Re-Avatar State: “After All These Years” & “Korra Alone”

After All These Years

Have you noticed something. A through line, whether intentional or nor, hangs through every single premiere in Korra, one that isn’t really commented or remarked upon by the show. Yes each premiere in the series ends in the same way, with a shot of the villain of the season. Amon, Unalaq, and Zaheer all get the last word for the start of a new chapter in the show. They set the tenor of the conflict and help undergird the themes of the season. In “After All These Years” it’s not the obvious big bad that gets the last line, it’s Korra. Stepping away from an interrogative question about what happened to The Avatar. Korra curtly replies, “I wouldn’t know.”

It’s a stark retort to how we were introduced to Korra. The days of “I’m the Avatar, and you gotta deal with it,” are long gone. Replaced with a burden of trauma and terror, that the world is still out to kill her, or render her obsolete. If Korra is the story of woman balancing competing identities within herself, than the season four premiere is the point where these identities are most fractured. Even though Korra still functionally has the aspects of The Avatar, for all intents and purposes that title and power has evaporated.

This void, this lack of Korra as both character and leader in the world, defines the most of the premiere. Every action is undergirded with the same thought, “where is Korra?” Her absence is a hanging sword, threatening to cut down what tenuous forms of stability actually exist in this moment and time. No matter the thrilling action or silly jokes there’s a sadness that can’t be swept away, a deep knowing that this world without Korra just isn’t right.

Indeed we get that sense from the opening moments of the season. In place of our usual recap we are instead treated to a cheeky bit of filmmaking. Yes Republic City over the past three years has been on the move! The metropolis now fully integrated with the spirit wilds and updated with a new rail system. Korra even gets a statue and a park named after her, though that too feels like a premature memorial.

Much like the opening of season three we see a press conference with President Raiko and a few members of Team Avatar. Asami is currently chuffed to reveal her new rail system to the city, and she’s delighted to meat up with Mako again, who has been busy protecting Prince Wu, the soon to become new king of the Earth Kingdom. Things seem okay. Plans are on schedule, the Earth Kingdom is being rebuilt, and Team Avatar is getting back together. Korra should be back in town tonight, even if Bolin is off gallivanting with Kuvira’s army.

The Earth Kingdom is slowly being reformed, but it’s still a huge mess, with different states and provinces falling under the rule of bandits, outlaws, and barbarians. Here we get to see the full blossoming of Tenzin’s vision from the season three finale. Kai and Opal swoop into a Earth Kingdom town to assist in stopping some bandits. The Air Nation have become there own little squad of superheroes, providing lifts upon the downtrodden. The help is appreciated from the governor, but he’s skeptical about how much work Kai and Opal can do. They are still young and there’s only two of them.

In opposition to this approach we have the thunderous arrival of Kuvira, the Great Uniter. The former captain of the guard for Zaofu has ranked up in the intervening years and now cuts a disturbingly fascist jib as a new political force. Her armada now runs under the flag of the emerging Earth Empire, and her cadre is backed up by the political forces in Republic City, the technical acumen of Varrick, and the bending abilities of people like Bolin.

Kuvira herself is a masterful piece of design and execution. Her uniform and appearance all extensions of the futurism of Zaofu, but sanded a bit down with a utilitarian edge. When she comes upon a bandit ambush, she steps out in front of her soldiers to deal with the problem herself. She uses the sheaves of metal on her armor as weapons and artillery, binding the attackers and forcing them to submit to her will. Her presence is fearful, but she offers a slight form of mercy. Noting that it is a good day for the bandits, because they can join the forces of the glorious Earth Empire.

Eventually Kuvira and the airbenders converge at the same state of Yi, and we see that this is once again a conflict that has been born from Korra’s absence. Without the Avatar to mediate the world, we get facsimiles intending to interpret the goal of balance but from wildly differing perspectives. The Air Nation want to assist, while the Earth Empire wants to assimilate. It’s a divide that is pulling people apart, as Bolin stands with Kuvira against Opal’s wishes. Again the trouble brewing here is by differing groups intending to fill the vacuum created by Korra, but one that also reinforces Korra’s isolation. How can Korra feel needed in the world when powerful groups are already acting, and seemingly succeeding, in her stead?

It’s obvious from the outset that Kuvira and the Earth Empire are going to be bad news for the show, but I enjoy how it’s clear why people would fall into favor with them. It points back to what happened in season three, Korra’s legitimacy fell out of power because she had to act within the bounds of respectability of the role of Avatar. Kuvira feels no such boundaries, and can intimidate to get her way. Might makes right, as Kuvira stands as an incredibly powerful bender with a base of support. Still her way involves food for the people of ruined cities, and mechs for the children to play in. After years of chaos, sometimes people will accept the trains running on time from a new ruler.

The creep of fascism is felt even in the bounds of Republic City. Mako is no fan of Prince Wu, who is an arrogant fool bent on driving his body guard insane, but it is his duty under Lin and Raiko to ensure that this dunderhead makes it to his coronation. That means protecting the prince from inglorious pies from Kuvira supporters lurking about Republic City, and possible assassination attempts. It’s all quite frustrating, but hopefully the visit from Korra will be a relief from his current position of irritation.

So the component members of Team Avatar have come to Air Temple Island to greet their long missed friend. The ship arrives, Naga bounds out and Tonraq approaches, but where’s Korra? Tenzin is befuddled, but so is Tonraq. Korra said she was in Republic City. It appears that Korra has vanished from people’s view. This dashed reunion is a mirror to the ending of the series premiere. There Korra hugged Tenzin and his family with the promise of a new future, here we see most of Korra’s compatriots, without Korra herself. The lead has been x-ed out of her own story.

So where is Korra? In the fighting pits of some Earth Kingdom town, participating in what seems to be a bit of self flagellation on her part. She can bend and move again, but her skills are dulled, and she’s whipped by a random combatant in the ring. Her hair is short, she’s wearing random Earth Kingdom attire, and the spirit gone from her eyes. This is Korra no longer as The Avatar, but Korra as pure and despondent Korra. What happened to The Avatar? She wouldn’t know.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Kuvira is given both compelling presence and a husky menace by Zelda Williams. Yes the daughter of Robin Williams gets to be the last big bad of the show, and she does a pretty bang up job, especially since this was her first voice performance.
  • Kuvira has popped many times before. She’s in the background in almost every episode in Zaofu, and has had more than few lines. She even directly fought with Zaheer in “The Terror Within,”
  • Speaking of voice acting, Kai has the same performer, but he was an actual kid whose voice radically changed during production. Good thing that time jump exists.
  • The new Air Nation squirrel suits are quite the upgrade from the gliders, both stylish and functional.
  • I love the musical motif used for Kuvira. It’s mostly just thundering drums, reminiscent of her command of the rail systems.
  • The hobo from season one has found a new life in the spirit wilds.
  • If you were keeping track: say a viewer started watching Avatar the year it premiered and were the same age as Aang (12) if they stuck with the franchise until this point they would be approximately the same age as Korra (21) in the final season of the show as it aired. Now that’s aging with your audience.

Korra Alone

Korra the show has frequently defined itself in opposition to Avatar. The defiant serialized storytelling, the darker tone, the bigger thematic swings all feel like creators trying to step forward from the story they have already told. Still Korra is an extension of that world as much as anything else, and will always be tied to the original program. So it’s up to the writers how much they lean in and away from that.

Thus titling an episode “Korra Alone” is playing with fire. It’s the showrunners deliberately calling back to their greatest achievement. Immediately putting into the mind of the viewer past success in a completely different context. It burdens this chapter of the story with outsized expectations: will this production be a called shot or an own goal.

Luckily it’s the former, for while “Korra Alone” doesn’t quite eclipse Zuko’s similar outing, it accomplishes something completely different and to great effect with our current character. In fact, much like the rest of the show, “Korra Alone” is a much sadder variation of the structure of Avatar. This is a despondent story, one of suffering, despair, and the painful process of recovery. Certainly Zuko’s tale is filled with remorse and deadly insinuation, but it was also juiced with genre elements and a healthy dose of palace intrigue and mystery. Here we are treated to Korra’s reflection on her pain, and the cracking of her personality after the fallout of the season three finale.

The loneliness hipped to in the title comes in two forms. The first half of the episode comes in the form mental isolation as Korra physically recovers, and the second half physical isolation as she spiritually tries to get over the hump. Indeed the reflections and refractions of Korra’s state are all on display from the episode’s opening shot, as we see the former Avatar’s battered face in a cracked mirror. Obvious symbolism, but one that potently portends the story about to unfurl.

Korra exits the dirty bathroom where she decided to heel herself, and skulks around the streets of a random Earth Kingdom town. Here she is haunted, by a visage of herself chained and in the Avatar state, a reminder of her pain and power wrapped up in one package. The image of what had almost destroyed her. This is her great battle right now, with the ghost of a former self.

How it came to dominate her life was a process. We see after Jinora’s ceremony Korra has decided to return to the Southern Water Tribe to recuperate with her family and Katara. Team Avatar sends there well wishes, Asami even offers her company to the soon to be isolated messiah, but Korra refuses, instead taking leave on her own. After all it will be only a few weeks and thus epistolary communication will suffice. But things aren’t so hot on the recovery front. Korra is still visited by visions of her battle with Zaheer. Reminding her again and again of her near death experience and hobbled state. How can she act in her role as Avatar when she can’t even walk? Thus begins the excruciating process of physical therapy, and the tiny steps needed to rehabilitate.

Here is where the tonal differences between the two shows is well and acutely felt. In Zuko’s story his reflection involved the excitement and thrill of political backstabbing, in Korra’s story it is simply the process of walking again. The fact that so much of  “Korra Alone” is dedicated solely to Korra taking steps again speaks to its power and the focus it has on Korra’s psyche. So much of the show has been about her physicality, and with that component removed her identity is surely stripped away.

The conversations Korra has with Katara are incredibly potent, and speak to the unbearable weight of trauma Korra has experienced, her whole life she has been brought up as a hero and a savior, and now she can’t put one foot in front of the other without flashing to her most horrific moment. When Katara encourages her to take a few steps, Korra finally loses it, “A crazy man poisoned me and now I can’t dress myself, or cook for myself, or do anything for myself! And this whole time, my friends have been off helping the world while I’m stuck with you and you can’t even heal me!” This outburst speaks to the depths of Korra’s loss and how much harder this is than we are seeing, for a show about a messiah come to save the world we are put in the mind of a patient enfeebled, a world of bed pans, coordinated meals, and no control.

Katara understands, she knows it won’t be easy to hear, but there must be purpose in this suffering or Korra will never be able to follow the path needed to get back into the world. It’s another stinging reminder of the loss of her past lives, surely now Korra could use the council of Aang when he had to reckon with the genocide of the Air Nation, as she consider the slippage of her place in the world. Her communications with Team Avatar are little solace. She sees her friends filling in her place, forcing her into obsolesce, and gaining life beyond her. Only Asami serves as Korra’s comfort in these dark times.

Recovery does come though, and again she can run, walk, and bend like in the old days, or it at least seems that way. Tenzin visits her, and we are once again treated to a mordent reprise of a moment from the series premiere. There her firebending exam proved her physical prowess, and here she looks to repeat such an impressive outcome. The setting, outfits, and music are all lined up, and indeed we get a recapitulation of the shot of Korra smiling as she dismisses the fire around her, right until Zaheer appears in her mind, and she falters to the ground. She confers with Tenzin, will she ever recover? Her former master has no idea, and a plea for patience now is not what Korra wants to hear after years of physical therapy.

After this Korra decides to return to Republic City, maybe the presence of her friends and the current affairs of the world will help her shape up. Her parents are suspect, but allow her the space to journey there alone. On the way she comes upon a fishmonger who wants Korra’s picture, he’s got a wall of Avatars you see. Here is given the chance to recapture her position as Avatar: there are some bandits to stop, she gives chase but is easily bowled over by the criminals. In her very first outing her identity as Avatar is fully questioned.

Even on the shores of Republic City she can’t commit as she encounters the vision of herself for the first time. She turns away and wanders the world. She strips away her identifying features as the Avatar, changing her hair and her clothes, and walks the world as anonymous being. She tries to meditate in the Tree of Time to reconnect spiritually, but she’s cut off, unable to enter the Avatar State. She’s blocked from herself, her power externalized as a force plaguing her mind and soul.

So she turns to a nomadic life. Passing through different locations, bedeviled with visions of her chained self, or mirages of Raava. The world has sought to destroy the Avatar, and even though Korra isn’t dead, it may have succeed. Finally the weight of the ghosts becomes too much and we loop into where we met Korra in the premiere, and here we see that her combatant in the arena was not the fighter, but her ghost. She loses again to herself.

If there’s one bright spot for Korra it’s a cute little dog that seems to recognize her phantasmic form. She follows the fellow and discover it’s a friendly spirit leading her to The Swamp. The spirit informs her that there’s somebody she has to meet there, but first Korra must once again fight herself. What’s notable about this showdown is just how much it reflects what lurks inside our heroine without stating it. The identity of Avatar literally pulling down Korra to her death. Subsuming her in poison. Her abilities may have saved her from Zaheer, but they have annihilated her in recovery.

She’s knocked down by this bought, and awakened by a swamp woman. Ah, but this swamp woman is someone important. Indeed the person the spirit wanted to Korra to meet. It’s Toph in full hermit mode. Welcoming the new Avatar into her presence with the classic name of Twinkle Toes. Finally Korra catches a break on her road, but what’s notable is that at the end of this episode she hasn’t made it yet. There are many more steps to take.

Odds and Ends

  • Cute parallel. Aang first sees Toph in The Swamp, and so does Korra.
  • Gotta be honest and say that I think Korra looks way better with shorter hair.
  • Mako really is bad at writing letters. Though I appreciate how much of a doofus the writer have made him.
  • Aang’s photo on the fishmonger’s wall is a terrific gag in an otherwise somber episode.
  • The way ghost Korra moves is quite impressive. The figure is hulking and hunched at most times, and when it fights it lurches inhumanly from place to place.
  • Even bereft of most of the usual action for the show, this is one of the most luxuriant outings. The sweeping backgrounds, thousand star nights, auroras, volcanoes, and the Spirit World add to the heft of the story.