The Legend of Korra Book 3 Roundtable
Hello Republic City! For your reading pleasure, here is Pop Torte’s third post-The Legend of Korra roundtable. Book 3 was a huge step up in quality, which contrasted with constant behind-the-scenes drama. Here to discuss are Christy Admiraal, Noel Kirkpatrick, Andy Seroff, Elena Thrace, and Kate Tripoli.
Andrew Daar: Good morning, Republic City. Welcome to the roundtable discussion of The Legend of Korra, Book 3: “Change.” The season certainly lived up to its subtitle, both in-universe and with regard to behind-the-scenes issues. We can get into the various off-screen issues later, but to begin, let’s look at what happened onscreen. Book 3 was a marked improvement over Book 2, and the chatter ‘round the internet is that “Change” is Korra's best season (a statement with which I agree), with some saying it's the best season from the entire Avatar franchise (a statement with which I do not agree). What say you? How did “Change,” as a whole, rate on your Avatar-o-meters?
Elena Thrace: For me, “Change” managed to not only be the best season of The Legend of Korra, but helped me appreciate the past two seasons as a whole. It truly embodied the title: not only were there changes in the Avatar world due to the opening up of the spirit world, but the story choices showed a more serious, more complicated world than previously established. I mean, Zaheer air bended the actual life out of someone, AND HE FLEW.
I thought the season managed to tie in themes of chaos and rebirth in really meaningful ways, and just like “Spirits,” I’m really excited to see where the final season goes.
Noel Kirkpatrick: “Change” was good, very good. But it’s no where near as strong a season as “Air” from Legend of Korra and it’s certainly not better than “Earth” from A:TLA. The assertion that “Change” is better than “Air” is one that we can argue, and honestly, I can see a reason for that, but it’s also a set of priorities. I like the tight focus of “Air” over the looser approach to bigger narratives that “Change” offered, but that’s less a critique of the seasons and more a matter of taste.
Anyone who contends that “Change” is the best thing in the entire franchise, however, is just Internet wrong. There’s nothing in “Change” that even approaches “Zuko Alone,” “The Desert,” “City of Walls and Secrets,” “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” “Appa’s Lost Days,” “Lake Laogi,” and “The Crossroads of Destiny.” It is, at its most, a very consistent season of fun, making it 13 episodes at the level of “The Blind Bandit” or “The Drill.” Nothing wrong with that, but nothing that hits earlier heights.
Christy Admiraal: I would put it alongside “Air” as far as quality goes, and go as far as to say that while I found Amon and the anti-bending movement more compelling than the Red Lotus, I enjoyed watching “Change” more. (I strongly disliked the bulk of “Spirits.”) It had some great standalone episodes, Korra was a lot more likable than in previous seasons and didn’t consistently make terrible decisions, and there was plenty of Tenzin, who I think of as the show’s MVP.
But Noel’s right. It’s not in any way better than any of A:TLA.
Kate Tripoli: Guys, this season had Zuko in it, so obviously it’s the best Korra season.
I’m a bit reluctant to make a lot of pronouncements about its place in the rankings because it feels so unfinished. I crave closure, and so even though this was a great season and I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it, I don’t know if I would choose this season to watch on its own without immediately going into Book 4. Leaving Korra so broken is tough. Way more painful than the end of A:TLA Book 2. The expressions on her face during the finale were haunting. Like, that was some “Frodo gets back from Mordor” soul-weariness she was showing.
That’s not a knock on the season, though. I really enjoyed “Change” a lot, mostly because the characters were restored to their complex, lovable selves again. Korra, Asami, Bolin and Tenzin all got some really strong stuff. Korra and Asami becoming besties was probably my favorite development.
ET: I really loved the ending, with Korra’s sunken eyes staring at Jinora, a mixture of half-hope, half-sadness. It was a haunting last image. I’m wondering when (or if) Korra will be the same as she was. I’m so happy with her collective journey thus far: she started off headstrong, stubborn, focused on using brute strength to solve problems. And now…now she’s confined to a wheelchair, stripped of all her physical strength, unable to draw support from her previous spiritual Avatar advisors. It’s a huge 180, and I’m impressed the narrative moved along as such that her journey made sense, and not only that, but was utterly heartbreaking.
Also, Jinora is such a little badass.
Andy Seroff: As always, thanks for inviting me to participate in one of the most thorough discussions of one of the more discussion-worthy shows on telelvision (with some folks who are great at discussions).
As much as didn’t want to get caught in the season-ranking game, I have to agree with the overall sentiment thus far: Strong Korra season, but probably not stronger than any A:TLA season. Each of A:TLA's seasons so perfectly balanced developing character, setting, and the epic monomyth, that I think it would be impossible to rate any Korra higher without a complete series picture.
I’ll also echo Elena’s point to Changes unlocking some appreciation for seasons that came before. Seeing a purely-Korra Avatar State, and her ‘brokenness’ in the final few minutes, illuminated the differences between the series plotting between A:TLA and Korra. Before ‘Change’, I didn’t necessarily feel like I knew the direction that Korra’s legend was taking, and with limited to no serial character journey to point to, it became easy to focus on how the ‘baddie-of-the-season’ structure was a crippling factor that made Korra inferior to A:TLA. Believing that anyone involved in the production of the show wouldn’t short-sell Korra (and Aang’s television legacy), I was filled with blame for Nickelodeon - “Why are you mangling one of the most critically acclaimed productions to air on their station by requiring enclosed-season endings and not guaranteeing the continuation of the series?” Seeing Changes quelled a lot of that confusion and mistrust - displaying the possibility for serial development within these self-enclosed season plots that hadn’t been made clear yet. For example, it wasn’t until Changes that we discovered the real reason for opening the portals - to have a way to rebuild the air nation. In the same way, I am not worried about the narrative neglect to the presence of spirits beyond the first few episodes of this season, because now I can hope that they get looped around on to be the focus on next season’s story the same way Harmonic Convergence became more than just a thing that happened because a bad guy had the date circled on his calendar.
Quick thoughts: It only took Asami two seasons to get the full team-Avatar treatment, despite appearing in, what, 2 fewer episodes? Bolin needs some help in the comedic-relief department, because the series is adding 10 dark, dramatic characters for every 1 Kai. It felt like they snuck a lot of Lin love in this season, and I think that’s great. I could go for a lot less bogus jeopardy upon finale approach - from the Earth Queen assassination to the poison, were you ever worried? LOVING how they’re treating the ‘extension’ bending skills as time goes on, but three (?) instances of skill discovery in a single finale seemed like a bit much.
AD: This season featured a lot of what I want out of Korra, based on how I perceived the first two thirds of “Air.” The first season brought up many sociopolitical issues and engaged with them pretty well until then end, when the season didn’t quite stick the landing. So for me, because “Change” was strong right through to the end and is forcing Korra to deal with long-term consequences, I’m more willing to overlook some of the looser plotting.
The other big draw for me this year is that the creators took part of the show’s subtext that I’d latched onto and made it text. For the last two seasons, one of my favorite elements of the show was the idea that balance means different things to different people and how that which constitutes balance can shift over time. This year, Korra was caught between the extremes of Zaheer and the Red Lotus, who espoused the idea that chaos leads to balance, and the Earth Queen, a reactionary obsessed with order and returning the national boundaries to those in place before the 100 Years War. Much credit is due to Konietzko and DiMartino for telling this story through subtext for two years, but I believe they made it stronger by bringing it to the forefront, because it has forced Korra to actively choose her destiny, rather than do what she thinks she, as the Avatar, is supposed to do.
Kate, I couldn’t help noticing that in your list of characters having strong moments, you left out Mako. I think we’ve all hit on how “Change” has rehabilitated the characters after “Spirits,” but what did you all think of their growth this year? This is just the tip of the iceberg for me, but I finally feel that Mako is a worthwhile character, after spending most of the first two seasons as my least favorite member of either the Gaang or Team Avatar 2.0. Part of this has to do with no misguided romance subplots, but this year, he got to be a competent cop (without unbelievable roadblocks thrown in his way for drama reasons), a supportive brother, and a valuable team member.
KT: Oh yes, Mako was greatly improved over last year, too. I like that Mako and Bolin get to be normal benders of slightly above average skill, as opposed to Katara or Toph, who were super-duper bending masters (because that’s what Aang needed). Even though Mako can bend lightning and now Bolin can bend lava, and even though they did pro-bending, I still don’t get the sense that they are abnormally powerful or special. Which might be a reflection of the age of the audience? LoK is targeting a different age range than A:TLA did, and I think older viewers don’t need quite as much “kid empowerment” in their fiction as younger viewers do.
CA: This season also got a lot of good out of Asami. I love watching her fight alongside them, because she’s equally powerful to Mako and Bolin, and I love the closeness of the relationship between her and Korra now. (As Andrew D. pointed out, there is a LOT of femslash material there.)
AD: The show’s treatment of Asami this year made me very happy. She had so little to do in “Spirits,” other than make bad decisions about both Future Industries and Mako, so it was very nice to see her bond with Korra and reiterate the value she brings to Team Avatar. She is a brilliant engineer and a seasoned fighter.
Tenzin also got to shine in new ways. For all of the faults of “Spirits,” it did help develop the characters (after some intense regression). Tenzin’s journey in Book 2 forced him to recognize what his weaknesses are, and “Change” saw him as he began to focus on his strengths and delegate tasks that others could do better than him. He is not a natural leader, so he relies on Bumi’s expertise to build the new airbenders. He is not an expert on spirit matters, so he relies on Jinora to perform such tasks.
AS: But what a fighter!
NK: Andrew, your point about dealing with long-term consequences remains to be seen. The show kind of went, “Hey, spirits! Some vines! Otherwise, no big deal!” I don’t think the end of Change something that can turn away from as easily, so I’m hoping it’s something that’s given more attention and nuance. But I whole-heartedly disagree about the show making the issue of what balance means to others text here. For starters, it’s been text from the start, and for another, “Change” did a less-than-stellar job of putting that idea forward. We don’t know what the Red Lotus even was, let alone what it wanted, until Episode 9 of 13. That’s a problem when you want to do something meaningful and in line with previous BIG IDEAS and then you end up with boilerplate fictional anarchist-speak. I don’t even know that there was any actual tension over whether Korra would side with Zaheer, and certainly the show side-steps this issue by making it about saving airbenders and people she cares about than saving someone she hates, like Raiko or the Earth Queen.
On the character front, hells yes. I wanted far more Asami (Book 4 will be True Detective Season 2 with Korra as Ironside and Asami as Columbo; it’s gonna be sweet), but what I got I was happy with. Bolin was significantly rehabilitated, and I was so happy about that. Not just lavabending (not really something I’m exciting about one way or another), but just his entire personality switched back to where he was in “Air.” Mako’s rehabilitation wasn’t as needed since he was the victim more of bad plotting than character departure (he was smart, no one was listening to him) like what happened to Bolin, but I liked that he was the awkward one about the bungled romantic triangle and Korra and Asami were cool as cucumbers about it, and closer than ever.
CA: I still don’t understand why lavabending would be an earthbender’s power, not a firebender’s. I get that we needed Combustion Gal to be the overpowered firebender, but still… Lava’s fire, right?
I’m glad Noel mentioned the rehabilitation of Bolin. I had so cooled on the character after the second season that this was like meeting a whole new creation. I liked that whenever it seemed like he was going to regress to idiocy, he bounced back again — as if saying to himself, “Hey, don’t be that guy.”
I also agree that Zaheer’s defense of his actions was very boilerplate. The show had a solid villain back in “Air,” and while Rollins did a hell of a job with the voicing, Zaheer and the Red Lotus just weren’t all that compelling. Not as disappointing as Unalaq, but still no great shakes.
AD: A brief note about lavabending. I think it fits perfectly in line with earthbending and what we know about the other bending disciplines. Lava is liquid rock. Rocks have to get very hot to change from solid to liquid, so that’s why it’s always burning, but it remains rock. Waterbenders can turn water from its liquid form to its solid form, so I never had an issue with earthbenders lavabending.
CA: Actually, that makes more sense now that I think about it. I was going by the visual more than the actual composition, I suppose.
KT: I mean, it makes more sense to me than firebenders being able to bend lightning. I’m no scientist, but I don’t think those two things are really related.
AD: Ok, to get this back on track (not that I couldn’t talk for a while about bending mechanics), what story threads, other than the obvious one, are you hoping to see front and center of the final season? Do you think it will put the focus on the airbenders? Finding the rest of the Red Lotus? Korra and Asami running away together?
ET: I really want to see what Korra’s legacy ends up being. In A:TLA there was so much talk and reverence of past Avatars, and Aang was an Avatar who was incredibly in touch with what had happened in the past, and preventing similar events from happening in his lifetime. Korra’s adrift at the end of “Change” more than ever, not only from her spiritual mentors in the past Avatars but also in her own identity.
I’m hoping Book 4 lets her drift for a while before showing her what being the Avatar can mean for her, in her own time, in her own context. I know it’s going to be powerful.
NK: Korra and Asami running away together, please.
I’m not sure what else to expect, at least until they tell us the name of Book 4. I think we can all agree, however, that Kuvira of Zaofu will play a pivotal part somehow considering her name was dropped twice in the finale for no real discernible reason. SHE MUST BE IMPORTANT.
AS: Can we talk about the external forces on the series yet? Cause there’s news in the Book 4 department I think…
AD: Sure. As everyone who watches the show is aware, there were some shake-ups this year, most disturbingly with the move from being televised to being released solely online. This came after the season was rushed to air after very little promotion or notice to fans; I think star Janet Varney herself didn’t learn that the new season was going to begin until roughly a week before the season premiere. Until the move online, new episodes weren’t offered for streaming on Nickelodeon’s website, and the network even advertised that this was the case, in an effort to get more viewers for the televised airings. In addition, the season began with the airing of three episodes on one night. People speculated that the rush to air and the airing of three episodes was the result of an accidental airing by a Mexican affiliate of Nickelodeon, but Konietzko and DiMartino specifically denied this in their interview on the Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast. They were also very tight-lipped about the reason for the move to online-only distribution, but mentioned that the show had always done very well online. So obviously there has been a lot of speculation about what has been going on behind the scenes. Book 4 is already in production (Konietzko and DiMartino also appeared on Janet Varney’s podcast, and they ended the session by saying they were going to go record lines for the final season), and the creators have reiterated that it will be released. I guess the question is: when?
AS: I heard via word of mouth that Book 4 will be released in January, but only found this to back that rumor up:
Book 4 of The Legend of Korra will be the end of the series and is rumored to be titled Balance. The team has not announced any official premiere date for Book 4 but it is rumored to come out on January 2015.
The assumption is based on the fact that artbooks for the previous season were released alongside the premiere of the next season, and the Book 3 Artbook is slated for a January release.
Seems plausible to me, given the events of Book 3. Finish the series ASAP, probably exclusively online, as a way to wrap the important but ‘unprofitable’ series and move on to programming that is a closer fit to Nick’s brand/demo. What do you think? Is there a possibility Korra rebounds in a conventional TV way, or is the best we can hope for a completed series released streaming online?
And even more importantly, is the shift to streaming an indication that Korra will be the last Avatar we have the pleasure of watching?
[Editor’s note: the creators have confirmed that Book 4 will be titled “Balance,” and will premiere online only on October 3.]
KT: Well, if Korra’s link to the Avatar Cycle is broken, isn’t it possible she’s the last Avatar anyway?
NK: I suspect an online-only release as well, especially if the January thing is true. It is important to remember that there were a number of rumors about when Book 3 would start — April, as I recall — so I’m still taking the January idea with a grain of salt.
As for the last incarnation of the franchise, I would totally think so. In the podcast that Daar linked to, Konietzko and DiMartino make it sound like they’re pretty much done with Avatar as a world, at least for a while, if not for good. And that might be for the best. Any more technological advancement and some fans are going to lose it. Most still don’t even like that cars exist or modern-ish cities (as opposed to country-size cities with massive social inequity…which, apart from the size issue, still sounds pretty modern to me).
AD: Yes, Korra is the end for now. Konietzko and DiMartino mention some unrelated project they’ve been working on and hope to pitch soon. Which is why I was wondering what you all were hoping to see in Book 4, as it will almost certainly be our last chance to see anything in this world for many years, if not ever.
Personally, I would like to see some things occur in the Fire Nation, as Book 1 was almost exclusively Republic City, Book 2 featured the Water Tribe, and Book 3 featured the Earth Kingdom. But I, almost paradoxically, want the series to return to Republic City as well, to see how the democracy reacts in response to the fall of a monarchy, and whether there is any lingering resentment about the United Republic “stealing” territory. Finally, to touch on what Kate said, I want to see Korra cement her legacy as the new “first” Avatar. I read the end of Book 2 to mean that the cycle will continue, but without the knowledge of past avatars. Korra might make her mission more intellectual and spiritual for the sake of her successor, especially if her physical abilities are diminished.
CA: I’d love to see some exploration of the Fire Nation, especially since we’ve only had glimpses of both Zuko and Iroh (the new one, not the spirit one, a character I still believe only exists for nostalgic purposes). I’d be interested to know why Iroh saw fit to intervene in earlier conflicts, but not conflicts with the spirit world or the Red Lotus. And I wouldn’t mind a bit of pro-bending now that the latest forces of evil have calmed down. But I’m not sure I’m in the majority on this; I know some viewers saw the pro-bending plot as derivative. I found it to be a worthy distraction, a great way of tamping down the underlying tension.
Oh, and Korra and Asami. Obviously.
AS: Pro Bending - seconded! I’d like to see the Future Industries Fire Ferrets take on the Wolf Bats now that Bolin can turn the entire platform into lava! Joking aside, It would be a satisfying way to show the growth of all three…or would the next season of Pro Bending include air benders too? That would bookend Team Avatar’s legacy of restoring air bending from nothing quite poetically, while opening the plot to all sorts of air nation politics/conflicts.
Of course, Pro Bending is more likely to be used as an epilogue than a whole season’s plot, especially with the more worthy concern over spirit plants overtaking Republic City.
KT: Who are these people who didn’t like pro-bending? I mean, sure, the intrateam dynamics during Korra’s time with the Ferrets were kind of tedious. But I just love the idea of pro-bending itself because it’s another example of how fully formed this universe is. In most stories about people with extraordinary powers, there’s always this underlying idea that you must never use your powers for ANY sort of personal gain or anything but living the totally self-sacrificing life of a hero. But in the real world, when you can do something significantly better than average, it’s expected that you will use your abilities to make your living with. People don’t think that Michael Jordan was some kind of jerk because he played basketball instead of becoming a soldier or a cop, or doing something else “worthwhile” with his extraordinary athleticism. But when Peter Parker tries to become a wrestler, we kind of roll our eyes and wait for him to discover his “real” purpose. Pro-bending makes a ton of sense to me because it makes the Avatar world feel more real and less like a typical genre world. This is exactly what real people would do with the ability to bend the elements—turn it into sports.