How You Can Have a Bunch of Great Ideas but Still Fuck Up Real Bad: A Korra Essay

Hahahaha ever since Saturday the Korra finale seems to make me angrier and angrier. As a storyteller and as a fan of solid storytelling, it is an atrocious mess! I stand by the creators are amazing directors, amazing concept artists, amazing producers, but wow are they terrible writers. They have absolutely no understanding of dramatic convention, and so the first season of The Legend of Korra suffered greatly from terrible execution, and the core ideas were so good it should’ve been a gamechanger. It should’ve been the most brilliant thing on television and instead we were given a 12-week narrative case of blue balls.

Disclaimer: if you enjoyed/love/fanatic about Korra, by all means continue to do so! I enjoyed a lot about Korra. In fact that is why I am so frustrated. But that aside, this is meant as a critique and a dissection and as such you can take it or you can leave it. Nothing I have to say will change the show, nor will anything I have to say will have any effect on what season 2 will bring. Mostly I have been ranting about it to everyone on a daily basis since Saturday and this is my way to finally just. get. it. all. out. So this is me shouting into the ether for my own cathartic glee.

Cool? Cool.



So there are a lot of issues in regards to Korra, but for the purpose of my sanity, efficiency, and time, I’m really only going to cover the most simplistic of storytelling conventions here: set-up and resolution.

I’m sure in every English class ever you were taught this little diagram here:

image

Freytag’s Pyramid is the basics of dramatic convention. It can also be referred to as an “arc”—describing the rise and fall of development. This should normally be applied to drama on principle, but it can also apply to individual characters. It is less a formula and more a standard guideline of a journey. You want your audience to empathize with your story/characters, you want your audience to ride along the adventure they take you and bring you to the end of it, and when its over you want your audience to take that story with them. You want them to to learn from it as much as your characters do, otherwise it just feels like time you’re not getting back.

People like to harp on the fact entertainment doesn’t matter—it’s just a book, it’s just a tv show, it’s just a game! I think this is an irresponsible viewpoint. If entertainment really doesn’t matter, we’d all be living as lonely woods-people only adhering to our basic needs of food-shelter-clothing, because it is only when those basic needs are met we seek entertainment to actually cope with actually living day to day in this crazy, meaningless, chaotic world. Entertainment is how we relate to experiences that are not directly ours. We can do that by enjoying one another’s company, or we can do that by experiencing stories. It is how we can teach people to open up to viewpoints that are not theirs. And it is how we stimulate our imaginations.

Now that existentialist premise is out of the way, how to do this:

Set-up is important. The introduction of anything is meant to, well, literally introduce things. We are introduced to characters. We are introduced to the premise of the story. We are introduced to the setting/world. We are introduced to the plot. We are introduced to the main conflicts. We are given all the ingredients to a delicious, savory five-course meal and you better fucking deliver on every one. Because guess what, if you have all that set-up and you suddenly drop it all to tell a completely different story mid-way through, then your story doesn’t officially start until half-way through. Everything you have introduced up to that point is effectively useless and a waste of your audience’s time and a waste of your effort.

The first three episodes of Korra were pretty stellar. It built its introduction solidly, and we were all on board. Let’s take a look at just a FEW (only a few, fuck, otherwise I’d be listing all day) of the things the show introduced to us:

  • Korra is an Avatar in training and masters three of four elements, but has neglected training in her spirituality, which is essential to master Airbending. The season is titled “Book Air.” The premise of the show is firmly established as Korra’s spiritual growth and development to learn Airbending.

  • Korra is a waterbender, but she is explicitly shown depending more on firebending. This is a huge character point, as this shows that despite her natural inclination that she is head-strong, aggressive, temperamental, and all passion and force. Waterbending has long been established with traits of flexibility, flow, and balance—things of which Korra lacks, and why spiritual training is so difficult for her.

  • Republic City is facing political unrest between benders and non-benders. The “normals” feel oppressed and like second-class citizens, easily trodden over and ignored because they can do less than those who can bend. They are gaining a voice in rallies, demanding rights. It is further established Korra has absolutely no empathy for this sort of reality, and is the personification of the thesis of their argument. She constantly seems to turn the non-bending population against her, and it clearly bothers her she is not given a free pass of of trust/adoration just because she is the Avatar.

  • Pro-bending is established as the de-facto sport. It is a cultural hotspot for benders and non-benders alike. It seems to be the one thing the two factions aren’t arguing over. It is also set up as the main stage for which Korra can develop her airbending skills through, as it is the first time she has made progress in any asset of it (specifically in this case: the basic forms).

  • Mako and Bolin are two orphaned brothers who become sports stars as a way to make it through life. Mako establishes their parents were killed by a firebender, someone of his own element. He is established as neurotic, introverted, awkward, and constantly putting his foot in his mouth. His #1 priority in his life up until the start of the series is to be the responsible, protective older brother, as he has embraced being the problem-solver. The caretaker. The one that is depended on. He has a good head for leadership without the actual charisma of leadership. He is not very good at observing or communicating his feelings. We are given no indication that he has feelings for Korra beyond a platonic sense.

  • Bolin is established as the younger, boisterous brother. He is over-eager to do right and do more than be protected, but often in trying to do so is constantly in need of being protected and saved by his older brother. He is not resentful of this, but despite his hard life he has been sheltered, taken care of, and infantalised. He has outright shown interest in Korra and makes it known.

  • Korra, for that matter, seems more interested in pro-bending than either of the boys romantically.

  • Tenzin is established as Korra’s mentor and guide for the series. He is also established as a main counsel member that helps run the city, seemingly the one lone voice seeking empathetic resolutions with the Equalist movement. He is resigned, put-upon, and has hot-button temper. Though his skills are heavily rooted in the spiritual and meditation, he is seen as stubborn and potentially narrow-minded, as he can’t envision spiritual training if it isn’t by his means and his teachings. He is against needless violence, and a staunch pacifist. Him and Korra butt heads, as Korra loves physical athleticism and often tries to resolve her conflicts with force (something which is repeatedly BLOWN BACK IN HER FACE I might note), but learns quickly to try to appeal to her mode of thinking to teach her airbending, even if he doesn’t agree with it.

  • Tarrlok is seen as the main opposing councel member to Tenzin. He is seen as decently charismatic, Machiavellian in nature, and tenacious about reaching his goals. He is seen as heavily motivated to have control over the city, and to use the Avatar as his pawn—either by her willingness or by tricking her. He spouts rhetoric about fighting the Equalist movement, but it is ambiguous whether this is just talk or if he is actually invested and taking a more aggressive approach, in contrast to Tenzin.

  • Amon is established as a non-bender and the lead of this Equalist movement. He hides his face behind a mask. He is an enigma. He establishes a similar backstory to Mako—that his parents were murdered by a firebender. He preaches not only an equal society, but he envisions that equal society at the price of bending itself. He has discovered a way to “spirit-bend” (something only done by Aang in AtlA) and take away people’s bending. He has taught non-benders how to temporarily inhibit benders by chi-blocking.

    This is established as scaring the shit out of Korra, as this is the first time she actually has to face what a reality could be like to have no bending. And since she is the Avatar, this is equivalent to her as robbing her of her entire identity. Her very existence is threatened, rather than her life. It is also ambiguous whether this would literally end the lineage of Avatars as well, if Amon spirit-bends her abilities away. Even MORE frightening—the only reason Korra is still allowed to keep her bending is because he is allowing it for the time being. Early on we see how easily Korra was defeated and at his mercy. It is a plot point that he can choose, whenever at his convenience, to come and spiritually (not physically) kill the Avatar, and end Bending forever.

    As an antagonist, he is the best we can ask for: he is a physical and spiritual threat to Korra, and is the epicenter of the Republic City’s conflict. Korra can’t simply defeat him—every time she tries to beat him down, Amon’s movement becomes stronger. Her usual methods are useless. His entire existence is to obstruct Korra, our protagonist’s, journey, to give her something to overcome, with the highest stakes feasibly possible, and more to the point force Korra to confront her conflicts in a way that is neither physical nor aggressive. Even without knowing anything about Amon or his ultimate motivations, he is already sympathetic and compelling. He not only confronts Korra’s notions, but also challenges the audience’s notions about what is right, what is bad, who is the good guy, who is the bad guy. He and Korra are the core development of the show, is what I am getting at.



…I could go on, but I am basically only listing the plot points that are a) the main ones in the introduction and b) the ones that they ultimately fail at (Lin Bei Fon’s or Asami’s arcs are also flawed, but they are also a couple of the few successes of this series, so that is why they are not mentioned—and also they can be their own essays but that is for later). Regardless, this is solid, right? Your natural inclination, as a viewer, is to go: okay, awesome, let’s see Korra’s journey, how these characters will grow beyond their limitations, and how all these conflicts will be resolved. I’m in. I’m on board. Let’s do this.

What we get, and what we could have potentially gotten:

  • Korra never learns airbending through any techniques, exercises, or training

  • When Korra does use airbending, she uses it as a rage and aggressive point—exactly as she uses her firebending. She also achieves airbending expressly because her love-interest is in danger, making all of her frustration at not achieving it before entirely moot.

  • Korra achieves the Avatar-state and spirit-bending through no spiritual development. She is just sad. The gravity of her contemplating her potential suicide is instantly nixed when she is given the answer/solution to her problems. Way to take out any pathos and tension in a pinnacle part of character growth, creators.

    In contrast: Aang had to go through intensive training, training of which is basically at the cost of everything he holds dear. It takes him three seasons to achieve the Avatar-state effectively. Not only that, but it is implied he is one of the few—if only—Avatars to actually learn to spirit-bend, because he was so pacifistic, spiritual, and pure of heart that he wanted to find another solution other than aggression and death.

    In short, the show ignores the very premise—AND THE TITULAR SEASON “BOOK AIR”—and Korra achieves 0% growth through its 12-ep season. One might even argue she regresses. If anything, Season 2 would’ve been the perfect opportunity to analyze Korra beyond the Avatar, as her worst nightmare came true: her bending was taken away and facing her worst existential crisis possible. What is left is for her to become the Avatar by her OWN means. By her OWN volition. This was her opportunity to grow into her OWN skin, and we were robbed of that utterly and completely.

  • Not only that, but her spirit-bending back everyone’s bending abilities viciously undoes all consequence and actions that resulted over the course of the season. It effectively makes the little growth for the conflict of Republic City at large completely pointless, and takes away the power of all the questions and themes this show was asking.

  • Pro-bending was never used as a stage to further Korra’s development. The show spent about 6 episodes on it, wrapped it up, and it was never mentioned again. It was used as superfluous filler space. Thanks, guys.

  • Mako and Bolin’s sibling bond is never really seen again as soon as love triangles come into play.

  • Mako is shoehorned feelings for Korra when it was never established he had any sort of romantic interest in her. At the expense of his character. At the expense of his bond with Bolin. The entire purpose of his character transforms from “I need to do what I can to get by” to “which chick should I bang.” He becomes despicable, unsympathetic.

  • Bolin is relegated to the corner as the comic relief character who says funny things. As soon as the pro-bending matches wrap up, he was effectively made useless. He never grows to find his own footing. He never gets to save HIS brother, for once. He never develops his earthbending. At one point in the finale, someone even asks if he can metal-bend, and instead of making that an opportunity for him to learn how in a sink-or-swim situation, he just shrugs his shoulders and other characters have to, effectively, take care of it—and ergo, him. Like his brother has been doing his entire life. As the finale so eloquently had him say: “I’ll just go over here and shut up.”

    Yet, somehow, he still remains one of the show’s perfect characters. THANKS, GUYS.

  • Their origin story of their parents being murdered by a firebender is forgotten and never brought up again. In fact, when we learn that Amon’s similar origin story is a lie, it makes this entire parallel utterly ineffective.

  • The show gives up on having Tenzin try to mentor Korra on her airbending.

  • Tarrlok, through a twist of irony, is literally the only character that has a complete character arc in this show. THE. ONLY. CHARACTER. He is effectively this show’s hero. He is the only one in this show that was effectively battling Amon in an episode-to-episode basis. He is the only character who was brought to his climactic, lowest point, and he was the only character who grew from it and achieved a resolution.

    And, the kicker? They still screwed him up. They relegated 90% of his development in a 20-minute rush in the finale and he (and Amon) suffered for it. His goals were ultimately to protect the city, for extremely compelling reasons (of which we learned RIGHT AT THE END), and learned a little too late how he failed to do so. If we were given his reveal 2-3 episodes earlier, we as the audience would’ve been invested in his character, in what all the characters learn from there on, and the story leading into the finale would’ve been much more heartfelt and brilliant because we wouldn’t be spending half it going “what the flying fuck?” We were never given time to think about and absorb this information. They put all the power of his character in the “reveal” without understanding the real power comes from his conflict.

  • Amon. Hahahaha. Amon. Where to start with him. And how atrociously he was ruined.

    To start with, I love the idea of Amon: a self-hating blood-bender who was so traumatized by what he could do that he set out on a crusade to be rid of all bending, saving himself for last. The show made a point that, as Naotak, he had strong values and principles to seeing everyone as equal—and these values were corrupted into his Equalist movement.

    And all of that was made absolutely worthless when his final battle was him depending on his bloodbending.

    He ignored his own principles. He ignored his own teachings. Everything he did before that suddenly seems pointless. Was he out to gain power? With everything he was doing, how he controlled the city’s society from the shadows, he already had it, so what was the point? He came off as hypocrite, and unsympathetic, and a cop-out because… oh, he really is a bad guy after all, whew! We don’t have to worry about those hard questions anymore!

    The entire point the show established with him is he challenged Korra’s spirituality—or lack there-of. Korra beat him exactly the way she couldn’t have done earlier in the series: by beating him down physically. Thanks for wasting everything you painstakingly created about his character, creators.

    Also? The punchline? His reveal backstory was a better endorsement of his Equalist movement than the one he made up. So. There’s that too.

The worst part is, this is really only, like, 10% of the failures this show has caused. I can intimately go through each character’s potential and how it was wasted. Tahno, for example, is a character I’m especially angry about. I could also, for every character or every plot-thread, offer 10 solutions each about the different things they could follow up on their own set-up.

But here, I can offer easy basic solutions that would’ve instantly improved the quality of writing in this story:

  • Scrap all the love triangle bullshit. We spent more time on that than Korra’s growth and airbending. Of all the things, this makes me angriest.

  • Scrap episode 5 period. For a 12-episode series, you do not have the time for “filler” episodes about which teenager gets to kiss who—and badly written, at that. “Filler” being anything that doesn’t actively advance the plot or character development. That episode did nothing but advance my blood pressure upward.

  • Make Korra and Amon’s conflict explicitly central to the story. They were doing a good job showcasing how threatening Amon was to Korra, and then… Amon disappeared for a few episodes. We didn’t feel that threat again until near the finale. We were more focused on the counsel of Republic City and Tarrlok. As decent as it was to make the civil conflict central, the show ultimately forgot that Amon was the spiritual embodiment of that very conflict, and ergo the personification of what Korra has to face continually.

  • You’re establishing benders who have been robbed of their bending. Why not take some time to establish how they aren’t useless, or less of a person, after that happens? That they have to face that their disability is a reality for most of the city, and in fact not really a disability at all. I brought up Tahno before, and I’ll bring him up here for a potential solution: have him be the character to exemplify this lesson. Have him join Team Avatar. Have him fight for his worth again, after his bending was taken away. Have him become the team chi-blocker, if necessary, if only so that he can have an understanding on how to undo their methods. He could be a foil and contrast to Korra to show that losing your bending isn’t equivalent to LOSING YOUR LIFE. Have him be angry. Have him understand that while he sees where the Equalists are coming from, and he has every reason to join them now, what they are doing is wrong, and that is unacceptable. Have him have an arc. Hell, you can have him initially join the Equalists just to have a sense of purpose again, and ultimately disagree with their methods and do a heel face turn.

    I mean, I’m just spitballing here, but the point is Tahno was a guy who was as full of himself and his own bending as much as Korra was, both are waterbenders at the height of their hubris, so that when he’s taken down his loss of bending was a parallel/foreshadowing of what Korra had to deal with. Of all the characters in the show he had the greatest potential to show you are more than what you are, and be the perfect parallel to Korra’s conflict.

    The fact that we never were given this perspective at all makes it seem like bending is the be-all and end-all of a person’s worth, which is such an ableist mentality that it makes me legitimately upset. Because it could’ve been such a good way to DECONSTRUCT such a mentality in the first place.

  • Make Korra’s airbending a focus in each episode. Try for the simple formula of “one lesson per episode” if need be. One principle of airbending achieved every 24 minutes. One level gained. Step by step. This is, ultimately, aimed at children, and it’s acceptable to have a formula as basic as this! If Korra isn’t learning something new in regards to the very basis of the show with every episode, what is the point of anything happening at all?

  • You know what, if you’re going to have Amon use bloodbending to take people’s bending away, IT’D BE A GOOD IDEA TO SHOW HOW HE FIGURED THAT OUT AT ALL. It’s. kind of. important information.

  • A potential way to have handled the last Amon conflict: you can still have him revealed as a bloodbender, but make it sympathetic. Have him refuse to use the bending outside of taking other people’s abilities away. Prove that he can practice what he preaches. PROVE that he believes he is of a great power and of greater resolution than just his bending, which is everything that was challenging Korra’s inner conflict then. PROVE it. Have it so that Korra can “out” him, and everyone was ready to turn against him—-and then have him win everyone back by showing he was still the embodiment of the Equalist movement, and still their champion. Have him knowingly refuse to bend and be a martyr to his own cause, with Korra beating him back with her bending. Have it so Korra comes off as the bad guy, because really? She kind of was. Make it so he can prove the Avatar is really past its time, and doesn’t have the people’s interest at heart.

    You can still have Amon win, end of the day, and have Korra fail and have her bending taken away. Have her reach her lowest point so that she can overcome it in Season 2.

    Also, what would’ve been great? If they had a match where Korra confronts Amon to hand-to-hand combat with no bending, as a way for her to win the people to the AVATAR’S cause. Especially if it’s after she was robbed of her bending. So that she can convince them the Avatar has been for the common people, NOT just benders. And she could use Airbending forms to do it, since airbending has been established even back in AtlA that it was all about evasive maneuvering and constant movement. Have it be a tug-of-war to win the people—because that would’ve been a spiritual battle, a fight over ideology, a battle about purpose, belief, and faith, and not just about who can beat down who better. It would’ve been a battle beyond the physical, which is what Korra needed. She could have unlocked her airbending in this way, if need be, because this is exactly the sort of thing that makes sense to unlock it. Those were the stakes that was set at the start of the show, this should’ve been what the finale should’ve centered on.

    That? That would’ve been a finale worth watching.

  • FUCKING MAKO kjahsdkjahdka JUST. DON’T. WITH MAKO. DON’T DO THAT. STOP IT.

  • DON’T EVEN DO THE LAST TEN MINUTES WHY WOULD YOU GIVE HER THE AVATAR-STATE WHY WHY WHY Wkjahsdkjgasdhjabgdhjvaj

    image

    I understand that they were greenlit for Season 2 very late in the game, but really? Really? If anything it would’ve been a ballsy fucking move to end it on such a bittersweet, dour but hopeful note—the potential of Korra learning to get her bending back. It would’ve marked such a powerful end SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE the continuation would be in question. And if it was greenlit anyway (which it is at this point), then even better.

Basically, in conclusion: if you go through the effort and laying out all that set-up, you better go through with it. Have 2-3 core principles to your story and continually make sure that you stick to it. If you wander too far from it, you are losing the point of what you are doing. Pay-off is important. Again, if you are setting things up but you ignore it and establish something else later on, everything about what you lovingly introduced has little to no use and a waste of everyone’s time.

The show was set up as Korra’s journey, her growth as an airbender, and we were deprived of that. It wasn’t The Legend of Korra. It was The Legend of Everyone Else. And that makes me mad.

That’s it. I think I’m done. I mean, no, I’m not done. I really could keep going. But I think I made my point.

Also if anyone responds to this with “calm down, it’s just a kid’s show” I will not only flip tables, I will flip the entire universe.

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    This is SUCH a good takedown of why I hated Legend of Korra, even though I’m a HUUUUGE ATLA fan (movie- what movie?)
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