The question when The Legend of Korra began was whether the show could ever make itself more than an asterisk on the successes of The Last Airbender. Throughout its run Korra has been hampered by these kind of external questions. Even after it proved that it could stand outside the long shadow of its parent show, there were budget cuts leading to animation limitations in Season 2, an early leak of several episodes, Nickelodeon tossing the show back and forth between cable and online-only, and a certain fan-favorite relationship that may have been restricted in its depiction by Nick’s standards and practices.1If you’re reading this footnote… then you probably already know what I’m talking about.
All of these things have distracted from the strengths of the show, strengths which were on clear display in the two seasons that aired in 2014. The continuously dazzling animation, from the 1920s-Shanghai streets of Republic City to the dreamscapes of the Spirit World. The spectacular voice cast, especially P. J. Byrne (Bolin) and John Michael Higgins (Varrick) as the show’s most reliable comedic engines, J. K. Simmons (Tenzin) as its grounded heart, and, most of all, Janet Varney’s exception realization of Korra’s emotional turmoil and growth. Season 3’s core was a dark psychological journey, as Korra faced symbolic rape and loss of her agency at the hands of Zaheer and the Red Lotus, leaving her de-powered and struggling.
As with the emotionally self-immolating Zaheer, the show has always had compelling adversaries, and Season 4’s Kuvira acted as a fitting summation in that respect. Her strength, charisma, and relatable intentions gave viewers a direct taste of how her appeal operated on Bolin and the citizens of the Earth Empire, making her certainly the most realistic and understandable fascist leader in the history of young-adult television.
Kuvira represented an essential part of Korra’s journey towards maturity. Korra began the show as something of an archetypal “strong” female character, but the show was willing to explore beyond that, and examine the nature of strength. In the show’s deeply humane vision, true strength means understanding and empathy, even towards those who injure us, even towards those who have no empathy themselves. Kuvira, as Korra’s final enemy, exemplified what Korra had once thought of as her strengths — her muscle, her bravery, and her willingness to rush headlong into action. In defeating Kuvira, but not destroying her, Korra learns to empathize with and forgive her immature shadow self, and find the compassion to accept it.
Like many young adults, Korra faces a world that alternates between telling her precisely what to do and telling her that she’s useless. She goes from glorified to victimized and back and forth again. The show was, perhaps, an action show2A really really excellent action show., but the way that Korra finds, reshapes, and discovers herself elevated it and turned it an indelible depiction of adolescence and maturation.
Check back tomorrow for another of my top animated series of the year. Tomorrow’s entry: a dark horse cartoon.
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|1.||If you’re reading this footnote… then you probably already know what I’m talking about.|
|2.||A really really excellent action show.|