In Which an End is Just a Beginning
What is the legend of Korra? The legacy of a show that has always toiled in the shadow of its predecessor. Marred by a difficult production, haphazard release, and near death by a thousand cuts. How can one quantify something that is staggeringly ambitious, but also a mixed success when it comes to achieving those stated ambitions. It’s a difficult thing to tackle, Korra contains both the best and the worst of what this franchise has to offer, and to enjoy it one most simply understand that it it neither perfect nor damaged beyond repair.
Indeed such a statement seems like and excellent comparison for the lead of our show. A heroine whose flaws and personality could grate, but who also found compassion, strength, and understanding. A young woman who has grown from pure force and impetuousness into a place of power and grace. If the legacy of Korra the show is anything, it’s the character of Korra herself. A bold and dynamic being that constantly challenged the expectations of the type of person who could lead a Young Adult series.
And Korra challenged that notion all the way to the very last shot of the series. A difficulty I had coming into this pair of episodes is just not spilling my entire case of digital ink on the concluding sequence. It’s a hurdle that’s hard to overcome for a big reason though, the end of the show, and the canonizing of Korra and Asami as in a romantic relationship transforms this series from not just an overly ambitious, and flawed, followup to a beloved TV program, but into a genuine milestone.
While the final moments now are remarkably tame, and from a 2020 perspective not nearly explicit enough, it’s important to remember that such a move was still near unthinkable six years ago. Yes shows were getting better at representation, but conceptually the idea of making the lead of a program aimed at kids bisexual still seemed like fairytale in 2014. The movement of time certainly has made the last five years trying, and it’s easy to forget that gay marriage had yet to be declared the law of the land when these episodes aired.
Also Korra does have one other feather in it’s cap that it can keep even as other contemporaneous programs like Adventure Time and Steven Universe pushed the envelope further. Besides being the first to air, it is not the side characters here that go through this experience, it’s the marquee person. Korra, the lead, the hero, The Avatar is canonically queer. A move that helped lay the groundwork for more shows to follow suit, and expand it’s own universe as well. I haven’t dug in much to the comics, but the mere recognition of the LGBTQ community in the world of Avatar vastly expanded the canvas of what this franchise could offer. No longer do fans have to merely speculate about the sexualities of characters through the franchise history, official works can come out and confirm these people’s lives are not straight. So that characters like Kyoshi and Kya can also be a part of this conversation as well.
But that’s enough preamble, what about the episodes themselves. Well they are pretty good. In fact they’re better than I remembered. So much of the finale is tied up in my mind with the Korrasami of it all that the actual technical achievements and other character beats slipped away a bit. But it works, and even if it doesn’t contain something as emotionally moving as the final Agni Kai, or Zuko’s reunion with Iroh, it feels just as fitting as an end that Airbender got. Once again the last word uttered on screen is “perfect,” even if the show and finale are not, it oddly feels appropriate.
Day of the Colossus
When typing up my review of “Venom of the Red Lotus” I noted that I don’t think the show ever topped the action and choreography of that particular finale. In fact the shadow of that accomplishment long made me think that the spectacle found here was much lesser and not as well executed. However that cloud that hung in my mind lead me astray. No “Colossus” isn’t quite the superlative piece of blockbuster animation that “Venom” was, but it’s incredible in its own way.
I think most of this hesitation came from the simple fact that CG elements in the show will never look as good as the normal 2D ones. No slight on what the animators were able to accomplish with the previous cars and mechs, but those turns to the more obviously digital were always noticeable and always a slight downgrade from the show’s usual stupendous animation. So color me surprised for how well the showdown between Team Avatar and Kuvira’s giant went. I think that it helps that this one big mech is almost the entire focus of the fight (there’s a few small ones here and there, but not much). It also allows the team to engage in a type of set-piece that the franchise hasn’t really been able to entertain before.
You see in almost all of these giant showdowns between Korra and the big bad, the combatants have been sequestered away from any really notable landmarks. Korra fights Amon in a hallway, Unalaq in a bay, and Zaheer through the mountains. Here though we are in the heart of Republic City, and for the first time we see what should be a normally bustling cityscape become absolutely demolished.
I know that it’s a cliche to see buildings torn asunder in our live action blockbuster landscape, but in the realm of animation it’s a completely different animal. The scale and depth needed to communicate the disintegration of a metropolis is such a difficult thing to do is a 2D setting, that to pull it off, not just well, but with a level of coherence and panache is kind of astounding. The fight here might not be my favorite, but it’s an undeniable accomplishment for TV animation. Intricate, technical, and convincing.
So what is Team Avatar to do. They escaped the rubble from the blast, but it looks like Kuvira will just continue marching forward. So they split up. Asami and Varrick will prepare the last two flying machines, and the rest will take on the mech. Wu and Pema have their own problem as they have to try and get the final evacuees out of the city as quickly as possible.
Korra confronts the mech, and it’s Meelo that comes up with the first wave of the attack. They will use paint to blind the machine so they can have time to begin to weaken the defenses and get inside. So we get the airbending brigade drop balloons and cut off Kuvira’s view. Not quite good enough. She prepared for such action and has the windows cleared. Now we move to the next plan.
The Avatar team knows that action works best when it uses the literal different elements in tandem to create dynamism in a fight. This is brilliantly displayed again here as the group goes through their second attempt to crack the mech. Bolin creates a pool of level to keep the machine off balance, the other Beifongs metalbend wire around the legs of the behemoth to keep it unsteady, the airbenders fly around the command to distract from the actions on ground, and Korra keeps up high energy blasts to knock the whole thing over. Yet again the machine proves too resilient to the attacks of the minuscule opponents. Though this failure provides perhaps my favorite visual in the entire episode, as Korra dodges a laser blast that cuts through the background landscape and turns the city into a fiery, hellish visage.
All this exacerbates the ability for the civilians to evacuate properly. Can’t get out of dodge with a giant laser going off. But Wu once again demonstrates a bit of ingenuity as he brings in a couple of badgermoles to lead the people out of the city. Coercing the giant creatures with his quite poor singing voice. All of this is mostly a cute aside, but it’s fun to see the beasts pop in the show for the first time.
So now it’s time for Plan C. Varrick needs to stop the mech armada from stomping down on the place he’s working. So he gets and rigs another EMP blast like we saw in “Reunion.” It’s bigger and demonstrates his ability to whip a plan is still on point. And here he finally acknowledges that he didn’t treat Zhu Li as well as he should have. Noting that his insecurities and bluster held up his admission of emotional attachment to his assistant, he promises to do better in the future. The two note this and send out the blast, it disables the small mechs, but not the big one. Zhu Li glumly observes, “there are no more things left to do.” But there are, for as the two suit up to fly, Varrick proposes to Zhu Li. If they make it out alive they will make it to their wedding day.
While Asami works to finish the flying machines Hiroshi steps in with the final plan of action. Attach a few plasma saws to the machines and cut a whole through the armor of the mech to get inside and take it down bit by bit. It’s a risky move, but one that Hiroshi is fully willing to take. So Asami, one last time, works with her father to turn the tide and save the day. It’s a bittersweet movement though.
Once the flying machines are ready they go after the mech. Varrick and Zhu Li pilot one, and Asami and Hiroshi the other. Varrick tries to get in on the back but to no avail, the giant robot has too much agility. Here Korra comes in with another save. Drawing the mech to canal and then shoving it into a huge chunk of ice. This gives Hiroshi and Asami enough time to cut through the machine to get inside. Time runs out, they have to evacuate or lose their opportunity. But Hiroshi sees this as the only time that he can redeem himself to his daughter, and he sacrifices his life to allow Team Avatar to continue the fight.
Hiroshi’s death is interesting. One aspect is that it doubles down on Korra’s new found commitment to not treating life as sacred. A tonal shift from Avatar that has been a real boon to this series. Adding a heightened sense of danger to these usual combat encounters. However it also highlights the character weaknesses that exist in Korra. Hiroshi isn’t really a character, mainly just an antithesis to how Asami acts, merely a reflection for her emotional state. That is true for many of the people that populate the show. Because of the unwieldy structure of the series more has always been added without frequently digging deeper. If Hiroshi were more than an subvillain and the first season and a few mentions later on, this might have hit harder. Still it’s a nice moment for Asami to work with her father, and I like how it’s played in the final sequence of the show itself.
So there’s now an opening for Team Avatar to get inside the mech and stop Kuvira. They have their Avengers shot, jump into the camera and meet their destiny. One more time into the breach.
The Last Stand
Do any of you, dear readers, stay around for the end credits in The Legend of Korra? I imagine that not many have. Watching the credits for a television program seems wildly outmoded in this day and age of Netflix skips. But Korra suffered from this problem on air as well. The credits usually shoved to the side of the screen to make an extra 15 seconds of episode to appear on the TV.
It’s a shame, because the credits are really quite lovely. A graceful gliding shot over the bay into Republic City. The image is accompanied by a melancholic piece of music. A reworking of the main theme into a more subdued key with sparse orchestration. For the 20 or so seconds it plays during every episode it turns whatever bombast was present into something more ruminative. A reflection on how the story played out and for the audience to consider.
The music for the credits is important because it’s been transformed here in “The Last Stand.” The simple and sparse melody is now shrouded in dreamy stings, echoey effects, and an added leitmotif that calls upon the closing music from Avatar. The concluding chords of the franchise so far an airy reminder of everything that has come before. The sound is fuller and more robust than the similar moment found in Airbender, but it also simultaneously much more thoughtful and reflective. Because as the measures of melody play out, and important idea is heard. Korra may have won the day, and is now celebrating at a wedding, but this is not truly the end. Despite what the titles may say. No, what Korra has learned is that there is no end, only a cycle, an ebb and flow of successes and disappointments, a world of constant change.
For as much as the structure of Korra has been a roadblock for the program to achieve coherence and sustained excellence, it allows us to leave with a new theme. One that cements the finale as nothing so conclusive. There is always something ahead, whether it be a new enemy, or here a new transformation of a relationship. One from platonic to romantic. The future is not determined, and there is time for the new and seemingly impossible. So why not take a a trip with your friend, or maybe something more than friend, into the newly opened Spirit World. After all everyone deserves a rest.
As stated in the introduction, it’s hard to not to be fully consumed by the final act of “The Last Stand.” It’s a turning point in modern American television. A big deal that upon reflection seems crazy that it was such a big deal, and conversely still in fact feels like a big deal. The world, and our culture and reaction to representation of LGBTQ people, has changed so much in the intervening six years that it’s easy to write off what happens here as not enough. Korra and Asami merely hold hands and gaze longingly at each other, there’s not a hug nor a kiss to seal the growth in their dynamic.
But I think that misses the point, because it’s not just this moment, it’s the music, and the conversation to lead up to it, and the final place that Korra comes to after defeating Kuvira. Indeed the end is a cumulation of many things, the wait of character defined by change bringing perhaps some of the biggest change to the landscape of animation primarily aimed at kids.
So what got us to this point. A vacation in the Spirit World. Well it’s mostly some primo animated action of course. With Team Avatar inside the mech it’s time to tear the whole thing down. Su and Lin disrupt the weaponry, Mako and Bolin shut down the power, and Korra’s off to fight Kuvira head on. Su and Lin’s escapades are the slightest, but they are filled with bunch neato bits of metalbending. There’s a brief duel with a guard that’s fun, but my favorite quick shot is the two sisters strapping themselves in as the mech falls apart.
Mako and Bolin’s plan to shut down the power is shockingly tense and effective. It starts with a truly great piece of action from the brothers. Here highlighted by a lava disc that Bolin uses as a saw and weapon against his opponents. But even with the guards disposed of and the switches thrown there seems to be no effect. So here Mako decides to make his own self sacrifice. Mako as a character has really been adrift in the series for a while. He works much better as the dopey friend who seems cool, but he hasn’t been given much direction this season. But his stuff with Bolin plays well, and their possible final goodbye is pretty effective, an acknowledgement that this could be it.
As I stated before, ever since The Earth Queen choked the show has played much faster and looser with the possibility of character deaths. Displayed by Hiroshi just minutes before this moment. And so when Mako takes up the stand and begins to shock the energy core to blow the whole thing to smithereens I was actually quite convinced that he would die in a blaze of self sacrifice (at least the first time I watched through). The way the music swells, his wilding hair, and the way the electricity burns his arm made me think this could be it. The fact that he’s saved by Bolin isn’t really a cheat, Avatar can rarely hang the threat of death effectively, and it does so here with aplomb.
Which leaves us with Korra. I love that the second duel between The Avatar and The Great Uniter has completely different set up than the first. In “The Battle of Zaofu” we were treated to a wide arena for battle, here we get a confined room where every implement can be turned into a weapon. Combine that with the up and down nature of the gyroscopic platform that Kuvira stands on, and boy howdy you’ve got a stew.
I love that the trackballs Kuvira uses to control the mech can be transformed in weapons. The two duke it out by forcing each other against walls and dragging bodies through metal. There’s a great back and forth energy to the proceedings as each put the other off balance to get the upper-hand. Alas for Kuvira her mech is being torn asunder, and she can’t control the destruction of her weapon and contest the Avatar at the same time. So when the whole thing comes crumbling down it seems like it’s over until Kuvira scampers off into the spirit wilds.
There she finds her cannon still intact, and Korra pleads with her to stop this nonsense. But Kuvira is currently in too deep, and shoots her final shot. The energy begins to coalesce around the vines in manner that causes the power to increase. More and more the laser blows, until at the last second Korra steps in front of Kuvira and bends the energy. This force causes the creation of a new spirit portal and sends Korra and Kuvira into the spirit world.
This is Korra’s final step as Avatar, and I think it’s a fascinating one. For as much as she is the person action and aggression, her final move is one of pure defense. Not just saving the city, but the life of Kuvira. It might seem puzzling, but it makes sense. Kuvira is the Avatar without the legacy. One born out of pure necessity and trained not to considered the totality of the world in her actions. Korra knows that the actions Kuvira took were wrong, but her grace here is a move of power and prestige. Korra did what Kuvira could not, protect the lives of the people in Republic City through something other than an attack. Through this Korra demonstrates that when she could have stopped her enemies through killing, she decided not to, and thus allowed for a more peaceful amnesty. For now Kuvira willfully surrenders her power as leader of the Earth Empire.
This conclusion is, to my mind, a more nuanced take on what Airbender tried to accomplish with Ozai. Ozai was never really a character, merely a force that moved the plot forward. Kuvira is arguably the same thing. A dictatorial power that propels the action. However Korra’s decisons are a greater demonstration to her opponent of how she, and not Kuvira, has the abilities to intervene in the world, to bring balance. So much of Korra is about how the legitimacy of the Avatar has been challenged, here we see how this world is structured to need it’s hero. That’s certainly a thematic end that could be questioned, any story hinging on a messiah will bring such queries, but as a resolution to who Korra is as The Avatar, it is quite satisfying.
So the world has been saved, and what better way to celebrate than at the wedding of Varrick and Zhu Li. Everyone’s dressed to the nines, the band is playing, and fireworks streak across the sky. There are a few final conversations to have. Mako talks to Wu about his prospects as king, and the prince decides that he was never cut out for leadership in the first plays and offers democratic reform. Korra talks to Mako and thanks him for helping her through everything. Tenzin talks to Korra, and the two reconcile the suffering Korra has gone through and how it made her more open to the grace she provided Kuvira. This final conversation again underscores Korra’s new understanding of the world, pain and failure will be inevitable, but she can’t let the fear of what might happen stop her from moving forward.
At last Korra and Asami speak. They gaze out at the newly formed spirit portal. It’s light casting a delicate glow over the purple and blue mountains. Korra wants to apologize for being gone for so long, and Asami she doesn’t need to be sorry. They’ve been through a lot recently, and it can be hard, but now’s not the time for pity and grief. So let’s take a break. However brief it may be. A vacation in the spirit world.
So the strings strike up, and the two start a new adventure, together, alone, and full of possibility. And even though the words “The End” grace the screen this is merely another step in their journey. Both together and in the world at large. So it goes, on and on and on, the next chapter, the next thing in a life filled with joy and terror. It never really ends, and for now, in this moment, that’s the best news in the world.
Odds an Ends
- Varrick’s full name is Sir Iknik Blackstone Varrick, I wonder if any other characters have full names that we aren’t aware of.
- Tahno and the Council Page have seemingly formed a band together.
- Wish this episode didn’t share a title with a bad X-Men movie.
- Is the creation of the spirit portal a reference to Akira? You bet it is.
- Yes the colors at the end are a reference to the official bisexual flag.
- Speaking of which. Both showrunners had to come out and blatantly state that Korra and Asami were in a relationship. That they wished they could have made it more explicit on the show, but the network shut them down on any closer gestures. This is the final indignity of Korra from Nick. Limiting what is a historic moment on media.
- Though credit where credit is due. Even though I haven’t read the comics, I’ve seen enough panels where Korra and Asami are fully affectionate to give this a little more oomph. That plus the recent Kyoshi books really drive home that this franchise is committed to its queer characters.
- Will it continue? When I started writing Re-Avatar State there seemed like a possibility to the sudden re-popularity of both programs would lead to a third series. But with the Netflix live action project in a weird limbo with Mike and Bryan stepping aside I don’t really know what the future is besides books. Anyway pitch me your best third series ideas in the comments.
- Finally, thanks for reading! This has been a long and time consuming process, but I’m so glad that people got to experience two of my favorite TV programs along with me. Whether it be a rewatch or for the first time. I’ve got more plans in the future that aren’t episode by episode breakdowns, so stick around to find out what’s coming next. For now my watch has ended.