(There will be spoilers)
Here’s how watching the third book of The Legend of Korra went for me. I watched the first episode a long time back and a little bit of the second, and gave up because I wasn’t paying attention and there was nothing to make me pay attention. Fast forward to Wednesday where I was thinking “okay, yeah, time to get back on the horse” and stuck on episode two from the beginning. My intent was to watch an episode or two so I could do this as a two episode a go watch through.
Next time I know I’m thinking “huh, this is a long episode” and Netflix asks me if I want to keep watching. Episode Five just ended (no credits is one hell of a drug). I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay than “your show made me think an hour was twenty minutes”. Now, sure, I may have spent some of that time complaining to a friend but even so, wow. I then binged the rest of it over the following twenty four hours or so.
Book Three: Spirits is some good television. However, I do have a lot of bones to pick along with compliments to give. Let’s start the beginning.
Doesn’t Work – First Episodes:
At this point I’m wondering if any show has ever rivalled The Legend of Korra for its willingness to dispense with telling a story in the first episode of a series so that they can squeeze in a bunch of plot foundation for the whole thing. Now that we’re three for three on this, I don’t know whether to be exasperated or meh or grumpy or what. I guess it the showrunner’s thing at this point but I don’t like it and I don’t see how it adds to giving me the story they want to give.
Consider this. The things they’re trying to set up are That Airbending’s back; There’s a big bad named Zaheer; the return of the Spirit World is causing problems which make Korra leave the city; and Just A General Update on Folks. They do this by having Korra try to fight the Spirit World, fail, and then tell the President tough crap and she’s leaving; having Bumi become an Airbender; having a new Airbender (Daw) commit crimes in a panic bringing in the police (and Mako); and then Zaheer. I’m probably missing some stuff. It’s a lot of stuff. It’s not much story.
Why not concentrate on just Daw for the first episode? Construct a story around Korra trying to clear up the spirit stuff* and Daw getting in the way, getting the police involved due to crimes, and so on. That gives Korra a chance to have a proper little adventure. Then at the end, as they’re getting excited about the prospect of more airbenders, have them wonder about who else is one – and show Bumi and Zaheer. You lose some of the stuff with Bumi and his family, but you can shove that in later episodes. Or just lose it. I’ve gotta say, the idea of showing the excitement Tenzin and kids (okay, kids) have over Bumi being an Airbender juxtaposed by how big an issue it is for Zaheer to have it really appeal to me now I’ve thought about it.
*I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what difference having the spirit stuff in or out of the first episode would matter now I’ve seen the twelfth.
Does Work – The Overall Arch:
I spent more or less the whole series wanting to know what happens next. That’s a big ol’ tick.
What works about it, particularly in comparison to the preceding two series? I think giving Korra and friends a big serious goal that didn’t involve Zaheer for a lot of the series was smart. It allowed for a slower unfolding of the plot and meant there was less time spent excusing why they hadn’t worked it out yet. It also allowed them to demonstrate how dangerous Zaheer and his friends were without causing a bit of whiplash at how easy someone lost one fight and won the other.
A lot of it came from simply finding Zaheer more interesting than Amon and Unalaq. Amon and his Equalists were too faceless. Unalaq and his family were too cartoony. Zaheer and the Red Lotus aren’t masterpieces of villainy, but they have personality and pizzazz.
I also like the idea of rebuilding the Air Nation and how to deal with this upheaval more than I liked whatever season two was, or Korra running around being headstrong in season one. It’s a better, more interesting goal. It’s one with a push and a pull, one that’s clear but can hook into other things. It also works well with the theme given in the title – Changes. I like spending more time in the Earth Kingdom too. These were things I said I wanted to see when talking about the first episode – now I get to see them.
Doesn’t Work – Plot Convenience
I’m a big believer that people start seeing plot holes when they’re not on board with the plot. But sometimes they’re really glaringly obvious and drag you of the story. Point in case:
The first Airbender they find willing to join, Kai, is a dodgy one. They take him anyway because they’re big hearted heroes and desperate. Mako’s the only suspicious one. He warns Kai that he’s watching him.
The very next episode, Kai sure enough runs away to go thieving in Ba Sing Se. How does he cope with the experienced policeman and former street urchin who said he’ll be watching him?
He doesn’t. Just goes.
Yes, this is more glaring when I want them to be done with the whacky hijinks and get to some drama. But the way Mako’s character is undercut/his actions forgot is pretty hard not to see. And characters doing foolish, seemingly out of character things in the name of plot happens pretty often. See Tenzin finding the exact wrong thing to say to every Airbender on the way to Ba Sing Se.
I will say this though. The amount of Plot Convenience goes way down in the second half of the show when the serious things happen.
Does Work – Families
They brought in a lot of cast family for this one and I think it makes it a better, richer show. It gives us a great range of characters – Mako and Bolin have a particularly entertaining grandma – it adds to the world, gives us more dynamics, and gives us a way of mirroring themes. The idea of the family as something that’s got a degree of permanence is fairly common, so they’re a great way of showing changes. Tenzin struggling with his new extended family offers an interesting mirror to Lin Beifong struggling with her old one. Mako and Bolin’s family are mainly shown as a comedic interlude but it shows how far they’ve changed, and they then have to help them change too. I wish they’d been given more screen time. It woulda been nice to have some more of Korra with her dad to really lean into this but hey, I guess you can’t always get what you want. I do think I got what I needed here though.
Mixed Feelings – Team Avatar
While picking my feelings apart on this, I came to a realisation that I if you asked me to name the funniest characters on Legend of Korra, Bolin’s the only member of Team Avatar I’d consider picking (and even then it’d be more acknowledgement of him being comic relief than finding him funny). I’m trying not to compare everything to AtLA, but all of Toph, Sokka, and Aang are hilarious to me. Does this have something to do with why I enjoy watching Korra and chums, but would never get hyperbolic or giddy about how much I like them?
Probably yes. It probably runs deeper than that too.
I look at the Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asani and I just don’t feel this strong sense of who they are, or get strong dynamics which means I love seeing them together. Korra’s grown on me a lot. Her social embarrassment can be sneaky entertaining at times and is handled with a light but sure touch. Gotta admire how gutsy she is and that goes double when when we see how it’s sometimes built on vulnerability and self-doubt. Mako’s a brooder with little to brood about, a strong silent type who doesn’t have much leaning on his strength (I think some might disagree with the last one but that’s what I see). His character would work far better for me if positioned more as the group’s heart, the guy whose taciturnity and focus on the rules/right & wrong can annoy the others but whose always there for them. Asani’s a bit of a cypher to me. She’s sweet and admirable but I don’t know what sets her apart from all the other sweet and admirable characters. I wish they’d tone Bolin down. In my book, he’s meant to come across as a bouncy puppy-esque character but actually comes across as a puppy that needs house training. Put it all together and you get… I don’t know. An amiable enough bunch that mostly does what Korra says? I wish we’d had a fresh character stuck in there who offered a different perspective – like Zuko. Lin and Tenzin spend more time with the team, but their being adults makes it a different dynamic. Maybe that’s the point. If so, it didn’t work for me.
I wish they’d leaned more into Team Avatar all showing some different part of Korra’s struggle. For me, Korra is about resilience. Aang floated with the wind, and had to learn to fight that in order to know when to make a difference. Korra leaps in where angels fear to tread and quickly finds out why that might have been a mistake, but never stops fighting. Equally interesting approaches. Those around Aang mirrored his carefree nature in different ways, while also being more driven than him in others. It gave an interesting push-pull. Those around Korra – well, their merits and flaws just don’t shine so bright. The thing is, you can see their resilience. Mako and Bolin have not had easy lives. Asani did materially, but maybe not emotionally, and underwent a major crisis. Why not put that front and centre?
Final Verdict – Good with Frustrations
I think at this point my problems with The Legend of Korra are going to be fairly fixed. One, I hold it in comparison to a show that worked a lot better for me. I try to avoid doing it but I totally do it unconsciously and sometimes ideas bubble up and I pursue them. Two, they tried to lean crammed storylines and I find them too crammed and too rushed and think they’d be better for more space to breathe. The main secondary characters particularly suffer on this point for me. Three, they went for darker, more thoughtful themes and storylines which didn’t work for me when put against the goofy humour and the above thing about the lack of development room for stories. Part of me just wanted something different to this. But there’s a bigger part that is intrigued by their ideas and can see how it could have worked for me in a way that I think would have worked for original fans while gaining more. That’s my biggest gripe and I don’t think it’s going away.
However, this is the first season where the good thoroughly outweighed the bad. It had a great sense of cat and mouse to the plot. The world became more fleshed out, and made good use of all the contrasts the Earth Kingdom could show. I’ve become a Korra fan. The Beifongs have been confirmed as the most fun family in the Earth Kingdom. There were some really cool action scenes. And I could just lose myself watching it.
Now, I’m excited to see what the fourth and final season of The Legend of Korra has for me.