The Legend of Korra is back with a vengeance! Thanks to its Netflix release following closely on the heels of its predecessor—Avatar: The Last Airbender—many are making their way through this show for the first time again in years…or even the first time at all! There’s much and more that could be said about the power of this narrative, the value of the healing arc found within its final two seasons, and even the growth of the writers themselves. However, if there’s been one thing that stayed with me all these years, it’s absolutely the brilliant political machinations throughout the series.
This week we are going to relive the top 10 most reasonable situations and deft navigation thereof on the part of the Legend of Korra characters. Today, we’ll dive into #6-10, and then Saturday we’ll discuss the true winners. Be warned: there are full spoilers for all four seasons.
10. Kuvira invades the United Republic to settle a land dispute from 70 years ago
Our favorite Mao-analogue authoritarian is going to come up a lot. Though before we pick apart some of the details of Kuvira’s campaign, I wanted to take a moment to step back and point out that there was a moment in time where Kuvira had it all. She had united the Earth Kingdom after it slid into chaos, she declared herself the Emperor and no one was actively seeking to disrupt it (except possibly Su—more on that later this week), and she was accomplishing her mission of sharing the technology and resources of the richer city states with the rest of the Earth Kingdom while interconnecting it with a railway. Her methods were heinous, and she also accidentally invented the atom bomb on the way, but given her own stated purpose, she could have hung a “mission accomplished” banner over Zaofu.
And then Kuvira decided to invade the United Republic, all while its borders being actively protected by an international coalition, because she disagreed with a decision made 70-years prior to create a new nation out of the former Fire Nation colonies given the residents’ specific way-of-life and evolving needs. In her mind, the colonies should have gone back to the Earth Kingdom (which was attempted, unsuccessfully, at the time), and it was worth an undeniable act of war to remedy this in her mind.
She had it! She got away with becoming the leader of the entire Earth Kingdom! But you know, warped world view and all. Speaking of…
9. Everything surrounding the troops at Zaofu
That’s right, our next item features one of Kuvira’s best tactics: showing up to a peaceful negotiation with her entire army because it’s a way of showing off her fine work. Yes, this was absolutely an attempt to intimidate on her part, and that’s not the main reason this made the list. Really, it’s the show’s entire handling of what Kuvira is setting out to accomplish by uniting the Earth Kingdom, since the dramatic weight of this season centers around how we view Kuvira’s aims in the first place.
Zaofu is a perfect microcosm of this issue; are we supposed to think Suyin is in the right? Does that mean we believe the Earth Kingdom states have a right to self-determination, or are we supposed to agree with Kuvira pointing out that richer states like Zaofu shouldn’t “hold all its resources”. The Governor of Yi flat-out called Kuvira a “conqueror”, so we’re supposed to not want a reunited Earth Kingdom? Or just that the means are the problem because of conscripted labor and power-tactics?
The Zaofu situation only serves to muddy this further, mostly with the aftermath of Suyin’s failed attempt to take out Kuvira. Korra shows up and talks in circles about Suyin violated this “truce” (one does not generally come to peaceful negotiations with an army, Korra), but then asserts how she won’t just let Kuvira “take the city.” Then it devolves into…single combat to decide if Zaofu joins the rest of the Earth Kingdom states Kuvira brought into the fold, with the Avatar fighting to prevent that from happening? Kuvira also demands a surrender after capturing the governor, so who was supposed to accept these terms?
Kuvira vs. Korra was an amazing moment mid-season for Korra’s character arc with Kuvira being her foil. Everything to do with how we got to that moment in Zaofu made no sense, and seemed to hinge on exceedingly specific and unspoken rules of engagement.
8. Raiko won’t commit troops to stop the literal end of the world because the troops will punch the end of the world after it arrives in the United Republic
There’s a lot that’s pretty laughable when it comes to Raiko as a political leader (honorable mention to that time he surrendered his city to Kuvira and even his police chief ignored him), but after typing this out…frankly doesn’t this seem like something that would happen in today’s climate?
Either way, as a refresher, towards the end of Book 2, Unalaq revealed his evil plan of evilness to fuse with the dark spirit Vaatu and become a “Dark Avatar”. This hinged on Vaatu being able to escape a magical tree at a moment where the planets all aligned, which could only be accomplished if two spirit portals were open.
Well, thanks to some shenanigans, Korra was forced to open both portals, but thankfully got herself to Republic City with time to spare to explain the entire situation. What would happen if planets aligned during harmonic convergence and both portals were still open? Probably the end of the world. What is the only way to stop this? Closing the portals. How can the portals be closed if Unalaq is guarding them with the Northern Water Troops? Send other troops.
These exceedingly clear terms are laid out for Raiko. He takes in this information, then decides that no, rather than ensuring the portals get closed and this whole crisis is averted, he wants to keep his troops in Republic City because they’ll have to protect it when the crisis hits. The 100% preventable crisis.
It’s only made more frustrating when Korra and her rag-tag team miss closing the portal by about 2 seconds, so literally one extra soldier would have made the difference. Then again, they chose to go to the Southern Portal to make their move when the northern one was much closer so…negative points all around.
7. The Equalists bomb the city and kick some puppies
This one might be a stretch for the list since Amon and Hiroshi were never formal political leaders. However, they did have a very specific platform-driven revolution based on the oppression of the masses, so I think it’s fair to say they were playing in the political arena to some extent.
The Equalist plot of Book 1 is so incredibly frustrating, since when we first see Republic City, there are clear issues in how benders extort nonbenders, the governmental representation of the council is completely lopsided and out of touch with the modern realities, and there’s even very clear visual representations of police brutality and injustice:
In fact, for the first several episodes, Amon’s stance that benders should have their gifts removed can be read as a sort of disarmament movement more than anything else. It is certainly far from a non-violent revolution, as we see the council members taken out with shock-weapons, but there is also clear danger to nonbenders given the power imbalances of the world and the ways in which is wielded within the city.
Then Amon and Hiroshi take a joy-ride in airships where they drop bombs on the entire city.
There is no explanation, there’s no lip-service to them flying over a bender-heavy neighborhood — nothing. They just want us to know that the Equalists are very, very bad and let’s get rid of any ambiguity this narrative had. Yes, I was just complaining about the writers not seeming to know which side they were on when writing about Kuvira. But dang-it, there was just so much potential in seeing this one out. At least let Asami and Pema talk about their nonbendery feelings with each other! Please?!
6. Prince Wu steps down for democracy!
In some ways, I almost feel bad including this on the list, because it is based on a throw-away line at the end of the entire series. For those who don’t remember, at Varrick’s wedding, Korra and Mako ask Prince Wu if he’s excited to get back to the Earth Kingdom and finally rule because that whole Kuvira-became-the-Emperor thing set him back a few months. Wu instead tells them that he’s going to step down as king and dissolve the monarchy.
“I really think the Earth Kingdom would be better off if the states were independent and had elected leaders, like the United Republic.”
Wait, was this whole reunion campaign completely unnecessary? What about the problems that we just spent a season debating, such as many of the poorer and smaller states being devoid of resources and getting left behind? What about the bandits? Also please tell us what aspect of the United Republic’s democracy is appealing when you’ve got Raiko as the example of elected leadership…the guy who threw the spiritual leader of the world out of the city because vines and who had just surrendered to the Emperor he appointed in the first place to lead the Earth Kingdom’s military. There’s a reason this guy went on to poll in the negatives.
It’s also a really fun situation to rabbit-hole down, even without knowing some of the roadblocks this plan hit in Ruins of the Empire. Does Wu have any family or cousins who would try and declare themselves as the new monarch? Is there anyone Wu needs to run this by like a council of some kind, or even the governors that might not be too keen on hearing their states are suddenly independent? What is the plan to set up free elections overnight? Have the labor camps even been set free yet??
The real question is what Suyin’s polling numbers would look like at this point.
I understand it’s a kid’s show and advocating a new system of representative democracy is a good note to end on. There’s just so many logistical issues that this brings up, not to mention the entire premise of the season being about the needs of the Earth Kingdom, which is about to be no more with Wu’s decision. Though it at least works better than a certain Oligarchical-Appointed Monarchy governmental structure that was proposed in the last five minutes of certain other show.
To Be Continued…
Given the absolute winners on this list, I think it’s clear that The Legend of Korra has some of the best political content across any show. Be sure to check back this Saturday to read about the true cream of the crop!