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The Politics Behind ‘The Legend of Korra’ are as relevant as ever

Charlie Vargas
Aug 14 · 11 min read
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Flickr/Nickelodeon

When “Avatar: The Last Airbender” hit Netflix in May, it stayed on the streaming sites’ Top 10 list in the U.S. for 60 consecutive days. Netflix’s second-quarter this year alone held 72.9 million U.S. subscribers, making the series’ performance extra impressive. The series was also well-received by the internet, leading to the creation of plenty of hilarious memes. This month, Netflix will release its sequel, “The Legend of Korra.” The comparison between the two series over which one is superior is debated repeatedly among fans (the debate even prompted Netflix’s Twitter account to weigh in.) There are some valid critiques of “The Legend of Korra” and other flaws, but the show’s ambition to comment about politics is what makes it unique.

The show doesn’t always do this flawlessly and it definitely has some quirks and some things it does better than others. It emulates what it means to live in moments of political tensions while remembering that life doesn’t stop, no matter the conflict. The teenage romance, angst, exploration of sexuality, and career ambivalence all come to an intersection despite ongoing strifes. “The Legend of Korra” broadens its social commentary on politics more than the original. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” spent its three seasons focusing on the consequences of the Fire Nation’s imperialistic reign and working to end it to bring peace. Its sequel stretches its focus to other political ideologies and their impact while keeping its origins rooted in the lore that made the first series exceptional.

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The Equalists holding an anti-bending rally in Republic City. Nickelodeon.

Populism

Korra’s story begins years after the events of the end of the first series, with her introduction as the new Avatar tasked with mastering the four elements and maintaining peace like all previous avatars. Korra masters all the elements except for air, which Aang’s son Tenzin volunteers to teach her, as he and his three younger children are the only airbenders in existence at the time. Tenzin isn’t able to teach Korra airbending right away because he has obligations as a representative of the Air Tribe of Republic City, a metropolis area made up of immigrants from each nation. Aang and Zuko founded the city as an autonomous zone after the end of the war, where they established representatives from each nation to manage the region. Korra eventually leaves her home, the Southern Water Tribe, and follows Tenzin back to Republic City to train at a nearby island where he and his family live. While peace among the nations seems to have ensued following Aang and his friend’s efforts in defeating the Fire Nation, there is a new type of resentment brewing.

A wave of anti-bending attitude flows through Republic City. Amon, leader of The Equalists, plots to rid the world of benders. Amon possesses a rare ability, previously believed only to be held by Aang, which allows him to strip away a bender’s abilities. The conditions that allowed the anti-bending movement to thrive were a result of organized crime committed by benders sometimes against non-benders. There was also a lack of non-bender representation in government. As a result, non-benders in Republic City felt disenfranchised, paving the way to the rise of populism spread by Amon and The Equalists. Populism claims to prioritize the interests of ordinary people over the interests of the elite or established class. Amon’s anti-bending revolution gained traction because of existing grievances which often time worsened due to non-bender absence from the city’s council leading to disastrous results.

Tarrlok, a councilman for Republic City and Amon’s long lost brother, exercised his power to crush The Equalists. He proposes a law that would make it illegal to be part of or associated with the group. Tarrlok soon develops a task force after convincing the council that The Equalists are a threat. With the police’s help, he shuts power off in non-bender parts of the city, initiates a curfew, and orders the arrests of demonstrators. These tactics in a democracy are toxic, no matter the intention or who is behind them. It fuels narratives for people like The Equalists to point to as signs of oppression and fuels their populist movement. This show of force is arguably counterproductive because it gives bigoted groups validity as victims. Although The Equalists and the Black Lives Matter protests are two very different movements, the reaction to crush them with authority is similar to the use of force flexed in American cities.

Ultimately, the council failed to realize the emergence of a new identity and class cultivated by the immigrants of other nations that were left voiceless. When Amon is outed as a bender himself motivated by personal grievances to rid the world of bending, The Equalists and the anti-bending movement collapses. In turn, the council realizes their mistake in excluding non-benders and ends the practice of a representative council and begins to host presidential elections where the people of Republic City can vote equally for a president. The critique proposed in this season of “The Legend of Korra” resonates similarly to the populism today that led to the elections of Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duarte and Jair Bolsonaro. These campaigns successfully fanned the flames of fear and offered their approach of “tough on crime” as a solution, much like Amon.

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Unalaq is waiting for Korra to name him as her mentor. Nickelodeon.

Historical Revisionism

The second season of the series centers around the history of the Spirit World and the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. Korra is the niece of Unalaq, leader of the Water Tribes and daughter of Tonraq. The two brothers have a tense relationship from the start but Korra is unaware of the cause. Unalaq takes an interest in Korra, hoping to teach her more about the spirit world. The tension between Tonraq and Unalaq drives Korra to chose sides, and she picks Unalaq out of frustration. As the season progresses, Unalaq’s ulterior motives come to light, including a vital moment before Korra was born. Tonraq was in line to be the next tribe chief but Unalaq devised a ploy to tarnish Tonraq’s reputation and take the leadership for himself.

Unalaq hired bandits to attack the Northern Water Tribe and instructed them to hide in a sacred spirit forest. Knowing the command style of Tonraq as a general, Unalaq baited a reaction that destroyed the forest and disturbed the spirits enough to retaliate against the citizens of the Northern Water Tribe and then stepped in to save the day. Because of Tonraq’s actions, he was banished from the North and sent to live in the Southern Water Tribe. Unalaq’s goal in becoming chief was motivated by his desire to open spirit portals in the North and the South that would allow humans and spirits to coexist. He also planned to release Vaatu, an evil spirit and merge with him to become the Dark Avatar. By the time Korra realizes the truth and Unalaq’s ill-willed intentions, it is too late. To complicate manners, Unalaq commands Northern soldiers to occupy the Southern tribe to protect the portal.

The Southern Water Tribe becomes irritated by the soldiers and eventually leads to escalating tensions and civil war. The North and South’s relationship quickly exasperate because of their historical tension. The Southern Water Tribe since the last series was drastically more underdeveloped than its Northern counterpart. These conditions created a feeling of elitism among the North and, in turn, resentment in the South. This particular season explores how victors shape history and revise it to their benefit, a practice of historical revisionism. As Barbara Krasner explores in her book, “Historical Revisionism,” changing history can be beneficial if there is new evidence of history discovered but also dangerous if it reverses or intentionally manipulates moral judgments.

Unalaq uses historical revisionism to hold his power without regard for his tribe or family. His omission of the truth allows control of the narrative and illustrates military occupation as saviorism while fracturing delicate and complex relationships. After defeating Unalaq and Vaatu, Korra declares that the best way to dissolve tensions is by granting the Water Tribes’ independence from each other. In today’s politics, this issue is similar to that of how America’s history over the civil war varies by a state’s textbooks.

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Members of the Red Lotus Zaheer, P’Li and Ming-Hua break into Ba Sing Se. Nickelodeon.

Anarchism

The third season explores the anarchist movement known as the Red Lotus. The group formed out of a faction of the original White Lotus introduced in the first series. While the White Lotus valued protecting and spreading sacred knowledge and art in secrecy across all nations in an era of war, the Red Lotus had a different vision. The Red Lotus sought to unite the spirit and human worlds and eliminate governments, nations, borders and world leaders, including the Avatar. With the spirit and human world merged after Unalaq’s actions, they focused on trying to rid society of governments and world leaders.

These beliefs are foundations in anarchism that reject the authority of institutions, viewing them as harmful and useless. Members of the Red Lotus Zaheer, P’Li, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua attempted to kidnap and murder Korra when she was a child, but they failed, which lead to their imprisonment for 13 years. After the spirits and human worlds are united, a wave of new energy altered the world’s balance, granting ordinary citizens the ability to airbend. Among them was Zaheer, who used his newfound skills to escape and free the other Red Lotus prisoners and they orchestrated a plan to start killing nation leaders and Korra. They successfully overthrew the Earth kingdom’s city, Ba Sing Se, after killing its queen. The Earth Kingdom functioned as a monarchy that left many of Bang Sing Se’s citizens in immense poverty.

When the Red Lotus assassinated the queen and overthrew the kingdom, the poor took to the streets ransacking the queen’s castle and the wealthy homes in their vicinity. It also led to a surge in crime by bandits for years to come. The series does an excellent job illustrating the chaos of a sudden shift from an established system of governance to one of no direction but fails to develop the full ideology of anarchy that is reduced to mere disorder. Anarchist movements typically have educational pillars that involve developing class consciousness to help transition from the old systems of governance. This season implies that political ideologies cannot suddenly and successfully be embraced in conditions of mass inequality because other forces that are next in line for power prevail instead. It may have had a different outcome if the anarchist movement held more validity but the series didn’t offer it.

Korra and her friends eventually thwart the Red Lotus’ plan, but the impact of chaos in Ba Sing Se drives the city into economic despair for years to come. The sudden change of disorder creates a power vacuum where any actors can capture society and veer it in their direction. In the case of “The Legend of Korra,” it’s the military who seizes control. An example of a power vacuum left by sudden transitions of governance was in Sudan, where the military took power after the events of the president’s removal.

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Kuvira challenges Korra to a match in front of the Earth Kingdom Army. Nickelodeon.

Fascism

The last season takes place three years after the defeat of the Red Lotus. The result of the murder of the queen left the Earth kingdom in disarray with a high crime rate of bandits battling citizens for resources. In response to the bandits, a new and prominent military leader, Kuvira, has risen in the ranks and deemed the “great uniter.” Although it first seems that she is helping to rebuild the Earth Kingdom, it becomes clear that she and her army aren’t giving the Earth Kingdom cities a chance of autonomy. Her rule pressures its citizens to pledge their loyalty or suffer at the hands of bandits without the military’s support.

Kuvira’s rule draws comparisons to the Nazis and their use of power. She puts her oppostion and people who are not ethnically part of the Earth Kingdom in concentration camps. She also obsesses over stabilizing a dangerous weapon that has the potential to level a whole city, with indications of interest for nuclear weapons. These ideas are part of world history and can only be described as fascism, the belief that national identity is individual identity and should be free of any foreign influence. Kuvira’s vision for the Earth Kingdom is a puritanical one, where if others don’t fit within her vision, they become the enemy.

Kuvira was initially tasked with reuniting the Earth Kingdom and eliminating bandits while a new Prince named Wu took over. Although he lacks leadership experience, he was next in the Earth Kingdom dynasty. When the time comes for Wu to take his place as King, Kuvira withdraws her support and offers herself as the future leadership of the Earth Kingdom. With the military’s support, Wu’s campaign for king collapses and Kurvira rules over the Earth Kingdom. Kuvira’s vision of unity for the Earth Kingdom quickly becomes a power grab that extends to sovereign land, including the autonomous region of Republic City.

She reasons that before the establishment of Republic City, the land was taken from the Earth Kingdom and colonized by the Fire Nation; therefore, it’s still Earth Kingdom territory. Kuvira is defeated by Korra and her team, resulting in Wu abdicating the throne and abolishing the monarchy in the Earth Kingdom. Wu hopes to follow in the steps of Republic City by seeing the city democratically elect its leaders. Kuvira’s rule in this season is strikingly similar to the Fire Nation’s dominion of the first series. Kuvira and the Fire Nation argue their leadership is required to improve people’s lives but swiftly turns into ruling every other nation with an iron fist.

In truth, it limits the other nations’ alternatives for survival and sustainability. Here, history begins to repeat itself, but this time its the Earth Kingdom embracing fascism. It is a wonderful place for the series to end as it reminds audiences of the cyclical nature of history and what type of leadership to be cautious of, especially when it’s looking to set the world stage. Some of the movements around the world are reflecting these very tendencies. It serves as a reminder that ideologies may falter but never fully fade away.

All four seasons have conflicts stemming from years of tension that suddenly collapse, leaving the consequences to be shouldered by the citizens of the present. These collapses may seem sudden, but in reality, they have been years in the making. Each series continues to be relevant because we are presently living through historical tensions that feel on the verge of collapse. In a matter of months, issues of police, healthcare, social security programs, and race have come to the forefront. Although these realizations seem sudden, they have long histories that were years in the making, just like the tensions in the series. The questions for us then begin with: how do we move forward to avoid similar future collapses? Is it possible? If our current system has a history of consistent failures, does that mean that it will always fail until it’s replaced? Can it only be mended until it’s eventual collapse? Team Avatar might not have the answers, but they’d still try to figure it out, a vital lesson worth noting.

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