Third time’s the charm.
Season/Book 1 of The Legend of Korra, “Air”, was an enjoyable enough season of television that failed to live up to its potential due to weak romantic subplots and a significantly rushed ending. Book 2, “Spirits”, eventually fixed up some of the plot issues left by Book 1, but the road there was paved with bad writing, subpar animation, and small moments of brilliance that made the rest of it all the more frustrating. The recently finished Book 3, “Change”, is now the show’s first season that lives up to its potential, a good story well told with convincing character development and consequences. It’s finally captured the magic that made the preceding series Avatar: The Last Airbender so special.
And if you weren’t paying attention you might have missed it completely. Nickelodeon really didn’t know what they were doing with the show this year. The Spanish language dubs of a few episodes got leaked, so as damage control Nick rushed the episodes to air with only a few days’ notice and next to no promotion. Of course few people watched because few knew it was airing. Nick didn’t make it easy for fans to catch up either, not scheduling any reruns and refusing to do the simultaneous online roll-out they did for previous seasons. As of a month ago, they corrected that mistake and started uploading the episodes online… while simultaneously ceasing to air them on TV at all, and again doing this all with little promotion.
Why a show that had done so well for them previously was handled so poorly this year I don’t know. One theory that makes some sense is fear of the show’s content. The Avatar series have always been difficult for Nick to schedule amidst their other programming, but this season is the most “un-Nickelodeon” yet. Remember how scary bloodbending was? Imagine the even scarier airbending equivalent of that. Remember how shocking it was they ended Book 1 of Korra on a murder-suicide? At least no one’s head exploded back then. If this season’s violence wasn’t what got the execs worried, its approach to sexuality might have. Back when Korra started Nick was willing to greenlight a show about a teenage girl only on the grounds it worked with the one model they had for marketing fantasy series to teenage girls: Twilight-style love triangles. This was one of Book 1’s big downfalls, and Book 2 took forever to write itself out of it. Here in Book 3, however, the love triangle is officially gone. There’s zero hints of Korra and Mako ever getting back together. There’s minor romantic subplots for side characters, but the only character Korra shows any potential romantic interest in this year… is Asami. Yep, the non-bender industrialist who disappeared for much of Book 2 is back in a big way as Korra’s close partner, protector, and potential girlfriend (they say the g-word in the season premiere, and the season finale has Asami telling Korra she’ll do “anything” for her). If the ship isn’t officially canon yet, it certainly feels like it could be by the end of series.
Dropping the love triangle junk has allowed the characterization to improve a lot. Korra’s finally starting to mature into a quality leader, still feisty but now capable of learning from her mistakes. The writers have realized Mako and Bolin are much more entertaining when they’re working together as brothers than when they’re apart and their individual weaknesses become grating, and they’ve realized they shouldn’t force Mako into the “hero” role. Lin’s back after being mostly MIA last year with a great family story (though we still don’t know who her dad is!) and a better look at how metalbending’s evolved in the 70 years since her mother discovered it. Tenzin’s family have been the best characters throughout the series, and the world-changing events of Harmonic Convergence place them in a particularly emotional situation. This season focused on individual families, yet in the process made the larger family of Team Avatar stronger than it’s been since the Airbender days. The villains are the strongest this series has had. Zaheer does the well-intentioned extremist thing much more coherently and intimidatingly than Amon in Book 1 ended up being, and Ming Hua, the armless waterbender who uses bending to form arms and weapons, might be the coolest character design this show’s had.
The flaws there have been this season have been minimal compared to previous seasons. The show sometimes gets a bit obvious in its foreshadowing, but at least this year it only takes one episode rather than four for the heroes to realize the guy shot from constantly creepy camera angles is the bad guy. There’s still too many characters that it’s unclear if they’ll ever play a major part beyond the occasional plot convenience (is that one metalbender voiced by Zelda Williams going to show up ever again or she gonna be another General Iroh?). But these are minor complaints, and considering how much there was to nitpick about in previous seasons, that’s pretty impressive.
Yesterday’s finale was simply stunning. The action was incredible, taking bending powers to unexpected heights worthy of Superman. The political story embraced the power of the community to save the day from both the oppression of governments and the ruthlessness of anarchy. What’s most stunning about the episode, however, is how it manages to turn the entire series up to this point into a single coherent psychological arc. Up until now, one complaint it’s been easy to make about Korra is how unlike Airbender each season has been pretty disconnected from the last, barely touching upon the issues raised by the previous year. But this finale contextualizes all of the series’ different dilemmas with power, balance, leadership, and tradition as building up to one major dilemma. By the end of the episode, the antagonists are either dead or in prison, but Korra leaves hurt in more ways than one, and her enemies have scored one major victory: they’ve convinced her that they might just have been right.