It’s been almost a week since the end of The Legend of Korra, and its still making headlines for practically one reason: the implications of the last few seconds of the series finale. So, let’s talk about that ending. Spoilers ahead for The Legend of Korra Book 4 finale.
After Kuvira’s defeat, Zhu Li and Varrick get married. As the guests enjoy the party, Korra has a moment with Mako and Tenzin, who reminder she’ll never be alone and confirm her accomplishments, respectively. She then shares a moment with Asami, who tells her that she needs a break. Korra suggests they do something together, and Asami proposes they go to the Spirit World. They go into the portal, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes.
While the ending is somewhat ambiguous and ultimately left to the viewer’s interpretation, the wink to the audience is clear; the internet went abuzz with reviews elating in the pairing becoming canon, and people – sometimes rather aggressively – accusing fellow viewers of being homophobic or deluded if they use the leeway afforded to them to reject or simply question the romantic angle.
I find this situation problematic for several reasons, not least because reviewing the overall quality of the writing, animation, character development and world-building of The Legend of Korra is being widely reduced to how subversive the final few seconds of the finale are. I’ve wrestled with the idea of writing this post for a while myself, unsure whether I should contribute to diverting attention away from the rest of the otherwise brilliant finale. After a bit of soul-searching – and I do not use this term lightly – I decided that I should still write all this, because I want to support the people who feel that they have to defend their reasons for questioning why the finale ended the way it did.
Now I know that both Konietzko and DiMartino have since confirmed that the intention was to show us the development of a romantic couple coming together. I do feel, however, that there are still very valid reasons to feel uncomfortable with the romantic implications of the ending, especially its execution.
The main problem with the romance is that there is no real build-up leading to the moment outside those final seconds of the episode. There could have been the odd subtle hint, but they tended to be ambiguous at best outside the bowels of the internet, where the most hardcore of fans went wild with “Korrasami” (amongst others), fan-fiction and head-canons.
So here’s what has been building up between Korra and Asami during the course of Books 1 through 4. When Korra arrives in Republic City, she is immediately smitten with Mako and competes with Asami for his affections and eventually succeeds. While she is initially resentful towards Asami, they bond over the exhilaration of race car driving. Meanwhile, when she learns that Hiroshi is an Equalist, Asami turns against her father because he has perverted the love of his mother into a hatred for benders. In Book 4 we learn that she doesn’t speak to him for years after the Equalists’ defeat, despite him writing letters to her. When it comes to her relationship with Mako, she rightly blames him for his indecision.
In Book 2 Korra goes off to deal with the civil war between the Water Tribes and learn about spirits from her uncle. She becomes amnesiac after a spirit attack and forgets she broke up with Mako. After she remembers, she ends her relationship with him for good. Asami – remaining in Republic City – struggles to keep her company afloat after its association with the Equalists and Varrick’s machinations. She admits to Mako, “I need your help. My mum is gone. My dad is in jail. Future Industries is all I have left of my family”, and in a moment of desperation and comfort from him, resumes their relationship. At some point after an awkward public show of affection by Korra during her amnesiac stage, she breaks up with Mako again. By the end of the Book, her interactions with Korra remain minimal, although they are presumably on good terms.
They are brought closer together in A Breath of Fresh Air, Korra admitting to Asami that she has “never had a girl friend to hang out with and talk to before, except for Naga.” It’s no wonder she latches onto Asami as a friend with that much of a sheltered upbringing. While they laugh at Mako’s understandable awkwardness around them and go on adventures together against bandits and the desert, their friendship remains static until the end of Book 3.
In between that and the beginning of Book 4, we’re shown that Korra goes through the most traumatic period of her life and has an identity crisis. She retains at least one link to her old life through limited communication with Asami. After they do reunite along with the rest of Team Avatar, they don’t interact much again for the final battle, with the exception of sharing some time beforehand in Remembrances. By the end of The Last Stand, Korra has undergone a final test by facing a mirror of herself, realising what she could have become had she wanted to use her power to be in control and never feel vulnerable again. Asami reconnects with her father, only for him to sacrifice himself for her and the greater good in fighting Kuvira; after all that, she just wants a break.
The overall inherent romantic trajectory of their relationship, however, just isn’t there. What we do have for sure is two romantic rivals remaining amicable allies, putting aside their differences and forgoing romance altogether, embracing each other as friends, if not sisters. Facing adversity together can create a deep but platonic camaraderie, much like soldiers gone to battle together and suffering similar emotional scars (something J.R.R. Tolkien experienced and which he used to base the relationship between Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings). It does not necessarily preclude something beginning at the end of the series, but expecting viewers to view a romantic connection as the only logical and organic conclusion is a bit of a stretch given what we are given in the series itself. There’s a step missing somewhere, perhaps because there isn’t really any development of the anticipation, sacrifice, understanding, acceptance and promises a couple show when coming together. The bond Korra and Asami share ultimately isn’t that different from the bond the rest of Team Avatar and their allies share. The foundations the romantic moment is supposedly based on are thus virtually non-existent on screen – unless you already look very hard for them and analyse subtle hints which could go either way – which is why the romantic ending could genuinely feel like a shoehorned in deus ex machina.
“What about the hints, the subtle signs of romance?”, I hear you ask. Well, firstly, the so-called signs do require a bit of over-analysing and depend on forgetting two basic tenants: that a deep platonic friendship can be expressed through affectionate gestures and that female interaction does tend to be more intimate than its male counterpart. Secondly, the hints are ambiguous at best and hardly inherently romantic. Helping Korra with the final details of her formal dress and holding her hands in support when she can barely get out of wheelchair isn’t necessarily romantic. Korra’s choice of Asami for her few letters – going by the dialogue, probably just one – isn’t that monumental when you consider any remaining awkwardness with Mako; Bolin’s business with cleaning up the Earth Kingdom (and, Korra could presume, Opal); leaving only Asami as the remaining female candidate with whom she bonded a little at the start of Book 3 and whose recent struggles with her father’s legacy could help her understand Korra’s existential crisis the most. Asami complimenting Korra’s hair and her subsequent blush isn’t necessarily something that romantic when it’s one of the most gorgeous women she knows making the compliment. Korra’s comical struggle with powdering her nose in The Aftermath does indicate that she doesn’t seem to fuss about her appearance, so a compliment like that is something blush-worthy, regardless of sexual orientation. Katara did the very same thing in the original series when Haru’s father complemented her bravery and courage in The Day of Black Sun and Zuko also blushed when Toph latched onto his arm.
This brings me to the parallels in those last minutes to the ending of Avatar. While they are obvious and are ultimately intended to push you towards seeing a romance, they end up feeling superficial for me and do more to expose the stark contrast between the two series’ plotting. Aang’s attraction to Katara is obvious from the beginning of the first Book of Avatar, and remains a running thread throughout the series, always remaining in the background and sometimes coming to the fore. Characters talk about it on screen from time to time, sometimes even playfully winking at other characters (and the audience) for other potential love interests for the pair (like Toph’s “I knew it! You did have a secret thing with Haru!”); at the end of Book 2, Aang’s attachment to Katara seemingly keeps him from achieving fulfillment as the Avatar (at the cost of Ba Sing Se), and so on. The later formation of the relationship is not based on sporadic and ambiguous or subtle hints alone.
Another difference from the ending of the original series is the development of the characters who have earned their place there in the final shot/s or otherwise. We see Aang and Katara be equally present and grow together, whereas The Legend of Korra is more solely about Korra’s development into a fully realised Avatar. Korra’s sexuality is only one part of her being, so it’s understandable that it isn’t explored along with the grander exploration of her identity as the Avatar. Then why imply a new romance at all for her if there simply isn’t enough space to explore its foundations, especially after two Books already of doing the former? It doesn’t help that Asami is probably the most undeveloped ‘leading’ character in Korra. After serving as a romantic rival, her Book 2 problems with the company seemingly disappear in Book 3, in which she becomes increasingly relegated to the background. She is even sidelined in Book 4 itself, only gaining momentum – but not character development – in the finale. Something about how we’re supposed to believe that Korra and Asami have been coming together romantically all this time therefore just feels off. To bring up something so underdeveloped as a romantic connection between the two to the fore in the last crucial moments of The Last Stand just makes the episode feel unsatisfying as a series finale. This is especially the case when it comes at the cost of a final hurrah for Team Avatar as a whole as there is in the original series. I find it somewhat insulting that there is no proper closure for Bolin, for instance, the first proper friend Korra makes in Republic City and whose growth and maturity throughout the series is arguably second only to hers.
Could we blame the more plot-driven nature of Korra and for sloppy storytelling when it comes to character relationships? Possibly. How about the fact that the first Book was supposed to end the series and subsequent Books weren’t ordered in advance? Possibly. What about the censorship currently inherent in children’s programming? Probably. The final story presented, however, is what it is. If it takes the series creators’ confirmation to explain character-driven things to viewers who drew up different conclusions and disrespecting others who don’t pick up on it, then there’s something off about the storytelling. Kudos to people who saw the supposed signs, but I currently remain unconvinced that I was supposed to be led by the story to the romantic end-point rather than somewhere else by the form the journey was taking.
A Boon or Curse for Representation?
Storytelling aside, the choice of pairing both Korra and Asami together, while great on paper, does have some ultimately negative implications for LGBT representation as well. While they are, of course, the two main female leads (although I have to use that term for Asami somewhat loosely) in Team Avatar, the fact is that Korra and Asami are exceptional characters with non-conforming traits and situations. Korra is a strong, athletic and tomboyish girl of colour. Asami’s beauty is more conventional, but she is also an entrepreneur whose large and successful company is seen reaching out to women to enter the workforce. By making them bisexual and the flag-holders of the LGBT community, LGBT traits themselves are being unwittingly presented as the hallmark of people out of the ordinary.
The romantic pairing also has the unfortunate – and probably unintentional – effect of reinforcing stereotypes often associated with women with traditionally ‘male’ attributes. A strong tomboyish woman who goes to the gym? Must be lesbian. A successful business woman who puts her career first and doesn’t show an overt interest in relationships with men? She has to be a lesbian too, of course. I’ve already talked to fans of the former type who, unfortunately, feel that their representation in a main character has now been irreparably damaged, if not outright taken away from them. (I unfortunately have yet to meet a female captain of industry who’s a Korra fan, but I’d be happy to share their opinions on the matter if I ever do.)
Sidelining a Different Type of Female Role Model
In fact, I would argue that the romantic interpretation of the ending robs girls and women in general of two potentially good role models. Korra certainly doesn’t lack a number of strong female characters; the only problem is that their relationships tend to be conditional on elements other than friendship and kinship. Lin and Suyin are connected by blood, which sets the stage for their will to come together despite their turbulent relationship in the past. Zhu Li’s relationship is defined by her – at first possibly unrequited – love for Varrick.
Now that I mention Zhu Li, she is the one whose endgame was somehow properly built up during the course of a single Book. She remains a quasi-silent (asexual?) assistant in Books 2 and 3, and it’s not until Book 4 that we see her potential romantic interest in her employer. She is shown as clearly disappointed by Varrick’s physical gestures of interest never hitting the mark and his reverting to form. When she turns against him to seemingly work for Kuvira, her subsequent admission that it is a lie to save him and halt her plans make sense, although she makes it clear does not want to remain just his assistant. While he initially shrugs it off, we see Varrick constantly referring to Zhu Li before their reunion and how he needs her, which – coupled with, by his own admission, a burgeoning conscience – makes his eventual marriage proposal in the face of certain death and/or an uncertain future feel like a more organic development.
Korra and Asami, on the other hand, have the potential to be role models for something that works on another level entirely. It’s a lost opportunity not to have a compelling message conveyed by two women, previously competing for the affection of the same person, coming to share a deep understanding of each other and camaraderie through shared experiences. It has become a much rarer sight than the alternative of promoting female relationships based solely on romantic feelings – and, ultimately, sexual attraction – or existing familial ties.
First of all, I can’t but commend the series creators for wanting to get a positive message across for LGBT representation. The fact that we’re having this discussion at all on a Nickeledoen series says much about its standing above the rest of today’s programming. I do have to again iterate that it is, however, also a shame that most of the good points of the series and its finale have been overshadowed by one argument, boiling down The Legend of Korra to simply “that Nick series that implied a lesbian relationship”.
If you want to stick to the romantic implications of the ending because you feel represented, that’s absolutely fine. If Korra and Asami can be happy together in that sense, they deserve that happy ending. One should, however, appreciate that other viewers have just as much a valid reason to think otherwise and that they are given some space – unintentionally or otherwise – to come to their own conclusions.
Now why would I want to view the ending as platonic? The answer is a rather simple one: the series itself has failed to make me believe anything else. It’s not that I don’t outright want to believe the romantic implications of the ending. Having LGBT characters is fine. Poor storytelling, however, is not. As one reviewer put it, it feels like “a gimmick for a good cause”, but a gimmick nonetheless. It also has to be said that some could also not be entirely comfortable with what the “Korrasami” relationship in particular ultimately implies for female LGBT representation and women in general, and that’s a shame.
For something that has become a true storytelling experience as the franchise has, I would have preferred something to have been done right or not at all. I can only offer this critique because I do care. I know that Konietzko and DiMartino can balance between excellent storytelling, character, prevalent themes and positive messages – and admit to and learn from past missteps – without going all ‘Greenpeace on the Nazca Lines’. In the end, the original Avatar just did things better, and it makes me sad to think that viewers can be reminded of that in the last few seconds of Korra when it had just come close to reaching that golden standard.
PS: I do intend to have an Avatar and Korra rewatch eventually, after a sufficient cooling-off period. Maybe the series will manage to convince me on a second or third viewing (although I still think it shouldn’t come to that in the first place).
- ‘The Legend of Korra’ Series Finale Is Revolutionary, But At A Cost (popinsomaniacs.com)
- Korra Episode Review – K413 The Last Stand (avatarthelastairbenderonline.com)
- The Legend of Korra Seeason Finale: Three Reasons it Didn’t Work (arknovel.blogspot.com)
- The Legend of Korra Series Finale Review – Korrasami vs The Frozen Effect (youtube.com)
- Unrepentant Geeking: Korra Farewell (channelawesome.com)