About Last Night: The Legend of Korra “Darkness Falls”/”Light in the Dark”

During the second season of The Legend of Korra, Mike Mazzacane and I teamed up together to provide weekly recaps of the season for Screened.  These posts contain my half of each entry.

Hoo, boy.

I am writing this review on Sunday, a couple of hours after having watched the episodes, because Nickelodeon voluntarily posted the two-part finale to their website about 4 hours after last week’s episode finished airing.  Now, any other show with Korra’s ratings and I’d declare Nickelodeon to have completely lost their minds.  It’s a very poorly kept secret that Korra’s ratings have been down this season, and throwing the final episode up online for anybody to watch at their convenience, away from those all-important advertisers, seems like the act of a network who just don’t give a sh*t anymore.  Except that Korra is already guaranteed another two books and has a fiercely loyal fan base who will follow the show to the ends of the earth, regardless of how far its quality may slip (the majority of comments I have read across the Internet that blast this Book 2 finale are immediately appendixed with “I really hope they fix this in Book 3”); so the show is actually in a rather unique and luxurious position, possibly being used as a trial by Nickelodeon to see if this is a usable business model in the future.  I dunno, I’m just spit-balling here, and there are way bigger things to talk about than network business practices, so let’s dive into it.

I have been way, way, way, way kinder to this season of The Legend of Korra than, well, everyone else.  This perplexes me and I have a feeling that this has perplexed you at various points, too.  “There have been massive problems this season!  Why can’t this guy see them?  Are they blind?  Am I the only one seeing this?”  I get it, because it’s been like that for me but with positivity instead of negativity.  I know that everybody has their own individual tastes and such and certain people look for certain things out of their TV shows, but sometimes I just get the crippling fear that I am a terrible critic who is way too easily impressed with things.  Like, other people are pointing out things that they like or don’t like about stuff that I don’t see no matter how hard I try, and my inability to do so often leaves me feeling like I’m the one in the wrong.

All of this is my long winded way of saying that I adored this finale, barring one major caveat, and will likely fail to comprehend your most likely negative feelings about it and said inability may end up tormenting me for weeks on end.  I think it comes down to what you wanted from this finale.  Me?  Well seeing as I thought that Book 2 roared into life these past few episodes, I wanted Korra to stick the landing and give me an emotionally satisfying send-off for an occasionally rocky season.  And, for me, on almost every possible count, it did.

The Legend of KorraBut let’s address the major caveat first, which I have affectionately dubbed a Deus ex Jinora.  Simply put: what the hell happened?  Korra was losing and then Jinora showed up in a pool of bright white light and… something?  Then Raava appeared in Vaatu again and…  Look, all this sequence required was one line of dialogue.  One line, from any character at any time, that just explained what actually happened there, was all that was necessary to allow me to go with it and accept that story choice.  But that line never came and so it just remains a moment killing arse-pull, one that, unlike the majority of other story turns this finale took, I don’t see Korra following up on and addressing next season.  It forcibly ripped me, for a brief while, from the emotional connection I was otherwise having with the episode and it’s made worse because just having somebody stand and explain it for 10 seconds at minimum would have fixed it.

In recent months, I’ve discovered that I find it much easier to connect with characters and events in fictional media emotionally than most other people.  For some reason, I’m capable of buying into worlds and characters and their various emotional problems and struggles with surprising ease.  I can just do that.  On the one hand, it means that any piece of media that’s even halfway competent at crafting a world and characters is likely to get its hooks in me.  On the other hand, it means that I’m more inclined to call out media pieces if they fail to create worlds that I can invest in or have events occur that pull me out of the experience without an adequate enough explanation for their happening, because it’s hard for me to get pulled out in the first place.  The Deus ex Jinora was such an example of the latter.

Everything else is an example of the former.  By this point in Korra’s lifespan, I am sold on the show, its characters and its universe.  I know their wants and needs, I understand the majority of their decisions, I root for them to succeed when the odds are against them, I cringe and wince and cry when the universe elects to kick them in the balls for the umpteenth time instead of just cutting them a break for once, I inadvertently find myself on the edge of my seat when they look like they’re going to succeed.  My complete investment in the show and its characters, on an empathetic level, is what made this finale work for me.  It’s what made Chapter 13 extremely depressing and saddening, with its hope spots even crueller in retrospect, and Chapter 14 so simultaneously awesome and bittersweet.  Korra is in-sync with my emotions and heartstrings and therefore can play them like a godsdamn fiddle, by now.

The Legend of KorraIt’s why I found the Kaiju fight in Chapter 14 to be nearly almost as strong as the physical Avatar smackdown in Chapter 13.  All season long I have wanted Team Avatar to win at something and FINALLY it happens.  The payoff of seeing Spirit Korra pacify Vaatu out of existence for the next 10,000 years was tremendous because, like the characters in show, I was about to give up all hope of anybody ever winning anything.  If the screws were turned any tighter, I’d have been pulled out of the universe and be decrying Korra as, effectively, misery porn (misery porn with outwardly comedic moments, but shut up).  But Chapter 13 managed to balance out the dark, utterly soul-destroying final sequence (the destruction of the links to the past avatars may be the single biggest gut-punch visually and narratively that Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have ever delivered) with enough sequences of Korra kicking all kinds of arse to keep that hope alive.  It was kind of structured like a videogame boss fight in a way, replete with Vaatu’s Reaper-beam and everything.

OK, trying to articulate my thoughts on why I was sold on the Korra/Vaatu showdown (which was also filled with some legit creepy imagery in Unalaq’s various transformations and even more gorgeous animation than usual; I will forgive the cheaper animation from earlier in the season because this more than made up for it) is just turning into a barely comprehensible mess, so let’s address other events in this finale.  Everything to do with Tenzin was fantastic.  The rapport between him, Kya and Bumi has been one of this season’s surprising highlights and the first half of Chapter 13 put it to great use, injecting much needed levity into proceedings; the talking mushroom spirit (a completely unrecognisable Grey DeLisle, as it turns out) scene was my second favourite gag of the episodes.  Meanwhile, the journey into The Fog Of Lost Souls was an amazing character sequence on a much subtler level than the rest of the finale indulges in, as Tenzin accepts his role in life as a helper rather than a leader and realises that such a responsibility is not a bad thing.  It’s basically the “be true to yourself” moral but, thanks to my prior investment in the show and this being a culmination of Tenzin’s season-long arc, it came off feeling like more than that.  It also led to the indescribably beautiful image of Tenzin leading his family out of the fog.  A piece of light in the darkness of the rest of the chapter.

Last season’s finale, as much as I similarly adored it with a similar caveat (only that one involved Makorra becoming a thing and I sincerely hope that I never have to type that spellcheck-hating word again), created highly interesting scenarios for future seasons… that it promptly backed out of in favour of resetting to the status quo.  There were no consequences to anything for anybody, with all of the consequences saved for the start of this season.  That was primarily down to circumstance, Book 1 was intended to be a single miniseries instead of the beginnings of another full-blown franchise, like it became.  For the Book 2 finale, it’s almost like the show’s creators heard these complaints and purposefully ensured that, no, things are going to change and we are definitely going to follow through on this stuff, this time.  Sure, Vaatu has been defeated for the next 10,000 and the Civil War is over, but the cost is much higher than expected.  Simply put, Korra refused to engineer quick-fixes for the breaking of the Avatar chain and the relationship of Mako and Korra and that makes both of those things hurt even more in their own ways.

The Legend of KorraKorra now can’t draw on her past selves for advice, guidance and support, much like how we viewers now can’t rely on the comfort of seeing one of them pop up to help Korra in her hour of need.  The integration of past lives is a vital part of the show’s mythology and that comfort blanket has officially been ripped away from us.  The last we ever saw of Aang and Kiyoshi and Wan, who I was so certain that we’d see more of, was their disintegration from existence; an ignominious end undeserving of their legacies.  It also feels like a move that involves Korra the show completely shaking off the metaphorical coat, shadow and legacy of its parent show in favour of becoming its own thing in the future, instead of a much darker and more cynical-Avatar; much like Tenzin shaking off his dad’s legacy.  Of course, this is all speculation and I could most likely be talking out of my arse right about now, and I’ll be prepared to take back my compliments towards this story turn if Korra gets her spiritual link back to the past avatars in the opening episodes of next season, but for now the refusal to reset this situation makes the end of Chapter 13 carry that much more weight.

Finally for this review, let’s address the Mako/Korra break-up.  Last week, I touched on the relationship stuff with a tentative “wait-and-see” mind-set, not wishing to pre-emptively crap all over the turn in order to see how it would play out in the finale (although the total side-lining of Asami in the finale sadly cements her slide into irrelevance, this season).  Good thing I did.  For one, it was relegated to one sequence near the end of Chapter 14 and only after all other immediate threats had been wrapped up, instead of being spread all over the finale and infecting more pressing matters, like the shipping stuff has done on this show in the past.  But primarily, it’s because the mutual and amicable break-up is the first piece of non-argument shipping between Korra and Mako that has felt genuine all show long.  It was lower key, it was handled maturely, it felt in character, it felt real, like a conversation that two actual people would have had.  Free of soapy, shippy bullsh*t, Korra allowed the pair to hold a conversation built on genuine emotions that the characters shared, instead of one-dimensional “I’m all mysterious, therefore you want me” “You probably have abs I could dry clothes with, therefore I want you” exchanges that most of their relationship has been built on.  I admire the show’s balls to let them move on from one another and I reeeeally hope it sticks, because this will be immeasurably beneficial for both characters and the show in the long run.

I’m not even going to begin speculation on keeping the spirit portals open, because that is such a game-changing move that the show has no choice but to make this the central conceit of next season; hopefully in a lower-key and more social-based track because, in terms of spectacle and threat, Korra can’t go any bigger.  The immediate stakes genuinely cannot be topped again, there’s kinda nowhere left to go in immediate threat terms, you cannot top “10,000 years of darkness”, end of.  So, what I will say that Korra needs to do next season is to go smaller-scale.  Book 2 was, admittedly, overstuffed, I think that I’ve touched on barely half of the finale and I’m over 2,100 words, right now.  A more focussed season with the main cast interacting together more should also yield a more consistent momentum.  I’ve really enjoyed this season of Korra, warts and all, but the momentum didn’t stay consistently high until the back half.  Said momentum was super effective and had me completely invested in the events that transpired, so a full season of that kind of attachment from me is what the show should be aiming for.

The Legend of KorraThat’s primarily what I’ll remember the finale for.  The Deus ex Jinora may irk me more in later viewings and later reflections than it does now, Korra may stamp down hard on the reset button in regards to more game-changing events that transpired here in the beginning of next season, and the show may end up totally blowing the great storytelling opportunities this finale has given itself.  But that’s for the indeterminate future.  The here and now: I was completely under Korra’s spell for 98% of the finale and that’s all I wanted from it, so I loved the finale.

I’ll see you all again for Book 3.  Until then, in the words of Varrick, whilst he was escaping from his jail cell with his trusty assistant strapped to his back with a wing-glider, “Zhu Li, do the thing.”

Callie Petch will miss you more than anyone in their life.

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