Empathy Triumphant in Legend of Korra

Wow. How about that Legend of Korra finale? Normally I don't talk about anything besides game design and the business of tabletop game production on this blog.

However, one of my core tenets for the past few years is finding non-violent themes for otherwise competitive games. More than that, finding non-violent themes that are better matches for their mechanisms than a traditional war/combat trope. In this, I think my modest creative goals are similar to what the folks behind Korra achieved in the finale.

For what is definitely an action-oriented cartoon, Avatar: the Last Airbender, and Legend of Korra in particular, have often shown the consequences of violence. On the subject of violence, three big themes clicked in the finale. (Legend of Korra spoilers follow, hence the non-spoiler image up top...)

Violence as Vulnerability
The big giant glowing Avatar State is when the Avatar is most powerful, but also most vulnerable. The whole thousand-year-long cycle of Avatar reincarnation ends if the Avatar dies while in the State. It is a powerful weapon, but just as much of a risk to the Avatar as her opponents.

Still, this was Zaheer's whole plan in Season 3: Bring out the Avatar State, then execute Korra to end the cycle forever. We've seen Korra smash buildings, become a giant energy god, and beat up countless goons without a second thought. However, in her fight with Zaheer, she faced a peaceful philosophy perverted to justify emotionless killing. In turn, Korra became the most viscerally violent brute she's ever been.

But her victory was not gloating. She did not get a gaudy pro-bending trophy at the end. She was literally and metaphorically poisoned by the experience. This may have been what Aang was so scared of happening before his own ultimate conflict with Fire Lord Ozai. Not that he'd lose, but that he'd win and be forever scarred.

At other times, in other ways, we've seen characters scarred by their exposure to child abuse, war, and violence in all forms – but the end of Season 3 was the most heart-wrenching example by far.

Kuvira the Cypher
I'll be honest and say I've often found Korra's antagonists to have interesting motives at first, but eventually flatten out into one-note capital V villains.

Amon began as an interesting argument about the role of non-benders in society until being exposed as a hypocritical con artist. Unalaq wanted to re-connect the Spirit realm to the physical realm in the face of rapidly encroaching industrialization, but ended up becoming pretty much the Devil. Zaheer probably had the best arc, keeping his (short-sided) anarchist motives clear nearly until the end.

In Kuvira's case, we barely got any sense of her motive. By the point when we heard about work camps and re-education programs, I was far more interested in why the heck anyone around her couldn't see she was an outright villain. Even the brief glimpse of her relationship with Bataar Jr. was subverted within the same episode.

Still, in the end Korra and Kuvira's relationships flipped completely from the season opener. Korra began the season alone, Kuvira surrounded by supporters. In the end, Korra had her friends and family while Kuvira literally towered over the rubble of her friendships.

Korra the Detective
You can say I went into the finale not feeling too excited about a perfunctory battle against an uninteresting villain. (I felt the same about Fire Lord Ozai, to be honest.)

Boy, was I blown away by the end. All around, from tactics, to animation, to simple "hell yeah!" character moments, that climactic fight was an amazing piece of work. Still, I expected the villain to either be captured, ambiguously vanish, or die by their own hubris... just like any American action cartoon. I was so cynical, despite my love for the series and the universe. That cynicism was extremely misplaced, I'm happy to say.

What I really liked about the finale is how despite the massive magic-vs-mecha battles and city-destroying Colossus, this battle could have ended with a nice clean bow. But no, by the end, Korra and Kuvira are barely strong enough to throw rocks at each other, yet they still keep fighting. I'm reminded of Einstein's quote:

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

What ultimately prevailed was an opportunity for Korra and Kuvira to be alone with each other. Korra realized what made Kuvira so violently oppressive. (Perhaps even before Kuvira realized it.) Both Korra and Kuvira faced trauma mixed with immense responsibility, but responded in very different ways. Korra sequestered herself from others. Kuvira shielded herself with an army and armor.

All at once, the whole point of Kuvira being a one-note villain made sense for this season's arc. Korra had to find a way to stop the war that didn't involve a punch-out, that much was clear from the beginning. But in doing so, she would need to find some common ground with a person absolutely determined to resist it.

In this, Korra finally begins her era as a mature, fully realized Avatar.


Also, Korrasami forever.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.