The Legend of Korra’s Weird and Wonderful Love Triangle

When people found out The Legend of Korra would focus on teenagers, they knew what it would result in. On some level I’m sure we all saw a lot of angst and heartache coming for these narcissistic little teenagers, and when it came, it brought out a mixed reaction (which is often the case with these things). The teens placed way too much stock on their romantic lives, they acted recklessly and selfishly, and none of them seemed to know what they really wanted… which is exactly like real teenagers. Trouble is, real teenagers have a habit of being infuriating. In the end, we received one of the most infamous romantic subplots of all time, and on an animated series no less. This one is going to be remembered for a long time because of the notoriously angsty behaviour these characters engage in, but also because of the unexpected and strangely fitting turns it takes. Before I discuss this particular love triangle though, its best to go over its players. We’ve got Korra (the show’s star), Mako (the original male lead), Asami (Korra’s chief romantic rival), and Bolin (a non-factor, but still worth mentioning).

The Original Love Triangle

Asami seeing the obvious

Korra, the show’s protagonist and the centre of its relationship drama, is your typical needlessly aggressive teenager. She’s overly defensive, stubborn, and doesn’t seem to care much for the affects her actions have on others. Her relentless pursuit of Mako during his relationship with Asami, her smug declarations of his hidden attraction for her, and her unpleasantness during her eventual relationship with Mako frustrated audiences. Very early on, she decides that she and Mako were “meant for each other” and declares that she loves him soon after, but when they eventually do get into a relationship (after “stealing” Mako from poor Asami) she becomes irritable and snaps at him every chance she gets. During the show’s second season  it almost felt like she was incapable of being happy, and it seemed like that was beginning to have an effect on the fanbase, which was understandably annoyed at her immaturity. Truthfully though, I’ll admit that I found it very enjoyable for what it was: A dumb teenager doing dumb things until she decides to finally grow up; and over the last two seasons of the show (following an unfortunate series of events), she did that in spades. Legend of Korra was ambitious and it may not have accomplished every goal it set out for, but if there’s one thing it did incredibly well, it was having its protagonist grow the hell up and become a mature and reasonable person by the end. It’s because of that and that alone that I can look back at her dalliances with Mako and enjoy it for the role it played in her development.

Mako was what passed as this show’s male lead during the early seasons, and unfortunately for him, he was immediately disliked by a large section of the fanbase for being “boring”. My take on him wasn’t that his personality was boring (he was an amusing stiff and a good foil to his goofy brother Bolin), its that his desires were never made clear. Interesting characters have goals, they want something. We don’t know what Mako wants. Mako wants to be a successful athlete, he wants to live a quiet life, he wants to be a cop, he wants to be with Asami, he wants to be with Korra, then he just wants to be alone. Mako’s biggest problem was that he was an indecisive teenager that didn’t know what to do with his life. By the second season, Mako seriously mangled any romantic future he had with either Korra or Asami, and it was honestly pretty painful (but funny) to watch. My favourite exchange between him and Korra will forever be his simple reply to her hundredth declaration of the question “Whose side are you on?!” to which Mako replies “What’s with you and sides?” (which happened to coincide with the exact same moment I finally decided to ask that question myself). It is with that line that you finally see why he is so incompatible with Korra. For Korra’s entire life, she had her path figured out since she was raised to be the Avatar. For all her flaws at that point, Korra always knew what she wanted, while Mako was still figuring things out and trying to see things from multiple perspectives. The two could never be on the same page, and since Mako was firmly committed to his fence-sitting, they only ended up fighting. In their naivety, they declared their love for each other before they really got to know one another and it ended up backfiring spectacularly.

Asami is definitely the sad sack chump of this love triangle initially. She talks a big game about not being some delicate little rich girl, and she has the fighting skills to back up that claim, but at the same time she ends up being made a fool of the most because of how down her guard is. Even when it becomes super obvious that there was something going on between her boyfriend and the Avatar, she makes no major moves one way or the other, and in season 2 she ends up being clowned once again by Mako in the worst way. Asami is the type of person who tries her hardest to connect with people regardless of who they are, which is why she tries to befriend Korra, the girl who is clearly trying to steal her boyfriend. Even though they shared a surprising amount of chemistry and enjoyed each other’s company, it really didn’t do her any favors by the time Mako essentially dropped her for the Avatar. If Korra is too forward and Mako is too indecisive, Asami’s problem would be that she is too trusting. I mean for all we know, her Dad could be an integral member of major terrorist organization and she wouldn’t suspect a thing, or maybe she would go as far as to trust a clearly shady business man with her family’s company; who knows, she is just that trusting. With all that said, all one needs to know about Asami is that for most of the series run, happiness always seems to elude her.

Bolin had some part to play in this love triangle, but I’m only mentioning it since its mostly a technicality. He had an obvious thing for Korra, they went on one date, and he blew it. Sure Korra had a good time and was never really looking for something serious with him, but his desperate needy behaviour probably killed any potential that pairing could have had. One should note that during seasons 3 and 4 Bolin comes into his own and graduates from being mere comedic relief to essentially the leading man, but during the first season at least he wasn’t meant to be taken seriously in any area, including romance. Thankfully, his complete failure to woo Korra is played for laughs, and the infamous scene where he had his heart broken remains one of the funniest and most parodied moments in the franchise.

A lot of Borra shippers (Bolin and Korra shippers who are referred to as “Borriors”) like to say Bolin had a legitimate placement in this love triangle, thus making it a love square. To this I tell them, don’t flatter yourselves, he was never even a player.

So that was the original Legend of Korra love triangle of seasons 1 and 2. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great representation of young people with differing personal issues making increasingly stupid decisions. It was good for what it was, but still fairly standard. It is during the latter two seasons of the show that everything was turned on its head. Hugely important things happened with Mako and Korra’s relationship, Bolin’s character, and Korra and Asami’s relationship.

Change

Korra and Mako, after the disaster that was their relationship, emerged as really good friends. At first Mako just wanted to avoid his old flames like any normal person would, but eventually they just grew to respect each other as people rather than as potential mates. The more they matured as individuals, the more they learned to understand each other. They don’t show signs of becoming a couple again and that’s fine, because they have actual respect for each other now. Their final exchange in the final episode was just perfect. For a pairing whose development felt so mechanical at the start, their ending felt more natural and satisfying than any of us could have imagined.

Bolin becomes a god damn action hero in the last to seasons of this show. He had a stint as an actor that portrayed fictional heroes during the second season, but its during seasons 3 and 4 that he truly comes into his own. Sure he is still a comedic character, but the difference now is that he’s someone to take seriously. He even finds his own girlfriend, although romance is still clearly an area he hasn’t quite matured in. Doesn’t matter though, Bolin has somehow achieved a greatness of his own when no one really expected him too. Speaking of unexpected things…

Seasons 3 and 4 is when the Korra and Asami relationship began to develop, which becomes more understandable as you think about it. Normally, considering their histories, these two should want to avoid each other like the plague. Strangely though, Asami insists that they should become friends and look past their bungled relationships (which is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from her). On some level it makes a lot of sense because its pretty clear that these two had a lot of chemistry together in season 1 that they never got to explore due to their Mako drama, so deciding to become friends now instead of holding on to old grudges seems to be the logical thing to do. Throughout the last two seasons you see them develop together, and you find out that they surprisingly get along with one another better than they did with Mako, despite the fact that they were in each other’s way when it came to being in a relationship with him. As things progressed, there are subtle hints thrown that suggests they may share some feelings for one another. When this becomes apparent, a shift happens. Thinking of their relationship as two people slowly building a romantic connection over time completely changes your way of thinking about their history. Maybe it wasn’t that they got in the way of each other when it came to Mako, but rather Mako got in the way of them when it came to their connection with each other (although he is chiefly responsible for them meeting in the first place). I’ve never seen that sort of romantic development done so well, and it was a fresh twist to an otherwise standard love triangle. In the last scene of the series, it is strongly hinted that Korra and Asami begin a romantic relationship (which was later confirmed by the show’s creators), which was a very satisfying way to end this show’s romantic subplot. Four years have gone by in the show’s universe, and this is the most mature we’ve seen Korra; so for her to end on the decision to try something that she had to move past her younger self’s immaturity to even begin was strangely fitting. For a character that began with such a superficial and naive view on relationships to end the series with one formed through genuine fondness for another person was perfect in the most unexpected way.

Because the relationship was developed between two women, it had to be done subtly, which led to two extreme reactions from the fanbase. Some felt the relationship came out of nowhere and should not have materialized since they felt the hints were not strong enough, and on the other side, one group feels that they didn’t go far enough and wanted to have them actually kiss instead of merely holding hands. I would argue that the creators struck a perfect balance. The development to the relationship wasn’t enough to have them end with declarations of love and a passionate embrace, but them just be beginning a relationship felt earned. I would argue that the progression of that relationship was more naturally flowing than Korra’s relationship with Mako, although that makes sense given how immature Korra was back then.

Even with its faults, this show provided an example of a love triangle done well. It did not end predictably, the relationship drama served a purpose in developing and maturing the characters, and it never took itself too seriously. Honestly, the stupid mistakes they all made throughout made me laugh out loud more than groan in frustration. I mean, just look at Bolin breaking down and crying, there was no way that was meant to be taken seriously. On the other hand, the stuff that was meant to be taken seriously was handled with grace. With all of its turns and unexpected moments, the romantic subplot of The Legend of Korra will definitely be one to remember, and hopefully one that is thought of as an example of how to do one in a fresh and engaging way.

Quote of the Day:

Korra: It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, huh?
Tenzin: I’ve come to realize life is one, big, bumpy ride.

– The Legend of Korra

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3 thoughts on “The Legend of Korra’s Weird and Wonderful Love Triangle

  1. “So that was the original Legend of Korra love triangle of seasons 1 and 2. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great representation of young people with differing personal issues making increasingly stupid decisions.”

    I think for something to qualify as a “great” depiction it has to show not just that characters made stupid decisions, but why they made them. This is the difference between a superficial realism and a deeper psychological realism. We need to know not just that people do the things real people do, but that they do them for the reasons real people do them and not just because the plot/ratings demand it.

    Let’s look at how you describe the behavior of the characters during this love triangle.

    “The teens placed way too much stock on their romantic lives1, they acted recklessly and selfishly, and none of them seemed to know what they really wanted… which is exactly like real teenagers”.

    You know who else acted “recklessly and selfishly” and who didn’t seem “to know what [he] really wanted”? Zuko. And yet would anyone find a satisfactory explanation of Zuko’s character to be “he was a teenager, therefore he is angsty and doesn’t know what he wants”? Of course not.

    We were shown how every decision Zuko made stemmed from who he was and the things he had been through. Even when Zuko was selfish, petty, and reckless the audience was not annoyed by it because we could understand why his actions made sense to him and could empathize. Zuko’s arc achieves “psychological realism” because it shows us why the character thinks and acts the way he does, even if the level of maturity shown by a teenager is somewhat unrealistic.

    So know that we’ve explained what it would take for LoK’s love triangle to be a “great depiction” of teenage romance, let’s look at how you characterize the behavior of Korra.

    Korra, the show’s protagonist and the centre of its relationship drama, is your typical needlessly aggressive teenager. She’s overly defensive, stubborn, and doesn’t seem to care much for the affects her actions have on others. Her relentless pursuit of Mako during his relationship with Asami, her smug declarations of his hidden attraction for her, and her unpleasantness during her eventual relationship with Mako frustrated audiences. Very early on, she decides that she and Mako were “meant for each other” and declares that she loves him soon after

    You know what, I agree with all this. The reliance on her nature as a teenager can be excused because the other factors are aspects of Korra’s behavior come from her character, she is stubborn, aggressive, and has a sort of bravado that leads to her “smug declaration of his hidden attraction for her”. Her fixation on the first guy she is clearly attracted to can be explained in light of her growing up in a community with no one else her age.

    I wish the show would play up these factors a little more. The writers makes it pretty clear that her bravado when challenging Amon is a result of her fear of seeming weak and the possibility of her own inadequacy. Korra’s assertion that Mako must be attracted to her could similarly come from a fear of inadequacy. It can’t come from experience since this is the first time Korra’s ever been around a guy her own age. It could come from a sense of entitlement but that isn’t really explored as a major as a major aspect of Korra’s character anywhere else in S1. Similarly, while Korra’s fixation on Mako can be explained by her never having been around people her own age before, the show doesn’t do much with this back story anywhere else or investigate the effects growing up in isolation had on her.

    I don’t really have a big problem with LoK’s love triangle in S1 at least not because it was lazy characterization. It was simply predictable and largely uninteresting, especially compared with the equalist main plot. It doesn’t say anything particularly new about romance and none of the relationships really have that much chemistry. It wasn’t good because teenagers did things real teenagers do, it was adequate because they did things for reasons generally consistent with their characters. I just disliked it because it took time away from more interesting things.

    Season 2 on the other hand…

    when they [Korra and Mako] eventually do get into a relationship (after “stealing” Mako from poor Asami) she becomes irritable and snaps at him every chance she gets. During the show’s second season it almost felt like she was incapable of being happy, and it seemed like that was beginning to have an effect on the fanbase, which was understandably annoyed at her immaturity. Truthfully though, I’ll admit that I found it very enjoyable for what it was: A dumb teenager doing dumb things until she decides to finally grow up.

    “A dumb teenager doing dumb things until she decides to finally grow up.” is not a “great” story or love triangle, in fact it sounds like a terrible one. The shift in Korra’s behavior between S1 and S2 is entirely arbitrary and in no way shows anything deep about her character. Similarly her maturation comes through amnesia and flashback to Wan, not any process of self discovery. It’s just bad writing and is one of the worst aspects of the show.

    An adequate but uninteresting love triangle in S1+ a terrible arbitrary collapse of that traingle in S2 does not amount to a “great” or “fresh” take on the love triangle

    I agree with you about the Korrasami bits, but that isn’t a love triangle, that is a friendship gradually growing into a relationship. Their is no third person to make that a triangle. It’s just a more natural, less dramatic, approach to doing romance and it works really well. More works should take that route. If you were just to praise that and not include the whole of S1 and S2 when they talk about Lok” romantic subplot as “great” or “fresh and engaging” I would have no problem with it.

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    1. I appreciate your thoughts and I’m glad you took the time to read the whole article before responding. Obviously, if you compare Zuko’s development to that of a character like Mako’s, you’re going to find one’s reasons for being the way they were more deep and satisfying than the other, but there is still merit to the simplicity of LoK’s relationship developments.
      As for Korra’s change going into s2, I wouldn’t say it shows deep characterization on her part but it’s more of a general statement on young love I appreciated. She rushed into a serious relationship with a guy she wasn’t really compatible with, and it ended up biting her in the end. Her major development in s2 had more to do with Wan’s story, but I also believe she learned about herself through her relationship with Mako just as Bryke says Mako did through his relationships with Korra and Asami.
      While Korrasami does not directly relate to Korra and Mako’s relationship, I’d classify it as part of this show’s romantic subplot and its conclusion. Its through that lense where I can find myself appreciating our characters making the mistakes they did and learning from them. I get that those mistakes are frustrating, and that some of the characters didn’t have the same complexity as the likes of Zuko, but I love that they learned from those mistakes and that they were able to get to the point where they can grow as people after the craziness ended. Korra and Mako ending off on good terms was so satisfying to me because of that, and Korra and Asami finally being happy at the end together fit perfectly.
      Although, if you were take that conclusion out, I would agree wholeheartedly with your points, but because I feel like it was all part of a romantic subplot, I enjoyed it. I had fun watching the initial Love Triangle play out since I didn’t really take it all that seriously, and in the end I loved the role it served in developing the character’s relationships with each other. It’s because of that ending that I could look back on it fondly.

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