Korra and a Disappointing Respect for the Established Elite

This essay contains spoilers.

The final season of the Legend of Korra has been like a microcosm of the entire show; alternating between incredible action, great comedy, inventive bending, strong female characters, sublime and sloppy animation, and often illogical plotting and pacing. Still, it has been a very fun show to watch and I would recommend it to everyone, even if it’s hard not to consider it a minor failure when measured against its near flawless predecessor. Besides everything else though the entire show is laced with a curious contempt for the masses and an unyielding respect for established authority figures.

At the beginning of the first season we are introduced to Republic City. It’s a shining beacon of modernity in the Avatar world, albeit one with a seething political underclass on the brink of rebellion. The city is ruled by an un-elected council of five benders, terrorised by bending street gangs, and policed by an exclusively metal-bending police-force. The rise of the Equalists, a movement seeking better representation for non-benders, doesn’t seem too surprising. Unfortunately once the leader of the movement is revealed to be a bender himself the entire organisation apparently disbands, their legitimate grievances left unanswered.

In season three we are introduced to the Red Lotus, an anarchistic group intent on setting people free from the oppression of governments and hereditary monarchies. Each member of the order has apparently been imprisoned indefinitely, in solitary confinement, with no hope of parole or even daily exercise. Both the Equalists and the Red Lotus utilise unforgivably violent methods, and commit heinous crimes in pursuit of their goals, but their political ideologies are not addressed by the shows protagonists in any real way. These groups claim to act on behalf of the people, and evidently the Equalists represent a large volume of people as seen at their rallies, yet neither is given a sympathetic character to voice their concerns. The legitimate arguments of both groups get quickly drowned out once the super-villain plots kick into high gear in the back-end of each season.

Meanwhile Earth Kingdom royalty is shown to be inept, self-indulgent, mean-spirited, and yet still something worth saving. The assassination of the Earth Queen is a tragedy that throws the Earth Kingdom into turmoil, rather than an opportunity for the people of the kingdom to establish a more equal society. The last member of the royal line, Prince Wu, is introduced as a slightly (highly?) annoying comic relief character, yet is given an opportunity in later episodes to prove himself as an effective leader and the legitimate ruler of his people by divine right (Korra and Mako still expect him to take the throne). The Fire Lord sits out a potentially world threatening crisis because of reasons. Heck, even after he starts a civil war the Northern Water Tribe Chief Unalaq is shown an unreasonable amount of respect until it is revealed he took the ‘throne’ by deceit.

The Legend of Korra advanced the universe of Avatar by 70 years and threw together a post-fantasy-steam-punk world with interesting and worthwhile questions about equality, political upheaval, capitalism, and notions of how a modern society should function. And sure, in the end Wu does decide to dissolve the Earth Kingdom in favour of Earth Democracies, but his reasoning is never stronger than it being somehow the ‘right’ thing to do. Maybe I am asking too much for a cartoon action comedy to also be a statement about the positive power of political activism and the dangers of autocracy. Then again this is the same show that proved to be one of the smartest and most progressive feminist shows on TV. For all its successes it’s perhaps a shame that the writers weren’t able to bring that same subtle, balanced, and effective writing to the political overtones of the show.

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