Friday, 8 July 2016

Family Ties in Legend of Korra - Book 2

Book 2 is often seen as the weakest season of Legend of Korra with some valid reasons. While it's not really the goal of this series of posts to examine the narrative or other elements of the show but rather to focus on the interpersonal relationships, I do want to address those critiques of Korra's second season and defend it a little.

Now, this might not be a popular opinion but I actually like Book 2 over Book 1. When I rewatched it, I noticed there was a lot more to be mined from a rewatch than when I watched Book 1 again. A lot of this has to do with the deepening relationships between the characters which I'll get into but also because Book 2 has some simply amazing moments.

The problem is that is an uneven season. The writers had written themselves into a bit of a corner with the end of Book 1 (since they didn't know they would get a second season) and started the season seeming with a number of interesting ideas, half of which they never explored.

They also had to dial back some of Korra's character development in the beginning of Book 2 becase of how they worked themselves into that corner, although as I have argued before
this is how real people behave. We expect and want our fictional characters to grow and develop, learning from their mistakes and developing, but often people in the real world don't. Not because they don't want to or can't, but because change is hard and habits of behaviour are difficult to break.
I understand that this a bit of honeypot on my part, trying to explain away a flaw in the writing but I still stand by it to some degree. Honestly on the rewatch, while Korra does appear to be just as brash as she was in the first season and reacts to things in a confrontational way, most of the time she is justified in the way she feels, if not in her reaction.

"My father and my mentor purposely lied to me because of their overprotective paternal desire to 'keep me safe' despite the fact I'm the Avatar, while my boyfriend is seemingly supportive but passive aggressively undermines me due to his own ego issues.
So yes, I'm a little pissed, why'd you ask?"

Korra is frustrated at the sense of betrayal and lack of trust from the father figures in her life who are more concerned with controlling or shielding her in the name of keeping her safe than they are about letting her become her own person.

Korra had spent her whole life up to this point believing that Avatar Aang had decided it was best for her to live and train isolated in the Southern Water Tribe with the White Lotus but learns it was actually her father and Tenzin who made the call.

Add to this her frustration at her inability to develop spiritually is misdirected at Tenzin's teachings, it is no wonder that she responds positively to the first male authority figure in her life who tells her that he has faith in her and treats her as an adult instead of a child that he must shield from the world.

The fact Korra doesn't pick up that he is totally evil from the first second she meets him is understandable in those circumstances.
People forget but Korra is around 18 at the time of Book 2, she's a young adult who wants to establish her own identity but feels as though she is still treated like a child by the men in her life, especially by her father. In that context, while she definitely reacts far too angrily at times, there is a real cause behind those emotions that I think is often dismissed.

Most criticisms of Book 2 revolve around the retread of character developments from Book 1, Tumblr blogger beccatoria argues that the show repeats those beats to first deconstruct and then reform them,
"The latter half of the series began to rebuild itself in new and fascinating ways, but it was here that the series made a radical, handbrake turn. This was where Korra’s queer origin and radical future were expressly clarified."
For the second season is when the interpersonal relationships and familial drama between characters becomes incredibly intertwined and complex. The foundations of those relationships were laid in the first season but Book 2 steps it up massively.

Now it doesn't always work and the narrative occasionally presents some unintentionally problematic relationships without realising it (which we'll get to), but when it gets it right, it is some of the most touching and effective storytelling on television.

Pictured here.

I'm sorry but every scene with Tenzin's family and his siblings Bumi and Kya is golden. While other aspects of the story might have been uneven or even annoying (like the incompetent dumb detectives who were supposed to be foils to Mako), the fact that Book 2 had the familial drama of Tenzin's siblings more than balances out the missteps elsewhere.

There is so much to get into that it's hard to know where to start but I suppose a good place is with Aang. Aang, the beloved bald protagonist of The Last Airbender, wasn't a good father. He wasn't a terrible father but he wasn't there for all his children the way a good father is. And that is important.

It's a nice deconstruction of the idealisation of fatherhood, which is an important narrative to tell. Not in a "I never knew my father!" way, or even in villainous "he was an arsehole" way, but rather showing that although Aang was the protagonist of the previous season, he had aspects of his personality that didn't make for a great father.

Which was a bold move for the writers to make simply because of how much Aang was as a character, not to mention as the hero of the previous series. It would have been easy for them to depict Aang as a perfect dad. But his failures as a father are clear in the obvious favouritism he had towards Tenzin as his only child who could airbend, something which caused lingering resentment from Bumi and Kya.

Pictured here.

This isn't mentioning just how heavy Aang's legacy as the Avatar weighs down on his children. It affects each of his children but let's spare a tear for Bumi. As Aang's oldest child he felt a massive responsibility to uphold his father's legacy but as a non-bender he felt he let his father down.

I think LoK Gifs & Musings put this better than I ever could so I'll just quote her here,
"Bumi may well be one of the most tragic characters in the show. Though Aang and Katara likely wanted children, I’m sure given Aang’s status as the last airbender, they also felt a great responsibility to do so. Though I am sure Aang or Katara loved Bumi, the fact that their eldest was a nonbender had to have been a bit of a blow for them. And even though they seemed to let Bumi be free to follow his own passions (joining the military and drinking a lot of cactus juice, from what I can tell), there was a part of him that internalized the guilt of not being “enough” for his parents." 
Bumi's juvenile behaviour (especially for a man into his 60s) is his way of standing out even though he can't bend. Considering both his siblings are benders and formed bonds with their parents that he couldn't, it's no wonder he plays the clown to mask the internal sense of inadequacy he feels.

All of which is crystalises in the scene where Bumi talks to Aan's stature.

"Uh, hey there, dad. You're looking well.. Look, I'm sorry I didn't turn out to be an airbender like you hoped, but I've tried my best to make the world safe. Hope I made you proud." - Actual, heartbreaking, dialogue.

I think we have to move on to Tenzin now. Tenzin may be Aang and Katara's youngest child but as the only airbender, he felt a particular responsibility to uphold his father's legacy, even more so than Bumi.

Tenzin was so dedicated to preserving Aang's legacy as the Avatar that he created an idealisation of his father which glossed over Aang's real flaws as a parent. Also, this dedication meant he focused all his attention on being like his father instead of accepting that he is his father's son, not his father.

I don't want to go into this too much since LoK Gifs & Musings basically covered everything I want to say in her "I Am Tenzin" article. The only thing I will say is how Tenzin's journey to let go of his internalised guilt as a failed spiritual leader is combined with learning to let his daughter Jinora come into her own as the spiritual leader he couldn't be is something else. He escapes the spectre of his father at the same time that he, as a father, allows his own child to grow.


I don't want to seem like I'm neglecting Kya but she isn't given as much attention in the narrative as her brothers. That said, she has to deal with the emotional baggage of their less than ideal childhood as well and actually seems the most bitter of the siblings despite her empathetic caring nature.

For example, she is the one who snaps at Tenzin for idealising their father. While Bumi was definitely upset by the special attention Aang gave Tenzin, Kya seems genuinely hurt by it and became defensive as a result.

She tried to escape her family's legacy in her youth, travelling across the world while Bumi joined the military and Tenzin join the council in Republic City. However, she then went back to the Southern Water Tribe to look after their elderly mother after Aang died, which is something she chastises her brothers for failing to do.

On the other hand, after Bumi has his confessional moment talking to Aang's statue wondering if his father would be proud of him, Kya overhears and immediately says that of course Aang would be proud. She then gives him a hug as Bumi tells her she always knows when he needs one. It's a touching moment.

Sibling huggery.

Jumping back to Tenzin for a second, in light of the emotional journey that he goes through over the course the season  it's not surprising how constricting he is as Korra's teacher in the beginning of Book 2 and why she bristles against that.

I covered in my previous Korra post how the differences in their personalities make them the perfect teacher/student combination but only by adapting to each other. Now, although I can totally see where Korra is coming from, at times the anger she flashes at Tenzin seems unfair in light of his transgressions.

Regardless, their reunion in the second half of Book 2 and the fruition of their relationship as it blossoms by the end of the season is completely worth the (only) slightly contrived nature of their parting of ways in the beginning of the season.

Did I mention that Tenzin is the one who helps Korra complete her spiritual journey?
With hugs!

But before we celebrate the wonderfulness that is the familial drama of Tenzin's family and the blossoming of his relationship with Korra, I mentioned there were some problematic relationships in this season, so let's look at the most problematic - Bolin and his love interests, Eska and Ginger.

There's no other way to say this, Bolin is in an abusive relationship with Eska. She forces him to do things he doesn't want through intimidation, fear, and the threat of violence, isn't interested in his well-being, only in how he can better serve her. He isn't her boyfriend, he's her victim.

And yet the show presents this as something funny in a 'Oh, look at how Bolin can't get out of this abusive relationship, isn't it hilarious how Eska, a girl, dominates him and he just whimpers?' way. It's not like they ever examine the destructive nature of their relationship in a meaningful way, it's only depicted as a gag.

The fact they immediately follow this up by having Bolin sexually harass his co-worker Ginger on the set of their movers (old-timey film reels) is rather tone deaf, especially for a show that gets so many other things so right.

And let's be clear, Bolin is sexually harassing her. They're at their workplace, she told him that she wasn't interested and that he is confusing "Ginger the actress with Ginger the character" but he still continues to flirt inappropriately and make unwanted advances.

The difference between their facial expressions says it all.

And so we come to Mako and Korra. I discussed before how their relationship had a sense of contrivance to it since there never seemed to be any reason for them to get together aside from the fact that they were the male and female protagonists.

However, there is a lot wrong with Mako's behaviour and how he treats Korra that I didn't notice until this rewatch. The reason I didn't notice it the first time around was that I used to be a lot like Mako in terms of the type of boyfriend he is.

Therefore, I didn't see anything wrong with his actions despite the fact that they are only superficially supportive and actually quite defensive in nature. For example,
Korra: What do you think I should do?
Mako: I guess you should do what you think is right. I support whatever decision you make.
Korra: Oh thanks. That’s a big help.
Mako: I thought you wanted me to be supportive? Now you want me to tell you what I think? Make up your mind!
Korra: Just forget it.
I originally sided with Mako in this argument because it hit home with what I would likely would have said in the same position but then I realised that he isn't being supportive by withholding his opinion, he's avoiding conflict. Korra expressively asked him for advice and his response was to give an empty declaration of support for fear of her disapproval.

Like Mako, I wanted to place myself as the protector and feel useful to, or even needed by, the person I was with. This is something that's subsided now and I don't feel that same need to be a 'protector'. because I figured it's not necessary, and even more than that, it's infantilizing. If you see your partner as someone who needs to be protected constantly, you're not treating them as an equal but like a child in your care.

She really doesn't need anyone's protection.

However, I didn't have the same anxiety Mako has in regards to being dominated by Korra since I came more from a "white knight" place and didn't feel threatened by the accomplishments of my partner. Because Mako's ego does bristle at the fact Korra is the Avatar, with more responsibility and power than he will ever have.

At one point before their break up, Korra apologizes to Mako for her inconsistent behaviour and blowing up with him due to the stresses of her role as the world's protector,
Korra: By the way, I'm really sorry for being a total pain. Things were really stressful and pretty confusing. It's hard being the Avatar.
Mako: (jokingly) It’s harder being the Avatar’s boyfriend.
Mmmhmm, really? It's harder being the boyfriend of the most powerful person on the planet with the weight of innumerable political, social, spiritual, military pressures than being that person? I know, Mako's cracking a joke here but it does seem to indicate where his head's at.

I mean, he doesn't offer any substantial response or support to address the stress that Korra's feeling, he just makes a joke about how hard things are for him.

"Yeeeaah... not quite the supportive response I needed there, Mako." - Korra, probably.

So yeah, its't not at all surprising that once they get back to Republic City and Mako is able to go back to his job as a police officer that even his pretense of support for Korra kinda evaporates. It's like as soon he is back into his role as a 'protector' in an official capacity, he's freed himself from having to support Korra.

He practically blames her for the civil war between the Water Tribes even though in the previous episode he helped her break her father out of prison, an inciting incident for the war in the first place. After Korra visits the President of Republic City to ask for his help in the war and he refuses, she complains to Mako who agrees with the President.

He eventually betrays Korra's plan to get the Republic fleet without the President's permission which leads to their breakup. All because he felt his job was more important than their relationship due to the insecurity he felt at being 'dominated' by Korra. While he loved her as a person, he couldn't accept her role as the Avatar.

This is more obvious when later in the season he is willing to risk his job to be a protector for Asami, setting up a sting mission without proper approval. Unlike with Korra, Mako doesn't feel threatened by Asami's power (she is a wealthy industrialist after all) in the same way and therefore doesn't need to hold on to his official police officer role as 'protector' with her.

To be fair to Mako, I would want to protect Asami as well if she looked at me like this.
Then I remember that she is a highly intelligent and capable person who holds her own in a team of benders.

In regards to the whole Mako/Korra thing, I'm glad they showed the dissolution of their relationship. It really seems like a deconstruction of the 'inevitability' of them getting together in Book 1 simply because they were the male and female protagonists and highlighted why they shouldn't be a couple.

I'm going to have to end it here but again there were things I didn't get to touch on, like the retread of brother vs brother with Unalaq and Tonraq, Korra's relationship with her parents, the dynamics of Tenzin's children, or Bolin and Asami's wonderful bromance.

This gif is everything.

Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Book 3 in this series will come out whenever I manage to finish the season. I should probably get on to that.


The Legend of Korra: Deliberately Deconstructed - beccatoria

Korra's Relationships - Avatar Wiki

Bolin's Relationships - Avatar Wiki

Meta: Mako’s Castration Anxiety - LoK Gifs & Musings

Bumi, Kya, and Tenzin: Analysis - LoK Gifs & Musings

I Am Tenzin - LoK Gifs & Musings

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