[SPOILERS, PLEASE WATCH THE SEASON IF YOU HAVE YET TO COMPLETE IT]
It’s been over a month since the Venom of the Red Lotus aired, signalling the conclusion of Change and I have yet to give my input on a series that is very dear to my heart. In many ways, my attachment towards the Avatar universe has stopped me from writing up this review, since I feel like anything short of ‘perfection’ would be a great injustice to Bryan Konietzko, Michael Dante DiMartino and the audience. I will say I enjoyed Change, it was a ‘breath of fresh air’ after what I personally considered the weakest book in the Avatar franchise; Spirits. There is a clear distinction between the Korra seasons and the original seasons featuring Aang, Konietzko and DiMartino have matured and this is reflected within their increasingly sophisticated plots. Though this book isn’t perfect (what piece of art is?) hopefully I can explore the strengths and the flaws of Change whilst balancing my affection and rationality. Generally this review will explore themes and characters rather than give you an episode by episode summary since you can just watch the book by yourself.
It is important that the characters in a fictional world stand for themes which transcend them as individuals, personally I feel like this is especially true for the antagonist, thus giving deeper meaning to their conflict with the protagonist. When Luke Skywalker fights Darth Vader, it isn’t just a clash of lightsabers, Luke’s victory also symbolises Vader’s redemption and Luke overcoming the tempting powers of darkness. Likewise the Joker mirrors the Batman, both characters are lonely, misunderstood and margalinised by society and when Batman defeats the Joker he is also defeating his inner chaos. This is one strength of Change that I felt was lacking in Air and Spirits, Amon and Unalaq were decent antagonist in their own right. However Zaheer’s polarising set of justice and freedom meant he developed into one of the more entertaining villains in the Avatar universe, allowing the audience to empathise with him on a level that never happened with the villains of the previous books. Whilst one can argue that Amon was more intimidating since his whole identity was clouded in shadows, the ending of book one severely hurt his characterisation. It was revealed that Amon’s main objective was not equality amongst benders and non-benders but his revolutional campaign was a way to amass more power, immediately cheapening everything he stood for and thus relegating him to the role of the stereotypical power-hungry villain. This trend repeated in Unalaq’s characterisation, he hungers for power and is even willing to sacrifice the world to obtain it, once again cardboard cut outs of villains.
Enter Zaheer, slowly but surely Zaheer became my favourite character within book three, maybe it’s my natural affiliation towards air bending, but I think it was his intelligence and charisma that won me over. Zaheer represents the worst of the air nation, he took ideas like isolation and separation to the extreme and his characterisation clearly contrasts against that of Aang. In many ways, Zaheer is what Aang would have become if he passionately believed that the ends justify the means and he had failed to develop a strict moral compass. Aang’s biggest weakness arguably could be his inability to accept responsibility to his failure to fully deattach himself from ‘earthly links’ which ‘hindered’ his journey towards becoming a fully acquainted Avatar, master of the four elements and a force of stability in the world. Aang couldn’t elevate above his emotional bonds, his reluctance to let go of Katara nearly resulted in both their deaths and would have signaled the end of all resistance to the Fire Lord. However when compared to Zaheer, we can view Aang’s flaws in a new perspective, maybe his inability to shed his humanity isn’t a flaw and it was his emotional bond with his peers stopped him from becoming an emotionless robot without the ability to empathise. Through Zaheer’s characterisation this has been one of the few times the show has criticised the air nomad culture, as the original Avatar series offered a very black and white view of reality; fire nation is bad, air nations are good. I believe this shows the evolution of the creators, their texts blur the distinctions between good and bad, of justice and injustice and just like the real world, everything has positives and negatives.
It was sad that Zaheer managed to unlock weightlessness only when P’Li was killed, his last attachment to the world had been cut forever and now he was forever suspended in a state of indifference. In many ways P’Li was Zaheer’s ‘earthly tether’ their private discussion before her eventual demise showed a softer side to Zaheer which remained hidden to the audience and a few scene later that tenderness was ripped apart, Zaheer gained the world but lost his humanity in the process. Maybe that’s why it was so effective when Jinora and her fellow air benders defeated Zaheer, for me it symbolised how communal bonds of affection will always trump individualistic pursuits, that relationships are not burdens but something which gives colour to life.
This was a big reason why I was offended when Zaheer became insane at the book, it was an easy tactic on behalf to the producers to ensure that the audience sided with Korra. But in many aspects this character assassination was exactly what Konietzko and DiMartino inflicted upon Amon, it cheapened everything that Zaheer represented and this moment of insanity contradicts his calm and reversed persona. This was also seen in what I consider the most emotional moment of the book, when Tenzin refuses to submit and states he would rather die than endanger the air nation, the look on Zaheer’s face is blank and emotionless. Surely someone with that much respect for air bending values would cringe or display some sort of reluctancy before attacking someone who is willing to sacrifice everything for their beliefs.* These examples of character assassination were never found in the original three books, Azula and Ozai were both terrifying but in their final moments, they displayed a genuine sense of fear and humanity. I could only wish this was extended towards Zaheer, Ghazan and Ming-Hua.
“The question is not can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?”
Generally I feel like a major flaw of Change was the lack of back story for Ghazan and Ming-Hua, both Konietzko and DiMartino are more than capable of making the audience empathise with characters, just look at P’Li and Zaheer’s last words. Over all apart from their flashy skills, these two Red Lotus members remained fairly underdeveloped and many questions about their origins still remain. So Ghazan is tough, powerful and overly masculine but where did he develop his skills? Why does he so strongly believe in the Red Lotus? The same thing can be said for Ming-Hua who remains even more of an enigma for me. Thus when it came to their eventual deaths, I felt nothing, two unknown characters were whisked on and off the stage before the audience could properly become acquainted to them.
I have always believed that to build a believe cast of characters, their actions must have consequences otherwise the plot becomes unbelievable and redundant, characters must grow and learn from their mistakes. This was a major issue I had with the ending of Air, apart from the reveal of Amon’s hidden identity, Korra magically getting her bending powers back without struggling to recover them was a slap in the face to the fans. Like Zaheer, the creators of Korra developed her to be the complete opposite of Aang, she’s fiery, passionate and just itching to embrace her role as the avatar, whilst Aang was naive, timid and passive. A large portion of Korra’s identity is built upon her role as the avatar, from a young age she’s relished her ability to bend the elements and his ‘fight now, talk later’ mentality has gotten her in trouble many times. By removing Korra’s bending, Konietzko and DiMartino would have allowed Korra to embrace her spirituality and slowly overcome her rash and hasty personality to become a more balanced and well rounded individual. Instead Korra learns very little from her ordeal with Amon, she may of grown physically, but emotionally she’s the same and her lack of trust in her father and Tenzin at the start of Spirits reflects this. Now I don’t want to just attack Korra’s character, her passionate personality is a welcome change from Aang and it is clear that by the end of book two that she has become a more weary and careful Avatar after her legacy was literally torn away from her body. I just feel Korra would have been even more engaging if the consequences of having her bending removed would have manifested itself in previous books. A criticism of the Legend of Korra is that seasons are more ‘episodic’ with villains and events from the past seasons rarely getting any screen time in the following books. What happened to the Equalist movement? Why was there a distinct lack of spirits in Change? It would have been wise to show the consequences of these events in order to build a more realistic world where the future is intertwined with the present and the past.
Personally I loved seeing Korra in a wheel chair at the end of Change, because finally the audience can see how Korra maintains her identity when she has lost such a fundamental aspect of her personality. Already the changes to Korra were becoming more apparent, especially after book two, she was more cautious and less willing to rely upon force to solve her problems. A major strength within Legend of Korra is how the villains are reflections of a modernising world with concepts bending and the avatar being challenged. Amon’s character was a constant reminder of the inequality between the benders and non-benders, potentially pointing out the flaws behind an avatar who is basically an reincarnated deity with immense physical and spiritual power. As mentioned before Vatuu and Unalaq basically ripped out of Korra’s past, she’s arguably the most isolated avatar since Wan as she can no longer call on her past lives for guidance. Korra can still bend the four elements but her status has been weakened, her words and actions no longer hold the weight of 10,000 avatars before her. After the finale of book three, Tenzin announced that the new air benders would be filling in the role of the avatar as Korra heals, I think her single tear stems from the realisation that her worth and purpose in this world is slowly being diminished in an ever changing environment. This is one major strength that the Legend of Korra has over Aang, the villains are reflections of Korra’s flaws and society’s changing beliefs. Aang was always quite distant from Ozai and Azula and never viewed them more than enemies. Personally this is why I think Zuko is the strongest character in the series, his emotional bond with the villains makes his switch to team avatar so triumphant and rewarding.
In the second last episode Enter the Void, Korra is confronted with a hard dilemma, sacrifice herself to the protect the weak air nation or leave the novice air benders at the hands of the Red Lotus. In the first book, when Korra arrives at a similar situation, her arrogance clouds her judgement and she stupidly challenges Amon to a duel which could of potential resulted in her death. However a more mature Korra chooses to sacrifice herself, she understands that the future of an entire culture is more important than any single individual; even if they are the avatar. That’s why I can not wait to see how Korra rises from her situation, hopefully her physical impairment isn’t just brushed off in the first episode and instead we can explore other aspects of Korra’s personality apart from her overwhelming physicality and her brash personality.
Whilst I can clearly say I am in the small minority, a huge disappointment in book three was the fact that Tenzin did not die. One of my closest friend often jokes “if you want Stanley to care just kill off a few characters” and to some extent this is true. I’ve always believed that when an audience knows that characters can be removed from the plot then the audience feels a sense of urgency and attachment. One major strength of Change was the finale, I was completely absorbed in Zaheer’s plan to poison the avatar and permanently destroy it, I did not breathe for a good ten minutes because the possibility of Korra’s death seemed realistic. This perspective is partly due a fear of death which was very prominent when I was younger, I’ve experienced many sleepless nights as my mind explored my mortality. Thus I see sacrifice as one of the most noble characteristics, humans are fundamentally self fish, so when individuals are willing to perish to protect something they treasure, it’s endearing and extremely emotional.
Aang’s influence on Tenzin is highly visible, Aang’s obligations to the world was often given prioritised over his obligations to his family. Tenzin’s reverence towards the air bending culture is a constant reminder of Aang’s failure as a father, his feelings of inadequacy and regret was transferred to his son, leaving Tenzin the burden of maintaing a lost culture. Tenzin’s sacrifice to preserve the air nation would have permanently removed Aang’s shadow over his character. Instead he would have been able to see to Aang as an equal as he achieved what Aang could never do; revive the air nomads. Personally this was by far the most emotional scene of the entire book, when Korra was dying in the arms of her father, I didn’t shed a tear, she battled Zaheer out of necessity. She had no other choice, as fleeing wasn’t an option with the metallic poison pulsing through her body. In the end Tenzin was faced with a decision, but his actions showed that he was willing to forfeit his life in pursuit of goals which transcended him as an individual.
Jinora’s shadow over her father has also began to increase as she has already surpassed Tenzin in spirituality. Tenzin’s death would have been my third favourite moment in the Avatar world behind Zuko and Iroh’s reunion and Raava’s destruction at the hands of Unalaq. (Q: Have you really made a list of your favourite Avatar moments, A: Most definitely.) His swan song would have helped him escape the constraints of his flaws, which are becoming more pronounced next to Jinora. It also would have been symbolic, the responsibility of air bending being passed down to the younger generation, allowing the air nation to embrace new ideals instead of clinging onto outdated belief systems. Whilst it seems this stance isn’t very popular, it would have immortalised Tenzin; strong, magnificent and proud, much like how Achilles’ legacy resonated strongest after his death.
One major difference between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra is that the characters in the original series were a lot more engaging. Mako, Bolin and Asami whilst mildly fun and endearing (particularly Asami and the fortitude she showed after her father’s betrayal) are in desperate need of further characterisation. It seems that Mako’s character development has really taken a step back with his role diminishing rapidly within Changes. I hope he rekindles his relationship with Asami in Balance, that felt more natural and realistic then his feelings for Korra, plus I want Korra to balance herself internally before building her external relationships in book four. For me Mako really hasn’t changed or matured after book one, his physical skills have become stagnant and his relationships with the other members of team avatar have deteriorated. I think these flaws are mainly a product of the shorten seasons, The Legend of Korra will have 52 episodes compared to The Last Airbender’s 60. Whilst this has resulted in less ‘filler’ episodes with a more ‘frantic’ and an intense plot, it also means that characters are given less time to develop. Filler episodes like The Great Divide and The Runaway were redundant in terms of story and world building, but it offered insights into the mindsets of our characters. Whilst the conflict might not be connected with final objective of the series, these obstacles challenged our lovable protagonist and causing them to shift their perspective in order to overcome these hurdles.
On a more positive note the bending and animation in Changes was absolutely sublime. I have previously voiced my opinion that bending in The Legend of Korra lacked the authenticity that it had in The Last Airbender, mainly due to the fact that all elements fight like fire benders. There’s a distinct lack of sophistication behind Bolin’s attacks, which includes creating small boulders and throwing them at the opponent, a long shot from Toph’s destructive capabilities. However the bending in Changes was fantastic, I loved the additions of lava bending, octopus water bending** and flying as the sub genre of air bending. Zaheer’s fight with Kya and Tenzin’s fight with Zaheer stand out as some of the best fight scenes ever created for animation. Speaking of animation, Studio Mir really stepped up their animation during the last few episodes, particularly the scene when Zaheer is dogding an enraged Korra.*** I can only imagine the effort that the writers and animation team went through to create such memorable works of art.
I enjoyed book three; Change, in terms of plot and characterisation I felt it was a big improvement from Spirits which seemed confused and unfocused at times. For the first time in The Legend of Korra, there was a truly memorable villain, the Red Lotus were efficient, mysterious and politically active. Zaheer’s voice actor; Henry Rollins deserves recognition for his ability to embed authority and menace into his character. Zaheer also repeats one of the most memorable quotes in the Avatar franchise “Let go your earthly tether, enter the void, empty and become wind” which was responsible for my interest in meditation. Book three’s pace really picked up after the Earth Queen’s assassination (one of the most memorable moments of the Avatar franchise) and the season became noticeably darker. There were some fantastic moments in this book which were previously mentioned like Korra’s growth, the villains and the animation. On the other hand it seems like the writers of Avatar consistently struggle with maintaining the pacing and plot in the middle of the season and this was evident in Change. There’s always a drop off in quality before the finale completely stuns and enthralls the audience. Some of the flaws were more visible such as the lack of growth and development for team avatar and the Red Lotus but I don’t want to end this review on a negative note. Change built on the foundations paved in the previous two books, the plot was fluid and the ambiguity between good and evil was a satisfying change to The Last Airbender’s simplistic depictions of the world.
The Avatar world has brought a lot of emotions to my life and I can say without a doubt that it was partly responsible for fostering my love of literature. Zuko’s internal conflict, Katara’s motherly warmth and Korra’s single tear are all images and memories that carry weight and meaning to me. Whilst Change was far from perfection, similarly it had moments of ingenious and dignity founded within a beautiful Asian inspired world that The Last Airbender established. Despite all the flaws and weak points within the seasons, I can say without a doubt that Konietzko and DiMartino will continue treating their project with the love and integrity that the audience deserve.
Here’s a toast to the final season of The Legend of Korra, may it be wonderful, emotional, heartfelt and memorable.
See you space avatar.
* It is very hard if not impossible to have an ‘original thought’ since our context will always play a part in shaping our thoughts but my comments about Zaheer’s emotionless glare when he’s beating up Tenzin was stolen directly from Marshall Turner’s WordPress on Avatar. Whilst I certain disagree with some of his thoughts and generally I believe that he focuses on the minor details over than the overall picture or plot, I would recommend it for any fans who want to look at this franchise through an analytically microscope. http://avatarreviews.wordpress.com/
** I have no idea if it is really called octopus water but let’s pretend it is.
Skip to 2:15 if you want to watch the exact scene I was referring to, it also ends at 2:50.