The Legend of Korra: The Reality of An Impossible Choice – Learning with Pop Culture

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) was nothing short of a masterpiece. Its stunning visuals, dynamic storytelling, profound character development, and immersive world-building are all part of what made it one of, if not the best animated series of all time. It was such a paragon of animated storytelling that its follow-up, The Legend of Korra (2012-2014), was faced with the insurmountable task of living up to its predecessor.

Of the two, it can’t be argued that The Last Airbender was the superior series.The Legend of Korra, through no fault of its own, simply didn’t leave as much of an impact as the original. All that being said, there is one thing that I preferred in The Legend of Korra over The Last Airbender, and that is how the sequel valued the importance of choices and their consequences. The Legend of Korra understood the reality of an impossible choice.

Background: © Nickelodeon

By the end of its final season, The Last Airbender toyed with the idea of Aang having to kill the Fire Lord. He, of course, refuses to do so due to his pacifistic morals as an Airbender. He argues that there must be another way, in spite of his friends telling him that he has no other choice. So, as a final story arc for the character, Aang must make a choice between ending the Firelord’s life and saving the world from his fury or allowing to him live and damning the world into an eternal fire. This interested me particularity because this is Aang’s first real impossible choice as the Avatar.

Throughout the series, we’ve certainly seen him make truly difficult choices that contributed to his overall development as a character. But before this one, every choice he had to make was always clear, even if not immediately. It’s always been a choice between good or bad, and more often than not, Aang always chose good because that’s who he is as a person.

But with this final dilemma, Aang struggles with the fact that his once black-and-white world is now crumbling into a dark, flat grey. For the first time in the series, he is forced to choose not between what is good or what is bad, but what is right. And sometimes, what is right isn’t always what is good.

Seeing Aang struggle with his morals was one of the most captivating conflicts of the series, especially when he talks to four of his past lives and they all basically tell him that killing Firelord is his responsibility as the Avatar. It was built-up with only two episodes but the tension was palpable, especially since it was played out in a way that made it seem like Aang truly had no other choice.

And just when he realizes what he must do, the goddamn lion turtle shows up and presents Aang with a third, deus-ex-machina option – energy bending. To say that this disappointed me is an understatement.

Aand meets the lion turtle. | © Nickelodeon

I understand that this is a kid’s show and they can’t have the main character, who is a child, just outright kill the bad guy. So, yes, a third option is necessary. But an option like that should be earned, not just given and explained away with one scene. It should be an entire story arc that centers around Aang and his friends seeking out a lost form of bending that might give them a third, non-violent option to take down the Firelord and in their search, they encounter the lion turtle, a creature that was hinted upon since the very beginning. That would’ve been awesome and I think the show would’ve been better for it.

But don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed the rest of the finale and the happy ending was just beyond words. And my problem isn’t with the lion turtle and energy bending inherently or the fact that they were dei ex machina. Only with how both elements were introduced. All the potential for development that was built up in the some of the final moments of the series suddenly meant nothing. It was a waste. This is the problem I have with The Last Airbender.

Difficult and impossible choices only ever matter if there are lasting consequences to be faced after. Otherwise, the “difficult” part of the choice wouldn’t be so believably difficult.

In The Legend of Korra, we see this mistake again. Korra, because of her brash actions, gets her bending taken away. So she must face Aman, the bad guy, with nothing but her wits and raw physical abilities.

With Korra defeated, Aman takes her bending away. | © Nickelodeon

But they again introduce a deus-ex-machina solution, not once but twice. First, Korra suddenly and conveniently gains her Airbending abilities, which she uses to fight Aman. And then, by the end of the season, ghost Aang energy bends Korra’s bending back. Here, we again see a character who doesn’t have to face the consequences of her actions because the writers deemed it too inconvenient for the plot.

However, this is remedied by Book Two. At the end of the second season, Korra and Raava reunite after Harmonic Convergence. With much contemplation, the newly-reformed Avatar decides that the portal to the spirit world, which she opened earlier that season, should remain open and that humans and spirits must learn how to co-exist on their own. Little did she know how much this choice would matter for the rest of the series.

The spirits portals in the spirit world that each lead to North and South Pole. | © Nickelodeon

The reason why this was such an impossible choice for Korra is because she’s essentially removing the need for the Avatar from the world. The Avatar has two main purposes: 1.) She serves as a symbol for unity for all four nations. 2.) She serves as the bridge between the human and spiritual worlds. But with Republic City as the new symbol for unity and with the two worlds no longer needing a bridge, the world no longer needs an Avatar. She is, essentially, without purpose.

The portals have remained closed ever since the first Avatar sealed it all those years ago and humanity has been more or less fine since then. Keeping the portals closed wasn’t something that was inherently good or bad. Each choice just had their own pros and cons that affected the fate of two whole worlds. But Korra made a bold choice that she thought was the right one. No matter what that choice meant for her. And, the following season, she definitely felt the personal consequences of her choice.

At the very first episode of Book Three, Korra is expelled from Republic City by the president after she isn’t able to remove the spirit vines that have covered the city since she left the portals open. This is doubled down when we learn that the bad guy was only able to become an Airbender and escape as a result of Korra leaving the portals open. Moreover, with the reoccurring theme of Korra searching for a new purpose in an ever-changing world that no longer needs the Avatar, it’s only fitting that the bad guy and his posé are terrorists who believe that ending the Avatar and the Avatar cycle is the only way for the world to truly attain balance.

Korra captured by the Red Lotus. | © Nickelodeon

Zaheer and the Red Lotus were some of the most compelling antagonists of the series, even counting the ones from The Last Airbender. They’re possibly second only to Zuko in terms of motive and Azula in terms of badassery. And despite the fact that the last two seasonal big bads from The Legend of Korra had compelling ideals and arguments all on their own, they still ended up being greedy jerks who only wanted power. The Red Lotus, on the other hand, were radicals who believed that what they were doing what was right for the world and if you listened to them for just a second, you might be inclined to agree with them.

Book Three closes out with Zaheer and the Red Lotus defeated not by Korra but by the combined efforts of her friends. Korra, however, is left poisoned with mercury and weakened, unable to access the Avatar state. To add salt to her wounds, the wheelchair-bound Avatar witnesses Jenora, her master’s daughter and the mastermind behind Zaheer’s capture, receive her Airbender tattoos. In the powerful shot, Jenora looks exactly like Aang, bald head and all, reminding Korra of how insufficient and wayward she is compared to the famed Avatar at preceded her.

Korra witnessing Jenora receive her air bender tattoos, reminding her of her failure. | © Nickelodeon

This plot point is carried over to Book Four, where we open with a Korra who’s more or less given up being the Avatar. She’s broken and has lost all belief in herself, a far cry from the confident, hot-headed young girl we met in Book One. This conflict is focused on in the first four episodes of the season, while the main conflict boils in the background.

Unlike when Aang “died” at the end of Book Two in The Last Airbender and was healed by magic water or when he faced a moral crisis before facing the Firelord, Korra wasn’t given a deus-ex-machina solution to this character crisis that was built-up in the course of three seasons.

Korra broken and lost. | © Nickelodeon

Instead of magic water or lost ancient bending, Korra was given Toph, who at this point is old and living in the Banyan-grove tree. Toph guides Korra through her trauma the best way she knows how – through beating the living heck out of her. With Toph, Korra goes through a short yet profound spiritual and physical journey to recovery. And when Korra was ready, Toph tells her to bend the mercury out of her own body. Though she initially refuses due to fear of reliving her trauma, she eventually finds the strength to do so, which restores her connection to the Avatar state.

All that happened because of the choice that Korra made at the end of Book Two. Remember that this all started when she decided to leave the portals to the Spirit World open, which gave Zaheer his Airbending and allowed him escape, which lead to Korra’s capture and poisoning, which in turn, lead her to where she is now. All of Book Three and a portion of Book Four was Korra facing the consequences of leaving the spirit portals open. This gave meaning and value to that choice. It gave weight to the sacrifice she made for what she believed has right. And it makes her struggle with identity and purpose all the more compelling.

The Legend of Korra was a fantastic show to added upon the vast immersive world that started with The Last Airbender. And it tells a story that’s reflective of how people view the two series. But for all its faults, The Legend of Korra still succeeds in delivering a compelling narrative with some of the best villains of the franchise. It shows how much it values the importance of a choice and how it isn’t afraid to tell the story of a fractured, beaten hero who was born into a world that just hates her simply for being who she is.

Korra and Asami enter the Spirit World. | © Nickelodeon

The show ends with a heartfelt shot of Korra and Asami entering the Spirit World. This ending feels truly earned. Through all the mistakes and adversity that Korra has faced up to this point, she finally finds herself in a place where she understands who she is, attaining a balance that she never had before. She finally understands that suffering is necessary and that we, as people, can do nothing else but live through them. Because it is only through suffering that we grow.

So tell me, do you think I’m wrong and The Last Airbender truly was as perfect as we all remember? Did you like the The Legend of Korra? Sound off in the comments below.

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