“True freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are torn down.” These phrases learn like a message Sharpied onto a cardboard protest signal, however in season 3 of The Legend of Korra, they’re spoken by the antagonist, Zaheer.
Like its beloved predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra speaks to the ache and risk of our present second, following the grasp of all 4 parts as she struggles to reside as much as her previous lives, confront her opponents, and restore steadiness. This August, when the world wanted it most — within the midst of a world pandemic — the groundbreaking, polarizing sequel debuted on Netflix. And whereas your complete present is apropos right this moment, the third season of Korra hits otherwise in 2020: The collection’ villain and his quest to free the world of monarchs, nations, and borders are finally righteous. Book 3 might be described because the “red scare” season.
Unlike The Last Airbender, during which Aang’s lengthy journey leads him to a faceoff towards the colonizing, genocidal Fire Lord Ozai, Korra goes face to face with 4 foes, one per season. Many have noticed that these adversaries may be interpreted as metaphors for excessive political ideologies like theocracy (Unalaq) and fascism (Kuvira). Zaheer, voiced by former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, isn’t any exception. Yet, Korra’s season 3 enemy is an outlier within the pantheon of Avatar villains: Representing anarchy, he works in a collective, and his end-goal is freedom, not energy.
[Ed. word: The following accommodates main spoilers for all of The Legend of Korra.]
When Book 3 begins, Korra has simply defeated Unalaq and reopened the portals between the bodily and spirit worlds, integrating the 2. Harmonic Convergence, an alignment of planets that happens each 10,000 years, has additionally induced nonbenders to manifest airbending skills, resuscitating the near-extinct energy. Among these new airbenders is Zaheer, a scholar of airbender Guru Laghima’s teachings whom viewers meet on the finish of the primary episode as he breaks free from a jail cell.
Locked away for making an attempt to kidnap Korra when she was a baby, Zaheer subsequent liberates his co-conspirators and comrades: the lavabender Ghazan, waterbender Ming-Hua, and combustionbender P’Li. In his 13-episode arc, he murders the Earth Queen in a surprisingly explicit scene, holds a neighborhood of air nomads hostage, and makes an attempt to kill Korra whereas she’s within the Avatar state with a purpose to finish the Avatar cycle eternally. In the collection, Zaheer’s actions are thought of indefensible. The drama of the season positions the fugitive as radical and “crazy,” and anarchy is conflated with chaos. Characters inside Korra’s circle who advise her like Aang’s son Tenzin and Toph’s daughter Lin Beifong, repeatedly use ableist phrases like “lunatic” to explain him.
Team Avatar is the viewers’s ethical compass; although Korra and her buddies are imperfect and make errors, their views are supposed to information the viewers. When they label Zaheer a terrorist, viewers hear. Reina Sultan, journalist and co-creator of 8 to Abolition, a useful resource about police and jail abolition within the United States, just lately tweeted, “I can’t consider how soiled LOK did Zaheer.” She defined the tweet to Polygon: “It’s not lost on me that Zaheer has an Arab name, further othering him to American audiences who already fear any type of politics that decry capitalism and imperialism.” Even the moniker of the key society to which Zaheer belongs, “the Red Lotus,” is a tip off to the viewers that he presents a uniquely harmful, fringe menace to Korra and the world; the colour pink is usually related to left-wing ideologies.
Over the course of the season, nevertheless, the liberty fighter’s motives turn out to be clear, whereas the distinction between proper and mistaken turns into fuzzier. As Zaheer explains to Korra in episode 9, the Red Lotus started as a faction contained in the White Lotus, an historical group devoted to sharing information regardless of borders and politics. Ex-White Lotus member Xia Bau based the Red Lotus after the Hundred Year War as a result of he believed the unique group had “lost its true purpose.” As Zaheer says, “Its members … became nothing but glorified bodyguards who served corrupt nations.” So the anarchist’s intention, just like the Avatar’s, is to revive steadiness to the world, although their conceptions of steadiness are completely different. He implores her, “You’ve had to deal with a moronic president and a tyrannical queen. Don’t you think the world would be better off if leaders like them were eliminated?” As author Toussaint Egan factors out, one in all Korra’s most constant flaws is her blind religion in authority figures and current energy constructions. Although Zaheer’s phrases initially give her pause, she by no means significantly entertains the deserves of his concepts.
The worldbuilding in The Legend of Korra suggests they do have deserves. Throughout the collection, and notably within the third guide, we see the struggling wrought by the programs the antagonist seeks to topple. The White Lotus, performing as a United Nations-like entity, has assumed a task because the world’s police, guarding prisons and combating in wars. The despotic Earth Queen makes use of her place to extend her private wealth, forcibly conscripts Ba Sing Se’s new airbenders to her military, permits the segregation of the capital’s residents by class, and subjugates the poorest residents within the decrease ring. When Zaheer overthrows her, he pronounces over the town’s loudspeakers that the Queen has been introduced down by “revolutionaries.” He bellows, “My identity is not important. I’m not here to take over the Earth Kingdom … no longer will you be oppressed by tyrants.” As he speaks, Ghazan lavabends openings within the rings, integrating the lessons. The individuals cheer.
Unlike Amon, who exploits nonbenders’ discontent for private acquire, and Unalaq, who manipulates Korra into opening the portals to the spirit world so he can merge with Vaatu and turn out to be the Dark Avatar, Zaheer’s perception system is real — not a Trojan horse for energy — and the collection’ writers make his arguments compelling. He isn’t depicted solely as an anarchist straw man. From his romantic relationship to P’Li, to his honest admiration of air nomad tradition, to his want to uplift the oppressed, the character possesses dimension. When requested about Zaheer, collection co-creator Bryan Konietzko just lately instructed Polygon that the antagonist’s complexity was very intentional, citing Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a film during which “there [aren’t] any villains, but rather people with competing interests,” as inspiration for depicting ethical grey areas in his storytelling. “He makes some really good points,” the creator added. In the context of a mess of world crises in 2020, this nuanced portrayal raises the query: Was Zaheer proper?
Quite a bit has modified since Book 3 of Korra initially aired in 2014. Under the Obama administration, seen by many as a time of measured progress, Zaheer might have regarded extra like an extremist, and anarchy like chaos. But the ideology isn’t out of step with the wants of our present actuality: This yr, anarchists have began mutual help teams to step in the place governments have failed throughout COVID-19, stood on the entrance strains at Black Lives Matter protests, and led the rising motion for police and prison abolition. Viewers’ relationships to energy and heads of state have advanced.
In the present, Zaheer crosses a line when he murders the Earth Queen and when he makes an attempt to kill Korra, however in our present cultural context, these acts are extra morally ambiguous. The collection mirrors many debates right this moment concerning the function of violence in changemaking. This summer time, through the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd and capturing of Jacob Blake, a lot discourse has focussed on whether or not “violent” protests do extra hurt than good, criticism typically homing in on the dozen individuals who have died throughout these conflicts (although as of September, ABC reports that many of those deaths had been circumstantial, not political). Many journalists have identified, and bystanders have seen, that whereas rioting is frightening and harmful, it will probably result in quick social reform. As violent motion within the pursuit of justice has turn out to be much less stigmatized and its usefulness understood, a viewership’s capacity to sympathize with Zaheer and his ways has elevated.
This season additionally raises related questions on why particular person acts of aggression — Zaheer’s homicide of the Earth Queen, protesters looting of shops — are sometimes framed as violence, whereas state-sanctioned abuse — the Earth Queen’s imprisonment of air benders, police brutality — is positioned as nearly mundane, the pure byproduct of a fallible system. Sultan additionally notes that in Korra, carceral punishment is glorified as a way of penalizing those that would establish this inconsistency. Much ado is made concerning the specialized prisons containing the Red Lotus members, guarded by White Lotus troopers; when Zaheer is defeated on the finish of Book 3, he’s detained in an historical temple retrofitted as a most safety facility, a construction symbolic of the society’s shift towards viewing jail as the final word instrument of justice. It’s value noting, too, that so far as viewers know, Zaheer’s physique rely is significantly decrease than Team Avatar’s over the course of the collection. Clearly, pacifism just isn’t the final word barometer of morality within the Avatar universe (or our personal).
Both on this planet of the present and in actuality, violent acts that uphold programs of oppression are so inevitable, they’re practically invisible. As Zaheer observes, “When you base your expectations only on what you see, you blind yourself to the possibilities of a new reality.” But that’s the true kicker: Korra doesn’t need to create a brand new actuality. At least, not totally.
As the Avatar, Korra’s operate is to uphold steadiness, to not create change. Many of the individuals in her internal circle are themselves pillars of institutional energy (Lin, the Chief of Police; Tenzin as a Republic City council member; Tonraq, the chief of the Southern Water Tribe) and inherited wealth, like her eventual love curiosity, Asami Sato. As the Avatar, Korra doesn’t exist exterior the programs Zaheer critiques. Rather, her id necessitates her proximity to these in management positions, which impacts the views she sees as priceless. While Korra has her personal motivations, she is finally beholden to the leaders and governments of the world she serves. When she subverts expectations in season 2 by reconnecting the human and spirit worlds, she’s roundly criticized by President Raiko, the press, and the residents of Republic City. Throughout the collection, Korra strives to forge her personal path whereas fulfilling her responsibility. Settling for this center floor, she finds that Zaheer provides change too radical for her to abide.
Particularly in season 3 of The Legend of Korra, “bringing balance to the world” means preserving the established order. In season 4, whereas recovering from the emotional and bodily trauma of her showdown with Zaheer, Korra visits an aged Toph within the swamp. The metalbending grasp provides the Avatar these phrases of knowledge about her earlier enemies: “The problem was those guys were totally out of balance, and they took their ideologies too far.” Drawing upon Eastern philosophical traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, the collection typically means that steadiness is synonymous with moderation or centrism. But as Tayari Jones argued for Time in 2018, “The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there.” Korra’s respectability politics — prioritizing steadiness above all else — stall change, good and dangerous. And in accordance with Zaheer, “Once change begins, it cannot be stopped.”
We’re residing in an unprecedented time: The world is grappling with a world pandemic; America is reeling from a collection of police killings of Black individuals and acknowledging its racist historical past, leading to nationwide protests and strikes; rising pure disasters portend the local weather collapse to come back; and a pivotal election will decide our method to those crises and the trail ahead.
Provocative in 2013, the third season of The Legend of Korra leaves a extra sophisticated legacy in 2020. Re-evaluating the motivations and actions of the present’s heroes and villains right this moment forces audiences to wrestle with the blurring line between good and dangerous and decide whose aspect they’re on. These days, it’s more durable to root for the hero.