The Value of Critical Thinking While Watching The Legend of Korra with Children, and Discussing Relationship Dynamics

The Legend of Korra (Source: Netflix via Google)

Content warning: discussion of emotional abuse, manipulation, trauma, and other similar/related topics.
Word count: approx. 18,000 (pace yourself).

After making our way through Avatar: The Last Airbender, my kids and I moved onto The Legend of Korra—a rewatch for my 14yo and me, who watched it Aug-Oct 2020, but the first time for my 10yo. I’ve appreciated the rewatches of these shows because in some ways it’s easier to write about media content if you’ve been over it more than once. It took us only 2 weeks to get through all 4 seasons (52 episodes) this time. Although a sort of sequel series to Avatar (set a few decades in the future, with episodes occasionally featuring some of the original Avatar characters ~70 or so years older), Korra sets up far more difficult challenges, in my opinion, than Aang ever faced. Korra and her friends are older than Aang and his friends were (with Korra aged 17 in season 1, and 21 by season 4, whereas Aang was 12 for the whole of Avatar). The fact the characters are older brings up different topics to discuss that weren’t really explored as deeply in Avatar, specifically in the relationship realm. There are a number of… questionable… relationship dynamics in the show that made me glad I was watching it with my kids rather than them watching it on their own, so I could talk to them about what was healthy and what was not so much (and in some cases, toxic). Many of them were romantic relationships, but I do want to talk about some of the non-romantic relationships too.

If you haven’t already seen The Legend of Korra, be forewarned that there will be a ton of spoilers in this post. I hope to write in a way that is still somewhat interesting to folks who haven’t seen the show and don’t mind spoilers, though (and also help remind people about various characters/situations if it’s been a while since they last watched the series). My opinions are my own—as with my Avatar post, I haven’t really read commentary or content from other fans prior to collecting my thoughts. At most I’ve looked up ages and spellings, and seen an occasional thought here and there when Korra and/or Avatar was trending on Twitter before I’d even completed watching the series the first time.

Fair warning: I have 25 relationships I discuss in this entry at various levels of detail. It’s long, so feel free to bookmark it and read it in sections. I separate each relationship with subheadings to make it easier for you to be able to do that. Being autistic, sometimes I like to be really detailed and thorough when I collect my thoughts about my special interests. I’m going to begin with a personal prelude to discuss why exploring the nature of relationship dynamics interests me in this context, but feel free to scroll past it if you’re just interested in my Legend of Korra relationship commentary.

Personal Prelude

Before I get into the detailed thoughts about each relationship dynamic I want to discuss, I’d like to get a little personal with my history, and why I felt like it was important for me to have conversations with my kids about the relationship dynamics in Korra. See, my parents separated when I was 9, and although my Godparents are still together, and my family saw them a few times a year when I was growing up, I otherwise didn’t really have much exposure to healthy long-term romantic relationships. It’s not something they teach you in school, and I wasn’t an especially social undiagnosed autistic kid, so I subconsciously soaked up my lessons on how relationships are supposed to work—romantic relationship “ideals”—from the movies and TV I consumed. Some people might think I’m being controversial to suggest that, because it sounds like the “violent video games cause violence” arguments, and we know that isn’t necessarily true, but, honestly, let’s think about it in context—maybe it doesn’t make everyone who plays them violent, because certainly I’ve played games like Mortal Kombat (SNES, N64), Dead or Alive 2 (PS2), and James Bond 007 (N64), and I’m not a violent person; however, I also don’t think we can deny that if you’re already predisposed to an aggressive or violent mindset, it could encourage moving things out of that fantasy space. What happens when you don’t have alternative stimulus telling you that what’s okay in fantasy (e.g. movies, TV, video games, books) isn’t necessarily okay in reality? I’ve watched plenty of movies where people take drugs and had no desire to try them myself because I listened to the anti-drug message of my parents and school. I learned physical violence is wrong. My friend Dany Cory recently wrote a blog post where she talked a bit about the impact the “designated driver” campaign had on reducing drunk driving fatalities when it was referenced in movies and TV shows in the late 80s and early 90s. You can’t tell me that media doesn’t have any influence on society’s behaviour and what we’re willing to see as acceptable. I never had anyone tell me that the romance I was exposed to in media was wrong, and as such unhealthy relationship dynamics became a model of what I thought “true love” was.

Romantic comedies made me think drama was necessary in a relationship because that’s how you know someone really cares. It’s not, though—drama features in romantic comedies because it sells and makes the story more interesting or dynamic to watch—I mean, who’s really interested in watching a healthy romantic relationship, when those are usually more “boring” because that’s how they’re able to last; those partners know how to resolve conflicts without drama—writers are taught that storytelling requires tension, and there’s rarely much tension in a healthy relationship dynamic (side note: I just realised I incidentally learned to do the opposite of this while studying improv when various teachers kept telling us not to create conflict between romantic partners all the time—one workshop I took was called “Hate the World, Love Each Other” with Joey Shope that specifically focused on this). Movies in general taught me that cisgender men are only attracted to women who have sex appeal, and they’re mainly interested in women for sex rather than their personalities or potential compatible longevity. That’s not true either. In my adulthood, I’ve since met plenty of awesome cisgender men who don’t think with their… penises… and are quite capable of having very productive and respectful conversations with me without ever giving me the impression they want to get into my pants. Sometimes to my disappointment, mind you, because that’s the kind of guy I’m drawn to these days, but nevertheless, I wish men like these ones were represented more as characters in movies and TV, so women like me don’t grow up thinking we have to settle for the immature douchebags who don’t know how to properly deal with their emotions and/or don’t focus on self-improvement, or treating others (not just women) with respect.

Maybe things would’ve been different if my parents had bothered to talk to me in more detail when I was younger about why their marriage broke down and they chose to separate, instead of just… managing to not badmouth each other around me and my siblings. It was also clearly my mum’s decision, because my dad would talk about how he still loved my mum, and he was the one who had to move out while my mum managed everything else. And I mean everything. We lived with her and she was the sole breadwinner, she didn’t receive child support from my dad because he hadn’t held a full-time job for years (and this continued for years afterwards) so he let her keep his share of our house instead (I only learned this from him when discussing my divorce with him), and we were only really with him one night a week and after school when my mum was at work, at least when we were still too young to stay home by ourselves. That happened less when I was in high school.

I learned far too late that trying to do the opposite of what my mum did in order to try and keep my own family together would wind up with me following almost the exact same path she did in surprising familiarity, as I learned when I re-read a journal she’d written for me about the end of her relationship with my dad as I was dealing with my own divorce. Only I got a slightly shorter end of the stick than my mum got—whilst I ended up with a similar custody arrangement (he sees our kids 6 hours a week) and got to keep the house, I owe my ex-husband a significant chunk of money for his share of the house and he’s managed to avoid child support by choosing to continue pursuing a career that has been challenging for him to earn much of an income in. While from his perspective he probably sees it as sticking to his personal goals and principles, for others it might come across as a petty pursuit because he doesn’t want to pay me anything, even to support our children, because he thinks I used him for his income over the years (completely ignoring how much he benefitted from my financial contributions through inheritance when my mum died), and he manages to survive instead on the monthly payments I’m required to pay him for what I owe him for the house. It’s not a great deal for me, who was the primary caregiver without employment for the majority of our marriage, but we’re still in the midst of a pandemic so the likelihood of a court ordering him to find a job that enables him to pay child support is slim, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite for saying he shouldn’t pursue his dreams and “get a real job” when I got upset when he would say things like that to me (or imply them).

Fortunately, I’m still doing alright. I could afford to pay my ex-husband twice as much as I do now in order to pay down what I owe him faster (and on time, because I have a deadline to pay it back), but choose not to because maybe I’ll need that cash for an emergency down the line instead (it’d be easier to make a different decision and pay him more if I was receiving child support, however). At the moment, I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to find a job now that I’ve completed my Data Analytics boot camp, but given the government has finally passed their budget reconciliation bill, I should be good with receiving unemployment benefits at least until September. If I don’t get a job by then, and it’s not extended further, then I will likely have to rely on my savings (though I am crossing my fingers that by September, the vaccine will have rolled out enough that tourism might be back, and I might be able to get my old job back until I can find a tech job). If/when I’m able to break into tech (data analytics/engineering/science, or possibly returning to web development, or maybe even software engineering since I refreshed some of those skills in my boot camp too), I should be able to at least double what my income was last year, and then it won’t matter that I’m not receiving child support. This is how I chose to problem-solve my unfortunate change in financial circumstances as a result of divorce and losing work due to the pandemic. Still, the financial impact of divorce is one that would’ve been nice to avoid, and therefore I’d like to set my kids up for success so that if they decide to get married in the future, they will choose someone who is healthy and right for them, and develop healthy relationship communication skills, so they can avoid the pitfalls their parents ran into.

I don’t want my kids to suffer the way their dad and I did, because we didn’t know any better. I don’t want them to end up in relationships they’re not suited for because they haven’t learned about how to recognise healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics. I can’t talk to them about it in much detail in the context of me and their dad—it is in their best interest that our divorce decree states that their dad and I cannot disparage each other or allow others to do so in front of the children, because they deserve to be able to have a good relationship with both of their parents and to not feel like they have to “pick sides” (and I credit this as a part of why they’ve managed to cope as well as they have with our divorce)—so finding other ways to discuss relationship dynamics is essential. Probably the most my kids understand about why their parents split up is that we just weren’t well suited for each other, which is true, we weren’t. I don’t think that means we’re incapable of having healthy relationships with other people, but we wound up being incapable of working well together. The tension in our house during our separation when we all still lived together was palpable even to the children, including without any overt yelling, and even that was hard enough to have to cope with for them. I’m very grateful they didn’t have to live with that for too long, and that’s one of the things that reminds me I made the right call to get divorced, despite how it set me back financially. Because that tension began in smaller doses before I’d made the decision to separate/divorce. Staying together “for the children” isn’t the right call if you’re subjecting them to low-grade undefined tension because their parents resent each other, and it sends the wrong message about what is acceptable in a long-term romantic relationship. I personally have zero memories of my life when my parents separated, and I sometimes wonder if that’s because my mind blocked that time of my life out because I was so traumatised by it and didn’t understand it, or if it legitimately was just because my parents swept the whole thing under the rug and didn’t talk about what happened or why it’s a good thing for people to break up sometimes. Perhaps that’s harder to do in a Catholic household (which is why my parents only separated and never divorced).

Recently, I was the only English-speaking parent to attend a webinar to learn about what my 10yo would be learning in 5th grade sex ed via distance learning with his science teacher and Planned Parenthood. Mostly they’ll be covering the basics like puberty and sex organs and related body parts. I asked if they would be talking about relationship dynamics and consent, and was told they don’t cover that until the kids are a bit older, but they’d make a note to consider adding it to the 5th grade program for next year. I mean, it’s not that big of an issue for my kid because I’ve been sharing various lessons on consent with him for years anyway, but I do think it’s an important part of the conversation and relevant not just for sex. They gave suggestions about how to have the conversations with my kids, and I told them I’d been watching Legend of Korra and Avatar with them, and discussing the relationships in that context. Both the science teacher and the Planned Parenthood folks were impressed and thought that was a great idea.

So, on that note, here are some of my thoughts on the relationship dynamics in The Legend of Korra, many of which I brought up (though not necessarily in the exact same words) with my kids as I watched the show with them. I’ll be discussing positive and negative dynamics and scenarios, and everything in between.

1. Korra and Mako

Mako and Korra finally get together (Screenshot from episode 1.12: “Endgame”)

Let’s start with one of the most obvious relationships. Mako was Korra’s first crush. He was a jerk to her when they first met, until he realised she was the Avatar and then he felt like an idiot, and opened up. She didn’t tell Mako she was attracted to him until he was involved with Asami, and then things got complicated. He was attracted to Korra too, but he wasn’t about to break up with his girlfriend for her, because Asami was just as awesome and he didn’t want to end that and hurt her. Eventually Asami notices Mako cares more about Korra, they break up, and Mako and Korra officially get together. Their dynamic as a couple is… not great. Primarily because Korra is obsessed with the idea that Mako is “picking sides” when he’s just trying to do the right thing and be a good boyfriend. But he never seems to be able to make her happy, and he breaks up with her. She violently throws his desk across the room in his office—the police station. Awful breakup. She later loses memory of the breakup and when she returns, Mako asks her about it, but since she doesn’t remember, he chooses not to immediately remind her because he just likes that she’s being nice to him again and I guess he wanted to be back together with her. Eventually they break up for real, and their friendship is awkward at first (mostly on Mako’s end), but they wind up being much better friends than partners. During the final episode, with Mako’s comments about following Korra no matter what and helping her fight her causes, my 10-year-old commented that he thought they would end up together again down the line. The rest of our conversation about that will be discussed later on in this post, though, because it involves a different relationship.

I personally adore Mako. I think he’s a great character. He’s probably the kind of guy who I see as my “type,” if I have a type, but also I think he’s the character I’m most like. I was thinking about how he’s a firebender like Zuko in Avatar and wondering, is it just because I’m a fire sign (in astrology—I’m a Sagittarius) that I’m drawn to the fire characters? But do I think he should’ve ended up with Korra? I relate to her in some ways (I’ll discuss this a little more later on too, when I get to the dynamic with Kuvira), and other ways not. I thought they were cute in season 1, but ultimately I think their relationship played out exactly as it needed to, because it showed a reasonably good example of why two people who love each other shouldn’t always be together, and how they can have a healthy dynamic without being in a romantic relationship. That it’s okay to be “just friends” with someone you love or care deeply for, and sometimes for the best. I have a few friendships like that (a couple I’ve been romantically involved with, some I haven’t).

The way Korra argued with Mako—accusing him of taking sides when he was really just trying to look at the big picture—felt to me a lot like how my ex-husband argued with me. Unable to see a different perspective. I think if my ex and I hadn’t run our relationship into the ground, it’s possible that if we had made a more sensible decision and ended our relationship a lot earlier, we could have wound up having the kind of friendship Mako and Korra end up having. That’s why I value this relationship in the show—it teaches you that sometimes not being together is the right decision, and exactly how to have an amicable break-up when both parties come to the same conclusion (as Mako and Korra did when they officially ended things the second time). It also demonstrates the awkward period after such a break-up while they adjust to the new dynamic, because it’s not as easy as flipping a switch to pretend you didn’t have strong feelings for someone.

Korra and Mako share their first kiss (Screenshot from episode 1.05: “The Spirit of Competition”)

Season 1, episode 5 “The Spirit of Competition”—the episode in which Korra confesses her attraction to Mako—is the only episode in our entire re-watch that my 14-year-old chose not to watch in full, primarily because of the memory of the awkwardness between the Mako/Korra/Bolin dynamic (which I’ll delve into more deeply in the next section).

2. Korra and Bolin

Bolin and Korra dressed in their Fire Ferrets uniforms talk in the background while Mako (foreground) feels uncomfortable about it (Screenshot from episode 1.05: “The Spirit of Competition”)

Bolin met Korra before introducing her to Mako, and he was also attracted to her first. Mako and Bolin are brothers. It’s complicated. “The Spirit of Competition” is the big to-do episode regarding the Bolin/Korra/Mako romantic attractions. We’ve already seen some unspoken connection between Mako and Korra when they work together to rescue Bolin from Amon, but Bolin is completely oblivious to this. By this episode, Mako is dating Asami, so it doesn’t seem too weird for Bolin to express his interest in Korra to his brother. Mako discourages it, citing that it wouldn’t be good for their pro-bending team dynamic, but it’s subtly clear he’s also saying that due to his own attraction to Korra. After Mako rejects Korra’s initial advances, she discovers Bolin is attracted to her when he asks her out on a date. Though she doesn’t seem to feel the same way, she agrees to go out and spend some time with Bolin in Republic City. They have a great time together, but it seems clear from their interactions that, to Korra, it’s more like a friend-date than a date-date.

Mako later accuses Korra of going out with Bolin to get back at him, and whilst I didn’t get that impression from watching Korra and Bolin’s date (she just wanted to do something fun to forget about the fact she’d just been so embarrassingly rejected after spilling her feelings out), this is a quintessential example of how hormones can play with teenage minds. When we’re actually feeling jealous, rather than looking inward, we might accuse another person of intentionally trying to hurt us. This isn’t that uncommon in adulthood either (I’ve been inaccurately accused of it as an adult). The whole episode is a great example of how important it is to be upfront and honest, however. Korra could’ve been a lot more clear with Bolin when she went out with him that she only saw it as a friend-date, because he was pretty clear that he liked her in a romantic way. It could’ve left him a lot less shocked when he then wandered over and caught Korra kissing Mako. Same if Mako had been upfront and told Bolin that him being attracted to Korra was part of why he didn’t want Bolin to ask her out. Bolin had no indication to think his brother and Korra might’ve been attracted to each other. The whole situation leads to the Fire Ferrets almost completely missing their chances at making the pro-bending finals, which is a great lesson in how unresolved conflicts can directly impact your ability to perform well. Fortunately, Mako and Bolin’s familial bond is stronger than this misunderstanding, and after Korra apologises to Bolin for letting things get out of hand, they’re all able to forgive and their friendship is stronger for it.

What might not be so obvious in terms of Bolin’s speedy recovery from rejection is that he spends about a day wallowing in his feeling bad about it, rather than sucking it up and pretending it didn’t happen. He lets himself process his feelings and then fairly quickly moves into acceptance. Bolin and Korra become great friends afterwards, and Bolin never tries to convince her to date him again. I don’t think this is a lesson that is taught enough in the media I’ve consumed. Romantic comedies in particular often teach us to keep pursuing our romantic interests even after rejection and eventually the person you’re attracted to will give in and then you WIN! Real life doesn’t work like that. Bolin doesn’t wallow in being “friend-zoned.” He values his relationship with Korra, because he thinks she’s a pretty awesome person, regardless of the type of connection they have. He respects her boundaries, which is so important. I don’t see enough great examples of male/female friendships in media, especially when one party initially had a romantic attraction to the other one. Seeing how this plays out does make it a little harder to watch some of Bolin’s other relationships, which I’ll be discussing later on.

3. Mako and Asami

Mako and Asami meet (Screenshot from episode 1.04: “The Voice in the Night”)

I already briefly mentioned this relationship when I wrote about Korra and Mako. It is somewhat entwined, but easier to discuss separately here. Mako meets Asami when she accidentally runs into him with her moped. When she removes her helmet in the midst of him lambasting her, he immediately fumbles and becomes speechless because of how attractive he finds her. She confidently asks him out on a date to make up for the accident, and they immediately connect over dinner. He discovers her father is a famous inventor, and she convinces her father to help support Mako’s pro-bending team so they can attend the finals. But he’s not attracted to her because she’s financially well off. And whilst he was initially attracted to her for her appearance, it’s their personality connection that allows them to start a romantic relationship together.

Personally I think Mako and Asami are cute together. If it weren’t for the fact Mako was also attracted to Korra, they could’ve worked out well together. Sometimes I like to mention that love triangles in media might work better as a triad relationship, and if Korra and Mako had been capable of having a non-argumentative romantic relationship, this is an example where that might’ve been able to work out. Because whilst Asami was initially hurt when she realised Mako had feelings for Korra, she accepted it and was more upset that he didn’t say anything to her about it (and had to find out that Mako and Korra kissed from Bolin) than she was that he had feelings for Korra. She handled it in a pretty level-headed way. Meanwhile, after Mako rejected Korra in “The Spirit of Competition” and accepted that he wasn’t going to dump Asami for her, despite the fact he confessed he had feelings for her, Korra came around to being friendly toward Asami rather than jealous.

In season 2, when Korra disappears for a while after she and Mako break up, Mako starts spending more time with Asami again. When Asami learns of the breakup, she instinctively kisses Mako, presuming it’s okay now. There are some questions around whether or not this is the beginning of them getting back together, but when Korra returns with no memory of the breakup, Asami is pushed aside again. It then becomes an almost classic example of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” They don’t even attempt to get back together again after that, even after Korra and Mako officially end things the second time at the end of season 2. This combination of events leads Mako to be super awkward around both Korra and Asami, especially in each other’s presence, and I imagine it would feel pretty weird for him to see both of his ex-girlfriends getting along so well with each other like nothing ever happened, and they hadn’t previously been in somewhat of a competition with each other for his attention. As someone who has developed a friendship with an ex-girlfriend of one of my exes, I don’t find this at all unrealistic, and personally enjoy seeing the dynamic play out in the show. Fortunately for Mako, he’s eventually able to overcome the awkwardness, and reconnect with her as a friend as well.

4. Bolin and Pabu

Bolin and Pabu street performing (Screenshot from episode 1.03: “The Revelation”)

This relationship is being included primarily because my 10yo insisted I included a relationship with Pabu (he got pretty invested in my writing this blog post, proof/beta read some of it, and helped me pick some of the pictures I screenshot, so naturally I’m inclined to do this for him). Pabu is Bolin’s pet red panda ferret, and showing a picture of Pabu to my 10yo was his first exposure to the show. He probably loves animals more than people, and there are a lot of people out there who feel that way. Some people just have really strong connections with their pets, and the relationship between Bolin and Pabu is no different. In the screenshot I included, you can see that Bolin trained Pabu to perform circus tricks, but their connection stems far beyond that. He’s also the mascot for the Fire Ferrets (which I always imagined were named after Pabu). When Bolin and Mako are kidnapped by Zaheer in season 3, Bolin is separated from Pabu, but when they’re let free to search for Korra, it’s Pabu who finds them first, so they know they’re in the right place. Pabu willingly hides in Bolin’s clothes so the Earth Queen won’t see him. And when they’re separated again in season 4 as Bolin travels with Kuvira, it’s another joy to see when they are again reunited. Pabu really knows his human. He interacts with some of the other characters, but it’s his connection with Bolin that really shines.

5. Tenzin and Lin Beifong

Lin Beifong and Tenzin (Screenshot from episode 1.06: “And the Winner Is…”)

We learn in season 1 that part of the reason Lin and Tenzin don’t have a good relationship in the beginning of the show is because they used to date, and Tenzin’s wife essentially took him away from Lin. I love seeing them reconnect here in season 1, episode 6, but what I wished we’d had an opportunity to see somewhere in the series, like in a flashback, was what they were like when they were dating. With the recent news of the new Avatar Studios to produce more animated content for this universe, my hope is that this will be something that will be visited on screen in the future.

Once Lin and Tenzin reconnect in an effort to help Korra succeed as the Avatar, we have the chance to see how much they cared for each other. Lin in particular risks her life—and her ability to bend—in an effort to save Tenzin’s family from Amon. Like the Korra/Mako dynamic, I really appreciate seeing positive examples of former-lovers-turned-friends on screen. Sure, Lin had built up resentment for a long time (it’s unclear exactly how long, but more than a decade since Tenzin’s eldest child, Jinora, is 10 at the beginning of the show), but I guess sometimes you need a lot of time and distance before you can heal from that kind of hurt. After all, she does state Mako got off easy when Korra broke up with him and threw the desk compared to what she did when Tenzin broke up with her. I’d really like to see what went down then!

6. Korra and Tarrlok

Tarrlock and Korra (Screenshot from episode 1.04: “A Voice in the Night”)

Tarrlock starts out being almost overtly manipulative towards Korra, to the extent that she sees through his efforts to get her to join his task force. Tenzin is actually surprised when she initially rejects Tarrlock’s request, though it seems her decision stems more from fear of season 1’s main bad guy, Amon, rather than anything Tarrlock initially says. It’s not until he tries to win her over with more and more extravagant gifts that she sees him as trying to manipulate her. Unfortunately, after all his attempts fail, she takes the bait when she’s personally invited to a party in her honour. How could she turn that down? Then, whilst there and in public, in full view of the media, Tarrlock traps her in a way that refusing to join his task force would make her look bad. No one else knows what she’s already been through, but the pressure to not seem weak is strong. So she joins the task force, and whilst at first she does some good work with them, her success gets the better of her, giving her a false sense of security and then setting herself up to publicly challenge Amon at a specific time and place. This backfires on her, because Amon engages against her terms, leaving her feeling more afraid and weaker than before.

We later learn (though it can be surface-level assumed) that Tarrlock’s manipulation is all about using Korra for his own power-hungry goals. Though Korra is able to resign from Tarrlock’s task force and focus on her own goals (like pro-bending), they soon bump up against each other, as Korra challenges his methods of “order” and “keeping peace” by effectively implementing restrictions that play into Amon’s anti-bender messaging (i.e. he enacts a curfew against non-benders only). Since Korra defies Tarrlock, he arrests her friends as a way of punishment. Then she confronts Tarrlock alone in his office, he bloodbends her into submission, kidnaps her, and blames it on Amon’s supporters. Since this is all done on screen, it’s probably fairly easy for audiences to recognise that this level of manipulation is bad. Does that make it easier to recognise when you might be the victim? Not necessarily, because you’re not always going to be privy to another person’s dark secrets, behind closed doors. Which is why it’s worth pointing out the more subtle signs to be wary of in the early days, like Tarrlock’s early persistence with gift giving. Whilst Korra wasn’t tempted by those outlandish gifts, not everyone will always recognise that behaviour as manipulative—especially if they like the person. Korra’s advantage in this case was that she was afraid of Amon and didn’t seem to trust Tarrlock.

And yet, despite everything Tarrlock puts Korra through, in the end it is Tarrlock that helps her defeat Amon, through the power of shared knowledge. It turns out Amon is secretly Tarrlock’s brother, which he only learns when Amon steals his bending and locks him up on Air Temple Island. What I like about this shift is that it teaches the value of listening to your so-called enemies. Sometimes they’ll offer you information that can help you discover a solution that brings people together rather than tearing them apart. With such a politically divided country as the US is today, that message is more important than ever. How do we bridge that divide to find a common goal?

On that note, I’d love to hear in the comments about any time you might’ve learned something useful from someone who may have manipulated you.

7. Korra and Lin Beifong

Lin Beifong and Korra (Screenshot from episode 1.06: “And the Winner Is…”)

Korra and Lin’s relationship gets off to a rocky start. Lin is the Chief of Police and first meets Korra after Korra arrives in Republic City and tears up some streets while earthbending to fight some lowlife extortionists. The lowlifes are arrested, but so is Korra. Lin does not care that she’s the Avatar, and insists to Tenzin that she should be sent home to the Southern Water Tribe, because they don’t need her in Republic City. It seems like Lin may have issues with Avatars, but it’s unclear if it’s because of anything Aang might have done in Korra’s former life, or if perhaps it’s a more personal connection with her resentment toward Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, a few episodes later, Lin begins opening back up to Tenzin and puts her reputation on the line by bringing her metalbenders to act as security at the pro-bending final. After Amon attacks, Lin and Korra work together to try and stop him from getting away. When Korra is attacked and falls back into the stadium, Lin has to choose between saving Korra and continuing to go after Amon. She chooses Korra.

It’s a blessing to see how this relationship evolves throughout the series. One of my favourite episodes for exploring their dynamic is in season 3, “The Metal Clan,” where Korra meets Lin’s sister, niece and nephews, and tries to help mend the family connection Lin has deliberately avoided. Lin has generally been more of a mentor of sorts to Korra (not in terms of teaching metalbending, but in helping her understand Republic City and guiding her behaviour when possible), so it’s interesting to see Korra feeling like she can interfere with Lin’s personal life somewhat. Lin is not remotely receptive in the beginning, but after Korra tells Lin, “Suyin’s right; you’re never going to change. You’re always going to be a bitter, lonely woman,” and leaves her room, we see Lin crying, and by the following episode, she begins to come around to being willing to explore her resentment. This feels like a turning point in their relationship, which makes Lin’s choices to keep helping and saving Korra in later episodes this season feel more powerful, culminating in the plans to help protect her from Zaheer when Korra must confront him at the Northern Air Temple. Lin could have chosen to be upset at Korra for digging into a sore point for her, and decided to leave Korra to her own problems with Zaheer coming after her because Korra was “mean” in her delivery, but instead she took it to heart and looked within, finally being open to confronting her demons. I really value a relationship that can have that kind of impact, but you really have to be open to listening to some hard truths sometimes, and not everyone is able to do that. And sometimes you need that kind of wake-up call from someone who is significantly younger than you, who has yet to be beaten down by the world and still has so much hope in the difference they can make. The whole situation teaches the value of self-reflection and forgiveness in order to move on from past pain. People can change, but it often starts with sitting with that pain and understanding the role you played in the pain, too.

I’ll explore Lin’s familial relationships a bit more later on in this entry.

8. Bolin and Eska

Bolin and Eska (Screenshot from episode 2.04: “Civil Wars: Part 2”)

This relationship is a whole load of YIKES! And possibly a disturbing example of how hard it can be for someone to get out of an abusive and/or controlling relationship. This is Bolin’s first romantic relationship in the series. He’s 17 and naive, with very limited experience with girls, and goes after Eska simply because he finds her physically attractive. When he realises he doesn’t like her personality, he enlists Mako’s advice on how to break up with her. Mako makes light of the situation, not really understanding the gravity of the challenge Bolin faces. When Bolin finally gathers the strength to try and end things with Eska, and she agrees they’re not working, instead of breaking up with him, she gives him a betrothal necklace and insists they are to get married.

While I believe the writers use this as an extreme example to showcase an unhealthy relationship dynamic, without guidance and a deeper understanding of how this behaviour can manifest in less extreme ways, some of this dynamic could just as easily be romanticised. Take the engagement as an example—this is similar to how common it is for romantic partners to decide to “have a baby” to “save their relationship.” It’s the “extra commitment will fix everything!” messaging that seems to persevere in society, despite how often that is patently untrue. There are also plenty of people in the world who actually believe they need the kind of power and control dynamics in their romantic relationships that Eska displays. Perhaps there are people who are able to act it out or roleplay those dynamics safely, but there is a very fine line, and this is where coercive control and coercive consent can be an issue. Bolin didn’t feel able to say no to Eska, so was instead coerced into consenting to their engagement. Is Eska aware it was coerced? Does she care? Does that matter? This dynamic can play out a lot more subtly in real life, and therefore be harder to recognise as an unhealthy or toxic dynamic. However, at this extreme where it is hopefully more obvious to younger minds watching The Legend of Korra, perhaps the exposure would help them recognise more subtle versions of the red flags before they fall too deeply in love with someone who doesn’t respect their autonomy and wishes.

Bolin’s escape parallels that of abuse survivors, where leaving is often the most dangerous time in the relationship (Eska ragefully chases after him by waterbending her way across the ocean to the ship he’s on), and on average take 7 attempts before they’re finally able to get away (Bolin tries to break up with Eska at least twice before running away without saying anything about his plans). It also shows that the male gender can be victims, too.

Bolin trapped in ice, telling Eska he loves her. (Source: episode 2.13 “Darkness Falls”)

Another parallel to abuse survivors is watching Bolin beg Eska to save him, that he misses her and wishes he could be with her again, when she has him trapped in ice so he can’t help Korra in “Darkness Falls,” the second-last episode in season 2. Mako thinks Bolin was just acting, but Bolin’s reaction to Mako’s words suggests he was being honest. This is a great example of how trauma bonding can work in an abusive relationship. Sometimes the traumatic experience will make the victim feel safer with their abuser, because it’s familiar, and keeps the chemicals in their body frantically working to survive, leaving the victim suffering from cognitive dissonance. What’s missing from this trauma bond experience is any example on screen where we see Eska treating Bolin lovingly prior to freeing him after he spills his soul to her, which is usually an important element in that abuse cycle that makes victims believe their abuser will change, and that they really love them. Depicting Eska as mostly unfeeling and devoid of any emotion could give off the false impression that abusers are always easy to recognise, because they’re always cruel and don’t listen to the needs of their victims, but if that were true, there wouldn’t be as much abuse in the world as what exists today.

Fortunately, once Eska’s father is defeated, and she’s been confronted with the realisation that her father is actually a bad person who doesn’t really care about her or her twin brother, she’s able to move on and leave Bolin alone, so he’s able to explore other romantic relationships later in the series. Yes, I’ll be discussing those, too, because it takes him a while to figure things out. Another thing to note here is that Eska’s treatment of Bolin can be explained by being raised by a manipulative, uncaring father, but it is not an excuse (not everyone who is raised that way treat other people with such disrespect), and not everyone who tries to control their romantic partners is raised by an awful parent. Messaging on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour can come from various sources. I’m glad the series let these two end things here, rather than going on to suggest that Bolin’s love for Eska could change her, because that’s the kind of unhealthy messaging that seems more common in film and television.

9. Unalaq and Korra

Korra and Unalaq (Screenshot from episode 2.02: “The Southern Lights”)

Unalaq is Korra’s Uncle and the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe. He arrives to visit the Southern Water Tribe on the pretense of visiting the Glacier Spirits Festival, which he says is far removed from what it was initially intended, and desires to fix things, and protect them from the angry spirits that have been disrupting things in the Southern Ocean. He then enlists himself to be Korra’s spiritual instructor, the person who can teach her all about the spirits and the Spirit World, which she has up until that point been unable to connect with, despite Tenzin’s mentorship. He portrays himself as very spiritually enlightened, and guided by the desire to bring balance between humans and spirits. In reality, he is more like Tarrlock in season 1, but ramping up the subtlety of his manipulation in such a way that it makes it that much harder for Korra to recognise. He helps guide her to the blocked Southern spirit portal, and it feels right to her to open it. She doesn’t sense any ulterior motive on Unalaq’s part (though my oldest kid and I didn’t really trust him the first time we watched the show, even before his truth was revealed. Just something felt off about him). He was family. She had no reason to distrust him, and her parents never told her about her father’s past history with her uncle.

When Unalaq tells her the story of how her father was banished from the Northern Water Tribe, Korra feels betrayed by her father and closer to Unalaq—this is just one of many subtle tactics used by manipulators to gain control. They can create a situation where people are distrustful of those who would normally matter most to them, as a way of cutting off their support system and rely more on the manipulator. Why is this important to show? Because it explains why, even after Unalaq comes right out and starts a Civil War with the Southern Water Tribe, Korra takes his side and believes he’s trying to do what’s best for both tribes and spiritual balance. She tries to convince her tribe to follow Unalaq. She even goes to save Unalaq from the rebels after believing her father might be involved with the kidnapping plot. She then continues to trust Unalaq through the whole trial after her parents are rounded up and charged for conspiring to assassinate him when he tells her he’s appointing a fair judge. At the trial, Korra’s mother goes free, but the judge sentences her father to death until Unalaq convinces the judge to be lenient with him and the rebellion, instead switching the sentence to life in prison, hoping this would appease Korra. This outcome isn’t good enough for her, however, and she goes after the judge to try and convince him to change his ruling. It’s only then that she learns the truth about Unalaq, that he’s been manipulating her the whole time, and not only that, was responsible for her father being banished from the Northern Water Tribe. Meaning her father should be the rightful Chief, and Unalaq has a lust for power. Korra spends the rest of the season trying to stop him.

This relationship is a contrast not only to Tarrlock’s manipulations, but also Unalaq’s daughter, Eska’s relationship with Bolin. I’m not sure I would’ve understood or appreciated the realistic complexity of the subtleness of Unalaq’s manipulation and control if I’d watched The Legend of Korra when I was my children’s age. But this is a great platform to be able to teach my own children about all the different ways people might try to exert power and control over a person so they can be more aware of what to try and avoid.

10. Aang and His Children

Aang’s children: Bumi, Tenzin, and Kya (Screenshot from episode 2.03: “Civil Wars: Part 1”)

We learn about how the previous Avatar, Aang (from Avatar: The Last Airbender), treated his three children differently from what they talk about when they go on vacation together, visiting the different air temples. Tenzin, the only airbender between the three of them (at the time—Bumi becomes one later in the series, but Aang isn’t alive to see it), is treated significantly different from his siblings as a result. And yet, he remembers his vacations with their father very differently—as in, he thinks they were also there with him and Aang, when in reality they had been left out of all the Air Nomad teachings from Aang. Kya and Bumi still seem like strong-willed individuals in their own right, but it’s clear that there is resentment that they didn’t receive an equally positive relationship with their father.

I have mixed feelings about this. Like, I appreciate that Aang is not heralded as some perfect person just because he was the Avatar. By this account, he was a horrible father. Sort of makes me wonder what kind of husband he was to Katara, too. Because one of their children, Kya, turned out to be a waterbender like Katara. Did he choose not to share his wealth of Air Nomad history with his wife also? The dynamic demonstrates the downsides of not treating each of your children with the same respect. Only having one child follow in your footsteps should not mean you don’t make an effort to spend time with your other children who might be interested in pursuing other passions. Unless you really don’t care what your children think of you, and what kind of relationship you have with them. But a father is, generally speaking (not all children have fathers in their life), one of their foundational relationships and it impacts how children perceive the world. We see a similar dynamic play out with Toph’s children, which I’ll explore further later on in its own section.

But given that two of the major characters from the original Avatar series, and the only ones we get a layered understanding of their parenting, I feel like this was a missed opportunity. Aside from Korra’s father, we don’t really have any great examples of fatherhood in the series, and even then Korra’s father tried to keep things from her and protect her from learning things that would’ve been good for her to know or experience (but at least he always tried to have her best interest at heart). Tenzin is pretty short-tempered with his children at times, and teaches what I felt like was a disturbing technique for his son Meelo to use to train his flying lemur, Pokey (likely he is this way because he also felt like his father with the pressure to train the next generation of airbenders, who are only his children until new ones start popping up in season 3). Unalaq is evil. Tarrlock and Amon’s father taught them bloodbending. Asami’s father went to jail because he helped develop technology for Amon. The father of Suyin’s children is practically invisible. Suyin and Lin Beifong don’t even know who their fathers are. Mako and Bolin’s father is dead. What is this teaching us? That there’s almost no such thing as a good father? Maybe I’d have felt differently if we’d had more exposure to the other former Avatar characters. Zuko was probably a decent father given his daughter seemed to make a wise decision as the current Fire Lord in the series, and his grandson, the new General Iroh (see the next section) has a good head on his shoulders, too. But we don’t see any of that. What about Sokka? Did he have children? We barely get a glimpse of him in a flashback in this series.

Anyhow, it’s clear that how Aang treated his children differently had an impact on their bonds with each other. It led to arguments that didn’t need to happen if he’d spent equitable time with them, both individually and together. It makes me glad that I put more effort into spending time with my children separately and together, because I have witnessed firsthand how that has helped them have a good relationship with each other.

11. General Iroh and Korra

General Iroh and Korra (Screenshot from episode 2.05: “Peacekeepers”)

We don’t see much of this relationship in the show but I’m including it here because it’s one I would’ve liked to see explored further. General Iroh is the grandson of Lord Zuko, which means he’s probably next in line to be Fire Lord (we don’t know if he has any siblings, aunts, or uncles). Yet, he’s the General of the United Forces, which means he answers to President Raiko of the United Republic of Nations, rather than his mother, Izumi, the current Fire Lord. As a result of that, and also his grandfather being friends with the previous Avatar, he has some complicated loyalties. When Korra comes to Iroh for help in the Water Nation Civil War, he tries to plot with her a way that he can help without technically going against President Raiko’s decision to not intentionally getting his forces involved, until they’re interrupted by Raiko, because Mako ratted out Korra’s plan to Raiko (this is what led to their initial breakup). I could’ve easily seen a path to exploring a potential romantic relationship, or at least a deeper friendship, as a result of this. They also work well together when it comes to fighting with Kuvira in Republic City in season 4.

Of course, these were my thoughts before looking up General Iroh’s age, because it was unclear in the series how old he is (though I guess if he was closer to Korra’s age, he would be quite a bit too young to be a General). Apparently there’s a 19 year age difference between them, so not really appropriate to explore a romance in season 2 when Korra is 18 (or even in season 4, when she’s 21), when there is a greater risk of the power imbalance that comes from that age difference when one is so young having a negative impact on the younger partner, due to perhaps being less experienced in relationships and a desire to believe and trust someone with more life experience. I don’t think Iroh is the kind of guy who would take advantage of such a young mind, though, which is why it’s a good thing it wasn’t explored—it demonstrates how you can have an older man with a connection with a considerably younger girl, and have him behave appropriately toward her, by not making any romantic or sexual advancements toward her. As someone who has had a little bit of history with being a naïve young girl attracted to older men, I absolutely appreciated the ones who treated me with respect and didn’t take advantage of that. I have a lot more respect for the men who know better in those situations, rather than giving in to their base desires without considering that the new adult woman may likely regret a decision to consent to something with him as she gets older, or may even come to perceive the consent as coerced or that she was groomed. This doesn’t mean I think a 19-year age difference is necessarily a bad thing, I just think the younger partner should be at least in her thirties and have enough relationship experience to be able to recognise red flags, and also financial independence and therefore less power imbalance. If I wasn’t already happy with who Korra ends up with at the end of the series, I might’ve been curious to see this relationship explored romantically once Korra is old enough for it.

12. Bolin and Ginger

Ginger and Bolin in one of their “movers” (Screenshot from episode 2.06: “The Sting”)

Bolin’s second “romance,” if you can call it that, is one I also find disturbing, but for different reasons than his relationship with Eska. It’s during the same season as his relationship with Eska, while Bolin is starring in a mover. Bolin plays Nuktuk, Hero of the South, in a series of propaganda movers designed to convince Republic City to support the Southern Water Tribe in their fight against Unalaq. Ginger plays his love interest in the movers, and for some reason Bolin is unable to separate fantasy from reality. Who the characters are, versus who the actors are. Ginger very clearly gives Bolin the cold shoulder when they’re not on set, but somehow he still thinks they’re together. I guess it bothers me somewhat because it seems like they lowered Bolin’s intelligence level in order for him to believe this. Sure he’s a bit naïve, but he’s still generally recognised and respected girls’ wishes up until that point (even to the extent of being a pushover in his relationship with Eska). Could this be an indication of the impact being in a controlling relationship had on him? I’m not sure. I have read that abuse survivors are more likely to end up in similar relationships in the future (Ginger isn’t controlling or abusive in this case, but she is emotionally distant and elusive) until they’re able to look within to recognise their patterns and deal with the trauma that makes them more at risk of being in those types of relationships. What trauma has Bolin experienced in his life? His parents died when he was a kid, and he and his brother had to live on the streets and got involved in organised crime in order to survive. That’s pretty traumatic. I guess it also shows how easily someone who should know better can fall for someone who isn’t actually into them.

Meanwhile, Ginger is pretty self-centered and has a shallow perspective of what she finds attractive. During the final mover screening at the Pro-Bending Arena, Bolin saves President Raiko from being kidnapped, and single-handedly fights off the attackers juxtaposed against the mover screen, where he’s doing almost exactly the same movements. It’s only after witnessing this that Ginger turns around and claims she is involved with Bolin after all. Talk about confusing for him! She practically gaslights him when he tries to bring up that he’d been led to believe—by her—that they weren’t actually together. All because she selfishly wants people to think they were an item before he heroically saved the day. Needless to say, I’m glad that relationship wasn’t explored further after that. I’m not a fan of that kind of shallow behaviour.

13. Bolin and Opal

Opal and Bolin (Screenshot from episode 3.05: “The Metal Clan”)

Fortunately, in season 3, Bolin meets Opal, granddaughter of Toph Beifong (who happens to be Bolin’s idol). When he’s back to being his goofy, natural self, Opal finds herself laughing with and being entertained by him. Bolin, on the other hand, is at first oblivious, then brushes away the idea, telling Mako she’s not his type, before Mako suggests that maybe that’s a good thing considering how all his other relationships who were, presumably, more his “type” worked out. Then when he decides to pursue Opal, knowing she’s into him, he puts on a façade he thinks he needs in order to impress her further. Only that backfires on him—Opal’s interested in the real, goofy Bolin. Not the fake version. I love that she calls him out on that early on and he relaxes. This is what feels like a healthy relationship dynamic, and I’m happy Bolin finally has a kind girl to be involved with romantically. Though we’re not privy to the inner workings of Bolin’s mind, perhaps meeting his extended family for the first time ever when they visit Ba Sing Se earlier in the season helps him deal with some of his trauma from only knowing his brother as family.

Opal, it turns out, is one of the new airbenders, so after she decides to travel to the Northern Air Temple to learn airbending from Tenzin, Bolin and Opal embark on a long-distance relationship. Despite their individual hardships, it seems to work. That is, until a couple of years later and Opal feels betrayed when Bolin chooses to support Kuvira in her efforts to rebuild the Earth Nation after it falls into anarchy when the Earth Queen is killed. Kuvira is involved with one of Opal’s brothers, and Opal sides with her mother, who feels like Kuvira and Baatar Jr. both turned their backs on Suyin’s teachings. Opal is understandably displeased by Bolin choosing to support people who oppose her family, even if Bolin is trying to do it for altruistic reasons.

This relationship arc in season 4 works for me. Bolin can’t easily “win” Opal back after she feels betrayed by him. Though he tries to be his goofy self to get her back, she won’t hear it. It’s not until he’s able to self-reflect, realise what he actually did and why Opal was in pain, and make the grand gesture of saving her family with her (after all, he is partly responsible for them being captured) that Opal was willing to come around. He learned from the experience, and did what needed to be done to make it right. This shows how it’s possible to make mistakes, and what kinds of gestures can be made to actually earn forgiveness. Although it also would’ve been perfectly understandable if Opal had decided she still couldn’t get back together with him, the important thing is that the betrayal wasn’t glossed over, and Opal didn’t just suddenly take Bolin back after he initially realised his mistake in trusting Kuvira.

14. Lin and Suyin Beifong

Suyin and Lin Beifong (Screenshot from episode 3.09: “The Stakeout”)

Though we meet Lin in the very beginning of the whole series, we don’t learn she has a sister until we’re introduced to her in season 3. This is because they’ve been estranged for years, by Lin’s choice. Korra and her friends show up in the metal city of Zaofu after they learn of a new airbender there (Opal, who I talked about earlier). Lin is with them because she is trying to protect Korra while Zaheer is after her, desiring to take Korra back to Republic City where Lin believes she’ll be safest. When they arrive in Zaofu, Lin refuses to enter the city, but won’t say why. It doesn’t take long before she is found out, however, and we learn it’s because her sister created the city, and she does not want to talk to Suyin.

A lot of the resentment that Lin feels toward her sister is tied to their relationships with their mother, Toph, but I’ll explore their relationship with their mother in a separate section. Growing up with a distant, hands-off mother meant that Lin and Suyin chose to follow very different paths. Lin followed the rules, and Suyin was a rebel, getting into trouble. When Lin became a cop, she had to confront Suyin in the midst of committing a crime. However, as she was making her arrest, it backfired, which resulted in Suyin giving Lin the scar on her face. Toph, as the Chief of Police at the time, didn’t handle the situation the way Lin would’ve liked, and Lin essentially stopped talking to Suyin ever since, no matter how often Suyin tried to reach out and explain how she’d changed since those days.

I already wrote a little about how Korra pushed Lin to reconsider her relationship with Suyin, but overall I really appreciate the relationship arc. It takes some time for Lin to get there—she still needs to be able to get her pent-up anger out at Suyin, and in this world, that means a bending fight between them. Not the healthiest of choices, and not the kind of thing I’d recommend as a way to resolve conflict, but it works for them and they’re mostly able to recover their relationship after that. They do have different opinions on the right thing to do—like when Suyin sends Korra away to track her former advisor after Lin advises against it and Suyin pretends to go along with it, which leads to Lin being upset with her again. But at least they’re able to work together for the most part after that. I like that the resolution brings hope. That it is possible to be estranged from someone who should be part of your life, except for the fact they did some terrible things, but that those mistakes do not define that person, and they can learn from them, and eventually reconnect and be forgiven. It teaches that we shouldn’t continue to punish someone for the sins of their past, if that person has grown and learned from their experiences. Sure, Lin had every right to remain upset with Suyin over the years; she didn’t have to make any effort to reconnect, because she was still in pain. But that pain was eating her up inside, and like Korra said, lead to Lin’s focus on being lonely and bitter. The resentment was poisoning Lin, not the person she was upset with. Forgiveness is the way out of that poison. We see how Lin grows and changes once she’s able to start forgiving Suyin for the mistakes of her past.

15. Korra and Zaheer

Zaheer guiding Korra’s return to the spirit world (Screenshot from episode 4.09 “Beyond the Wilds”)

One of the things I like about Zaheer as a “bad guy” character is that he comes from a place of desiring a more equal society. Yes, his methods for bringing about that change are quite dramatic (after all, he winds up assassinating the Earth Queen to bring about anarchy in the Earth Kingdom), but we have an opportunity to see where Korra and Zaheer have some shared values. We see this when they first meet in the Spirit World, and Zaheer teaches Korra about the Red Lotus. They both want to bring balance to the world. I like that this then depicts the world as less black and white and more shades of grey. In season 4, when Zaheer is in prison and Korra is still unable to shake the trauma Zaheer inflicted on her, Korra winds up confronting him in prison, and their goals happen to align. Neither of them wants Kuvira to be a dictator over the Earth Nation. That wasn’t the outcome Zaheer was looking for. And so, he helps Korra by pushing her through her trauma and guiding her back into the Spirit World. Facing Zaheer like this was one of the most challenging things Korra had to do in the entire series, and maybe wouldn’t be recommended for a majority of trauma survivors, but it winds up being well worth it for Korra (though I doubt most trauma survivors encountering a similar situation would be fortunate to have such a positive outcome). This reinforces some of the things I said when I wrote about Korra and Tarrlock—sometimes you have to work with your “enemies” in order to achieve a greater result. When you’re not open to that conversation, you might never overcome the obstacles in your path. And, sometimes, trauma not dealt with is that obstacle. In Korra’s case, the only way she could have dealt with her trauma from Zaheer was by confronting him. But different traumas require different treatments. Given that it took Korra over three years before she was able to face Zaheer after he tried to kill her, we are shown how long this process can take, and how challenging it can be. She was almost unable to go on. She couldn’t even face her friends in person for three years. It was soul-destroying, and we don’t often see our heroes go through that kind of emotional pain.

16. Bolin and Kuvira

Kuvira intimidates Bolin (Screenshot from episode 4.05: “Enemy at the Gates”)

After the fall of the Earth Kingdom, and Zaheer is defeated, Suyin is invited to lead the efforts to rebuild the Earth Nation. She declines, which her adopted protégé, Kuvira, sees as a mistake. Kuvira then takes it upon herself to bring together other metalbenders to do the job she believed Suyin should’ve accepted. Bolin boldly joins the cause, believing in it being an altruistic one, just wanting to help the people of the Earth Nation, even though he’s born of Republic City. Some people might wonder, how could Bolin get sucked in to following a wannabe dictator? How could he not have known? Well, we’ve already seen how naïve he can be. Bolin is a dreamer, and can be trusting. He just goes along with things and often doesn’t think too deeply about his decisions, like how he played Nuktuk in the movers. All he saw of Kuvira’s efforts was when they arrived in each town, and they brought food and some stability. He didn’t revisit them to see what happened after they left. He blindly followed a leader he believed was doing good. Consider your own life—how often have you questioned someone in your own life who you believed to have your best interests at heart? How often do you criticise the politicians or leaders you vote for or support, to make sure they’re living up to your expectations?

It can be a challenge to view people we support in a negative light. Even when we’re confronted with an opposing viewpoint—like when Opal tried to get Bolin to stop following Kuvira—that different perspective creates cognitive dissonance because it doesn’t fit with our image of the person. It’s why friends who try to get abuse victims out of abusive relationships by telling their friend that their partner is abusive or not treating them right often find themselves sidelined instead. They don’t want to hear it, because they don’t want to believe the person they’re with (or in Bolin’s case, the person he’s following) is a bad person. While Bolin eventually figures out for himself that Kuvira has a thirst for power rather than altruistic reunification motivations, possibly the only thing that could’ve helped him out of the situation sooner is giving him more support to follow a different path to making a difference in people’s lives. He needed a purpose, to feel like he was helping and making a difference. Not being an airbender, he probably didn’t feel like he was welcome to join their efforts to help the Earth Nation. And so he was easily manipulated by someone who could give him that sense of purpose and responsibility. I imagine this is similar to how so many people got sucked up into believing QAnon conspiracies, and they felt like their involvement meant they were fighting to make a difference in people’s lives. That they were “saving the children.”

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust anyone, but some critical thinking and being open to listening to different perspectives can make a world of difference if you want to avoid getting sucked in to following someone who turns out to not be who you think they are. Likewise, just because someone is nice to you, doesn’t mean they treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect. Be open to accepting those different perspectives, even if you don’t experience it yourself. It may help you avoid making bigger mistakes, like losing the love of your life (like Bolin practically did with Opal, and wound up having to make a bigger gesture than he would have otherwise if he’d just listened to her in the first place).

17. Mako and Prince Wu

Prince Wu hugs a disinterested Mako (Screenshot from episode 4.07: “Reunion”)

I often felt like Prince Wu was included for comic relief. He was an annoying, self-obsessed royal who cared more about himself than he did actually genuinely ruling the Earth Nation. Upon a quick Internet search, I couldn’t find anything online to indicate how old he actually is, just that people think he’s somewhere around the same age as Bolin or Korra. He certainly comes across as more immature than all of them, but that could be the result of living a more sheltered life without trauma. Mako was tasked with being Prince Wu’s bodyguard, and he was not remotely happy about it. When he was around any of the other members of Team Avatar, Mako treated Wu like a third wheel—and he was, really. He wasn’t the kind of person they wanted around and he was crass in the way he hit on Mako’s ex-girlfriends (he had shown interest in dating both Asami and Korra). And yet, eventually Team Avatar rubbed off on Wu. I felt like the amount of time Mako had to spend with Wu meant Wu was able to see acceptable and appropriate behaviour modelled for him. When Mako told Wu about his history with both Asami and Korra, Wu was able to show empathy and also see Mako’s dating mistakes, and he started behaving better after that. This shows what kind of impact the company you keep can have on your life. When you surround yourself with successful people and those who have strong values and expectations, it’s often easier to inspire yourself to do better in your own life, because you don’t want to be left behind. You want to be part of something greater, and feel worthy of the company you keep. I enjoyed seeing that this was true of Wu, and he changed, and that Mako was proud of those changes, too. Because while I think it is easier to succeed and do well when you surround yourself with other successful people who inspire you (it works for me), I know that’s not true of everyone. Some people instead react with jealousy and try to tear those successful people down, because they want to be seen as the most powerful or successful person in the room, and they can’t stand the competition. Fortunately that was not a part of Prince Wu’s personality, and he recognised he needed to do better, and that the Earth Nation deserved a better leader than him as its Monarch.

18. Baatar Jr. and Kuvira

Baatar Jr. and Kuvira (Screenshot from episode 4.05: “Enemy at the Gates”)

Unlike Bolin, Baatar Jr. is kept abreast of Kuvira’s plans to be the ruler of the Earth Empire. He believes they’re a team with near-equal power, and that Kuvira genuinely loves him. As her romantic partner, he is loyal to her and fully supportive of her goals, and works hard to help her achieve them. Though we don’t see much of the “romance” side of their relationship, it is clear that Baatar Jr. has strong feelings for Kuvira and would do anything for her, whilst Kuvira often comes across as though Baatar Jr. is a means to an ends, despite the fact they’re engaged. Baatar Jr. only learns this truth when he is captured by Korra and her friends, and they use him as a bargaining chip. Korra says she’ll only let him go if Kuvira leaves Republic City alone, and Baatar Jr. believes that she’ll accept, that that’s enough, and Kuvira would choose him over conquering the city. Instead, she attacks the location where he’s being held.

Honestly, I’m amazed at how much The Legend of Korra beats its audience over the head with witnessing so many manipulative characters and the different ways they manipulate to achieve their goals. I don’t remember ever watching an animated series when I was a kid that covers this kind of depth of abuse of people and power. Though Baatar Jr. was aware of Kuvira’s plans and went along with them, the impact of Kuvira in his life is similar to what I wrote about with Bolin. No one in his life would’ve been able to point out to him that she was just using him. She had to turn on him when he had the audacity to get captured in order to see that she valued his scientific mind creating technology for her more than she valued him as a person, and she was willing to sacrifice him if it meant furthering her overall goal. If you’re in an abusive relationship without realising it, that moment hits hard. The realisation that someone you loved so deeply doesn’t feel the same way, and has instead just been using you, hurts. Often, it leads to the desire to get revenge, and considering Baatar Jr. then sides with his family and the Avatar to take Kuvira down, giving them the information they need to defeat Kuvira’s giant metal weapon, this plays out fairly realistically in context. Baatar Jr. is fortunate that everyone else already sees Kuvira as evil, however. Many abusers are much more covert, and hide their abuse so that if their victim(s) do(es) act out to seek revenge, the victims are seen as the “crazy”* ones.

* This word is in quotes because that is the term that is often used to describe the behaviour (especially by an abuser), but it is stigmatising language that I prefer not to use. The behaviour does not necessarily mean the victim suffers from mental illness, but rather may be the natural reaction of suffering from abuse.

19. Varrick and Bolin

Bolin and Varrick escape the Earth Empire (Screenshot from episode 4.08: “Remembrances”)

I hadn’t originally planned to write about this relationship, but one of my kids requested it, and thinking about it more, actually this is one of Bolin’s more unique relationships. It’s interesting because, by contrast with Bolin’s relationships with female characters where he is instantly trusting, when he meets Varrick, Bolin immediately calls him out as a liar, because he’s not levitating as he claims, and no one else is brave enough to say anything. Varrick is rich and powerful, which means he pretty much gets whatever he wants, which is why Bolin becomes instantly interesting to him. That call out attitude doesn’t last long, however. Varrick wins Bolin over by casting him as Nuktuk, the star of his propaganda movers, and because Bolin is treated so well and gets a lot of benefits for being a mover star, becomes a lot more trusting of Varrick, and therefore suspicious of his own brother when Mako starts suspecting Varrick of stealing from Asami. Though Bolin doesn’t believe it, Varrick catches wind of the suspicion and frames Mako—sending him to jail, and still Bolin doesn’t put two-and-two together. That is, until Bolin foils Varrick’s plans to kidnap President Raiko. Bolin is less trusting of Varrick after that, and with Varrick arrested, they don’t have much of a relationship again until a few years later, when they’re both working with Kuvira.

The change of their dynamic as they’re escaping the Earth Empire together is nice. I like that Bolin returns to calling Varrick out, even going as far as saying that he has no idea how Varrick’s assistant Zhu Li puts up with him for so long. No one else really calls Varrick out for the way he treats Zhu Li, and it always bothered me that she just went along with everything (but I’ll discuss that further when I talk about Varrick and Zhu Li). Overall I’m not really fond of Varrick as a character, but I can understand why he has appeal. He’s my 14yo’s favourite character, and the story Varrick tells in season 4, “Remembrances,” casting Bolin as the hero of the series and all of the earlier seasons’ bad guys (Amon, Vaatu, Zaheer, and Unalaq) as working together, is my 10yo’s favourite part of the show. I’ll admit, it was hilarious to listen to that story right alongside my kids, and hearing how much we all laughed when Unalaq tried to be part of the bad guy team and was rejected by them. Bolin didn’t seem too impressed at how Varrick changed the story, but it provided some fun comic relief after the heaviness of topics explored in season 4 up until that point.

20. Toph and Her Daughters

Suyin, Toph, and Lin Beifong (Screenshot from episode 4.10: “Operation: Beifong”)

Toph’s relationship with her daughters seems less surprising than learning Aang wasn’t a great father. After all, Toph was already pretty emotionally distant in Avatar, so the fact she didn’t seem to stay with either of her daughters’ fathers isn’t a shock. She also felt too restricted by her parents when she was a kid, so it makes sense that she would want to be polar opposite to her parents and give her daughters the freedom she never received. However, that freedom came with a price, and led to her being just as emotionally distant with them as Toph had been with everyone else in her life. That wasn’t fair to her kids, and we do see exactly how it screwed them both up at various points in their lives, especially in the flashbacks. They both strived for attention from their mother, albeit in very different ways. For Suyin, she rebelled and took to skipping school and committing petty crimes. While Lin tried to make Toph proud by following in her footsteps, following law and order and becoming a cop. It didn’t seem to matter what path they chose, though; Toph didn’t seem care, or pay much attention to their choices.

However, when Lin arrested Suyin, it led to an even bigger rift in their relationship. Toph essentially had to banish Suyin because she couldn’t bring herself to have one of her daughters arrested—and whilst this wound up being exactly what Suyin needed to turn her life around, it led to Lin’s belief that Suyin was responsible for destroying their family and Toph eventually stepping down as Chief of Police. Lin was unable to forgive either of them.

Reflecting on Toph’s past as a distant mother during her children’s formative years, it did feel partially relatable. I have been that emotionally distant mother, when I struggled with my mental health. I saw firsthand how that impacted my youngest kid, who started developing some challenging behaviours around when he was four-years-old. Fortunately I recognised my issues (instead of blaming my kid for what was going on with him) and worked hard on them so I could be a better mother to both of my kids, to the point now where years later I do not feel like I have to worry that my actions are negatively impacting my children’s ability to relate to other people the way Lin is challenged. I do everything I can to make sure my kids know that I love them unconditionally, and they don’t have to do anything in particular to get my attention. They don’t have to prove their worth to me, like it seems like Lin felt she had to do. My own mother was also pretty emotionally distant (which I assume is due to the trauma of losing her parents when she was a teenager), and so, like Toph, I had a desire to give my kids the parenting I wished I’d received. I’ve been where Lin was, too—trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps, and “prove my worth” to her (or, rather, “make her proud”) by taking the classes she wanted me to take in school, so I had the ability to be an engineer like she was (though in a different field). It didn’t make me happy to follow the path I thought my mother wanted for me, so I’ve instilled in my kids that I will be happy with them following whatever path makes them happy. I don’t want them pursuing something that doesn’t interest them if they’re only doing it because they think it’ll make me proud. I don’t think you should ever have to try to prove your worth or value to someone who should love you unconditionally, whether they are family or a romantic partner.

Though Toph was an emotionally distant mother, that doesn’t mean she didn’t love her children. She just wasn’t very good at showing it the way they needed to receive it (just like my mother—I know she loved me and my siblings, she just didn’t often show it in the way I needed to receive it). Toph did teach them metalbending, which would’ve been one thing she did to show she cared—who puts time in to teach anyone anything if they don’t care? Especially if you’re not getting paid for it! Much later in her life, she shows up in season 4 to rescue Suyin and her family from Kuvira, and there’s no way she would’ve risked her life in that situation if she didn’t care. Apparently she had also been able to reestablish a positive relationship with Suyin, and became a decent grandmother. So it was Lin’s resentment that kept their relationship distant.

21. Suyin Beifong and Baatar Jr.

Suyin Beifong caring for her son Baatar Jr. (Screenshot from episode 4.12: “Day of the Colossus”)

This is a great contrast to Toph and her daughters, and feels connected, also. Like Suyin learned from her mother’s mistakes. Baatar Jr. became like the black sheep in the family when he decided to follow Kuvira. He had four siblings, and Suyin seemed a lot like me in her parenting style—fostered and supported all of her children’s unique abilities. Though she was disappointed in Baatar Jr.’s choice to essentially leave the family, she never gave up hoping he’d come back around to them. When he eventually realised his mistake in following Kuvira, though he felt terribly about what he’d done, Suyin immediately welcomed him back with open arms, because that’s how she experiences unconditional motherly love. I haven’t had to experience what it would be like to have a child who goes far off the deep end against the values I’ve instilled in them, like Suyin did with Baatar Jr., but I read about situations like that happening in the news sometimes. When there’s an event like maybe a school shooting, and sometimes the mother is interviewed, and you might hear her talk about how she didn’t raise her kid to be like that. Sometimes I might wonder how I’d react if I was ever in a similar sort of situation.

I don’t think Baatar Jr.’s choice to follow Kuvira was any reflection on how Suyin raised him, and I don’t think the way it was handled in The Legend of Korra suggests that, but often times media representations do suggest a child’s actions are the direct result of how they were parented, or mothered. Often responsibility is seen as falling on the mother’s shoulders. This idea that, “Oh, that person did that terrible thing? Their mother must not have loved them enough.” It doesn’t factor in outside influences the mother or parents have no control over. I think the way this relationship is depicted in the series demonstrates this other perspective. Suyin was the best mother she could possibly be, and still one of her children decided to follow a dictator. It didn’t make her stop loving him unconditionally, but that didn’t mean she had to support his choices. I think that’s the piece that’s missing from the conversation of unconditional love sometimes—we don’t talk about how to continue to love someone unconditionally when they make choices we vehemently disagree with. I think that’s why I had such a visceral reaction to watching this relationship on screen prior to analysing it in my mind. I cried when Suyin welcomed her son back when he realised he was wrong. It was the whole message of, “I still love you, I just didn’t like the way you behaved.” She always wanted him to make the right choice, but she had to be patient and give him the space to figure that out on his own. She couldn’t force it on him, because it would’ve just continued to push him further away. So this felt like one of the best depictions of how to handle unconditional love under these conditions that I’ve ever seen on film or television.

22. Korra and Kuvira

Korra and Kuvira (Screenshot from episode 4.13: “The Last Stand”)

After a whole season of Kuvira trying to be a dictator for the Earth Nation, and Korra trying to stop her at various junctures, the battle culminates in one of my favourite scenes that depict the shades of grey perspective I love about this show. In fact, I’m going to quote the whole conversation because that’s what I want to discuss here.
Kuvira: “Why would you save my life? After everything I did to you?”
Korra: “I guess… I see a lot of myself in you.
Kuvira: “We are nothing alike.”
Korra: “Yes we are. We’re both fierce and determined to succeed. Sometimes without thinking things through.”
Kuvira: “This wasn’t how I wanted things to end. If you’d all just surrendered, none of this would’ve happened.”
Korra: “You brought this on yourself. Messing with the spirit vines. Acting like a dictator over your people. You had to know what you were doing wasn’t right.”
Kuvira: “I was trying to help my people. Suyin turned her back on the Earth Kingdom. You were gone. I had to do something.”
Korra: “I think I get it now.”
Kuvira: “You don’t understand anything about me.”
Korra: “I do. Suyin told me how she took you in when you were younger. It must’ve been so hard being an orphan.”
Kuvira: “Don’t pretend you know what it felt like. The Avatar is adored by millions. I was cast aside by my own parents like I meant nothing to them. How could I just stand by and watch the same thing happen to my nation when it needed someone to guide it?”
Korra: “You wanted to create a place where you and your people would never be vulnerable again. I may not have been an orphan, but believe me, I understand what it feels like to be afraid. After I was poisoned, I would’ve done anything to feel in control.”

With Korra showing compassion and reflecting some understanding of why Kuvira made the decisions she did, and listening to her, Kuvira is able to accept her defeat, and punishment. I love the conversation because Korra finds a way to connect with Kuvira. She finds their similarities, and focuses on those, rather than their differences. It feels hopeful, like she understands that Kuvira wanted to be doing the right thing, which means she has the capacity to do good, but she also acknowledged that Kuvira must have known her methods were not the right path. Still, she recognised how easy it could be to fall victim to making the wrong choices as a result of fear. There is so much truth to that. I’ve seen so many bad choices, including some of my own, been the result of fear. Fears can be hard to face in healthy ways. We can make a lot of unhealthy choices as a result of feeling out of control of our lives, and a desire to regain it. It seems like a lot of control-based abuse stems from that fear. Fear of losing. Fear of not being in control. Showing compassion to a person who has gone to those extremes to try and regain control in their lives may not always work, but I want to believe it is possible that it at least sometimes does, and that’s why I like this scene so much. I choose hope and compassion before punishment and banishment from participating in society. Many people are capable of learning from their mistakes and choosing a better path forward, if shown compassion and someone who believes in them. But they also have to analyse the root cause of their actions, take responsibility for their choices, and dedicate themselves to doing better in the future. Not everyone can do that, but this scene makes me feel like Kuvira is capable of just that.

This is the scene where I most connected with Korra. Because, like Korra, I’ve been through undue trauma, sometimes inflicted by others, and still chosen to try and understand what led the other person to behave the way they did, and choose compassion. That is such an incredibly hard path to follow, because often our natural trauma responses want us to follow a different path, and punish the person who inflicted pain on us. It’s a lot more effort to listen to how the other person is also hurting, offer compassion, and possibly forgiveness. Emotional pain often hurts far deeper than physical pain, and I’ve found that the best way to deal with it is to have a compassionate ear to hear me talk about it and help me work through it. That works far better than the Kuvira style demanding to be followed, “or else.”

23. Varrick and Zhu Li

Varrick and Zhu Li’s wedding (Screenshot from episode 4.13: “The Last Stand”)

I touched on this relationship when I wrote about Bolin and Varrick, as Bolin is the only character in the series who calls out the way Varrick treats Zhu Li. In season 4’s “The Battle of Zaofu,” after Varrick almost blows up Bolin and himself, Bolin says, “I can’t believe Zhu Li worked for you as long as she did.” My thoughts exactly, Bolin. Zhu Li does everything for Varrick, no matter how wild or hair-brained. She seemed to ask for nothing in return, and always knew exactly what he needed even when he couldn’t verbalise specifics, and just told her to “Do the thing.” There never seemed to be a please or thank you, just orders and demands. I couldn’t understand why she’d stay in that situation and didn’t seem bothered by it. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. It felt toxic, and potentially or borderline abusive. No matter how smart or genius Varrick was, it always seemed like he took Zhu Li for granted, and didn’t deserve her devotion and loyalty. So upon my first viewing of the series, when Bolin, Zhu Li, and Varrick were captured after trying to escape Kuvira’s hold, and Zhu Li begged Kuvira for a second chance, and said, “I was blindly devoted to Varrick, and I looked past all the times he ridiculed me, or ordered me around, or made me clean his disgusting feet, because I thought he possessed the most brilliant mind in the world,” I believed she was being genuine, and cheered for her speaking her mind. Even while I was confused why she would choose to follow Kuvira instead.

As it turned out, Zhu Li pledging loyalty to Kuvira was all a ploy, an effort to try and slow her down or stop her. She never stopped being loyal to Varrick, and in fact was in love with him the whole time. I have a strong negative reaction to this relationship because I have read about far too many cases of this being the ideal relationship for a good percentage of men—having a devoted woman in his life who does everything he wants and doesn’t have to do anything for her in return. I don’t like seeing that kind of relationship idealised because it is very rare for me to find a woman who is genuinely happy in that kind of relationship. Yes there exists a small percentage of women who desire to play a submissive rather than equal role to their male partner, but it seems to be a much lower percentage than the number of men who desire that same power imbalance, and want to rule over their romantic partner, and essentially treat her like an object. I don’t have any figures on what that percentage is, and I personally probably know more men who prefer an equal partnership, because that’s the kind of company I prefer to keep, but that doesn’t mean the men who desire that dominant role don’t exist. And I sometimes think highlighting this kind of Varrick/Zhu Li dynamic in a multitude of media offerings is at least partly to blame for why so many men think that’s an ideal romantic relationship structure. It gets romanticised far too often in the media men consume, and they don’t talk to enough women to understand very few of them would find that an acceptable way for them to live. Women do not exist to do men’s bidding. Women have their own lives and goals and dreams.

I have mixed feelings about when Zhu Li inevitably returns to Varrick’s side, and demands to be treated as an equal. On the one hand, Varrick does actually start treating her with more respect and appreciation, and even proposes to her. On the other—this feels incredibly unrealistic, and setting women who are living in similar scenarios up for potential disappointment and failure, because it seems rare for someone who is as toxic as Varrick is toward Zhu Li to turn around and change because he suddenly realised how much he missed or needed the woman he depended on for everything. It’s far more likely that a Varrick in that scenario would see their Zhu Li leaving as a betrayal, and if she does return, he would ramp up the abuse as punishment for ever trying to leave in the first place, and to teach her a lesson to never return. I’m grateful that Varrick doesn’t do that himself (and winds up doing even better to support Zhu Li after the series ends, if you have the chance to read the Legend of Korra: Turf Wars graphic novel—if only that was more common), I just wish it wasn’t so unrealistic. I wish more people made the effort to recognise their flaws and choose to treat the people in their lives better. Plus, Zhu Li is an awesome character and totally deserved better for so long.

24. Mako and Bolin

Mako and Bolin (Screenshot from episode 4.13: “The Last Stand”)

I adore this relationship. I think it’s a great representation of brotherly love. Because even when they fight (like when they were both attracted to Korra, and Bolin caught Mako kissing her), they’re always able to make up and forgive. They really do care about each other. As the older brother, Mako is always trying to look out for Bolin and would do anything for him, and also tries to keep Bolin out of trouble, but isn’t domineering about it. My favourite scene between them comes in the final episode, when Mako says he’s going to blast Kuvira’s spirit vines with lightning, and Bolin responds, “This isn’t the time to prove how awesome you are. I already know how awesome you are. You’re awesome.” He’s really afraid he’s going to lose his brother and he’d rather not have Mako risk his life to stop Kuvira. Yet, he understands it’s the right thing to do, and doesn’t argue. Instead, they hug, and tell each other they love each other. It feels so rare to see men tell another man they platonically love them on screen, even as brothers. It’s not “macho,” or it’s “too girly” for a man to express his emotions, so anytime I see otherwise on screen feels like a gift. Mako and Bolin are both kick-ass men with awesome bending abilities, and saying “I love you” does not change that. The way I see it, there is strength in sharing that vulnerability, and their familial love for each other helps get them through the toughest challenges. Bolin doesn’t leave Mako behind, either, after Mako attacks the spirit vines and is wounded. After leaving the chamber with Kuvira’s minions so they survive the attack, Bolin goes back in to make sure Mako survives. It just feels like an ideal sibling relationship across the whole series.

25. Korra and Asami

Asami teaching Korra how to drive (Screenshot from 3.01: “A Breath of Fresh Air”)

I saved this relationship for last because a) it’s my favourite and b) it felt like a good bookend after opening with Mako and Korra. Though Korra was initially jealous of Asami because Mako was dating her when they first met, that didn’t last too long. Korra’s jealousy settled down a little when she accepted that Mako chose to continue dating Asami after Korra revealed her own attraction toward him, but there still appeared to be a little resentment there, due to assumptions Korra made about Asami. These were likely based on the fact Asami is quite physically attractive, and comes from a rich family. That changed the moment Asami took Korra out on the race car track, shattering those assumptions. Asami wasn’t a prissy rich girl. She was an adventurous, intelligent young lady. And though Korra ruffled feathers when she accused Asami’s father of supporting Amon, when the truth was revealed, Asami supported Korra over her own father, and fully worked with her, including using one of her father’s inventions to support Korra’s fight. When Asami realised her boyfriend was in love with Korra, it didn’t really impact her friendship with Korra too much.

However, they have differing paths in season 2, with Korra following her Avatar journey and Asami trying to rebuild her father’s company, so it’s not until season 3 that we really get to see their friendship blossom—when Mako is awkward around them as Korra and Asami get closer to each other. And I love the scene where Asami teaches Korra how to drive a car. At the end of this season, it’s Asami who is closest to Korra, pushing her in her wheelchair even as Korra feels helpless.

Korra blushes when Asami compliments her hair (Screenshot from episode 4.07: “Reunion”)

Three years pass between season 3 and 4, and I confess even before I’d seen it the first time, I had seen spoilers on Twitter that suggested Korra and Asami end up together, so I kept looking for those signs. Some of them were subtle. Like the fact Asami was the only one of Korra’s friends who she felt like she could write to as she was stuck in the Southern Water Tribe, trying to recover from her trauma and overcome her disability. She didn’t know how to talk to Mako and Bolin, but she exchanged letters with Asami. The first strong indication that Korra was attracted to Asami as more than a friend was when Asami complimented Korra’s new haircut, causing Korra to blush (see the above screenshot). This is the first time they’re seeing each other again after Korra’s years away, and seeing them at lunch together with Mako and Prince Wu, Mako feels as much like a third wheel as Prince Wu does in this scene. It just feels like they’d rather be catching up, just the two of them. There’s not much time for that, however, as Prince Wu soon goes missing and the three of them have to go rescue him.

Most of the rest of the season focuses more on Kuvira’s plot and how to stop her than it does Korra and Asami’s connection, but we are rewarded in the final episode, when all has been won, and Asami and Korra sit together, talking. With Korra comforting Asami after the loss of her father, since they’d reconnected and he wound up helping them defeat Kuvira. It feels more caring than Korra had managed to achieve with Mako. They feel like equals. The series ends with Asami asking Korra to take her on vacation to the Spirit World, and they join hands as they walk through the new Spirit Portal in Republic City.

Korra comforts Asami (Screenshot from episode 4.13: “The Last Stand”)

The first time I watched the series, I was disappointed with this ending. Two female platonic friends could’ve done exactly the same thing. I was disappointed because it didn’t feel clear enough that they were both romantically attracted to each other, and given the spoiler I’d read, I expected something more obvious. By the time I watched the series the second time, however, I learned that their relationship was more overt in the graphic novel sequel (Turf Wars, which I mentioned previously, and have since read and can confirm they are romantically involved in that). So when my 10yo declared at the end of the series that he thought Mako and Korra would end up together in the long-term, I waited until the end of the final episode—when he had the chance to watch them walk through the Spirit Portal together—before explaining to him that actually Korra ends up with Asami. “But isn’t that illegal?” My kid asked. Despite the fact I was reasonably sure I’ve talked to him about same-sex relationships existing in the past, this was what he’d thought. I told him no, it’s not illegal. People of the same gender are in fact allowed to get married in the US, though that is not the case everywhere in the world. I know there are plenty of conservative people who think it’s wrong to show queer relationships in entertainment media that children consume, but personally I feel like my kid’s reaction is exactly why queer relationships should be treated as a normal part of life in the media designed for them. Not seeing it might lead them to default to thinking it’s wrong, and that’s not the messaging that supports queer youth. Without representation, they’re more likely to be bullied, because other kids aren’t exposed to diverse sexualities. Plus it’s easier to have those conversations with younger children when that representation exists.

I get that the final season of The Legend of Korra was released in 2014. The US wasn’t quite there yet in mainstream animation. Marriage equality was only fully legalised in the US in 2015. It takes time. But this is another reason I’m excited about Avatar Studios creating new animations. Hopefully other diverse relationships will be able to be explored further—Turf Wars, after all, reveals an additional two women characters who are also attracted to women. I’d love to see those explored more in depth too.

In Conclusion

I’m not sure what the impact on my life would have been had a show like The Legend of Korra existed when I was a kid. Some of the content is incredibly intense, and I’m not sure I could’ve navigated it on my own. I’m glad my kids watched it with me, because it meant I could talk to them about some of the more challenging topics, and discuss the trauma and manipulation themes. My 10yo got so invested in the show that he has read the majority of this post as I’ve been working on it over the last few weeks (I didn’t share the introductory section with him, and a couple of bits I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with him), and overall I am confident that his reading and our conversations about these relationships will help set him on a path to choosing healthy relationship dynamics as he grows up. Given that we’re both autistic, and I didn’t receive the same kind of guidance when I was a kid, I just want to set him up for success. So he knows how to treat others with respect, and how to recognise when someone might be trying to manipulate him. The Legend of Korra was the perfect avenue for us to have those conversations.

This was a really long analysis of what I felt were the most significant relationships in the series, but I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts. If you’re familiar with the series, what worked for you, and what didn’t? Which relationships and characters did you feel most connected with? Did you learn anything from the relationship dynamics? How do you think your life might be different if you’d grown up after watching a show like this as a kid? I’m interested in hearing and/or discussing any of your thoughts and reactions to the show.


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