Friday, December 19, 2014

Review - "The Legend of Korra" Finale

Spoilers for The Legend of Korra after the jump:

In discussing the incredibly great The Legend of Korra finale, I don't want to spend too much time rehashing my complaints about the way Avatar: The Last Airbender wrapped things up. But I'd also be lying if I said it wasn't one of the things in the back of my mind as I've watched Korra thrillingly barrel towards this ending over the past two seasons. Avatar is a better series than its sequel; there's a sense of purpose and richness to the major arcs of the former that was sorely lacking in the Amon and Unalaq years of the latter. And while those first two seasons have their virtues (some great action, that fantastic "Beginnings" two-parter, etc.), it really took Korra until book three to consistently get off the ground. Another occasional detriment to the series has been the shorter seasons; while there are fewer filler episodes with this model, it also means there's been less time to really build long-term character arcs as effective as, say, Zuko's was. This is especially a hindrance for a series that has such a deep bench of great supporting players to rely on. Indeed, my only major complaint about the finale is one that I have with book four as a whole as well: that it just didn't have the time to give proper send-offs to everyone. And certainly the final scene between Kuvira and Korra, while plenty great as is, could have been so much better had we gotten to know Kuvira a bit better.

That said, it occurred to me after I was done watching "Day of the Colossus" and "The Last Stand" that, while it undoubtedly has its drawbacks, the speed with which Legend of Korra moved in books three and four is part of what ultimately allowed it to craft a far more satisfying ending (and overall, far more satisfying concluding season) than its predecessor. If a few moments do inevitably feel rushed, on the whole I vastly prefer the lean, taut, and varied action of this pair of episodes to the endless internal debating and protracted one-on-one duel that dominated "Sozin's Comet". And with so much material to pack in, every single non-action beat also has to zero in on exactly who these people are, or who they've become. Thus we get scenes that speak to the sibling bonds between Su and Lin (and Bolin and Mako), Varrick's proposal to Zhu Li, and thankfully no return to the justly-discarded Mako/Korra relationship of the early seasons. (More on that in a bit.) Every moment lands, and does so in a way that stays true to the characters we've come to love, while also showing just how much the show itself has grown over these past two seasons.

I'm particularly impressed by how well the final season handled Kuvira. While her arc did suffer some from our not getting to see her full transformation from well-intentioned unifier to totalitarian despot, she (along with Zaheer before her) was a welcome return to antagonists with a great deal of humanity and charisma. Both villains also had underlying ideologies that were thought through and taken seriously by the writers, in a way that book one never really did with Amon's anti-bending sentiments. In short, they were people, and just as fascinating to watch as anyone on the show. If I had to pick just one reason why books three and four worked so much better than the first two, the massive improvement in villain characterization would be it. What's more, Korra allowed these villains to remain dangerously skilled and self-aware foes to the very end. Kuvira's surrender after finally realizing the depths of the destruction she's caused may seem a little anticlimactic to some, but for me it has much more of an impact than Azula's descent into madness in the Avatar finale, because it feels utterly in keeping with the type of person she was.

Another terrific development is the apparent end to the Earth Kingdom monarchy, which finally rectifies a sticking point I've had with Legend of Korra for a long time: its heroes always fighting to preserve a highly problematic status quo. It's why the Amon stuff bugs me so much: he was right about the problems that bending can cause. But the fact that he himself was a bender was used as an excuse to sweep the issues he raised under the rug. I feared a similar thing happening with the Earth Kingdom, with the justness of Zaheer's revolutionary aims ignored due to his immoral methods. Instead, someone finally acknowledges the problems having a monarchy can cause. That it happens to be Wu—who would still have made a terrible king, regardless of his surprisingly effective actions in the last few episodes—is a pretty neat twist. Couple that with Toph's speech earlier in the season tying the three previous villains together, and you've got some pretty clear evidence of a show that has learned from its earlier mistakes.

No learning is necessary with the action setpieces, however, which have been a consistent strength of the series from day one. Bit I'm still thrilled with how this one played out, particularly after being thoroughly nonplussed by the majority of Avatar's final battle. I used the word "varied" to describe the action, and that to me is what sets this apart from the spectacular monotony of Aang vs. Ozai: it never stays in the same place for too long. While there is ultimately a Kuvira/Korra confrontation, it is nowhere near as long or repetitive; indeed, great pains are taken to make it distinct from most of the show's previous climactic one-on-one battles, with the confined space of the mecha suit's interior proving a most imaginative setting for a fight. Likewise, the city setting greatly enlivens the earlier attempt to break into the robot, with a gigantic building at one point being used as a weapon in an effort to stop it. Stellar use of terrain is something that all the best Avatar universe action scenes have in common, and this one certainly delivers on that count.

So, action, politics, great villains . . . what's left? Oh, romance, you say? That word has often been a dreaded one when it comes to both Avatar and Korra, which have tended to awkwardly shoehorn in romantic plotlines without giving much thought to whether there's a believable basis for them: sometimes even passing over other avenues (Katara and Zuko, anyone?) that could have been considerably more compelling in the interests of sticking to their initial plan. I have no idea if a Korra/Asami relationship was the plan from the beginning of season three, or if it's something many fans picked up on as the season went on, causing the writers to become aware of it. (Update: apparently they started considering it pretty early on, according to a blog post from one of the show's creators.)  But in any case, the gradual deepening of their bond over the course of two seasons has had a level of subtlety that, historically, the love stories on both these shows have lacked. That plus the fact that this is, after all, a children's cartoon had me reasonably sure that this was never actually going to happen. Or, worse, that it was going to get shoved aside for a rekindling of the Korra/Mako relationship that was one of the more irritating parts of the early seasons.

And then it didn't. Instead, we got this.

Plenty of others have already discussed how important this moment is. But beyond the obvious cultural significance, it's also a case of The Legend of Korra actively and carefully developing a relationship, as opposed to simply throwing two characters together just because it feels it should. And my god, did it pay off beautifully in this finale. Ultimately, I think you can say the same about practically everything else in books three and four. Events from the former directly shaped much of what happened in the latter, finally giving the series the sense of cumulative impact it needed, and allowing it to step out of Avatar's shadow. It was fast: maybe a little too fast at times. But it was great, rich storytelling as well, and transformed Korra from merely an above-average sequel into an achievement that can almost rival the story of the Aang Gang. Not quite. But almost.

Other Thoughts

- Okay, so Bataar Jr. isn't going to be punished for his role in all of this? I get that he switched sides before the end, but giving a few minor pieces of information shouldn't wash away all his crimes. Unlike Bolin and Varrick, he knew exactly what was going on. Doesn't feel right for them to throw the book at Kuvira and not him, so hopefully that isn't what will happen. 

- Zhu Li dipping Varrick was perfect. I still think it would have been more fun seeing her actually turn to the dark side, but that moment was a thing of beauty, so I guess I'm cool with it.

- Hiroshi's sacrifice was poignant, but that's definitely one thing that might have been a little more impactful had we gotten a couple more episodes of him and Asami reconciling.

- Season five premiere: everyone freaks out because Asami and Korra didn't think to leave a note.

- Favorite episodes? Besides these two (which probably stand at the head of the pack for me), the "Beginnings" two-parter, "A New Spiritual Age", "In Harm's Way", "Long Live the Queen", "Enter the Void", "Venom of the Red Lotus", "Korra Alone", and "Beyond the Wilds" are among the main standouts in my eyes.

- Avatar universe season ranking: Korra S3 > Avatar S2 > Korra S4 > Avatar S1 > Avatar S3 > Korra S2 > Korra S1. (Season two of Korra being ahead of season one is probably an unpopular pick, but I stand by it. The latter was more consistent, maybe, but for my money it also wasted so much more potential. And season two has several of the best episodes of the entire series.)

- It's been a pleasure, Legend of Korra. So long, and thanks for the greatness that is these last two seasons. (And for some of the stuff that came before it too.)

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