Somehow I have managed to write for several months on this thing without mentioning Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. I don’t know how this travesty was able to happen, and I deeply apologize for my failings. Both these show are some of the best television your minds could ever handle, and that they happen to be cartoons makes that fact that much sweeter. Seriously, go now and watch these shows. I mean, first read this and then go, but still make sure your eyeballs see the glory of the bending.
Honestly, I could write several dissertations and teach a nearly infinite number of classes from what can be gleamed from this series, but I don’t have that kind of time and I assume you do not have that level of patience. So, instead I will focus on the first episodes of the newest season/arc (sadly the last one) of Legend of Korra. As always, SPOILERS ahead.
Each season of Legend of Korra is presented as a book in a series with each one having its own theme. It is similar to the break up of season in Avatar: The Last Airbender with each of its own season being called books and focusing on one of the elements Aang had to learn. This is no accident and is rather clever on the part of the writers.
Aang never really wanted to be the Avatar, the bridge between the spirit and physical world and the one person who can bend and master all the elements of the given universe. He was content to be a child but destiny had other plans for him, and the world needed him to become its savior and protector. There is a hundred years of war and oppression without the Avatar’s guidance, power, and ability to administer balance. Every Avatar before Aang accomplished this in different ways, but ultimately that was what the Avatar provided. Accordingly, The Last Airbender is Aang’s journey in both learning to become the Avatar and accepting what this means. He must learn how to wield the elements and abilities of the Avatar while deriving the lessons each nation and bending art has to bestow. Thus, each season/book is named after the element he masters during that period.
Korra, on the other hand, has no qualms about being the Avatar. Since childhood, she has had an affinity and talent for bending all the elements, save for air which is the name of the first book/season. It acts as a transition for the audience and show. However, once Korra masters air bending, the focus is not on her progression as the Avatar but on what the Avatar is supposed to do in the rapidly changing world. Essentially, Aang’s story was about becoming the Avatar while Korra’s is about what it means to be the Avatar.
Which brings us to Season 4, aptly titled “Balance”: Episodes 1 and 2. Last season ended with Korra severely injured from mercury poisoning and unable to walk. However, there was also a vein of hope as the Air Nation, and Air Benders, which had been wiped off the world for over a century was restored through Korra’s intervention. As well, the spirit and physical world have been rejoined, so you have spirits freely roaming and occupying the physical (human) world. Perhaps, even bigger than this is that the leader of the Earth Nation, one of the two largest nations on the planet and the main provider of metals and ores to every other nation, has been assassinated leaving the Earth Nation in utter chaos. The world seemingly has never needed its Avatar more, and she is out of commission for roughly three years. This absence and the events that transpire during bring up certain questions for both Korra and the world she inhabits: What does the world do without its Avatar? Is the Avatar even necessary anymore in this new world? What does the Avatar do without the purpose of saving the world? And perhaps most importantly, who is the Avatar if they are no longer the “Avatar?” While Book 4 explores these concepts and questions, they are established in the ending of Book 3.
The perfect dichotomy in this scene just adds to the heart breaking nature of it. Forget being a good cartoon, this is just incredible television. Anyhow, in this scene Jinora is a force of nature. She is the heart and soul of the Air Nation rising like a phoenix, or in this case a bison. She has just saved the Avatar, managed to defeat the evil Zaheer, and unified the Air benders. On the opposite spectrum is Korra at her weakest and most vulnerable. She has barely survived her encounter with an assassin and has been paralyzed due to mercury poisoning. To add to all this, she has just heard her former mentor, Tenzin, basically say that the Air Nomads will fulfill the Avatar’s duties while she is recuperating.
So, what does this mean for Korra? Does this mean that her entire way of life, purpose, and destiny are no longer correct or necessary? Basically her entire identity has been completely turned around and inside out. Of course most of us will never have such a burden or fate of being responsible for the well being of the world, but the uncertainty and fear of losing who we believe ourselves to be and no longer knowing what we are meant to do is surely a common concern.
Like all good stories, Legend of Korra does not provide any easy answers and that does not seem to likely change for its final season. Considering the likely “villain” that is being propped up, Kuvira, there seems to be several conversations/discussions around inherited versus obtained, fate versus work, nature versus technology, and the people versus authority. These juxtaposed dichotomies are the very arguments and debates we are still having and they are perfectly represented in a children’s cartoon.
Like I said, there are no simple answers provided by the show as it wants, and respects, the audience to have a dialogue. However, the show provides a guide in one of Korra’s developments and differences from her previous Avatar incarnations. She is the first Avatar to no longer have a connection to her past lives. She can no longer ask them for advice or depend on their experience. Instead, Korra must decide things completely on her own based solely on her experience, intelligence, and what she has learned. That is the core of today’s lesson: Only you can truly decide what the answers to life’s difficult questions are. You may be wrong, right, or neither, but you must choose and live with the consequences. Your identity may change, your role in life might disappear, your entire idea of who and what you are may disappear, but only you can decide what that means and what to do with it. It is not easy and probably won’t be pretty, but it is one of the few undeniable rules of the universe.
Thus endeth today’s lesson.
P.S. WATCH LEGEND OF KORRA!