By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Vox – Source
While the beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender has retained a well-deserved presence over the years, its arrival onto Netflix during 2020 quarantine ushered it into a recent
resurgence. It’s hard to imagine any new watchers leaving unsatisfied. Although Avatar may be a children’s cartoon, critics have repeatedly hailed it as one of the best television shows of all time, citing its stunning worldbuilding and timeless characters. The Last Airbender pushed the limits of what a children’s cartoon could be, and, despite its 2008 finale, its fanbase has increased every year. When all this is considered, it’s a little shocking that its sequel series — The Legend of Korra — never got the same amount of attention.
Nowadays, even the staunchest Avatar fans may not even know The Legend of Korra’s existence. When this show, starring a female Avatar, first started airing, some fans complained of its many differences from A:TLA and gave up watching. But, Korra arguably mined much of its originality from its commitment to pushing Avatar’s established concepts.
As a member of the Southern Water Tribe — a group that the creators based on the Inuit Nations of North America — Korra is one of the only female Indigenous leads in television history. In attempts to give her a character arc opposite to that of Aang’s, Korra was characterized as brashly confident and hot-headed. While this attitude turned some vocal viewers off from the show, for many, Korra was likely a breath of fresh air. She was a seventeen-year-old female protagonist who was given room to depict her strong emotions and confidently take up space.
To fit the older cast, co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino also looked to depict mature themes through villains a little more more complicated than Avatar’s Firelord Ozai. Season one’s main antagonist Amon claims to take people’s ‘bending’ abilities from them because he strives for a more equal society where ‘non-benders’ won’t be mistreated. In season three, the newly airbending anarchist Zaheer acts not out of selfish reasons, but because he genuinely believes harmony can only be achieved when the Avatar Cycle is ended and when those hoarding power and wealth are overthrown. When Zaheer does murder the Queen of the Earth Kingdom, he compares the taking of her life to the freedom that she as a dictator has taken from her people.
In their excellent designs of these more complex antagonists, Korra asks its audience to grapple with the validity and ethics of their actions, and maybe even with how their ideas might apply to the society we live in. Furthermore, the show’s final season sees Korra struggle with the trauma she has undergone as the world’s Avatar, something definitely unusual for a Nickelodeon cartoon and very unusual for a female protagonist. We watch as Korra tries to banish her fears and to return to who she once was, but gradually comes to the realization that the only way to begin healing is accepting the horrible things that have happened to her, and knowing that she will never be completely the same.
While Avatar’s finale focused mostly on the cataclysmic battle between Avatar Aang and Firelord Ozai, the final episode of Korra climaxed with Korra’s quiet realization that the power-hungry military dictator Kuvira was motivated by her own struggles in accepting the past. In choosing to have Korra’s story end so differently from Aang’s, the show’s creators committed to not trying to echo their former show’s glory, and did right by its main character in giving her the ending her arc deserved. “I understand what it feels like to be afraid,” Korra softly says to Kuvira after choosing to save her life.
The Legend of Korra’s stunningly effective exploration of female trauma was not only well-done, but truly unprecedented. With all this alone, Korra still could have been accurately called one of the most innovative shows on television. But, when the finale concluded with Korra as part of a queer relationship with her friend Asami Sato, it quickly made waves across the entire internet. There was of course instant backlash from those who accused the same-sex pairing of being inappropriate for children’s media, but an equal amount of elation and deep emotion from the LGBTQ+ audiences watching.
Regardless of opinion, everyone could agree on one fact: The Legend of Korra finale made television history. “Korrasami is canon,” wrote co-creator Bryan Konietzko in his address to fans in the wake of the finale, all in bold. The letter discussed his and DiMartino’s realization that the only way to progress queer visibility on television was to actively challenge what had always been done. Considering how much LGBTQ+ representation in the media has grown since 2014, it’s easy to think back and miss the magnitude of this event. But it’s stunning to remember how much Asami and Korra meant back then, and just how shockingly groundbreaking the finale’s final few moments truly were.
This goodbye to Korra’s story and to the entire story of Avatar was not only innovative, but extremely fitting. In the creators’ parting letter to a world that had always carried themes of challenging societal standards and asserting your own identity, they chose to sign off with a historic queer love story.
When all of what makes it just so innovative is taking into account, it really is shocking that The
Legend of Korra has never been remembered in the same way as The Last Airbender. There are several possible reasons that could account for this: people may have been turned off by an older female protagonist, by her unconventional confidence and personality, or maybe even by the series darker themes. Some might have even seen Korra as nothing more than a shadow of its predecessor, than the creators trying to build even more success off their former glory. But this kind of attitude is intentionally blind toward the myriad of ways that The Legend of Korra is anything but, and how it is all the more remarkable because of it.