This week, Nickelodeon quietly released the series finale to it’s four-season-long The Legend of Korra with an episode that cemented the show as a game changer in the world of long-form animation.
This article contains spoilers for The Legend of Korra series finale.
The road for Korra had taken a far different path from its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The former show was a massive success for Nickelodeon with its world of citizens that could “bend” the elements to their will. It also touched on many themes at a deeper level than typical children’s animation fare, willing to discuss issues about growing up that resonated not just with its young viewers at the time but older viewers, as well.
When The Legend of Korra was released almost four years after Avatar‘s end, Nickelodeon was seemingly banking on that same magic found in the original. The first season went well, pulling in favorable ratings while touching heavily on adult themes like anarchy and torture (as much as children’s cartoon could, anyway). However, the fans of the original were also more adult and technology had pushed online viewership into the forefront of the entertainment industry. The second season’s cable ratings lagged and the themes grew increasingly apart from Nickelodeon’s channel branding. By the middle of the third season, Nick pulled Korra from its network in favor of an online-only distribution method.
Production work for The Legend of Korra had already been contracted and finished for its planned four-season run. As a result, Nick allowed the show to finish airing the remaining episodes online. While viewing numbers for online streams are rarely reported by studios, Korra maintained a strong fan base and online presence through the shift, filling Ballroom 20 at this year’s San Diego Comic Con.
With its final season, Korra continued to strive for a story that tackled issues beyond those of other cartoons. Subjects such as dictatorships (another in a line of political subjects at the core of the show), self-empowerment, and gender roles all took the spotlight throughout its 13 episodes. One of the major conflicts dealt with Korra’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder after the events that left her poisoned at the end of season three.
Such adult themes aren’t particularly new to animation as a whole. Pixar has showcased themes of love and loss in many of its films, notably the bittersweet introduction in UP. Classic cartoons like The Flinstones were sometimes presented as nothing more than animated versions of the life-action family sitcoms of the time with plots revolving around work life and marriage. However, these were feature films, a medium traditionally able to tackle adult themes in animation, or shows marketed towards adults and families to begin with.
What made The Legend of Korra unique, however, was the method in which it was presented. The Legend of Korra was a weekly children’s show on a cable network aimed at young viewers. With the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon marketed the new series as another potential merchandise powerhouse to fit alongside other children’s shows that the animation giant has made its staple. Though Korra perhaps did not fit alongside Spongebob Squarepants in Nick’s overall branding, it did an incredible amount to take weekly, animated series forward in terms of how stories are presented and, acknowledging what kind of progressive stories viewers are interested in seeing.
The trend towards more mature storytelling has made an impact in several other fields already, from feature films to the written word. In the realm of novels, the new term that has emerged alongside series like Hunger Games and Divergent is “New Adult,” a genre that encompasses books that appeal equally to teens and adults. They often tackle adult subjects like death and politics but in a storytelling style that isn’t too esoteric for teenage readers. For a generation brought up on Harry Potter and Saturday morning cartoons, the movement that bridges the age gap has taken time to infiltrate the cartoons of a broad, U.S. audience.
Taking such philosophical looks at loss, politics, and romance were among the many reasons Korra gained such a devoted following. Even without the full weight of Nickelodeon behind it, the intentionally mature approach to storytelling were among the reasons creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have been making waves among their peers in the animation industry.
“Yes, those have definitely all been conscious examinations of particular political ideologies. We want our villains and antagonists to have distinct motivations. As for pushing a particular, single political agenda, I don’t think we are ever trying to do that within the show,” said Konietzko in an interview with Complex.com when asked about the various political frameworks addressed by the show’s characters.
“Korra and Aang ultimately stand for freedom, equality, and basic human rights, and I think Mike and I are fine with pushing that agenda.”
What resulted was a show that, despite being animated and featuring characters fighting with literal lava, felt authentic and grounded with more than a touch of realism. While the show may have been a cartoon, the characters were far from being one-sided caricatures. Even with the immense power of spirits and past lives on her side, Korra lived in a world with struggles, heartbreak, and consequences that resonated with audiences – and not just the ones bound for school the next day.
With the show coming to a close, the creators then chose one of the most powerful and surprisingly simple scenes that has aired in animated television: they addressed sexuality in a natural, understated way that even live-action series have trouble expressing.
Throughout the show’s lifespan, The Legend of Korra has dealt with romance as one of the underlying themes. It was rarely at the forefront of a plotline, and originally started as a stereotypical melodrama as Korra and Asami each fought for the affections of one of the male leads, Mako. The result ended up being one of the weaker points of the show, with some fans decrying the romance plot as getting in the way of the action-packed and political stories.
When an interview with the Wall Street Journal brought up the question of the romantic plots in late 2013, Konietzcko responded, “[The fans] get completely angry when we have fun with the teen romance stuff. I don’t know. I’m going to leave that alone.”
“Fans are more interested in imagining relationships between a myriad of pairings. But they’re profoundly disinterested in seeing any of those things manifest themselves on the show. So who knows, whatever. Mike and I as writers, we wrote it the way we found it to be entertaining, and that struck a chord with some, but maybe not with some others.”
Whatever their original thoughts on the dating lives of fictional characters, Konietzcko and DiMartino managed to craft a very engaging and extremely subtle build-up over four seasons. Asami and Korra would eventually come to terms with each other despite their mutual feelings for Mako. Then, they would become allies, friends, long-distance pen pals, and eventually end the show by holding each others hands as they stepped alone into another world to end the show.
The idea of a bisexual lead character is unique enough in animation to already be groundbreaking on its own. By letting such a relationship unfold in a natural way that never overtakes other aspects of a story is an altogether new technique to storytelling as a whole.
Too often, characters in media who identify as LGBT are written as a trope in which that is the defining trait of that person. For as much as Will & Grace did to open public consciousness to the idea of gay couples, it also unfortunately had a side effect of putting expectations on what it means to BE gay or lesbian. The “gayness” of modern television characters is often given a large precedence over other aspects of the story or even made into a one-dimensional farce. Even acclaimed series like Scandal sometimes let their characters sexuality overpower plots that have little to do with it otherwise.
For years, members of the Korra fan community have been pairing up characters they feel would be a match (a process known as “shipping”). Perhaps none were more prominent than Korra and Asami, with countless Tumblrs, fanart pieces, and Tweets regarding the potential of the two as a couple.
By waiting until the final moment of the series to affirm any possible love interest between the two, Korra gave us an honest portrayal of how real-world relationships often work. They develop over time, often from unexpected places. Other parts of our lives distract us from going after them. Sometimes, they are even forged only after going through hellish circumstances. And, most importantly, they never make up the whole of our lives. Even when love is on their minds, people still go to work, still enjoy other hobbies, and exist beyond the sole purpose of letting their sexuality or love interest guide their every action.
That such an authentic portrayal of a bisexual relationship came from a cartoon may take some time to sink in within the industry. It was, however, a fabulous start.
The Legend of Korra may never be seen as a financial success in the way Nickelodeon wanted it to be. It didn’t have Avatar‘s merchandising deals or a critically-panned feature film. Among the creators in the television industry, though, Korra should be seen as a benchmark of how great animated storytelling can be when given room to grow. If four seasons showed us anything, it’s that children’s cartoons can be genuinely good without having to rely too heavily on explosions, Valley Girl drama, or schizophrenic attention spans.
In the right hands, cartoons can be real.
Editor’s Note (12/22/14): Since this article was originally written, creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have since confirmed the ending of Korra to be a romantic one. Read their thoughts on their official blogs below: