Last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones put a final nail in the coffin of the Dornish subplot; an aspect of the show that even its most earnest defenders agree was a failure. Now that it’s over (I think, I was wrong once before.) it’s a good time to get into the weeds of why it was so unsuccessful. There are all the obvious issues with the plot itself, the dialogue, the casting, the direction, the costumes… but the ultimate root source of all of these is a failure of adaptation. More specifically, it’s a failure of the writers of GoT, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, to understand a fundamental feature of the source material: point of view.
The A Song of Ice and Fire (aSoIaF) series, on which GoT still claims to be based in its opening credits, is famous for George R.R. Martin’s use of what is called a “close third-person pov” structure. The story follows many principal characters. Each chapter alternates between them and is told, not only through their eyes, but also through their minds. The character’s voice are unique, and influenced by their own experiences, knowledge, and biases.
So, Sansa Stark begins the series seeing things as one would expect an eleven-year-old girl who’s been sheltered and taught idealized notions of how people in power behave would see things. As she gains experience, her commentary of the goings on in King’s Landing and the Vale become more and more insightful, and a good deal less idealized. When she becomes more wary and suspicious, people start behaving more suspiciously. Tyrion Lannister brings his vast knowledge, especially of history, to the table as he navigates through war, politics, and exile, but he also brings his misogyny, internalized ableism, and Lannister pride.
Tyrion’s biases are especially relevant here because it’s through his point of view that we first see the people who have always existed on the edge of Westeros, part of the system, and yet outside it. In many important ways, the Dornish were as much the “great other” as the Wildlings in the North, or the Free Cities across the Narrow Sea.
All Dornishmen are Snakes
I’m sorry to have to bring in the dreaded book knowledge, but it’s important that I explain what George R.R. Martin accomplished with the Dornish in the source material before I can discuss why the show failed to make the same point. Indeed, their own narrative undercuts everything that show plotline was about.
In Westerosi culture, Dorne’s separate history, cultural distinctiveness, strong sense of unity, and their determination to be politically autonomous leads them to be othered in the eyes of Westerosi. They see Dorne as an exotic place, full of violent and sexy people who look and act oddly. Put another way, they are the targets of prejudice, and what we would reasonably call “racism”. They’re certainly the subjects of a good amount of off-hand racist comments and jokes.
“Leo’s eyes were hazel, bright with wine and malice. “Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will fuck anything with a hole between its legs. Meaning no offense.”” -A Feast for Crows (aFfC)
“Tyrion had sent her little girl to Dorne, and Cersei had dispatched Ser Balon Swann to bring her home. All Dornishmen were snakes, and the Martells were the worst of them.” -aFfC
“Poison was for cravens, women, and Dornishmen.” -A Dance with Dragons (aDwD)a
(I should note, to avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to people who are from Westeros, but not Dornish, as “Westerosi.” This term will not include the Dornish, unless otherwise stated, even though technically, the Dornish are Westerosi.)
It’s useful when thinking about the Westerosi view of the Dornish to compare it to “orientalist” ideas in Western European thought.
Orientalism is, strictly speaking, a nineteenth century artistic movement in Western Europe that depicted “the middle east” and points further. It’s most famous for painting of women in harem and eastern market places. These days, though, the term in most likely to be associated with the work of Edward Sa`id and his most famous book, Orientalism.
This book is a foundational text of postcolonial thought, and rather notoriously dense and difficult to get through for students in ‘Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies’ classes. What I offer is a very simplified summary of Sa`id’s ideas.
He argued that western depictions of “the orient” are, in general, inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. Even the very concept of the orient itself is inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. It conflates many complex times, places, and peoples and turns them into a “narrative of incident,” a convenient background where white people can have adventures.
This is self-serving on the part of western culture because these narrative aren’t interested in actually exploring or understanding these places. It exists to create contrast between east and west, where “the east” is irrational, weak, childlike, and feminine, and “the west” is rational, strong, developed, and masculine. It justifies western domination by implying that the western understanding of the orient is more valid than the understanding of the actual “orientals” who live there.
This plays into the Westerosi understanding of the Dornish in many ways, though one of the most obvious is the contrast between Dornish and Westerosi conceptions of Dornish “ethnic identity”. (A totally anachronistic term I only use for lack of a better one.)
Dorne has a complex history. It’s defining moment as a unified political entity was the marriage of Mors and Nymeria and the coming of the Rhoynar from Essos, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. The idea of a separate “Dornish” identity seems to have existed before then, when Dorne was inhabited by petty kingdoms of Andals and First Men. The people living in the red mountains and the deserts and river valleys beyond were certainly referred to as such when they were raiding the Reach in ancient times, and one of the titles of the Yronwood kings in the Boneway was “King of the Dornish”.
The coming of the Rhoynar had a profound cultural, legal, and political impact on Dorne. Most notably, they adopted a distinctly Rhoynar legal tradition. Still, it’s completely inaccurate to say that the Dornish are simply Rhoynar transplanted to the desert who totally overwhelmed and subjugated the indigenous Andals and First Men. That would be as inaccurate as implying that the current English identity or cultural and political system are purely the result of the Franco-Norman invasion, ignoring the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic elements that are just as, if not more, central.
The Westerosi have made much of the “ethnic” divisions in Dorne, most famously in the Targaryen king Daeron I’s history of his conquest.
“There were three sorts of Dornishmen, the first King Daeron had observed. There were the salty Dornishmen who lived along the coasts, the sandy Dornishmen of the deserts and long river valleys, and the stony Dornishmen who made their fastnesses in the passes and heights the the Red Mountains. The salty Dornishmen had the most Rhoynar blood, the stony Dornishmen the least.
All three sorts seemed well represented in Doran’s retinue. The salty Dornshmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burnt brown by the Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning.”
Most readers with a passing interest in the history of the Social Sciences are no doubt strongly reminded of Victorian Era pseudo-Anthropology and its preoccupation with categorizing everyone in the world into the four “races,” Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, and Amerindian.
This type of thing didn’t disappear from school textbook until well into the 20th century, but is generally considered these days to be little less than bunk. And it was an idea that interacted quite heavily with orientalism. It’s a perfect example of Western Europeans thinking they have a better understanding of “others” than the people themselves do.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the Dornish in A Song of Ice and Fire never refer to themselves using Daeron’s three categories. In fact, it’s often characters who would clearly fit into the “stony” category that are the most assertive about a “Dornish” identity.
Contrary to how the Dornish think of themselves, the Westerosi emphasize the Rhoynar aspects of Dornish culture to play up the idea that it is exotic and somehow “foreign,” rather than something that developed in Dorne with Rhoynishness as one piece of a greater cultural-political puzzle that is more than the sum of its parts.
The Dornish are Crazy
So what does this all mean for Game of Thrones, particularly as an adaptation?
This issue is that aSoIaF goes out of its way to challenge the Westerosi image of them, especially through the point of view of Dornish characters. Contrarily, the Dornish of the show simply are the orientalist stereotypes that the Westerosi believe them to be.
“The Dornish are crazy,” Bronn said in season 5. “All they want to do is fight and fuck.”
This is a rather good characterization of the stereotype in both text. Indeed in the third volume, A Storm of Swords, we first see Dornish characters (namely Prince Oberyn and Ellaria Sand,) and we do so only from the point of view of Westerosi characters. Their characterization as overly sexual and unpredictably violent is well in place. Oberyn’s mysterious darkness and reputation for poisoning and duels is his prime characterization, and Ellaria probably worships a Lyseni love goddess, at least according to the gossip that reaches Sansa.
However, by the time we meet Arianne Martell, a point of view character in A Feast for Crows, we gain an entirely different perspective on both these characters and maybe even begin to suspect that Oberyn spent the previous book playing into stereotypes deliberately in order to gain a specific political advantage and make his hosts in King’s Landing uncomfortable. Arianne’s view of her uncle doesn’t erase or deny his violent past or promiscuity, but it emphasises his devotion to his family and children, and his role as a beloved popular political figure.
The difference in Ellaria as soon as she crosses the mountains is even more striking. The woman who was framed as the classic dark, seductive foreign woman who uses her sexuality in a magical way, probably to control men for her own purposes, is revealed to be rather conventionally feminine and focused primarily on her role as a mother. Rather than trying to manipulate people, her main wish is to break the cycle of violence in order to keep her children safe.
Contrast this to the way the Dornish are played throughout their run on Game of Thrones. These stereotypical aspects were not only played straight and presented without challenge, but also dialed up to eleven.
The first Dornish we meet are a monolith of dark, broody men who are identically dressed. The sole speaker in the group introduces us to the cartoon accent that will be used for all Dornish characters for the next four years.
This scene is short and relatively unimportant, but it’s very telling as to how simplified and exoticised Dornishness will be, even compared to the Daeron I’s racist ethnography. For one thing, they’re all men, eliminating the important role that women have in politics in Dorne, another thing that Westerosi think is very unusual, and probably dangerous. And for another thing, there is none of that diversity of appearance that allowed Daeron’s ethnography to begin with. Here, every Dornishman is the same, and he has the same opinion about everything.
Then we meet Oberyn and Ellaria and…. they’re in a brothel. As far as anyone can tell, this is where they’ll live for the duration of their stay.
Now, the Oberyn of the books series is canonically bisexual and his relationship with Ellaria is implied to not be entirely monogamous. While it’s true that the Dorne of the books is notable for its permissive attitude to sex in general and homosexuality in particular, I don’t think it’s uncontroversial to say that the emphasis GoT placed on these elements goes beyond what the source material indicated.
There’s no clearer indication of this than that first scene, where the pair were apparently so overcome with the need for sex that they ditched the king and headed straight for the brothel for group sex. And this emphasis on the salaciousness of their sex life does not stop for the entirety of the season. For Ellaria especially, there seems to be nothing in life but having sex, and there’s little indication that she and Oberyn have anything in common other than the fact that they enjoy having sex in the same room.
An obsession with sex is a common orientalist trope. Concubinage and the harem especially terrified and fascinated puritanical western minds, though their views of both of those things bore little resemblance to reality.
In these conceptions of oriental sex, female homosexuality is omnipresent, if always implied, and it’s used as a way to characterize orientals as barely in control of their own sexual impulses. So while there’s little implied about Oberyn and Ellaria in season 4, their frequent scenes, with the set decorated with the bodies of sex workers of both genders, serve the very same function. And they contrast very tellingly with, for example, Cersei and Jaime’s need to keep their relationship secret, or Tyrion’s chaste marriage to Sansa.
The other half of the Dornish coin in the opening scene with Oberyn and Ellaria comes later on, when they overhear a man in the other room singing a pro-Lannister song. In retaliation, Oberyn stabs the man through the wrist, while his lover watches, clearly aroused.
This violence isn’t the controlled, calculated violence that is wielded for political or military ends by other characters within the show; it’s impulsive and irrational. Oberyn can’t help himself, it seems.
The prince, however, did receive a few humanizing and complicating moments in the episodes before his death. These were the moments that made him a successful character. But Oberyn’s success was perhaps the downfall of the show’s presentation of Dorne, because the following season doubled down on the uncontrolled sex and violence, but was unable to recreate the charisma that made it bearable.
Weak Men Will Never Rule Dorne
In the fifth season, the emphasis in Dorne shifted to the bereaved Ellaria Sand and Oberyn’s adult daughters. And their need for revenge.
This need put the women in conflict with Oberyn’s brother Doran. The narrative attempted to frame this as somehow a victory for women over restrictive patriarchal control, but in the end, it was all a rather textbook example of Sa`id’s Narrative of Incident. The truly important conflict of the storyline was not the one within the Dornish royal family, it was the peril that Jaime Lannister, and his daughter Myrcella, were placed in in this strange and mysterious land.
Indeed, any even cursory consideration of the motivations and actions of the Dornish characters reveals how little sense they make. Myrcella as a target for Ellaria and the Sand Snakes revenge makes no sense. Her misplaced anger towards Prince Doran for not sharing her impulse makes even less, but that hardly matters because Ellaria is not a rational actor, because the orient is a place that doesn’t allow for rational action.
In contrast to the directness of western political violence, where knights face each other in duels governed by well understood and rigidly adhered to rules, oriental political violence is always hidden. It’s characterized by poison and brothers stabbing each other in the back. There are endless betrayals and lies. No one can be trusted, and no one ever tells the whole truth. And in the end, no one survives. The very impossibility of navigating such despotic harem politics is the point. It is meant to be impossible to survive or to change. Neither Doran nor Jaime’s good intentions could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge. Indeed, not even Ellaria could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge, because there was no reason to it. She was no more in control of her impulse toward violence in seasons 5, 6, and 7 than she was in control of her need for sex in season 4.
Again, the book series presents us with a Dornish court with a reputation for poison and intrigue, and then challenges this image through its Dornish point of view characters. The intrigue and conspiracy may still be there, but it’s contextualized entirely by Arianne and Quentyn’s love of family and need to do their duty. Importantly, it’s a context that has everything to do with them and with Dorne, and with these two characters as political agents.
There was the barest hint of this kind of agency in season 4, when Oberyn’s revenge was framed as a response to familial love for his sister and the injustice of her death. But as soon as the scaffold of directly adapting material from A Song of Ice and Fire was removed in season 5, all this context that would have made the actions of Dornish characters comprehensible or relatable disappeared. Their actions became things that happened to other, more favored characters.
In sum, the Dornish were not truly characters on Game of Thrones; they have been much more like forces of nature. Beyond reason and understanding.
Dorne itself, as a place, was poorly defined. It seemed entirely uninhabited except for a few guards who may as well be mannequins, and consisted of nothing but a little patch of desert. It didn’t have a history of its own, or any people to have opinions about the violent overthrow of their monarch. Such considerations were never deemed to be important. As in 19th century Western Europe, the only importance that the orient (Dorne) can have is in what it teaches those who observe it.
Images courtesy of HBO and Bantam Publishing
The Trial of Two Cities Turns the Tone of Green Arrow
Hello, good readers; it’s been quite a while since I’ve done something on Green Arrow for you to all in enjoy. In part, I blame that on DC for changing the series from a bi-monthly release to once a month. Believe you me, I very annoyed about this, because now I have to wait twice as long for the next exciting issue and I am quite impatient. Yet, we can find solace in the fact even if we have to wait an extra two weeks for the next chapter in our favorite story, we know that the quality will not falter. Thirty nine issues in and Green Arrow is still one of the best titles DC has to offer. Not only is the story still as engaging as ever, but Juan Ferreyra has been featured as the artist so much recently that he’s crossing the line from occasional artist to permanent. I really hope that happens because he is one of the best, if not the best that DC has to offer right now, kudos to his talent.
As the new year comes along we are finally getting the end to the arc started last year, The Trial of Two Cities, as well as the sub-arc within the last two issues called The Fall of the Red Arrow. Not only was this part of the series over a year in the making, but it has marked a serious change in tone for the series. Not to say the series itself is depressing in retrospect, but for a while now Oliver has not known more than some major defeats at the hands of the Ninth Circle. Just to list a few things that have befallen Oliver Queen: publicly disgraced and framed for the murder of a secretary (a major plot point for this arc but we’ll get to that later), lost control of Queen Industries to a patsy of the Ninth Circle, failed to save Seattle from becoming Star City, lost friends both literally and figuratively, and strained his relationship with Dinah.
All in all it’s been a great year for us as readers, but definitely not for his character. That’s one of the reasons why the ending issue for this arc was so important. As the old adage goes, Oliver Queen has no where to go but up at this point. That’s not to say he’s seen not seen some victory here and there. The last arc so brilliantly showed that he we ready to join a higher tier of superheroes to the point where even the Justice League added their voices to his cause in a finale so moving, I couldn’t help but be proud for being a part of it for this long. The series needed this win; for once we see Oliver reach the masses with the truth and the strength to overcome his personal demons and discover who his true family is, the ones who will stick with him and us through all the good times and the bad. Now lets look at all the factors leading this to be one of the best arcs in the series and how they changed the future of Green Arrow to something that fans will surely clamor over no matter how long the wait between issues.
The Return of Moira Queen and The Fall of the Red Arrow
This one hit like a ton of bricks but also felt kind of shallow at first glance. Dysfunctional family has always been a major part of Oliver Queen’s life whether it was his actual family or his super hero one. In the previous arc to the Hard Traveling Hero, before Seattle succumbs to the influence of Cyrus Broderick and Mayor Domini we discover that Oliver’s father was a member of the Ninth Circle, be it for whatever moral reason he sold his soul to the devil. It’s only natural that Oliver would revert back to an almost child like sense of hope at the return of his mother. Call it being not the most emotionally healthy reaction on his end, but after all he’s been through with the revelations of his father, it’s hard not to understand how he feels, even if it is misplaced and we know it.
It’s let on pretty early that Moira is trying to get back into the Ninth Circles good side after a massive failure on her end with some destroyed satellites thanks to Ollie and Hal Jordan. In response, Dante (the de facto leader of the Ninth Circles) employs Shado to kill her while Moira brings Cyrus back from the brink after his fiery aftermath with Ollie. Eventually, she convinces Oliver to help recover a lost fortune that went down with the Ninth Circle ship/fortress, the inferno. Typically she betrays and leaves him for dead, yet another betrayal on his list. But at least it leads to Dinah saving him and to one of the best fights in the series so far.
With Cyrus falling victim to Shado her list of allies grows thin, yet almost in the nick of time, her former lover and assassin, Malcolm Merlyn, escapes Diggles’s custody and runs to join her side. In a three-way fight, Malcolm and Moira take on Oliver, Dinah, and Emi, while Shado tries to get a Moira no matter who is in her way. It’s exciting, full of intense action and heart break.
The tides turn when Emi selflessly takes an arrow to the chest that was meant for Oliver as a gift from his dear mother. Shado may not have been the best mother, but seeing the probable death of her only daughter sends her into a rage so fierce that both her and Moira plummet into the unknown, but not before Shado can brand her forehead with an arrow. Granted Emi does survive, but that selfless act on her end broke our hearts and filled our eyes with so many tears. It’s not known whether the two or one of them survived the ordeal but for once we saw Shado give her rage into something pure and I have a much greater respect for the character, whether she lives or dies. I definitely can’t say the same for Moira. Diggle also returns to the fold and saves Dinah from Merlyn, and comes back to team arrow for good.
The Trial of Oliver Queen
The other plot in the center stage for this arc was the trial of Oliver Queen. As stated, and of course known if you read this comic, Oliver Queen was disgraced early on in the series when he was drugged by Shado. She had put him on a boat with one of his secretaries named Wendy Poole. What followed was a smear campaign that left him look like a murderer and a drunk, up until now he thought it best to stay dead to serve Seattle as a full time Green Arrow. Though once he realized what Seattle was to become, he came back to the open as Oliver Queen leading to his arrest for the murder of Wendy Poole. Of course, he did not make things better for himself when he left Seattle again just days before his trial to the dismay of his lawyer. Of course things happened between and during the case that would lead to one of the best wins to date for Oliver.
While he was away earning the respect of the Justice League, Dinah was on the hunt for the section of the Ninth Circle that was still kidnapping the homeless and underprivileged of Seattle. The actual discovery she would make was far more important than she would imagine, Wendy Poole, the supposed dead secretary was still alive though very traumatized and damaged. It was not clear if she would speak to the court on Ollie’s behalf or she could even speak at all. Meanwhile the Ninth Circle did it’s best to try and destroy an sort of defense Oliver had. This is where making friends comes in handy as every single attempt is stunted gloriously by various members of the Justice League.
Now this is exactly moment where everything changes, and I swear I nearly through my comic with tears of victory and glory. Oliver, finally on the stand, almost ends up condemning himself in order to expose the Ninth Circle. He gives his lawyer a gold bar worth enough money to quiet all her troubles she’s had to deal with while defending Oliver. With the world watching, including the Justice League, Ollie finally exposes the enemy eluding him for so long and brings them into the light. With perfect timing, Wendy works up the courage to make herself known.
Between this and Hal Jordan’s digital proof, Oliver is finally free of his bonds and what an amazing victory this was. The arc ends with Oliver finally using his money for great things: a grant for the Seattle PD in the name of Chief Westburg to show the victorious dead will always be remembered, the repair of the intercontinental train to restore unity to the world, new renewable energy projects to save the planet and the natives who were harmed by the pipeline, and finally a new home for the forgotten and unwanted populace of Seattle.
Everything that made Green Arrow and Oliver Queen so special came into clear focus with this wonderful end to an amazing arc. I can’t wait for what is next for all those who enjoy this series. I truly hope that the readers, like Ollie, take a long deep breath to remember all he’s been through and what makes us love him and his family so much, because we all know the next conflict is just around the corner. This time Oliver and we will be ready for it.
Images courtesy of DC Comics
The Power of Korra’s Healing Arc
This piece is co-written by Gretchen and Kylie
It’s hard to find a podcast or analysis piece on this site that doesn’t somehow sing the praises of Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra. Yet with two of the three Turf Wars comics published and the third scheduled for this summer, the reaction from our Fandomentals staff, and Korra fandom at large has been, shall we say, mixed. One of the more prominent criticisms, especially after Part 2, has been Korra’s characterization and personality. It’s…definitely something, but not something we recognize as lining up with where she ended her arc in the TV series. Korra of Turf Wars seems to lack the balance Book 4 was named after, which her character had been progressing toward from the beginning.
We’re still scratching our heads with how she got here. Because the last we remember from the show, Korra was identifying with the season’s antagonist and actively pursuing ways to understand how all of her enemies have been right to a certain degree, only out of balance. With that in mind, and in preparation for our Korrasami panel at ClexaCon coming up, Kylie and Gretchen decided to take a dive back into Legend of Korra and focus specifically on Korra’s healing arc in Book 4.
Out of the Compound, Into the Wringer
Korra hasn’t exactly had an easy time of being the Avatar. Not that Aang did, by any means. He was frozen for 100 years and woke up to discover that his entire culture and nation had been completely wiped out. He was a survivor of genocide facing down the imperial ambitions of the nation that had destroyed his own. He died and lost his connection to the Avatar spirit. Even after Katara revived him, his access to the Avatar state was severed, and he had to pursue spiritual healing to overcome the block.
Korra may not have to cope with being a child soldier or the genocide of her people, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t experience trauma. It’s just a different kind. Korra’s traumas were far more personal than Aang’s, and by that, we mean specific to her person—localized in her body and her bending. In Book 1, as soon as she sees Amon remove a Triad leader’s bending, that becomes her greatest fear, only for her to suffer that later. She loses her water, fire, and earth bending. It’s a terrifying moment for her, but her concern for saving Mako from the same fate unlocks her airbending ability. Still, she’s traumatized, depressed, and seemingly on the verge of committing suicide…
Until Aang shows up and magically restores her other bending abilities as well as giving her the power to restore everyone else’s, too. Yay! She’s fixed now!
So far as Book 2 is concerned, what even are depression and the lingering effects of trauma? Korra sure doesn’t know, because her losing her bending is never explored in any meaningful way, or even brought up. She has her bending back, so why dwell?
But Book 2 presents her with yet another personal, traumatic loss in the form of having Raava literally ripped out of her and her past lives destroyed. In two seasons she’s arguably lost two of the most important pieces of herself that make her who she is as the Avatar: her bending and Raava. And unlike Aang, it isn’t that she just lost contact with the Avatar spirit or couldn’t enter the Avatar state. She literally had the Avatar spirit—who must feel like a second soul inside of her given how deep and intimate the connection is based on what we see with Raava and Wan—forcibly torn out of her and shattered.
Thankfully, when she’s reunited with Raava, it’s less a ‘lol, fixed’ than the ending to Book 1 was, though it was still not quite what one would expect for such a painful event. She’s ‘whole’ again as the Avatar, although she still lost her past lives. All that history, wisdom, knowledge, and experience: gone.
And it isn’t just that, she’s lost a community, a sense of her own place in the world. We see in Books 3-4 that she struggles to make her way in the world precisely because she lacks this sense of place. What must be a lonely experience—being the only one of your kind and misunderstood or rejected because of your power—was mitigated knowing she was one of a long line of Avatars. She could take comfort in their presence in her ‘life’ even if she didn’t commune with them. Just knowing they were a part of her through Raava meant she wasn’t alone.
In one stroke, she lost all of that.
However, losing her past lives wasn’t really presented as having been traumatizing. On paper, this sounds like a very damaging thing to have happen, yet it’s presented more as an inconvenience since she now cannot access them as a resource. One would think at least the show would have explored how traumatizing it would be for Katara and the Gaang kids to ‘lose’ their dad all over again. But no, losing her past lives is just a thing that happens and Korra has to seek advice from real human beings instead of asking the former Avatars.
Bolin: Ooh sorry, did I interrupt an Avatar wisdom session?
Korra: Avatar wisdom is the thing of the past, Bolin.
That’s not inherently a bad move. We really like Korra connecting to and seeking advice from Toph, Tenzin, Lin, Suyin (er…sometimes), and Asami. At the same time, not treating the loss of the Avatar spirit or her past lives as traumatic does feel inauthentic and like a missed opportunity.
That brings us to the events of Book 3, where Legend of Korra sets up what will be one of the most compelling healing arcs we’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something for a show that didn’t actively deal with the protagonist’s trauma for half of the show’s run.
After being pursued for unclear reasons by a group of anarchists with unclear motivations all season, Korra is ultimately poisoned by their leader Zaheer with a metallic poison in an attempt to force her into the Avatar state and kill her, ending the Avatar cycle for good. While she’s under the influence of the poison in the Avatar state, Zaheer tries to suffocate her. When the poison is (mostly) removed, we can see clearly that Korra isn’t the same. She survives, but only at great cost to herself physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Unlike the previous two trauma’s Korra suffered, this one was intentionally written to be lasting so that the show could explore it in Book 4. Even the ending to Book 3 wasn’t as neat as the previous two books. Where Book 1 closed with a magical Aang fix and Book 2, with a fully whole and restored Avatar, Book 3 breaks with the pattern and offers us a ‘flash forward’ to three weeks later…and Korra still isn’t healed. She’s in a wheelchair and visibly depressed. We know right then that the story isn’t going to take the easy road out of Korra’s traumatic experience with Zaheer.
Before we talk about the healing arc proper there’s one other thing to note about Korra’s arc in Books 3-4, and that is what it displays about showrunners’ Bryan Konietzko’s and Michael DiMartino’s (aka Bryke) growth as storytellers. Legend of Korra is actually a great test case to talk about writers actively improving over the course of the show. They listened to their audience and course corrected, and they listened to their characters and the chemistry—we have that instinct to thank for Korrasami (more on that later).
And, they also display a desire to improve and ‘get it right’ when it comes to dealing with Korra’s trauma. As we’ll see, Book 4 doesn’t just deal with Korra’s trauma from Book 3; it also finds ways to include and explore what she experienced in Books 1-2. With Book 4, we truly get to see Bryke give Korra space to deal with her suffering in a meaningful way. And that’s a huge mark of growth from “yippee, Aang fixed Korra’s depression!” in Book 1.
“Nobody expects you to bounce back right away”
Perhaps the most interesting call was that Book 4’s opening episode was almost entirely Korra-free, until the final scene. We learned through the other characters that she had been at the South Pole for the three years that passed, and everyone was eagerly awaiting her return to Republic City. However when Tonraq arrives without her, it’s quickly discovered that she gave all her friends and family the slip for the past 6 months. When we find out where she is, it’s nearly as grim as where we left her the previous season: underground fighting (and losing) somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, while denying that she’s the Avatar. This was tonally striking and foreboding, and sort of allowed the audience to immediately tap into Korra’s interpersonal imbalance.
That’s what’s great about this arc is that from the get-go: it’s clear that her regaining physical strength is not the sum total, nor even really the focal point. Book 3 ended with her in a wheelchair, yet our first glimpse of her in Book 4 in the earthbending fight is just as worrying, if not more so. It’s clear she’s made an unhealthy choice to hide, and is not in the best state of mind. Even her loss in the match seemed more as a result of that headspace rather than any physical limitations.
It’s the next episode where we get the details. “Korra Alone”—named after “Zuko Alone”, which is considered one of the best episodes from Avatar: The Last Airbender—is a nonlinear tale of Korra’s recovery up until the unground fight. We learn through flashbacks that soon after the end of Book 3, she traveled back to the Southern Water Tribe alone in order to heal. There, she struggled with nightmares, clearly not improving for what might have been months (based on her friends’ letters piling up), until her mom begged her to visit Katara.
We then get a sequence of healing sessions: Korra wiggling her big toe for the first time, Korra taking her first assisted steps. These also include Korra screaming in frustration at Katara thanks to her slow progress. It’s then that Katara talks about Aang’s own struggles with the loss of his culture, and how he choose to find meaning in his suffering and recontextualize what he had gone through.
Katara: [Aang] chose to find meaning in his suffering and eventually…found peace.
Korra: And, what am I going to find if I…get through this?
Katara: I don’t know. But won’t it be interesting to find out? (4×02)
The next flashbacks take us to a Korra that’s sparring with the White Lotus again, trying to show-off for a visiting Tenzin like she does in Book 1. However, she’s clearly not in the fighting shape she used to be, and when she loses, she expresses her frustration at not improving fast enough. We next get her narration of a letter she writes to Asami two years after her injury, intercut with scenes of her training and meditating. She confides that she hasn’t been able to get back into the Avatar state since Zaheer, and worries she’ll never fully recover.
After this, Korra tells her parents she wants to go back to Republic City to be “where the action is”, saying she hit a wall with her progress. They agree to let her travel alone, which she opts to do by boat as a way to clear her head. However, when she stops in a small village for lunch, she’s unable to apprehend two thieves in what should have been a stupidly easy fight. Worse still, as she approaches Republic City, she sees something disturbing: herself, wrapped up in platinum chains and in the Avatar state, as she had been when fighting Zaheer (from here on denoted as “dark!Korra”).
Korra decides she’s not ready to go back, cuts her hair, and changes her clothes to disguise herself. We then find out how she spent those missing 6 months, as she narrates a letter of her lying to her father; she searched for Raava, unable to feel her Avatar spirit anymore, in what looked to be the most remote reaches of the world. Even going to the Tree of Time in the Spirit World didn’t help.
We’re then taken back to the present day—just after the underground earthbending fight—which we learn she only entered because she spotted dark!Korra in the pit. She heals her bruises and leaves, only to have a cute potato-esque spirit lure her into the swamp. There, she encounters dark!Korra once again, who fights her, seemingly dragging her into a puddle of the same metal poison. Instead, she winds up in a cave where she meets Toph, who has been living in the swamp for years.
At first, Korra asks Toph to train her, since she’s getting beat-up by “losers” all over the Earth Kingdom. Yet it becomes apparent that there’s something else at play than physical shape: Korra is doubting all her old instincts. In one sequence when she wanders off in the swamp, she spots all of her past enemies in the moments where they hurt her the most. Amon taking away her bending, Unalaq ripping Raava out of her, and of course a shot of Zaheer all flash before her, and us.
We also learn that Korra’s begun to wonder if she’s even needed in the world at all (which is not particularly aided by Toph’s words on the subject). Toph is still able to get to the root of things though, and eventually explains to her that the problem is that she’s been disconnected from herself and the people she loves for too long. Oh, also, there’s still bits of metal poison inside of her, because Suyin apparently missed some when she had extracted it.
Korra asks Toph to bend it out of her, but every time she tries, Korra flashes to her fight with Zaheer or dark!Korra in some way, fighting and interrupting the process. Toph tells her she has to do it herself, and it won’t be possible if she keeps carrying around her former battles without trying to learn something from them. Korra’s disconnect from the people she cared about had been a major issue too; once she reaches out and spirit bends through the vines of the swamp, she directs Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo to her. After she reunites with them, she successfully manages to bend the metal out and re-enter the Avatar state.
It would have been easy for her healing arc to stop there. The metal was out of her, the physical reason she hadn’t been in the Avatar state and she had been losing fights. Right?
Well, the next couple of episodes counter that idea. In them, Korra tries to end the new crisis with Kuvira’s power grab by confronting her forces at Zaofu. She didn’t want to fight—that was something she felt the “old me” would have done. But when Kuvira (and Suyin, honestly) left no other way to solve the conflict, Korra agreed to duel Kuvira. She began losing, then jumped into the Avatar state, which would have clearly allowed her a finishing blow. But she still flashed to dark!Korra, causing her to fail, and Kuvira to capture Zaofu. Korra was taken to safety before Kuvira could hurt her, but she remained confused as to why she had these flashbacks now that the metal had been removed.
Once back in Republic City, Korra reconnects with her friends, getting past the awkwardness of having cut them off for three years, and even reaches out with her spirit bending to locate someone who’s missing, showing that she she can stay connected outside of the swamp. She still worries about whether the world needs her, but when the city’s spirit vines go haywire and kidnap a group of tourists thanks to Kuvira’s meddling with the vines in the swamp, Korra knows she’s the only one who can free them from their spirit-stasis.
Small problem: it requires her meditating into the Spirit World, and when she tries, she once again flashes to Zaheer and dark!Korra. Korra decides she has to confront Zaheer in his prison, which she does alone. It’s clear she’s still scared of him, and we learn that the most frightening aspect to her is her having been completely out of control in their fight. Dark!Korra represents that extreme vulnerability to her. Despite their differences, Zaheer agrees to help guide Korra through meditation into the Spirit World, since he believes that Kuvira needs to be stopped too. Using language evocative of mindful meditation, he tells her to accept what happened to her.
She manages to let go and allow the upsetting flashes play out, despite being out of control. Once that happens, she finds herself in the Spirit World, where she reconnects with Raava (or rather, reestablishes their connection; Raava hadn’t gone anywhere), and saves the tourists. Turns out she can energybend in the Spirit World, demonstrating that she’s even more powerful than she had realized. She tells Mako that she finally feels “whole” again after this.
All that’s left is to save the world from a technocratic emperor then, right?
Korra does just that, but it’s clear that there’s been a shift in her mentality and approach to fighting. It’s not that she’s any less proactive or fearless—quite the contrary. However, there’s a strategy. When Kuvira invades Republic City, she knows they can’t take her on head-first, and instead devises a plan to kidnap her fiance Baatar Jr., thinking they could reason with or strongarm him instead. When it becomes apparent that he’s as committed to this plan as Kuvira, she shifts her tactics to target his love for Kuvira.
Korra: We’ve been going about his all wrong. You’re right. I’m not gonna physically hurt you if you don’t talk. But there is something I could do that will be even more painful. I will take away the one thing you care for the most…Kuvira.
Baatar Jr.: What do you mean?
Korra: Kuvira might win. She might chase us out of the city. But you won’t be around to enjoy the victory. Because wherever I run, I’ll take you. I am going to make it my life’s mission to never let you see the one you love again. Is taking the city worth losing Kuvira forever? (4×11)
This ultimately blows up in Korra’s face (kind of literally), when they find out that Kuvira is willing to sacrifice Baatar to accomplish her goals. Only then does Korra realize they have to take Kuvira head on. In this showdown, we see that Korra’s bending is about as powerful as it’s ever been. But that’s not what saves the day. Kuvira’s spirit vine super-weapon malfunctions, and when it’s about to accidentally fire on her, Korra throws herself in front of her enemy and bends the energy of its fire power to save her. This ends up ripping open a new spirit portal in the heart of Republic City, which she and Kuvira get blasted through.
Once in the Spirit World, Korra “wins” the fight by simply relating to Kuvira. She tells her that she understands acting from a place of vulnerability and worry, not knowing what will happen. Kuvira was trying to keep the people of her kingdom safe, just like Korra had tried to keep herself safe by cutting herself off and fighting the disturbing visions every step of the way.
Kuvira surrenders, realizing how out-of-balance she got, even if her intentions had been good. This hearkens back to Toph’s advice about Korra being able to learn something from her past enemies, and come to understand their views even if not agreeing with their means or ends. Korra can “carry around” her past battles in this sense—that there’s something of value there she learned, and can apply to other situations.
Later, Korra reflects on this to Tenzin. The meaning she found in her injury and recovery from Zaheer is that she can empathize better with people like Kuvira now, and she can’t regret going through that given her perspective now. This serves as the endcap to Katara’s advice as well. She’s reshaped the world possibly more than any other Avatar (at least since Wan), yet she tells Tenzin there’s more she wants to do, and she’s hopeful about the future. It’s clear she found an inner sense of peace.
The series then ends with Korra allowing herself a moment of self-care: she asks Asami to go on a vacation with her, quite obviously framed as a beginning to their relationship (and a very intense first date), and steps into the spirit portal with her as the last shot.
Korra’s Withdrawal, and Why Korrasami Still Sounds Perfect
There’s a lot to be said about this arc, as well as its implications—positive and negative. However, as we were talking through it, one of the things that jumped out to us was how female-driven this was. In fact, all of Korra’s primary dynamics in Book 4 were with other women. Katara and Toph both served in a mentor role, each delivering a neatly packaged thesis statement (Katara’s focused on Korra’s internal journey, with Toph’s focused on the main tensions of the season). Jinora was the first person Korra reached back out to in a very external way. Asami was the person Korra realized she was in love with and took steps into the future with her. Kuvira served as Korra’s antagonist and foil; Senna was the one who begged Korra to go visit with Katara in the first place; even Raava (in some ways a representation of Korra’s self, but still) is female-coded.
Korra’s final conversation with Tenzin was more a result of their dynamic in previous seasons (not that he’s chopped liver to her or anything), and frankly other than Zaheer, there wasn’t a man who particularly influenced her recovery. Not to mention his mindful meditation session was far more about Korra’s inner demons than him.
There’s not much to say about that pattern beyond, “Hey, neato,” but it’s worth noting that even over three years later, this is a major anomaly in modern media. And given Korra’s brutalization at the hands of specifically men for three books, a very welcome one for her. No more “Aang magically fixed her instantaneously.” She’s found balance and healing in and through relationships with female characters.
That brings us to the other “anomaly”: Korrasami.
Though wlw portrayal has come a lot in the past few years, it is still hardly commonplace. And it may be hard to remember, but in 2014, this representation had never existed before in Y7 programming. We’re talking pre-Rupphire on Steven Universe. Watching the final season, Korra ending up with Asami seemed like the most obvious thing in the world really—they were the closest emotionally, it was to her that Korra confided about her struggles with the Avatar State. With “The Earth Queen” and “Long Live the Queen” especially, Book 3 showed us how in tune Korra and Asami were on multiple levels, and despite the hurt feelings at their initial reunion in Book 4, we saw them immediately snap back into that productive dynamic.
However, years and years of storytelling conventions still made it seem like the longest of longshots. So, bemoan its reserve (Bryan certainly did), but in terms of the characters at play, it’s hard to argue there wasn’t a natural flow to that end point, which was in fact a new beginning.
We both have to applaud the way that Korra’s interest in Asami and their feelings for each other really didn’t become any sort of focal point. Too many healing arcs in shows are about the power of love (heck, Book 1 somewhat framed Korra’s airbending mastery as being linked to her feelings for Mako and endcapped her ‘healing’ with a kiss between them), and while that’s not strictly a bad thing since love is…nice (?)…we find it more refreshing and impactful that it was Korra’s own force of will and inner strength that guided her healing. It’s an uplifting message, that we all have this capacity to strive towards healing and reach a place of peace and balance on our own.
It’s not to say Korra’s loved ones didn’t influence her—of course they did. Reuniting with Jinora (her spiritual guide), Ikki, and Meelo gave Korra the resolve to bend the remaining metal out of her body. But her path to healing was focused on embracing her own vulnerabilities and uncertainties, and learning not carry them with her like tiny drops of metallic poison (it’s like it’s a metaphor or something!).
So then, why would we bring up Korrasami at all? Well, because that’s the end point for Korra in the series proper. This is the final note (or, musical cue) Bryke picked for her. As it aired, there had been criticism from some viewers that it was arbitrary, or tacked-on fanservice. But in our minds, it was the perfect way to resolve her healing arc, and the franchise as a whole.
Korra being disconnected for too long from the people that she loved was a rather apparent reason for why her progress had stagnated. When we meet Korra in Book 4, she may have the regained the use of her legs and her bending, but she’d lost a connection with almost everything else. She has a tenuous tie to Asami in the form of that one letter, but lost all sense of what Asami is doing, as well as the rest of her friends and family. She had no connection her her past lives or Raava. She had lost a sense of her own bending ability, too, in that she’d been living with self-imposed boundaries and didn’t trust herself to lean into or rely on her skills the way she used to. She was out of touch with Republic City and the world at large. She really was ‘alone’ in a way she’s never been before in her whole life.
And it’s understandable why she withdrew: she was feeling weak and vulnerable, and didn’t want to come back until she was ready to embrace her role again. This is why she had a mounting frustration when months passed without progress, and it’s certainly why she turned and ran, opting to hide herself instead, when she got feedback at that village that she wasn’t “fit” to be the Avatar. At least, in her mind.
To end on the note of beginning a new relationship with the woman she fell in love with over her three years away is a direct response to that. It’s not just demonstrating that she’s back and rekindled her friendships—we saw that explicitly. It’s that she is allowing herself to prioritize a relationship after everything she’s been through. That’s why the criticism of her somehow shirking her duties to have a vacation have always bothered us; if anyone’s earned a damn break, isn’t it her? Especially since putting too much pressure on herself to be this paragonal Avatar (that’s never actually existed) was what caused so much anxiety and stress to her in the first place?
Then there’s the fact that the show ends on a new beginning. I can understand the frustration of not seeing an explicit representation of this relationship on screen (i.e. a kiss), but at the same time, this is their first date. In some ways, the “incomplete” nature of that last shot without a kiss was kind of perfect, since the lack of finite resolve between Korra and Asami was the point, right? Their story isn’t done, it was just starting. But the series and franchise story was concluded. Korra, the first Avatar of the new age, found her place in the world, found her inner peace, and is now pursuing her own personal happiness. What we can imagine is more powerful than had anything that could have been shown to us.
We mean…we still would have liked a dang kiss. Come on now. But given the perceived restrictions on this medium, this is what we got. And it’s kind of perfect for that meta reason.
Heck, this isn’t even touching the out-of-verse transgressive nature of it perfectly mirroring Korra’s own in-verse transgressions. It’s impossible to separate Korra’s queerness, in the most literal sense of the word, from her healing arc, and from her staking a claim to her place in both the narrative and the world. Then we’ve got the rather remarkable foils between Korra and Asami that hammer home the theme of ~balance~ in an almost stupidly immaculate way.
As Kylie’s put it before:
“Korra represents ancient spiritual wisdom where Asami represents modern technological innovation. Korra (as the Avatar) is the champion of the downtrodden, where Asami is wealthy. Korra is sheltered where Asami is wordly. Korra bends every single element where her girlfriend bends none. There’s the way their strategization and fighting styles play off one another too: Korra is very “shoot first, aim second,” decisive, and at times hot-headed, while Asami is reserved, meticulous, and at times known to hide from her problems (see: not visiting her father for 3 years). Korra has a vision for the world, and Asami has the ability to bring it into the material, as was demonstrated by her infrastructure work that married the spirit vines and the modern city.”
Korra’s never, for even a single millisecond, depicted as incomplete without Asami, or without romantic love in her life in general. Hell, her moment of first connecting with herself to unlock her ultimate cosmic power (without any Avatar spirit in her, it’s worth noting), happened at exactly the same time she was reminded of her breakup with Mako that she had forgotten about prior thanks to amnesia. Obviously that didn’t affect a whole lot for her in that moment, even if she did have a sort of sad, resigned, “this isn’t working” moment with him later.
But ending on Korrasami showed that Korra was still moving towards healing, towards letting her guard down, towards leaning into her connections with others. And it’s just so dang perfect that it was with the one person who complements her so thoroughly.
Korra’s Balanced Endgame
And that brings us back to the discussion of balance, which is what Book 4 (and arguably all of Legend of Korra, and even its precursor) is all about. As we mentioned, Korra’s healing brought her to a place where she was able to balance her duties as the Avatar with her personal life. She no longer felt guilty about taking time away, as she did when Book 4 opened, and she accepts that she doesn’t have to do it alone. She doesn’t have to save the world herself, as she has believed most of the series.
Kuvira acts as a foil to showcase her progress in all of this. Just as Korra had believed it was her sole responsibility to save the world, that same mentality is what got Kuvira to the point where she would willingly sacrifice her fiance to achieve her goals: the belief that she alone was responsible for saving the Earth kingdom from itself. Like Korra, Kuvira saw a need and wanted to fill it when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Like Korra, Kuvira has a fierce desire and determination to protect her people; you only have to compare Kuvira to Korra’s Book 2 arc with the Southern Water Tribe.
Kuvira: We are nothing alike!
Korra: Yes, we are. We’re both fierce and determined to succeed, sometimes without thinking things through. (4×13)
And like Korra, Kuvira went too far and didn’t consider all the consequences of her actions and choices (though to be fair, Korra never came close to being a fascist dictator). Kuvira became fixated on her own skills and power. And on other people needing to acquiesce to her power and confidence.
Kuvira: This wasn’t how I wanted things to end. If you would have all just surrendered, none of this would have happened. (4×13)
Sounds a lot like Books 1-2 Korra, doesn’t she?
Yet even in her final balanced-state, Korra doesn’t lose what makes her unique. She’s still fierce and proactive—she jumped in front of a damn cannon to save Kuvira and made her stand at Republic City despite her initial desire to pursue a peaceful solution. But, there’s a contemplativeness to her, and she finds solutions to struggles not through flexing her physical prowess but by tapping into a shared vulnerability with her antagonist.
She’s less “I’m the Avatar and you gotta deal with it,” and more “I’m the Avatar, and I get to decide what that means for me.” Her being the Avatar isn’t about other people acknowledging her power or position, as it was for much of her story. There are layers to her self-conceptualization now. Being the Avatar does still include a sense that other people acknowledge her power, but now it’s disarming rather than aggressive.
She’s also someone who leads with compassion more than she used to. Not that she was ever non-empathetic…we see her sympathize with Tarrlok of all people way back in Book 1. Rather, she takes a more thoughtful approach to dealing with complicated issues in the final season, trying to see other people’s perspectives before deciding on a course of action. Or in the case of Baatar, switching her course of action based on her perception of that perspective. Her power lies not just in asserting physical strength, but through taking a more multifaceted approach to problem solving. She’s come to a place where her stance is less “you have to listen to me because of who I am” and more “because of who I am, I will listen to and understand you first.”
And, as we keep pointing out, she’s found a way to carry her struggles and the lessons she’s learned from them with her as wisdom. She ‘defeats’ Kuvira through expressing empathy, validation, and vulnerability. She sees Kuvira, relates to her, and pinpoints how Kuvira was out of balance, just as she herself had been. She has internalized Toph’s lesson about seeing her enemies for their extremism, not just their antagonism to her, and molded that into a means of finding an ultimately peaceful solution. That’s balance.
The Representation of PTSD
Through all of this character work, Legend of Korra never lost sight of its chosen narrative of representing PTSD. As someone with PTSD, Gretchen is continually blown away with how sensitively Book 4 explores Korra’s trauma. Not a lot of stories she’s engaged with have come close to this level of thoughtfulness, and it’s a kid’s show. (Steven Universe, The Hunger Games, and Jessica Jones are other pieces of media that spring to mind when it comes to nuanced depictions of PTSD.) It would have been so easy for Bryke to shortcut Korra’s healing at multiple points throughout Book 4, but they didn’t. For the length of the season and age group this show was written for, it’s damn fantastic. It’s Y7 appropriate, yet it still demonstrated that healing isn’t linear or easy.
There were layers to her trauma, and layers to her healing. Korra wasn’t just physically poisoned, her trauma had emotional, spiritual, and mental aspects to it as well, as is true of PTSD in real life. The emotional layers manifest in her ongoing depression, fear, and the repeated emotional memories/flashbacks Korra experiences. Their suddenness, unpredictability, and lingering effects rung especially true for Gretchen.
Korra struggles with mental blocks, lacking faith in herself and her abilities and feeling like she can’t trust herself or her perceptions. Yet another true-to-life representation of the experience of PTSD. Korra also wrestles with competing desires regarding how other people treat her. She doesn’t want people to walk on eggshells or treat her as incompetent or damaged—that feels like an admission of failure and weakness when she’s desperately trying to heal and be strong. At the same time, she wants space to be vulnerable if she needs to be.
The push-pull of “I’m not weak” and “Let me be weak” seems contradictory, but it precisely encapsulates the struggles of someone living with PTSD. It’s all about timing, self-confidence, and believing that other people trust you to manage yourself unless you ask for help. “I can do this unless I ask for help, so please don’t treat me like I can’t unless I’ve asked you to help me.” The accuracy is heart-wrenchingly moving.
Korra’s spiritual trauma manifests in her loss of connection from Raava. Insofar as Raava is basically Korra’s “Avatar soul,” losing that connection is a significant loss to her own spirituality, something she’s struggled to connect with anyway and only recently had torn out of her and restored. Small wonder she goes on a quest to find that piece of herself again and reconnect with it. Loss of spiritual connection is quite common in the aftermath of trauma, and even though it wasn’t the focus of Korra’s healing, that they bothered to include her spiritual side at all speaks volumes for the degree of thought that went into this.
That they let Korra confront Zaheer is significant as well. Bryke created space for Korra to confront the person whose actions haunted her most; she got to say exactly what he did that hurt her and how it has impacted her life, and without any justification from Zaheer. She gets her say, and that’s that.
But they don’t even end it on that event, which would have been yet another reasonable place to ‘end’ her healing arc. Instead, Korra literally faces her trauma in what is basically a word for word transcript of what a safe guided meditation looks like from a licensed professional:
Zaheer: Focus on the sound of my voice. [Korra flashes back to her fight with Zaheer and him suffocating her] Let it play out.
Korra: I can’t!
Zaheer: You can. Accept what happened to you. Don’t fear what might have been.
Korra: I have no control!
Zaheer: Don’t be afraid. Hold on! (4×09)
In an ideal world, Korra would be doing this kind of work with a therapist, not the one who attacked her, but we’ll set that aside for now to talk about the important pieces of therapeutic work embedded in this seemingly straightforward exchange.
Everything about that scene rings true to Gretchen’s experience with exposure therapy and guided meditations through traumatic experiences. Zaheer encourages her to let the scene play out and not focus on her fear of what might have happened. Embedded in there is an admonition to focus on what did happen: Korra survived and is in the process of healing. She is safe now, and that is underscored in her re-experiencing that traumatic flashback. She grounds herself in the present (Zaheer’s voice, her own safety, the truth of what happened rather than her fear) while re-living the past and that is what robs the traumatic memory of its power over her.
Zaheer also grounds and re-centers Korra by repeating to her that she can face this, she can accept it, and she can control it. She’s not as powerless as she feels and is capable of facing this down. The power to do it comes from within herself, but she needed a guide to remind her at every step that she’s capable.
There are echoes of Korra’s previous traumas as well. Her weakened abilities and the loss of the Avatar state echo Book 1 (and Aang’s trauma in Avatar: The Last Airbender). Her loss of connection to Raava echoes Book 2. Korra even flashes back to previous villains and Toph explicitly draws a line between all of Korra’s traumas when she talks about Korra carrying around the metal past trauma in her body.
Bryke basically created space in Book 4 to deal with all of Korra’s past traumas in a nuanced way after having neglected them for three books. Korra processes her struggles with controlling and trusting her bending in a way that rings true to what should have happened after Book 1. She goes on a spiritual quest to reunite with Raava and finds a way to connect even more deeply with her Avatar Spirit and other aspects of her spiritual nature, as she should have done after Book 3. And all that while dealing with her physical limitations and pain (the poison), the flashbacks and emotional aftermath of almost dying, and reconnecting with her friends, family, and the world. That’s a hell of a lot to pack into 13 episodes, and you know what? They did it really well.
Most importantly to Gretchen’s mind, given her experience with PTSD, was the explicit focus on acceptance.
Mako: Do you think you’re finally able to forget what Zaheer did to you?
Korra: No. But I am finally able to accept what happened, and I think that’s gonna make me stronger. (4×09)
Healing isn’t about forgetting; “forgive and forget” is bullshit (take note, Asami). A good therapist will tell you that healing is about acceptance. In certain therapies, they call it radical acceptance, and it doesn’t mean that what happened was good or that it wasn’t painful, awful, and traumatic. Acceptance just means stating the truth of the event as a fact and no longer focusing on wishing it didn’t happen. Korra will never forget what happened to her, but she doesn’t have to carry the fear, pain, or anxiety about it forever. She can accept that it did happen, and not let it control her.
Korra reaches that place of peaceful, calm acceptance after confronting Zaheer and facing her trauma head on, letting it play out through mindful meditation, and letting it guide her into the Spirit World. Only after she’s faced and accepted the truth can she fully reconnect with her spiritual self and the world of the spirits. Acceptance leads to reconnection, which becomes a source of strength, balance, and compassion.
“…That came out wrong”
That’s not to say things were 100% perfect with Korra’s arc in Book 4. Even our little joke about Asami just now does have some weight behind it: doesn’t her quick forgiveness of Hiroshi kind of seem counter to how Korra approached Zaheer? Both these guys had tried to kill them, respectively.
There’s also that Korra and Kuvira did have to have an intense physical fight before Korra found the more balanced, strategic approach to get her to give up. But given the stakes of the invasion, not to mention the genre of the show, we don’t take any particular issue with this. In fact, we loved seeing Korra’s resolve and commitment to engage in a situation that was, for once, not coming from a place of anxiety, fear, or overcompensation.
“I know I was in a pretty dark place after I was poisoned. But I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was so I could be more compassionate to others, even to people like Kuvira.” (4×13)
As we talked about before, this relates back to Korra finding a meaning in her suffering, like Katara talked about Aang doing. And with the benefit of creator interviews, Bryke spoke about their influence in writing this on the Book 4 DVD commentaries (as well as podcasts). They said they had read a memoir of a war journalist who had been shot, and he chose to recontextualize his own trauma to give meaning to it, viewing it as having been necessary to understand what all the people living in these countries were going through.
We talk a lot about misaligned intent and result, and how sometimes there is a space to award effort. Here, we think it’s important to recognize that Bryke did have good intentions to write a true-to-life healing arc with an uplifting message. That story is powerful. And that method of coping with trauma—recontextualization—is certainly not something limited to white men.
However, there’s a reason intersectional approaches to feminism are important. You can’t just copy-paste the experiences and takeaways of one person and put them into the mouth of a wildly different character without some forethought. Had Aang (who is decidedly not white, it should be noted) said a line like that, it would have felt different than having it come from Korra, an indigenous, brown, bisexual, mentally ill woman. There’s common tropes and conventions, and sadly in our media’s history, that includes the brutalization of women to ‘learn’ respect, particularly women of color. Korra’s cultural background may not have lead to any kind of in-verse prejudice, but viewers watch the show in today’s cultural context, and for many, it was hurtful to see Korra implying that she needed to suffer to get to that place where she could chuck herself in front of the cannon to protect Kuvira, or find that commonality in the Spirit World.
We can split this down however we want, point out that it was about needing to understand suffering rather than the actual suffering itself, and so on. To us, the good intentions are clear, and what Bryke was going through is fully accessible. But again, that doesn’t mean there’s not a very valid discomfort with two white men using Korra as the mouthpiece to that message. Especially when the same message could have been explicated without the “why I had to go through all that” part.
Had there been a more diverse writers’ room, had there been a more diverse vocal cast, had research been done about individuals with PTSD of different backgrounds and intersections…maybe that line looks different. It’s okay for something to be both validating and offensive, depending on engagement; sometimes, that those feelings even overlap.
What’s important is listening to each other and striving for more and more authentic and representative media. On that front, we find it hard to argue that Legend of Korra wasn’t a constructive TV show overall.
The Last Avatar
We think a large reason why Legend of Korra was so constructive had to do with Korra being a deconstruction of her predecessor, Aang, in the first place. She was the over-eager woman rejected by the world, instead of the reluctant male hero needed by the world. In the end, they were both loved and praised and counted on, but for her, that required her quite literally reshaping the world to find her place within it.
This is why the focus on her vulnerability as a strength, and her pursuit of balance is so crucial. Because it’s not just the end of her story, but the planned end of the franchise. Aang’s story was very much also about balance and vulnerability, and his resistance to killing the Fire Lord resulting in him breaking the rules of the universe a little to find a path that worked for him. They both went through journeys of “self-discovery” in this sense, but given Korra’s in and out-of-verse intersectionality, that she was put through the wringer as much as she was is both poignant and uncomfortable.
At the same time, it makes seeing her so effective, so strategic, and so inspired all the more impactful. Her boldness and determination to succeed is absolutely still there; she rejected Raiko surrendering the city, for instance, and not only was willing to sacrifice herself for Kuvira of all people, but was willing to sacrifice herself in the Avatar state, meaning she was willing to end the Avatar line to save her antagonist. That’s dang powerful, and no wonder Kuvira was humbled by it.
Yet it’s her quieter determination in both the Spirit World and in her conversation with Tenzin that stand out even more, and demonstrate how far she’s come. She’s grown up a ton from the girl who challenged Amon to a duel out of fear of seeming weak. And while she absolutely didn’t “need” to go through the hell that she did—no one does—that she got to a place as a character to have a positive takeaway and hopefulness about the future is the true power of this narrative. It’s aspirational, sure, but a reminder that we’re all allowed to be broken. We’re allowed to find our own meaning in our suffering that makes sense to us. And, we’re all allowed to self-care.
This is why it’s just such a dang perfect thematic and character end-cap.
That’s also why we opened this article talking about the Turf Wars comics. It’s not that we can’t imagine a story following this one; there’s certainly still things to explore with Korra, like how she continues to define her role as Avatar now that there’s no need for a bridge between the Spirit and physical worlds. Heck, we’re not even saying she couldn’t continue to process her trauma. She may have gotten to a place of accepting it, but in our experience that’s less of an endpoint, and more of a frame-of-mind that can be an ongoing struggle to maintain. But in the case of the comics we’re getting, it’s really hard for us to go from this wholly satisfying character endpoint into something where Korra seems far less at peace and far more like her pre-healing arc self.
Truthfully, even if we had been given comics with a Korra in her finale headspace, we think it would have been an uphill battle for us to be as enthused with it as we were with the ending of the series. Because let’s be real: what could top that? We don’t think there needs to be an answer, at the end of the day. There’s a reason Legend of Korra has stayed with us as long as it has, and of course we’ll support any material that keeps us in this universe. But if the worst thing is that our praises peaked at the franchise’s TV ending? Well…sounds perfect to us.
Images courtesy of Nickelodeon
Redemption Arcs, Their Many Shapes And Forms
Redemption arcs. They are so popular, I would almost dare to call them a trope. As Billy Flynn would say, ‘there is one thing people cannot resist, and that is a reformed sinner.’ It makes redemption arcs one of the most compelling narratives in any kind of media, and also one of the most popular ones. Whenever there is barely a hint of a chance at redemption, or even a redeeming factor in play, fans start imagining redemption stories even if the original media is not cooperating. But what is it that we usually get when we get them?
The Love Of A Good Woman
This is probably the most cliché option, and one of the most problematic ones. It was what people were worried about happening in The Last Jedi, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when it didn’t come. It is, simply, a story of how patient and unconditional love of a wholly good person – usually a woman – can turn the other person – usually a man – from their path of villainy.
The reason this is problematic is relatively obvious. It puts unreasonable demands on the “redeemer” in the pair. Until the villain is redeemed, the “good woman” normally has to bear his terrible character for a long time with angelic patience and nothing but forgiveness. It sends the message that this is what women in general should do. Also that if you let people abuse you long enough it will turn them good in the end. If you’ll forgive me this foray into the classics, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is the best example I know of exploring what exactly is wrong with this dynamic.
There are ways to make this work, though. In particular, it is when the “redeemer” merely provides the initial impetus and then doesn’t have to stick around for all the painful process of turning oneself into a decent person and bear it with angelic patience. They may or may not be then faced with the (almost) finished product at the end.
Think Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth puts up with nothing from Mr. Darcy, he does most of his character growth out of our sight, and when we meet him again he treats her decently. Even when the ex-villain stays in the picture, though, this can be done well, as long as the redeemer isn’t asked to bear the first awkward attempts at becoming a better person with perfect equanimity and a smiling face. Simply put, the redemption must always be the work of the person redeeming themselves. The burden of it must not be put on anyone else.
I Need A Friend
This is a vastly popular strategy. In many ways it’s similar to the trope above, only in a healthier form. The focus is not so much on building up the redeemer. Instead, it’s on the traumatic events in the villain’s past. The key to this arc is having a good guy with a similar kind of traumatic or complicated background the bad guy has – enough that they can relate, at any rate – and then talking to them and giving them enough understanding that the villain stops feeling like villainy is their only option. The Expanse plays with this approach a little with Errinwright, even though it ultimately goes in a different direction.
The problem with that is the whole messy issue of villains with traumatic pasts. Because on one hand, people don’t just do bad things for no reason, but on another hand, the fashion of crafting this sort of villain background often seems to imply that all people with trauma in their past turn into villains. Which is obviously bullshit. In this kind of redemption, we’re directly faced with this question. Two people with the same, or similar, trauma, one turns to villainy and the other doesn’t. So then, there must have been some additional reason why Errinwright turned to villainy. And unless we deal with that, no amount of talking about the trauma is going to solve the situation entirely.
Don’t get me wrong, friendship absolutely is magic. But still, pretending it’s enough in itself to turn people completely around is a little naive even for me. Besides, in the world of real life implications, it seems to send the message that friends of any mass shooter should have just tried a little bit harder, because if they had, he would have never gone bad. Hell no to that.
Face the Consequences
Another popular way to jump-start redemption is having the villain face the consequences of their bad deeds, and being unable to accept them. The most obvious case of this would be Tony Stark, who finally saw first hand how the killing of innocents with his weapons can look like and realized he bore guilt for it.
But another example would be Severus Snape. His redemption certainly had aspects of “the love of a good woman” in it, but Lily wasn’t actually personally involved in any of that. The immediate inspiration was the possible consequences of Snape’s action to her, so it falls closer to this category.
This is a good way to write a convincing redemption story, as long as it’s viable that the villain in question wouldn’t have known the full consequences until then. By that, I mean it’s not convincing to have a person who regularly murders people with a knife suddenly look into the eyes of their victim and feel regret. They must have seen people die many times before. It works, however, for Stark, who had likely never seen death in person before. And it works for Snape as well in a different way. He knew he would never hurt Lily in person, and it didn’t occur to him that his Death Eater work could endanger her indirectly. The assumption behind this is simply that people are prone to lying to themselves about the consequences of their actions, which is an undeniable truth.
This approach also has the distinct advantage of working even on villains that are pretty far gone, if they are still redeemable at all. Except, you know, those knife-killers.
Changing Places/Losing Privilege
Another shock frequently capable of making villains change their ways is a radical change of their situation. Usually this is when when they find themselves in a position of vulnerability, frequently even in the position of those people they’d abused until then. This would be the case of Thor in the first film. Partly, it is also the case of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, since his long journey with his uncle outside of his royal privilege is a crucial part of his redemption arc. And much more convincing than Thor’s, by the way.
This is one of the more questionable options, psychology-vise. Because while it is certainly imaginable this might happen, it’s also very likely that losing privilege would only lead to more anger and vengefulness on the villain’s part. It works well enough, I suppose, with bad guys who aren’t truly malicious, like Thor. If arrogance rather than anger or inferiority complexes are the main driving point behind the “villainy”, it makes this story a bit more convincing. But then again, damaged pride can lead to anger just as well. Thor, when he couldn’t lift his hammer, decided to take it as a lesson. Many others would have lashed out in anger as a result of being denied what they see as their due.
In other words, this, too, has some implications for how the “villainous mind” is supposed to work. Generally, it presupposes a lack of self-reflection or lack of a very strong motivation. The character is chiefly going through the motions of what is expected of them or what they are used to or what their culture/situation shaped them into.
It also presupposes a fundamentally very sweet disposition and strong personality underneath, to be able to turn their life around in such a way when their circumstances change completely. Even leaving aside lashing out with anger, I think most of us would spend a long time dealing with their own issues after they had their rug pulled from under them in such a way. After a long period of time it can lead to change, perhaps, but unless enough of that is given, it just makes it look like people can immediately bounce back from anything. The real life implications here aren’t so bad, but still. We might laugh at the distress of the privileged, but it’s a real thing. It would be nice if the media we consume taught us to expect it. Perhaps we would be less surprised, then.
My Life Is Suddenly Pointless
This is a case of a villain suddenly finding themselves without the thing that has been driving them their whole life. The best case that comes to mind is Jaime in A Song of Ice and Fire. His redemption arc is a combination of many of the aforementioned ones. The love of a good woman as well as substantial loss of privilege play a crucial part. But none of this would have probably helped anything if his relationship with Cersei wasn’t falling apart at the same time. The final push he receives is finding out that Cersei has been unfaithful to him. Whatever we might think about a motivation like this, it has a profound effect on him.
This scenario resembles the previous one in how it presupposes that the villain is mostly influenced by external factors in their choice to do bad things. Remove the external factor, the bad behaviour disappears. As it stands in Jaime’s story, combined with other factors, it works.
On its own though, this, too, is a bit of a dubious path to redemption, because it tends to neglect that people act in patterns. Merely with the external motivation disappearing, but no positive one appearing, one would have no impetus to turn their life around. Not only would they not turn into an actual hero, but even achieving a kind of moral greyness would be difficult, because why not simply continue as they always did? I suppose the greyness could be achieved if the loss of their life’s motivation was so substantial that it threw then into the kind of depression and lethargy that prevented them from doing much of anything, but that’s about it.
Oh, and the other case where this would work, naturally, would be people who are doing bad things under duress. But I will never call those villains in my life, so there’s no space to discuss them here.
Wait, Why Am I Doing This Again?
This is closely related to the previously discussed point. Only in this case, the motivation is not a particular thing or person, but simply motivation in general. The villain spends years in their villainy, and slowly but surely, they stop seeing the point. Either they just get tired of the endless cycle of violence they are trapped in, or they take a good look at the sad and lonely life it led them to and decide that is not what they want to spend the rest of their days doing. This usually ends with some kind of moral greyness. Cardinal Richelieu has little moments like this in The Musketeers, though the narrative inevitably returns him to the villain he was doomed to be.
I won’t lie, this is one of my favourite ways to do redemption, because it is the only one that is entirely self-contained. It doesn’t necessitate an outside influence to pass. It trusts the ability of the villainous character to realize the error of their ways on their own, without being overbearingly self-flagellating.
This, however, also means it’s one of the hardest ways to write convincingly. Especially in shorter media like films, where there is usually not that much space. In fact, for this reason it can hardly ever be found in films. To be done properly and believably, it requires a longer time period for us to watch the progress of the villain, to see them motivated and full of anger at the beginning, and just going through the motions towards the end, and then reaching the point when they just cannot be bothered.
That point, too, needs to be well-crafted to be convincing. Perhaps there is a hitch in the evil plan that would require the villain to go to some extra effort, and suddenly they just cannot find it in themselves to do so, and leave the scheme unfinished instead. Perhaps it’s their birthday and they realize they have no one to celebrate it with and take a long, hard look at their life. All right, the latter would probably look rather ridiculous with a supervillain in a comics or a fantasy novel, but still, there are many scenarios like this than can be made workable.
The inherent danger, of course, is in rushing it and just making the villain look like an impatient toddler who couldn’t even see a single plan to its end. Not that there’s no fun in villains like that, but it’s hardly a redemption story.
Hold Up A Mirror
This, once more, can similar to the previous case, only this time with an external interference. There is someone else showing the villain the pointlessness of what they are doing, showing them what they have become. The most famous case of this would probably be Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, whose mirror is held up by Elisabeth, and what he sees in it shocks him. Anther, more recent case, would be Thor speaking to Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, showing him how stupidly predictable he became.
The problem with this approach is most succinctly summed up at the end of Witches Abroad. In short: it presupposes the villains don’t know, and they care. It’s of course possible in some cases, but we’re either working with a degree of innate goodness here that is repulsed by the fall, or – perhaps more frequently – with a degree of vanity that doesn’t like the image it’s presented with. And, well, is vanity really the best basis for redemption?
Sure, it can get the villain to change tack, but without being paired with something else, too, it can hardly lead to a true change of heart and behaviour.
My Life Has Meaning
This is something of an opposite to the “my life is pointless” option, because this is the villains finding their motivation. In particular, finding their motivation to do good.
In truth, the word “villain” is not quite accurate here, since this is usually used more for the morally grey types, and can in fact serve as a second step on the path from pure villainy. The most notorious example for this would probably be Han Solo, who found something he actually cared about in the Rebellion, and so he stayed and devoted his life to something more worthwhile than smuggling.
The issue here, of course, is when this is used for actual villains. Doing bad things – as in, actual, serious bad things – is not just a result of nothing better catching your interest, and it needs to be reflected somehow.
Another case applied more to the morally grey characters, or to characters where moral greyness is the goal, instead of actual goodness. This is a situation where a character is exposed to people with better morality than they themselves have, and by a sort of osmosis, they internalize this better behaviour, at least in part. Who comes to mind is Natasha Romanoff. SHIELD is hardly the paragon of virtue, but still, given her upset over the red in her ledger, there is some moral core in her that seems to have grown while part of that origination.
This, again, presupposes a rather significant underlying goodness, or a very long exposure. Having a character change by osmosis after a fortnight of time spent in the company of good guys is offensive both to the media consumers, and to real life people who ever spent time next to someone rather reprehensible for years without it having any effect.
Unexpected About Turn
The cases I have mentioned here are all ones that make sense, to a smaller or bigger degree. But of course, there is always the last option. The case where a character suddenly does an about-turn towards good behaviour, without any reason whatsoever. There are more cases than can be counted in the media, so as one for all, I’m going to name Theo from Teen Wolf, whose “redemption story” was one of the worst ones I’ve ever come across.
Every time I see a redemption story like this, I have to ask myself: why? There are so many ways to craft a good one. The best ones, in fact, usually combine several of these factors. Jaime, Zuko, even Snape. We might not consider them wholly redeemed, but at the very least we can clearly observe the change they go through. There is something exhilarating about it, and it makes one understand why redemption arcs are so popular. And why writing one badly is such a terrible waste.