Avatar: The Legend of Korra has no dearth of heroic characters, what with the superpowers of the world and the numerous enemies that arose over the four seasons and were taken down. However, there is only one hero that everyone needed, but truly never deserved, and that’s because they treated her like something stuck to the bottom of their shoe. I speak, of course, of Lin Beifong.
Even if we want to look at this simply through a Doylist perspective, where Asami Sato becomes a strong contender for the unsung hero due to her disturbing amount of off-screen suffering and dropped plotlines, Lin still gets the short end of the stick. Sure, the fandom by and large likes her well enough, but she’s also remarkably easy to take for granted. After all, every Gaang child is at least a good fighter who is more than willing to throw themselves into danger for just causes, even Bumi and his flute. But what I believe most people miss is just how much of an emotional toll it was just for Lin to put herself in those situations in the first place.
A Bitter Loner
Thinking about Lin’s life before the events of Book 1 makes my chest hurt. And it’s not like during the show’s run was a happy, fun time for her.
Where to even start? We know that she grew up with a mom who gave her very little structure, or even attention, and staunchly refused to tell Lin anything about her dad despite it being “important” to her.
“And not knowing my dad is nonsense to you? It was pretty important to me.”
Yet despite that, it’s obvious that Lin was desperate for Toph’s approval, going so far as to base her career choice on it, in hopes of making her mother happy. Then she made a bit of a mess of that situation (or at least likely internalized the blame) when she arrested her hooligan sister and Toph had to cover it up, which Lin cited as the reason for their mother’s retirement from the police force. Then her sister skated all repercussion like usual (I feel you, Lin), and got shipped off to their rich-ass grandparents for a life of fancy, until she ran away from that, while Lin decided to cut her out of her life.
The one (maybe) bright spot for Lin was her relationship with Tenzin, which though not canonically, is strongly intimidated to have gone on for a while. Like…ten to fifteen years (or at least long enough to have “grown apart for some time”). However, that blew up when Tenzin dumped her for someone fifteen years her junior, presumably due to her refusal to have kids. The show does a wonderful job of not moralizing this, while making Lin, Pema, and Tenzin all sympathetic. But it’s very clear just how much it hurt Lin, to the point where she still has beef with Tenzin over a decade and a half later.
Korra: What is [Lin’s] deal? Even when she’s on my side, she’s against me!
Tenzin: I’ve known Lin since we were children, she’s always been… challenging.
Korra: What did your father do to make her hate the Avatar so much?
Tenzin: My father and Lin got along famously. I’m afraid her issues… are with me.
Oh and she trashed Tenzin’s home and tried to arrest Pema when they broke up. She might not be the best at effectively communicating her feelings.
The thing is, based on the timeline, guess when this breakup went down? Oh yeah, right when Aang died. Who we can probably guess was something of a father figure to her, especially given her strongly articulated desire to know hers. What else happened in this year? Toph took off! It’s not necessarily when she went to “seek enlightenment,” and we know Toph at least met her grandkids through Su, but we also know that as of Book 4, Lin hadn’t talked to her mother for twenty years. That’s a very difficult feat if they had both been in the same city.
Also, icing on the cake, but Bumi was in the army and Kya and Katara moved down to the South Pole then too. This means that at the age of 33, Lin had her long-term boyfriend dump her, her father-ish figure die, and her mom take off; she was left with no one who cared about her in a job she only took to get her mother’s attention in the first place, which she openly talks about with regret.
“When I was younger, all I wanted to do was please my mother. I became a police chief because I thought it would make her happy… but it didn’t. You need to make your decisions based on what you want. Don’t make the same mistakes as I did.”
So by the time we meet Lin at age 50, she’s a little…hard. She seems to hide everything she’s actually thinking under her brusque attitude and forced detachment, despite the fact that she so obviously cares, and also internalizes everything that goes wrong in Republic City.
This isn’t to detract from the heroic actions of the other LoK characters, but it’s just rather important to remember this when you think about Lin’s self-sacrifice for Tenzin’s family, or her staunch commitment to Korra’s safety in Book 4, or her self-sacrifice for Suyin, or how she’s willing to risk her job to save Suyin and her family again… I can keep going, and will. That this woman is as selfless as she is, and how despite her misery, she has so much care and concern for the people around her—family included—after everything she went through is rather remarkable. Good thing everyone’s super appreciative, right?
Toph: Hey, I forgave you for all your garbage a long time ago and Su and I worked things out. You’re the only one who wants to hold on to this family drama nonsense for the rest of your life.
Oh, and my personal favorite, that time Pema decided to turn the screws:
Tenzin: Will you stay here and watch over Pema and the children while I meet with the council? With everything that has happened lately, I want to be sure my family is in safe hands.
Lin: Of course I’ll help, old friend.
Pema: [enters] I didn’t realize you two were out here.
Tenzin: Pema! Ye- yes- yes, Lin has agreed to help out around here and keep an eye on things while I’m away.
Pema: Thank you! I could use the extra pair of hands. [Gives a laughing Meelo to Lin.] Would you mind giving him a bath? He’s filthy.
Pema, I love you, but come on.
The Elephant Rhino in the Room
Okay, there is something we need to talk about, and it’s something that throws a major wrench in the effusive praise I want to heap onto her: Lin is an absolutely terrible Chief of Police. Frankly, I’m not even that sold on her detective skills. Sure, she tracked polar bear dog tracks that one time, but it’s hardly Aragorn figuring out Pip and Merry ran into Fangorn Forest.
Not to mention she, Tonraq, and Zuko were too busy getting smashed to even bother thinking about finding Mako and Bolin.
When there was a terrorist threat at a public event, she insisted that said event was still held, because she planned to have “every nook and cranny of this place covered.” Except that the Equalists still snuck in a large number of electrified gloves and carried out an orchestrated attack, Amon managed to get on stage for a full speech, and they all had an escape airship waiting. What nook and cranny was covered, exactly?
We watch Lin fall for planted evidence twice, as well as dismiss Mako’s attempt to show something he found on a crime scene to a victim of a similar fate. Apparently finding proof is a “lame-brained rookie idea.” She hires men who are completely incompetent as detectives, and then puts them on security detail. When a new airbender gets so scared that he hides on the top of a bridge, Lin brings her full team of metalbenders to the scene and threaten to shoot him if he doesn’t come down, despite him posing no danger to anyone but himself. Also, this might be a low-blow, and perhaps understandable for somewhere the size of Republic City, but those underground crime organizations were pretty darn powerful. And an entire revolution grew in the gutters without Lin’s notice.
The only way I can rationalize this is that her job truly brought her no joy, especially after the one person who she had hoped to make proud with her career path took off (or after she cut her out…she did come to the realization that Toph makes her “furious”), so that kind of situation is hardly conducive to the best professional development. No wonder she resigned to become a vigilante during the events of Book 1 the first chance she got. Who cares if staying the Chief of Police would have meant more resources or the ability to temper Tarrlok’s incendiary actions?
“I’m not giving up. I’m gonna find my officers and take Amon down. But I’m gonna do it my way, outside the law.”
Interesting words from a cop.
Friendly Neighborhood Lin Beifong
But even if Lin is woefully unsuccessful as a police chief, when she’s able to save the day *her way*, she does so in fabulous style.
No seriously. Without Lin Beifong, everyone was doomed.
Sure, she may not have been handling bender vs. nonbender tensions very well (will she get a redemption in the upcoming comics?), though it’s not as if the entire Equalist revolution can be put on her, especially when the government Aang and Zuko set up for the city didn’t make any effort to give the nonbenders a voice (and was easily corrupted).
But even with this failure, Lin hardly spent the revolution napping. When Korra tried to pursue Amon and nearly falls to her death following the arena attack, Lin was the one who saves her despite having been shocked three seconds earlier, and then went on to give the Equalists a decent run for their money on the rooftop, despite getting shocked…again. In fact, if Korra hadn’t needed saving again, Lin had actually caught Amon’s airship (though with his bloodbending, it’s probably best that happened). She’s also the one who saved Asami, Mako, and Bolin from their prison, and then freed the captured (and sadly debended) metalbending police from the Equalists’ cells.
And then what did she do? She sacrificed herself to give Tenzin and his family a chance of escaping. She sacrificed herself to give Tenzin and his family a chance of escaping, and lost her bending as a result. Now sadly for Lin, this was undercut by the narrative convenience of Tenzin’s family being magically captured in the finale, though that’s really just a drop in the bucket of the issues with “Endgame”. Oh and her trauma was completely glossed over/never mentioned. Even Korra restoring her powers…there should have been something lasting there.
During the events of Book 2, Lin led the world’s worst investigation into attacks against citizens of Southern Water Tribe origin, sure, and locks up Mako on thin evidence despite the fact that he was the one questioning the obvious conclusion (if he had really been guilty, why wouldn’t he just take the out?). But absolutely none of that matters when Lin has to act as a very literal Spiderman to Raiko’s Mary Jane in the season finale.
In Book 3, Lin’s guiding objective was to keep Korra safe from the threat of Zaheer, but was forced to face her sister, while everyone around her told her she was awful and irrational for being angry. When Suyin lied to Lin so that Korra and her teenage friends could go track down Zaofu’s #2 despite there being a crazed group of assassins after the Avatar, Lin was the only one who seemed to give a shit enough to follow them.
Light property destruction and a beer with Zuko later, and Lin once again sacrifices herself, this time to give Su a chance to take out a combustion bender. And apparently forgives her for everything. And tells her she loves her.
But it’s really the final season where every person in Republic City would have been doomed without Lin Beifong. After Kuvira takes over Zaofu and throws Su’s entire family into a suspended prison, she’s the one who busts in and saves them, which also happens to alert everyone else to Kuvira’s super weapon. And it’s worth noting that during this rescue mission, Lin is put through the emotional wringer by having to come face-to-face with her mom, who not only also piles onto the idea that Lin is so irrational for having any issue with her family, but decides to blithely tell Bolin of all people the identity of Lin’s dad after refusing to for her daughter’s entire life.
Lin: You know, after Su and I patched things up, I thought, “maybe I should try to reach out to mom.” But now that we’re together again, I remember why we stopped talking. You make me furious and you don’t even know why. And when I tell you, you don’t care. Once we save Su, you and I are finished.
Toph: If that’s your decision and it makes you happy, then fine.
Toph, jfc, just tell your daughter you love her.
Sidebar, but I have to assume Lin and her detective skills found out about “Kanto” on her own, because she doesn’t exactly act surprised—just pissed that her mom is talking about it now.
Anyway, once back in the city, Lin saves the entire day by deciding to bust out Hiroshi, who is the one that comes up with the solution to stop Kuvira’s mecha giant. Then she and Su are the ones to actually take out the weapon, and Lin stops them both from dying with a last minute seat-belt:
And sure, basically everyone contributed to that victory: Suyin, Baatar Jr., Meelo, Asami, Bolin, Wing, Wei, Mako (especially Mako), Korra…I can just list the cast. But the whole “unsung hero” thing comes in where no one in-verse really says anything, or even apologizes to her for being giant asses before, she’s sort of lumped in with her sister and the Kataang children in the minds of the fandom (not always, but usually), and while we see some of our heroes ride off into the sunset, this is our final shot of Lin:
Let’s fix that. Let’s all sing her praises every chance we get. Because wherever there’s a hangup, we’ll find THE Lin Beifong.