The Legend of Korra: Book 4

“What am I going to find if I get through this?”
“I don’t know. But won’t it be interesting to find out?”

So I finally reached the end of The Legend of Korra. And while the story itself ended on a beautiful note, it was ultimately a season that started strong, but lost focus toward the end and as it succumbed to the show's biggest adversary yet... Nickelodeon.*shakes fist in the air*

Book 4: Balance

Book 4 picks up three years after the ending of Book 3. Republic City has changed – mostly for the better. People have found a way to peacefully coexist with the spirits. Meanwhile, our team has matured considerably. Asami has become one of the top industrial leaders in the city. Mako is now the irritable but loyal bodyguard of the soon-to-be-king Wu. Bolin works for Kuvira, the former member of the Metal Clan turned Great Uniter of the crumbling Earth Kingdom. And Tenzin and the airbenders have now become somewhat of a superhero troop (the Air-vengers?), making true on his promise from last season of helping those in need. Everyone is in a relatively good place, complete with dapper new hairstyles and outfits.

Everyone, that is, except…

Korra


In every fight Korra’s gone up against, she’s lost. Majorly. She lost her bending to Amon, the entire Avatar cycle to Vaatu, and everything that physically and mentally made her the Avatar to Zaheer. Korra's struggle this time is one of confronting those perceived failures head on, and, as Toph said, learning from them in order to become both a stronger person and a stronger Avatar. An Avatar that isn’t defined by the brute power of the four elements or of the Avatar state. One that can face conflict, both internal and external, with conviction.


I thought it was a really mature writing decision to have Korra’s psychological trauma continue even after her and Toph got rid of the poison. It would have been way too easy to have an original ATLA character come in and “fix” Korra. Having Zaheer himself be the one to ultimately help Korra was such a wonderful way to bring that arc to a close. There was something quite beautiful about seeing the cause of a character’s trauma be the same person willing to help them overcome it. In a way, Korra’s most important relationships throughout the show have been between her and her villains (this is one reason why Unalaq was such a weak antagonist in Season 2). Because at the end of the day, TLoK's villains have all been people with a desire to do good, but lacking the empathy to execute their visions with balance. Seeing Zaheer achieving some semblance of balance through Korra and vice versa added a whole new layer of depth to an already compelling character and helps better resolve his ending in Book 3. Korra finally accepting her past trauma is what ultimately gives her the strength to meet Kuvira not just physically, but emotionally.


Because both Korra and Kuvira are pretty evenly matched physically. It’s fitting that the element of the season was metal, because both women faced each other with ironclad resolves. Though I think we needed more of Kuvira’s backstory and interactions with Korra to merit the revelation that they’re both alike, I did like that the final battle, fittingly resolved in the Spirt World, ended peacefully. It shows just how much Korra's grown that she’s ready to confront a physical mirror of herself and meet it with compassion rather than aggression. So much so that instead of charging at Kuvira headfirst, she was instead willing to risk her own life to save hers.


I’ve seen this quote circulating TLoK social media threads, which I think describes Korra’s journey beautifully (non-verbatim): “Where Aang’s journey was about a human learning how to be an Avatar, Korra’s was about an Avatar learning how to be human.”

Characters That Got the Spotlight


Something that I love about this season was how it highlighted the show’s amazing female characters. From Book 2 onward, it seemed like the show struggled to give Asami a more substantial role beyond her immediate usefulness and badassery. So I was glad we finally got to see her play a more central part in the final conflict, both plot-wise and character-wise. I like that we got to see a much more assertive Asami this time. And while she had to do her own thing with Varrick apart from Korra and the team for a bit, I think this was a much better use of her character. Her ingenuity was what allowed them to get into the giant mech suit, and it was ultimately her willingness to forgive her father that allowed this to happen. I wish her relationship with Hiroshi had been explored more after Book 1 so it didn’t feel a little tacked on at the end, but it was still a pretty good albeit sad ending to that complicated dynamic.


Sharing the spotlight this season are Varrick and Zhu Li. I love the way this show flips the stereotypes on female characters. Zhu Li could have been the token submissive female assistant, but, like Asami, she ends up becoming probably one of the most capable nonbenders of this season’s huge team. She showed off her combat skills in true anime mech suit style and proved just how gutsy she is, sabotaging Kuvira's operation right under her very nose. As for Varrick, he really is just a quirky, sketchy guy who does have his morals set in the right direction. I like that despite how unpredictable Varrick is, he remained a surprisingly consistent character. The gradual build-up of their dysfunctional pairing, complete with the creation of spirit nuclear bombs, getting captured by a militarist dictator, and taking down an army of mech suits, was just the kind of thing you’d expect from a couple like them, and it turned out surprisingly sweet.


It was cool seeing all three generations of the Beifong family in action. The kids, especially Opal, stepped up in their own unique ways. We saw the different sides of Su as both the strong-willed leader and the caring mother. And her fight with Kuvira shows once again how awesome it is this show features women of all ages in action. Lin also gets a bit of closure with regards to her mother. And while that conversation about her father felt more like the writers saying it definitely is NOT Sokka (I see you, rabid Avatar conspiracy theorists), it was still nice to see the cold police chief willing to reconcile with that part of her past. And of course, it was a delight seeing Toph again. Since metalbending plays a pretty major role this season, she’s essentially seeing her bending legacy corrupted. I’m also glad she wasn’t overused. I didn’t need to see her take on Kuvira, because Toph knew very well that wasn’t her fight. Her saying “At some point, you got to leave it to the kids” was a nice nod to the GAang passing on the torch to the next generation.


I loved that we got an episode devoted to the three airbender children. Since our main Krew are all adults at this point, it would have been easy to discount the kids – except for new airbending master Jinora, of course. Of all of them, I’m glad we got to see Ikki step up and show the same calm under pressure that her grandfather would often have. Meelo also got his chance to shine as a pretty capable commander of paint balloons during the final fight.


Lastly, we have Wu. He was an amusing character in small doses, but after a while, his humor wasn’t really doing it for me. So it was a nice surprise that he ended up proving himself to be an actual capable leader. But as important as he was to the main plot, I still think we could have done without so much of him. Most of his screen time seemed devoted to emphasizing just how silly he is, and I'm pretty sure we got the hint after that pre-coronation Beyonce dance.

… And Those That Didn't

And herein lies one of my biggest problems with TLoK Book 4 – there were way too many characters. With this being the last time we’ll see all these guys in action, it felt like so much time was wasted that could have been spent giving them the proper resolutions to their arcs. Or any arcs at all, for that matter.


Tenzin, who had so many great moments in the past three books, really didn’t have much to do this season. His arc could have been one of coming to terms with the new generation of airbenders, and this change was quite visually conspicuous with the new airtight superhero-like uniforms. Sadly, Tenzin is just relegated to a supporting role, which is unfortunate, given what a wonderful character he is when written with a fully realized arc. And for all the build-up Kai and Bumi as airbenders got last season, they were similarly demoted to extended glorified cameos this time.


Most disappointing for me was how badly sidelined the fabulous gel-haired bending brothers were. There was a pretty juicy plotline set up when we see that Mako and Bolin are on opposite sides of the Kuvira conflict. We have Bolin at a really interesting place at the start of this season. After being dismissed and ignored a lot these past three seasons, he’s finally in a position where he feels like he’s making a difference. Then he realizes the cause he’s devoted the past few years of his life to might be the wrong one. But that personal conflict is quickly abandoned as he promptly returns to Republic City. After a fun sidequest with Varrick, all the possibilities of doing something more engaging with Bolin were quickly done away with. Like many subplots involving Bolin, it was treated with too much levity, which I think undermined any growth he could have experience. And I don’t think his and Opal’s relationship was a compelling enough motivation to carry his development through to the end, because even Opal had a more pressing motive to deal with. Bolin is undoubtedly the most lovable of this Team Avatar. But while he has matured, I don’t think he went through as significant a character evolution as he really needed.


Meanwhile, Mako gets it worse. Not only is he dressed like a hotel bellboy the whole season, he’s given practically nothing to do. He’s even completely missing in action during the first part of the mech fight. Like previous seasons, he starts off immersed in his work. But this time, we see him frustrated, stuck as a glorified babysitter to a spoiled and helpless royal. But that frustration he shared when he and Bolin met before the coronation wasn’t really explored any further. It feels like his arc was put to the side in favor of Wu’s, which was a pretty weird writing decision. And since that arc wasn’t really explored further, Mako’s near sacrifice in the finale didn’t feel all that earned. And that was unfortunate, because it was a pretty emotional scene. It could have been such a strong defining character moment and an emotional climax for his arc. It would have given the finale the sense of consequence I think it lacked. And while I’m glad he didn’t die, that scene would have had so much more depth if Mako had more development and we had gotten to understand just how far he was willing to go to protect the people he loves. At the very least, I did like that Mako grew as a character, albeit peripherally. I liked his newly strengthened platonic friendship with Korra. It showed how much they’ve both grown, and with that series ending, partly pays off the messiness of that infamous love triangle.

The Great Uniter


Another character arc lost this season is unfortunately that of our villain, Kuvira. Kuvira was the mysterious Zaofu guard sneakily introduced to us in Book 3. And for however little we know of her coming into this season, we can already sense there’s been a big shift in her personality. After Su declines the proposal to take up the mantle as the interim leader of the destabilized Earth Kingdom, Kuvira, along with Bataar Jr., abandons the Metal Clan and takes that role herself. It’s a pretty stark change, going from obedient background guard, to oppressive dictator, to tyrannical giant robot-wielding conqueror.


Kuvira represents earthbending philosophy taken to an extreme. She’s hardheaded, militant, and incredibly defensive of what’s hers. In this case, that’s the Earth Kingdom territory. Like Zaheer, Kuvira was immediately a very interesting character. Her blunt and harsh personality made for a pretty good reintroduction to this world after the time jump, emphasizing how much has changed in three years. Zelda Williams was really good as Kuvira. She brought the right amount of intimidation and menace when needed, but was also very charismatic as someone you understood was a powerful leader.

But while Kuvira started as a really intriguing and imposing antagonist, she fell short when it came to her backstory. I feel like the revelation that her desire to unite the Earth Kingdom stemmed from being abandoned as a child was enough to gain her sympathy, but still a bit of a stretch as far as motivations go. I think Kuvira would have been much easier to empathize with had we gotten to know her more in Book 3. Her rather forced introduction at the end of that season almost makes it seem like she had villainous motives from the start. It’s hard to try and connect with whatever made her turn on the Beifong family when we hardly know anything about that relationship to begin with. And I wasn’t invested at all with her relationship with Bataar Jr., so having her try to blast her devoted fiancĂ©e to smithereens did little to make her sympathetic. It’s clear the writers had plans to flesh out Kuvira’s character more, but budget cut upon budget cut likely buried those plans in the dirt.


It was easier to follow her villainous goals as the Great Uniter during the first half of the season. That being said, I still liked Kuvira. I liked how strong yet cunning she was. She had more depth than Unalaq, and if we had gotten that missing bit of character development outside of Kuvira the dictator, she could have been up there with Zaheer for me. Kuvira was still a worthy final opponent for Korra to face, and I liked that these two stubborn opponents ultimately helped bring the best out of each other.

Giant Robot, Oh My!

I really liked the way we were introduced to the threat this season. The Earth Empire's takeover of the state of Yi was subtle, but had very serious implications for the liberty of its people. I also think it was a pretty effective way for a kids’ cartoon to show militaristic imperialism at work. Like I mentioned in my review of Book 3, I think the best villains are those whose motivations you partially agree with, and Kuvira did in fact step up for the Earth Kingdom at a time when no one else was willing to do so. This was a well done set-up for the final big bad of the series, and it had me excited for what the finale would have in store.

... So imagine my ever-so-slight disappointment when all that nuance was thrown out the window by a giant robot with a giant laser cannon attacked to its giant arm.


That’s not to say it came out of nowhere. I really liked that idea of nuclear warfare set in this universe. I didn’t mind how different it felt compared to the typical fantasy fare we’ve become so used to. It was a fitting threat for a clearly modernized and evolved world. We started with modern technology countering bending in Book 1, so it seemed almost full circle that we would end with modern technology trying to harness even more powerful supernatural energy.

So with all that set-up in place, I kept on wondering why the final battle rung sort of hollow for me. It had all the elements of being an epic and emotional showdown. We had all the characters we’ve come to love uniting together to take down this huge platinum behemoth on the very streets they call home. But it felt like our huge cast, who should have had steep personal stakes in this battle, became merely supporting players acting out their respective roles. And because we had so many characters to worry about in the end, we had even less room to breathe and check in with everybody. Avatar has always managed to balance epic spectacle with emotion, and it’s always done that best with smaller scale, personal battles. The Day of Black Sun in ATLA Book 3, for example, was epic and had a lot of characters, but still remained emotionally engaging by grounding itself through its four main characters.


And I think that’s where this fight was sorely lacking. Aside from a rushed moment with his family, we got no emotional weight on behalf of Tenzin, who was fighting alongside his tiny children and seeing his own father’s legacy destroyed. Nothing from Lin, who devoted her whole life to protecting Republic City, which was being decimated before her very eyes. The only major emotional beat we got was Hiroshi’s death, but we were only given a split second to see Asami react to it before we went straight back into the fight. Like with the final showdown in Book 2, what we gained in scale, we lost in emotional depth.


Another thing that affected this sequence was the very conspicuously slashed production budget. For however ambitious the idea was, I don’t think what we saw onscreen completely gave it justice. Usually this show is pretty good at seamlessly blending 2D and 3D animation. And while for the most part, it did look pretty impressive, there were moments where the 3D looked rather awkward. I think the design of the mech itself could also have been a bit more intimidating and less generic robot. If it were significantly smaller, it could have passed for a token background droid that would easily get taken down by stray fire. A little more mayhem – smoke, rubble, trapped civilians – would have also help sell the “reality” of a giant robot wreaking havoc on a city. We also never saw the rest of Kuvira’s forces in action. Giant robot + smaller robot army would have been a lot scarier. And did the entire Republic City police force except for Lin and Mako decide to conveniently take a vacation at that very moment? Something tells me giant airships and metalbending spider-men cops would have come in handy.


But all that criticism aside, the whole battle was still pretty fun. And cool. I liked that everyone played a role in the fight. We had the airbenders and earthbenders working to slow the mech down in time for the nonbenders to pierce through its defense so that Korra could apprehend Kuvira and Mako could deliver the final blow. What I think worked with this over the spirit kaiju battle of Book 2 was that we got Korra and everyone fighting just as they were. No gargantuan power-ups of any sort. I also liked that for the final stage of the mech takedown, we got a much smaller group and returned to our good old-fashioned one-on-one fights. Apart from a few CG kinks, the animation was dynamic and fluid, and the score was really good. Had it felt like there was more emotionally riding on this fight, it would have been a worthy final battle to cap off the series.

That Ending


I had already known about Korra and Asami before watching the series in its entirety, so I didn’t share the same feelings of shock that rocked the fandom when the finale first aired. A lot of the criticism against the ending came from it seemingly coming from nowhere or having no build-up. And after finally seeing it myself, I was happy when I found that wasn’t the case. This was the first pairing in the show that didn’t begin with immediate romantic attraction. Korra didn’t even particularly like Asami when they first met. But I love the idea that their feelings for each other grew gradually and unexpectedly. Again, I love that this show subverts our expectations when it comes to female characters. Any other show might have had Korra and Asami become bitter rivals after the love triangle. But I really liked that they formed a closer bond that slowly became more meaningful and intimate throughout Books 3 and 4. Quite sneakily, the show made her and Asami getting together part of Korra’s journey of discovering who she is. What I think worked so well about that ending was that it didn’t feel like part of the culmination of Korra’s arc, but the start of a new one.


Bryan Konietzko gave this quote following the finale’s backlash: “If it seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero lens.” People can excuse Mako and Korra falling in love after only a handful of episodes yet have a huge problem with Korra and Asami slowly developing feelings for each other after two whole seasons. Would I have wanted more scenes with them together? Definitely, since a lot of that romantic development happened offscreen. But more for the sake of having more character moments in the show, especially for Asami.

As far as romantic ending for our Avatars go, I liked this even more than ATLA’s. Where Katara and Aang’s ending felt like a done deal since Book 1, Korra and Asami felt like the start of something new. Them symbolically walking together, hand-in-hand into the newly formed spirit portal didn’t feel like as grand and eternal a romantic gesture as Katara and Aang kissing. It was tender and subtle, yet no less loving, and Jeremy Zuckerman’s score drives home what a beautiful moment it is. It makes me happy knowing LGBT fans who watched this moment when it first premiered got to have that kind of representation (which although very understated, was still monumental for its time), and that more fans discovering the show now get to experience the same thing. No matter how many issues plagued The Legend of Korra, it will always have the amazing legacy of being the first Western animated kids’ show to majorly feature an LGBT couple.

Least Favorite Episode


Episode 8: Remembrances. So the story behind this infamous episode goes that Nickelodeon dropped a pretty serious ultimatum on the TLoK team: fire half of the entire production crew or do a clip show-type episode. Naturally, DiMartino and Konietzko went with the latter, despite being so against the idea as creators that Konietzko published a note on his tumblr explaining why they had to do this episode right after it premiered. All that drama immediately puts this episode on my least favorite list.

That being said... I didn’t hate it. What I think this episode did right is it showed us where three of our main characters were emotionally before the final few episodes. We get a tiny snippet into Mako's character motivations, as well as a glimpse into a much more entertaining Book 2 narrated by Varrick. Henry Rollins reprises his role as Zaheer for a brief cameo, and you can actually hear him laughing uncontrollably as he reads out his dialogue.

Favorite Episodes


Episodes 2 & 4: Korra Alone and The Calling. I consider these two halves of a pretty important part of Korra’s journey this season. Korra Alone is a fantastic episode following the manner of ATLA’s Zuko Alone, where we see the titular character go on an introspective journey to find themselves again after facing some life-changing challenges. I love that everything was from Korra’s point of view, especially her interactions with her friends and family. The letter scene was one of my favorite moments of the season. This was such a deeply personal story for the show to tell, and Janet Varney was at her series' best.

The Calling, meanwhile, did what I feel the franchise does best. It told a fun, character-building adventure that ended on a surprisingly emotional climax with Korra, surrounded by the three kids she’s watched grow up, mustering up the strength to face her inner poison droplet demons herself.

The Final Season


All in all, Book 4 was still a pretty good season. We got some great moments for our characters, an interesting villain, really cool action sequences, and best of all, a beautiful conclusion to Korra’s series-long arc. However, I don’t think the season lived up to the high standard set by Book 3. We started off on a pretty strong note with the first few episodes, but all that potential waned as we reached the midpoint.

I think my biggest issue with this final season is that it was the final season. The Legend of Korra was never going to have as neat a conclusion as ATLA because of its overall story structure, and that was fine by me. But I wish this final season gave us a more satisfying sense of closure for all its characters. This season's biggest oversight was bringing in so many characters while our main cast still remained very much underdeveloped. Except for Korra, I didn’t feel all that satisfied with the arc conclusions we got for this Team Avatar, mainly because their stories ended with us only having scratched the surface on who they really were. This season should have been just as devoted to tying up characters’ arcs as it was the plot, but by the last few episodes, things were going by way too quickly. We went from giant mech battle to happy wedding with barely any time to check on everyone, so much so that major characters like Lin and Bolin’s final scenes were either non-speaking or not even about them.

Had Book 4 taken more time to flesh out character, I think it would have been a much stronger and emotional final season. That being said, Korra’s arc still gave us some of the best moments of the entire franchise. And despite how flashy things got toward the end, I still really liked the heavy political themes this season tackled. It was still a good season. Not a great final season, but a pretty enjoyable one.

Final Thoughts


Was The Legend of Korra a worthy successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender? The rabid side of the fandom would say a big fat no. That it was an inferior franchise follow-up and was nowhere near as engaging as ATLA. It’s pretty obvious at this point that I had many issues with the show. I could write many an in-depth plot and character analysis and go for hours on how I think the writing could have been improved. (Fun fact: my initial draft of this review including notes was 20 pages long... I kid you not.)

My biggest issue lies in how it dealt with secondary character development. There’s a reason the most acclaimed episode of the Avatar franchise is The Tales of Ba Sing Se. Avatar does amazing spectacle like no other show, and yet where it's most memorable is how it deals with its incredible cast of characters. I really wanted to feel that same level of connection with TLoK’s, but it seemed like the show was more focused on driving plot forward over developing its core team. And this strikes me as odd, because in the latter seasons, it actually did tertiary character development pretty well, like we see with the Beifong clan and characters like Varrick and Zhu Li. But aside from Korra, our central team had either inconsistent or barely any meaningful development throughout the series.


Asami was a very promising character, yet it feels like the show at times didn't know how to give her a more important role. Mako had seeds of a much better character arc peppered throughout the seasons, yet the show seemed more keen on having him be either the cool firebender or the contrived romantic plot device. Bolin was a likeable character, but he didn't really grow emotionally throughout the show, and it seemed like a lot of stuff was just thrown his way by virtue of him being a fan favorite. The older team members fared better. Lin was great in Book 1, but that strong presence seemed to falter in later seasons. Tenzin was arguably the best written supporting character, which is why his greatly reduced role for the final season was pretty disappointing.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to say this was a disappointing Avatar sequel series. It wasn’t as neatly constructed nor had as memorable characters, but it did have the same genuine beating heart that shone throughout ATLA. It told the beautiful story of an eager young kid who has to deal wtih the fate of the world on their shoulders. And character issues aside, I still grew to love this motley crew we had four seasons to have some amazing adventures with. What we at least lost in character build-up, we gained in mostly tight plot development, and when the story each season kicked into full gear, each episode was pretty awesome. We got to see a wonderfully realized new world, truly epic action set pieces, and a gorgeous musical score that I think even surpassed ATLA’s. TLoK tackled some incredibly heavy themes for a kids’ show, and I think it did so really well given the time it was released. Despite the crazy development the production went through, we still got an amazing, enjoyable, and truly sincere show that, unlike a lot of sequel installments out now, wasn’t afraid to set itself apart from ATLA’s legacy.


I could immerse myself in stories from the world of Avatar forever. I’ll never tire of watching bending battles or feeling like a part of Team Avatar. I love that this universe uses such a grand fantasy premise to tell very human stories. The Legend of Korra is a different story from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but is every bit as ambitious and heartfelt.

I’ll miss Korra and this Team Avatar. I’m giving The Legend of Korra Book 4: Balance three and a half out five "things" and The Legend of Korra four out of five stars.

Mara Fabella is a visual artist, writer, retired martial artist, yoga practitioner, booper of cat noses, and lifelong lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Mara, big congratulations on finishing the show!

Mara Fabella said...

Thanks, Billie! This loooong review has been sitting on my backlog for a while, so I was finally able to finish it.