This post contains spoilers for the season one finale of The Legend of Korra.
Back when The Legend of Korra first aired, I wrote up a post that served to give my first impressions of the series, and to give a decent encapsulation of my thoguhts on The Last Airbender, which I’d just finished watching. In that post I talked a little about worldbuilding, and how it was put to good use in the Avatar cartoons. Now Korra is over, and I’m not disappointed. Some people are, less than twenty-four hours after the finale aired. Some people think the ending was too sweet and perfect, a little too well gift-wrapped. Not complex or bittersweet enough.
I disagree. Because worldbuilding. The ending of Korra — and by “ending” I mean they very ending, as in the last two scenes — took everything we know about the world of Avatar and reflected it back on us. The more I think about how the story ends, the more I realize those scenes were framed to put the viewer directly into the world… so s/he could understand the world, by applying what s/he knows about it. Not just from the point of view of a dude on his couch watching a cartoon, but from the point of view of in inhabitant of the world, and what the sequence of events must look and feel like.
First, though, I want to ask a quick question, assuming for a moment you’re an American male. Are you signed up for the selective service? Actually that’s kind of a stupid question because, if you’re an American male, you are. I mean, there’s no alternative; American males are forced to do that. What it means is, young males can be drafted and made to go to war. Now, the US hasn’t actually instituted a draft since Vietnam, and there’s not much danger of it happening anytime soon. For all intents and purposes there isn’t a draft anymore. Not anytime in my generation, anyway, and much of my generation now has children of their own. Two living generations for which a military draft is just a Thing That Happened, sometime before they were born. But for the generation before mine, for our parents and their parents and so on, it was a very real and tangible thing.
That’s how quickly an important, world-defining idea can change. For my grandfather and my uncle it came to define their lives. For me it’s just a thing I had to do, and then forget about. That’s how quickly the idea fades. It’s how current events become history.
Now we’re going to apply this very real concept to the world of Avatar. Dig this screenshot:
At the front of this crowd is Aang, the avatar from The Last Aibrender. Behind him are Roku and Kyoshi, the avatars before him. And then hundreds of previous avatars, an uncountable amount, stretching back into antiquity. Avatars can live to be ancient, so say maybe a hundred years times however many avatars are in that shot. The cycle of the avatar was an expected and predictable thing for the entirety of that time. At any point in human history, there was an avatar, and the avatar’s purpose was known and revered.
Until Roku died.
Because, see, Aang didn’t become the avatar and fulfill his purpose; he fell into the ocean and got frozen in a block of ice. For a hundred years. During which time the world was engulfed in war. From the point of view of someone living in the world at the time, the avatar died and then the world went to hell. And that was the end of the story, for four or five generations; Roku was The Last Avatar, and then everything sucked.
We-the-viewer know how that story really ends, of course; Aang is discovered, finishes his training, ends the war, and builds Republic City. But the world he came into was not the world he left. The world Aang awoke to was a World With No Avatar. To the people of that time, the avatar was no longer a person you could talk to, or who could do things. The avatar was an idea. An outdated concept from antiquity. Aang’s allies struggle with seeing him as a person, rather than the nebulous dream of a better life. And his enemies misidentify him as an anomaly to be destroyed, because from their point of view “no avatar” is the normal state of things. Sometimes this confusion works to Aang’s benefit, sometimes to his detriment. But the fact remains: nobody in the world was prepared to receive the avatar when he returned.
The idea of a military draft faded into history in our culture in less than forty years. The world of Avatar had more than twice that time to forget about the avatar. And, in every practical sense, they did.
That world, the avatar-less world embroiled in war, still exists in the living memory for some people at the beginning of Korra. We don’t know how old Aang was when he died, but we do know how long he’s been dead. Anyone older than Korra, but younger than Katara, wouldn’t know a World With No Avatar. Rather, they know a World With One Avatar: Aang. Roku and all the avatars before him are ancient history, but Aang was practically a deity. He rescued the world from war, brought people together like never before. Like they never had to be brought together before, because there had never before been such a disruption in the cycle. Not only that, but “avatar” would be synonymous with “airbender” to these people; neither had existed for a hundred years, until this guy showed up who was both. People Korra’s age, or even Lin Bae Fong’s, can understand intellectually what the world must have been like before Aang came… but they can’t really know, just like I can’t really know what it’s like to be drafted.
Right away, right in the first episode of Korra, we see how much the avatar cycle has changed. The cycle did not just consist of death and rebirth. For an average citizen of the world, there would be some lag time after the death of one avatar but before the realization of the next one. Roku’s ascension was probably typical; he was informed as a young adult and then began his training, which took a number of years. Aang’s was highly irregular; his identity was known to some of his mentors, who made the decision to inform him several years early out of necessity. Korra’s was more irregular still; she was identified and informed as a very young child, and her training began immediately. Korra’s training completed at around the same age Roku’s — and every prior avatars’ — began.
In that first episode, the White Lotus (repurposed by Aang to safeguard the avatar and oversee her training) arrives at the house of Korra’s parents. They say they’ve already investigated a number of claims; their search has been ongoing. They were in a hurry to find the next avatar. Why? Because there was no tradition to fall back on. Because the population as a whole had lived their whole lives with one single avatar in living memory — and now he was dead. Because who knew if the world could afford to wait sixteen years for the new avatar, wherever she is, to begin her training.
And the world did need Korra. That’s the first aspect of how impressive the worldbuilding in this series is, how it can show society’s response change over the course of several generations. Most avatars probably aren’t needed immediately upon the death of the previous one. Most lived normal lives until Roku’s age. Then some solemn, bearded men came bearing strange news. Aang was needed immediately, so that pattern was broken, but he was still old enough to expect a normal life for himself, and lash out immaturely when it was denied him. Korra didn’t even have a chance for a normal life, because the new orders were to find the avatar as soon as possible. After all, who knows what will happen that requires her attention?
The second aspect of worldbuilding I found so impressive was how well Korra’s story mirrored Aang’s. It was as similar as it was different, and the differences were meaningful to the setting. For one, Korra is very near to Aang’s polar opposite. She is violent and impulsive. Well-trained, but under-confident. She has great affinity for elements Aang struggled with, but no aptitude for the one he had mastered. She is a wholly material person, while Aang was deeply spiritual. But they have this in common: neither was trained on how to be the avatar. Not the way Roku was, I mean. Aang had to complete his training in the shadows, in The World With No Avatar. And while he could learn the elements, nobody was around anymore to teach him about his spiritual duties. Those things, he had to learn on his own, with pointed nudges from his past lives.
Korra certainly had no want of trainers, but since she was born into the World With One Avatar, she likewise has nobody to train her in her spiritual duties. For hundreds of years the avatar was a cycle, and then Roku died, and then a long disruption. Then the avatar was no longer a cycle, but a man named Aang, who was at once the avatar and the world’s only airbender. The best anyone can do to teach Korra how to be the avatar is to teach her to be Aang, except she isn’t Aang, so that doesn’t work. The glowy-eye stuff, Korra has to figure out for herself, just like Aang did.
Another thing Korra has in common with Aang: her story is largely about cleaning up the mess of the previous avatar. The events that set The Last Airbender into motion largely occured because of the weaknesses of Avatar Roku; he was unable to destroy a great evil in the world, because that evil took the shape of his best friend. Had Roku been stronger, more able, less human and more avatar, the Fire Nation would have never become corrupted, the war never would have begun, and there would have not been such a huge disruption in the avatar cycle. Aang had to fix what Roku broke.
But Aang broke things too. Because of his airbending training, or perhaps his young age, Aang was a pacifist who refused to kill his opponents. One of the last things he does before embarking on his final journey to defeat the Fire Lord is commune with his past lives about how to solve the problem without killing anyone. He is told, by avatar after avatar, including previous airbenders, that there is no way around it. To save the world and end the war, Aang must kill Fire Lord Ozai.
Instead, Aang found another solution: he developed a way to take away Ozai’s bending, thereby allowing him to live. And while this solution put the endcap on Roku’s problems, it started a few problems of its own. Years later, Aang tried the same trick on a new threat named Yakone, a new type of villain Aang had not faced before. Yakone wasn’t a military or political leader; he was a gangster. He had access to resources Aang couldn’t understand or redirect. Putting a deposed king into a dungeon is one thing; locking a gangster up in a municipal prison after due course of law is something very different. When Aang tried to bring Yakone down using the courts, Yakone used his magic powers to escape. When Aang took Yakone’s bending to make him easier to lock up, Yakone’s gangster buddies busted him out.
The proper way to eliminate Yakone was to kill him, as countless avatars would have advised (including Korra, if only Aang could have asked her!). But Aang didn’t do that, and so Yakone survived to have sons, who devoted their lives to tearing down the things Aang had built. And nobody thought to correct Aang during his lifetime, because that was a period during which “avatar” and “airbender” were synonymous; an avatar who didn’t act like an airbender didn’t make any sense to them.
It comes to pass that Korra has to clean up Aang’s mess.
The next question is, how? And the answer is: the same way Aang cleaned up Roku’s. Aang became more powerful an avatar than Roku was. Aang surpassed Roku by developing an ability no other avatar had knowledge of. That ability eventually became corrupted, bastardized, and used as a tool of fear and strife. And so Korra must become more powerful than Aang; she develops the means to restore bending, to reverse the process that Aang pioneered.
Aang’s methods are no longer appropriate in the world. Korra can’t just go around taking bending away from her enemies. For one, that makes her just the same as the villain she worked so hard to defeat. And for another, her world is very different from Aang’s in that non-benders have considerable technological power. You can’t attack a charging battle mech by blocking its chi.
She can begin the healing process though, by restoring the bending Amon had stolen. It’s just the opposite of how Airbender ended; Aang takes bending away, Korra returns it. But it’s also just the same: the avatar identifies what it is the world needs, and then supplies it. This ability is exclusive to Korra. I do not believe Aang was able to restore bending the way Korra does; he always makes it very clear to his targets that he’s taking away their bending “for good”. As far as Aang ever knew, the process was not reversible. He didn’t consider a world where such a reversal was necessary to restore balance. He only realizes his error after his death, once it’s too late to fix, and it’s some new avatar’s problem. Just like Roku before him. The cycle closes.
There’s a reason Korra’s defining moment of triumph didn’t come during the battle with Amon, where she first airbends, or during her conversation with Aang, where her other elements are returned. Her triumph, the moment that makes Katara smile with recognition and Tenzin stand agape with astonishment, is when she restores Lin’s earthbending. Lin lifting a circle of boulders… that’s Korra’s victory. That’s the Korra the writers want implanted on our brains as we wait for season two. Only by not being like Aang does Korra finally become a fully-realized avatar. Only by becoming his opposite can she restore balance.
That is what I got out of the last few minutes of the Korra finale. It made me think about what it really means to have an avatar, and what that person must be like from generation to generation. And it made me wonder what unique challenges Korra faces in particular, what with being the first avater after the Only Avatar Anyone Remembers, who single-handedly saved the world and built all of modern society.
And that, in turn, makes me excited for the next season, and for the Avatar world in general. Because Korra is flawed, too. (Violent, impulsive, etc.) What kind of mess will she leave for some poor, unsuspecting earthbender to have to come and clean up?