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How ‘The Legend of Korra’ Subverted Animated TV Norms

After Avatar: The Last Airbender won the hearts of kids worldwide, Nickelodeon invited the animated show’s co-creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, to develop another TV series. The result was The Legend of Korra, a sequel that ran from 2012-14. Set 70 years after The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra focused on the World of Avatar’s next generation. It explored themes that were even more mature than those of its predecessor, including social justice, post-traumatic stress, and reconciliation through differences.

The Legend of Korra culminated in a rarity for children’s television: two of its same-sex protagonists embarked on a relationship. At the end of the series finale, Korra and Asami Sato walked into the spirit portal hand-in-hand. It was a simple yet influential moment for LGBTQ representation. DiMartino took it as a compliment when Vanity Fair called it the “most subversive television moment” of 2014.

I’ve revisited The Legend of Korra many times since it finished. Re-watching the series made me realize that its storytelling was already subversive even before it ended with “Korrasami” (to use proper shipping terminology). Here’s how The Legend of Korra transcended the boundaries of animated programming for children.

Every Antagonist Had a Point

Amon and the Equalists from The Legend of Korra episode "And the Winner Is..."

Children’s shows often use cartoonish, one-dimensional bad guys, which makes them easy to dismiss. Thankfully, The Legend of Korra followed The Last Airbender‘s tradition of having well-developed antagonists. However, Korra’s enemies weren’t necessarily villains. As Toph Beifong told Korra, “Those guys were totally out of balance, and they took their ideologies too far.”

Nevertheless, each main antagonist had an underlying truth, as well as real-world inspiration.

Amon

The United Republic Council of Republic City only afforded political representation to benders while excluding non-benders. In response, Amon founded the Equalist movement to overthrow the city’s social class of benders. The Equalist ideology drew inspiration from Communism.

Unalaq

The Hundred Year War further isolated the Physical and Spirit Worlds. Unalaq hoped to reunite humans and spirits by re-opening the spirit portals. As a result, his nationalist-type desire to reunite the Northern and Southern Water Tribes caused a civil war.

Zaheer

Some citizens of the Four Nations saw their political leaders as tyrants. Zaheer joined the Red Lotus to eliminate world leaders and grant true freedom to all. The Red Lotus’s philosophy had its roots in anarchism.

Kuvira

The Earth Queen‘s death left the whole Earth Kingdom in chaos. As a result, Kuvira established the Earth Empire to make her nation strong and feared. Her political system invoked tenets of fascism.

Good antagonists must be grounded in reality. Otherwise, they become forgettable and lack impact. Even though Korra’s enemies hurt a lot of people, their misguided actions stemmed from actual problems. Part of Korra’s journey as the Avatar involved admitting she could learn something from her foes. Moreover, their variety of beliefs truly enriched the diversity of the show’s characters.

As a whole, when the bad guys aren’t 100% bad, you’ve got a story worth telling.

The Self-Deprecating Humor

Avatar-The-Last-Airbender-The-Ember-Island-Players

A clip show that regurgitates scenes from a series’ previous episodes can become tedious. However, one of The Last Airbender‘s most masterful episodes was “The Ember Island Players,” which practically reinvented the clip show tradition. The episode featured Team Avatar watching a play about themselves, a humorous setting that gave them new insights about their past experiences.

Initially, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino didn’t intend to make a clip show for The Legend of Korra. However, they were forced to do so when Nickelodeon unexpectedly reduced the show’s budget. Despite their limitations, the crew put its best effort into the episode. The final product, “Remembrances,” was spectacularly clever and fun to watch.

What I enjoyed about “Remembrances” was its self-deprecating humor. In the episode, Konietzko and DiMartino subtly acknowledged some of The Legend of Korra‘s shortcomings. One example was when Mako broke up with Asami in “Skeletons in the Closet.” Mako did so by saying, “I’m sorry things got so messed up between us. But whatever happens today, I want you to know how much I care about you.”

Legend-of-Korra-clip-show-Remebrances

I first watched “Remembrances” with a friend. When that Mako/Asami clip appeared, I looked at my friend (Hi Esta!) and said, “You know, that really didn’t feel like a break-up.” Right after that, the on-screen Tu and Prince Wu told Mako that his break-up with Asami was too ambiguous. Seriously, it felt like “Remembrances” read my mind! After that, it took several minutes for Esta and me to stop laughing.

It takes a rare kind of humility to poke fun at oneself. The fact that The Legend of Korra did so was amazing, especially for TV. Both of the Avatar series exemplify what clip shows should be: fun, insightful, and worthwhile.

The Unexpected Relationships

In 2015, I was fortunate to see Bryan Konietzko speak at a nearby college. During his talk, he joked that The Legend of Korra‘s most revolutionary couple was Zaheer and P’Li, a.k.a. Short Man and Tall Woman. Still, it’s true that many of the series’ romantic relationships were significant because they were unexpected.

Zaheer and P’Li subverted the expectation that in a heterosexual couple, the man needs to be taller. The series also gained some humor from Lin Beifong and Tenzin‘s past relationship. (Toph Beifong’s daughter dating Avatar Aang‘s son? I’m sure that made for some juicy gossip in the Republic City tabloids.) And of course, there was Zhu Li and Varrick. While conducting their wedding, Bolin called them the “longest of long shots,” mostly due to Varrick’s typical obliviousness.

Legend-of-Korra-Korrasami-2

As for “Korrasami,” that relationship added a whole new layer to the old Korra/Mako/Asami love triangle from the show’s first two seasons. As an addendum to the series finale, Konietzko and DiMartino both shared about how Korrasami came to be. Part of their process involved overcoming their assumptions that Nickelodeon would not be receptive to the idea. In actuality, though Nickelodeon had some limits, it allowed them to go forward with Korrasami.

I was one of many who was surprised at the pairing. It’s also meant a lot to me to see such a significant form of LGBTQ representation. Ultimately, The Legend of Korra proved that LGBTQ characters belong in children’s television.

The Hero Lost a Lot

Legend-of-Korra-Zaheer-almost-kills-Korra

Some mainstream storytelling hinges on the cliché that the hero always wins. That wasn’t true for Korra since she faced an endless series of defeats. In Book One, Amon nearly blocked Korra’s bending abilities. In Book Two, Unalaq and Vaatu severed Korra from Raava, the spirit of light. Even though Korra restored her bond with Raava, she permanently lost her connection to Aang and the other past Avatars.

Nevertheless, it was Korra’s struggle to overcome her painful losses that defined her life as the Avatar. After Zaheer nearly kills her in Book Three, Korra spends much of Book Four trying to recover. Instead of treating PTSD as a pop culture trope, the series used Korra’s journey to explore post-traumatic stress in a genuine and meaningful way.

Legend-of-Korra-Kuvira

It was not until her final battle with Kuvira that Korra finally finds meaning in her suffering. Because of her ordeal, Korra could truly empathize with Kuvira’s hardships, and she thus convinces Kuvira to willingly surrender. Later, Korra tells Tenzin, “I know I was in a pretty dark place after I was poisoned, but I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was so I could become more compassionate to others, even to people like Kuvira.”

Periodically, The Legend of Korra had a major focus on Eastern philosophies. Korra’s self-realization spoke to the Buddhist connection between compassion and suffering. It was a profound moment, and it never ceases to amaze me.

Rarely will you find an animated series as compelling as The Legend of Korra. It was a worthy addition to the World of Avatar, and fans will always treasure it.

Find out why The Legend of Korra’s Lin Beifong became an unlikely hero for me in my Catalyst to My Fandom article.

The Catalyst to My Fandom: Lin Beifong Became My Hero


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