Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Day of the Colossus and The Last Stand

It's over.

And yet it hasn't really sunk in that this was the last time I'll be seeing these characters in a brand new episode – it's all reruns from here on out. I suppose there's a chance of a comic book continuation (Korra and Asami exploring the spirit world together? GIVE IT TO ME NOW) but for all intents and purposes, this was it. The end.

So how did this fare as not only a seasonal finale, but as the Grand Finale of the show itself?

Last episodes are tricky things, and last episodes ever even trickier. It's payoff time, which means every second has to count, every character has to get closure, and every plot-thread wrapped up satisfactorily (okay, that last one is debatable – sometimes it can be a good thing to leave a few elements ambiguously resolved). But it's still a challenge to deliver the goods.

Naturally everyone survives the blast from Kuvira's spirit weapon and the ensuing building collapse, but then the previews had already given that away. The episode itself is structured around Korra and her people trying to bring down Kuvira's giant mecha suit, a creative decision that has both pros and cons.

Pros: That from a writing perspective it is coordinated extremely well. The most obvious way to bring down a giant colossus (especially when you have metal and lava-benders on your team) is to trip it over. Plenty of viewers pointed this out the moment it turned up, and so it was gratifying to see that the show itself was well-aware of the most common-sensical way of tackling the task at hand.

But of course, an early victory is not an option. Despite the trip wires and Bolin's lava-bending, the Beifong sisters soon realize that the joints of the suit are made of platinum and therefore unbendable. On to Plan B, which is using the evasive manoeuvres of the airbenders to throw paint-balloons at the mecha's wind-shield and block Kuvira's vision. Plan C involves Varrick attempting to construct a much larger EMP to short-circuit the system. Plan D is collapsing a building on top of it. All of these attempts fail, and it's not until Plan E that Korra is finally able to penetrate the mecha's armour and confront Kuvira from the inside.


What we're getting here is a steady build-up of clever ideas, put into action but rendered futile, supplemented by a Dwindling Party (always a suspenseful trope) as more and more of Korra's allies are impeded, injured, or in one case – killed. It's a great way of forcing our heroes to be quick on their feet and even faster with their plans, as well as demonstrate in the best way possible just how difficult it is to break through Kuvira's defences.

Cons: That all this action bit into the run-time. It wasn't until I realized taking down the mecha was the central challenge of the episode (as opposed to defeating Kuvira one-on-one) that I was able to settle down and enjoy it, interspersed as it was with some quintessential character beats and a subplot involving the evacuation of a last handful of refugees.

Unlike the most obvious comparison to the incredible amount of devastation wrought by the mecha attack (that is, Man of Steel, which practically decimates Metropolis), these episodes earn the right to its "destruction porn" considering it's spent two whole episodes – and some of this one – on the evacuation process. 

While Korra and her allies focus on the mecha, Pema and Prince Wu concentrate on the safety of a crowd of people waiting for the last train out of Republic City. But there's bad news: the tracks have been destroyed. Then there's good news: Prince Wu has a plan.

Turns out that a) there are badger-moles at the Republic City Zoo (how they're contained is a mystery that may never be solved) and that b) Wu knows how to communicate with them through song. Okay, this is patently ridiculous, but you know what? I'm going to give it a pass. I have a lot of goodwill for this episode, and this was obviously a subplot that was at least partially designed to give us a bit of a breather from the chaos going on elsewhere.

Prince Wu saves his people, and his Character Arc is complete.

Back to the important stuff...

What finally gets Korra inside the mecha is the combined genius of Varrick, Zhu Li, Asami and – surprise! – Lin turning up with Hiroshi Sato. Until the last five minutes, this was the big surprise of the episode for me, as I'd honestly forgotten about Asami's father in all the excitement. With his technical know-how, the hummingbird mechas are finally fit for flying, but it takes a Heroic Sacrifice courtesy of Redemption Equals Death for the armour to finally get breeched.

Although I had no real love for Hiroshi (and the writers seem to have conveniently brushed over the fact that the last episode of Book One had him actively trying to murder his daughter), it was Asami's reaction to her father hitting the eject button and the sight of the crushed hummingbird sliding off the side of the mecha that made this sequence a real heart-stopper. I may not have cared about Hiroshi, but I cared about Asami, and that was a terrible thing for a daughter to witness.

But before the fight in the mecha, we get a few moments of what this show is so good at: the character beats. Two in particular: the first giving us all the closure we're ever going to get on Kuvira/Bataar, in which Suyin's quiet sympathy demonstrates that there was never anything her son could do to make her love him less, and the second depicting the strangest proposal ever. Well, maybe not ever, but pretty close.

The fact that Varrick had a ring prepared tells me that he was going to pop the question to Zhu Li anyway and that this wasn't just a "we're going to die" ploy, but either way, how can you not love this exchange:

Varrick: Now let's go attach these barely functional rust-buckets to a giant killer smashing machine.

Zhu Li: It's exactly how I always pictured our engagement.

Up until the time Korra, Mako, Bolin, Lin and Suyin finally get inside the mecha, it's a rather impersonal fight. Though Kuvira's growing lack of control to all that Korra and company are throwing at her is wonderful to behold, it's not until the five are inside the suit that I really felt the stakes. In the wake of Hiroshi's death, it felt as though anyone could potentially be next, and I honestly felt nervous about everyone's safety.

Naturally, the team has to split up, and it was a stroke of genius to divide them into sibling teams. Lin and Suyin have an easier time of it, quickly dispatching the guards and destroying the interior mechanism – but Kuvira is relentlessly pragmatic when it comes to cutting her losses, and simply ("simply"??) tears off the mecha's weaponized arm and throws it away, the Beifong sisters still inside.

Down where the spirit vines are powering the mecha, Bolin and Mako take out some fairly competent engineers before realizing the failsafe isn't working. Mako sees only one way to power-down the weapon: electrocute it until it blows up. And he doesn't hold out much hope in coming out of it alive.

In true hero fashion, he orders Bolin to get the unconscious engineers to safety, and I'll admit, at this stage I would have felt confident in putting money on his death. In fact, I wonder if that was perhaps what the first draft of the script called for. But Bolin is a quintessential younger sibling, and since when have they ever listened to their big bros? Just as it looks like Mako is a goner, Bolin returns and drags him to safety. As the mecha self-destructs, it's all down to Korra and Kuvira's face-off in the head.

Remember how I said Kuvira and Suyin's confrontation in Operation Beifong was the best fight sequence this show has ever done? I was wrong. It's definitely this one. So quick that you can barely register them, yet with animation clear enough that you're still impressed by their techniques, the best part of the showdown is the claustrophobic surroundings and the desperate need for short, offensive strikes over anything showy or spectacular. There's no Evil Gloating on either side, just two women throwing everything they've got at each other in silent, whip-fast concentration.

The spirit vines explode, the mecha is blown in half, Korra and Kuvira tumble out onto the streets of Republic City – and then things really take a turn for the interesting.

Kuvira staggers into one of the forested areas, and despite my initial fears that she would get carted off by the spirits ala General Zhao in The Siege of the North, she instead finds the weaponized mecha arm and points it at Korra. The resulting blast and Korra's Avatar-State response is enough to throw the two of them into the spirit world (okay, let's just go with it).

And it's here that I got exactly what I wanted from this season, what I'd hoped for right from the moment the theme of balance was introduced. From the beginning of Book One, Korra has been characterized as a punch-first, ask-questions-later type of girl whose entire personality was wrapped up in being a forceful, reckless, arrogant Avatar.

But now, after four seasons worth of Character Development, Korra finally defeats Kuvira by talking her down. For the first time I can recall, it's the hero telling the villain that they're Not So Different, extending compassion and understanding to a very complicated woman who once had noble motivations of her own. There's no talking of letting Kuvira go (common sense prevails) or of her dying to redeem herself (that's a cop-out), but of Korra empathizing with her enemy by drawing on her own experiences over the last few years. All that suffering brought her to the wisdom she needed to deal with Kuvira peacefully and without bloodshed. She's finally a full-fledged Avatar.

And there might well have been a longer conversation between the two women before they returned through the portal – I like to think there was, for Kuvira seemed to be in a very different state of mind when she allowed herself to be handcuffed and led away ... but I suppose that's a blank for our imaginations (and fan-fiction) to fill in.

Because now it's time for the wrap-up. Varrick and Zhu Li get married, with a host of cameos in the audience. Prince Wu decides not to become King but to organize independent states and elected leaders (and start a singing career). Mako and Korra get closure, but not a rekindling of their romantic relationship – whew! Things come full circle when Tenzin approaches Korra and reminds her of how much she's grown since the two of them first met.

So all's well that ends well, and things finally looks as though they're drawing to a close – wait, what's this?

Asami runs up, telling Tenzin that Varrick is up to something crazy, and I think to myself: "aw, they're going to give us one last Korrasami moment before the show ends – nothing too overt, just a little bit of fan-service." Then the girls sit down together and reflect on the past. Then they decide to go on vacation alone together. Then they stare out over water and make plans to explore the spirit world. "Okay," I think. "That was sweet."

BUT THEN we see them approaching the spirit portal together. They smile at each other. THEY TAKE HANDS. They step into the light and gaze into each other's eyes as soft music plays. I LEAP OUT OF MY CHAIR IN DISBELIEF.

That happened. I can't believe that actually happened.  

I said in my review for Remembrances that I hate it when writers break the fourth wall in order to make references and in-jokes to its fan-base. Case in point: BBC Sherlock's The Empty Hearse. I hate that episode, as it was so obviously and painfully self-aware of its fandom, to the point where the story felt like it was being shaped around what Moffat/Gatiss thought the fans wanted instead of what made sense for the characters.

But I also think that if you're writing a serialized story over a long period of time, you have to absorb criticism if you're going improve it. Somehow or other, Bryan and Mike got the memo that certain things in Book One just didn't work: particularly the love triangle drama.

But fandom surprised me in this regard as well. I was there for the Great Shipping War of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I witnessed the rage, the confusion, the gloating, the tears. It was really something, I tell you. And so when Korra/Mako was presented as a sort of Spiritual Successor to Katara/Zuko, I watched in a strange state of trepidation and fascination as audiences rejected it completely. An impossibly handsome brooding bad boy was being snubbed by the fan-base, and contrary to all expectations, the romantic rival was embraced as an interesting character in her own right, and – eventually – a more suitable romantic partner for Korra.

There have been some viewers who have spent the last twenty-four hours complaining that the Korrasami ending was pandering and/or that their relationship upgrade came out of nowhere.

Is it pandering? Or is it acknowledging that these two characters, who have both gone through a fair amount of pain and suffering, are actually in a good place to start a relationship, supplemented (not dictated) by the fact that the fandom is pretty keen on the idea? Look, I've done my fair share of eye-rolling at white male slash pairings that fans insist are "totally canon!" because that one time they stood next to each other and made eye contact, but Korra/Asami got a significant amount of screen-time together.

And I haven't seen a single person complaining about Varrick and Zhu Li's sudden Relationship Upgrade. In fact, it seems to have been praised across the board as delightful and quirky and adorable – even though there wasn't a hint of romantic attraction between them until the beginning of this season. And if Asami had been a male character, then I suspect all those  Korra/Asami "shippy" moments would have been considered overt foreshadowing by the fandom at large; a quiet and subtle building of support and affection that served as a counterpoint to Korra and Mako's hormone-charged, angst-driven, flash-in-the-pan relationship. (Heck, this is a fandom that seemed to believe Kuvira was flirting with Korra's father back when she was introduced at the end of season three).

But what all the ensuing arguments fail to take into account is that this wasn't a Korra/Asami ENDING, it was a Korra/Asami BEGINNING. You don't have to interpret any of their prior interactions as romantic at all, because they sure didn't. Neither one became friends with the other because of immediate romantic attraction. It's not until that moment – that exact moment – they step into the light that the possibility occurs to them; you can see the realization on their faces as the light covers them and the soft music plays.

This is why a) a kiss in this context would have been totally wrong, and b) the lack of a kiss or other overt signifier does not make this an example of queer-baiting. Neither is it pandering to the base, since it holds back on any declarations of love or physical displays of affection (beyond the hand-holding). It's treated just like any other burgeoning relationship, signified by the transition into the spirit world and the adventure that still lies ahead.

So I don't think that Korrasami is "canon" in the sense that they're now officially girlfriends, but canon because they're moving into the future together, aware of the possibilities before them. Aang got a happy ending, Korra got a happy beginning.

But you know, whatever way you want to interpret all this, I'm happy beyond measure that the last scene of the Avatar franchise, the last glimpse we see of this beautiful universe, centres not on a heterosexual love or a white dude bromance, but on two women together, striking out on an adventure, content to be in each other's company. If that's fan-service, then it's the best kind of fan-service I know.

Miscellaneous Observations:

The character overload was apparent at this stage, with several conspicuously mute appearances from Kai, Bumi, Opal, Jinora and Ikki. Sure, they'd been given their time to shine earlier in the show's run, but you could tell things were getting a bit cramped in the recording sound booths.

Still, at least we got an array of familiar faces among the fleeing refugees and the wedding guests. I spotted Tahno on the trumpet and Korra's parents in the crowd – no sign of Kya though (I'm not sure why I'm so hung up on her disappearance, but it really did grate). I was also disappointed that there was no more of Fire Lord Izumi – I expected a bit more from her after her introduction.

Apparently Varrick used to live on a farm until "the circus people took me away." Oh Varrick. I love that some parts of his life will always be an eternal mystery.

And much like the night-time Sokka/Suki rendezvous in the original series, I'm kinda surprised they got away with Varrick asking Zhu Li: "will you do the thing with me for the rest of our lives?"

Too much Meelo. Some of his material would have been better suited to his sisters, though I could at least appreciate that he saved his father's life without resorting to fart-bending. And Ikki's rescue of Jinora as she fell from the sky was a lovely silent moment of sisterhood.

After Kuvira's arrest, I would have preferred that she ask after Bataar Junior rather than apologize to Suyin (after all, for all she knew her fiancé was dead). Matter of fact, I would have preferred a little bit of grace from Suyin in this moment instead of "you're going to answer for all the things you've done." I can fully understand why Suyin would forgive her own child before the woman who betrayed her family, but it was still a somewhat unpleasant final note to that character.

I thought they handled Mako well. Despite not being popular in fandom, Bryke clearly liked him too much to have anything really bad happen to him (perhaps his death was on the cards at some point, but I liked that he survived – what happened between Korra/Asami would have felt too much like Pair The Spares if their ex-boyfriend had croaked). I never hated Mako to the same extent the rest of fandom did, so I appreciate that in this respect, Bryke didn't bow to fandom pressure. The girls grew up and around him, but the show felt no need to belittle or mock him, and he gets a sweet little capper on his relationship with Korra:

Mako: I've got your back.

Korra: Good, because I'm about to date your ex-girlfriend.

Who would have ever thought that ill-fated love triangle would have ended up here?

I kind of wish Naga had been with Asami and Korra as they stepped into the spirit world – after all, they'll need transportation, right? I loved Naga's design, but she always seemed to be an Appa Expy that the show never knew quite what to do with.

If there was one disappointment, it was that Dark!Korra was never fully explained or explored. It was a wonderfully effective and spooky device, but I never really got a clear idea of whether it was actually real or just in Korra's head. It was clearly meant to symbolize the similarities between Korra and Kuvira (especially when the latter appeared to turn into her), and though I'm glad this was never explicitly spelt out, it's still a shame there was no real closure on this concept.


And now, more on That Ending. A part of me hopes that it won't overshadow the rest of the show (there are plenty of things to celebrate about The Legend of Korra) but I do think that it's a milestone in the depiction of same-sex relationships on television – especially television aimed at a young audience.

Here's a photo of the note-taking I did while watching this episode. Squint and you can read my final line: "Holy shit, they're going for it!"

It's hard to really articulate why this made me so happy – perhaps because it proves you can really deliver on a legitimate same-sex relationship without falling into the uncomfortable balance other shows struggle with when people express an interest in such things: the obnoxious teasing of fandom in commentaries, interviews and other promotional material, whilst  simultaneously keeping a staunch "no homo" stance within the story itself to reassure media watchdogs.

So in many ways, this was a glorious FU to the rampant queer-baiting that goes on in so many other shows: the stream of gay jokes (in which homosexuality itself is the punchline) throughout Moffat and Gatiss's Sherlock, the puerile commentary that Julian Murphy gave for the final Merlin episode, the endless stringing along of whatever the hell's going on between Dean Winchester and Castiel on Supernatural (I don't even WATCH that show and I know all about the wank).

And it's not like fandom is an innocent victim in all of this. Watching fans gobble up slash-bait can be just as tedious as the slash-bait itself, especially when it comes to select groups attacking actors over their shipping preferences (certain SwanQueen fans trolling Jennifer Morrison's Twitter), marginalizing POC and ignoring actual queer representation in favour of non-existent white boy relationships (Sterek shippers fixating on two characters who barely interact), and the inevitable hostility and resentment toward any and all female characters across the board – or just as insidious, the tactic of giving them perfunctory lip-service before all attention is once more focused on the dudes (Marvel fandom is terrible at this – I can't count how many times I've come across the following attitude: "oh, I totally LOVE Pepper/ Peggy/ Jane/ Gamora/ Sif/ Black Widow – now read my twenty page meta on Loki's blinking patterns and how it proves he wants to bone his brother.")

But watching Korra and Asami step into the spirit world together just felt right. It didn't end with tragedy like Xena/Gabrielle or Willow/Tara or Sara Lance/Nyssa al Ghul. It didn't get stamped out like Mulan/Aurora from Once Upon a Time. It was Bryke giving viewers what they wanted but on their own terms, and in such a way that it felt organic and true. It was clear and subtle and elegant and poignant and REAL.

All those other shows and fandoms I just mentioned? They just got owned by a fucking cartoon.

So the best way to end my reviews for The Legend of Korra is to quote some comments from other viewers (taken from The AV Club) which capture some of my happiness at the path this show decided to take:

Did anyone else SCREAM at the last 3 minutes of the finale?

I was too busy dying.

I was in total disbelief. I pulled up the time bar when Asami walked in, and I was all: "No. Way."

Same here. Jaw to the floor astonishment is the only way I can describe how I felt at that moment.

My heart was fucking beating out of my chest, I felt like euphoric light was flowing through my whole body, and I was cry-giggling like a child. I'm gonna go watch it again.

And the ending, THAT FUCKING ENDING! That was the greatest piece of fan service in the history of television. I'm gonna cry, you guys.

I expected it, but as soon as Asami told Tenzin to fuck off, a shit tonne of sirens went off in my head and I muttered out loud "holy shit they're not swerving, this is actually about to happen".

Korrasami is real and it was beautiful and amazing and I loved it and I'm crying and I have lots of emotions and it was perfect.

They did the thing. They did the thing. They did the thinggggggggggggggggggggggggg.

When she sat down I was all "No. Way. They're really doing this?" but it played out nicely, no preaching or making a statement. Like so many other things in Korra, the character beats define everything, and they were flawless in this episode.

At the end there I was thinking "ha ha they're really going all the way with trolling Korrasami" then it was just going all the way with Korrasami and then I'm...yodel-ey-ho...AAAAHHHHHHHHHH with a smile as wide as the western sky.

When Korra said "...just the two of us." I fucking flatlined. Then they held hands and looked each other in the eyes and I fucking died.

Well, here we are. I honestly cannot remember the last time a TV show made me feel as much as the last two minutes of Korra did. I sincerely hope we get to see their relationship continue in the comics or another medium.

Those last three minutes made me happier than anything else on TV this year. Shows like this give me hope that maybe we'll figure it out, despite the world showing all signs otherwise. I needed this, and it's a bold step that hopefully fosters more LGBT representation in children's TV.

Please forget everything bad I said about this season, the last (groundbreaking!) minutes of this episode made up for everything! I mean, wow, I never thought they will go there, that took serious balls and just... WOW. Bravo, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, Bravo! You've just made history and hopefully other kids shows (not just cartoons) will follow!

I enjoyed how Asami's line to Tenzin essentially amounted to: "I can't be bothered to come up with a convincing lie. LEAVE."

From the moment Asami lied to Tenzin to be alone with Korra, my heart was pounding. While a kiss, would have been an even stronger statement, part of me feels as though they're not yet to the point in their relationship where they would kiss. Either way, I applaud the decision.

When I first noticed the romantic undertones in their relationship in season three, I laughed it off as playful insinuation--I don't really like obsessive shipping, headcanons, and other forms of fan-wankery--but I found myself legitimately rooting for it to happen, even though I thought there was no way they would get away with it. When the moment came and they walked into the spirit portal hand-in-hand, I was elated. It was a beautiful moment for me, as someone within the LGBT community, to see that sort of representation. Not to mention that they avoided being yet another example of queer baiting.

Thank you, Bryke, from the bottom of my heart. Your work has affected me in many ways, but this was the most profound.

That ending will live on forever. I'll miss you Legend of Korra.

And of course, this:


So I'd say that the finale of The Legend of Korra was a resounding success. It gave me everything I asked for, and the one thing none of us ever truly expected. Thanks, Korra.


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