Friday, 10 June 2016

Family Ties in Legend of Korra - Book 1

Alright, I've finally settled down to write on Avatar: Legend of Korra. This is something I've been wanting to write for a couple of weeks but couldn't seem to get started. I'm not sure why, it just is one of those things where I just needed time to get my head around what I want to say.

I have already written about Legend of Korra before looking at its steampunk inspirations, its narrative and character development (up to Book 3), and how it functioned as a sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. However, I wanted to focus on something a little different here, family. Specifically I want to trace all the familial relations through Legend of Korra book by book.

This includes all the relationships Korra forms throughout the series as well as other family dynamics like Aang's children, Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi, and those of the antagonists like Amon. I might have bitten off more than I can digest but there's nothing like rushing headfirst into something when it comes to Legend of Korra.

Yeah, I got this.

In my previous post on Korra, I discussed the much maligned love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Asami. Now for anyone not aware, the love triangle is a depressingly common trope found in television and movie writing.

For a succinct definition, please see TV Tropes,
Alice is in love with Bob, but Bob is in love with Charlie, while Charlie is in love with Alice. Well, that's one of them. A Love Triangle commonly involves three people, love, and decisions. It can be dramatic, or it can result in Wacky Hijinx. Sometimes a fourth person is brought in to make it right, sometimes somebody might be kicked out.
You can see this trope used relative well in things like The Hunger Games or terribly forced like in Twilight and it nearly always revolves around a choice where the primary protagonist has to decide between two love interests.

This dilemma is supposed to be dramatic but often is just boring since the decision is usually obvious (Edward, of course she's gonna pick Edward, everything screams Edward!) so the 'drama' created is pandering at best.

Asami isn't in for that pandering nonsense.

I had said that the love triangle in Book 1 was very high school teen drama, which I stand by. These are teenage characters so it makes sense that they would behave like teenagers, even if that behaviour is frustrating to literally anyone who is not a teenager.

Unlike a number of people, I don't have that much of an issue with it. Or at least, it doesn't distract too much from the overall narrative. But something I always wonder is why people forget this love triangle started out as a love square with Bolin in tow.

People often dismiss Bolin but I think this underestimates his role in the group dynamic. His levity and amiable nature offers a contrast to Korra's brashness and Mako's brooding. When they first met, Bolin was quite smitten by Korra and wanted to go out with her. They even went on a date where they had a great time and seemed to have perfect chemistry.

However Korra just isn't attracted to Bolin that way and while he didn't react to seeing Korra kiss Mako all that well, he quickly accepted that Korra wasn't in to him and remained her friend with no animosity towards her. When I first watched Book 1, I was always a little disappointed Korra and Bolin didn't date since they did seem to be perfect for one another.

Like seriously.

But then I realised they made much better friends than they would have as romantic partners. They're too alike in a number of ways, both are friendly but struggle to read people and often rush into things without thinking.

They work as friends since they share the same sense of humour and are there for each other but as LoK Gifs & Musings puts it, "their similarities allow for a mutual understanding, they don’t provide the emotional support or the push towards growth that either one needs".

On the other end of the spectrum, we get Mako and Asami. Now I honestly can't tell why Asami is dating Mako. They do have a nice meet-cute when she nearly runs him over with her moped which leads to a date that she orchestrated but I never understood just quite why she had a thing for him aside of the fact he was there and like, oh so hot, you guys.

I mean, just look at the man brood. He's got some serious brooding game.

There's almost a kind of contrived inevitability that they have to end up together because she's the spunky rich girl with a fabulous head of hair and he's the brooding good-looking jock. It seems to more a relationship of societal expectations than a real romance.

To be fair, Asami is real supportive of Mako and cares for him. Once they are in a relationship, it is obvious that she has feelings for him and when she finds out that he likes Korra, she is legitimately hurt. On his end, Mako seems to really like Asami and play the masculine protector role for her, a role she is happy to let him play.

However it just seems to be taken for granted that they would be dating after their meet-cute and so they are, even though I couldn't say why they would have started a relationship aside from the fact they are both young and attractive.

I wasn't joking about her fabulous hair.

But moving past that, Asami finds out that Mako has feelings for Korra (he was doing a terrible job of hiding it) and while she is hurt by the betrayal, she's such a classy lady that she doesn't flip out on him, although they do break off their relationship for obvious reasons.

However, I agree with Tumblr user beccatoria that the best thing about the love triangle subplot is that "Asami’s character was not demonised, and that the show specifically allowed her to reject the idea that she should blame Korra". Instead of Asami becoming catty towards Korra for 'stealing her man', she instead is rightly angry at Mako for his open attraction for another person when they are supposed to be in a relationship.

I'll get to Mako and Korra in a bit but as I'm sure you're all aware, at the end of the series, Korra and Asami get together and there are the slightest hints of attraction between them in Book 1. At least on Asami's end. She thinks Korra is amazing right from the get-go and wants her to like her. Korra for her part initially see Asami as a romantic rival but is shortly won over by her confidence and class.

What can I say, Korra likes a lady who can handle fast cars.

There isn't anything necessarily romantic between the two but they are quite attracted to each other as people and don't let the love triangle nonsense ruin their attitudes toward each other. Which I really like since so often the two 'rivals' in  love triangle are pitted against each other so this is a nice change.

But then we come to Mako and Korra. I'm going to analyse this relationship in more depth with Book 2 but here even more than with Mako and Asami I have no idea why these two would start a romantic relationship. To be fair, it's clear from the second episode after they meet that Korra has developed a crush on Mako and why not? He's good-looking and brooding after all.

However kinda like how Mako and Asami get together because it seems the thing to do by societal expectations, Mako and Korra seem to get together because of narrative convention.They are the male and female leads so they should get together, right? The fact Korra had more chemistry with Bolin, someone she wasn't interested in romantically, should speak volumes about how this doesn't quite work.

And if we're being really real here, Mako is kinda selfish and insecure. His primary focus is on himself and what is best for him. This is why he continues to be in a relationship with Asami while harbouring feelings for Korra. He says he is confused but really what he should have done was break it off with Asami until he sorted his shit out.

Let's move on to Tenzin.

I'm gonna put it out there for full disclosure, I love Tenzin. He honestly might be my favourite character in Legend of Korra. Firstly he is a badass Airbender and just a badass period. So often when the gang is getting taken down by a bunch of bad guys, Tenzin is nearly always the last man standing. And the fact he is voiced by an unrecognisable J.K. Simmons is just the cherry on the top.

I'll get into this more as the series progresses but Tenzin's relationship with Korra is fascinatingly complex. They both learn so much about each other and themselves through their relationship. Tenzin is not only a mentor and teacher to Korra but a surrogate father-figure away from home. Similarly, Tenzin sees Korra as much as a daughter as he sees her as his student or charge.

Tenzin's controlled and stoic demeanor belies his sometimes controlling and anxiety-ridden manner, which is something Korra, just by being her stubborn headstrong self, bristles. Tenzin has a lot of internalised anxiety in regards to upholding his father Aang's legacy as well as being the father of the next generation of Airbenders.

So sometimes he loses his cool.

Tenzin initially imposes strict restrictions on Korra since he sees structure and discipline as key to teaching. However he didn't give much consideration of the best way to adapt his teaching technique to nurture Korra and help her learn considering her rebellious nature.

However he eventually realises that by giving Korra the tools she needs and letting her use those tools in a practical setting she thrives. He also offers support for her emotionally, telling her he is always there if she needs to talk. He is truly proud of Korra, not only as his student but for who she is and as the Avatar.

For her own part, Korra is resistant to Tenzin's style of teaching and takes a lot of the frustration she feels at not being able to Airbend out on him. She also doesn't take well to his slightly patronising paternal instincts and desire to protect her at the cost of her freedom. But at that same time she respects him greatly as a mentor and confidant, eventually opens up to him about her fears.

Her complex feelings towards Tenzin sets up a breakdown in their relationship in Book 2 that blossoms into something truly wonderful by Book 3 but we'll get there when we get there.

We've got some bloodbending brothers to talk about in the meantime.

The antagonists of Book 1, Noatak and Tarrlok, have a complicated sibling rivalry. In "Skeletons in the Closet", the penultimate episode of the season, we learn from Tarrlok that Amon, the Equalist leader and Big Bad of the season, is actually his brother Noatak and from the Northern Water Tribe like himself.

He then goes into their tragic backstory. They are the sons of Yakone, a bloodbending crime boss who was escaped from Republic City after Aang took away his bending. When their father finds out that his sons are both Waterbenders, he starts training them in the taboo art of bloodbending. His training is intense and harsh as he wants to use his sons as a means to get back the criminal empire that was taken from him.

Tarrlok doesn't like bloodbending because of the unease he feels forcibly manipulating living creatures although Noatak is a prodigy. Throughout their training Tarrlok and his brother drift apart as Noatak becomes increasingly detached. Eventually Noatak turns on their father and leaves.

As an adult, Tarrlok makes a decision to go to Republic City, not to control it the way his father did through crime but lead it through legitimate channels. He works his way onto the City Council and sets up the task force charged with taking down Amon (who he doesn't know is his brother yet).

It doesn't go that well for him.

The Brothers Bad offer an interesting examination of the perils of parental pressure. Yakone pushes his sons to excel in a field he has chosen for them with little to no consideration of their own desires. He envisions who they want to be in order to vicariously get his own vengeance on Republic City.

Both of his sons reject what he wanted them to become. However due to their own ambitions, they end up becoming exactly what their father wanted anyway- the antagonists of the story instead of the heroes they wanted to become.

This is clear in Tarrlok's apology to Korra (for the whole bloodbending and kidnapping her thing),
"Avatar Korra. I am truly sorry for all that I did to you. I thought I was better than my father, but his ghost still shaped me. I became a soldier of revenge, just like he wanted me to be. And so did my brother."
So he decides to end their sad tale with murder-suicide. You know, for kids.

Now I've only begun to scratch the surface of the network of relationships within the series. I didn't get to mention Asami's highly complicated relationship with her father (who turned out to be an Equalist and not at all the man she thought he was), Tenzin's family and his wife Pema, or even Lin as Tenzin's old flame and her interactions with Korra.

Legend of Korra didn't always handle things perfectly. It made missteps here or there where the wider implications of the story they were telling wasn't considered and some elements didn't quite work but it did present a rich and varied text full of complicated and nuanced interpersonal relationships worth exploring.

The next one of these Korra posts will come out once I finished Book 2 so don't hold your breath since it might be a while. Don't worry though, I'm sure I'll find something else to write about in the meantime.


Love Triangle - TV Tropes

The Legend of Korra: Deliberately Deconstructed - beccatoria

Korra's Relationships - Avatar Wiki

Borra: The Greatest Bromance Ever Told - LoK Gifs & Musings

Bald Mentor Appreciation Day - Nerdswole

Tarrlok's Relationships - Avatar Wiki

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