Do We Still Need the Avatar?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Three years later and an episode without the Avatar

If the Legend of Aang was a story about how Aang slowly grew into the role of the Avatar that the world needed him to be, the Legend of Korra is in many ways the story about how Korra struggled to cope with her desire to act as the Avatar in a world that would rather move on. Each season we see a threat to the very existence of the Avatar — Amon wanted to get rid of all bending, Unalaq wanted to destroy the spirit that powered the Avatar1, and Zaheer wanted to lift any kind of social structure altogether. We’ve seen attacks on the Avatar’s power, soul and purpose. So it’s no surprise that Korra, so excited about being the Avatar since she was a kid, has all but abandoned that identity at the start of Book 4.

What’s perhaps even more telling, once you think about it, is how normal this episode of Korra felt despite the lack of the Avatar. Things keep ticking. Whereas in every episode of the original series, we got some reminder of Aang’s responsibility to the world, now everything’s pretty much covered. Mako’s covering the next prince of the Earth Kingdom. Kuvira and Bolin are reunifying the Earth Kingdom territories. The Air Nation is acting like a small superhero team cleaning up various messes. Republic City’s president and Asami are making the city more modern and more functional. Korra’s father is still in charge of the Water Tribes. I didn’t even realize that we hadn’t checked into Korra until the very end of the episode2.

Kuvira and the Earth Kingdom

Our main villain this time around is a character we briefly got introduced to last season. She was a member of Suyin’s guard then, and now has made the jump to the leader of an army. Not sure how that happened, but I suppose three years is a long time3. Kuvira’s probably the least interesting villain that this show has come up with, largely because the past few villains have really aimed for high stakes, while Kuvira’s villainy seems limited to bullying Earth Kingdom territories. I trust this show enough to wait out and see where this builds up to.

The immediate repercussions of Kuvira’s actions appear to be on Prince Wu, who is facing anger from Kuvira’s supporters. There’s an impending military vs monarchy showdown here, and while the Earth Kingdom monarchy has been nothing short of incompetent and often worse, it’s hard to argue that a military coup would make the Kingdom better. It would really be fascinating if the Earth Kingdom became an aggressor similar to the Fire Nation of old. We’ve always sympathized with the Earth Kingdom as they were the attacked, but seriously, their governance has always sucked.

Future of the Avatar

Korra is currently in Republic City, willingly4 getting beat up by earth benders. I’m not sure how soon she’s going to jump back in the fray — I certainly don’t think the impending Earth Kingdom revolution is going to be what kickstarts the Avatar. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that the Red Lotus is gone for good, and given the name of this season, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a bit more of Raava and Vaatu as well. The ability to tie the spiritual aspects of the Avatar with the gritty details of what’s going down on the ground is one this show’s major storytelling strengths, and I’m looking forward to how it’s going to be folded in this season.

This episode sets a good base for a potentially climactic season. Unlike Aang’s journey, which had a very clear end state (did anyone doubt he’d beat Ozai?), it’s hard to know what’s in store for Korra. Is this the end of the Avatar? Are we going to see a fundamental reinterpretation of the Avatar’s responsibilities? Did Unalaq foresee the inevitable with his Dark Avatar creation? Personally, I’m looking forward to an Avatar powered by both Raava and Vaatu. It’s the complete uncertainty that gives this book so much potential. I can’t wait.

Stray Observations

  • Bolin and Opal are having some friction. I’m not sure why Bolin’s working with Kuvira, but seriously, it took three years for him to realize Opal’s family and Kuvira aren’t really tight anymore?

  • Republic City seems pretty chill with spirits now. They also don’t appear to want to go anywhere else. Lucky they decided to build the city on such a spiritual hub.

  • Milo is the best.

  1. Wanted, and succeeded. Unalaq is the only villain that actually temporarily achieves his objectives, and to some extent he destroys any remnant of Aang and other Avatars from this universe. 

  2. It’s interesting, given Legend of Korra’s wider focus on the world, how similar this episode is in structure to a show like Game of Thrones. It’s not just about where the protagonist is anymore. There almost really isn’t a singular protagonist anymore. 

  3. This kind of jump is one of the reasons I hate big time jumps in stories. The Dark Knight Rises was the worst here. 

  4. At least, that’s my interpretation. It’s also possible that Korra was affected far more gravely physically by Zaheer’s poison, and even three years of recovery have been unable to get her bending back to a suitable state. But I don’t think she’d be in Republic City if that were the case.