The long-awaited Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel series is set to debut next month. It follows the new avatar as she takes on the Equalists, an anti-bending faction. And I just have one small problem with this set-up... I kind of agree with the bad guys.
Don't get me wrong - I'm still very excited about the show, and everything I've seen so far suggests Korra will be a worthy successor to Aang, both as avatar and as protagonist. But ever since I first heard the show's premise, I've been concerned about how it will handle an aspect of this show's mythology that I've always found a bit problematic — the role of non-benders in a world where only a select minority wields the tremendous powers of the various elements.
There's a scene in the pilot that tackles this issue head-on, and the end of the episode makes it perfectly clear that this will be one of, if not the defining conflict of the show's first season.
While riding her polar bear dog through the park of Republic City, the newly arrived avatar Korra comes across an orator speaking for the Equalists, who says, "The bending elite have forced the non-bending elite to live as lower class citizens" and that "Together we will tear down the bending establishment." Korra's rejoinder is a simple one: "What are you talking about? Bending is the coolest thing in the world!" The orator then rather easily gets Korra to admit that she would like to vent her frustration with him by knocking him off the stage with a little waterbending, which pretty much proves his point.
It's a tricky moment, because the episode has already done such a good job of establishing Korra as a likable hero, and it's made crystal clear that the speaker is a fearmongering, manipulative worm. Emotionally, I know who I should side with here, and yet on an intellectual level, I'm convinced that this guy has a point and Korra's incredibly privileged position as the avatar blinds her to the legitimate concerns buried beneath the propaganda. On what is fairly clearly one of the show's biggest overarching conflicts, my sympathies lie far more with the ostensible villains than with the clear hero.
Don't get me wrong - I don't necessarily think this is a flaw of the scene, or of the episode. Show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko proved time and time again in Avatar: The Last Airbender their ability to show both sides of an issue and paint seemingly irredeemable villains in shades of gray. I suspect they intend this scene to have a certain amount of ambiguity. I'll admit, the Equalist bad guys here — the speaker and the masked leader Amon, who shows up for the classic end-of-episode-one-reveal where he talks ominously about his plans for the Avatar — don't suggest to me the sorts of complexities and contradictions that were almost immediately evident in Prince Zuko. They seem more like straightforward villains like Admiral Zhao or Dai Li head Long Feng. Of course, it's early days yet, and I'm guessing there are some character-complicating secrets hiding underneath Amon's mask.
What makes this whole issue particularly difficult for me is that The Legend of Korra jumps seventy years past the end of The Last Airbender, and it's primarily set in Republic City, a metropolis founded as a common place for benders and non-benders of all nations. Based on the recently released premiere episode, the city's technology level seems somewhere between steampunk and the real-life 1930s, and a lot of the tech — probably the cars, almost certainly the cameras and microphones — seems to be based on real-life science, as opposed to bending.