Since the premiere of the second season of Legend of Korra (Book 2: Spirits), I’ve noticed that a lot of fans are griping every week about Korra: she’s stupid, she’s overly emotional, she’s reactionary. At first I agreed. Why is Korra being so dense? Isn’t it obvious that she’s being manipulated? Is it just heavy-handed storytelling? Then I realized what I think is the source of Korra’s problems—she has no true sense of self. (Spoilers through episodes 7 and 8, “Beginnings”).
Korra’s whole life has been spent being the Avatar. Since at least the age of four, Korra has been able to bend three of the four elements, and has been trained in the physical art of bending until she was a teenager. Compare this to Aang’s experience as Avatar. Even though Aang was only twelve when he was told he was the Avatar, he still has memories of his life at the Air Temple when he was the equal of his peers. Aang’s journey is about him coming to terms with being the Avatar. Korra, on the other hand, has always been the Avatar. She is completely defined by her status as Avatar, a complete reversal of Aang’s story.
Korra’s natural abilities are also the reverse of Aang’s. Aang has always had a strong grasp on the spiritual implications of being Avatar—this is easy for him, because airbending is the most spiritually attuned of the four elements. Airbenders live a life similar to that of a Buddhist monk in a temple. We often see Aang meditating on his own. Clearly, a big part of Aang’s own sense of self is his spirituality. Korra, on the other hand, is an incredibly physical person. She is naturally good at the “physical” sides of bending, naturally picking up water, earth, and fire bending. She only really has trouble with airbending (again, the most spiritual of the four). This season we see that Korra’s primary journey will be focused on learning about the spiritual side of being an Avatar.
Korra’s lack of any real spiritual life, coupled with everyone (including herself) knowing she was the Avatar her whole life, leads me to the conclusion that Korra really doesn’t have any sense of who she is outside of being the Avatar. In the season one finale, we see Korra nearly suicidal after she loses her Avatar bending abilities. Korra is frequently called “the Avatar” by everyone, including her closest friends. Even when Mako breaks up with her in “Peacekeepers,” he says “I just broke up with the Avatar,” not “I just broke up with Korra.” Korra is constantly complaining about being overly controlled by her parents and her teachers, but is very easily manipulated by her uncle, Unalaq. Anyone should have been able to see that Unalaq was using Korra for his own means, but his flattery of Korra’s Avatar abilities (in Korra’s mind) translated into praise for who Korra was.
Furthermore, we see that Korra’s most common default bending style is firebending. Isn’t this a little weird, for someone who is a child of two waterbenders and a member of the Southern Water Tribe? Sure, Korra has a rather “fiery” personality, but normally mastering the “opposite” element of one’s native element is the most difficult. I think this also serves to show us that Korra doesn’t really have a full understanding of who she is as a member of the Southern Water Tribe, outside of being the Avatar. When Zuko was attempting to teach Aang about firebending, he had to re-master the element. Zuko had been using his anger and rage as a source for his bending, instead of determination and inner strength. Korra may have a similar reason for using firebending most often when she’s attacked or on the offensive, because she’s angry, aggressive, or defensive.
At first I thought if Korra had some kind of sense of who she was, separate from being the Avatar, she might have been able to use a bit more discernment and better guard against manipulation. Korra tends to make rash decisions and snap judgments—a product of her volatile, passionate personality. As this season progresses with the impending civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, I thought a better understanding of Korra’s human heritage would be the key. A better sense of who she is as a person would allow Korra to become more level-headed and would develop her good judgment. It’d solve a lot of the problems many fans seem to have with her character. But what I didn’t realize was that the writers had a much better solution in mind—going in the completely opposite direction.
In episodes 7 and 8 (“Beginnings, Part I and II”), we begin with Korra washed up on an island with no memory of who she is. A convenient and cheap plot device? Absolutely. But it works marvelously. We soon meet an elderly Fire Nation healer who tells us that Korra must venture to the spirit world if she has any hope of recovering her memory and access to her Avatar abilities. How is this accomplished? Korra’s lowered into… wait for it… a healing pool of water. I absolutely love this—although water has already been established to have healing abilities, I believe this could also symbolize how Korra’s identity as a member of the Southern Water Tribe mediates between herself and who she is as the Avatar. It’s a lens through which she views her Avatar abilities.
Next we’re treated to a rather spectacularly animated story of a young man named Wan, who became the first Avatar. I won’t summarize the whole story for you, but I do want to point out that the story was almost universally loved by the fans. The episodes answered a lot of questions about the history of the Avatar’s universe. Now, could people say that the story of Wan wasn’t much more than an injection of fanservice into an otherwise displeasing season, via Korra’s rather convenient memory loss? Certainly. It will depend on how the final few episodes of the season handle this new knowledge. The story of Wan culminates in the struggle between darkness and light, and there are hints that it’s time for history to repeat itself, via Unalaq’s struggle to dominate the Southern Water Tribe. I certainly hope that the writers didn’t decide to make Korra’s personality do a complete 180. Knowing the story of Wan and his role in the struggle between light and darkness finally gives Korra the sense of self and purpose that she’s so desperately needed all season. But I hope that we get to see Korra spend (at least a little) time digesting her new-found knowledge. I hope it enriches Korra’s personality, not changes it completely.