Whenever someone asks me why I love The Legend of Korra, I tell them, “Because it is a show about big ideas.”
It’s about egalitarianism, terrorism, theocracy, anarchy, freedom, fascism and PTSD just to name a few.
And even though it is allegedly a children’s cartoon, it deals with these themes in a highly sophisticated way.
You see, most great stories, when you get down to the core of what they are saying, operate exactly like essays.
Stop! Don’t freak out! Don’t go anywhere! I know most of you probably have nightmares from school about this word, so let’s define what I’m talking about when I say essay.
For our purposes, an essay is just a piece of writing that argues an idea, proposes a theory. It does this by providing supporting evidence and by discrediting opposing positions.
This is exactly what stories do, and to understand the way Korra does it, we have to understand what the Hegelian Dialectic is.
The whovian dia-what’s-it?
The Hegelian Dialectic
It’s a method of argumentation named after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher from the 19th century.
It’s a way of reaching the truth about a subject by examining both sides of an argument. It does this in three steps.
Thesis: an idea is presented.
Antithesis: the opposite of that idea is presented.
Synthesis: where the tension created by the two ideas leads to a new understanding.
The important part to remember here is that, unlike the essays you probably wrote for school, where you present an idea and the proof behind that idea, in the Hegelian Dialectic, there is a transformation of the original idea.
And that brings us back to The Legend of Korra.
As the Avatar, Korra fights to maintain balance in the world, and each season she is confronted with an antagonist who disrupts this balance, an antagonist who is representative of a particular ideology. In other words, Korra is the thesis in this equation, and the villains represent the antithesis.
The critical part of all of this, however, is that The Legend of Korra makes sure to give each of its villains some sort of ideological merit.
They are not all mustache-twirling villains, like The Fire Lord is in the show’s predecessor series, The Last Airbender (well... Vatu is the literal manifestation of evil, but otherwise, the show remembers the synthesis step).
It synthesizes the good parts of their ideas into the world of the show. When the show ends, benders and non-benders are equals, the spirit world is reconnected to the physical world, hereditary monarchs are going away and there is peace and order. All four villains can claim a victory in this regard. In other words, the world of the story itself…has a character arc.
All of this is pretty explicitly pointed out by Toph in the fourth season of the show, when she and Korra analyze the flaws of each of her former adversaries, which leads the show to its over-arching thesis: that the ends DO NOT justify the means.
Korra and Toph conclude that it wasn’t WHAT they fought for, but HOW they went about getting it — through violence — that was the problem.
It’s this synthesis step that is the most important part of the equation. It makes the drama more interesting and makes the story feel like a truly contested contest of ideas.
Here’s another more personal example that distills all of these ideas into its most potent form. In the final season of the show, Korra is dealing with post-traumatic stress and in this plot line, Korra’s opponent is actually herself, so the show writers manifest all of her fears and anxieties as a shadowy version of herself. Thesis. Antithesis.
At the end of episode two, this shadowy creature pulls her into a hallucinogenic pit of poison. It’s a visual representation of how opposing ideas are in constant collision in this show, constantly blending into one another.
And how does Korra overcome this other version of herself? Well, she has to confront and understand the man who caused this anxiety, Zaheer, and later, do the same with her current antagonist, Kuvira. The idea of learning from those you disagree with is in the very fabric of the show.
So that’s simple enough. The show blends ideas together instead of settling on an easier good versus evil dynamic. But that’s just an overview of the big ideas. It’s the small and specific ways the show handles this that are even more impressive.
Probably the most common piece of writing advice is “Show, don’t tell.” We tend to think of that in terms of world-building and characterization, but it is just as important when it comes to theme.
I've noticed that in a lot of blockbuster movies there’s a tendency to have narration at the end of the film to put a nice little bow on the story so that you know exactly what the message is supposed to be.
This kind of writing is fine in small doses, but runs the risk of being preachy.
Now Korra is not without a few scenes that state the theme explicitly. The Toph scene from earlier is an example of that.
But it’s also brilliant at showing the superiority of one ideology over another through action, ESPECIALLY in the third season finale.
It does this by using poetic justice.
Poetic justice is basically when the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys are punished, but usually, the bad guys are punished in some sort of ironic way. An ironic reversal.
So in season three, Korra is facing off against Zaheer and his small band of skilled benders trying to take down all governments and institutions. In the final two episodes, all four characters are defeated by poetic justice.
The most important characteristic of these three characters are that they are really, really strong. So of course, each of them is defeated when their own power is turned against them. Ironic.
Which is a pretty simple form of poetic justice, but Zaheer’s final defeat is astounding in its multi-layered use of irony. It’s not just one ironic reversal that does him in. It’s five distinct reversals working in harmony.
Let’s take a look:
Zaheer is an airbender, but is defeated by airbending. That’s ironic.
The same event which gave him his power, gave power to the people who beat him. That’s ironic.
Zaheer’s entire philosophy is about the need to disband institutions, but he is defeated by a group of characters just now learning to operate as a cohesive group, instead of by Korra learning another magic power. That’s ironic.
Zaheer’s arc this season is about becoming “unfettered by this world” both metaphorically, by giving up all worldly desires, and literally, by learning to fly. In the end, he is torn out of the sky and arrested. That’s ironic.
He only loses because he chained Korra up. For a guy constantly talking about freedom, he’s guilty of imprisoning a lot of people. When he first escapes, he doesn’t just escape, he locks up his captors. He imprisons Mako and Bolin later on in the season, and only releases them so he can ensnare Korra in a trap.
Both times he fights Korra, he does so while she is in chains. The second time, she uses those chains against him. That’s ironic.
In a single scene, Zaheer’s hopes and dreams are dashed, his ideology is defeated and his hypocritical actions are turned against him. And the show does this without anyone ever having to say something, like this:
“And that’s why you never lead an anarchist revolt.”
The Legend of Korra does not have the same kind of epic sweep that its predecessor series had, nor is its supporting cast as iconic, but it is every bit as great as The Last Airbender, just in a different way. Where that show was more about personal growth, The Legend of Korra highlights themes of global significance.
It’s a show about testing your beliefs against other people and finding common ground, and it handles all of this seamlessly.
It is a show about big ideas.
And that’s why I love it.