Despite having quite a few criticisms of the Legend of Korra in my last post, I thoroughly enjoyed the half-season: it’s clearly the best animation currently on television.
Last post, I focused more on the overall issues with the story. In this post, I want to focus on specific characters. Korra has a LOT of characters, and some had better story arcs than others.
Story arcs done well
Let’s start with the villains. Unalaq was a formidable foe and managed to do something I didn’t think was possible: he upped the ante compared to Airbender. In Airbender, Aang had to save the entire world from the Firelord. It was a lofty goal, and the importance cannot be understated: the world had been at war for a hundred years. Fireload Ozai was on the verge of burning down the Earth Kingdom.
When Korra was announced, I thought, “There’s no way they can top Airbender. What, are they going to have her save the entire world again?” Korra did save the entire world again, but her mission was no repeat Death Star a la Return of the Jedi. The stakes for Korra were arguably higher.
Unalaq knew exactly what he wanted, and he had the right amount of charm and evil: he managed to coax Korra to his side for a few episodes, remember?
Even more interesting about Unalaq is how Korra actually believed in his message at the end. Unalaq thought that there should be no bridge between the spirit and physical world. Korra surprisingly agreed and united the worlds (well, it remains to be seen how united they are) in a different, less violent way than Unalaq intended.
The only thing I didn’t like about Unalaq was his immense understanding of the spirit world. Why are there so many people this season who seem to know so much about the spirit world, when Aang’s world was basically clueless about spirits?
Tonraq didn’t get as much development as Unalaq, but he had an interesting backstory nonetheless. What’s interesting about Legend of Korra compared to Airbender is how much more family there is. Aang had no parents–Korra’s parents are at least present. And while she doesn’t always get along with her father, she loves him. I think one of the best scenes from this season was Korra asking her father if it was okay to enter his house after she favored Unalaq over him.
I wasn’t sure about Mako’s turn to cop at first, but I think it fits him. Mako’s story arc was separate from Korra’s much of the time, which allowed him to shine on his own. One thing I wished Airbender had done was broken up the main group a little more often. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph pretty much stuck together the entire time. In Book Two of Korra, Mako, Bolin, Korra, Tenzin, and Asami basically have their own separate story arcs going on.
I appreciated, too, that the love triangle between Mako, Asami, and Korra was toned down but resolved this season. Korra and Mako made the right decision to stop seeing each other.
Bolin also had a chance to shine this season. In Book One, he felt more like he was tagging along. He was meant to be the comic relief, but actually wasn’t nearly as funny as Sokka. Yes he’s an earthbender, but nothing special. He didn’t have that many distinct aspects of his personality.
In Book Two, though, we finally got some good character development. Yes, Bolin was a blockhead and never once stopped to think about the morality of the propaganda films, but that’s okay. At least he was entertaining.
Desna and Eska
I’m still not sure what to think of these characters, nor am I completely comfortable putting them in this section of “well-developed character arcs.” They were present a lot, but didn’t have many original thoughts. Eska got a little more development than Desna. I’m not sure I liked the Eska-Bolin love story, but it was funny at times.
Most of the season I was bothered with the twins’ monotone “nerdy” voices: haven’t we seen this character type before? But by the end, they actually showed a little emotion as they struggled to follow their father into eternal darkness. When I think back to Airbender, though, I was fine with Mai and Ty Lee as characters, even though they also didn’t have much development, so I guess I’m fine with Desna and Eska. Hopefully we see them in future episodes.
The shipping magnate Varrick ended up being my favorite new character this season. He got a lot of screen time, had the best jokes, and was perhaps most pivotal to the overall plot. Varrick was the one who convinced Korra that Unalaq couldn’t be trusted. Varrick helped lead the first rebellion of the southern water tribe against the northern occupation. Varrick helped Korra and crew escape from the south pole. Korra may have started the civil war, but Varrick was the one who made it happen: he hired Fire Nation thugs to impersonate northern water tribe terrorists; he bought Asami’s company and provided tanks for the war; he shipped those tanks to the south; he provided all the propaganda for the war.
Varrick was one of those rare versatile characters: he gets stuff done. His morality is ambiguous: in the end, we should probably view his actions as evil. In a way, he’s like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad: Varrick doesn’t think about right or wrong: he only thinks pragmatically.
If Varrick is to Saul Goodman, then Zhu Li is to Huell. She doesn’t get any character development: we don’t know what motivates her, why she follows Varrick, or if she even agrees with his actions. But we don’t necessarily need her to say these things: the fact that she does follow him, and follows his orders without question, tells us a lot. She probably does admire Varrick to some degree (romantically, though, who knows?), and sees her mission in life as supporting Varrick. In this way, she’s similar to Misa Amane from Death Note or Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist.
Korra and Tenzin
I’m analyzing these two characters together for a reason. Korra and Tenzin obviously had the most well-developed arcs on the show. I think Tenzin is arguably co-equal in terms of importance to Korra, just like Katara and Sokka are co-equal with Aang in Airbender. What I loved about this season was the continued growth of Tenzin and Korra’s relationship.
They started out in a bad place, and Korra dismissed Tenzin as her mentor. Tenzin, though, accepted it, and went away to fight his own demons. But they came together at the end, forgave each other, and encouraged each other.
Tenzin and Korra’s relationship is the most mature one on the show. Tenzin’s relationship with Korra is more complex than the relationships with his own wife and children. Yes, he loves his family, but those relationships are simple. He takes care of them, he protects them, he loves them. With Korra, there’s obviously no romantic connection between the two, so the creators are allowed to explore the mentor-student relationship in all its complexity.
What I also love about their relationship is that it’s not the typical mentor-student relationship we see in fantasy. Take Obi-Wan (with Luke) and Gandalf, two old mentors on the same level as Tenzin. Obi-Wan and Gandalf are wise, benevolent, and always right. They are nearly “perfect” and exist to further the destinies of Luke and Frodo. They don’t really have much maturing to do in their own right.
While Tenzin is wise compared to Korra, he’s not always right. In fact, Book Two makes Tenzin out to be a chump at times, given his repeated failures in spiritual matters. And Tenzin and Korra have quite a bit of friction in their relationship, unlike Obi-Wan and Luke or Gandalf and Frodo.
Tenzin can provide support for Korra as the Avatar in a way her father can’t. And Tenzin realizes his destiny is not just to propagate the Air Nomad line and train his kids in airbending: his real destiny seems to be supporting the Avatar in any way that she needs him. By the end of the season, Tenzin submits to Korra, telling her that he has nothing more to teach her and that he will support whatever decision she makes regarding whether or not to keep the spirit portals open.
I’m not sure if it’s true that Tenzin has nothing more to teach Korra. Perhaps now, though, the two of them can develop a friendship of equality, having moved past the student-mentor relationship, similar to how Obi-Wan and Anakin had a friendship relationship in Episode III, or how Teacher and Ed and Alphonse had a friendship relationship in Fullmetal Alchemist.
Story arcs that could’ve been better
Kya and Bumi
Ah yes, Tenzin’s family. While Tenzin got a lot of character development this season, and even spent a lot of time with his brother and sister, they, on other hand, didn’t get much development at all. Kya and Bumi were simply one-trick ponies: foils to Tenzin without their own senses of autonomy. Kya and Bumi were there making fun of Tenzin the entire season, and Tenzin lost of patience with them on more than one occasion. We don’t know much about Kya at all, other than that she spent her youth traveling the world “in search of herself,” then settled down in the south pole to take care of her mother.
I’m perhaps most disappointed in Bumi’s character. Yes, he contributed some good jokes here and there, but as a person, he didn’t seem to have any direction. At the end of Book One, we briefly see Bumi arriving on Air Temple Island. We are told he’s a great general and military leader. But at the beginning of Book Two, he’s already given up the military life. Why? His definitive character trait was immediately introduced then removed. In Book Two, he’s simply a lost soul following Tenzin around the world. Sure, he helps in the final battle and helps find Jinora, but beyond that, doesn’t have an original thought in his head.
The rest of Tenzin’s family–his wife Pema and children Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo–didn’t get much development either, even though we spent a lot of time with them. Pema just plays the part of new mom taking care of Rohan: is Rohan’s name even spoken this season? Ikki had an episode where she discovered a lot of sky bison babies, but then left them and didn’t do much the rest of the season.
Meelo had an episode where he trained a hundred ring-tailed lemurs: I thought that was going to go somewhere, but no. It was just a throw-away sight gag.
Jinora obviously had more character development than the rest of the family. She’s the one who guided Korra into the spirit world, and she’s the one who resurrected Raava (maybe? how?) Nobody knows exactly what Jinora did at the end, or how she knew how to do it, so hopefully there’s an explanation coming down the pipe.
After being reunited with her father after being trapped in the spirit prison, Jinora tells Tenzin that she has something else to do, and she has to go away. Here’s how I hoped the final battle would’ve resolved itself: Jinora becomes the new Raava, rather than just resurrecting the old Raava, and then merges with Korra’s spirit, sacrificing herself so that Korra can save the world. It would’ve been a very sad scene had Jinora sacrificed herself, but it would’ve taught us something about the unique role each person has in combating evil.
While it would be deep for a children’s show, Airbender had a similar sacrifice when Yue turned into the moon.
I talked a lot about Asami in the last post, so I won’t spend too much time on her again. There was so much potential for her. One challenge with Asami compared to the other characters is that she’s not a bender: the show clearly focuses way more on benders than non-benders. But in Book One of Korra she proved that she could stand her own in a fight just fine without bending. In Book Two, she’s now an ace fighter pilot, which is useful a couple times, but when it came to the final battle, she was sent away, which is unfortunate, as it just reinforced the idea from Book One: Air that benders really are superior to non-benders.
Story arcs that failed
General Iroh, President Raiko, Lin Beifong
The three people stuck in Republic City didn’t really do much at all. Lin Beifong’s story arc seemed to end in Book One when her earthbending powers were returned to her.
President Raiko was a new character. Even though he was somebody in power and of importance, he did nothing. He was simply obstinate for the sake of obstinacy when Korra asked for his help fighting Unalaq.
And General Iroh…can we drop this character already? I know the creators were really pleased with Dante Basco’s performance as Zuko in Airbender, but this actor was mishandled and shoehorned in as General Iroh, the son of Zuko. Basco’s voice is just too distinctive and doesn’t fit the personality of the new General Iroh.
I believe General Iroh only had two scenes this entire season: one when Korra asked him for help and was rejected, and one tiny, tiny scene in the final battle when his ships ineffectively attacked Unavaatu. It’s almost as if the creators wanted Basco to work with them, but didn’t have a good idea for his character. They knew it had to be connected to Zuko because of Basco’s unique voice, but beyond that, they don’t have any plan for General Iroh. He’s easily my least favorite character of the series.
And then we had some callbacks to Airbender this season. These people didn’t have character arcs, per se, but their brief appearances added to the story nonetheless. Overall, Book Two of Korra did much better connecting to the original series than Book One did. In Book One, it seemed like there were an excessive number of references to the first series just to remind people that the shows were connected (the worst connection was Ikki asking Katara in the first episode whatever happened to Zuko’s mom…why would she care about such a peripheral character?)
I was genuinely surprised when Uncle Iroh showed up in Korra. He was sort of a deus ex machina, showing up at just the right time to guide Korra, but that’s okay.
I’m really pleased that Iroh left the physical world and came to the spirit world, however that happened. It didn’t seem like a forced decision by the creators, either: Admiral Zhao commented to General Iroh in Book One of Airbender that he’d heard of Iroh’s journeys into the spirit world. It was never a detail elaborated upon in Airbender, but it is consistent with his character.
I was also exceptionally pleased with Greg Baldwin, the voice actor for Iroh. Iroh’s original voice actor, Mako, died between Books Two and Three of Airbender. Greg Baldwin took over voice work in Book Three (and also took over for Mako’s other unfinished roles, like Aku from Samurai Jack and Splinter from TMNT). It’s really hard to replicate another person’s voice, and Baldwin did the best he could, but his Iroh was nowhere near as good as Mako’s. In Book Three of Airbender, it sounded like Baldwin was trying too hard to imitate Mako’s voice.
In Korra, though, Baldwin does a much better job of mimicking Mako’s voice, so much so that I can’t really tell that his Iroh is different than Mako’s. Maybe if I heard the two side by side I could, but separate, I can’t.
Aang’s role in Book Two of Korra was significantly reduced compared to the first season, and I think that’s okay. After all, Avatar Roku played a larger role in Books One and Three of Airbender, but not as much in Book Two. I’m also glad we got to see an older version of Aang, not the 30-something version we see in Book One. As long as the creators don’t retcon their own story in Book Three: Changes, this should be the last time we see Aang. And we see him giving parting thoughts to his son Tenzin, which is an appropriate final message.
I was really surprised to see Admiral Zhao in the spirit prison, but it makes sense. He really made the spirits mad when he killed the moon spirit in Airbender. We saw the moon spirit grab him and take him away, but we never knew what happened to him. I figured he died: it seems like the spirit prison is a hell of sorts. In the spirit prison scenes, I looked really closely at the background characters several times to see if perhaps other characters from Airbender were trapped in the prison, but I couldn’t make out anybody distinctive.
Whew, that’s the end of my two-part analysis! Share in the comment section who your favorite characters were this season!