beccatoria: (the legend of this chick)
[personal profile] beccatoria
So, the Legend of Korra finished last month and it was actually pretty awesome. Over the course of the series I felt it made up for a lot of its first season missteps, even if the fact I know the first book was written to standalone means I am unwilling to say that everything wrong with it was intentional. But yeah, overall, it was a great wrap-up and while I have a few reservations - things I wish they'd done slightly differently - don't we always? I feel far more joy.

I feel like the whole series - all four books - deserves an epic review post, meta and all sorts, but for right now I kind of just wanted to address one piece of criticism I've been seeing because I think it's worth some attention.

That being the thing she says to Tenzin in their final conversation.

"I know I was in a pretty dark place after I was poisoned, but I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was, so I could become more compassionate to others. Even to people like Kuvira."

And there's this interpretation that Korra's arc was about taking her down a peg. That she needed to be taught a lesson. (Uppity woman. Uppity brown woman.)

I get why people would feel that way. I take a different view, in full context, but I get it. I felt that way at the end of Book One. Annoyed that Korra had been saved by the deus-ex-machina of her past life (that everyone kept comparing her to anyway) but simultaneously relieved that it was fixed because having to watch that dragged out, after her characterisation in the first season, would have felt perilously like she was getting her "comeuppance".

Honestly, I wouldn't have used words like "had to". I get that there's a desire to simplify and encapsulate a huge journey, but I would have been more careful with the language. That said - I think it is more of a linguistic issue than a problem with the story we saw, which was so much more expansive than reductive. I think the Avatar Universe has a much more nuanced understanding of forgiveness, acceptance and the lessons of suffering.

We can take this back to the original series when we look at Zuko and Katara.

Zuko didn't deserve what happened to him, but in reaction to it, he did things that were both terrible and wonderful. One of the most powerful moments of the series, for me, was when he confronted Ozai. His father accused him of having learned nothing, and Zuko spits back, "No, I learned everything, and I had to do it without you."

It's a different situation in that I do not feel that Korra was ever lost in the moral sense that Zuko was, but it's illustrative of the complex ways these series have always dealt with anger, forgiveness and justice. Zuko learns positive, redemptive things during a time of great turmoil and pain. He learns them during a period when his father has cast him out as a learning experience, and yet Zuko is able to separate these facts and accept his own growth without crediting his father's actions.

Katara, after she is unable to kill her mother's murderer, explains to Aang that no, she hasn't forgiven him. She never, ever will. But she cannot kill him either. It's not forgiveness, but it is acceptance. Not acceptance that it was justified or right or fair, but acceptance that it happened. It is unchangeable and it shaped her, and now she will move forward as a person who experienced that, rather than a person trying to fight and fix it. Trying to make it mean something other than it does: it just is.

Korra makes similar statements to Mako after she confronts Zaheer. She will never be able to "put it behind her," but she is now able to accept it. To look at it and say, yes, that is a thing that happened to me and shaped me and here I am now.

We do learn things because we have suffered. It's not fair and it's important not to romanticise it, but we are the sum of our positive and negative experiences. Sometimes aspects of ourselves that we are fiercely proud of grew in opposition to that which mistreated us. We should have been left to discover those parts of ourselves under kinder circumstances; no one deserves to have anything beaten into them ever. But sometimes that's not how it happens.

What do you do, then?

Accept it as part of the tapestry of your life. Accept what you learned from it, without taking on the blame.

I think that's what that speech is about.

Book Four Korra had a storyline about self-loathing. About feeling she deserved what was happening to her. It was her shadow-self, haunting her. It was her disconnection from the people who - as Toph said - love her. Like Zuko's rage at himself, she was afraid of herself and disappointed with herself (and, yes, angry). We saw her move through and beyond that. We saw her move backwards through the stages of grief (because she was mourning herself: her bright, beautiful past) from depression to bargaining (if I can just beat this thief, win this match, get into the Avatar state, defeat Kuvira at Zaofu - if I can just do that, I'll be okay) to anger that no one believes she can do the job and denial that she still has issues after her return to Republic City. And then, finally, acceptance.

An acceptance that allows her to finally confront Kuvira with such compassion. I don't think that Korra was ever lacking in selflessness or sympathy. What is it she says after hearing the tragedy of Tarlokk and Noatak's life? "That's the saddest story I've ever heard," I think. Something like that. She gets up to fight Unalaq even after her soul has been ripped in half, because people need her. She gives herself up to save the Air Nation. She is, on a fundamental level, a good person.

But what she had with Kuvira wasn't sympathy, it was empathy. It was compassion born of experience.

If she hadn't had those experiences, she might have dealt with Kuvira sooner, or differently. I'm sure she would not have done so cruelly. But it probably wouldn't have involved that moment of raw, human empathy and mutual understanding that inspired Kuvira to stand down and to begin to consider her actions. Maybe, for Korra, that would have been better, and maybe we care about her more than we care about Kuvira.

This is how it happened, though. This is what Korra chose to do with the experience that shaped her. Reach out. I think it is okay that that is an important experience for her.

I think there is context to be found in the way TLoK characterises Korra as revolutionary in a way that Aang was not. I don't mean to offend - I love Aang a great deal - but he was restoring balance to the world. We find out in the comics that he does institute social changes, but within the scope of the series, he is trying to put things back the way they should be. He's trying to fix the overwhelming negative change that has occurred in his absence.

Korra changes everything. She opens the spirit portals, starts a new Avatar Cycle, rebuilds the Air Nation and oversees major political reforms in several nations. In the very same conversation with Tenzin, he notes that she has changed the world more in a few years than most Avatars do during their lifetimes. Korra responds that she feels like she's only just beginning.

This exchange is positive and full of pride as they stare out across the bay at the new Spirit Portal.

There is no question that her right to do this is in doubt. Which I think it would be if the intended subtext to her statements about suffering was that her negative experiences were what saved her from failure as the Avatar and/or a decent human being.

I suppose I'm still not the biggest fan of "I finally understand why I had to go through all of that," but if she'd said, "I finally understand what I got out of all of that," then, well. I think I'd get it.

Sometimes pain is just pain. Sometimes it's not. Understanding what you got out of something isn't the same as being glad it happened.

All told, my biggest fear for this series was the way Aang's conflict was about accepting his power whereas Korra's was about whether or not she even deserved to have it, and my paranoia that it was going to fall over into some really awkward territory. That's why I was uneasy at the end of Book Three even though I loved so much else about it. The series finale doesn't have the epic nature of Harmonic Convergence, but it's solid and reassuring and is about Korra as a goddamn superhero and I feel the person she has grown to be is not shown as some bratty kid we're all glad shaped up in the end, but as a someone you should respect. As someone amazing and beautiful and brave and kind. As a hero.

I was upset that the girl had to have the story where she was always having to fight for her power, because, even though it made narrative sense to tell a story in opposition to Aang's, it also fed into some socially painful stuff.

Now I wonder if that's why it was a good idea. Because we do have to fight. Just. All the time. Someone will always be telling us we're not needed. Someone (usually a guy, hell, even Tenzin sometimes and he's nice) was always telling Korra she wasn't needed, or she was doing it wrong, or she should be doing it differently or putting in more effort, but (shoddy Book One Finale aside), she wouldn't stay down. "I'm the Avatar and you've gotta deal with it!" right? Weren't those her first words?

I guess...

Looking at the show as a whole - however Korra chose to express herself in that conversation - I don't believe that the narrative intent was to humble her. I just think she grew and changed. Like the world. Like the world she made.
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