Last weekend’s episode of The Legend of Korra left me furiously disappointed for a multitude of reasons, but one element in particular threw the show’s failures into sharp relief: the extended sequence of Varrick’s propaganda film in support of the Southern Water Tribe, featuring Bolin playing Nuktuk, Hero of the South.
The film sequence itself was beautifully realised, but its place within the episode, and that episode’s place within the season, reminded me powerfully of the last time we saw characters in this universe watching themselves portrayed: back in Book 3, Episode 17 of Avatar: The Last Airbender, with “The Ember Island Players.”
Unfortunately, the differences between the episodes speak volumes about everything that’s gone wrong with Legend of Korra.
“The Ember Island Players” was one of the most sophisticated and beautifully crafted episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Toph, and Suki discover that they and their exploits around the world have become the subject of a play being performed that evening, and decide to attend. We watch our protagonists watching representations of themselves—representations which are in-world responses to the characters but that ironically draw on fan reception of the show—and see them respond to those representations with outrage, humour, sadness, and introspection.
Katara is shocked to see herself being played by a buxom adult who’s constantly weeping and giving speeches about hope. Sokka hates that his actor’s jokes are bad. Aang hates that he’s being portrayed as a flighty prankster—by a woman. Zuko hates that he’s shown to be stiff and humourless. Toph, on the other hand, loves that she’s being played by an enormous, muscle-bound man.
Of course the game of these representations is that they are aspects of the characters. The problem is not that the portrayals are categorically untrue, but that they are slivers of the characters that have been exaggerated in order to represent—and, consequently, obscure—them as wholes. Katara does talk about hope a lot, but she is also kind, caring, supportive, and fierce; Sokka does have a corny sense of humour, but he’s also creative, a brilliant strategist, and determined warrior. Aang does love to have fun and is indeed still a child, but he is also carrying a world’s worth of responsibility on his shoulders and struggling with the reality of reconciling his pacifism with everyone’s expectation that he not only defeat, but kill the Fire Lord. Zuko is absolutely stiff and humourless, but he has suffered through an abusive childhood, the rejection of everything he was taught to revere, and is wracked with guilt over his betrayal of Iroh. And while Toph has certainly demonstrated her ability to best big strong guys in combat, one could argue that she embraces that representation because it supersedes the one she has lived with all her life: that of being seen as limited and fragile because of her blindness. In reducing
Toph’s character to a man’s physical strength, the stage representation has (accidentally) given her a triumph over the different, more hurtful representation of herself as a delicate, helpless little girl.
Throughout the episode, we see the characters confront these representations and discuss them amongst each other, navigating the failures and successes of each other’s portrayals in different ways, and learning something about how they see each other as well. The episode is a storytelling triumph, building a web of interaction that feels four-dimensional as it comments on audience, performance, and reception in layered and complex ways. Numerous essays have been written about it, and I could go on at length about its many felicities while only scratching the surface of what it succeeds in achieving.
Which brings me, sadly, to Legend of Korra and the portrayal of Bolin in “The Sting.”
With each “Book” being given only 12 episodes (as compared to A:tLA’s 20), one expects that LoK would be somewhat more limited in its scope, and that the characters would need to be painted with broader strokes than in A:tLA. But instead, each successive season has suffered replicative fading, gradually losing detail and complexity in its characters and world-building. Effectively, everything positive about Bolin from last season—the warmth and devotion to his only remaining family member, his positive attitude, his friendly openness, his kindness—have been reduced to a farcical caricature. He’s received the Ember Island Players’ treatment at the hands of the writers of the show.
So it is ironically appropriate that Bolin, who has been so reduced, should become the actor playing Nuktuk: an unrealistic—if not outright fetishistic—depiction of a Southern Water Tribe warrior, baring skin in the snow and performing an appearance of water-bending. Not only is Nuktuk a fanciful invention, there is a sense in which he is partly a perverted depiction of the Avatar, given the Southern origin and presence of a polar bear dog (well, “Arctic Panda”) sidekick.
Just as with “The Ember Island Players,” we see Bolin watching the depiction in question—but his role in it mirrors the role he’s being given in the show. Instead of watching the film itself, the position of his seat and Varrick’s assertion that he sees “a star being born” are invitations to watch the audience and its reaction to the film.
While this is certainly effective at conveying the film’s role as cheap propaganda—and while I will say again that the film itself is a brilliantly stylised tribute to early cinema and is definitely one for Legend of Korra’s “win” column—it also drives home what a parody of himself Bolin has become: one incapable of separating fantasy from reality. This dialogue between him and Varrick proves unintentionally ironic:
“Bolin, look up there: what do you see?”
“Is… That a trick question?”
Bolin literally can’t tell the difference between Nuktuk and himself. He collapses into Nuktuk; Nuktuk obliterates Bolin. Bolin sees no separation between the character he plays and the person he himself is. For the entire first half of Book 2: Spirits, Bolin has been a caricature of himself, and now he’s literally playing a caricature in the movies, declaring “But Nuktuk IS Bolin. I’m a hero!”
This culminates in the worst character assassination I’ve seen yet on the show, when Bolin goes off-script in a rescue scene with Ginger in order to sexually assault his co-star. For anyone who thinks that choice of words is too strong, please bear in mind that Ginger has repeatedly made very clear that she has no interest in Bolin; that he forcibly kisses Ginger while she’s tied down to a table; that in reaction, she makes an outraged noise, looks furious, and balls her hands into fists; and that while Bolin is dreamily saying “it felt so right,” she’s making a disgusted sound and walking away. Bolin later says, echoing the rhetoric of gaslighting abusers everywhere: “So, that kiss! I liked it. And it seemed like you liked it too.”
Where “The Ember Island Players” was simultaneously a summation of previous plotlines, an opportunity for the main characters to reflect on those events and examine themselves and their relationships with each other, and a wry meta-commentary on the reciprocal nature of creative work and its reception, “The Sting” is, at best, only a condemnation of propaganda and those who produce and consume it, with its greatest achievement being the successful representation of the propaganda it’s condemning. There is so little of the nuance and sophistication that made “The Ember Island Players” work as well as it did, and so much that invites the unfortunate comparison. Indeed, I’m left thinking that the newsreel frame that introduces each episode of The Legend of Korra is inadvertently commenting on the flatness of the whole: perhaps we are in fact watching a poor copy of events that took place with more complexity than we are being shown. Perhaps we are, all of us, still on Ember Island, watching middling actors lurch through one-note characterisations, insipid love triangles, and cardboard villains towards unlikely, unearned endings.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter, where she gives vent to yet more fan rage over this particular show as well as occasionally talking about cats.