Been a while since I wrote a piece of Korra analysis, so I figured it was high time to get back on the wagon. As a note, this will not be flattering. Just so you know that going in.
I’ve been thinking about it lately, and in my view the failings of “Korra” as a series stem mainly from Bryke’s refusal to problematize or flaw their protagonists in any major way.
Korra’s privileged status is brushed under the rug with a shrug when she basically says “Poverty? What’s that? I got everything handed to me growing up.” Barring one sidelong glance from Mako, it never gets brought up again.
Korra driving a wedge between Mako and Asami’s relationship is painted relentlessly as Korra putting it all on the line in order to lay claim to her “soul mate”, and most all of Asami’s feelings about this are disregarded as being paltry and insignificant. Mako’s pulling of what I like to call a “Scott Pilgrim” is excused as him being a confused adolescent in the ways of love… despite the fact that growing up an orphan on the streets has clearly aged him into an adult in every other possible way, far before his time. But hey, he’s a protagonist, so he gets a pass from the narrative judgment corner.
Likewise, the designation and rigidity of the protagonists leaves little to no room for well-rounded or sympathetic people on the other side of the conflict. All we see from the Equalists in terms of a leader-figure is Amon, and he’s painted pretty starkly as an extremist terrorist. Not once is a moderate faction of Equalists seen in numbers large enough to stand on their own as a political group. And in the same vein, not once is a moderate Equalist political figure seen vying for a seat on the Republic City Council, or at least preaching reconciliation rather than using destructive rhetoric. Clearly, the massive size of the rally Hiroshi presided over in the finale was meant to convince us that all of the Equalists were in attendance, because surely none of them had issues with the fact that Amon was about to brutally murder a large chunk of Republic City’s civilian (and likely also non-Bending) population with a bunch of high-powered explosives. Not once was there a scene of any Equalists looking on in horror at the carnage caused by said bombing attack, or a moment of pathos as a Bender and non-Bender helped each other rebuild their devastated homes.
Because we can’t have our designated antagonists be sympathetic, now can we? The series only comes close to that rarely, and it hedges its bets even then. There’s the moment when Korra is forced to confront the fact that not all Equalists are terrible people when Tarrlok finally decides to go full-on Fascist in the slums. This moment of sympathy from Korra is quickly brushed under the rug and never spoken of again, however, and the scene shifts instantly back to the ongoing power struggle between Korra and Tarrlok, with Mako and Co. being used as the pawns.
Another moment is Amon’s betrayal of the Lieutenant. Which, although poignant, happens simultaneously with Amon’s assault on Korra and, as such, gets backburnered. We don’t even get a flashback from the Lieutenant’s POV, or an apology from Amon. Lieu just gets chucked into a pile of boxes, and then Amon goes back to terrorizing Korra’s soul. And it says something that that moment of betrayal was far more heart-wrenching than anything that happened to the protagonists, period. And yes, that includes Lin’s Bending being taken away, because the Finale completely ruined that moment for me in hindsight.
In order to get to the core of what causes this dissonance in tone that Korra seems to suffer from so badly, I’m going to bring two other series onto the discussion table: “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire”.
These series might seem wildly different at first glance, but they have one incredibly important thing in common with each other that Korra lacks entirely: they’re written more as tragedies than as straight-forward heroic narratives.
I mean that in the sense that they have casts full of flawed, realistic characters, and no demarcated protagonists or antagonists. Their narrative structures don’t force us to judge any given character in a particular way. Nor does the writing itself bend over backwards to excuse or gloss over anyone’s flaws, as “Korra” is guilty of.
In “Game of Thrones”, each House has sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. There are people we like and root for, and people we outright despise— but the people we like and root for often have amoral or unlikable characteristics, and the characters we originally dislike very often redeem themselves through their actions in the narrative. By not forcing a particular view on its audience, the series allows for each of us to interpret the characters as we see them, flaws and all.
“The Wire” is also quite similar, in that there are cops and politicians on the anti-drug side of the war on drugs that act just as corruptly and lawlessly as the drug dealers whom they fight against. And there are drug dealers who’re literally just kids, forced into life on “the corner” by social circumstances that they had no way of directly influencing themselves. Anyone who’s seen the show will understand what I mean when I hold up McNulty, Prez, Wallace, Stringer Bell and D’Angleo Barksdale as proof positive that “The Wire” lets its characters tell their stories, and leaves judgment solely up to you as the viewer.
So, why did I mention those two other series, and particularly in a tragic context? Because “Korra” is a series that tries— and fails— to fit a tragic story inside of a heroic mold. It shies away from moral complexity and ambiguity at the same time its core narrative demands a multi-faceted approach. The only time it comes close to embracing a tragic stance on its narrative is in the resolution of Tarrlok and Noatak’s narrative arcs, but even then the conclusion rings false and empty. Are we supposed to get pathos out of Tarrlok’s murder/fratricide/suicide? Is that really a convincing way to wrap up their “sad story”? Wouldn’t a flash-forward scene of the two of them, years later, having a short conversation to show that they’d put their demons behind them have been much more fulfilling?
The closest parallel to this I can think of is Achilles’ reconciliation with Priam at the end of the Iliad: how much emptier would that scene have been if Achilles had chosen to kill himself as penance for his mistreatment of Hector’s body, as opposed to coming to the recognition of what he had done, what it had truly cost, and weeping alongside his enemy in shared knowledge of war’s horror and inhumanity?
The failings of “Korra” stem from Bryke trying to grapple with concepts that the confines of their story doesn’t allow them to properly express. Be it an executive decision from Nick’s overlords not to make things too dark, or Bryke’s own decision not to over-complicate their narrative, the poignancy of the story suffers for it either way. Yes, “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire” are more adult-oriented series than “Korra”. But the fact remains that “Korra” still tried to deal with concepts on that more mature level, and botched it.
If you know going into writing a story that you won’t be able to treat a certain kind of plot point with the gravitas and respect it deserves, the answer to that quandary is simple: leave that plot point out, rather than trying to take the middle road between two choices and ending up with a 7-10 split at the end of the day.
This is the last major piece of “Korra” analysis I’ll be doing, unless someone takes the time to send me an ask specifically requesting my opinion on something.
Thanks for reading!