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Why <em>The Legend of Korra</em> Is the Most Important Thing (Not) on Television

Why The Legend of Korra Is the Most Important Thing (Not) on Television

In the final arc of Avatar: The Last Airbender, trickster-hero Aang meditates on his unwillingness to kill even his greatest enemy, a genocidal megalomaniac with plans to burn an entire continent. Consulting with his past lives, he grows increasingly distressed as each pushes him towards decisive action. Yangchen, a previous Avatar and Air Nomad, is his last hope for validation. Her response is kind-hearted but knife-sharp:

“Many great and wise Air Nomads have detached themselves from the world and achieved enlightenment. But the Avatar can never do it, because your sole duty is to the world. Here is my wisdom for you: Selfless duty calls upon you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world.”

Mic drop.

I’ve always liked those words, their weight and heft, but my greatest disappointment with the original Avatar series–The Last Airbender–was the way in which it made a lie of them. Faced with a difficult choice, Aang gets an out. A lion-turtle (the last lion-turtle?) teaches him how to take the Fire Lord’s bending away, and despite a stunningly choreographed battle, The Last Airbender ends with the whimper of an all-too-easy deus ex machina.

In this Golden Age of Television (a phrase I bandy about as much as possible, chiefly to annoy Bradley), the currency of choice is irony. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones–each is composed primarily of irony, ready to embrace a world of complication, of hurt.

But then, somewhere in between the childishly earnest and the exhaustingly grim, there’s The Legend of Korra. In the original plan, there was only going to be one Book (think seasons, but also not, because animation is its own ballgame) of Korra, and while “Air,” the show’s freshman effort, brought the world of Avatar into an era of jazzy steampunk style, it is no small favor (and no small miracle) that “Air” has been joined by three more Books: “Spirits,” “Change,” and (as of today) “Balance.”

A female lead in a high-concept martial arts show. A female POC (person of color), at that, joined by a diverse cast and buoyed by stories rooted in class warfare, zealotry, anarchy, and spirituality. Expensive and time-consuming to produce, seemingly impossible to monetize properly, and ultimately housed on Nickelodeon, a network built for an entirely different demographic.

There is no reason Korra should still be kicking, about to enter its final chapter, except the show’s own self-apparent quality. Impressed by “Air,” Nick executives ordered three more Books–two seasons, in production terms–and then proceeded to shit the bed. “Book II: Spirits” ran Saturday mornings, but Korra’s primary fanbase–young adult cable-cutters–chose en masse to watch it streaming on In recognition of this, the channel generously offered up the finale of “Spirits” on streaming a week before broadcast, and from there…

It’s deceptive to characterize Nick’s handling of that finale as generous; after a season of plummeting ratings, it was better to burn off Korra–appeasing the diehards in one swoop–and cut their losses. That strategy has since dominated the show’s fate; after a bungled launch, “Book III: Change” premiered with a week’s notice and little to no advertising; halfway through the season, it was moved to streaming exclusively. Today, barely a month after the finale for “Change,” will begin streaming Korra’s final Book, “Balance.”

It almost seems thematically appropriate, given that the dramatic thrust of Korra’s story has been that of someone whose world has outgrown her. A common refrain among even the show’s most faithful viewer is that Korra suffers from a lack of cohesion; given that the show was originally conceived as a tightly-plotted miniseries, this seems like a fair assumption, but Legend of Korra in fact contains a strong thematic arc–not just Korra’s maturation, but Korra’s exploration of a single question–does the world still need an Avatar?

From the first time we see her as a precocious bending savant, Korra is supremely comfortable with the role that fate has given her.

“I’m the Avatar,” she says, “you’ve gotta deal with it.”


But between there and now, the start of “Balance,” we’ve seen Korra threatened by terrorists and god-like spirits, zealots and tyrants. At the end of “Change,” her mentor Tenzin proudly declares that while she recovers from her poisoning at the hands of the Red Lotus, the Air Nomads will follow her example, wandering the world and serving the people. But far from being the comfort Tenzin expects, this declaration seems to be one last stab in the heart for a fragile Korra–the world, she seems to think in that last, tearful moment, has finally passed her by.

It’s a modern world, by most any definition. The Last Airbender was picturesque, timeless–save, perhaps, for the Fire Nation and its pockets of industrialization. Korra’s world, however, is explicitly not timeless: It’s got urban sprawl and steampunk weaponry; jazz and cars and radio. We can see the trajectories it seems most likely to take, the sequence of events that starts with Varrick’s “movers” and ends with the Internet. Gods and superheroes tend to complicate modernity, and somewhere on that scale, we find Korra, struggling to remain relevant.

I’m excited to see where “Balance” finally weighs in on the topic. Unlike Aang, Korra faces legitimate consequences to her actions. Where the original series was happy to gloss over the big, ethical questions with a too-easy ending, its successor has shown just how messy resolutions can actually be: the Earth Kingdom is in the throes of what I can only suspect will be a civil war, the Spirit World is inexorably linked to the physical, and Korra is more vulnerable than she has ever been before, wounded and winded and weary.

In The Legend of Korra, people die.

In the past season alone, we’ve seen characters asphyxiated, electrocuted, immolated, and…well, that thing with P’Li’s head and the explosion. And I don’t offer that up because it’s some obvious virtue; a story can be mature without death, but there is a very special kind of maturity that does come with death. Aang was a child dealing with an adult’s problems; Korra is an adult facing down her own mortality.

And all of this ignores the show’s obvious strengths–the compelling characters, the stunning animation, the kinetically-charged and always-inventive action scenes. More than anything else, the music–oh, the music. Incorporating traditional pan-Asian instruments and Jazz Age brass, the music of Korra can be plush, speakeazy comfort one moment and simmering spiritual illumination in the next.

Even the setting of Korra is more powerful than it has a right to be. Borne on the back of an overly simplistic idea like elementally-themed nations–an idea that lesser properties have mined without a tenth of Avatar’s verve, style, or authenticity–the series shouldn’t work. But the stereotypical shorthand is just that–shorthand–and the show’s creative team inject both variety and detail in order to flesh out what could have been a pulpy premise.

I keep returning to the idea that Korra shouldn’t work, but every time, I become more and more glad that it does. We need more shows that can bridge the gap between the earnest and the ironic, the hopeful and the grim. Neil Gaiman, writing about Terry Pratchett, recently said that Pratchett was often angry “…at those who think serious is the opposite of funny.” That’s at the heart of The Legend of Korra: seriousness and humor, action and stillness, darkness and light.


Today, the show’s final book–and, in all likelihood, the franchise’s final animated outing for the near-to-mid future–will premiere on, with little official fanfare, but a strongly mobilized and dedicated fanbase have made Balance’s premiere trailer Nick’s most-watched video on Youtube by a factor of nearly 10. On Reddit, fans have banded together to advertise through social media and beyond, hoping to draw an audience for the all-but-orphaned show.

If I have one regret for the show’s move to streaming–by most accounts, a sensible move motivated more by business than malice–it is simply that it makes it that much harder to stumble upon. However the legend ends, Korra will live on in DVDs and streaming for years to come, introduced to its new audience one friend at a time. My nephew–ten now, and a bit tender-hearted–was a great fan of Aang; a few years from now, when he’s ready, we’ll sit down and share The Legend of Korra.

Featured image via Bago Games


Elliott Freeman
Elliott Freeman is descended from French pirates and Welsh layabouts. His writing career peaked at the age of nineteen when he wrote a paragraph about unhygienic sex atop a lake of mercury. Despite his best attempts at apathy, his friends often drag him to enjoyable football games.