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Abandon Ship! The Legend of Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”

There are three major threads running through this season of The Legend of Korra: The Equalists, professional bending, and romance. It seems like we only get two of the three in each episode; “The Voice in the Night” dealt with The Equalists and set up a romantic triangle by introducing Asami; “The Revelation” was about trying to get money for the pro-bending tournament as well as Amon and the Equalists, and “A Leaf in the Winds” introduced the “brothers from the school of hard knocks” and the sport of bending all at once. The most recent episode, “The Spirit of Competition,” is all about the love triangle and the world of professional sports, with nary a mention of The Equalists.

This was a big episode for spoiling people’s shipping preferences. Really, I think it is the lightest “poke it with a stick” version of that, though you wouldn’t know it judging by some fan’s reactions. In a spoilery nutshell: we get Korra going on dates with Bolin, even though she isn’t interested in him romantically; we get Mako confessing that he has feelings for both Asami and Korra, and he hasn’t sorted them out, and then immediately thereafter we get Korra kissing Mako and Bolin witnessing it. It is handled as one big romantic farce, and for my money, I like it that way. Twelfth Night is my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies, after all.

Korra is not perfect. She is a flawed and human character. I said there was no mention of Amon and the Equalists, but that isn’t quite true; I can’t help but think that Korra’s actions are informed by a little post-traumatic stress. They are definitely informed by imperfect advice—Jinora is adorably nerdy, giving Korra advice gleaned from epic tragedy; Ikki’s version of advice seems like it originates in the second season finale of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and Pema’s advice is simultaneously far too specific and far too generic all at once. Pema told Tenzin her feelings when he was in a relationship—of course that begs the question of “with who?” and since Lin Beifong is the other most notable adult woman we’ve seen Tenzin talk to, she’s fandom’s suspect number one—but she doesn’t lay out a path for Korra to talk to Mako about her feelings. Leaving her to muddle through them in a sloppy, disastrous fashion.

You know who this is in character for? Someone who is a reincarnated Aang. Let’s not forget the previous Avatar’s poor choice of timing when it comes to kissing. At the invasion, Aang kissed Katara…and then took off before they could talk about it; then on Ember Island Aang kissed Katara again after she had just said she didn’t know what her feelings were and needed space to figure them out. Korra shares in that impulsiveness. You know what? Lots of people do. Relationships are messy and confusing. I think the “zero tolerance for cheating!” people are a little bit quick to the post, and ignore the realities of the situation. Mako and Asami just started seeing each other. We don’t know that they are exclusive. Yes, obviously Mako needs to talk to Asami about his feelings regarding her and Korra, and yes, everyone is going about everything in a mixed-up, backwards way. Drama! Conflict! These are the things that drive stories. Just because Korra is the Avatar, that doesn’t mean she has romance all figured out.

I think there are elements of the Legend of Korra fandom who need to settle down. People have built up an untenable and personal “headcanon”—their very own preferred version of what they think The Legend of Korra is and will become—and they need to understand that they’re creating an internal mythology that is not necessarily going to be supported by the show itself. I don’t know what the resolution of the romantic triangles will be. None of us do. If you are picking a team because you think it is fun to root for your favorite relationship—”Makorra” or “Masami” or “Kolin” or whatever— then so be it, but the intertextual relationship of fandom, fan fiction and the core text material itself is a bad place to draw a line in the sand. If you approach the show with the idea that your opinions are the only correct ones, you are dooming yourself to disappointment. The Legend of Korra is a roller coaster, complete with ups and downs; come along for the ride.

There are complaints that I definitely sympathize with. I would like to see more Asami on screen; right now we’re seen her meet Mako and immediately the two of them are arm in arm, rubbing their noses together. We the audience need to see more of her, we need to form our own attachment to her for the Korra-Mako-Asami triangle to really work. and I know some people feel like the Bolin-Korra-Mako triangle was hurried, but I think that is the wrong way of looking at it. What “The Spirit of Competition” did was get the easy romantic comedy angle out of the way up front, and showcase the characters in situ. We know Bolin is a good date; we know he and Korra have good chemistry on at least a platonic level. We know Mako does in fact have some kind of romantic feelings for Korra, but also has them for Asami. Cards are out on the table. We know that Mako and Bolin are brothers, and that their fraternal relationship is not so fragile that romantic competition will break it. Heck, for that matter, we know that their sense of loyalty to their team mate is so strong that romantic rejection—from either direction— won’t ruin their friendship with Korra. Now that the puppy love is over and done with, we can let the story run to deeper currents.

On the pro-bending side, I’m excited that we’ve now gotten a chance to see all three members of the team save the day in the eleventh hour. Early on we see Mako single-handedly take down the Tigerdillos with his “trademark cool under fire” style; this episode we see Bolin really shine with his earthbending, winning the tie-breaker round against the Boarcupines, and we see Korra pull out a hat-trick triple knockout against the Buzzard Wasps. It is great that we get to see everyone working both as an ensemble and as individuals; it would be easy to make Mako the family phenom, but showing that he and his brother are both strong competitors adds an element of depth to their relationship, keeping it from some of the easy fraternal traps of resentment. Mako may be the brooding, dreamy firebender, but Bolin is a charming, photogenic earthbender with his own strong suits.

The team names in pro-bending are awesome callbacks to Avatar: the Last Airbender. Remember how terrifying the wolf-bats were in the secret tunnel? Or how scary it was when Appa had to fight that boarcupine? Good picks for team names and evocative of the greater world of the Four Nations outside Republic City. Speaking of, this was a great episode for the animal characters of The Legend of Korra overall. Naga’s big bad wolf impression startling smug jerk Tahno? Wet Pabu? Fat Pabu? The Air Nomad family feeding the flying lemurs? The only thing missing was “Oogie, yip yip!” Oh! Oh! and Flameo Instant Noodles! Come on, with that gag and basically every single one of Bolin’s lines, this one deserves way more credit than I think it is getting. Romance and comedy, without devolving into rom-com clichés? Score another one for The Legend of Korra.

Mordicai Knode can’t wait to see Korra talk to Aang in the spirit world but is even more excited for Uncle Zuko. Tell him who you want to see from Avatar: the Last Airbender in The Legend of Korra on Twitter.


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