When Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino first announced Legend of Korra—a sequel series set 70 or so years after the events of their beloved original show—they certainly were subjected to no shortage of high expectations. And despite a few bumps in the road here and there, Legend of Korra more than met these expectations, crafting a relentlessly engaging series of stories that married the whimsy and imagination of Hayao Miyazaki with the kind of complex political intrigue one might find in a typical episode of Game of Thrones. Moreover, the show also gave us an incredible female protagonist in the form of its titular character—a kickass teenage girl who must save the world, all the while going through that all-too-familiar adolescent journey to discover her own inner self.
Originally slated as a 12-episode miniseries, Korra’s reception garnered it an additional three more seasons. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and last Friday marked the conclusion of Legend of Korra’s fourth and final year. In celebration of this all too underrated masterpiece of television, here is a very subjective list of the best the show had to offer. ?
“When Extremes Meet” may not be the most sophisticated of Korra stories, nor is it the most action-packed. What it does represent—for me, at least—is the moment the show properly clicked into place. After the first half of the season was spent mostly focused on the team’s pro-bending sports career, and the soap-opera-worthy love (rectangle?) between Korra, Mako, Asami and Bolin, this episode really dives into the meat of the central story as well as the political complications it brings about. Naturally, in a world divided into those with powers and those without, the benders run the risk of using their abilities to rule over the non-benders. When the not-so-benevolent Tarrlok ends up ordering the arrest of a group of non-bending protestors, Korra finds herself in the middle of a delicate situation. While they certainly must sniff out potential threats to the government, where does one step over the line into civil rights violations? Add in the revelation that Tarrlok has mastered the seemingly illegal skill of blood-bending, and the whole episode presents one hell of a curve in the direction of the show.
Out of the first three Korra season finales, “Darkness Falls/Light in the Dark” stands as, by far, the most problematic. But, dear God, if it isn’t ambitious. After the season’s (quite dull) villain Unalaq ends up melding with the evil spirit Vaatu to become a Dark Avatar, all hope seems to be lost. Not only that, the leveled-up antagonist manages to almost completely demolish the good spirit Raava, thus severing Korra’s connection with past Avatars. In response, Korra harnesses some major internal mumbo-jumbo, and grows into a giant, blue version of herself. Yes, the amount of deus ex machina in this story is utterly absurd—even by Korra standards. Yet, between boasting some of the most jaw-dropping, creative animation of the series, and ending the wobbly Season Two on a truly epic note, this two-parter more than earns a spot on the list.
An episode primarily focused on the steely, no-nonsense Lin was no doubt always in the cards, especially given that she was the daughter of Last Airbender’s de facto Earth Master Toph. In the third season, the show finally decided to prod this well of familial discord, and ended up striking storytelling gold in the process. During an intense acupuncture session, Lin begins having flashbacks to the events that led to her estrangement from her sister, Suyin. What could very well have been a saccharine tangent from the main story instead becomes, in the hands of the Korra writers, a poignant and utterly relatable tale about the complexities of family.
The final stretch of episodes in Season Three marks some of the absolute best that Legend of Korra has to offer. In the arc of the show, “Ultimatum” serves as the stepping stone installment for the season finale. That being said, it’s a breathlessly paced, exhilarating entry all on its own. For one, there’s the titular ultimatum—Korra must decide whether to give herself up to the Red Lotus (a group of newly minted benders determined to overthrow the government), or risk the destruction of the Air Bender nation by refusing to comply. On one hand, of course Korra should do everything to protect the air benders; on a big picture level, however, there’s no telling what unforeseen damage the loss of the Avatar could have on society. Such complex dilemmas helped to both define Korra, as well as help distinguish it from the much more simplistic morality of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not to mention, the episode features a phenomenal aerial battle between Korra’s master Tenzin and Zaheer, leader of the Red Lotus.
Like “Ultimatum,” “A New Spiritual Age” is a late-in-the-season entry that really works to raise the stakes before the season finale. More importantly, it boasts the return of a beloved character—Iroh, from Avatar: The Last Airbender. His presence comes about after Korra tries to navigate the spirit world with the help of Jinora, Tenzin’s daughter. The chaos of this magical realm quickly separates the two, and Korra, overwhelmed and lost, reverts to the form of her four year-old self. She’s promptly rescued by Iroh, who teaches her how to best navigate her surroundings. This poignant encounter soon gives way to tragedy, as Unalaq makes an unexpected attack. Even this dark ending, however, does little to diminish the sheer wonder and excitement of what came before it.
As I mentioned in the intro, Nickelodeon originally commissioned Korra as a 12-episode miniseries. This background info certainly makes sense when viewing the inaugural year’s last installment. Certainly, there’s a sense of finality to the whole proceeding—as if the writers suspected this might be the one chance they had to tell this story, and wanted to get in as much as possible. Shockingly, the episode never ends up feeling cluttered; every character is given their proper moment, and the story plays out with the heightened, epic feel that any great finale should have. The only ding I have against this episode comes at the very end, when a (take a drink) deus ex machina ends up abruptly resolving a major character beat. Other than that, however, this two-parter set a great precedent for finales in the brief history of the series.
Aang returns! After several episodes of witnessing only brief flashes of some kind of trial scene involving an older, bearded Aang, Korra is finally able (through meditation) to view a portion of the previous Avatar’s past—one that seems to hold relevance to her current situation. To be clear, if this episode were merely an excuse to see middle-aged versions of the characters we knew and loved from Last Airbender, it still would be one I loved (hearing that Toph continued to call Aang “twinkle toes” even in old age is a particularly nice touch). When you then include the amount of humor and story-building on display, it becomes something far more substantial than mere fan service.
Many Korra fans will argue that Book Three represented the show at its peak. I’m inclined to agree, especially considering the sheer perfection of this concluding two-parter While not as enigmatic as Season One’s, Amon or as conceptually ambitious as Season Two’s “Dark Avatar,” Zaheer and his Red Lotus team managed to scar Korra in a way that no previous Big Bad had before. For one, not only must Korra face off against Zaheer, a formidable foe in his own right, but she must also do so while a poison slowly eats her away from the inside. It’s an altogether thrilling entry that features some of the most creative, intricate fight scenes in the show’s history. What’s more, in examining Korra’s demeanor after the conflict is resolved, it is also the first episode that truly hints at the inherent trauma that such a brush with death may bring.
Boasting a title that is reminiscent of one of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s finest episodes (“Zuko Alone”), “Korra Alone” had a lot to live up to. Luckily, it more than excelled at demonstrating how beautifully the show could render such an introspective tale. After she was conspicuously missing from the premiere, we finally see what Korra has been doing in the three-year gap between the conclusion of Book Three and the beginning of Book Four. As it turns out, her near-death encounter with Zaheer left her more broken than anyone could have ever imagined. After a physical therapy-type stint at the Water Temple, a frustrated Korra takes off to parts unknown. Haunted by a dark vision of herself with glowing eyes, she begins seeking out highly self-destructive ways to move past her inner pain. In a series filled with shockingly complex storylines, “Korra Alone” is a relatively simple, but all too powerful story about a character’s struggle to overcome her inner demons.
As sad as it is to see Korra leave the air, the show’s two-part series finale is just about the most perfect note to go out on. Not only is it an enthralling hour-long action extravaganza, but it works as a succinct summation of the emotional arc its characters have undergone over the past few years. What really cements its place in the hall of great series finales, however, is the show’s final act, which beautifully subverts the pat “romantic pairing” resolution in favor of servicing a more unorthodox relationship that has been subtly developing right under audiences’ noses. Not only did these last moments work as the last bold statement on Korra’s feminist leanings, but it no doubt made quite a few people on Tumblr squeal with delight.
On one hand, it feels somewhat inappropriate to place “Beginnings” in the top spot, considering it’s an episode that pushes all the major characters to the side in order to tell the story of one we have never met. Revisiting the episode, however, it becomes abundantly clear why this remains a shining high point in the series’ run. Not only does it boast an epic exploration into the mythology of the Airbender universe—as well as perhaps the most brilliant use of animation in the show’s history—but it’s just an overall moving and entertaining hour of television. The story begins with Korra in recovery, after being tossed overboard during a fight. A nearby tribe nurses her back to health and promptly discovers that she’s lost her memory. They subsequently lower her into spirit waters where she must then connect to the memories of past Avatars. From here, we are given the origin story of the very first Avatar—Wan (voiced with an ample mix of playful immaturity and commanding authority by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun). After being banished to live in a deadly forest for the crime of abusing his bending powers, Wan develops a close relationship with the spirits that inhabit the area. Unfortunately, he also interferes in the struggle between light spirit Raava and dark spirit Vaatu, thus allowing the evil Vaatu to roam free. And so, Wan became the Avatar to restore balance to the world.
In depicting the events of the distant past, the animators made the decision to change up the show’s design, in order to reflect a style that feels equally old-fashioned—less slick and more hand-drawn in a way that’s reminiscent of ukiyo-e artwork. The resulting look is an utter delight for any casual fan of great animation. Furthermore, “Beginnings” saw Book Two moving past the year’s early stumbles in an attempt to explore something bigger and far more intriguing. Even as a two-parter, there’s a lot of ground covered here, but the writers and animation team manage to make everything move along at a brisk clip. Were it not designed as back-story for Legend of Korra, it’s not hard to imagine a world where such a beautiful, imaginative story would have been the basis for a classic bedtime story, passed down from generation to generation.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.