Critical Examination: Zuko Alone vs. Korra Alone

Let’s talk about something that I guarantee you almost none of you have thought about in a long time.  I had a conversation with someone tonight where I laid out what my issues were with Legend of Korra.  That was a series that had two absolutely-superb seasons (1 and 3), one mediocre season (4), and one downright awful season (2).  It was a series that had something of an identity crisis, but when it finally figured out what it wanted to be for long enough, it gave us one of the most mature kid’s series ever made.  If only it didn’t have such a crash and burn at the finish line, it might have been more memorable.  There is one example of the series identity crisis that truly shows off why Legend of Korra didn’t work for two seasons – the episode “Korra Alone.”

A riff on the episode from the original series, “Zuko Alone,” this episode tried to recapture the magic that that episode had, all the while not remembering what made that episode so good.  I thought I would do a compare and contrast to show where Korra went wrong and how it could have been done so much better.  Let’s talk about the original first.

Zuko Alone

In this episode, we see our favorite villain by himself.  He left Iroh because he now felt that there is nothing left for him.  He struck out on his own and trying to figure out who he is.  Now that he knows for a fact that his father is trying to kill him, the prince feels very lost and alone.  While there is stuff that happens in this episode and it has a complete arc, it isn’t so much about the plot as what is happening in the mind of Zuko.

Between the instances of things happening to him, we see flashbacks to his earlier life, when he was living with his family in the Fire Nation capital.  We get to see his mother, who we find out that he was incredibly close to.  We also get to see his crush on May, and his tumultuous relationship with his sister, who was very open about not liking him.  Life was good, and we also get to see messages from his uncle Iroh talking about the siege of Ba Sing Se that eventually took the life of his son.

Meanwhile, in the present, he comes across a run down village in the Earth Kingdom.  He’s just trying to pass through, when he runs afoul of a kid being accosted by some Earth Kingdom soldiers who are using their power over the people in that village.  Beating them down with ease, Zuko is invited by the kid he rescued to stay with his family as a reward for helping him.  While he is wary about doing so, he takes the kid up on his offer.  There, he meets the kind family and trades helping them with being fed and given provisions.  There is a scene where he bonds with the child he saved after the kid steals his dual-swords.  You can see that, as lost as Zuko is, he is finding ways to bond with people who he felt no kinship with up to this point.

As things are getting settled in the real world, the flashbacks show Zuko angering the Fire Lord when his display of firebending is unimpressive and he has to get comforted by his mother.  The Firelord is displeased, and it is clear that something bad is happening.  Meanwhile, he also finds out that Iroh’s son died in the siege, which has ended in failure.  Azula hints to Zuko that the Firelord is going to do something bad to him, but he covers that by saying that Azula always lies.

The soldiers come to the farm that Zuko has been hiding out at and the leader tells the father that their son’s unit was captured, and he is likely dead or going to be put out on the front lines as a way to protect the Fire Nation troops from Earth Kingdom attack.  The father, desperate, says that he will go and find his son and bring him him home.  Zuko, feeling somewhat responsible for what happened, is distraught.  Just as he is about to leave, the mother approaches him and says that the troops have taken their youngest child and are going to send him to fight unless Zuko faces them.  He agrees to help, heading in to town.

This is where all the mental anguish that Zuko is feeling comes to a head.  As he faces down the troops, he takes out the bulk of them with ease.  Then there is the commander, who has some earthbending talent.  Since he is trying to hide who he is, he doesn’t use firebending.  All he has is his swords, and that alone isn’t enough to stop the commander.  A smash to the skull sends him down, which leads him to remember his mother waking him in the middle of the night, telling him that he must never forget who he is.  In that moment, emboldened, he uses firebending and drops the enemy commander in seconds.  He sheathes his blades, letting the people in that village know who he is, because he has made peace with it.  The episode ends with him leaving, still alone, but at peace with what he has become and who he is.

The entirety of this episode was about Zuko’s mental state.  It was perfectly paced, showing the progression of his mental state, from being walled off and in denial, to gaining strength from remembering who he is and coming to peace with who he has become.  Simple, clean, and got the job done perfectly.  If only the other series didn’t have that problem.

Korra Alone

At the end of the previous episode, I was drooling, because I thought that this series was about to go to a whole new level of dark.  We see Korra in an underground arena unlike any we have seen.  Here, there is a bending match, but it isn’t like any we have seen.  Here, benders are fighting for real.  It’s an underground fighting pit, and Korra is getting the shit beaten out of her.  What an awesome way to get inside her head!  It’s perfect!  I can’t wait to see what happens next!  The rest of the gang has heard that she has been gone from the Water Tribe for months, so has she been in that place for that long?  Has she been living alone, fighting out her personal demons in a bending fighting arena?!  The possibilities for character growth are unlimited!

Oh, wait, she was only there for a day.  That’s right, the episode starts with seeing Korra leaving the Water Tribe, and going all over the world, trying to talk to various people and get some form of enlightenment from other cultures.  The end of the battle with Zaheer has scarred her, and she doesn’t have the drive that she did before.  She stared death in the face, become an vengeful beast, and then lost the use of her legs for months.  Alright, we got ourselves some good mental conflict.  Visiting other communities doesn’t work, so she decides to return to Republic City and find comfort in her friends.  She gets there, but doesn’t have the will to face them.  Instead, she goes into the city, and she finds out about a special bending competition there.

Which brings us to the part that was the biggest let-down of the entire series.  We see Korra indeed in that arena, trying to excise the demons inside of her by brute force.  All the narrative potential there is beyond words.  But, just as she is finishing her first and only match where she gets the shit kicked out of her, a plot device leads her away to find Toph for plot reasons.  Groj-dammit!

The entire episode then has plot shit, because this entire season has plot shit.  There isn’t a single drop of character development in the whole fucking thing!  I mean, who awesome would it have been if she had been in that pit for months?  Maybe show her body becoming more and more broken as the fights go on, with her viewing getting the shit kicked out of her as justified punishment for her own weakness.  Wouldn’t that be awesome?!  A physical indicator of her mental pain.  I get that they can’t do much blood in a kid’s series, but you can still show bruises and signs of her pain.  Have her in some run-down apartment, by herself, with only her demons to keep her company. Maybe having hallucinations of her enemies as Amon and Zaheer, the only two villains in the series to actually frighten her.

I even know how they could have perfectly ended the episode – by helping fix another plot-hole in the season.  This season is infamous for having a big plot change that has a lot of people all worked up, on both sides.  I hate it, but only because I don’t feel like it developed naturally.  It feels like it was just thrown in there because.  I am, of course, talking about the relationship between Korra and Asami.  An episode like the one I described could EASILY have laid the ground-work for the two of them getting close.  Like have Asami be given a tip by someone, maybe a person who cares for Korra and is tired of watching her nearly killing herself to excise her pain, that she is in the arena.  Then she drops by and sees Korra in the ring, barely able to keep going.  Have her take a particularly brutal blow, with Asami screaming out and jumping inside.  She runs in and goes over to the fallen Avatar, holding her brutalized body and crying.  Much like how Katara had held Aang at his worst.  In that moment, Korra realizes that she’s been trying to deal with all of this alone, when the thing she needed is right here.  It could be a beautiful bonding moment, either as a the pretext to romance or just as friends.  Either works.

Part of me thinks that that was the original idea for this episode, with the plot stuff coming later.  But Nickelodeon caught wind of it and put the kaboshes on it.  After all, how would that look, to have a female character getting the shit kicked out of her in a fighting pit?  Yeah, that’s some dark shit.  But that’s why I loved it so much!  This was a series that had gone WAY past what other kid’s shows had done!  It had someone’s head exploding!  In the previous season, one of the villains has her head trapped inside a metal space with an explosion.  That head is gone.  How can a show that blows someone’s head off suddenly back down from being willing to go to that length?  We will never know.

In the end, the episode has Korra dealing with inner pain for five minutes, before having to get back to the plot.  This was the problem with the previous season, which could easily have been remedied if they didn’t have to be 13 episodes long.  Frustrating.

In the end, both episodes have their merits, but in execution, one is flawless and the other is a disorganized mess.  That’s a good analogy for both series, one is flawless, the other is a disorganized mess with occasional moments of absolute brilliance.

Until next time, a quote,

“My name is Zuko!  Son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai!  Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne!” – Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Peace out,

Maverick

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