Thursday, 8 January 2015

Legend of Korra: Final thoughts

Part way through season three I made a few observations about Legend of Korra and its approach to thefantasy genre, and now it has come to an end I think there are a few things that can be added to my earlier post.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in here, so don't read this if you get upset by that sort of thing.

Firstly, my ambivalence regarding the superficiality of its facade of Asianness remains. The conclusion of Legend of Korra, where it wraps up and clarifies its ideological universe shows that the framework of values in which it operates is a fundamentally American one. That aside, the way it unfolds over the course of the four seasons and how they all fit together is nonetheless an interesting one and really quite good.

Accepting that the unspoken assumption of the show is that pursuing any kind of belief to its extremes is dangerous (probably true, but not very exciting), the way it plays out that drama through its often selfish, self-obsessed, occasionally oafishly unaware, but nonetheless fiery and courageous heroine comes together very satisfyingly. Korra's supposed teacher Tenzin is himself flawed, myopic, conservative, and often preoccupied with his own problems and interests, and in fact it is her opponents who take the form of a series of dark mentors.

While the original The Last Airbender series themed each season around one of the elements, Korra takes more abstract themes. The theme running through season one is the conflict between equality and privilege; a political reading of season two could interpret it as dealing in an abstract way with secularism and religious extremism, and/or on a more spiritual level as the disconnection between the physical and spiritual worlds; season three explicitly deals with anarchism versus an entrenched and corrupt monarchy; while season four places a rise of nationalistic fascism in the power vacuum. Korra's education is carried out through a series of traumatic apprenticeships to these teachers, with Amon and Hiroshi representing an extreme extension of equality, Unalaq spirituality, Zaheer freedom, and Kuvira order.

This doesn't completely overcome the limitations of the show's adherence to a fairly conventional liberal American worldview. However, where the show is interesting is that in a way all of these villains are right, and through learning from them and adopting the changes they represent, Korra proves herself a good student even where the teachers are “bad”. Another strength of the show is how, with the exception of the two-dimensional Unalaq, the villains all retain some of our sympathies (Henry Rollins' Zaheer especially – who wouldn't love that guy?)

While in the world itself it is the problems Legend of Korra raises rather than its solutions that are the most interesting, really it's within the character of Korra herself that the show makes all this work in the end, and how the scars of each of these encounters visibly carry over from one season to another. Korra doesn't allow us to celebrate the defeats of these villains; she doesn't allow us to feel that “our” side somehow won; she internalises every struggle and by the end of the series she looks exhausted.

Much of this also has to do with the bitterly personal nature of her final struggle with Kuvira. While fans may have gone giddy with delight at all the Evangelion and Akira references that accompanied the end of the series, it was the way the personal stories were resolved that was Legend of Korra's greatest triumph. Kuvira, Korra's final opponent, is constantly depicted, sometimes more explicitly than others, as a mirror for herself: another young woman struggling against the chaos of a world that never seems to straighten up and fly right.

The show handles romance with a refreshingly unsentimental disinterest. Bataar's love for Kuvira crashes against the rocks quite movingly. Given a choice between her lover and her ambitions, the momentary and seemingly genuine pain that crosses Kuvira's face makes the ruthlessness and lack of hesitation in her choice all the more chilling – she is not an unfeeling two-dimensional monster: she is a fully realised human who can both experience and overcome pain. Leavening this is the way Zhu Li's rather touching devotion gradually wears down Varrick, which while played mostly for laughs, nevertheless depicts love as a struggle that often seems barely worth the meagre reward.

The strongest bonds the show depicts tend not to be romantic though. Utterly crushed and broken by Kuvira's choice, Bataar finds himself in the dubious comfort of his dysfunctional family with a long, hard road of fence-mending ahead of him but at least with an unconditional love at its core. The most open and unambiguous declaration of love is expressed between brothers Bolin and Mako as the latter prepares to do something suitably suicidal and heroic.

The love triangle set up in season one between Korra, Mako and Asami resolves itself far more ambiguously. The fumbling teenage angst between these three had gradually dissipated as the series went on and escalating catastrophes of global significance made their petty jealousies seem pretty inconsequential. In a sequence partly mirroring the end of Return of the Jedi, Korra drifts away from the victory celebrations and is approached by Mako who declares he will always “have her back”, implicitly confirming them as friends and comrades rather than lovers. Korra then encounters Asami, and a seemingly more minor interaction between them from earlier in the series takes on greater significance when Korra apologises for the pain she caused Asami by her disappearance. This bursting to the surface of a largely suppressed source of pain between the two reveals a depth of feeling between them that hadn't been overt before and they end the series by going off together.

I haven't been following other online discussions of the series, and I've read nothing about the series ending, but I can imagine that it raised eyebrows and caused some debate. I think it's important and again to the show's credit that it doesn't outright say anything about Korra and Asami's relationship here, letting the viewers draw their own conclusions. Based on the way other relationships are treated, it seems clear to me that the writers of Legend of Korra believe the depth and devotion of one's love is more important than its nature, romantic or otherwise, and it's easy to read Korra and Asami as a reflection of that: friends and family are the strongest bonds, and those are the bonds that are most poignantly reinforced by the final episode.

However, the visual depiction of this final moment is nonetheless unambiguously romantic, with the pair's physical proximity and body language shimmering with sexual tension as they walk off into the light of the spirit world. This is the cinematic language of two people who are going to fuck each other senseless the moment the scene fades. The show is obviously nodding to the possibility of a romance, while at the same time holding back from saying so outright, I think not so much out of coyness (there's really no ambiguity about the visual language employed) as out of the show's refusal to hold up romantic relationships of any kind as the most important thing – the depth and strength of Korra and Asami's bond is what it wants to emphasise first and foremost, rather than the nature of their sexuality.

This again comes back to the question of values and the conversation that Legend of Korra is having with itself. It's a broadly American debate, touching on many of the big political struggles the country has found itself embroiled in over the past hundred years or so, and which still inform the national debate. Even the show's attitude towards love is an American conversation, as the country gradually awakens from Disney's spell – in fact there are clear parallels between Legend of Korra and Disney's own Frozen in the way they de-sentimentalise romance and place it back into a broader context of what love means – and begins to come to terms with same-sex relationships.

That's not to say that these aren't a valuable conversation to be having, and Legend of Korra, despite its “yellow-wash” over what are essentially American concerns, explores the issues raised within its moral universe with depth, sensitivity, and a generally open mind. Perhaps as time goes by, these contemporary concerns will age the show in ways that aren't flattering, but I'm still pretty much convinced that it will be remembered as one of the greatest children's TV shows ever made, and mostly deservedly so. As a vision of another world, it is only a very qualified success, but as an exploration of an important corner of the one we're actually in, it's an unqualified triumph.