Friday, May 17, 2024

Korra Week: Why The Legend of Korra’s Book Two Is Better Than Book One

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Yes, this is a hot take. You might think I just baited you with the headline to get you to click this, and that I will now say that I’m exaggerating. You might think I will just admit now that Book 1: Air of The Legend of Korra is better and argue why Book Two: Sprits is underappreciated. Nope. I mean it. Book Two is better.

Avatar fans hold a great deal of distaste toward Book Two of Korra, while generally ranking Book 1 as even the second-best season behind the universally praised Book Three. They talk about Amon’s strength as a villain, mostly, and the teasing flashbacks of an older Gaang. They talk about Tenzin. I’m not here to argue against these points. Well, mostly. Book One is fine, for the most part, and a good introduction to this new Avatar setting and the characters of LoK.

In contrast, fans will argue that Book Two is uneven, has the worst villain, wastes a lot of time on a poorly done civil war plot, and continues the disliked love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Asami. And I’m not going to pretend those flaws don’t exist either. Book Two is deeply flawed in ways that no one can really deny.

The thing is, Book One has just as many flaws. Book Two may be a mess, but so is Book One. At a certain point, it just gets tiring to hear so many criticisms about Book Two while Book One gets all the praise. So let’s get to it. I am here to tell you why Book Two is better.

korra kataang kids

The Kataang Family

The Legend of Korra did a great thing by creating Tenzin, the burdened, endlessly stressed youngest child of Avatar Aang and Katara. He turned out to be the second-best character in the entire show behind Korra herself. Book 1 certainly seemed to understand what it had in Tenzin, and the way his combative relationship with Korra begins to grow into a genuine bond is one of the best parts of the season.

Then Book 2 took Tenzin, added a brother and sister, baked them into a heaping dose of complicated familial dynamics, and topped it all off with a flawed portrayal of Aang as a father that made it all absolutely outstanding.

Seeing Tenzin struggle with the image of his father as a distant parent to his non-Airbender children forced everyone involved to deal with their lifelong resentments towards each other and Aang. Bumi and Kya are great characters in their own right, each having responded to Aang’s distance in their own way. It is a fantastic dynamic that offers a compelling, realistic image of how the children of those in power must deal with the legacy of their parents.

It ultimately mostly comes back to Tenzin, and the terrific “I am Tenzin!” scene in the Spirit World, where he does come to terms with being his own man, rather than copying his father and living up to his impossible legacy.

I could argue that seeing each of these characters gradually come to terms with each other and their separate relationships between themselves and towards Aang makes for a better plot than anything in Book 1. It starts strong, never lets up, and comes together into one of the best scenes in the entirety of The Legend of Korra. The Kataang kids are fantastic and worth watching Korra for all on their own, and Book 2 was their defining season.

The Ending

Let’s be real. Book One of Korra does not end particularly strongly. However you feel about the reveal of Amon as a Waterbender (I’m not a fan), his movement falls apart far too quickly and easily. Aang restoring Korra’s powers is a copout for the conflict over Amon taking her bending. The relationship with Mako was always meh at best. So many plot threads just kind of limp weakly to the finish line.

Book Two’s ending may not be perfect, but at least it doesn’t chicken out of the consequences set up throughout the entire season.

I absolutely love how Book Two sets Korra up as the first Avatar of a new Avatar cycle. I love how it completely sheds its connections to the first series (something Tenzin’s arc does as well) and establishes a new, unique identity for the series.

Yes, UnaVaatu is a lame villain, the worst of both Avatar shows by a considerable margin. Yes, the fight is borderline incomprehensible in how the various power levels work. Really, though, who cares? Book Two ends with Korra boldly leaving moving forward on her own. She leaves the tradition of the Avatar behind to begin a new tradition. She uses her own strength to forge a new identity for the world and herself.

It also helps that the final stretch of episodes was a needed improvement that included the excellent “Beginnings” episodes focusing on Avatar Wan. You can almost feel the exact moment when everything clicked and the quality of the show jumped forward.

Book One tried to wrap everything up in a neat package, and it led to too many plots falling apart at their conclusion. It tied Korra directly to Aang rather than to her own place in this new world. Book Two was braver than that, and better for it. It let the story resolve in a messier fashion that set the table for everything else.

Continuity with the Rest of the Series

As messy as Book Two was, that ending was vital to setting up everything else that happens moving forward. There is a far greater connection to Books Three and Four than Book One. Their stories could not exist without the parameters Book Two establishes.

Looking truthfully on Book One, it struggles to really connect smoothly to the rest of the series. Obviously, Korra meeting Tenzin and learning airbending was incredibly important. Meeting her own Team Avatar matters. Outside of character meetings, though, what really matters to the rest of the series? What events from the main conflicts of Book 1 reverberate throughout the rest of the series? I can’t say none of it does, but it almost feels like a pilot season, where everyone was trying to figure out who these characters are so they could then figure out what story they actually wanted to tell.

Book 2 felt almost like an awkward mix of a reboot and a continuation. It retreads ground Book One already covered, such as the love triangle, Korra’s anger issues, her struggles to learn something Avatar-related, and the loss of a vital part of Korra’s Avatar identity. This especially hurt the side characters, who almost stalled in place while Korra’s character was reversed and brought back to the position she needed to be in for Book Three.

There is no denying the results. It is because of Book Two that Books Three and Four were able to tell such a solid, consistent story. They built off the story found in Book Two.

Every awkward choice and narrative misfire proved to be for the better. The Legend of Korra chose a bold new direction for both the series and the entire Avatar world. Book One too often held itself back by resisting that natural urge to move the story somewhere entirely different. Much like Korra, the show was held back by what it was expected to be when it should have embraced the identity original to itself. It took them a while to figure it out, but Book Two became stronger over time as they started embracing the depth of Korra’s differences and the best direction to take her.

Korra’s Arc

I have always maintained that the absolute best reason to watch The Legend of Korra is Korra herself. She is an endlessly fascinating character who justifies every single flaw in the show. I don’t care about how bad Bolin’s side plot is in Book Two. I don’t care about how dumb the love triangle is. Who cares if Kuvira’s “Mega Maid” form is too silly.  Korra makes every second worth it.

Book One’s biggest flaw, in the end, was the way it held back the unique qualities Korra brings to the table and tried to fit her into Aang’s mold. Its ending tied her recovery directly to Aang. This moment totally wiped out the challenge facing Korra in the aftermath of the Amon revolution. Rather than embrace a new direction, Aang restored her powers and brought her back into the typical Avatar fold with the typical Avatar love interest. Her strength was again just the strength of the Avatar, rather than her own.

The whole thing felt so cliché when Korra was everything except cliché. None of the interesting questions mattered anymore.

Book Two not only repeated this external and internal conflict for Korra, it then took the extreme step forward that Book One needed by erasing the past lives of the Avatar. There was no longer any going back. The safety net had been removed. The Legend of Korra would no loner be tied to the expectations of The Last Airbender, for better or worse.

Korra’s whole arc, in many ways, was about letting go of the expectation others had for her, instead of trying desperately to abide by them the way she did in Book One. Many fans may have watched Big Blue Korra with confusion, but the logistical sense of how she came about was not the point. What mattered was Korra finding her own inner strength and moving forward as her own Avatar, independent of her past lives, and embracing her new role as the first Avatar of a new cycle.

As much as I love Korra in Book One, I prefer seeing her fully break from the expectations others have for her based on past Avatars. I love seeing the ending play out exactly the opposite of Book One’s “Deus Aang Machina” that just kept her in line with a legacy no longer befitting either Korra or the world. It was a new world, a new Avatar, and this new Avatar was finally allowed to embrace the legacy she was due.

So much about her character breaks molds for both the Avatar universe and children’s cartoons as a medium. Korra constantly subverts expectations and gets punished for it. She does not fit the mold and is disregarded for it. I feel like this is one of the biggest reasons behind the hate for Book Two. Book 1 still tries to fit Korra’s square peg in the round hole. For all the ways she obviously does not belong, people still feel comfortable seeing her story play out familiarly. Book Two leaves the familiar behind and takes The Legend of Korra somewhere people did not recognize, and so they punished the show.

Meanwhile I think this is Book Two’s strength. It was the season where The Legend of Korra stopped trying to fit its characters into The Last Airbender and embraced a unique identity.

I do not deny the flaws everyone else sees in Book Two. I don’t deny how much messier the plot is compared to Book One. I do not deny how the side characters suffer greatly compared to their roles in Book One. Nothing in Book One is as bad as Bolin’s side plot, and the love triangle is even worse. I’m not here to erase Book Two’s major weaknesses.

As someone who rewatches The Legend of Korra at least once a year (and soon to be for the second time this year when it hits Netflix this Friday), I always look forward to watching Book Two more than Book One. Its lows may be lower, but its highs are definitely higher. Book Two is simply more interesting to rewatch. I always have more fun. Even the flaws are interesting, just to see the show find what does and does not work. I find Book Two endlessly more rewarding to dig into and analyze. Book One just plays things too safe. It might be a bit more competent, but it still leaves me with less interest in rewatching the season.

When Korra comes to Netflix on Friday, I will obviously watch it all happily because I love the show. I will be much more excited to watch Book Two again than I will be to watch Book One. And I will always defend it, flaws and all, for the incredible strengths too many people overlook.

Images Courtesy of Nickelodeon

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