Thoughts on Korra finale [SPOILERS]

The season finale of Legend of Korra, Book IV, and of the Korra franchise as a whole, has come and gone from our screens in a 45-minute whirlwind of action, drama, passion and giant laser canon-wielding robots. The baddy was beat, balance restored, and love vindicated. Some characters received a happy ending, some were tearfully farewelled, and the fate of some was left frustratingly opaque. I personally enjoyed this finale — I found it a strong, well-rounded and satisfying conclusion to the season, and, in many ways, to the series itself. However, in some respects I felt it was lacking something for what was to be the conclusion of televised Korra — in some ways it felt like it does when a television series is abruptly cancelled and the story and the characters are left hanging in limbo (e.g. Upstairs Downstairs, Born and Bred, Doctor Who in 1989, etc.) It lacked a certain closure that a series finale demands. Nevertheless, here is my take on various aspects of this finale.

Initially, it seemed to me that the conflict in Book IV was the least high-stakes of the four Korra seasons. Surely the elimination of bending from the world, 10,000 years of darkness, and the abolition of all worldly authorities are greater threats and greater challenges than the domination of the Earth Nation by an autocratic Napoleon? The people of the Earth Nation and the United Republic may not have been happy living under Kuvira if she had won, but they would at least have been able to tolerate Kuvira, who seems like she would be a benevolent ruler insofar as her subjects remained submissive and obedient. Whereas the threats in Books 1-3 are far greater in that they promise to seriously throw the world out of balance.

It only occurred to me upon watching the finale, however, that the scale of Kuvira’s threat was not the point of Kuvira. That is, if Books 1-3 were about Avatar Korra confronting external threats to the peace and balance of the world, Book IV involved Korra’s confrontation with herself. Firstly, Korra had to confront and overcome her own demons and self-induced disabilities — the lingering physical and psychological effects of her narrowly-avoided death at the hands of Zaheer. Secondly, she had to contend with the challenge of defeating an adversary who, in many ways, represented a mirror of herself — a determined, headstrong, idealistic young woman fighting for what she thought was right, and determined to do anything in pursuit of what she believed in. In Kuvira, Korra saw what she, with the enormous power she wields, could become if she lost sight of what it is to be an Avatar. To this end, Korra ultimately saved Kuvira’s life rather than allowed her to be decimated by the spirit cannon. Korra could have ended the threat of Kuvira by allowing her to be killed without herself being responsible for Kuvira’s death, but Korra chose to preserve Kuvira’s life, and “finished” Kuvira by showing her that she was wrong. While Korra’s character development in this way is an effective plot point, it was not all that well conveyed — it might have been better executed, for example, if Korra were to have flirted with means of defeating Kuvira earlier in the season that were not totally morally blameless, only to have come to the realisation (perhaps in a very distressing way) that she was wrong to confront Kuvira in such a way.

In relation to this, I was, at first, slightly disappointed that the “showdown” between Korra and Kuvira did not involve a more momentous battle between the two. In fact, it was more due to Mako than Korra that Kuvira was defeated — it was Mako who risked his own life to destroy Kuvira’s superweapon, after which Kuvira was, for all intents and purposes, defeated. However, I came to realise that Kuvira was not an adversary Korra should have defeated by brute force. To be sure, Korra could have easily defeated Kuvira by resort to force, after she had recovered and faced down her own internal demons, but to what end? Think of it as the opposite to Aang’s face-off with Ozai — Aang abhorred violence and especially killing, so fighting, and needing to kill, a supremely powerful enemy who cannot be reasoned with represented the greatest challenge for his character; in contrast, Korra, who often resorts to brute force to deal with problems, would be equally challenged by an enemy who could (or rather should) not be defeated by force alone. I think that if Korra were to have overcome Kuvira in an epic Sozin’s Comet style showdown, notwithstanding the awesomeness of the battle scene and special effects, the conclusion would have felt somewhat unsatisfying. Kuvira would have been either killed, leaving Korra distressed and morally broken, or if defeated and imprisoned, then bitter and unrepentant, vying to avenge herself on Korra. Korra had to finish Kuvira the way she did — by showing Kuvira that she was wrong — for her sake and Kuvira’s.

Alternatively, another way Korra could have “finished” Kuvira in a satisfying way while including a more substantial fight scene might have been for Korra to have died in the process of defending the people of the Republic City from Kuvira’s spirit cannon, a sacrifice of sorts in which Korra gave her own life to save others from Kuvira. Kuvira, whether ultimately defeated or not by Korra’s act of sacrifice, would at least have been so moved by Korra’s selflessness that she realised in horror the error of her ways (cue shots of Kuvira looking on in distress at the anguished faces of people lamenting Korra’s death), thus bringing about the same result as if Korra had personally shown Kuvira that she was wrong. Such a conclusion might have brought about that sense of closure to Korra’s story that I mentioned I felt was lacking in this finale: the death of the Avatar and regeneration of the Avatar cycle would be the greatest closure of all, would it not?

Finally, there was that ending. The Korrasami shippers are rejoicing in their “victory”, although, to be honest, I think the Korrasarmy are overreacting to insist that the final scene represented a confirmation of Korrasami. The ending was almost certainly intended to allude to Korrasami, but, at the same, time, it was certainly intended to be ambiguous and capable of being interpreted different ways. If Bryke had wanted to conclusively confirm Korrasami, Korra and Asami would have kissed. What actually happened was that they decided to go on a holiday together, holding hands as they entered the spirit world while looking at each other in a way that could be construed as romantic. There is not necessarily anything sexual about this — girls and young women often tend to have these intimate, loving, quasi-romantic friendships with each other that can seem like romantic love at times, but are nevertheless wholly platonic. Boys and men do not have these friendships, which is why, when I see two young women holding hands and staring affectionately at each other, I do not necessarily see anything more than platonic love between them, but if I were to see two boys or men doing the same, I would almost certainly assume they were gay. My point is not to argue that Korrasami is out of the question, merely that it is a slight overreaction on the part of Korrasami shippers to insist that the final scene establishes Korrasami conclusively and beyond dispute. It does not; it can very easily be interpreted both ways, and it is quite obvious that Bryke intended it to be so.

Would I mind if Korrasami were to be confirmed? Not particularly. I merely think that, if the final scene does, canonically, represent the beginning of a Korra-Asami romantic relationship, it would feel like a clumsily-shoehorned piece of parting fanservice gimmickry, as there was next to zero foreshadowing of any mutual romantic feelings between Korra and Asami throughout the series — it seemed to come out of almost nowhere in the last three minutes of the episode. If Korrasami really is to be A Thing, I would have been much happier if their relationship had actually received some attention and development, as Aang’s and Katara’s did, so that their eventual getting together felt like a gratifying culmination rather than a fanservice gimmick. Ho hum.

[EDIT: I wrote this post before Bryke confirmed extra-curially that the final scene was indeed supposed to be romantic, and that Korra and Asami are indeed in a relationship. I preserve my premature pontifications here for posterity/because I can’t be bothered to rewrite.]

As for the fate of the Earth Nation — i.e. Prince Wu’s decision to renounce his claim to the throne of the Earth Kingdom and allow the Earth Nation to break up into small self-governing states — I suppose this is a satisfying resolution to that particular conundrum, but, if I might be so bold, I think it rather shows the writers’ distinctly American prejudices, as well as in their portrayal of Wu in general. The “return of the king” is a very powerful and romantic motif in the folklore and literature of cultures with a strong monarchical tradition, its greatest exemplar being The Lord of the Rings, and the coronation of Good King Wu, finally ready to assume his throne, would have felt the perfect resolution for the beleaguered Earth Nation. However, the actual resolution was satisfying in its own way — the Earth Nation has undoubtedly grown weary of “great uniters” and abusive absolute monarchs alike, and letting the Earth peoples go each their own way seems an eminently fair and sensible course of action. Bryke were at least good enough to resist the temptation to take the “no more kings!” route and simply turn the Earth Kingdom/Empire into an Earth Republic, and even transformed Wu from an indulged, privileged princeling patently unfit for rule into quality king material (albeit an eccentric and immature king).

In general, I quite enjoyed this finale, apart from the small criticisms I’ve already mentioned, and especially the lack of sufficient closure to the Korra franchise. The episode(s) was satisfactory enough, however, for me to give it a respectable 8/10. Give yourselves a well-deserved pat on the back, Bryke.

What I’ve been watching: Dec 2014

A rundown of the shows (non Doctor Who) that have been taking up my time of late: Sherlock Holmes, The Legend of Korra and Torchwood.

Sherlock Holmes (Granada)

Since I’ve recently discovered BBC’s Sherlock, I decided to revisit the classic Granada adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories featuring Jeremy Brett. I’d seen a number of these on television a few years ago and noted then what masterful adaptions they were (prompting me to start reading the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves), thoroughly gripping and well-composed.

Although I think my 21st Century tastes prefer the modern Sherlock series to the more faithful Granada series, these more reverent adaptations of Conan-Doyle’s works are nevertheless very much accessible to modern viewers. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is superlative and utterly magnetic. To me, it is Brett’s acting that makes the series. It is patent that Brett is supremely in his element playing this iconic and singular character, and even the duller and less imaginative stories are alighted by the genius of Brett’s acting.

I’d go as far as to say Brett’s Holmes is an even more compelling and watchable portrayal of the character than Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, although one can confidently say that Brett’s Holmes would not work in a modern adaptation of the character; Brett’s Holmes is a peculiarly Victorian character, a man very much of his times — which, of course, only adds to the period magic of the show. Like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Brett’s Holmes is an unabashed eccentric, and arrogant about his own abilities; he has sociopathic tendencies, and one gets the impression that he’s a creature of pure intellect, something more than a normal human being. Unlike Cumberbatch’s portrayal, though, Brett’s Holmes seems to understand how normal humans are supposed to relate to each other, but nevertheless regards himself above such trivialities: Holmes never gives the impression of being vulnerable, which certainly adds to the mystery of the character. One thing conspicuously missing from Brett’s portrayal of the character in relation to Cumberbatch’s is those orgasmic displays of Holmes’ deductive prowess to which Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is prone. Brett’s Holmes gives small glimpses, teases, to lesser minds of his intricate intellectual processes, but never shows off like Cumberbatch’s character does.

The Granada Sherlock Holmes adaptations convey the drama and tension of the stories very well. They do the more peculiar cases (e.g. The Solitary Cyclist, The Dancing Men) very well, and have a way of pulling the viewer into the plot and the mystery without particularly special visuals beyond the period elements. Although I’ve only seen the first two series thus far, from those I’ve seen, I would recommend The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist, The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches and The Resident Patient.

The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra, the sequel to one of my favourite ever series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is currently nearing the end of its final season (Book 4). For those that don’t know, Avatar and Korra are set in a fictional world composed of four nations corresponding with the four elements: the Fire, Air, Water and Earth nations. Certain members of these nations possess special powers to “bend” the elements of their respective nations, while there is one figure, the Avatar, who is possessed of the power to bend all elements, and whose obligations as Avatar include maintaining the balance between the nations, as well as between the physical and spirit worlds. In the original Avatar series, the airbending Air Nomad, Aang, was the Avatar, who, having woken from a 100-year sleep trapped in an iceberg, returned to a world at the knees of a warmongering Fire Nation.

Korra is set in the Avatar world after Aang’s death, and the young and headstrong Korra of the southern water tribe is the new Avatar. The Avatar world has changed since Aang’s salad days fighting the Fire Lord, where a new “nation” has arisen in the former Fire Nation colonies in (former) Earth Kingdom territory: the United Republic (with its capital and dominant location of the stories, the Manhattan-like Republic City), an agglomeration of peoples of all nations and none. Unlike Avatar, in Korra there is no unifying plotline that runs throughout the entire series, but different adversaries and conflicts for the Avatar to deal with in each season (Book), other than Korra’s own coming-of-age and self-realisation as a mature Avatar.

While I have only good things to say about Avatar, Korra has suffered from its fair share of deficiencies. The lack of a unifying plotline, while not the writers’ fault, fails to maintain the viewer’s interest in the series as Korra’s adventures become ever more repetitive. The plot in Avatar — Aang’s preparation as the Avatar to fight the Fire Lord — was, on the face of it, not that imaginative or well-conceived compared to at least two of the Korra plots (Books 3 and 4), but it was so well executed, and given such space to breathe and develop (as well as supported by such brilliant characters), that it looms large in the viewer’s mind over all of the even greater threats faced by Korra, which seem almost transitory compared to Aang’s conflict with the Fire Lord. In addition, the surfeit of characters sees too many characters receive too little development as the viewer has difficulty in paying attention to such a large cast, and the writers in maintaining so many characters, and consequently the viewer struggles to properly invest in any of the characters beyond the lead, Korra. By contrast, Avatar had a small, tight-knit cast of well-defined, beloved characters who were each given plenty of space for quality development.

To be sure, Korra is, on the whole, quality viewing, especially if you are already invested in the Avatar universe and want to know what happened after Aang. But I can see the reason Nickelodeon took the decision partway through Book 3 to make Korra an online-only programme and to discontinue the programme after Book 4 (not that I agree with that decision).


I’m surprised I haven’t got round to watching Torchwood before now, having been a Who fan for so long (and having adored the character of Captain Jack Harkness). I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Torchwood, and I return a positive, but not unmarred review. I very much like the concept: a secret organisation dedicated to investigating extraterrestrial incidents and developing technologies to “arm the human race” against what lurks beyond (although, honestly, I think it slightly redundant since there is already a similar, better-resourced organisation in UNIT, which could easily carry out Torchwood’s functions).

Torchwood has a cast of interesting, but not necessarily likable characters. The only truly likable character is the female lead, Gwen Cooper, and even she has a questionable morality. Other than Gwen (and Captain Jack of course), none of the characters are really the kind of people you’d choose to become friends with: they are all morally ambiguous and not very sociable. Despite this, they are compelling characters who are convincing as the staff of an organisation like Torchwood. Captain Jack Harkness is a charismatic leader, as well as a mystery, to his “employees” at Torchwood: at first Gwen is the only one who knows of Jack’s immortality, as she sees him murdered and return to life in the first episode. He remains an enigmatic character throughout the first series until his Christ-like sacrifice in the series finale.

Torchwood has its good moments and its bad moments. I’ve only seen series 1, so I expect what I’ve seen thus far is the show trying to find its way, experimenting. The show is best when it’s not trying to copy Doctor Who’s formula of fighting aliens. Torchwood is at its best when it is trying something different, and dealing with heavy themes. The episodes I’ve enjoyed most include: Countrycide, a horror story dealing with the inherent evil in humans; Greeks Bearing Gifts, concerning the ramifications of being able to read others’ minds; They Keep Killing Suzie, about resurrection of the dead; and Out of Time, involving three people from the 1950s brought inexplicably into the 21st Century. There were also a couple of misfires, including Cyberwoman and the retch-inducing Random Shoes.

While I enjoy Torchwood’s readiness to deal with heavy and controversial themes, being beaten senseless with Russell T. Davies’ political agenda became very annoying after a while. I understand that Davies is using Torchwood to promote LGBT issues, but there comes a point where the constant barrage of anti-heteronormativity becomes OTT and feels like it’s being shoved down one’s throat. It seems like every character is bisexual, which is obviously unrealistic (particularly as it’s Wales), and by the time I got to Captain Jack Harkness snogging Captain Jack Harkness in Captain Jack Harkness, I could only roll my eyes in exasperation. Being prone to irrational religious superstition as I am, the show’s overt atheism also bugs me a bit, but I’m not overly bothered by that — it’s to be expected with science fiction — I just wish it would avoid the aggressive “religion is all bullsh*t” stuff.

Although the early episodes of Torchwood‘s first season were shaky and failed to grip me, the show found its feet by the end and sufficiently whetted my appetite such that I’m excited to return for the second series. I hope Torchwood continues doing what it does right, and learns from its mistakes.