Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Legend of Korra, and More Babbling about Pacing

It’s been a few days since I (finally) got around to finishing The Legend of Korra, and I have yet to come to a decision regarding what I witnessed. Really. I’ve not been so conflicted about a piece of entertainment since the Watchmen movie.

Because any fair evaluation of the mini-series brings up a lot of good qualities. The animation is, of course, beautiful, the voice acting is resoundingly superb, the characters are interesting, the story is mature without wallowing in darkness, and not only topical but endlessly discussion-worthy. Equality vs. the individual, the greater good, when good intentions become twisted into something sinister and deadly, suppression of rights, suppression of entire populations, bigotry, deceit, child abuse…there’s some heavy slabs of meat being put down to grill in The Legend of Korra, no different than its predecessor.

And yet…I can’t shake the feeling that something went wrong. A wrench stunting previously smooth-running machinery.

I should set this up by saying that I originally started watching Korra weekly when it first came on Nick, before life got in the way and I was unable to keep up with it as readily.

Well, that’s not entirely true. If I had desperately wanted to keep up with it, I probably would have found a way. But the sad truth is that I simply didn’t have the desire, and it’s this aspect I want to examine. Why did I not care enough about the series to find a way to watch it?

I remembered the series a few days ago and finished it off in an evening (I had stopped watching around episode 6, so it didn’t take too long). Watching the episodes all in a row, it becomes perfectly apparent what the problem is:


II. Another Few Words about Pacing

So if you read my The Shining review you’ll remember that I upheld the novel as a great example of pacing in genre fiction and my reasons why. And while I won’t go into those reasons here, suffice it to say that one of The Legend of Korra’s biggest—perhaps even its only issue—is pacing. But what a big issue it is.

Korra’s pacing is hopelessly disjointed. Plot points suddenly introduced out of nowhere, plots built up for three and four episodes forgotten until very near the end, moments that should have been carefully considered, timed, and lingered upon coming and going so quickly it almost causes whiplash, important pieces of information blatantly introduced without any setup whatsoever--a huge no-no that Avatar: The Last Airbender pretty much avoided entirely.

I simply can’t make excuses or deny the fact: Korra’s narrative structure is bordering on horrendous. And I’m going to list the two biggest reasons why.

Problem I: Huge Plot Points are Introduced with Neither Setup nor Foreshadowing

I should probably write a blog post one day on just how important foreshadowing is to the organic structure of a work (Note to self: write blog post on just how important foreshadowing is to the organic structure of a work. –E), but it really is paramount. Remember, humans like to see patterns. They want to comprehend. They want to see reason. So we wear the same shirt every gameday since it "made" our team win the last couple of weeks. And humans will be baffled when an important point comes out of nowhere for no reason with no setup. It’s simple human nature. Your brain notices structure, notices small bits of foreshadowing even if you aren’t consciously aware of it, and I like to think that when a badly-done deus ex machina occurs in fiction or on film a human brain literally twists in half trying to make sense of it. The whole reason the term “plot hole” came about was that people were aware, on some level, of things that flipped the rules of the story without appropriate consideration.

Now this section isn’t really about plot holes—it’s not even really about foreshadowing. It’s about pacing; but it’s very easy to mess up foreshadowing by bad pacing, and it’s very easy to forget to foreshadow because your pacing is not well-planned or progressing as it should.

The two worst examples of this come in the finale, where Korra—literally out of nowhere—can suddenly airbend and uses that to defeat Amon. The second is when Tarlok reveals that Amon is his brother. Both examples are indicative of different problems Mike and Bryan had with the interplay between foreshadowing and pacing.

For Korra’s airbending, it had been well-established in the first few episodes that she had a lot of trouble with it, mainly due to her lack of spirituality and connection to her past lives, as well as her insatiable pride.  Then the issue is entirely forgotten. For several episodes. It is literally not even mentioned. This is a problem, because when she finally does airbend it comes out of nowhere and feels completely unearned, requiring fans to make extreme gymnastics of logic to force the event to fit into the tapestry of the narrative.

But Mr. Eeeee… the three people reading this in Russian Siberia are asking. How could you make it feel earned and foreshadow it any better, especially in light of the fact that the last few episodes of the series move at such a breakneck pace? There’s no time to stop and reflect again on Korra’s problems with airbending.

There’s no simple answer to this, unfortunately, and it probably proves that Korra needed another rewrite that I doubt the two creators had time to get through. We’ll get to the time issue in a minute, but as it is, while it may be difficult to sprinkle the issue of airbending here and there, especially in the final arc of the season, you have to do it, in whatever way you can that’s sensible and logical. Maybe Korra reflects on her airbending with Mako. Maybe in secret, when nobody's looking, she tries it, even just to remind the audience that it's still a problem for her. Maybe she discusses it with Tenzin. Anything. And you should definitely bring up at least the idea that airbending—being a spiritual exercise—can come to you suddenly in the depths of despair and hopelessness and, yes, love.

Because that’s basically what happens right? Amon’s about to but a serious hurtin’ on Mako, Korra has no recourse, her bending’s been stripped, and she basically lashes out in desperation at Amon, and somehow that triggers her airbending? Even though there was no mention of this kind of action or necessity in the rest of the season? If we went purely by the evidence we’re given at the beginning of the season, airbending is a spiritual discipline, requiring patience, mediation, and peace with oneself. In no way was that Korra’s state of mind when she’s suddenly able to airbend. Meaning it makes no sense. Meaning the way you make it work is to go back and introduce the concept of desperation/fear/emotional based airbending into a season that may possibly have been already completed; and the only way to do that is to meddle with the structure—the pacing.

Make no mistake about it: doing this sucks. Especially when you’re on a deadline, have six or seven different departments waiting on instructions, and have assumed that you’ve got the thing finished by now. It’s especially especially difficult to do it in a realm like television, which actively resists an overall structure simply by the episodic nature of its storytelling—which in turn can often lead to such travesties as the end of the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica, a span of thirteen episodes so blisteringly awful that I honest-to-God cannot enjoy its previous seasons anymore.

This also pertains to the reveal of who Amon actually is. And let me make it plain: I actually liked who Amon turned out to be, as well as the back story of the two characters involved. Through the entire series I was afraid that Amon’s true identity—unless they went the mind-bendingly subversive route of never revealing his true self, but everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen—I was afraid his true identity would be a supreme disappointment; it wasn't, and that was a nice surprise. The disappointment came in the way it was elucidated. You just. Can’t. Do. what Mike and Bryan did with Amon’s identity: have a character who’s had no discernible connection with the bad guy suddenly grant this big reveal and give a huge info dump on everything that we didn’t know about him, and in the last couple of episodes, no less. It’s the equivalent of George Lucas coming out of nowhere with the idea that Luke and Leia are twins in Return of the Jedi—you can pull off this kind of twist earlier with the right setup. But you cannot do this at the bare end of the narrative without it being a bad use of deus ex machina, or even worse, a desperate saving throw.

If Tarrlok had explained the situation to Team Avatar in the middle of the series, it would have been okay. But explaining every single bit of it in the final hour-long episode is simply unwieldy in the narrative sense. Meaning if you want to keep the reveal of Amon’s character to the final episode, you have to set it up beforehand. There are no hard and fast rules to creating narrative art, but this is as close as it gets: If you are going to have a huge reveal at or near the end of a story, it Has. To. Be. Foreshadowed. Otherwise the audience’s brains are simply going to reject it. And to bring this diatribe full circle, if you’re going to foreshadow this paradigm-shifting twist, then you are going to have to meddle with the pacing of your story, allowing time to introducing “hints” and “elements” so that the twist finally comes at the end of your story it will be a matter of “Holy crap, it all makes sense now!” instead of, “Wait…what?”

Maybe you go back and tweak a couple of episodes. Maybe you mess with imagery; one really easy thing you can do is have Tarrlok mention that he had a brother and look all glum and guilty about it.

Heck, here’s an even easier one: in the fight Tarrlok has with Amon, when Amon is able to resist bloodbending, have Tarrlok make an “Oh my God, it can’t be!” face. Or say something along the lines of—“It’s you? No…no it can’t be…” He mentions that he recognized Amon as Noatok from his bloodbending signature—so why didn’t we see a sign of that during the fight itself?

Just do anything so that the twist doesn’t come literally out of nowhere. A good example from the previous series? Iroh’s white lotus tile.

PICTURED: It's more than just a game.
Now, when Mike and Bryan and the other writers made the White Lotus tile a plot point in Season I, were they expecting it to expand in such a big way in Season II? Probably not. What it accomplished, however, was to give the audience’s brains a pattern to lock onto, so when the white lotus becomes what it does, they can look back and say “Aha! It makes sense all along!”

The sad thing about this lack of pacing and foreshadowing is how it effects the entire relationship between the characters, i.e., the dramatic, emotional moment when Tarrlok kills himself and Noatok on the boat. This was a very shocking event to me—partly having to do with it being a “kid’s show.” But some of the emotional effectiveness was lost simply because the complex relationship between the characters had in no way been built up, and therefore their tragic deaths lose some of the tragedy that make the moment so gut-wrenching and shocking.

Problem II: The narrative structure is too focused on ultimately inconsequential pursuits, while losing sight of more consequential ones.

So let’s talk about pro-bending for a minute.

Pro-bending is a neat idea, a natural extension of the developed setting Korra takes place in, and a rather fascinating, well-constructed game in its own right. It also, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with the overall plot. It’s a side quest, nothing more. It’s also a major part of the first half of the season. These things do not mix.

Now, you can have pro-bending in a twelve episode season of television. But…here’s that word again…it has to be paced better. And in this case, better pacing means eliminating about half of the time spent in the pro-bending arena. Move Amon’s attack on the arena up, set the stages of the second half of the season in motion quicker, and use that extra time you have to focus on Korra’s issues with her spirituality, airbending, connection to her past lives, all of the much more important aspects both narratively and thematically in the series.

This also, of course, extends to the romantic dilly-dallies. An entire episode—“The Spirit of Competition”—is spent on the love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Bolin—and pro-bending. These things simply do. Not. Matter. Not in the grand scheme of the narrative. Not in the overarching plot.

The things that matter are listed above: Korra, Korra’s airbending training, Korra’s connection to her past lives and spiritual self—as well as the plot as a whole: Amon, Amon’s plan, the thematic conundrums that Amon’s agenda represents. You can’t waste 1/12 of a season on a filler episode that has no real bearings to the thematic or narrative structure of the season. And this manifests in the issues listed in Problem I. Moments that should have been expanded upon are dismissed or taken care of in a line or two. Plot points come out of nowhere, conflicts are resolved hari-kari, the last few episodes just move and jerk and feel oddly rushed, and you can pin a lot of it, maybe most of it, on the focus on unimportant side quests, especially in this first half of the season.

One of the biggest disappointments to me came at the end of the end, the last few minutes of Endgame. Korra’s had most of her bending arts removed, as has Lin Beifong. She’s lost her identity, her pride and hopes are shattered, she depressed to the point of implied suicide; this is big stuff. Monumental. And deserved more than an unearned appearance by Aang to make everything better in the literally definition of a deus ex machina. 

Like I've said before, any story element can be done well, including deus ex machina, a story trope that has become synonymous with bad storytelling; but it has become synonymous with bad storytelling precisely because of the kind of thing that happens in Legend of Korra. Basically a god comes down and heals all Korra’s ills in about five seconds with no repercussions nor any buildup to the moment. It just happens. Poof.

How could this unsupported, unearned, jerky end to the story been avoided? Again, it’s pacing. A moment like this, with Korra being rescued by her past life could, indeed, have worked. But it needed a lot more time than what was given. There needed to be lingering shots on Korra and Aang, a longer conversation, and a near-mini three act portion wherein the audience may start to suspect Aang will give her her powers back, but where they still aren’t sure. But the way it is? We barely have any time to process what happens, and this absolutely cripples the emotions that we’re supposed to be feeling when Aang restores Korra’s bending.

II. Time

Now the root of all these structural problems has been figured out long before I even finished the series, so I’m not going to rock anyone’s world by stating the obvious: the pacing is so disjointed simply because Mike and Bryan did not have enough time to flesh everything out. They tried to cram two tons of bricks into a half-ton container, and the results show. 

A lot of the criticism of Avatar: The Last Airbender (when there was any) focused on the “filler” episodes: episodes that, at first glance, were inconsequential to the overall plot. Examples of this include “Daydreams and Nightmares,” “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” “Avatar Day,” and about half of the first season, the most common thread of complaints being that said episodes were inconsequential and detracted from the overall narrative. If anything, however, The Legend of Korra illustrates exactly what those episodes do accomplish: fleshing out the world and allowing us, the audience, to really know the characters.

It’s a paradigm unique to serialized television; it’s the only medium where the audience gets to know, really know the characters. What they’d do and how they would react in every situation from the serious to the outright farcical.  It’s something even books can’t accomplish; even 10 entry, thousand page tomes. The only comparable outlet I can think of are short-entry, long-running children’s series like Animorphs. But even that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.  Animorphs has, what, sixty books, counting the ancillary stuff? Whereas Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has 144 episodes. Can you imagine a book series with 144 books? Sweet Lord.

What this accomplishes is a depth of relation between audience and character that’s unmatched by any other narrative medium. 144 episodes allows not only every single character in the Buffy canon to get their “own” episodes and moments to shine, it allows the time necessary to put them in every single conceivable situation, and build the arcs of the characters and season narratives in complex and interesting ways. By the time Buffy ends, we know these people. How Xander would react to something, how Willow would react to something. We’ve watched them learn, and literally grow into fully realized people. This is not something you can do with any other artistic medium except maybe those children’s series mentioned above.

Point being that the filler episodes sometimes mocked by Avatar: The Last Airbender fans finally have their vindication. Not only do they allow a fuller context for the world we’re watching, but it allows the story to easily have better pacing. A minor example: in Season 2, Aang has to learn earthbending. Now, the show’s creators obviously needed a young, new earthbender to teach Aang and travel with him. They also knew that they’d already introduced a powerful earthbender that Aang already knows and that is ready and waiting to teach Aang earthbending. They knew that they had to reconcile these two components; so what did they do? They wrote an entire episode (2x3: “Return to Omashu”) whose purpose is to fulfill one solitary function: explain why Aang can’t learn earthbending from Bumi, thus paving the way for Toph’s arrival.

Now they do some other things in the episode as well. It’s the first time the gAang encounters Azula and company. It showcases Sokka’s growing strategic mind, the factor that justifies his presence among these veritable gods of elemental power. It also covers poignant moments of reflection with the child of the Fire Nation officer and how he’ll grow up to be a killer…a very subtle moment that really only hits you when you think about it.

But if you had to bring the episode down to its essence, it was created for the reason listed above. That was its main purview. Now ask yourself this question: if Avatar: The Last Airbender season 2 had to be fit into a 12 episode arc, how would you solve this inevitable plot hole? Do you waste an entire episode, thereby diverting attention from other parts of the story which are probably more important? Do you casually mention it in conversation, which risks incurring the wrath of the audience and their B.S. radar? Do you try and cram “Return to Omashu” into an entire other episode? Like make half the episode “The Cave of Two Lovers,” and the other half “Return to Omashu”? Looking at it this way, we can see Mike and Bryan’s dilemma, and being as they wrote every episode, the onus is indeed on them. Avatar: The Last Airbender had eight whole other episodes to structure the story, characterization and plot around. The Legend of Korra wants to have the same level of story and characterization, but has little more than half the time to do it in. So—getting into the speculative a little—Mike and Bryan, instead of cutting ideas they love, tried to fit them all in, and the result simply doesn’t work. At least, not how it needs to. Gaps in plot, unforeshadowed events, emphasis on inconsequential events that cannot fit in a twelve episode series—it’s fairly obvious what happened.

And it’s a shame too, because there are so many good moments in the series. If this thing could have been pulled out to 20 episodes like its predecessor—heck, even fifteen, I think the result would have been a lot different.

In Conclusion:

Looking back over this, it seems I’m bagging pretty hard on The Legend of Korra, which was certainly not my intent; by no means do I want to imply the show is bad, or not worth your time. It certainly is worth your time. Flaws and all, it’s better than 90% of kids’ shows out there…actually, it’s probably better than 90% of shows period. It had interesting characters, an interesting story, interesting themes, and beautiful animation.

If anything it just goes to show how imperative good pacing and structure are to a narrative work. Because even with all the good attributes listed above, the series is bogged down by this crushing burden of bad pacing. Inorganic, I think, is the best word to describe it. The pacing is Avatar: The Last Airbender—especially season 2—is almost flawless. Season 2 specifically probably has one of the most organic arcs of storytelling I’ve seen in any medium ever, period. Everything naturally seems to occur, without contrivance, without a hint of an outside presence moving the characters along. The same cannot be said of The Legend of Korra, whose pacing is more along the lines of a sputtering car engine: jerky, constantly accelerating and decelerating, and obviously not functioning correctly.

And it is a shame, because if that one—admittedly major—kink could have been worked out, the series could have been as awesome as its predecessor. Maybe even moreso. As it is, it’s a cautionary tale. No, that’s a little too grim—maybe it’s just something aspiring writers could learn from. You can do basically everything else right in a narrative work: character, story, theme, animation/cinematography, writing, description, acting, what have you. But narrative functions on a very complicated plane. It has to keep the audience invested, and if any aspect doesn’t pull its weight, the end result can and will be detrimental to the overall quality. The Legend of Korra demonstrates not only the need for good pacing, but how it can effectively cripple all the other great things about a work.

Until next time,

Mr. E



  1. Though more time would have allowed for a better paced story, some people have pointed out that some anime series, like Madoka Magica, were able to tell better-paced stories in twelve episodes. Sometimes in as few as five to six episodes, like Afro Samurai. Therefore, I'm a bit hesitant to say that a short length was the cause of these problems. I think the real problem is that this Korra series did not have anyone from the old writing team that Avatar had, but only Bryke themselves. I'm still afraid that the next season, on another note, will be badly paced and focusing on the unimportant things, mostly because Bryke have admitted in an interview that they plan to "delve deeper into the romantic arcs" introduced to us in the first season. Not only will they give Bolin a love interest in a "bizarre" situation, but they will also provide a sticky scenario in which Mako and Korra cannot be together because of their different jobs and where Mako apparently still has Asami in the back of his mind. There is also a piece of concept art with two figures, one with turtleduck hair, that suggests that Mako will go to the Spirit World with Korra. Then some guy on tumblr says that Korra's cousin, Patarlock, will have a crush on Mako.

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    2. This is an excellent point, especially regarding the writers. I think it was a pretty large mistake for Mike and Bryan to do the writing for the season themselves. They just have more to think about than simply the story, and I wonder if it didn't over tax them. You look at A:TLA, and you see a bunch of other writers, specifically the great Aaron Ehasz, who was, in fact, the head writer.

      Like you said, the problem is Mike and Bryan trying to do too much with too little time. They would either need to cut a lot of the extraneous stuff to fit a better paced story into 12 episodes, or have an extra eight episodes to put all they wanted in. They didn't have either option, and the results showed.

      Thanks for the comment!