid chi-blocking weapons.” Korra, the main character, learns very little. She wants to be an airbender who beats everyone up, and in the end she becomes an airbender who beats everyone up. She charges into every situation with little or no plan to the very end, and when it seems like she might actually have to pay a steep price – the loss of her own bending – she is miraculously saved by Aang. Mako’s arc remains what I thought it was going to be in episod 2, admitting his feelings for Korra, though to be fair along the way he also learns to be oblivious to the needs of his girlfriend, which is realistic but doesn’t make him a very likeable character. Bolin has no arc. His bending doesn’t even get better. He remains the same character we met in episode 2. Asami has an arc of some kind, but in the end she’s mostly there to get cheated on and not betray everyone anyway. Tenzin and Lin have a minimal arc of becoming friends again after years after squabbling, but otherwise they remain consistent. I could go on and on, but you get where I’m going – there is no development for the central characters.
The only person with a real arc is Tarlokk, who goes from being ambitious to being evil to redemption through ultimate sacrifice. Unfortunately, he’s a latecomer to the series. Not super-late but he’s not there in the opening gate and he’s defeated almost as quickly as his intentions are revealed, and not by our hero. He seems like a decently-written character but we don’t get time to get invested in him.
Meanwhile, the show coasts on fanservice. We get hints at the fates of characters we know and love from TLA and we get hyper over them because we’re still more interested in them than the characters we see every episode. This is a bad sign. That a new Zuko has to come in and kick ass in the last two episodes of the season means other characters weren’t pulling their weight. There’s no reason within the narrative of Korra to care that Iroh II gets scarred or gets saved by “Aang.” This just a callback. That it is universally agreed by fans that Bumi was a highlight of the finale – the FINALE – despite us knowing next to nothing about him that we didn’t get from a website and not the actual show is also bad writing. People who haven’t seen TLA would just see a new character who appears exciting introduced with seven minutes or something left to the entire season and say, “Where has that guy been? Are we going to see any more of him? No? Oh, OK, I see we’re out of time. Forget about him then.”
Ultimately, you get a very confusing show, with a lot of missteps and characters killing an episode doing nothing because they have nothing else to do to advance the story until a bad guy does something. You get a lot of red herrings, or things that become super-relevant for a couple episodes (like probending) and then get tossed out as soon as the plot shows up again. You get a lot of characters who do not grow or learn. You get a lot of happenstance instead of planning. And you don’t’ know what to make of the last five minutes, even if it makes you cry. I started tearing up when Aang showed up, and then the episode was over. I wasn’t even done forming my first tear. What the hell was that? I had to go and rewatch the last two minutes just to finish feeling what I was feeling, which was not long enough to process that it didn’t make much sense. Removing someone’s bending (or restoring it) was never explained. Korra’s spiritual breakthrough was never explained where Aang’s was crystal clear. Why the hell the other Avatars would help her out while she was crying in the South Pole and not when she was getting debended by Amon (which seems more important) remains a mystery. Why she suddenly learned to airbend remains a mystery. Aang did achieve the Avatar State after seeing Katara in trouble because of his love for her, but it actually took them a couple combined episodes, including that one, to figure out that the Avatar State could simply be triggered by rage, loss, or self-defense, and Korra was angry, upset, and defenseless a lot of the time. The in-world explanation that she learned airbending by being in love with Mako falls flat to me.
A lot of people will defend this show either by saying it’s a kid’s show so it shouldn’t be overanalyzed, or it has mature adult plotting so there should be shades of grey and not just a bad guy to beat up. Both of these arguments fall flat. Any good show should have a strong, clear conflict and good plotting.
Take The Wire, of which I have seen the first two seasons. It’s revered by many people as being the best-written show of all time, but at it’s heart it’s a show about cops and robbers. This is not to diminish it at all. There are good guys and there are bed guys, and we see the central conflict between them in the first episode of each season and see it resolved in the final episode of each season. The good guys win but they lose a lot along the way and they give up their ultimate goal in service of achieving anything at all. The bad guys take loses but some survive with their skin intact. Both sides have complex characters who contain both good and bad in them and are in conflict with themselves. The cops fight not just bad guys but corruption in their ranks, obstinacy in the system, and their own alcoholism and failed relationships. The robbers face violence, death, economic woes, and the general feeling of being unable to escape their own self-ordered fates. You’re constantly on edge, but you’re not lost.
Legend of Korra doesn’t have that. It has clear good, ambiguous evil, but it hits a lot of walls with plot, conflict, and character depth – walls it didn’t hit in The Last Airbender because no matter how strange or violent or silly it got, everything was in service of the basic narrative of good vs. evil. Even though the ending was predictable from day one, we cared deeply about how they were going to go about doing it, and even when they were flailing in the dark, they had an endgame that was clear and consistent. Legend of Korra had no such thing.
I’m not going to let Nick’s ordering a second season mid-production excuse any of this. We don’t know when negotiations began, but we do know they were given 12 episodes to construct a narrative that should be self-contained just in case there wasn’t another season, and they didn’t do that. You can leave plenty hanging and still finish your story.
Since Mike and Bryan are good at learning from their mistakes, hopefully they were make a much better season 2, but until I see it I’m going to remain a little skeptical.